IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, The

IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, The

Andrews, Stephen J

The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. By John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000, 832 pp., $29.99.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament shares with its companion NT volume (IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament by Craig S. Keener [IVP, 1993]) the quest of providing pastors, Sunday-School teachers, and everyday Bible readers with an effective and nontechnical resource on the socio-cultural, historical, and archaeological background of the text of the Bible. This OT edition is designed to serve “a nonprofessional market rather than the academic and scholarly communities” (p. 8). A broad and helpful bibliography on the cultural context of the OT is included (pp. 10-20), but one will look in vain for footnotes or endnotes. Bible college and seminary students and scholars will no doubt learn something new in the pages of this book, but they will not be able to locate the basic reference works from which any particular background information was taken. This book was not written with the scholarly community in mind, and it should not be criticized as if it were.

Essentially, the rVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament is a revision and expansion of the shorter IVP Bible Background Commentary: Genesis-Deuteronomy by John H. Walton and Victor H. Matthews. IVP published the earlier work in 1997, and Keith N. Schoville offered an insightful review of it in this same Journal in 1999 (JETS 42: 489-90). The basic issues raised in Schoville’s review also apply to the new revision and need not be repeated here. A third author, Mark Chavalas, joined Walton and Matthews to produce the larger edition on the entire OT, and the fruits of their excellent and exhaustive research and collaboration can be seen in the quality of the comments in the work. All three authors are recognized experts in their field.

Relevant background information is listed by chapter and verse for selected passages in each book of the OT. The basic idea is to study the commentary alongside an open Bible. The entire work is divided into four sections, following the order of the Protestant canon, and each section begins with a brief general introduction.

In addition to the six already included in the shorter Genesis-Deuteronomy edition, the revised and expanded version contains an additional 23 sidebars on major historical and socio-cultural issues germane to the interpretation of the OT text (e.g. “The Political Climate in the Early Iron Age,” “Day of Yahweh,” “Apocalyptic Literature”). Unfortunately, the page numbers on which these sidebars are located are not listed in the Table of Contents, making it difficult for the reader to find the desired material quickly.

The glossary is expanded, more charts and maps are added, and a new topical index is attached to the book. A list of charts and maps (two maps are orphaned in the midst of the text and are left for the reader to discover alone) and a subject index (or at least an expansion of the topical index included in the book) would have been very helpful.

The goal of the IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament as expressed in the preface is a bit more subdued and demure (and less likely to be charged with parallelomania) than that of the more unbridled enthusiasm of its NT companion volume. Part of the purpose in providing such a vast amount of information on the cultural matrix in which Israel lived is to assuage the curiosity of the reader (p. 8). In addition, background information was not to be offered to help interpret a passage, but only to provide comparative data “that may be pertinent to interpreting the passage” (p. 8; emphasis added). The authors of the book deny following an apologetic agenda in the selection or presentation of data or in pressing any interpretation (pp. 7, 9). Actually, “by offering insight into the Israelite or ancient Near Eastern way of thinking,” the authors hope to help interpreters avoid erroneous conclusions (p. 7).

The authors are fully aware that the theological message of the Bible is not dependent on an exact knowledge of the archaeological or cultural background (p. 7). Obviously, not everyone will agree with them on the interpretive value or relevance of all of the extensive ancient Near Eastern parallels amassed in this text. Nevertheless, such phrases and concepts as “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps 103:12), “weighing the heart” (Prov 21:2), and reverential prostration (2 Sam 1:2) clearly become more understandable when compared with, and illustrated by, material from Egyptian literature and mythology. In addition, useful homiletical background information can be found on such diverse examples as the prohibition of images in the second commandment (Exod 20:4), the Nephilim (Gen 6:4), the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:4), Joshua’s long day (Josh 10:12-13), or Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image (Dan 3:1). For those who are careful to seek them out, many other exegetical insights abound.

There are, however, two important caveats that must be raised in any attempt to utilize ancient Near Eastern parallels to interpret the Bible. The first is the issue of propinquity, and the second, homogeneity. The authors of the IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament recognize that a “cultural element in the town of Ugarit in the mid-second millennium may not have any relationship to the way Israelites of the mid-first millennium thought” (p. 7). Despite this, the background information provided in the work is not delineated to precise time periods. In like manner, the authors recognize that some of the book’s material must be used with caution “because we cannot assume a flat homogeneity across the eras, regions or ethnic groups of the ancient Near East” (p. 8). But because the authors do not impose strict limitations on the way in which the information is offered, the reader could be confused into assuming that a monolithic culture existed among all groups of the ancient world, including the Israelites. The scholar and student might be able to perceive the difference, but it is unclear how well the everyday Bible reader may be able to do so.

Stephen J. Andrews

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, MO

Copyright Evangelical Theological Society Mar 2002

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