For Even the Very Wise Cannot See All Ends

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It is no secret that the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament is one hand beautiful and on the other hand challenging. Job constantly breaks away from what is conventional wisdom, both in the past and in the present. Proverbs offers snippets in the other direction, only to have Ecclesiastes push again towards a less common view. And Song of Songs, well, its a bit too racy for most Sunday mornings. And yet, these are some of the most beloved books of the Old Testament, frequently the subject of studies and devotionals. Part of this stems from the tension between their plain meaning and the difficult aspects of the texts. In an effort to help provide some ways forward on this front, Edward Curtis has penned the latest edition to Kregel Academic‘s Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis. I have written previously on my admiration for the entries on the Prophets and the Apocalyptic writings. So I won’t rehash things like layout or form of the book.

Perhaps the reason these books are so helpful is because they offer a perspective into things that a lay person might otherwise be unfamiliar with, but they do not create a sense that the Bible is impossible to understand without this other information. Take, for instance, Curtis’s exploration of the Ancient Near East literary context for the Wisdom books. Though he explains that such background information “sometimes brings clarifying insight to meaning that would not be apparent to a reader today” (90), he recognizes the methods of understanding these books in the past still have value, even if they did not depend on this kind of specialized knowledge (86). This kind of thinking is prevalent throughout the book, and invites interpreters to work within a broad framework for understanding.

The book also has helpful explorations on how to develop a sermon out of these texts, which are inherently practical already, as well as a brief excursus on the digital resources out there for exegeting the Wisdom literature. These appendices are incredibly helpful in light of technological developments in the last couple of decades. Though Curtis uses all of this to explore books like Job and Ecclesiastes most, I found these tools most helpful in reading through the Song of Songs. The Ancient Near East context for “apples” and “lilies” are simply things I am not likely to encounter in most of reading, so Curtis gave me something to truly consider when trying to analyze some of this challenging, yet beautiful poetry (90). These images, along with other garden types, remind the reader that Song of Songs is poetic in the sense that it does not always warrant criticism, lest the reader “explain the joke” (139). Curtis brings this common sense approach to the whole of the genre, making the reader acutely aware of the limitations of criticism on this kind of writing.

While the book does not set out to solve any long lasting debates, Interpreting the Wisdom Books serves as a helpful and important primer on how to engage these specific books. It is a starting point, a place of departure. Curtis’s admonition, “to approach the task with humility and openness both to the text and to the insights of those whose work reflects the strengths we lack,” summarizes precisely why such a book is vital to any students of Bible, be it pastors or Sunday School teachers or busy moms trying to raise four kids (110).

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Suggested Reading for Shepherds and Servants

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Having spent some time in seminary classrooms, if I’m being honest, when someone suggests a new book on Biblical leadership I get a bit nauseous. It is not that I find the topic boring or irrelevant, but because I have found the publishing field full of soft books written to make leadership “easy” and palatable. “Here’s ten ways to manage a congregation so that you can have Saturday all to yourself!” While such practical issues do matter, I find the self-help concept to be contrary to Christian leadership. As such, I was not overly excited about a book subtitled Theology for the Everyday Leader. But Forrest and Roden’s table of contents challenged me to look beyond the cover, with names like Benjamin Merkle, Andreas Kostenberger, and Robert B. Chisholm Jr. (to name only a few) telling me that there was something else going on within these leaves.

It would be next to impossible to give the book any serious treatment in the space of a blog post. There are some chapters that need some deep push-back (such as “The Priestly Prism” by David M. Maas), while there are others that push back against my own view such that I was greatly challenged by them (like “Conflict Resolution” by Stanley Porter). So given such constraints, I’d rather highlight a couple of essays which I think represent the core of the book. These essays bring the best of biblical interpretation to bear on the way church leaders operate in a modern context, and present these matters in a broad enough way (while not abandoning the position of the author) so that any stripe of Christian might benefit from their insights.

