The IVP Bible Background Commentary Part 2: Genesis – Kings

The IVP Bible Background Commentary Part 2: Genesis – Kings

untitledTHE IVP BIBLE BACKGROUND COMMENTARY: Old Testament. By John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000. 832 pages. Available at Amazon USA / UK

In my first review (which you can read by clicking here), I looked at the overall purpose and scope of the IVP Bible Background Commentary. In this review, I will focus on some of the interesting insights that can be learned by using this resource. Because of the sheer volume of material, I have chosen to focus on the Books of Genesis through 2 Kings. In a future review, I will look at the sections concerning the Psalms and Wisdom literature, as well as the Prophets.

Cultural Insights from the Ancient Near East

Since this is a commentary on Bible backgrounds, one expects information that provides insight into the culture of the ancient Near East. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, is loaded with wonderful insights that the ordinary Bible reader would be unfamiliar with. Moderns may think that the practice of polygamy in the ancient world was simply to satisfy the sexual desires of the male, but there were other motivating factors as well: “1) an imbalance in the number of males and females; 2) the need to produce large numbers of children to work herds and / or fields; 3) the desire to increase prestige and wealth of a household through multiple marriage contracts; and 4) the high rate of death of females in childbirth” (comment on Gen. 4:19, p. 34 and 1 Sam. 1:2, p. 281). Although this insight doesn’t justify polygamy, it does demonstrate some of the cultural factors that led to the practice.

From the movie "The Ten Commandments," Moses (Charlton Heston) and his father-in-law Jethro.
From the movie “The Ten Commandments,” Moses (Charlton Heston) and his father-in-law Jethro.

One interesting problem that the commentary resolves concerns the supposedly different names for Moses’s father-in-law. Was his name Jethro (Exod. 3:1), Reuel (Exod. 2:18), or Hobab (Judg. 4:11)? Did one man really have 3 names, or as some more sceptical scholars suggest, are 3 contradictory sources being used? The authors explain that, “The difficulty can be resolved once the ambiguity of the terminology is recognized. The term designating male in-laws is nonspecific. The term referred to a woman’s male relatives and could be used for her father, brother, or even grandfather” (comment on Exod. 3:1, p. 79). The authors suggest that Reuel may be the grandfather, Jethro the father (of Moses’s wife Zipporah), and Hobab a brother-in-law of Moses, or some other such combination.

<img class=” wp-image-961″ src=”” alt=”An account by Sargon II has similarities to Joshua 10:11” width=”173″ height=”213″ /> An account by Sargon II has similarities to Joshua 10:11

Other insights are provided by a brief discussion of the ancient Near East’s concept of corporate responsibility and how Achan’s sin impacted his whole family, not to mention the entire nation (comment on Josh. 7:1, pp. 218-219). A description of palace architecture also helps the reader better understand Ehud’s assassination of the Moabite king Eglon, and how he managed to escape (comment on Judg. 3:23, pp. 248-249). The authors also frequently quote from ancient texts that have similarities to biblical accounts. For example, one ancient Near Eastern text that comes from Sargon II, king of Assyria “reports that in his campaign against Urartu (714 B.C.) the god Adad stormed against his enemies with ‘stones from heaven’ and so annihilated them” (p. 225). This is reminiscent of the Lord’s intervention for Joshua against the kings of Canaan (Josh. 10:11).

