Posts Tagged ‘ZIBBCOT’

Special thanks to Jesse Hillman at Zondervan for the review copy of this book.

One of my Christmas presents for this season was volume 4 of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament.  I have reviewed volume 5 of this series here;   my opinions of this series remain as they did in my earlier review, so a new reader may wish to consult it first.  Danny has also reviewed volume 3 here.

In volume 4, ZIBBCOT offers comment on the major prophets:  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel.  The volume does so with characteristic style, and is (at the risk of being redundant) quite helpful.  While the comments on the text are illuminating, I should state again that some of the best portions of this volume are found in the “sidebars,” wherein a particular concept is described in greater detail.  I have found these mini-articles to be most helpful in understanding the text at hand, and would even submit that they are what sets ZIBBCOT apart from other background commentaries.

Even more helpful, in my opinion, are the introductions to each book.  In this volume, where the subject matter often covers large swatches of history, the extended introduction is invaluable for a broader view of the book as a whole.  In some instances, the authors even include separate introductory sections on the literary setting and historical settings.  The only exception here was the introduction to Ezekiel, which is far less substantial than the others; I would have preferred the more in-depth introductions such as in Isaiah or Jeremiah.

Again, I would commend this series to anybody with sufficient resources as a great help to drilling into the OT.  Each author is competent, and the text is easy to understand irrespective of your level of education in biblical studies.

As a much more general note, and one perhaps better reserved for a different post, those who are less acquainted with biblical reference materials should know that this series, like any backgrounds commentary, does precisely what it advertises:  illumine the cultural background of a text.  There is little in the way of word studies, grammatical analysis, interpretations (past and present), examination of the text with respect to other works in the canon, etc.  A (good) full fledged exegetical commentary will take into account everything that informs the meaning of a text, and will submit what that meaning is.  Backgrounds commentaries will only offer, well, backgrounds.  So if you are having trouble understanding Isaiah’s meaning at some point, a good backgrounds commentary (such as ZIBBCOT), will do only part of the job.

This is in no way a pejorative statement against background commentaries, much less ZIBBCOT, but it is important to understand this distinction.  Without this understanding, and only the back cover to read, I would be disappointed with this series.  It delivers on its purpose, but is only one step (among many) required to uncover the meaning of  a text.

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Special thanks to Jesse Hillman at Zondervan for the review copy of this book.

I received volume 5 of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament (ZIBBCOT) a few weeks ago.  This volume covers the Minor Prophets, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.  (You may also want to read Danny’s review of volume 3).  As my volume notes on the back cover, “Many today find the Old Testament a closed book.”  The purpose of this series of backgrounds commentaries, then, is to illuminate the cultural context in which the Old Testament was written.

Zondervan sets out to accomplish this goal with style:  thousands of pictures, maps, charts and other graphics are scattered throughout every glossy, full color page.  Each chapter (which covers an entire book) opens with a page or two of historical background before proceeding to the commentary proper.  As for the commentary itself, it is important to remember that this is a backgrounds commentary.  As such, it should be noted that these volumes are only one (essential) piece of the library one would consult when doing sound exegesis.

The information provided in my volume largely lived up to its promises, and indeed each page serves as a great start to uncovering the cultures in which the Old Testament books are couched.  I was particularly impressed by the “sidebars” that make frequent appearances.  These dive deeper into a particular concept, and are immensely helpful.  Consider, “To Whom do Hosea’s ‘The Ball’ and ‘The Balls’ Refer?” (pp.16-18), “The Early Days of the Persian Empire” (p.207), or “Community Lament in the Ancient Near East” (p.356).  Taken with the commentary text, they are an excellent addition that is often lacking in other background commentaries.  One would miss a large benefit of these commentaries if they were ignored.

Although all of the pictures are interesting, at times, I couldn’t help but feel that many of them were the commentary equivalent of eye candy.  That is, they’re fun to look at, but ultimately contribute little in the way of nutritional value to the text.  Do several pictures of various ancient clay tablets with indecipherable writing add much in the way of understanding?  Perhaps one or two do, but the return in small, in my opinion.  The graphics do add an overall sense of approachability to the text:  It’s far less overwhelming to open to a colorful page full of interesting pictures than a page of plain text.  They also contribute to an overall atmosphere that some may find helpful, albeit in a subconscious way.  If the graphics are the nudge that an otherwise hesitant reader needs to consult a commentary, then they’re worth it.  If you’re unintimidated by hundreds of pages of plain text, and you’d rather the sandwich without the parsley garnish, this may not be the commentary for you.

That said, many of the pictures are very helpful (e.g., a threshing sledge (p.60), a lamp (p.271), or the modern reconstruction of the Israelite view of the cosmos (p.264)).  As for the maps and charts, they’re often worth their weight in gold.

As Danny noted, the text can sometimes be uneven, since there are so many contributors, but I doubt I’d notice if I used the commentary as a reference (as I would), rather than reading it through.  Given the wide range of genre in my volume, differences should be expected anyway.  In all, I was very pleased with the choice of authors (especially the excellent Duane Garrett for Ecclesiastes & Song of Songs), and what they had to say.

