ZIBBCOTIt was with great anticipation that I opened a package that appeared on my doorstep a couple of weeks ago – an advance copy of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Volume 1 (Genesis – Deuteronomy) – which is part of the complete Old Testament Set released this past Monday. You see, my good buddy, Christian Penrod, had pointed me to an opportunity to get a copy of one of Zondervan’s OT Bible Backgrounds Commentaries to review – and, in all honesty, I don’t know that I was all that excited.

I’ve been let down by a number of Bible commentaries over the years – particularly OT commentaries – which, at best, acknowledge that Abraham and his descendents fit within the culture of their geography, and at worst, pretended the Hebrew culture was wholly unique, enlightened and only negatively impacted by “foreign” cultures. The truth of the matter is – as many of you, my frequent readers know – the Hebrew people, from Abraham through Jesus and his followers, were culturally influenced – and cultural influencers – with their own “pop culture” references that take more than a literalist hermeneutic to crack.

The Hermeneutic is Key

Many lay Christians have a hard time going beyond a literal hermeneutic, primarily because they know of no other method, and – in essence – end up using an a-historical-grammatical method – in essence, filling in the cultural “gaps” (i.e. reading between the lines) with modern cultural references and meanings, based upon the grammer used in their chosen translation.

In contrast, most well-read preachers/teachers, tend to use some form of historical-grammatical method, in which they try to examine the original meaning of the text – as first heard and taught – and then apply the principles at hand to the modern culture of their listeners. However, the historical context used often stops when the immediate boundary of the Hebrew/Christian culture at hand – or when a systematic theology developed centuries (or millenia) later conflicts with the culturally relevant meaning.

Examining the wider culture in which the Hebrews and/or Christians lived, though, is often ignored. One key reason tends to be that liberal scholars have tried to use such comparative studies, which show similarities in cultural beliefs/practices, to discredit Christianity as a shadow, or amalgam, of other contemporary beliefs.

This does not need to be the case. In fact, it should not be.

What Zondervan has done with its ZIBBCOT series it to take a highly respectful study of the cultures and events surrounding the people of the Bible, and compared them, verse-by-verse, with the experience of the Hebrews and Christians. In addressing their methodology, General Editor John H. Walton states:

What we contend, then, is that comparative studies has three goals in mind:

  1. We study the history of the ancient Near East as a means of recovering knowledge of the events that shaped the lives of people in the ancient world.
  2. We study archaeology as a means of recovering the lifestyle reflected in the material culture of the ancient world.
  3. We study the literature of the ancient Near East as a means of penetrating the heart and soul of the people who inhabited the ancient world that Israel shared.

These goals are at the heart of comparative studies and will help us understand the OT better.

The methology used by the authors/editors of this work is very respectful of the Text – seeking to show both similarities and key differences to the world surrounding the ancient people of Israel, along with many of the events and ideas that ran concurrent with those of the Old Testament.

On to My Review

In one word: Wow.

In three: Job well done.

With a bit more description: Let’s take a look, by book of the Bible:

Genesis

General Editor John H. Walton takes on the first book of the Bible, which also covers the greatest span of time. (Just to note – I didn’t know anything about Dr. Walton prior to reading this commentary, but after seeing this video of him, I can tell he’s my kind of scholar…)

For example, he does an excellent job pulling in the multiple Near East creation accounts, developing the cosmology of these people (including the Israelites – which is made clear by some of the language used in Genesis 1:3-10) and then comparing & contrasting the different views – along with applying them to other key aspects of the Israelites and their view of God. (Interesting fact: There is no parallel in Near East literature or culture to God resting on the seventh day. Observing a day of rest every seven days is a unique feature to the Israelites.)

The illustrations and pictures used in this chapter (and all chapters) are beautifully done and both relevant and useful in further illuminating the points made in the text.

Exodus

Dr. Bruce Wells, author of the Exodus chapter, has one of the deepest sets of archaeology and literature to pull from, due to the ever-increasing pool of knowledge we have about the ancient Egyptian culture, which is the setting for much of this book of the Bible. He is very careful in his historical placement of the events, noting that there are multiple possibilities, though the likely one is during the 19th Dynasty from 1295-1213 (the reigns of Sety I and Rameses II). Throughout the first section of Exodus, though, he notes possible interpretations that might indicate an earlier, 18th Dynasty, setting for the Exodus.

In following the story of Moses and his first encounter with God, Wells notes that God’s introduction of himself as YHWH is (as we’ve discussed here before) more of a play on words than an actual giving of God’s name (which he notes is likely not pronounced Yahweh, and is probably not the full name of God.

The tables used in this chapter I would find very useful in putting together small-group studies, since they do a nice job of laying out concepts that are used throughout the Bible: The Jewish festivals, The law codes, and weight measurement conversion tables.

