|Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel
Hard Cover, 624 pages
First of all, thanks go out to Jesse Hillman at Zondervan for this review copy of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel (hereafter, ZIBBCOT4).
ZIBBCOT4 is breath-taking. It is beautiful, and offers a wealth of information for the reader who wants to dig deeper into the text. Much of the information found within is essential to understand more difficult passages, passages made more complicated for interpretation and translation by our cultural distance from the original audience. I have really enjoyed reading it and soaking in a lot of information that I was unaware of, or had not yet placed in context. Based on its coverage of the major prophets, ZIBBCOT4 specifically deals with the decline of Israel and Judah under repeated waves of dominating empires – Egyptian, Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, Persian and Greek.
This series does not have “Illustrated” in the title for nothing. Each page is set off by images and artwork from the Ancient Near East that make the concepts, people and texts come alive. Added to this are a large number of additional short essays discussing important topics as they are appropriate. The text flow is wonderful, making reading easy. Notes are left to the end of each book, rather than at the bottom of the page, which I was not fond of, but overall I thought the presentation made study easier, rather than a distraction or hindrance.
This is not your verse-by-verse style commentary. Rather, it progresses through the text, stopping as required to address verses and subject areas that need cultural setting in order to grasp their full import. Concepts are presented individually and directly, seemingly without much effort to bring them together into a coherent whole. Though understandable, this causes the flow to be a little jumpy. As well, ZIBBCOT4 is not intended for direct application. It provides rich background information so that the Old Testament texts can be studied in its proper context, but does not overtly point out application for the reader. This is a wise choice in my mind; a commentary that tries to do too much will suffer for it. Plus, the focus is on the writer’s intent (as far as it can be constructed from relationship with similar themes and concepts) and the expected reception of the message by the original audience – not so much on how we should respond to it.
Background provided by this commentary is wide-ranging. Shared literary forms are addressed when relevant, such as poetry and prophetic utterances in Isaiah, the use of lament in Jeremiah and Lamentations, or courtier stories in Daniel. Shared religious imagery is also addressed. Where contrast or response to the surrounding culture is needed, this commentary steps in to clarify exactly how Israelite worship and the Old Testament text in particular is shaped by those conflicts. As for languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Akkadian (to name a few) are all addressed as commonalities and differences provide additional context. I found information on religious practices (ANE use of astrology, magic, prostitution, sacrifice, etc.) to be very interesting and beneficial for understanding how Israel, with its belief in a single, sovereign God, responded.
I give this book ★★★★☆. If you like learning about history and/or language, this will be an especially gripping read, and a work you will come back to again and again.