Building an Old Testament Library: Samuel — Job

Miriam Bier

David T. Tsumura’s commentary on 1 Samuel (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007) should be in every evangelical student’s library. Of particular note is his helpful introduction, setting out key issues in the study of Samuel in a way that is highly accessible without being condescending. In a departure from some older commentaries, Tsumura makes a case for staying close to the Masoretic Text, with all its difficulties, and does so by way of discourse analysis, resulting in some insightful readings of the text. Kyle P. McCarter’s two volumes on 1 and 2 Samuel in the Anchor Bible (AB; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980/1984) remain the standard reference work for text-critical analysis. It includes extensive examination of textual evidence, helpfully separated from the general notes so that both specialist and non-specialist readers are well served. A nice complement to these works is David Jobling’s highly engaging, reader-response reading of 1 Samuel (Berit Olam; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1998). Jobling is unapologetically “interested” in theory, beginning with an autobiographical introduction that could serve as an unthreatening “way in” to ideological criticisms for the evangelical student. Jobling reads 1 Samuel from class, race, and gender perspectives, and then as tragedy and comedy in turn, demonstrating how different optics can illuminate the text and bring out new possibilities for readerly interpretation.

The key reference for 1 and 2 Kings must be the two-volume AB commentary from Mordechai Cogan (1 Kings; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 2000), and Cogan and Hayim Tadmor (2 Kings; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1988). Cogan and Tadmor bring a wealth of historical background to 1 and 2 Kings, including maps, illustrations of artefacts, and appendices containing extra-biblical source material. Their commentary includes comprehensive explanatory notes on the text, as well as informed comment on literary and form-critical matters, and crucially, an evaluation of the value of the text for the historical reconstruction of Israel. Jerome T. Walsh, by contrast, intentionally brackets out the textual difficulties to offer a final form, narrative reading of 1 Kings, taking the NRSV (primarily) as read (Berit Olam; Collegevill, MN: Liturgical, 1996). Walsh includes a useful introduction to narrative theory and then reads 1 Kings as historical narrative, observing how each individual narrative fits in the context of the larger story of which it is a part. Somewhere between these two lies Marvin A. Sweeney’s commentary in the Old Testament Library (OTL; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007). Sweeney’s excellent introduction provides an orientation to text-critical questions, examining the extant texts and discussing various redaction-critical theories. Sweeney also gives due regard to literary concerns and the nature of narrative, reading the books as “narrative history.”

Martin Selman’s two volumes in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series (TOTC; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994) together comprise an introductory guide to 1 and 2 Chronicles from an explicitly evangelical perspective. His focus is very much on the chronicler’s message and theology, with applications for today. Sara Japhet’s OTL commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox,1993) remains a key reference work for Chronicles. In line with her seminal work on the ideology of the chronicler (rev. ed.; New York: Peter Lang, 1997), Japhet highlights the theological purposes in writing throughout. More recently, Gary Knoppers’ two-volume AB commentary on 1 Chronicles (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 2004) provides an exhaustive reference work. Knoppers includes extensive textual notes for the academic reader, encyclopedic discussion of sources and composition, and lucid comment on the literary and theological nature of the text. This is the place to go for a thorough introduction to the state of the field and key issues, as well as extensive (100 pages!) bibliography.

H. G. M. Williamson’s contribution to the Word Biblical Commentary (WBC; Waco, TX: Word, 1985), almost thirty years on, is still the essential reference work for Ezra-Nehemiah. Williamson’s introduction sets the context for the complex questions surrounding Ezra-Nehemiah, succinctly summarizing discussions of sources, composition, date, history, and the problem of the chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah. He provides substantial exegetical comment on textual, literary, and historical issues, and is also interested in a theological reading, taking the narrative nature of the text into account and making connections for contemporary readers. The OTL volume from Joseph Blenkinsopp (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1988) is also important, taking a literary and theological view as well as addressing historical concerns. Blenkinsopp includes a measured discussion of the relationship between Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles, concluding (against Williamson) that both works come from the chronicler. Blenkinsopp’s discussions survey a range of views before reaching carefully reasoned conclusions. There is a particular focus on the nature and identity of the Judean community in the Persian period, and Blenkinsopp argues for a more generous, less legalistic view of this community than was held by many of his predecessors. To my knowledge there is not yet a recent commentary taking full account of the burgeoning scholarly interest in the Persian period, incorporating recent work, for example, on penitential prayer. I await Tamara Cohn Eskenazi’s forthcoming AB commentary with interest. (Thanks to Donald P. Moffat for collegial advice on Ezra-Nehemiah.)

Jon D. Levenson’s OTL commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997) is a good solid introduction to the story of Esther and the issues involved in reading it, majoring on the messages (plural) and theology of the book. Adele Berlin’s reading of Esther in the JPS Bible Commentary is a must-have (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001). Berlin’s reading delights in all things story-related, reading Esther as comedy in light of the portrayal of Persians in Greek storytelling about Persia. She is a keen observer of Esther’s narrative artistry, reading Esther as a diaspora story, a fictional comedy that she describes as “burlesque.” Michael V. Fox’s study (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001) also takes a literary view, focusing primarily on characterization and ideology (as the title, Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther, suggests). Fox demonstrates a concern for the author’s intention in portraying the characters, and after a short exegetical commentary addresses questions of historicity, dating, genre, and so on, before moving to examine the characters more closely. Fox then addresses text-critical questions, including a helpful appendix with philological notes. The second edition includes a “postscript” updating the development of the field in the 1990s. (Thanks to Angeline Song for collegial advice on Esther.)

For an accessible and insightful introduction to Job, Carol Newsom’s contribution to the New Interpreter’s Bible (NIB 4; Nashville: Abingdon, 1996) is an excellent starting point. Grounded in solid scholarship, Newsom covers the background issues with clarity and her reflections are thoughtful and provocative, emphasizing the dialogic nature of the book and the need for readers themselves to engage with the theological questions Job raises. The essential reference work is David Clines’ three-volume contribution to the WBC (Waco, TX: Word, 1989, 2006, 2011), which opens with a helpful orientation to Job and to books about Job, which, though published in 1989, will still put the student in a position to tackle the book with confidence. Clines brings a wealth of scholarship to bear on the text in extensive comment sections, as well as acknowledging the role of the reader in making meaning. Clines insists on a final-form reading, and his constant attention to the book as a whole means that the big picture is always in view, even when taking a detailed look at a unit of text. Samuel E. Balentine’s volume in the Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2006), in keeping with the brief of the series, provides a multimedia commentary from an openly confessional stance. Each textual unit is accompanied by both commentary and “connections,” drawing out applications for today. Excerpts from fiction and poetry, reprints of artwork and sculpture, specific textual details and aspects of cultural background appear in frequent side-bars, illuminating the text at hand. This is very much a practitioners’ commentary, a tool kit to dip into that combines solid exegesis with theological reflection.

Posted Feb 12, 2014