Books, Brokenhearted Theology, Reading Reflections

Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Volume 4 (review)

Zondervan has recently published a five-volume work – the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (ZIBBCOT).  I was sent a copy of Volume 4 (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel) by Zondervan to take a look at and review, and have been flipping through it and getting a feel for it the last couple of weeks.  So, here are some thoughts on the presentation and content of the volume.

I tend to be a bit wary of anything with “Illustrated” in the title.  When I was younger, I read almost every “Great Illustrated Classic” that I could get my hands on, leading me to believe that I had read almost every “great classic.”  It was only later in my life when my wife finished reading the 1500 pages of The Count of Monte Cristo and I exclaimed that I too had read that book that I was set straight.  Apparently, reading a 100 page version (okay, there’s a picture on every other page, so 50….okay, so the print is twice as big as it should be…25) does not equal reading the full version.  That was a long explanation of why I was initially wary of this volume, which also has “Illustrated” in large and bold lettering on the cover. However…

Presentation: …despite my hesitation to get excited about anything “Illustrated,” the illustrations, drawings, charts, and photography in this volume are a huge asset.  One of the more difficult aspects that I have found in studying the Old Testament with any concern for its ancient context is entering and understanding a world much different from ours.  The ancient world thought differently, lived differently, practiced religion differently, and wrote differently, producing some obstacles for any modern reader picking up the Hebrew Bible.  So, to have the pages of this volume so saturated with imagery will hopefully be a step in allowing readers to understand and enter into the ancient world of the Old Testament.

Content: While the presentation of the volume is great, images can only help so much; looking at pictures of ancient steles, inscriptions, etc. can only get you so far.  Much of the ANE literature I’ve read for various classes has been somewhat difficult to navigate, and even more difficult to apply directly to studying and understanding the world and texts of the Old Testament.  I recognize that there is value in studying the ANE world in and of itself (apart from the need to “shed light” on  Christian theological and biblical studies), but I also believe that resources attempting to bridge the gap for the “average” reader of the Hebrew Scriptures (whether in vocational ministry or otherwise) are much needed.

I felt that this volume was really helpful in this regard.  I have been making my way through portions of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and in consulting this volume found that my level of understanding of the Scriptures on both an “academic” and a “ministerial” level increased.  I had a better sense for the wide range of imagery, metaphor, and literary techniques that were used, particularly in some of the more difficult oracles and prophecies that most people (including myself) have a tendency to brush over.

Some of the information is more helpful than others, of course.  For example, the volume offers helpful insights into Isaiah’s proclamation of the sign of Immanuel (in Isaiah 7), referencing other similar accounts in ANE literature and outlining some of the semantics involved in understanding how the Hebrew language works in these texts to speak of a virgin conceiving a son.  Some explanations were a bit less helpful (I don’t want to say that they were unnecessary, but some of the notes did not exactly shake my world), particularly when explaining language that may not need explanation.  For example, the use of labor metaphors in Isaiah 21:3 is explained by saying that “labor paints are a common symbol of physical and mental distress.”  Most people probably could have figured that out, although the quotation from the Gilgamesh Epic is interesting (but not entirely relevant).  So, like any resource of this kind, some of the information is “valuable” and some is just “interesting.”  Overall, I found the content I read and the portions I used in parallel with some personal reading of the Scriptures to be both insightful and helpful.

Overview:  While the presentation and content is more accessible than most other ANE/OT resources I have encountered, it still might leave some people asking “Who cares?”, particularly those who aren’t already inclined to see the importance of understanding the ancient worldviews which produced the OT writings.  While this is not entirely the fault of the authors and editor of ZIBBCOT, I think there is more work needed to increase awareness and understanding of why this work is so needed and important.  So, the set isn’t perfect, but it seems really, really good.  I resonated with the methodological approach that the editor (John Walton) took, explained in the introductory essay, describing the purpose and process of understanding the “background” in which the Hebrew Scriptures were written and collected.  It has gotten some great reviews from scholars and pastors alike, and I’m excited to continue making use of the resource.  I think I’ll get some good use out of this volume in particular, as I think some of the prophetic language in the OT is pretty difficult for most readers.  While I am not at a point where it is easy (or possible) for me to drop $40-$50 on each volume in a set like this, it’s the kind of reference material that I would like to have access to and would recommend to people interested in building up a biblical studies library.

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