Robert B. Chisholm Jr.: An Interview on his 1&2 Samuel Commentary
Robert B. Chisholm Jr. is department chair and professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also the author of a number of books including: Interpreting the Historical Books: An Exegetical Handbook; From Exegesis to Exposition: A Practical Guide to using Biblical Hebrew; Interpreting the Minor Prophets; Handbook on the Prophets; A Commentary on Judges and Ruth (Kregel Exegetical Library); and 1&2 Samuel, Teach the Text Commentary Series, which will be our main focus in this interview. To see my review of 1&2 Samuel click here.
Hi Bob, thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. With your teaching schedule, book writing, and church work you clearly keep yourself busy! Would you begin by sharing with our readers as briefly as possible your background and journey to faith in Christ?
I trusted in Christ as my personal Savior as a child. I grew up in a Christian family; we attended a Baptist church. I went to Syracuse University with the intention of becoming a journalist, specifically a sports writer, but I had a spiritual awakening while a student there and the Lord, through the wise advice of my pastor, steered me toward seminary and biblical studies.
What specifically led to your interest in studying and teaching the Old Testament?
During my first year of seminary, my Hebrew professor encouraged me to pursue Old Testament studies. That little nudge was all I needed because I had always found the Old Testament, with its stories and prophecies, to be fascinating.
You clearly have a broad range of interest when it comes to the Old Testament. If someone had to pin you down to a favorite area or book what would you say and why?
I enjoy studying narrative literature (especially Judges and 1-2 Samuel) from a literary-theological perspective. The characters in these narratives are so human and we can learn a great deal about God and how he relates to his people by reading them.
How did the opportunity to write the commentary on 1&2 Samuel in the Teach the Text Series come about?
The Old Testament editor, John Walton, invited me to participate.
The Teach the Text Series has a particular format that its authors are required to follow. What appealed to you about this format and what did you find challenging about it?
The format is concise and focused on what is most important—that makes it readable and user-friendly. However, the challenge is to choose what is most important to discuss. I had to trim my first draft down by about 40%–it was painful to have to leave so much material on the cutting room floor.
It seems to me that one of the most challenging things about the Teach the Text Series is providing illustrations of the various units of the biblical text for pastors. Did you find this challenging and how did you go about finding illustrations and deciding what to include in the commentary? Another question along the same line is, do you have a specific system for keeping track of illustrations?
I did not choose the illustrative material. This was done by an editorial team under the direction of a sermonic editor. The suggested illustrations in the commentary tend to come from literature, film, and church history. In my own preaching I prefer to use illustrations from my personal life, pop culture, the daily news, and sports. But, obviously, these would not be suitable for a commentary.
One area of the commentary that I thought could have merited further treatment was the section on 2 Samuel 2:1-5:5. Being faithful to the format of the commentary, you treated this section in 6 pages. Is there a reason you didn’t break this unit into smaller sections so that more space could have been devoted to these chapters?
I agree with you that this section was treated too cursorily, but I had to divide the books into a specified number of units. Given the word count and format, there simply wasn’t enough space to cover everything adequately, so I had to leave much material from these chapters on the cutting room floor. I decided it was easier to “streamline” this section than some of the others in 1-2 Samuel.
One of the things I love about your commentary on 1&2 Samuel is the feature on each section of Scripture where you give the “Big Idea” and the “Key Themes.” If someone tried to pin you down to a few sentences and asked you “What is the Big Idea in 1&2 Samuel,” or “What is (are) the Key Theme(s),” how would you respond?
In its ancient Israelite context, 1-2 Samuel legitimates the Davidic dynasty by demonstrating that David was God’s choice as king, in contrast to Saul, whom God had rejected. Theologically, 1-2 Samuel demonstrates that God is at work for good in the life of his covenant community, even though they and their leaders are seriously flawed. Through the Davidic dynasty (ultimately Jesus) God will accomplish his purposes for his people.
Another feature I like is the information boxes that are set off from the rest of the commentary. These boxes usually include interesting information that add spice to the commentary. How did you decide which topics to include? Were there certain criteria you followed to say “this should be included,” or “it would be nice to have this but space doesn’t permit so I’ll leave it out?” How much of a part did the editors play in these decisions?
I tried to anticipate questions readers might have as they read the commentary. We put the material in a separate box in order to maintain continuity in the basic discussion while at the same providing more detailed discussion on certain key or problematic matters. I chose the topics; the editors offered feedback on the content.
