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The Holy Spirit in Isaiah

The Holy Spirit in Isaiah

The Book of Isaiah has a number of significant references to the Spirit. Here are 3 examples:

This passage from Isaiah 11:1-5 is one of several significant passages concerning the Holy Spirit in Isaiah.
This passage from Isaiah 11:1-5 is one of several significant passages concerning the Holy Spirit in Isaiah.

There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord (Isa. 11:1-2, NKJV).

Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles (Isa. 42:1).

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor, etc. (Isa. 61:1-3, NKJV).

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK. In this post I am looking at chapter 4 which explores the Holy Spirit in Isaiah.

This post continues a series based on the book A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit. In our last post I looked at “The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books” (click here to read this post). You may be wondering what happened to looking at the Holy Spirit in the Books of Wisdom. There is actually very little said about the Spirit in the Wisdom Books and my reading of that chapter (chapter 3 in the book), although interesting, did not, in my opinion, reveal any significant information that would contribute to our search for a better understanding of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, the same is true of chapter 5 which deals with the Holy Spirit in Jeremiah. As it turns out, Jeremiah never specifically references the Spirit of God. Therefore my next post will also omit looking at the Holy Spirit in Jeremiah. The good news is that the subject of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah, our current topic, proves to be a rich study.

Four Perspectives on the Holy Spirit in Isaiah

Wonsuk Ma (the author of this chapter) divides the treatment of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah into two main (Old Testament) traditions: “charismatic and non-charismatic Spirit traditions–of which there are two examples of each in Isaiah. The two charismatic Spirit traditions relate to leadership and prophetic Spirit traditions” (p. 35). We have noticed these traditions in my previous posts on “The Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch,” (click here) and “The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books” (see above link). “The two non-charismatic Spirit traditions in Isaiah are related to the creation and wisdom Spirit traditions” (p. 35).

The Leadership Spirit Tradition

Isaiah pictures the coming Davidic King as Spirit-empowered to serve through weakness. Painting by Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656), 'King David Playing the Harp' (1611).
Isaiah pictures the coming Davidic King as Spirit-empowered yet serving in weakness. Painting by Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656), ‘King David Playing the Harp’ (1611).

In the Book of Judges, we noticed how the Spirit confirmed God’s choice of a leader and also empowered that individual (Gideon, Samson, etc.) to accomplish acts of deliverance on behalf of God’s people. This always involved military intervention or, in the case of Samson, his physical intervention and defeat of the enemy. Two passages in Isaiah show continuity as well as discontinuity with this tradition. For example, the future Davidic king spoken of in Isaiah 11:1-5 is still designated as leader by virtue of the Spirit being upon him (continuity), but in place of an expression of military might, Isaiah identifies him as one who will render justice for and protect the weak (discontinuity, Isa. 11:4). Although there is language about slaying the wicked, the instrument spoken of is not a sword or spear but “the rod of His mouth,” and “the breath of his lips.” Ma states, “The king was expected to admister justice and righteousness by protecting the powerless in society and judging the wicked, resulting in not only the flourishing of God’s people, but also the restoration of God’s entire Creation into harmony and order (Isa. 11:6-9). This is a radically different picture from that recorded in the books of Judges and 1 and 2 Kings” (p. 37–emphasis mine). In Isaiah 42:1-4, Ma points out that while this passage once again connects leadership with the Spirit, the authority of the leader in this case is one which “is more related to ‘depowering’ than ’empowering’….There is a very strange reference to weakness, suggesting that empowerment is to minister in weakness to the weak (Isa. 42:2, 4)” (p. 38). Ma notes that while these passages continue older themes about the Spirit, they also introduce new features.

The Prophetic Spirit Tradition

Ma notes 3 major functions of the Spirit within this tradition (all of which we have seen in the previous posts): 1. The Spirit is the causal agent in prophetic behavior; 2) the Spirit is the source of the prophetic word; and 3) the Spirit is the source of prophetic empowerment (pp. 38-39). Ma begins by looking at the famous passage in Isaiah 61:1-3 and he notes two contrasts with the above prophetic Spirit tradition found in this passage. “First, there is no hint of the ‘prophetic frenzy’ that characterized the Spirit’s presence. Second, while the passage itself is a received message (or an oracle), the Spirit’s presence is more linked with the task at hand than as the source of this message” (pp. 39-40). One link with the previous pictures of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah is that the anointed one spoken of here brings God’s liberating power to the poor and suffering.

Creation Spirit Tradition

The Holy Spirit in Isaiah is said to bring fertility to the land.
The Holy Spirit in Isaiah is said to bring fertility to the land.

The last two traditions regarding the Holy Spirit in Isaiah are connected with what Ma refers to as the non-charismatic tradition. Regarding the significance of the Creation theme in Isaiah Ma writes, “The vision of God’s complete rule is a major concern of Isaianic traditions. The rule of God or lordship is universal in scope as it goes beyond Israel, God’s people, and encompasses all of Creation” (p. 41). This outlook is also eschatalogical. Ma selects two texts to illustrate this focus. Isaiah 32:15-18 speaks of the pouring out of the Spirit and the fertility that is brought to the land, along with a restoration of righteousness and justice. In Isaiah 44:3-5 the pouring out of the Spirit brings fertility to the people and to the land. Ma notes that “The imagery of water is repeatedly used to describe the coming of the Spirit in abundance here, as also in Isaiah 32” (p. 42).

The Wisdom Spirit Tradition

The connection of the Spirit with wisdom is already evident in the Joseph story when he appears before Pharaoh (Gen. 41:37-39). Isaiah 30:1-2 demonstrates the disconnect between God’s Spirit and a hard-hearted nation that seeks counsel from the world (Egypt). Although there is no direct use of the word ruach, Ma also connects Isaiah 40:13-14 with the wisdom Spirit tradition, a passage which speaks of the Lord’s wisdom in Creation.

The Holy Spirit in Isaiah: Summary and Conclusion

Just as we noted a progression in the understanding and work of the Spirit when moving from the Pentateuch to the Historical Books, similarly we can see how Isaiah utilizes the same traditions but also pushes them to new horizons. The connection of the Spirit with a Davidic leader who will rule in power, yet also through weakness, clearly anticipates the ministry of Jesus. The renewal that the Spirit brings to all of Creation in the time to come paves the way for the same recurring theme in the New Testament. The description of the function and work of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah is certainly an important development in the Scripture’s declaration of the nature of the third person of the Trinity. Ma does an excellent job in illuminating continuity with past traditions of the Spirit, while demonstrating the new features developed in Isaiah.

The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books

The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

With a desire to learn more about the Holy Spirit, particularly with regard to the Old Testament, I am working my way through the book, A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit. This book, written by various scholars, begins with an investigation of “The Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch” by Walter Kaiser Jr. (click here to read my review and thoughts), This post builds on that initial article by looking at chapter two which explores the Holy Spirit in “The Historical Books.” This informative chapter is authored by David Firth, and encompasses the books of Joshua – Esther in our Old Testament. Of the 62 occurrences of ruach in the historical books, Firth notes that a majority either refer to breath, wind, or the human spirit. Firth also cautions that, “Because of the semantic breadth of ruach, we need to consider the possibility that even [when] ruach is associated with God it may refer to something other than the Spirit” (p. 14). Due to the ambiguous nature of the expression in certain texts, Firth limits his investigation to 13 passages in Judges and 1&2 Samuel (books which are part of the “Former Prophets in the Hebrew Bible), and 6 passages in Chronicles-Nehemiah.

The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books: Judges

The Holy Spirit is an important motif in the Book of Judges
The Holy Spirit is an important motif in the Book of Judges

Firth notes that, “A central motif in Judges is that the Spirit’s presence indicates Yahweh’s power to deliver his people….The Spirit is thus principally associated with military action” (pp. 14-15). The giving of the Spirit to enable leadership is reminiscent of one of the features of the Spirit in the Pentateuch (Num. 11). In Judges this leadership is raised up as a means to deliver God’s people from various oppressors. These leaders include Othniel (Judg. 3:10), Gideon (Judg. 6:34), Jephthah (Judg.  11:29), and Samson (Judg. 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14). Firth makes the important point that it “becomes clear that the Spirit’s presence does not compel the judge to comply with Yahweh’s purposes. The Spirit’s power is a resource that can be drawn upon but is not something that overcomes the judge” (p. 16). This is evident in Gideon, who still operates out of fear although he has received the Spirit (Judg. 6:34-40; 7:9-11), Jephthah who pronounces a foolish and unnecessary vow after receiving the Spirit (Judg. 11:29-31), and Samson who receives the Spirit on various occassions, but also acts in dubious ways.

The ability to draw upon the power of the Spirit but not be overcome by the Spirit, reminds me of a similar principle enunciated by the apostle Paul when writing to the Corinthian believers. Paul notes the confusion that exists in the Corinthian assembly over the expression of spiritual gifts during their corporate worship. Paul counsels them to take turns, and if there is no interpreter for a tongue to keep silent in the church (1 Cor. 14:27-28). He states that “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32). Although this is not a direct reference to the Holy Spirit, it is a reference to the gifts given by the Spirit and suggests the same principle we see at work in the Book of Judges. From this observation we can learn several important principles. First, God’s Spirit is given to someone (whether a deliverer and judge, or believer in a church) to benefit the people of God. This means that the giving of the Spirit involves a certain individual but it isn’t merely about that individual. The Spirit is given to one in order to benefit many. This is overlooked by some churches where the gift of the Spirit seems to take on an “it’s all about me” attitude. Second, while a person can draw on the resources of the Spirit, they can also act out in the flesh. Gideon continued to fear, Jephthah made a foolish vow, Samson violated his vows, and the Corinthian assembly was a place of confusion rather than order (1 Cor. 14:33, 40). In other words, receiving the Holy Spirit is no guarantee that we will not react in a fleshly manner. We still need to practice discernment and humbly offer ourselves, our actions, and our decisions to God.