The "witch" at Endor (1 Sam. 28)
The “witch” at Endor (1 Sam. 28)

One very interesting feature relates to an understanding of life after death in the ancient Near East. The authors discuss the strange story of the medium at Endor summoning Samuel at the request of Saul, after Samuel had died (1 Sam. 28). They comment, “This specialist from Endor used a ritual pit to conjure up the spirits of the dead….The pits were believed to be magical portals through which spirits could pass between the realms of the living and the dead. The practitioner was one who had special knowledge of the location of such a pit and who was familiar with the procedures necessary to summon the dead” (comment on 1 Sam. 28:7, p. 318). Of course, this doesn’t mean that the woman conjured up Samuel through her own power, but it does give insight into the ancient beliefs and practices involved. A comment on 1 Kings 16:4 regarding the fate of King Baasha of Israel and his family is also enlightening. The passage states that the king and his family members will be eaten by dogs if they die in the city or by birds if they die in the fields. The authors comment, “most ancient peoples believed that proper, timely burial affected the quality of the afterlife….We know that even Israelites believed that proper burial affected one’s afterlife, because they, like their neighbors, buried their loved ones with the provisions that would serve them in the afterlife; most often pottery vessels (filled with food) and jewelry (to ward off evil), with tools and personal items sometimes added” (p. 373).

IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Old Testament: Limitations

Me hanging out with Philistines at Tel es-Safi (Gath).
Me hanging out with Philistines at Tel es-Safi (Gath).

The authors frequently site knowledge that is available through archaeology. This could be regarding certain cities, or artefacts. For example, when speaking of the Tabernacle (2 Sam. 6:17, p. 332), the discovery of a Midianite tent shrine that dates from the 12th century B.C. is noted. While this is interesting information, it also points up a shortcoming in the commentary. A photo of such discoveries would be helpful (or a reference where further info and pictures might be found). Additionally, it is the archaeological information contained in the commentary that particularly cries out for a new updated edition. For example, when the Philistine city of Gath is mentioned in the text, the authors constantly remind us that there has been no archaeological work done at this site (see e.g., the comment on 1 Sam. 27:2, p. 317). However, this is no longer the case. In fact, excavations have been going on at Tel es-Safi (biblical Gath) since 1996 with many fascinating discoveries made (see my article on Philistine cities here).

Although the authors have intentionally omitted the use of references for the sake of the average reader, still the lack of references hurt the commentary. Besides the Midianite tent shrine mentioned above, there are many places that references would be extremely helpful, even for the average reader. For example, there is a brief discussion of the problem of the date of the Exodus on page 86. Although the article gives the basic outline of the problems involved, it is still very general. The curious reader, however, is not left with any suggestions on how to pursue a deeper treatment of the subject.

The commentary is also full of repetition. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be quite helpful to have information at your fingertips rather than being told to go to another place in the commentary to find it. The problem is the authors do both. For example, whole sections of the commentary on 1&2 Kings refer the reader to 2 Chronicles. Again, if this was the practice throughout the commentary, I would have no problem with it. In fact, it would shorten the commentary considerably and might allow for the photos and references that I believe would be helpful. My complaint is that the decision to repeat information (sometimes 3, 4 or more times), while at other times saying, “see such ‘n such” for information on this passage, seems arbitrary.

Evaluation of Genesis – 2 Kings, IVP Bible Background Commentary

In spite of the shortcomings I have mentioned, I believe this commentary is extremely useful and informative. Besides simply providing a review, I have attempted to show the reader some of the interesting insights available. Other helpful features include geographical information (stating how far it is from one place to another, or what the terrain is like). This can raise important issues for interpretation. For example, what are we to make of the fact that Saul’s hometown is only a short distance away from Samuel’s hometown, and yet Saul had never heard of Samuel! (comments on 1 Sam. 9:6, p. 293). Other helpful explanations include the value of different types of money (shekels, etc.), the times of year represented by the names of various months, and the meaning of certain political or military offices (e.g., the Assyrian official known as Tartan means “field marshal, 2 Kgs. 18:17, p. 405). Although I am hopeful that an update on the Old Testament volume will be forthcoming from IVP (as the New Testament one which appeared this year), I would still heartily recommend this commentary as a source of valuable information in better understanding the Bible and the ancient Near East.

(A copy of this commentary has been provided for the reviewer in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. Many thanks to the publishers at IVP!)

The IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament is available at,, and at Amazon USA / UK



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