Finally, I should mention something about the price tag.  Colorful glossy pages aren’t cheap, and neither are these volumes.  All 5 are selling for $158 on Amazon, and when I consider that IVP’s 800+ page single volume OT backgrounds commentary is $24, it makes it a hard sell for me.  The pictures and illustrations are indeed helpful, and I won’t deny that they set Zondervan’s commentary apart from others, but are they $134 more helpful?  The answer is ultimately a subjective one that likely enjoys direct proportion to your annual book budget, and how you best engage with a book.  If you have the money, and vanilla text makes you cringe, these are a great addition to your library.  Pastors, teachers and students alike will certainly benefit.  If you’re on a tight budget (financial, shelf space or both), and text alone will scratch most of your itch, I would look elsewhere.

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Special thanks to Jesse Hillman of Zondervan for a review copy of this book.

Old Testament historical narratives can be among the most confusing portions of the Bible for the modern reader.  After all, it assumes customs far removed from the 21st Century and kings and nations some of us might remember from high school Ancient Civilization class if we scan the dusty files in our distant memory banks.  Pastors and teachers are no different from everyone else in this regard.

ZIBBCOT Vol 3Zondervan, in partnership with editor John Walton (OT professor at Wheaton Graduate School), has attempted to help bridge the gap between the ancient and modern worlds with the publication of the 5-volume Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament (ZIBBCOT).  This particular review will cover Volume 3, which contains the commentaries on 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther (shameless plug: more reviews coming in the near future).  As a side note, Zondervan ought to be commended as pioneers in the field of publishing aesthetically pleasing books.  In the last couple years they have published a number of volumes that include helpful photographs to aid the learning process (see my review of Clinton Arnold’s How We Got the Bible for an example).  Thus far, they have taken advantage of both our growing knowledge of the ancient world, and improving technology that can take high quality photographs for use in studying, teaching and preaching.

Each biblical book receives a short introduction covering topics such as the historical setting and literary setting of the book.  I found this to be one of the most helpful parts of this volume, because it contains in a relatively short space much of the information one needs to know for the book.  Within the commentary section itself, one finds pieces of information the writers deem helpful to understanding the background of the text. The authors of the individual sections did a great job of selecting texts to comment on and relevant background information to help illuminate the biblical text.  The numerous shadowboxes/sidebars contain informative nuggets on subjects such as The Cedars of Lebanon, Large Numbers in the Hebrew Bible and the Significance of Genealogies for a Postexilic Audience.

What will probably stand out the most, though, is the high number of striking photographs sprinkled on every page of this book.  For those who are visual learners, this book will not disappoint.  The pictures include everything from the famous Lachish Reliefs found in Sennacharib’s palace (1 Kings 18) to the Cyrus Cylinder (Ezra 1 and 2 Chronicles 26).  One of the great benefits of this particular volume is that it can double as a major help for teaching and preaching on the prophets.  Teaching on Hosea?  Check out the sections on the Northern Kingdom and its fall in 2 Kings (where you’ll see an awesome picture of The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III on page 149).  Haggai and Zechariah?  You’ll find help in Ezra-Nehemiah.  In fact, pointing out these connections between the historical narratives and prophetical books will be a great benefit to any congregation.

There are a couple minor “hiccups” along the way.  As one might expect from a multi-author volume, the book can be slightly uneven.  I felt the section on Esther was the weakest (where are the shadowboxes that proved so useful throughout the rest of the book?).  The dates of Ezra’s work in Jerusalem could have been made much clearer, given the fact there is over a gap of over a half century between Ezra 6 and 7.  I found these dates in the introduction to 1-2 Chronicles in a chart of Persian Rulers.  The problem is that this book is not a novel, to be read from cover to cover, but a reference book.  There is, tucked in the comments on Ezra 7:26, a note referring to “the silence about Ezra’s activity between 458 and 445,” but even then it isn’t clear that 458 BC is the date of Ezra’s return to Jerusalem.  I’m assuming Edwin Yamauchi, the author of this otherwise excellent section, holds to that date, but I wouldn’t know it from reading the commentary.

Finally, I have to comment about a glaring error.  I’m not one to point out typos in reviews.  After all, in a 500+ page book there are bound to be a couple mistakes.  It’s understandable.  However, when the typo occurs on the front cover of the book, well… I’d be a failure as a book reviewer not to point it out.  It was actually the very first thing I noticed about the book when I took it out of the box.  In the upper right hand corner of the front cover, it reads, “1 & 2 Kinds” instead of “1 & 2 Kings.”  Seriously.  Now, the thought did occur to me that perhaps I only received an early printing that was sent out as a review copy, and that the volume sold online or in bookstores will be different.  But then I discovered that the picture of this book on Zondervan’s own website, as well as Amazon, had the typo.  Ouch.  If they had fixed this mistake, I imagine it would have been fixed on these websites, too.  Again, typos in the text of a long book are one thing, but on the front cover it’s embarrassing.

That mistake, of course, has nothing to do with the content contained within the book, which is quite good.  Those preaching and teaching on these historical narratives will benefit greatly from this book, as I’m sure they will from the rest of the ZIBBCOT series.  This volume, and I suspect the entire series, will prove to be a tremendous resource for the church for many years to come.

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