The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books: 1&2 Samuel

"But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him" (1 Sam. 16:14)
“But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him” (1 Sam. 16:14)

Firth states that in 1&2 Samuel, “The Spirit continues to designate those chosen by Yahweh, though without removing the flaws of those so empowered. However, the books of Samuel also include the motif of the Spirit’s association with prophecy from Numbers 11, but (especially with David) in new ways. Most originally, the books of Samuel also point to the possibility of the Spirit disempowering those who set themselves against Yahweh” (p. 18). In other words, a number of the ways in which the Spirit works and manifests himself continue to be seen in the books of Samuel with some further development. Certainly one of the intriguing aspects of 1 Samuel is how the Spirit is given, but then taken from Saul due to his disobedience (1 Sam. 10:10; 16:14). A similar idea is introduced in the story of Samson, although there it does not mention the Spirit but simply says, “But he did not know that the Lord had departed from him” (Judg. 16:20). The other major difference with Samson is that later, when he prays, God restores his strength (Judg. 16:28-30). Saul, on the other hand, not only receives no further answers from the Lord (e.g., 1 Sam. 28:6), he also is sent an “evil spirit” from the Lord (1 Sam. 16:14). Firth writes, “Previous references to the Spirit indicated a means by which Yahweh empowered someone to work for him, but here the Spirit acts independently of a human servant, disempowering those who opposed Yahweh’s purposes” (p. 20).

Firth also notes a development in the idea of Spirit-inspired prophecy. Whereas previous depictions of Spirit-inspired prophecy seem to be of the ecstatic type (e.g., Num. 11), David is said to speak a prophetic oracle by the Spirit (2 Sam. 23:2). Firth concludes, “David’s experience of the Spirit is pivotal for the whole of the Old Testament’s understanding of the Spirit, so that from this point on the emphasis is upon the Spirit and the spoken word of prophecy, though elements such as empowering for leadership do emerge occasionally. The books of Samuel have thus brought new emphases on the Spirit’s work” (p.21).

The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books: Chronicles and Nehemiah

“In contrast to the more complex theology of the Spirit in Judges and Samuel, references to the Spirit in Chronicles and Nehemiah have a simpler focus. Without fail, they are concerned with the Spirit’s involvement in the delivery of Yahweh’s word to his people” (p. 21). Although Chronicles often seems to use Samuel and Kings as a source, “it is notable that none of the references to the Spirit in Samuel occurs in Chronicles” (p. 21). Firth concludes that “This suggests that the Chronicler has conciously chosen to associate the work of the Spirit only with prophetic utterance” (p. 21), the same can be said for the Book of Nehemiah.

Conclusion and Evaluation

Firth concludes that the references of the Holy Spirit in the historical books show a “progressive development of the understanding of the Spirit.” While Judges focuses on the role of empowering leadership, especially in regards to military deliverance, the books of Samuel act as the pivot taking up motifs from Judges but moving them forward especially in the areas of the Spirit withdrawing from Saul and David speaking the prophetic word of God through the Spirit. This leads to the usage in Chronicles and Nehemiah which is wholly focused on “the Spirit’s role in enabling prophets to speak God’s message to his people” (p. 23).

Firth’s treatment of the Holy Spirit in the historical books is more nuanced and more insightful than Kaiser’s on the Pentateuch. I found his ability to show a progressive development in the understanding of the Holy Spirit in the historical books and to discuss various aspects of that development to be very helpful as I seek to better understand the role of the Spirit in the Old Testament.

The Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch

The Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch: Introduction

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

For sometime I have been interested in what the Old Testament teaches about the Holy Spirit. What are the similarities and differences between the role and activities of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament and New Testament? Many believe there is a major difference in the access and indwelling of the Holy Spirit between Old Testament and New Testament believers. Some scholars maintain that this difference is overstated. So what is the biblical view? In an effort to come to a better understanding, particularly of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, I am currently reading several new studies on this topic. This article (and others in the future) is a combination book review and investigation into the work and role of the Spirit of God. In this, and future posts, I will be looking at A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit, a book which consists of articles by various biblical scholars who are experts in their field of study and seeks to trace “the role and work of the Spirit across the entire biblical canon” (p. xiv). In this post I look at Walter C. Kaiser Jr.’s treatment of the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch from chapter 1.

The Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch

 The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruach. However, this word not only refers to God’s Spirit, it refers to the human spirit, and can also be translated “breath” or “wind.” Therefore, context is important in determining what the word ruach means. According to Kaiser the term ruach occurs 38 times in Genesis-Deuteronomy (with no occurrences in Leviticus), but only 6 passages are “key teaching passages” regarding the work of the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch. These passages include Genesis 1:2; 2:7; 6:3; 41:38; Num. 11:4-30 especially v. 25; and Num. 24:2.

Genesis 1:2

Is Genesis 1:2 the first mention of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament?
Is Genesis 1:2 the first mention of the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch?

Although some scholars and translations have opted for the translation that “a mighty wind” or “wind from  God” is the correct interpretation of ruach ‘elohim, Kaiser defends the traditional interpretation, “Spirit of God.” Kasier’s reasons involve a positive and a negative. Positively, Kaiser says that ‘elohim is used as a name for God and “not as an intensifying adverb such as ‘mighty'” throughout the account (p. 4). Negatively, Kaiser denies that there is any dependence on the Babylonian creation story which speaks of 8 winds being present (an argument used by his former teacher and others to suggest “wind” is the correct translation). Because the Hebrew phrase tohu wa vohu is best translated “empty and vacant” (p. 3) with tohu meaning “desert” in many passages (e.g., Deut. 32:10), Kaiser makes the interesting suggestion that the Creation may foreshadow (my terminology) God bringing his people through the desert (pp. 4-5). One of the most intriguing suggestions is that the Spirit’s hovering at creation is comparable to the cloud of glory overshadowing the tabernacle (Exod. 40:35), the Spirit’s overshadowing Mary at conception, and God’s overshadowing presence on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5). Kaiser concludes, “Thus the same figure of speech was used for the overshadowing presence and care of the Holy Spirit, whether it was at the creation of the earth, the conception of the incarnate Christ, or the magnificent appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration” (p. 5). The problem with this conclusion is that the Greek of the LXX (Septuagint) uses the same word in Exodus 40:35 that is used on Mary’s conception and the overshadowing on the Mount of Transfiguration, but the Greek word in Genesis 1:2 of the LXX is different. I suppose one might argue it is a synonym, but this makes an interesting proposal  less convincing in my eyes.

Genesis 2:7

Kaiser’s treatment of this verse faces the same problem just encountered above. Genesis 2:7 does not use the word ruach. Kaiser argues that the Hebrew word used here (neshmah) is a synonym of ruach. This may be true, but more evidence is needed to demonstrate this. One of Kaiser’s main points is, “Since God was also spirit, the breath breathed into Adam was more than mere physical breath; it was also spiritual breath” (p. 6). While I agree with this conclusion, I don’t see how it gives us any insight into the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch.

Genesis 6:3

This is the famous passage on the sons of God and daughters of men and the growing mountain of sin that eventually led to the Flood. In the statement, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever,” Kaiser sees the Spirit working to convict the world of sin, as elsewhere in Scripture.

Genesis 41:38

Pharaoh recognizes that Joseph possesses the Spirit of God.
Pharaoh recognizes that Joseph possesses the Spirit of God.

This verse contains Pharaoh’s declaration that Joseph is a “man in whom is the Spirit of God.” This recognition is connected with the wisdom and administrative ability that Joseph demonstrates. Some argue that because this statement is found in the mouth of a pagan, it is not a reference to the Holy Spirit. However, Kaiser argues that Joseph has already told Pharaoh that the gift of dream interpretation comes from God. I lean toward agreement with Kaiser on this interpretation, but I would also argue that in the larger context of Genesis, the reader is certainly to understand a reference to the Spirit of God even if Pharaoh meant something different. Kaiser makes the observation that “the role of the Spirit of God is frequently seen in connection with the leadership roles of major figures of the Old Testament” (p. 8).

Numbers 11:4-30

This passage relates how the Spirit that was upon Moses was distributed among 70 of the elders of Israel. Evidence that the Spirit was received came through the men prophesying. Thus this passage connects prophesying with one of the manifestations of the Spirit. The story concludes by saying that Joshua was jealous for Moses when he saw two men continuing to prophesy, but Moses  responded by saying, “Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29). Kaiser notes how this anticipates Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2:28-29. Further elaboration on this point would have been helpful. Is Moses saying that not all of God’s people have access to the Spirit?

Numbers 22:1-24:25

Although Balak wants Balaam to curse Israel, Balaam blesses Israel.
Although Balak wants Balaam to curse Israel, Balaam blesses Israel.

The last significant passage regarding the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch, according to Kaiser, is found in the story of Balaam. Kaiser states, “Surprisingly the ruach ‘elohim was not limited to individual Israelites, but also rested on one who clearly was a Gentile and who lived outside Jewish territory” (p. 10). Even though King Balak of Moab had hired Balaam to curse Israel, Balaam was warned by God that he could not curse what God had already blessed. In spite of God’s warning in the famous passage about Balaam’s talking donkey, God allows Balaam to continue on his mission. Numbers 24:2-3 even speaks of the Spirit coming upon Balaam and records his words of prophecy. Kaiser notes that some believe Balaam sought to curse Israel through using sorcery, but he says this is uncertain. Regarding the Holy Spirit coming upon Balaam, Kaiser states, “Whether Balaam was a willing or unwilling recipient of the Holy Spirit’s work cannot be said at this distance from the event” (p. 10). I would add that the one thing that is certain is that Balaam does not have a good reputation in the rest of Scripture. Kaiser does say that this incident demonstrates “that God can bring his message occasionally through an unbelieving, or unwilling, speaker” (p. 11).