Leviticus

Where comparative studies are primarily focused on Egypt in Exodus, they are quite broader in examining Leviticus, since the law codes of the Israelites (the primary topic of Leviticus) had many cultural Near East contemporaries with which to compare & contrast. Dr. Roy E. Gane, a linguistics professor specializing in ancient Hebrew and Near East languages, is a perfect fit for this particualar chapter of ZIBBCOT. He quickly establishes one of the key concepts that sets the Israelite worship of God apart from their contemporaries (also a concept highlighted in Rob Bell’s The gods Aren’t Angry tour/DVD): There is only one God (so no need to try and “appease” multiple gods), and the appropriate sacrifices were documented (so there was no need to guess – which usually meant an ever-increasing cycle of “appeasement”).

As with the book of Leviticus, itself, this is likely the dryest chapter of ZIBBCOT, but – in my opinion – also one of the most instructive to readers looking to apply the historical-grammatical hermeneutical approach to reading the Hebrew Scriptures. Gane does a nice job comparing the Levitical laws and regulations to their contemporary codes (contemporary codes, I should note, are identified as often being less humane in social justice applications – such as the treatment of women and slaves; more lenient in their allowed religious activities; and more strict – or equally strict to Leviticus – for criminal justice issues).

Numbers

Dr. R. Dennis Cole tackles the book of Numbers, begins by noting that our naming of the fourth book of the Bible as “Numbers” (in reflection of the lists in Chs. 1-4 and 26) is different than the Hebrew name for this book, which would translate as “In the Wildreness”. It is here – beginning in the Wilderness of Sinai, through the Negev and the Desert of Zin, to the Plains of Moab (east of the Jordan River, just north of the Dead Sea in modern Jordan) – that Cole puts his background in Archeology to good use in providing a chapter rich in detail tied to cultural practices.

Cole notes that, in their discussion of holiness and cleanliness/uncleanliness, the codes given to the Israelites in Leviticus and Numbers distinguish themselves from their contemporary cultures in that: a) they are not based on a class system – where all people, regarldless of social status – can be holy before God; and b) their purification rituals are (comparatively) quite lenient. These distinguishing characteristics are something we, as Christians, should note, as they have been carried down, through the Judiasm, to our faith, as well.

Probably another key item of interest (though one that literalists may cringe at) is Cole’s view of the use of “big numbers” in Numbers – where “thousands” might be better translated as “military companies” – which would reduce the number totals by a couple orders of magnitude, and be much more in line with the archaeological evidence of all of the cultures living in the ancient Near East.

Deuteronomy

In the final chapter of Volume One, Dr. Eugene E. Carpenter tackles the book of Deuteronomy. Of all the chapters, this one (in my opinion) goes the farthest to “connect the dots” for the reader, between the cultural practices – differences and similiarities – and the theological implications, whereas earlier chapters leave the “dot connection” more to the reader’s knowledge of the Bible. Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses. While I appreciated it in this chapter, it also made some parts of it harder to read, while pointing out some key insights I may have missed, otherwise.

Carpenter does a nice job of comparing key contemporary cultural practices with those of the Israelites and their God. For example, he compares the Treaty/Covenant structure of the ancient Near East to the structure of God’s covenants with the Israelites – leading to some interesting conclusions about the covenant between God and His people, and how they would have understood it.

As a side observation, I found it quite useful that multiple authors were responsible for the chapters in this volume, as it made the “second time through” the law in Deuteronomy refreshing, as there were (at least) two or three sets of cultural observations made with many of the regulations of Torah. For example, in the chapter on Deuteronomy, Carpenter makes a greater use of tabular and textual comparisons to key contemporary codes (like Hittite law and Hammurabi’s Code) than are used by authors of previous chapters.

Overall Impressions

I would give ZIBBCOT ’s first volume a 5 out of 5 rating for both casual study and for teaching preparation. It is full of easy-to-understand contrasts and comparisons with the early culture, tables and pictures to demonstrate these, and hundreds of endnotes for each chapter (along with clear references to ancient texts, where they are used). I will definitely be picking up all of the books in this set!

For more information on this particular set, you can also visit www.theAncientBible.com.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, November 5th, 2009 at 7:13 pm and is filed under Original Articles, book review. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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3 Comments(+Add)

1   Christian P    http://www.churchvoices.com
November 5th, 2009 at 9:31 pm

How did you have “great anticipation” while not being “all that excited?”

2   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
November 5th, 2009 at 9:58 pm

Call it “hope”, Christian – hoping/expecting it will be good, but gunshy from bad experiences in the past…

3   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
November 9th, 2009 at 1:08 pm

FYI: Christian provided me with a link to the ZIBBCOT chapter on Judges (if you want a first-hand look at the style/layout/content if this series)