The first essay worth consideration is Tremper Longman’s “Leading in a Fallen World: Leadership in Ecclesiastes” (172-183). Longman has a particular view on Ecclesiastes, and he unpacks his two narrator framework at the beginning. Regardless of one’s agreement, Longman deftly maneuvers throughout the enigmatic Old Testament book to show how “‘under the sun’ thinking” is helpful to earthly leaders, even if it is not enough (176). But this is to be balanced with the “above the sun” wisdom that can also be found in Ecclesiastes (180). The views work together to suggest how a leader might “remove thorns and thistles from our gardens” knowing that they will “grow back” sooner than we’d like (182). Longman weaves Hebrew exegesis, historical studies, and interpretive questions into one big picture about leadership for the Christian living in the present. It is an excellent example of how the Ivory Tower and the Man on the Street should be connected.

The second essay is Joseph Hellerman’s “Community and Relationships: Leadership in Pauline Theology” (423-437). I’ve encountered Hellerman’s ideas before, and found much of those previous ideas present in his two essays included in this volume. But the format allowed for interesting insights. Even if one does not adhere to Hellerman’s plurality format for leadership, his exposition of Paul’s relational approach (430) and the various ways this is evidenced in Paul’s letters (432) will challenge church leaders to consider the way they relate to those who are part of the congregation.

Biblical Leadership is a resource that every pastor, lay leader, or Christian leader outside the church would do well to have on hand. The essays allow for a “take one” approach, so that the essays that seem pertinent can be explored at will. But every essay brings something to the table for leaders to consider. Shepherds and servants should spend some time digging deep into the Biblical explorations within these pages.

Interpreting Women with Fear & Trembling

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Turn your head in any direction these days, and a discussion of gender is bound to be heard nearby. Naturally, this current cultural attention will also mean that books explaining the phenomenon, or ensuring its relevance is understood, populate book stores and online shopping carts en masse. There are those who will ignore such publications, those who flock to them, and those like me who are intrigued, but lack a sufficient entry point. Kregel Academic’s latest book serves as just such a starting place.

Vindicating the Vixens, edited by Sandra Glahn, is a collection of essays which seeks to evaluate the women found in the Bible who are often rated as second class actors, or in some way blamed for sinful actions which then disqualifies them as models of righteous behavior. Glahn is clear from the outset that the book is not an attempt to rewrite orthodox belief, but rather to use new tools and information to gain a clearer reading of the text. “Perhaps new data does not answer all our questions, but it may help us ask better questions,” (17). And as virtually every exegetical improvement over the years would attest, Glahn is right.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this book is the atrocious theology that it seeks to correct. I count myself blessed to have received the theological education I have over the last two decades, but in all my travels I have never heard of such awful exegesis and interpretation as is detailed in this book. Carolyn Custis James’s essay on Tamar and Eva Bleeker’s essay on Rahab begin with horrific accounts of pastors rendering highly suspect interpretations of the respective texts (see 43 & 50 for examples). I frequently found myself shocked by such accounts. Who could honestly read Ruth and come away with the idea that she behaved like “nothing more than a common harlot for initiating a marriage proposal to a man she had known for mere months” (59)?  If these are the kinds of things women routinely hear, then I can imagine that they would be frustrated. In this way, Vindicating the Vixens primarily offers a faithful reading of the text. The essays are well-written, and filled with great insight, but most of the points made are things that a straightforward reading of the texts in question should afford. That the state of Christian interpretation has reached a point where a book such as this is necessary seems sad.

But I don’t want to overstate the case, here. Vindicating is more than a corrective. It is a collection with an eclectic combination of male and female writers, who do not always agree, but who strive for submission to the text of Scripture. And the individual voices heard throughout the book provide a balanced, engaging perspective for every reader to consider. Even if you are like me, and find much of this information straightforward, there is still something to be learned. Two of the stand out essays are Christa McKirkland’s examination of Huldah (213-232) and Amy Peeler’s essay on Junia (273-285). For all my years of studying the Bible, I could remember hardly anything about these women, and these essays revealed just why I should keep them in mind.

Ultimately, I don’t think I can recommend this book enough. The importance of handling every story in the Bible with care and reverence cannot be underestimated. Vindicating the Vixens does just that, and provides the necessary background information and interpretive tools to help Christians read the women of the Bible the way the original authors intended.

Sparing the Rod and Ruining the Parishioner

9780825444456There are few people who enjoy talking about church discipline. Sure, there is the occasional pastor or elder, who probably talks quite a bit about how things used to be, that will speak up when a church member should be brought under the guidance of 1 Corinthians 5. And most will likely shake their head, and move on in the conversation as though nothing had been said. But as Jeremy M. Kimble is quick to point out, that would be a mistake.