Evaluation of Kaiser’s essay on the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch

 Although I have great respect for Walter Kaiser Jr., and have benefitted from many of his writings, I must admit to being disappointed by his treatment of the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch. At places, Kaiser suggests interpretations that aren’t firmly anchored in the text. For example, his connection of the “overshadowing” passages with Genesis 1:2, or his treatment of Genesis 2:7 that doesn’t even use the term ruach. Furthermore, as noted above, his interpretation of Genesis 2:7 doesn’t offer any insight in understanding the role or nature of the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch. My other criticism is that throughout his essay it seemed like Kaiser was approaching his intepretation of the text with an eye on the New Testament. This certainly has its place, but I would first suggest that the focus should be on what the text means in its present context and what that may tell us about the Holy Spirit. My suspicion seems confirmed when Kaiser takes an apologetic tone in his conclusion. Without quoting the entire conclusion, here is a sample statement: “In this regard, it is an unnecessary attenuation of the life, ministry and significance of the Holy Spirit to limit his appearance and real work until NT times, for not only does that bifurcate the higher order of the Trinitarian Godhead but it also removes credit from the Holy Spirit for the works he did during those times covered by Moses in the Pentateuch…” (p. 11).

On the positive side, the Pentateuch teaches us that the Spirit of God was present at Creation, and may convict or bring judgment (Gen. 6:3). The Holy Spirit can be given to leaders and administrators (Joseph, and the 70 elders), and prophesying can accompany the giving of the Spirit. Finally, the Pentateuch teaches us that the Holy Spirit can also be given to Gentiles, even Gentiles of dubious character, if it accomplishes God’s purposes.

Exploring the Old Testament: Vol. 1 The Pentateuch

Exploring the Old Testament: Vol. 1 The Pentateuch

Exploring the Old Testament: Volume 1 The Pentateuch, is available from Amazon USA / UK
Exploring the Old Testament: Volume 1 The Pentateuch, is available from Amazon USA / UK

The Exploring the Old Testament (as well as Exploring the New Testament) Series, has similar goals to the “Encountering Biblical Study Series” (see my review here on Encountering the Book of Genesis), and the “Teach the Text Series” (see my review here on 1&2 Samuel in the Teach the Text Series). Each of these series focuses on providing the beginning Bible student with an overview of a certain book or certain portion of Scripture. The goal is to introduce the reader to the main teachings and issues involved. The biggest difference with the Exploring the Old Testament Series is that it focuses on larger blocks of Scripture (The Pentateuch, the Historical Books, etc.). The author of this volume, Gordon Wenham is Senior Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at the University of Gloucestershire and is currently lecturing at Trinity College, Bristol. Ever since his commentary on Leviticus in the New International Commentary Series published in the late 70s, Wenham has been a favorite author and commentator of mine. You can always expect to learn something new. His books are always insightful and clearly written.

Contents of Exploring the Old Testament Vol 1: The Pentateuch

Gordon J. Wenham, author of "Exploring the Old Testament Vol 1: The Pentateuch."
Gordon J. Wenham, author of “Exploring the Old Testament Vol 1: The Pentateuch.”

For a book with only 199 pages of text, Wenham covers a lot of territory and packs in a lot of information! There are 11 chapters (including a 1 page “Epilogue”). Chapter 1 begins by asking, “What is the Pentateuch? Basic Features.” Wenham discusses the name, the genre, why there are 5 books, and other introductory questions. Chapters 2-7 present an overview of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Each chapter looks at particular issues and problems related to each book, and gives a chapter by chapter commentary over the entire book. The reason that it takes 6 chapters to discuss 5 books is because Wenham spends 2 chapters on Genesis (dividing his discussion between Genesis 1-11 and then 12-50). Like the “Encountering Biblical Studies” (EBS), each chapter of “Exploring the Old Testament” includes maps, charts and tables. This volume on the Pentateuch, however, unlike EBS, does not include photos, which I believe is a wise choice. As noted in my review of “Encountering the Book of Genesis” (see link above), the reproduction of black and white photos tends to come out very poorly. When Wenham has felt the need to reproduce a particular image, it has been drawn rather than photographically reproduced. All of the drawings, maps, charts, etc., have been done by Wenham’s son Christopher, who has done an admirable job. I found the charts to be particularly helpful. Wenham frequently includes charts to show parallels or demonstrate differences in the text. Wenham also includes text boxes. Some of these highlight special issues such as “Egypt in the Joseph Story,” in the Book of Genesis (p. 53), or “Further Reflection on the Census Results,” in the Book of Numbers (p. 106). Many of the boxes are labeled “Digging Deeper.” Wenham explains these boxes to the reader by stating, “I want you to get out of the tourist bus and explore the terrain for yourself before you move on to the next issue” (p. xiv). These boxes are designed to present thought provoking questions and assignments that allow readers to do some “digging” for themselves. Here are a few sample topics: “Ancient Marriage Customs” (p. 48), “Making Sense of Sacrifice” (p. 86), “The Chosen Place of Worship in Deuteronomy” (p. 134), and “Claims of Mosaic Authorship” (p. 160).

The final chapters of Exploring the Old Testament Vol. 1: The Pentateuch (chaps. 8-10, not counting the “Epilogue”), include 3 important areas of discussion. Chapter 8 looks at the “Theme of the Pentateuch.” This chapter is a wonderful example of how this series seeks to present the Big Picture. Wenham approaches the theme of the Pentateuch with a  brief historical survey of what recent scholarship thinks. This not only gives the reader ideas on the main theme, it also introduces him or her to modern scholars and their thoughts on the Pentateuch (By the way, every chapter ends with a select bibliography for further reading and study). Wenham evaluates the various positions presented and then concludes with his own view of the theme of the Pentateuch. His conclusion is: “The theme of the Pentateuch is the fulfilment of the promises to the patriarchs, which are a reaffirmation of God’s original intentions for the human race, through God’s mercy and the collaboration of Moses” (p. 157).

Exploring the Old Testament is available in both hardback and softcover editions.
Exploring the Old Testament is available in both hardback and softcover editions.

In chapter 9, Wenham deals with the “Composition of the Pentateuch.” Some readers may be tempted to skip this section because it deals with the history of how scholars think the Pentateuch came into existence. I was tempted to skim it very quickly, not because I find this subject uninteresting, but because I have read many other summaries on this topic. However, I found Wenham’s treatment to be the best survey on this subject that I have ever read. He seeks to present each position clearly and fairly, allowing the reader to judge and evaluate the various theories and approaches. As in the previous chapter, Wenham also shares some of his thoughts on the production of the Pentateuch.

Chapter 10 entitled, “The Rhetoric of the Pentateuch,” is closely connected to chapter 9. Here the focus is not on how the Pentateuch came to be, but when. Based on the theories from the previous chapter, Wenham walks the reader through the various historical periods of Israel’s history asking the question “What would the original readers have learned if the Pentateuch had been written in this particular historical period?” The periods include the time of Joshua, the united monarchy (David and Solomon), the time of Josiah (7th century B.C.), and the post-exilic period (5th century B.C.). Wenham states the values of each historical situation and allows readers an opportunity to decide for themselves. Although Wenham doesn’t seek to prejudice the reader by naming a particular historical period that he thinks the Pentateuch was completed by, it seems (by reading between the lines, and being familiar with his commentary on Genesis!), that he would opt for an earlier period rather than a later one.

Evaluation: Exploring the Old Testament Volume 1

This volume concludes with an Epilogue, a short glossary of terms, and a subject index. As noted at the outset, Wenham has done a masterful job of packing a lot of information into a thin volume. This is an excellent text for anyone seeking to gain basic knowledge about the first 5 books of the Bible. Given the purpose, I cannot note any particular weakness. I would only say that if someone was looking for a little more indepth treatment of a particular book (such as Genesis), the EBS series, or the “Teach the Text” series would be better (although there is no Genesis commentary in the “Teach the Text” series yet). But if the Big Picture is what you’re after (and in my opinion getting the Big Picture is the best way to begin), then you can’t go wrong with this volume. As a teacher, it is exciting to see publishing companies coming out with excellent introductory series for the beginning Bible student. All 3 series mentioned in this article (EBS, Teach the Text, and the Exploring series) are well worth the investment of the student’s time and money. In conclusion, I highly recommend Exploring the Old Testament Volume 1: The Pentateuch.

Buy Exploring the Old Testament Volume 1: The Pentateuch at Amazon USA / UK or From IVP Academic

  • Series: Exploring the Old Testament (Book 1)
  • Hardcover: 223 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (September 5, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 083082541X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0830825417
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.9 x 10 inches

(Special thanks to IVP for providing this review copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review!)

New Testament Bible Background Commentary

New Testament Bible Background Commentary

New Testament Bible Background Commentary from IVP Academic
New Testament Bible Background Commentary from IVP Academic

IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Second Edition by Craig S. Keener, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 816 pp. Available from Amazon USA / UK

The New Testament Bible background commentary by Craig Keener has been a standard reference work for many years. The new second edition only makes this commentary more valuable. Keener has done a thorough revision of the original and has expanded his treatment of many passages. The goal has remained the same: “The sole purpose of this commentary (unlike most commentaries) is to make available the most relevant cultural, social and historical background for reading the New Testament the way its first readers would have read it” (p. 14). Thus, Keener is not seeking to offer theological commentary on the New Testament, but rather background material that will aid the reader in coming to theological conclusions. Although it is not his main focus, Keener also makes literary observations from time to time (for example, inclusios or chiastic structures–see his final chart at the end of the book entitled, “A Chiasmus: Acts 2:22-36“)

Keener’s audience remains the same as the first edition. He writes for “busy pastors and other Bible readers who have fewer resources and less time available” (p. 19). As a result, Keener omits most references that scholars and more curious Bible readers would find useful. With this target audience in mind, Keener’s New Testament background commentary begins with a 36-page introduction on how to use the commentary and why there is a need for such a commentary. As in the first edition, Keener has retained an introductory section discussing the significance of the gospels, as well as, New Testament letters. Each New Testament book is also preceded by a brief introduction. The glossary (also included in the first edition) has some new additions, such as “magic” and “Pilate,” while some definitions have been expanded such as “Satan” and “Son of God.” The maps and charts section at the end of the book remains basically unchanged (an additional map of Paul’s missionary journeys has been added rather than having one map for journeys one and two).