I am currently writing a series of articles on my website entitled “Violence in the Old Testament.” This seems to be an important topic given the publications of books by the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins. Christians are often embarrassed about the violence in the Old Testament and many shy away from reading and studying it. I know this is a big topic but do you have any comments you’d like to share on this subject, especially as it relates to the books of 1&2 Samuel?
This is also a topic of great interest for me and I hope to do more writing on it in the days ahead. At the 2011 national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I delivered a paper entitled: Fighting Yahweh’s Wars: Some Disturbing Acts of Violence in Judges-Samuel. It should be published soon; I’m still working on the logistics of where. I study six different episodes where God endorses violence. I am not as apologetic as some and prefer to give God the benefit of the doubt. It’s a messy fallen world filled with a lot of evil people and sometimes God rolls up his sleeves, so to speak, and enters into the fray as the just Warrior-King. Here’s the conclusion to my paper: A close reading of these six accounts reveals that in each case the act of violence involved the implementation of divine justice against the object. In two instances (Adoni-Bezek and Agag) an individual was treated in a way that mirrored his crimes against others. In four cases a people group (the Amalekites) or representatives of a people group (the Moabite king Eglon, the Canaanite general Sisera, the thirty Philistines murdered by Samson) were, at least from Yahweh’s perspective, the objects of violent acts of justice in response to crimes committed or intended (in the case of Sisera) against Israel. In Goliath’s case, David refused to view the Philistine’s taunt as simply a verbal assault against Israel’s army. Yahweh identifies with his people and so he was the ultimate target of the Philistine’s slander. Consequently, David’s victory over Goliath was an act of justice that vindicated Yahweh’s honor by punishing a blasphemer.
Though these violent acts are disturbing at an emotional level, they are, as acts of justice, gratifying at a deeper, more elemental level. Ultimately, it is not worth living in a world in which there is no justice. Such a place would be nothing more than a jungle in which superior strength breeds arrogance and evil, and the strong take what they want, dishing out pain and suffering with reckless abandon. But justice, to truly be justice, must be implemented fully and appropriately. To use a contemporary example, when the Harry Potter saga finally reaches its climax, Nagini, Bellatrix Lestrange, and, of course, Voldemort cannot just die; they must be killed the “right way” for justice to be satisfied and for some sense of moral equilibrium to be realized. Bellatrix cannot be pitied as long as the image of a dying Dobby persists in the mind’s eye.
So it is in the biblical story: Those who cut off the thumbs of others or make mothers childless eventually discover that what goes around comes around. Those who attack, oppress, and abuse Yahweh’s people eventually pay the price in “the right way.” Those who dare defy the living God and challenge him to step into the arena may end up a decapitated torso. And though the scene may make one want to vomit, in the end the image prompts a sigh of relief and more. As the psalmist declares: “The godly will rejoice when they see vengeance carried out; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. Then observers will say, ‘Yes indeed, the godly are rewarded! Yes indeed, there is a God who judges the earth!’” (Ps. 58:10-11) In conclusion I leave you with this scene: “Then I saw heaven opened and here came a white horse! The one riding it was called ‘Faithful’ and ‘True,’ and with justice he judges and goes to war” (Rev. 19:11). Even so, come Lord Jesus!
What projects are you currently working on?
In addition to writing Bible studies for a ministry called Coaches Outreach, I am working on a two-volume commentary on Isaiah for the Kregel Exegetical Library Series (the same series in which my Judges-Ruth commentary appears) and two more commentaries on 1-2 Samuel, one for Zondervan’s Hearing the Message of Scripture Series and the other for Baker’s Bible Backgrounds Commentary. I’m also hoping to publish books on Genesis 2-3, Job 38-42, God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament (a biblical theology proper of God based on the OT), and the hermeneutics of prophecy, as well as some journal articles. So, as you can see, I enjoy writing and stay busy.
Bob I really enjoyed working through your commentary as I taught 1&2 Samuel this past semester. It was also a blessing to our students and I will use it for many years to come. Thank you for a job well done and thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. May God continue to bless you as you seek to communicate His Word to others.
Thank you for the opportunity to chat and for your kind, encouraging words. All the writing I do has one goal—to help Christians understand and apply the Scriptures so that they might more effectively carry out the Great Commission. If the Teach the Text commentary on 1-2 Samuel contributes to that in some small way, then I will be satisfied.