Dr. Kimble is a professor of Cedarville University, and he is the author of 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline from Kregel Academic. And he takes both issues of Christian living seriously (he even wrote his dissertation on church discipline). This passion for an historically droll topic translates into a fairly engaging book that sets a practicable and faithful standard for understanding membership in the local church, and the discipline which is a part of that. With that said, go ahead a get the book. It is worth your time.

As for the details, the book is part of a series from Kregel called 40 Questions About (I reviewed their entry on the Historical Jesus topic as well as the volume looking at the creation debate a while back). Series like this are written for generalists, not specialists, and they aim to present information in a simple, digestible format that is as thorough as it can be. I think this is important to understand up front, because otherwise a review of such a work can easily fall into nitpicking at details which most likely belong in a systematic or extended treatment. If you are a pastor researching the legality of church discipline, this is only a starting point. Such a project will require a different resource. Likewise, if a church member is looking for an exposition on baptism as a requirement for membership, you would do best to look elsewhere. But remember, this book is not meant to be those things.

Consider Kimble’s treatment of 1 Corinthians 5, which only occupies 5 pages of the book. Someone expecting a detailed exegetical study will be sorely disappointed with the simple approach that Kimble takes. But that is why they should begin with the Pillar Commentary or the Baker Exegetical Commentary to get such a linguistic breakdown. Kimble’s take is not flawed, but it is narrow. “What does 1 Corinthians 5 say about church discipline?” In a nutshell, “that this is a non-negotiable matter” and that it is an act of love to “root out unrepentant sin” so that the individual  “will awaken . . . from their sinful propensities” and renew their call to holiness (159).

Such issues are not explored ad infinitum in this work, nor should they be. 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline does exactly what it should: it hits the high points of debate, and offers a snapshot answer which ought to provoke the inquisitive to further reading on the matter. As such, Kimble’s work is a welcome entry on a topic that receives far too little attention in the modern church, and I whole-heartedly recommend it to pastors and laymen alike.

Going Back to the Beginning

I reviewed volume 3 of Allen Ross’s commentary on the Psalms some time ago. It seems a bit backwards, starting at the end and only then going to the beginning, but I was so thoroughly impressed with volume 3 that I thought it would be worth my time to work through volume 1 and 2 as well. Volume 2 is waiting for me to crack open its spine, and as each volume comes in at around 930 pages, it might be waiting for a while yet.

41RK4MMfRgLThe style, layout, and approach in this volume is the same as in volume 3, so I don’t feel the need to revisit it is great detail. In my previous review, I highlighted the ease of interacting with the structure of Ross’s work, and the treasure trove of information that he provides for each Psalm. What sets this volume apart is the lengthy introductory essay in the front.

Composing almost 200 pages of the first volume, it covers the necessary explanations of Ross’ approach, and how to make the most of these commentaries. While the essay was not necessary for my reading of volume 3, having now spent some time with it, I dearly wished I had read, at the very least, “Literary Forms and Functions in the Psalms” (p. 111-145). Ross handles the minutiae of this section throughout his exegesis, but I found his summary and his presentation of the big picture to be a great help as I worked through volume 1. For instance, while I had read about royal and lament and wisdom psalms previously, enthronement psalms were new to me. The general concept, and its conceptual history, fascinated me, and gave me refreshed perspective when looking at Psalm 41 or 99. And there were additional categories in this section to consider, such as the Songs of Zion, which greatly added to how I interact with the Psalms as I read them now.

Of course, saying that a commentary changed one’s perspective is not new, nor is it limited to Biblical studies. But the nature of Ross’s writing is different from the commentary one picks up on Hemingway or on the Iliad. The point of understanding the Psalms better is to approach God’s revelation and purposes with eyes open wide. Here, though the poetic form of each psalm provides challenges, exegesis is so helpful in grappling with texts that can be difficult or even opaque at times.

As Ross nicely summarizes the issue: “the exegetical exposition . . . is the one method that guarantees the entire psalm will be explained, correlated and applied in a clear, interesting, and meaningful way” (179). Ross certainly approaches this goal in his commentary, and his observations and study will benefit any Christian wishing to better understand these worship “essentials”, both of the past and for today (147).