New Testament Bible Background Commentary: New Content

Craig S. Keener, author of IVP's New Testament Background Commentary
Craig S. Keener, author of IVP’s New Testament Bible Background Commentary

Besides the changes mentioned above, the commentary itself has been expanded in many places. As an example, I compared Keener’s treatment of Luke and Acts with the first and second editions of his commentary. These additions include anything from a sentence to a whole new paragraph. Sometimes additions are weaved around previous material and in other instances a new paragraph, or more, may be added. Some examples of ample additional material include Keener’s comments on ancient literacy in Luke 4:16, and his comments on hospitality and the woman who anointed his feet in Luke 7:43-46. Keener has greatly expanded his comments about Paul’s sea voyage to Rome (Acts 27), as well as his circumstances in Rome (Acts 28), compared to his earlier treatment of this material. Keener has also added some helpful new tables within the commentary such as Table 1 in the Gospel of Luke (“Early Parallels in Luke’), Table 2 (“Echoes of Hannah’s Song”–comparing the Mary’s Magnificat with 1 Samuel 2:1-10), and Table 7 in 1 Thessalonians (“Parallels Between 1-2 Thessalonians and Jesus’ Teachings”). At times, Keener has also omitted some material. For example, in the story about the widow of Nain in Luke 7:11-17, he omits his previous comment about what philosophers would often say to console the bereaved (compare Luke 7:13 in both editions).

What Can Be Learned From Keener’s New Testament Bible Background Commentary?

What can be learned from this commentary? Much more than there is space to tell! The reader will learn about ancient weights, measurements and money, funeral customs, weddings, geography (including how understanding certain facts about various ancient cities helps one to better understand a particular story), the nature of teachers and their disciples, honor and shame, kinship bonds and relations, education, schooling, and literacy, population estimates of various significant cities, Roman government officials, Roman armies (their makeup, their leaders), and on and on.

Whether you are new to the study of New Testament backgrounds, or a more knowledgeable student, Keener’s New Testament Bible background commentary contains something that everyone can benefit from. Allow me to cite two examples. Keener notes that ancient authors writing either histories (like Acts) or biographies (like the gospels) often drew parallels between people in the narrative. An example of this is the contrast between Zacharias’s response to the birth announcement by the angel with that of Mary’s (see comments on Luke 1:26-38, p. 180). Another helpful insight concerns the way ancient histories were written. Keener notes that ancient authors intentionally varied their vocabulary when talking about an identical event. He states, “This pattern should warn us not to read modern expectations of verbatim quotation into ancient works that no one would read that way” (p. 319, comments on Acts 1:1-5). This observation is helpful for understanding the slightly different versions that Luke gives of Jesus’ words before he ascends (comparing Luke 24 and Acts 1), as well as, Paul’s three slightly different accounts of his conversion.

In conclusion, Keener has made an excellent commentary even better with this newly revised edition. This is definitely a book that should be on everyone’s shelf who is interested in better understanding the New Testament.

Purchase The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament at Amazon USA / UK


  • Hardcover: 816 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic; 02 edition (January 3, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0830824782
  • ISBN-13: 978-0830824786
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 2.2 x 9 inches

(Thanks to IVP for providing a copy of this New Testament Bible background commentary in exchange for a fair and unbiased review).

David, Saul, & God: Book Review

David, Saul, & God: Book Review

Paul Borgman, David, Saul, & God: Rediscovering an Ancient Story (Oxford: University Press, 2008), 335 pp.

David, Saul, & God is also available at Amazon USA / UK
David, Saul, & God is also available at Amazon USA / UK

After reading Paul Borgman’s David, Saul, & God, I felt like I often do after devouring a satisfying meal. It is definitely one of the best books that I have read on 1&2 Samuel. Borgman’s careful attentiveness to the repetitive patterns in the books of Samuel, as a way of unlocking its understanding of David, Saul, & God, is refreshing and insightful. Borgman contends that uncovering and solving the questions posed by the story of 1&2 Samuel “depends on close attention to the dozen or so broad patterns (he actually enumerates 11) of repetition governing the narrative’s progress” (p. 3). Borgman makes the helpful suggestion that, “The story’s modern audience often misses answers to the central questions driving the drama of David’s story because the text is read in a straightforward manner, rather than in the circular way demanded by the ancient text’s dependence on patterns of repetition. That is, recognizing a developing pattern requires a remembering of what has gone before, a circling-back action of the mind” (p. 4, emphasis mine). Readers would do well to heed Borgman on this point, not only regarding David’s story, but Old Testament narrative in general.

David, Saul, & God: The Main Course

Paul Borgman's book David, Saul, & God is full of "food for thought."
Paul Borgman’s book “David, Saul, & God” is full of “food for thought.”

David, Saul, & God consists of 9 chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. Among the 11 repetitive patterns discussed such as “David’s Multiple Introductions” (pattern 3), “Saul’s fear” (pattern 4), “Sword and Spear” (pattern 5) and “News of Death–Public and Private Davids” (pattern 9), I would like to note two that I found particularly insightful. Readers of 1&2 Samuel have often noted that there is a theme of “Failed Fathers” (Borgman’s pattern 8), but to my knowledge, no one has explored its significance until Borgman (but see my book Family Portraits, where I explore the connection between family failures and national consequences). The failed fathers of 1&2 Samuel include Eli, Samuel, and, especially, David. Borgman notes that the pattern of failed fathers has, in each case, important consequences for the nation of Israel. Eli’s failure with his sons leads to a national crisis in which the Philistines defeat Israel and capture the ark of God (1 Sam. 4). David’s over-indulgence with his sons Amnon and Absalom, similarly leads to national disaster (2 Sam. 13-20). Borgman writes, “Just as Eli did before him, David falters grievously as a father, with momentous negative consequences for the people he is supposed to be ruling” (p. 121). The difference with David, however, is a twist in the pattern, which occurs as he nears death and his son Adonijah attempts to take the throne (1 Kings 1). In this scene, David refuses to allow his self-indulgent son to take the throne. Borgman states, “At his physically weakest…David nonetheless rises to the occasion, evidencing the listening capacities we have seen in the past: he is receptive to advice from good people in the interest of Israel’s well-being” (p. 133). He continues, “What breaks this pattern of fathers-sons-death is the strength of a father standing up to an ill-directed son–displeasing that son for the sake of a greater communal good” (p. 139). Although this last example falls outside the bounds of the Samuel narrative, scholars are well-aware of the close link between the books of Samuel and Kings (especially the first 2 chapters of 1 Kings).

Paul Borgman, author of David, Saul, & God.
Paul Borgman, author of David, Saul, & God.

The second pattern I would like to note (Borgman’s 11th pattern) concerns the contrast made between Saul and David at the end of 2 Samuel. Readers are often puzzled by what appears to be a miscellaneous grouping of material found at the end of 2 Samuel in chapters 21-24. Scholars now recognize that this material is artfully arranged with a chiastic structure as follows:

A  Saul sins, 3 year famine, resolution (2 Sam. 21:1-14)

      B  David’s warriors, leadership (2 Sam. 21:15-22)

         C David’s poem concerning blamelessness and God (2 Sam. 22:1-51)

         C’ David’s poem, ideal ruler and God (2 Sam. 23:1-7)

      B’ David’s warriors, leadership (2 Sam. 23:8-39)

A’ David sins, 3 days plague, resolution (2 Sam. 24:1-25)

Borgman spends chapter 9 looking at the outer two stories of the chiasm (A & A’) involving Saul and David (in chapter 8 he explores the inner parts of the chiasm). Building on the insights of Herbert H. Klement he points out that, “What emerges clearly is the stark difference in the sinning of Saul and that of David” (p. 205). “Not only is there none of Saul’s equivocating response to wrongdoing, there is in David what is inconceivable for the Saul we meet early in his story: a radical willingness to look at himself critically, and further, to offer his own suffering on behalf of communal well-being” (p. 213, see 2 Sam. 24:17). By the end of the story, Borgman contends that we are able to understand why God chose David over Saul. David is a man who, not only repents when he sins, but in 2 Samuel 24 recognizes his own sin without the intervention of prophet or anyone else, and then offers himself in order to protect the nation. As David’s character unfolds throughout the story, we not only learn who he is, but we learn more about who God is.

Odysseus and his men put out the eye of Polyphemus the Cyclops (The Odyssey)
Odysseus and his men put out the eye of Polyphemus the Cyclops (The Odyssey)

In the conclusion to the book, Borgman contrasts the hero Odysseus (and the gods) from Homer’s The Odyssey with David. His purpose is “to shed another angle of light on the dynamic among David, Saul, and God” (p. 221). Here are a few of his observations: “David inhabits a moral world…quite different from that of Odysseus” (p. 227). “David learns and changes from experience to experience; Odysseus, however fascinating, becomes more of what he has always been…” (p. 235). “Athene’s focus in The Odyssey is helping Odysseus become more of what he is, while the biblical God helps David become more of what he can become. But this development is not for David’s sake alone, or even primarily, but for the sake of this God’s unchanging will for communal well-being.” Borgman’s final line of the book is fitting: “In coming to see David, we have come to understand the story’s God as well” (p. 244).

