Nov 11, 2009

Review of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary , Volume 5

Thanks to Jesse Hillman at Zondervan for the free review copy.

The following review relates specifically to volume five, but I trust that the comments will have general relevance to all the volumes. Volume five covers the Minor Prophets, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. I won’t list all the authors here, but a
complete list of contributors can be seen here.

In general, I can happily add my hearty affirmation to the growing and glowing recommendations of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary (ZIBBCOT). The book is well-designed and attractively pr
oduced. The quality and quantity of content of individual chapters vary somewhat as one might expect from the utilization of different authors. But having said that, every chapter in the volume that I reviewed proved to be both insightful and helpful. The boxed topical discussions such as Sovereign Lord” on page 67 generally provide solid discussions of the main issues at hand. Furthermore, the selection and quality of the pictures were as a whole outstanding. There is a nice margin provided on the open side of the page for readers who like to make notations in their books.

That Zondervan has provided a nice resource for biblical studies seems obvious. The question remains though, what is the best way to use this resource? My answer is that would best serve as an intermediate introduction to background issues related to the books of the Old Testament. Four observations can be made on this point. First, I would suggest that it is intermediate in the sense that beginning readers might be a bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material. Also some of the commentary is probably a bit beyond the neophyte student. Second, this volume raises the whole issue of how background material ought to be utilized (note: this is a question of how rather than if). For example, how does one avoid the problem of parallelomania associated with written texts noted nearly fifty years ago by Sandmel. This issue is covered to some degree in Walton’s introductory essay. But some users of ZIBBCOT will either not read the introductory essay or forget/ignore the ten “principles” on p. xii. Third, it is important to remember that ZIBBCOT is introductory in the sense that the texts and artifacts in the book are often and necessarily presented without the larger context. This means that responsible students will need to refer to more comprehensive resources to look at these texts/artifacts in context before drawing too many conclusions. Texts for example will need to be read in their larger contexts in volumes such as Hallo and Younger’s The Context of Scripture. Fourth, ZIBBCOT is introductory in the sense that while it presents commentary on the biblical text, the commentary is selective, and in this sense, inadequate. One will either need to turn to ZIBBCOT after doing the exegetical work and interacting with exegetical commentaries or begin with ZIBBCOT and then do one’s exegesis and interaction with more detailed exegetical commentaries.

Although my view of this work is overwhelmingly positive there are a few minor criticisms. First, I wonder about the propriety of some of the images. For example, in the chapter on Habakkuk, the first image is from an Assyrian relief. This could be potentially confusing since the foreign threat in Habakkuk is Babylonian rather than Assyrian. It is possible that the image was chosen because it pictures ramparts and ramparts are mentioned in Habakkuk 2:1. But even if this is the reason for the inclusion, no link is made in the description itself. This problem could be easily alleviated by the inclusion of a simple text reference such as (see Hab 2:1). Second, there are times when it seems that appropriate images are left out. For example, it seems strange that an image of the Cyrus Cylinder is not utilized once in the chapters devoted to the Post-Exilic Prophets. Third, some interpreters will be troubled by certain assumptions that are made without qualification and presentation of other views. For example, the assumed identification of Daniel/Dane’l in Ezekiel 14:14, 20 as a mythical Ugaritic character rather than the prophet Daniel in the Book of Daniel seems to merit at least some qualification. While this Ugaritic identification is not uncommon, it is not a settled matter either, especially among some Evangelical interpreters (see for example Daniel Block’s discussion in his Ezekiel commentary (NICOT). Wouldn’t at least a footnote be merited in cases like this? Fourth, while I appreciate the picture index, its utilization of categories (e.g., “amulets”) might be helpful in some ways, but unhelpful in others since the reader will need to know what category that the image that they are looking for falls under. Perhaps a supplementary general alphabetical index would help to make the volume more user-friendly. A Scripture index would also be helpful and should be considered mandatory for modern reference works such as this one. Finally, and this is a matter of personal preference, I would have preferred footnotes rather than endnotes. But these criticisms are minor and should not detract significantly from the overall value of the work as a whole.

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