November 2, 2009

Resource Review: Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, vol.1

ZIBBCOT, Vol.1 – Genesis-Deuteronomy

For over a century, studies comparing the OT and the ancient Near East have hovered on the fringe of hermeneutics and exegesis. Since these studies were at times exploited by critical scholars for polemical attacks against the biblical text, evangelicals were long inclined to avoid or even vilify them…Ever since the discovery of the Babylonian flood and creation accounts, critical scholarship has been attempting to demonstrate that the OT is derivative literature, a disadvantaged step-sister to the dominant cultures of the ancient Near East. These scholars have attempted to reduce the OT to converted mythology whose dependency exposes its humanity…It is no surprise, then, that evangelicals have often rejected the claims of these critical schools of thought. (p.viii)

Thus begins Zondervan International Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament, vol.1 - Genesis-Deuteronomy (ZIBBCOT). The opening essay on methodology, from which this quote is taken, then goes on to lay out the purpose of ZIBBCOT:

There is, however, nothing inherently damaging to orthodox theology and beliefs about the Bible if its authors were interacting at various levels with the literature current in the culture. All literature is dependent on the culture in which it arises—it must be, if it intends to communicate effectively…The biblical text, in other words, formulated its discussion in relation to the thinking found in the ancient literature. It should be no surprise, then, if areas of similarity are found. This is far different from the contention that Israelite literature is simply derivative mythology. There is a great distanced between borrowing from a particular piece of literature (as has been claimed in critical circles) and resonating with the larger culture that has itself been influenced by is literature…some genres will operate differently in the ancient world than they do in our own culture, so we must become familiar with the mechanics of the genres represented in the ancient Near East. (p.viii-ix)

Volume 1 of ZIBBCOT explores this relationship between the books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy) and the surrounding literature of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, Assyria and Canaanite cultures. By looking at the texts of Scripture within their cultural background and noting the similarities as well as the differences between them and the literature of the ancient world, valuable insights can be gained as to their content, purpose and theological contributions to the community of faith.

Evangelicals have largely avoided (or simply been ignorant of) cross-cultural background analysis of the Biblical texts due largely to the conclusions of 19th-20th century critical scholarship, as noted in the excerpt from the essay above. However, the result has often been eisegesis (where modern meanings or assumptions are read back into the text) rather than exegesis (where the text’s original meaning and intent of the author determines its meaning) on the part of the very group of Christians who claim to hold Scripture in such high regard. This gives credence to the caricature of evangelicals as fideistic, unlearned, non-critical thinkers who are blissfully unaware of findings from actual biblical scholarship.

But ZIBBCOT (and other works by top-notch evangelical biblical scholars over the past few decades) render such caricatures obsolete. Below is a review of what I feel are the strengths and weaknesses of this commentary set.

[It should be noted at the outset that my comments only apply to vol.1, as I have not had access to vols.2-5...though I hope to review subsequent volumes in the future.]

ZIBBCOT’s Strengths

  1. Unique Content. The greatest strength of this commentary is its presentation of material that, until now, has been largely tucked away in dusty volumes of ancient Near East journals or relegated to footnotes in technical commentaries—and thus gone unnoticed by the average preacher, teacher and educated layperson! ZIBBCOT brings this information to the forefront, with the pertinent material from ancient Near East literature presented in context of the Biblical passage to which it relates.
  2. Visual Aesthetics and Clarity. Photos, illustrations and graphical presentation of information is EVERYWHERE in this commentary! Almost every page contains images from the ancient world, which give the reader a sense of the visual context as well as the literary. Seeing actual depictions of how the Egyptians viewed the structure of the universe as consisting of the various gods of their pantheon (pp.8, 16) does more to help the reader understand the cosmology of the ancient Near East than mere description ever could. Having an image to put with strange ancient names such as Re, Maat, Osiris, Atum, Marduk or Enkidu gives the reader a better sense of who the ancients worshipped or honored.
  3. Ease of Access. Rather than a series of articles or an alphabetical listing of ancient Literature topics, ZIBBCOT is set up as an actual commentary. After introductory essays on each book of the Pentateuch follows a verse-by-verse tour of all relevant background material from the ancient literary world. Thus, one can go straight to the passage in Scripture one is wanting context on and find it with ease, rather than having to wade through topical articles or do cross-referencing with journal articles and dictionary entries. For instance, if I want to know how the sexual purity code of Leviticus 18 compares and contrasts with other laws from that period, I just turn to the section on Lev.18 (pp.309-311) and can see a chart comparing it with the laws of Hammurabi and Hittite purity laws. This shows how Israelite purity laws stand within the overall cultural world in which they were given--but contain key differences from the surrounding cultures, which would make Israel stand out as a peculiar people among their ancient Near East neighbors.

ZIBBCOT’s weaknesses

  1. Cost. There’s simply no way around it: the average Christian will not likely spend $49.99 on a single commentary covering 5 books of the Bible, much less $249.99 for the entire set. This is a fact that the church must come to grips with. Christians choose to spend their money on cheaper, less-informative books, gifts and trinkets (aka. 'Jesus junk') from Christian bookstores rather than on valuable, meaty resources such as commentaries. This is an unfortunate reality; and one that is not likely to change anytime soon it seems. However, given the quality of ZIBBCOT, both in content and in manufacturing (full-color layout, durable heavy paper, hardback binding) it’s hard to see how the price could be reduced. Therefore, churches should see to it that they have this commentary set (as well as other more expensive excellent resources!) available to their small group leaders, Sunday school teachers and other leadership for use on a regular basis, so that their teaching ministry has access to the best information possible.
  2. Endnotes. One of the biggest frustrations I experienced in using this commentary was having to constantly flip to the end of the section in order to read the extensive endnotes found throughout the chapters. For instance, the commentary on Genesis alone contains over 700 endnotes (that means flipping to the back fo the chapter hundreds of times in order to see what is being noted)! The commentary would be MUCH easier and more enjoyable to use if it had gone with footnotes at the bottom (or in the side margin) of each page. The slick visual layout may be compromised a bit, but that's a small price to pay for not having to constantly flip 100+ pages ahead in order to see what is being cited or explained in greater detail!
  3. Lack of Theological Reflection. While the editors do a good job of giving the relevant cultural and literary information applicable to the text of Scripture in question, there is relatively little theological reflection or attempt at integration of the material in a way that the average reader can absorb. It’s one thing to know that serpent-human conflict appears in the Gilgamesh Epic, the Story of Adapa, and Egyptian literature—it’s another to know what this means for the author (or readers) of Genesis 3. It would be nice to have more of the editors thoughts on how the background information affects various theological interpretations. But in order to know what General Editor John Walton believes an informed reading of Genesis 1 actually leads to regarding questions of cosmology, creation and integration with modern science, one has to go to his separate book on the subject. However, ZIBBCOT has chosen to keep theological reflection to a minimum it seems. This is, of course, understandable for a reference work of this nature; but it may be a disappointment to many who are otherwise unfamiliar with the impact of ancient Near East studies on the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.

Overall Evaluation

I would absolutely recommend ZIBBCOT vol.1 to any serious student of the Pentateuch. It should be on the bookshelf of everyone who preaches or teaches from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus or Deuteronomy on a regular basis. The ancient Near East context of the Hebrew Bible has been long-ignored or under-utilized by evangelical and/or conservative Christians in general (and by many liberal and mainline interpreters as well!). This commentary set seeks to bring students, pastors and teachers up to speed on the effect of comparative background studies from the literature of the ancient world on interpreting the Pentateuch. And this is precisely what ZIBBCOT vol. 1 accomplishes.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Thanks for the thorough review!

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