David, Saul, & God: The Hor d’Oeurves

imageI realize that in any fine meal the hor d’oeurves are served before the main course, but please indulge me. After all, it’s my metaphor! Since hor d’oeurves are side items to develop one’s taste for the main course, I think the metaphor is appropriate here. Throughout his book, Borgman carries on a conversation with other scholarly points of view. He does this some in the text itself, but more thoroughly in the endnotes (57 pages of them!). A lot of modern scholarly treatment of David, Saul, & God (meaning the characters in 1&2 Samuel, not Borgman’s book), in my opinion, has fallen prey to the prophet’s critique that some “call evil good, and good evil” (Isa. 5:20). In other words, many make Saul the “good guy,” or, more accurately, “the victim,” while David and God become “the bad guys.” Borgman argues strenuously, and I believe effectively, against such an interpretation throughout his book. Again and again, he demonstrates how the repetitive patterns in 1&2 Samuel clearly picture Saul as the “bad guy” (my terminology), God as just and compassionate, and David as, at first mysterious, certainly far from perfect, but ultimately, a man after God’s heart. Rather than crafting his own portrait of David, Saul, & God (and misrepresenting the text as some do–at least in my opinion), Borgman allows the text to speak through his careful reading of the repetitive patterns he explores.

David, Saul, & God: The Bones

bonesThere actually aren’t many “bones to pick” over in this book. In fact in terms of Borgman’s treatment and methodology, I have no quarrel whatsoever (although there are, of course, a few places where I have a slightly different view from him). My complaint lies with the poor editing of David, Saul & God. The book is filled with grammatical and spelling errors and has the appearance of being hastily prepared for publication without being carefully proofread. Errors of every kind exist, from missing words, to words occurring in the wrong order, to wrong numbers for the endnotes, as well as endnotes missing entirely! Perhaps the most glaring error is the spelling error that occurs in the title of chapter 9. It reads in large letters: “Chiastic Conclusion: Final Contrast, Soul [instead of “Saul”] and David Sinning.” Hopefully in a future edition, these errors will be caught and corrected. Although the errors mar the aesthetic quality of the book, the content more than makes up for this inadequacy. I highly recommend David, Saul, & God to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of 1&2 Samuel.

Purchase David, Saul, & God: Rediscovering an Ancient Story at Amazon USA / UK

1 and 2 Kings for Everyone: A Book Review

1 and 2 Kings for Everyone: A Book Review

John Goldingay, 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone (Britain & USA: SPCK & Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 212 pp.

1 and 2 Kings for Everyone from SPCK publishers is also available at Amazon UK.
1 and 2 Kings for Everyone from SPCK publishers is also available at Amazon UK.

Originally from Britain, author of 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone, John Goldingay is currently a professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. Although there is no statement in the preface defining the targeted audience, one would expect that a commentary series with the title “For Everyone” in it would seek to communicate to people who have various levels of understanding of the Old Testament. But Goldingay’s targeted audience becomes clearer when, in his introduction to the commentary, he laments that “[the Old Testament Scriptures] were for everyone in fact. So it’s strange that Christians don’t read them very much. My aim in these volumes is to help you do that” (p. 1). The small size of this commentary (190 pages, plus a 10 page glossary), along with Goldingay’s comment in the introduction, makes it evident that his main purpose is to introduce readers to some of the basics of 1 and 2 Kings. The designation “For Everyone,” then is a bit of a misnomer, unless the title means to convey the common person in the pew. 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone is designed for the Christian who knows little about the books of Kings.

The structure of the commentary is simple. Goldingay begins with a brief 5 page (really 4 1/4 page) introduction. He presents an outline of Old Testament history to help those who might be unfamiliar with its timeline and then gives a brief summary of the content of 1&2 Kings. Goldingay incorporates other introductory matters, such as the date of writing and theories of composition regarding 1 and 2 Kings, into the textual commentary itself. Each section of the commentary begins with a fresh translation by Goldingay of the Hebrew text (more on this later), followed by an introductory anecdote (usually drawn from his personal life) that segues into a discussion of the text itself.

1 and 2 Kings for Everyone: The Good

John Goldingay, author of 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone.
John Goldingay, author of 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone.

John Goldingay is a well-known Old Testament scholar who brings considerable knowledge to the table. This knowledge is shared in a warm-engaging style throughout the commentary. Through the personal anecdotes that begin each section (although Goldingay admits disguising some in order to be fair to others–p. xi), one comes away feeling like he or she has had a personal discussion with the author about 1 and 2 Kings. One area of Goldingay’s knowledge that the reader will benefit from in reading 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone, is the way he weaves archaeological information into the text to help illuminate it. For example, Goldingay notes that the temple of Solomon follows the plan of other Canaanite sanctuaries or royal palaces. He demystifies the interior layout of the temple by explaining that, “it follows the logic of any house, or in particular of a palace. There is a public area where people are welcomed into the king’s presence, the equivalent of a yard or lounge [temple courtyard]; there is the hall where the king would meet with his staff [holy place]; and there are the king’s private quarters [holy of holies]” (p. 27).

Theologically Goldingay does a good job combining discussion of both bigger and smaller issues raised by 1 and 2 Kings. In this reviewer’s opinion he presents a balanced view of the sovereignty of God and the freewill of humans. One example of this is the discussion of Ahab’s death in 1 Kings 22. He writes, “God’s relationship with people is always a dynamic one. God doesn’t have a plan that is foreordained to evolve. God’s purpose is worked out in dialogue with people’s responses, and it is worked out through acts like the random action of the anonymous archer who shot Ahab by accident” (pp. 105-106). Goldingay frequently appeals to the principle enunciated in Jeremiah 18:1-10 which states that God will change his actions based on people’s (or nation’s) response.  Besides addressing “Big” theological issues, the commentary also draws out helpful insights, such as in the story of Naaman. Goldingay notes the significance of the captured Israelite maid who informed Naaman about Elisha, along with other “servants” (probably soldiers) who accompanied him and advised him to follow Elisha’s advice. This leads him to write, “The Naaman story illustrates how ordinary people sometimes see things that leaders can’t see” (p. 123).

1 and 2 Kings for Everyone: The Bad

This is the cover of 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone as published in America by John Knox Press. This is also available at Amazon USA.
This is the cover of 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone as published in America by John Knox Press. This is also available at Amazon USA.

The greatest disappointment of this commentary is its incompleteness. By that I mean that sections of 1 and 2 Kings are not translated or commented on. In my opinion this is a serious deficiency. It can be a frustrating as well as a disorienting experience to be reading the translation when all of a sudden a […] appears and several verses of text are skipped over. On other occasions even larger blocks of text are omitted with only a very brief summary of what they contain. I find it ironic that Goldingay states in the introduction, “My hesitation is that you may read me instead of the Scriptures. Don’t do that” (p. 2). This causes the commentary to send a mixed message: Scripture is important, but there isn’t room to include it in some places in the commentary, so…some parts aren’t as important! What naturally follows with the omission of chunks of text is omission of any commentary on that portion of text (except for the brief summary offered of the omitted text). How could this deficiency be corrected? I have several suggestions. First, 1 and 2 Kings is a lot of material. Why not make 2 commentaries (as is done with Goldingay’s Genesis for Everyone commentary)? One devoted to 1 Kings and the other to 2 Kings. If there is an unwillingness to do this (for a reason I can’t think of), then I have a few other suggestions. Second, although the personal anecdotes add character and charm to the commentary, they are not intrinsic to it. Why not omit the anecdotes and gain further space? Third, omit the 10-page glossary at the end (even though it is a helpful feature for those who don’t understand certain concepts) and utilize that extra space for the translation and commentary. Fourth, and finally, allow the author a little extra space. What’s an extra 30 pages or so going to hurt? It’s still a very small, compact commentary even with the extra pages.

When I first picked up this commentary my hope was to use it as a textbook for my class on 1 and 2 Kings. I thought, “Great here is a small commentary that my students can read through in order to gain the big picture of 1 and 2 Kings.” Some may disagree, but I find it hard to gain the “big picture” in a commentary that doesn’t present the “whole picture.” This leads to my other concern with the commentary. It really doesn’t present the big picture of 1 and 2 Kings. Goldingay is great with interesting insights about a particular story in the books of Kings, but he never steps back to connect the stories and show the overarching themes that hold the stories together–big themes like grace and judgment, or the fulfillment of the prophetic word that run through the entire book of 1 and 2 Kings.

1 and 2 Kings for Everyone: The Ugly

Now for the "ugly" part of 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone!
Now for the “ugly” part of 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone!

Beauty is certainly in the “eye of the beholder,” so I’m aware that some will disagree with me here. When one reads through this commentary on 1 and 2 Kings, it is easy to discern Goldingay’s love and respect for the Word of God. It is also easy to discern his love for God and his desire to communicate God’s love and word to others. This is why I find statements throughout the commentary that undermine the trustworthiness of the Old Testament so perplexing. As I read the commentary I often had the feeling that Goldingay was trying to live in two worlds: the world of an evangelical believer and the world of a liberal critical scholar. (I realize these stereotypes are inadequate, but please forgive me. I’m trying to paint a picture of two world-views that seem to be colliding in the commentary.) This is illustrated in two ways. First, anyone who’s read 1 and 2 Kings knows that it contains violent stories. Goldingay’s comments on 2 Kings 1 (Elijah calling fire down to destroy the king’s soldiers) are typical of his treatment elsewhere of violent stories. On the one hand, he seems embarrassed by them and apologetic that they are found in the Old Testament. He writes, “That fact [the apostasy of the king of Israel] doesn’t stop us disliking the way the story then unfolds, with the hapless military losing their lives for following the king’s orders” (p. 108). Again he states, “It still raises the question of why God was willing to have the story in his book and what we are supposed to learn from it” (p. 109). He then goes on to cite the example of Jesus rebuking the disciples for wanting to do the same thing (Luke 9:52-56), but then continues by saying that even Jesus talked “a lot about people ending up in fire (e.g., Matt. 25:41). This leaves me a bit confused on exactly what Goldingay thinks about the passage in 2 Kings 1. I say “a bit” because I am also troubled by another statement he makes, which leads to the second problem I have with his approach: undermining the integrity of the text. Regarding this story he states, “We might be inclined to think that it’s not a fact; maybe this is ‘just a story.’ The formulaic way it’s told might suggest that this is so…” (p. 109). Another example of this same phenomenon is on page 111, where he questions whether some of the miracles of Elisha actually happened. He writes, “For myself I am not sure what to think about that question.” He then proceeds to give an answer for each side of the fence.