 

 

What do you do with Daniel?

9780825427619I have been a fan of Kregel Academic’s Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis Having read the volumes on the Prophets and the Historical books, I was pleased to receive a copy of their Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature, and quickly found myself challenged in a number of ways.

David Howard, professor of Old Testament at Bethel University, approaches the Biblical text from an exegetical and literary viewpoint. While the other volumes in this series deal almost exclusively with the Biblical writings, Howard’s analysis of the apocalyptic writings involves a detailed look at extra-biblical sources as well. This was unexpected, but served as one of the most engaging parts of the books. Though I was already familiar with The Book of Enoch and the like, I had only encountered them in minor ways, usually in a “why to avoid these books” kind of way. Howard, however, uses them in a way that reminds me of John Walton’s analysis of creation texts or Jeffery Niehaus’s look into Ancient Near Eastern polemics.

But rather than singularly focused cultural study, Howard’s remains primarily focused on exegetical problems of the Biblical text. Chapters 3 and 4 concentrate on the text itself, with chapter 5 laying out practical guidance on how to preach these texts despite their linguistic and cultural difficulties. Chapter 6 remains my favorite section, though, with Howard’s advice sampled through analyses of Daniel 8:1-27 and Joel 2:28-32. Here, Howard’s comfort with the genre and the Hebrew text shines forth, with sermon material that any pastor would benefit from.

Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature is perhaps a bit more academic than the other volumes I have read, particularly in terms of the literary comparisons. This quality might be of less interest to some laymen or pastoral counselors, but I think is necessary to the specific study of Old Testament writings. I recommend Howard’s work to anyone interested in the topic.

A Balm in Textual Studies

9780825443824There is an abundance of textbooks on the New Testament. Concordances, dictionaries, grammars, and their ilk proliferate book shelves of students and teachers across the spectrum of studies. Dr. Charles Lee Irons is not unawares, but with the publication of his A Syntax Guide for Readers of the Greek New Testament has demonstrated a knowledge of the holes that often plague the student laboring under the load of Biblical languages. This guide is not a substitute for hard work, but rather an aid “to provide concise explanations of syntactical, clause-level features that may not be immediately obvious to the beginner” (8). Of course, the out of practice pastor might find it helpful too.

For instance, a young pastor is preaching through Hebrews and turns to his Greek text for exegetical purposes. Everything is cruising along, and then wham! 3:16 stops him as he cannot quite recall what to make with “τἰνες.” Rather than digging through multiple commentaries to sort it out, or revisiting his professor’s self-published grammar book, he pulls out Irons’s book and turns to p. 506. “Ah,” he recalls, “there is an accent issue to be sorted out here.

This is the brilliance, and practicality, of SGRGNT. It serves as an immediate reference for problems that often come up if your Greek is not quite as good as your Hebrew (or perhaps your English, if you’re like me). This handy little volume is small enough to keep out on the desk all the time, and user-friendly enough to make any M.Div. holder wish they had owned it earlier.

I think we can all thank Dr. Irons for his efforts. May they act as a balm in Greek class, when Gilead seems so far away.

Keeping Up Your Greek with the LXX

9780825443428One of the easiest things to do, when the grades are in and classes over, is to let your language skills slip away. Sometimes this is simply an issue of time management, but at other times it is a matter of interest; I don’t keep studying because I do not have a professor to keep it engaging. Fortunately, books come along that do serve that purpose of renewing the interest of the mind with material that is new or appealing. Karen Jobes’s Discovering the Septuagint: A Guided Reader is just such a book.

To Protestants, the LXX often appears to be a curiosity (shedding light on Catholicism in some way) or an experiment in translation. I teach the Septuagint every Spring, and the reactions from students is fairly predictable. “Why is this so strange? I don’t understand these changes here.” And those are all from the English translations. What I have hope to do in the past, but been unable to do thus far, is bridge the gap between my students’ Greek classes and their Classical studies. Jobes’s book is perfect for this, and laid out in a manageable format, which can be used by students, teachers, or laymen alike.