Examples like the ones sited above could be multiplied. Although I am of a different theological persuasion than Goldingay on these matters, I want to be clear about what disturbs me. There are many scholars who’ve written many commentaries with similar arguments to Goldingay’s. I may not agree with them, but they have a right to express their views. However, my problem with 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone is, again, twofold. First it seems unwise to speculate in a commentary that doesn’t allow room to further explain your conclusions. As another example of this let me offer Goldingay’s comment on page 23 that “Deuteronomy hadn’t been written by Solomon’s day….” Goldingay is only quoting scholarly dogma here which contends that Deuteronomy didn’t come into existence until the time of Josiah, and was only later completed during the exile. But a beginning reader has no idea what he means because he doesn’t have the space to offer a fuller explanation. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, I don’t agree with this conclusion.) A statement like this is probably going to result in confusing the reader (who hopefully knows that Moses came before Solomon). On the other hand, the reader may accept it at face value (because, after all, a scholar said it), but have no idea for the basis of this assertion. Second, because of the brevity of space, it seems that it is more important to focus on what the text means (presumably that’s why a beginning student of the Old Testament is reading the commentary). The reader probably has enough questions about the Old Testament. Why not use the commentary on the text to answer some of those questions, rather than undermine the text? 1 and 2 Kings is written as history. Granted, it is theological history, and it is history written based on ancient, not modern standards. But to say that “this could just be a story,” or “we don’t really know if this happened,” undermines the ancient author’s authority who presents the events as factual.

Conclusion: 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone

Based on the reasons enumerated above (the bad and the ugly), if a person was looking for one good commentary on 1 and 2 Kings, I, unfortunately, could not recommend this one. This is not to say that a person could not profit from some of the insights contained in this commentary (the good), but with all due respect to Professor Goldingay, there are simply better “layman” commentaries available for 1 and 2 Kings.

1 and 2 Kings for Everyone is Available at Amazon USA / UK

(Special thanks to SPCK for providing a copy of 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone in exchange for a fair and unbiased review)

Encountering the Book of Genesis: Book Review

Encountering the Book of Genesis: Book Review

Bill T. Arnold, Encountering the Book of Genesis (Baker Academic, 2003), 234 pp.

Encountering the Book of Genesis: Goals

Encountering the Book of Genesis is available at Amazon USA / UK
Encountering the Book of Genesis is available at Amazon USA / UK

Encountering the Book of Genesis is part of the Encountering Biblical Studies (EBS) series. According to the editors, the goals of the EBS series include 5 intellectual goals and 5 attitudinal goals. The intellectual goals include: 1) present the factual content of each OT book; 2) introduce historical, geographical, and cultural backgrounds; 3)outline primary hermeneutical principles; 4) touch on critical issues (why some people read the Bible differently); and 5) substantiate the Christian faith. The attitudinal goals are a unique feature of the EBS series and include: 1) to make the Bible a part of students’ lives; 2) instill in students a love for the Scriptures; 3) to make them better people; 4) to enhance their piety; and 5) to stimulate their love for God. The attitudinal goals, along with intellectual goal number 5 (substantiate the Christian faith) make this series unabashedly evangelical in the truest sense of the word (seeking to share the gospel with a view to transforming lives). The goals also make it obvious that the focus of this series is on students. In fact, the publisher’s preface states that “this Genesis volume is intended primarily for upper-level collegians” (p. 13). This should not discourage any serious Bible student from picking up this book however. Although at times there is some “upper-level” collegiate language, the book is eminently readable and full of good information for anyone wanting to explore the main messages and issues concerning the Book of Genesis.

Encountering the Book of Genesis: The Structure

Bill T. Arnold is the author of Encountering the Book of Genesis. He is Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky
Bill T. Arnold is the author of Encountering the Book of Genesis. He is Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky

Arnold breaks his treatment of the Book of Genesis into 5 different parts. “Part 1: Encountering God’s Creation” looks at the so-called Primeval history found in Genesis 1-11. “Part 2: Encountering Abraham: God’s Faithful Servant,” treats Genesis 12-25. “Part 3: Encountering Jacob: God’s Troubled Servant” looks at Genesis 25-36. “Part 4: Encountering Joseph: God’s Model Servant” examines the rest of Genesis (chapters 37-50). “Part 5: Encountering the Authorship of Genesis,” completes the book by reviewing and evaluating the evidence on the authorship of Genesis. This includes everything from examining and evaluating the evidence for Mosaic authorship to surveying the history of the documentary hypothesis. A final concluding section surveys the story of Genesis and shows Genesis’s part in the canon of Scripture, especially as it relates to the Pentateuch (entitled: “From the Patriarchs to Moses”) and the rest of Scripture, including the New Testament (entitled: “From Moses to Jesus”). In terms of his actual commentary on the sections of Genesis, Arnold follows the toledoth (“these are the generations of…”) formula, which is the natural outline of the Book of Genesis itself.

Encountering the Book of Genesis: The Content

Each chapter of Encountering the Book of Genesis begins with an overview of what the student can expect to learn (laid out in terms of an “Outline” of the biblical text, and “Objectives”–what the student should know after reading the chapter). Similarly, each chapter ends with a set of study questions. Unlike some books with study questions, these questions are actually helpful in making the student think about the material covered in the chapter. By answering the study questions, the student can be confident that he or she has achieved the goals announced in the “Objectives” section at the beginning of the chapter.

Because Encountering the Book of Genesis is intended to be a student textbook, each section not only includes a commentary on the passage under consideration, it also includes photos, maps, charts, tables, and special text boxes that deal with specific topics. This layout has many features in common with the “Teach the Text” series reviewed elsewhere on this blog (see my review on the Samuel commentary in this series, including the Logos version which can be found here). The text boxes are often quite interesting. Some of the topics include: “Did God Use Evolution to Create the World?” (p. 27); “Life-Spans of the Pre-Flood Family of Adam” (p. 56); “Polygamy in the Bible” (p. 95); and “Levirate Marriage in the Old Testament (p. 150), to name only a few.

What I Didn’t Like About Encountering the Book of Genesis

don't likeWhile it is a great idea to include photos, maps, charts, etc., the black and white presentation of the Encountering Biblical Studies series is very disappointing. In most cases the black and white photos are so indistinct that they are not helpful whatsoever. The colorful cover of Encountering the Book of Genesis is very appealing, but sets you up for a major disappointment when you open the book. Next to the photos, some of the maps that are included are unhelpful. For example, under a section entitled, “Who Were Israel’s Neighbors?” (p. 44) a black and white map of the ancient Near East is included–so far so good–but the map doesn’t detail the names or places of any of Israel’s neighbors! I also didn’t find the map of the much-disputed location of Sodom and Gomorrah very helpful (p. 103). To be fair, however, many of the other maps included are useful. Another small irritant is the use of endnotes rather than footnotes. Considering that the editors didn’t want to muck up the format by having footnotes at the bottom of the page, this is understandable, nevertheless, for those of us who like to look at the footnotes, it is a constant nuisance. My final complaint about this volume concerns the binding. I have the paperback version of Encountering the Book of Genesis and I found it to be very unwieldy. The book is very stiff and difficult to handle when turning from page to page. As books become used and the binding relaxes, they can often be opened to a particular page without the entire book folding back in on itself. Such is not the case with this book. You must hold it open with two hands or give up trying to read a page. This feature is another reason why the use of endnotes is annoying.

What I Did Like About Encountering the Book of Genesis

i.1.s-facebook-like-button-first-amendmentWhat did I like about Encountering the Book of Genesis? Absolutely everything except what I have noted above. The text is well written and full of good information, especially for the beginning student of Genesis. Don’t let the 234 pages fool you; there is a lot of information packed into this volume! For one thing, the book is larger than usual, measuring 17.1 x 1.4 x 24.8 cm (Americans break out your measurement converters!), and consisting of two columns of text per page. Arnold is well-read. He draws from the best material available on the Book of Genesis and the ancient Near East and does a great job of distilling it for the student. He clearly communicates the main themes of Genesis (see my article, “The Theme of Genesis” for what these are), and deals with all the major issues pertaining to it. The bibliography is excellent and there is also a glossary to help the student with unfamiliar terms.

Besides his insightful comments on the text, Arnold has a couple of chapters that focus on helping the reader to gain the bigger picture of the ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis. In Chapter 3 “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” (pp. 43-53), Arnold looks at Israel’s neighbors, ancient Near Eastern parallels to Genesis 1 and 2-4, as well as ancient views (including Israel’s) of the nature and makeup of the universe. In the chapter on the Flood story, he also looks at ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Flood (pp. 59-61). In Chapter 6 “Tracking Abram and His Family” (pp. 77-88), Arnold looks at the geography of the ancient Near East, deals with questions related to the historicity of Abram, introduces the student to the scholarly breakdown of ancient archaeological periods (Early Bronze, Middle Bronze, etc.), and discusses the nature of the religion of the Patriarchs. In my opinion, Arnold’s discussion of the religion of the Patriarchs (which he discusses in several places throughout the text), and its differences with the later Mosaic Period, should prove to be insightful to beginning students of Genesis. While some might call Arnold a bit “preachy” I would prefer the word “pastoral.” However one looks at his application of biblical truths (personally I liked it), he admirably achieves one of the stated goals of the EBS series.

Evaluation of Encountering the Book of Genesis

I suppose the highest personal praise I can give this book is that I plan on using it as a foundational textbook for my class on Genesis. The books in the EBS series are intended to be textbooks, and Encountering the Book of Genesis has certainly achieved that goal. This book deals with all of the major themes and issues related to the Book of Genesis, while at the same time doing it in a concise way. The text boxes, tables, charts, as well as some of the maps, also go a long way in visually orienting the student for a greater learning experience. I recommend Encountering the Book of Genesis, not only to “upper-level collegians,” but to all who are interested in learning more about the Book of Genesis, while also being personally challenged to grow in their relationship with the Lord.

Buy Encountering the Book of Genesis at Amazon USA / UK

  • Series: Encountering Biblical Studies
  • Paperback: 234 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic (January 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801026385
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801026386

(Special thanks to SPCK for sending me this copy of Encountering the Book of Genesis, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review!)

Teach the Text Samuel Commentary in Logos

Teach the Text Samuel Commentary in Logos

Available at
Available at

1&2 Samuel Commentary Teach the Text from Logos Bible Software.

I have enjoyed the 1&2 Samuel commentary in the Teach the Text series so much that I decided to request a copy from Logos Bible Software. Logos offers many additional benefits that are not possible with a hardcopy. Because I have previously reviewed the contents of this commentary, I will focus on the benefits offered by the Logos edition. If, however, you have not yet read my review of the commentary itself, I have included it as well.

The Benefits of the Logos Edition of the 1&2 Samuel Commentary in the Teach the Text Series

The first thing that Logos allows me to do is show you the beautiful layout of this commentary. In my first review I noted that the Teach the Text series is attractively presented. In the photos that follow, you will have an opportunity to see what I mean.

This sample page shows the colorful maps and photos that adorn the pages of the 1&2 Samuel commentary
This sample page shows the colorful maps and photos that adorn the pages of the 1&2 Samuel commentary

Every author of the Teach the Text series follows a five-point outline. I have detailed these in the review below, but here I offer a photo of the introductory pages showing the five-point layout.

This photo shows the 5-point layout of the commentary. I have highlighted the heading. Logos allows you to use a highlighter pen just as you might in a hardcopy.
This photo shows the 5-point layout of the commentary. I have highlighted the heading. Logos allows you to use a highlighter pen just as you might in a hardcopy. The folder to the left of the highlighting also allows you to make comments on the portion you have highlighted.

The great benefit of Logos is that it allows you to interact with the text in various ways. Logos users will be familiar with some of the advantages that I list here. First, the ability to hover your mouse over something in the text and receive immediate information is extremely helpful. For example, how many times have you seen a textual reference in parenthesis and meant to look it up but never got around to it? With Logos you can simply hover over the textual reference and see it immediately without leaving the page. The photo below not only shows this feature, (the mouse is hovered over Matt. 12:34–see the lower righthand corner), it also shows an example of the layout of Chisholm’s 1&2 Samuel commentary. The photo shows the “Theological Insights” and “Teaching the Text” sections on 1 Samuel 16 (top of columns 1&3), while also showing another interesting feature of Chisholm’s commentary–a dialogue box that focuses on special issues (this one intriguingly entitled, “Divine Deception?”).

Logos allows you to see a Scripture reference immediately simply by hovering your mouse over it.
Logos allows you to see a Scripture reference immediately simply by hovering your mouse over it.

The hovering feature is also helpful when there are abbreviations in the text that you’re not sure of. Furthermore, when an author references a certain source, if you have that source in your Logos library, you can hover your mouse over it and pull up the reference to that source. This is especially helpful if the author is referring to a Hebrew word and quotes BDB (Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew Lexicon) as his source, or is referring to an ancient text that you may have available in your Logos library (such as Hallo and Youngers’ The Context of Scripture, which contains translations of ancient Near Eastern texts). Since the internet has become such a great source of information, modern authors will sometimes give website addresses in the footnotes. If you’re reading a hardcopy you have to jot down the reference and then open your computer to check it out. Again, it’s probably one of those things you’d like to do, but may never get around to. In Logos, it’s just a button click away! All you need to do is click on the web address and Logos immediately takes you there!

There is a dropdown menu in Logos that provides a number of advantages including a special “reading view,” which is the view I have been using for these photos. A really nice feature I have recently discovered is the “read aloud” option (see the menu on the left and go halfway down). If you’re tired of reading, or prefer someone else to read to you, you can click on this function and Logos will read the text to you! You can also click on “show table of contents” in this panel and immediately go to any part of the book. The following photo shows the drop down panel with these and other options. I have also chosen this page from Chisholm’s Samuel commentary because it illustrates the verse by verse commentary section, it shows an example of a chart (partially blocked by the drop down panel), and it shows an example of the “Key themes” box which summarizes in a few words the important ideas of the text under consideration.

Note the drop down panel in the left column which gives the Logos reader many options.
Note the drop down panel in the left column which gives the Logos reader many options.

Besides highlighting text (mentioned above), Logos also allows you to copy text. So if you are making notes for a sermon or Bible study, or you are writing an article, all you have to do is use your cursor to highlight the text, right click, and click copy. Logos even supplies the footnote so you don’t have to remember where you got the information from. This is especially convenient if you’re writing a paper because you don’t have to go to the trouble to compose the footnote! These are just a few of the wonderful features of reading in Logos. I’m sure as time goes on, I will discover others. As I promised, below is a review of Chisholm’s Samuel commentary. If you haven’t previously read it, please continue in order to gain a fuller appreciation of this book.

General Observations on the Teach the Text Commentary Series

The “Teach the Text Commentary Series” was commissioned to help the busy pastor and to fill a void in commentaries that are both scholarly, and yet practical. The aim is to present the “big picture” of a biblical book by dividing it “into carefully selected preaching units, each covered in six pages” (p. ix). There are 5 main areas of focus within these 6 pages: 1) Big Idea; 2) Key Themes; 3) Understanding the Text (this is the longest section including such subjects as context, outline, historical and cultural background, interpretive insights, and theology); 4) Teaching the Text; and 5) Illustrating the Text (pp. xi-xii). It is important to keep this structure and the necessary restrictions in mind when evaluating each commentary in this series.

Such an approach is clearly not intended to be exhaustive. So is there room for a commentary series with this more generalized approach? I believe there is. My own classroom teaching experience has demonstrated to me the need for students to gain the “big picture” of a biblical book. It is important to be able to summarize the main themes and key ideas of a book. Oftentimes people read or study a biblical book and have no idea of how to summarize its main message(s). The “Big Idea” and “Key Themes” features of this series go a long way in aiding the reader to achieve this goal. Therefore, the structure of the Teach the Text Commentary series is not only helpful to the pastor, who may be consulting it for his weekly sermon, it is also beneficial for the beginning student.

Before making specific remarks on Chisholm’s 1&2 Samuel commentary, I would also like to add that the “Teach the Text Commentary Series” is attractively presented. Each hardback volume is printed on heavy-duty paper which is ideal for the many helpful maps, photos, and illustrations contained in each commentary.

Comments on 1&2 Samuel Commentary

Chisholm begins his 1&2 Samuel commentary with a brief 7-page introduction. He summarizes these books by noting the three main characters (Samuel, Saul, and David) and by stating, “David is the focal point of the story” (p.1). Saul acts as a foil to David, while “Samuel’s support of David becomes foundational to the narrator’s defense of David” (pp. 1-2). The high point of the book is the Lord’s covenant with David, securing his dynasty and proving faithful even in the midst of David’s sin. Chisholm divides 1&2 Samuel into 7 sections based on “its major plot movements, revolving around the theme of kingship” (p. 4). His outline is as follows: 1) Prelude to Kingship (1 Sam. 1-7); 2) Kingship inaugurated (1 Sam. 8-12); 3) Kingship Fails (1 Sam. 13-15); 4) Kingship in Limbo (1 Sam. 16-31); 5) Kingship Revived (2 Sam. 1-10); 6) Kingship Threatened and Preserved (2 Sam. 11-20); and 7) Epilogue (2 Sam. 21-24). One potential weakness is that this outline is not clearly delineated in the commentary that follows. Perhaps Chisholm’s reason for ignoring this is because he does not find “clear-cut structural markers” in the text (p. 4), but sees the divisions above as related to plot development.

Chisholm packs a lot of information and insight into each 6-page unit of commentary. The information provided on historical and cultural background, though not found in every section, is very helpful for the beginning reader and student. Topics include foreign gods such as Baal or Dagon, divination, the Amalekites, or documents of the ancient Near East that have parallels with biblical material. This information enriches the presentation, as do the color photos that frequently accompany them. At times Chisholm includes side boxes that deal with special issues such as “The Problem of Genocide” or “The Legal Background of Tamar’s Request.”

Two characteristics of Chisholm’s exegesis that I found particularly helpful include his attention to certain words, and parallels and/or contrasts between biblical characters. Chisholm does an excellent job of paying attention to words or phrases found in 1&2 Samuel and demonstrating their connection with another incident in 1&2 Samuel (or the Former Prophets, meaning Joshua-2 Kings). For example, he notes that the expression “terror filled his heart” in 1 Samuel 28:5, in reference to Saul, only occurs one other time in 1-2 Samuel. It is found in the story of Eli’s demise as his “heart trembled over the fate of the ark of God” (p. 184). This kind of verbal connection suggests the author is comparing the circumstances of Saul and Eli. Similarly, Chisholm frequently points out similarities between incidents or characters in 1&2 Samuel with other biblical characters or incidents. One example is the similarities between the actions of Absalom in 2 Samuel 13-14 with Abimelech in Judges 9 (p. 252). This attention to biblical typology is extremely helpful when interpreting a narrative text (see my discussion in Family Portraits, p. 11).