While the book doesn’t get into too much apocryphal material aside from 73 verses from the “Additions to Esther,” the selected texts stand out as great examples of how the Hebrew and Greek inform one another, sometimes with stark differences between them. Because the book is more of a introductory language textbook, there are relatively few critical comments to slow down the chapters. Thus, what you have is a quick-paced study of the Greek Old Testament that can breathe life into dying Greek skills that have sat too long in disuse.

As stated in the front matter of the book: “if we are to better understand the New Testament and the world in which it was produced, then we must acknowledge the role of the Septuagint in how the Bible has come down through history to us,” (p. 12). If for other reason, this is a great starting point for truly digging deep into the LXX.

Craziness & Romance in the Bible

9780825425561I have read three previous entires in the Kregel Exegetical Library, and have come away edified by any of them. Each is written by a scholar of the highest integrity, and deals openly with problematic passages. A Commentary on Judges and Ruth does not disappoint. Dr. Robert Chisholm, a regular Biblical commentator for most folks who have taken a Hebrew class, handles some of the strangest passages in the Old Testament narrative in a clear, effective manner. If you are looking for a book that will help unravel some of the violence and bizarre events of Israel’s early days, then this is a good place to start.

A prime example comes from the section on Jephthah’s foolish vow (Judges 11:29-40). A number of explanations for understanding this passage have been explored over the years (Wikipedia even has a section dedicated to it), but consensus is rare. Chisholm dedicates 17 pages to the issue, and alternates being exposition in the main body of the text, and extensive footnotes about various views. Though Chisholm does not convince me of his own view, that Jephthah does in fact offer a human sacrifice to Yahweh, he is cautious in dismissing opposing perspectives and provides ample space for those views to be considered by the reader.  This kind of writing is typical of the entire work, and made reading it an exercise in humility and conversation.

Of course, the extensive footnoting method used by Chisholm might be daunting to some, particularly the laity. But it is most definitely worth it to sift through those lengthy academic ramblings in order to find a beautiful gem of wisdom that adds to one’s understanding of the Biblical story.

It is also worth noting that Chisholm treats the book of Ruth as part of the story told in Judges, rather than a one shot episode of the coming kingdom through David. Chisholm is careful not to throw arbitrary labels at Ruth, chastising the myriad of scholars who has sought to impose their own perspective on the book, rather than letting it speak for itself. Though his treatment of the book is brief, Chisholm offers a balanced, reverent account of one of the most overlooked books in the Bible.

This has been my favorite of the Kregel Exegetical commentaries thus far, and has definitely whetted my appetite for more.

Books, Covers, and Genesis

On the back of The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth, one the latest books coming out of Kregel publications about the age of the earth, boasts a Paul Copan quote recommendation on that back that goes like this: “Irenic in spirit, scientifically informed, and biblically sound.” Dr. Copan is one of my favorite apologists out there at present, and a genuinely nice guy. So when he states that a book is aimed at peace and the reconciliation of denominational differences, I do not hesitate to pick it up.9780825444210

On the surface, The Grand Canyon looks like a work of great care and consideration. As scientific textbooks go, it is by far the most readable I have encountered in some years, interspersing the scientific lingo with beautiful pictures and engaging diagrams. The eleven authors mentioned on the first page demonstrate a breadth of knowledge that is impressive. They present the case that the Grand Canyon serves as irrefutable proof that the Earth cannot be young, and that Noah’s Flood cannot possibly have created something like the gorge surrounding the Colorado River. The book showcases remarkable lucidity with a topic that is often tedious or difficult to understand. Having read several books on the topic, including Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies and Francis Collins’s The Language of God (to name a couple), and find there is a fine line between scientific tedium and understandable theorizing. But the authors work hard to make the subject even enjoyable.

All of that being said, I think to call this book irenic is a bit misleading. While there are authors out there genuinely working to bridge the gap between Christians who disagree (like Kenneth Wheately and Alvin Plantinga), the bulk of this book is dedicated to converting Young Earth Creationists to a different view. Now, I understand that books are frequently written to make an argument. This can be done in a tasteful way, however, and much of the shots taken at YEC proponents through the book detract from what would otherwise be an insightful contribution to the larger discussion. Such a dismissive attitude limits the book’s potential.

While the book is one I recommend, I do so with caution. Coming to this book for a genteel and fair-minded discussion will not go far. But if you are already in, or leaning towards, an Old Earth view which congeals with Christianity, then this book is definitely for you.