Considering the constraints placed upon him by the commentary’s design (6 pages per literary unit), Chisholm’s overall treatment of the text of 1&2 Samuel is excellent. There is, however, one exception. Although 2 Samuel 2:1-5:5 can legitimately be viewed as a structural unit, treating it in the 6-page format does it a great injustice. This material is too important and too theologically rich to be skimmed over so briefly. Dividing this section by episodes, or even by chapters, would have been a better approach. This imbalance is all the more noticeable when the following section (2 Sam. 5:6-25), arguably less “meaty” than 2 Samuel 2-4, is given the full 6-page treatment. (For Chisholm’s reasoning on this see my interview with him which was conducted after this review.)

Perhaps the greatest challenge in writing a commentary of this kind is providing illustrations for the text. This is certainly a subjective task. Certain illustrations will ring true with some, while others will find them unhelpful. In an interview I conducted with Chisholm (click on link above), I discovered that this section was added by the editors, not by Chisholm himself. While I would not endorse the use of every illustration suggested in this commentary, I do believe a sufficient job has been done. The editors themselves point out that this section of the commentary is intended to provide “general ideas” and to “serve as a catalyst for effectively illustrating the text” (p. xii).

In conclusion, Chisholm’s 1&2 Samuel commentary achieves the aims of this series admirably. He is a scholar of high caliber and is a well-established expert on the entire corpus of the Former Prophets. Pastors, students, and others wanting to become grounded in the message of 1&2 Samuel will benefit greatly from this commentary. I used it for my own 1&2 Samuel class this past semester and will continue to do so in the future. I heartily recommend it to others.

Purchase Robert Chisholm’s 1&2 Samuel Commentary from Logos Bible Software by clicking on this link.

(Many thanks to Logos Bible Software for supplying this review copy of Robert Chisholm Jr.’s 1&2 Samuel Commentary in the Teach the Text Commentary series in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.)

Favorite 1&2 Samuel Commentaries

Favorite 1&2 Samuel Commentaries

From time to time I am asked by students and others what my favorite Bible commentaries are. I thought I would start with my favorite books to teach (1&2 Samuel) and list the commentaries that have had the greatest impact on me. In the future I will list favorite commentaries from other Old and New Testament books. I’ve decided not to limit myself to a certain number (5, or 10–although this particular post has 5!) because the number may be different with each book of the Bible. If you are interested in purchasing any of these commentaries, I have provided links to Amazon (USA and UK under the book images. In no particular order, here are my favorite 1&2 Samuel commentaries.

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

1. Robert Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, The New American Commentary, (Broaman & Holman, 1996), 512 pp.

The New American Commentary is a solid evangelical commentary series. The NIV version is used, followed by a verse by verse commentary by the author. Bergen’s commentary begins with approximately a 40 page introduction to the books of Samuel. Like many modern commentaries, Bergen is sensitive to the literary art of the ancient biblical writer, which means he looks at the final form of the bibical text and focuses on its message. For me, the main strength of this commentary is Bergen’s knowledge of the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and how the authority of the “Books of Moses” are reflected in 1&2 Samuel. At every turn, Bergen gives examples of how a knowledge of the Law of Moses deepens the reader’s understanding of 1&2 Samuel. For example, in the introductory material, Bergen provides two charts (historical interconnections and legal interconnections, pp. 47-50) which demonstrate the interconnections between the Pentateuch and 1&2 Samuel. In my opinion, one of Bergen’s weaknesses is that David can seemingly do no wrong (except of course in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah!). For example, when David asks the priest Ahimelech for bread and a sword, he lies to the priest by telling him that he is on secret business for the king (1 Sam. 21:2). To save David from an obvious lie Bergen suggests that the king David has in mind is Yahweh (p. 221). That’s a small criticism, however. Bergen’s commentary is sure to increase your understanding of the books of Samuel. I would give it 4 1/4 stars out of 5.

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

2. J. Robert Vannoy, 1-2 Samuel, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, (Tyndale House, 2009), 452 pp.

Vannoy’s 1&2 Samuel commentary is also the work of an evangelical scholar. He begins with a 38 page introduction discussing such topics as date and occasion of writing in which he challenges some of the long-held presuppositions of some scholars regarding the so-called “Deuteronomistic History” (Many scholars contend that Deuteronomy was written in two instalments: 1] during the time of Josiah; and 2] during the exile). He argues that moving the date of Deuteronomy from the Mosaic era and placing it at the end of the kingdom period “has far-reaching implications for the literature of the Old Testament.” This, of course, includes the books of Samuel. Vannoy argues for an early date of writing for the books of Samuel (about 931 B.C. following the division of the kingdom, p. 9). Vannoy also approaches the text with a literary sensitivity. He calls attention to the structure of different parts of 1&2 Samuel and his comments are based on the final form of the text. This commentary uses the NLT. Each section consists of the NLT, followed by a “Notes” section which comments on significant Hebrew words and textual issues. Next is the author’s verse by verse commentary followed by “Endnotes.” Vannoy’s greatest strength, in my opinion, is his ability to relate the text of 1&2 Samuel to Christological concerns. For example, he states, “…while Christian interpreters should take their point of departure, as much as is possible, from the perspective of the original author and his audience, they must also read every narrative of Scripture in the ever-widening context of the growth of revelation and redemption as it is disclosed in the entirety of the Christian canon” (p. 10). I would give this commentary 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

3. Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart, and 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity, Focus on the Bible (Christian Focus, 1999 & 2000), 336 pp. each.

If you’re looking for someone who knows all of the scholarly issues, is evangelical, and communicates in a common-sense, down-to-earth style, then Dale Ralph Davis is your commentator! These two Samuel commentaries form part of a six-commentary series by Davis, extending from Joshua-2 Kings. Davis is a former seminary professor (Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Ms.), and a current pastor (Woodland Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, Ms.). His pastor’s perspective will speak to the average Christian who enjoys good commentary interspersed with homey illustrations (warning–be prepared to learn a lot of American Civil War history–a favourite topic of Davis’s illustrations).

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

Even though Davis is coming from a Reformed background, his commentary is balanced and it is rare to see (though not impossible) Calvinistic coloring bleed over into his interpretation. Davis wastes no time with introductory matters in his 1&2 Samuel commentaries; he allots all of 2 pages in each one! Instead, he dives right into the text. Even though reading both volumes amounts to a little over 700 pages of reading, Davis is one of my students’ favourite commentators. Some prefer his style (which is very colloquial) to that of other, more formal, commentators. To give you a flavor for Davis’s style, here are a few quotes: “Amnon has far more glands than brains” (2 Sam., p. 167). Speaking of Joab’s murder of Amasa, Davis writes, “It was business as usual. No need to cry over spilled blood. It’s merely a clinical matter for Joab” (2 Sam., p. 254). Davis is colorful, but he is also very knowledgeable. His 1&2 Samuel commentaries will definitely increase your understanding of these books. I would give Davis 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Available from Amazon USA / UK
Available from Amazon USA / UK

4. David Firth, 1&2 Samuel, Apollos Old Testament Commentary (IVP & Apollos, 2009), 614 pp.

Of all the commentaries I recommended to this point, Firth’s is the most comprehensive. This is due largely to the format of the Apollos Old Testament Commentary Series. Firth’s commentary consists of an original translation of the Hebrew text, followed by notes on the text, a section on “Form and Structure,” followed by the verse by verse commentary section, and finally, an “Explanation” section which consists of further reflections on the passage (for a fuller breakdown of the format followed by the Apollos OT series,  see my review of 1&2 Kings).  Usually a commentary that has notes on the Hebrew text explaining the author’s translation is very technical and only for scholars and those who know the original language. However, Firth’s textual notes are very readable and quite interesting. I often pulled out my yellow highlighter to note a point he was making. Firth’s commentary is solid and insightful with one exception: his interpretation of the David and Bathsheba episode (which he argues is not the best title for this incident, and he is probably right). Firth attempts to incorporate some sociological insights into why the incident happened using the values of honor and shame. Although a knowledge of cultural values can prove extremely enlightening (as I frequently argue in my posts on this blog), in this case I think that it has led Firth astray in his understanding of the narrative. Briefly, his argument is that David does not send for Bathsheba because she is beautiful (and he lusts after her), but in order to “claim authority from Uriah” and ultimately to kill him (p. 416). Firth says that the text gives no reason for David’s desire to kill Uriah and suggests that perhaps Uriah is a threat to David like David was to Saul. He emphasizes, however that this is only a supposition. In my opinion, this interpretation completely distorts things that we know about David and, perhaps most importantly, misses the parallels between David and his son Amnon (who clearly has a lust problem with his sister–2 Sam. 13). Other than this one unusual interpretation, I find Firth’s commentary to be very insightful and a rewarding read. I would give it 4 1/4 stars out of 5.

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

5. Robert B. Chisholm Jr., 1&2 Samuel, Teach the Text Commentary (BakerBooks, 2013), 337 pp.

I won’t say a lot about Chisholm’s commentary here because I have reviewed it elsewhere (click here to see the review, click here to see an interview with Chisholm), and I will be reviewing the Logos Bible Software version of it in a future post. I will simply say that if someone wants a good introduction to the books of 1&2 Samuel, this is one of the best. It is clearly written, and Chisholm is a knowledgeable evangelical scholar. The book includes pictures, charts, and sidebars which are of the highest quality and add to the overall presentation. Chisholm seeks to provide readers with the “Big Picture” and key themes of 1&2 Samuel and he admirably succeeds. The only shortcoming of the book is its brevity and some of the “application sections” (not added by Chisholm, but by the publisher). The brevity, however, is part of the overall design of the “Teach the Text Commentary” series. The fact that I am using it as one of the main textbooks in my 1&2 Samuel class should let you know how highly I think of it. I would give it 4 1/2 stars out of 5.

The temptation at this point is to go on and name a few other favorite Samuel commentaries, but I believe this is a good stopping point and so I will leave you with these 5. Feel free to suggest your own favorite Samuel commentaries in the comments, or to ask me a question about these or others.