|Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
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: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (hereafter, ZIBBCOT1).
ZIBBCOT1 is a wonderful work to reference if you need to understand the background of scripture and Israel as a people uniquely set apart to God. It provides great depth as it describes the relationships between Mosaic Law and other legal codes and treaties of the time period. ZIBBCOT1 also provides clear insight into the shared cultural understandings of the time, spring-boarding as necessary into points of uniqueness found in Israel’s understanding of its own beginnings, purpose, and relationship with deity.
Due to the subject matter, I found there to be a lot of repetition between books. This was especially noticeable as one moved into Deuteronomy. But Genesis was covered with power, patience and clarity, and Numbers, often treated as a throw-away book sandwiched between Leviticus and Deuteronomy, came alive under R. Dennis Cole’s authorship. After reading this volume, I have a greater sense of the law and covenant as something experienced by the people, rather than just rules and regulations to be kept, mulled over and re-interpreted or questioned.
ZIBBCOT1 is replete with maps, aerial views, ancient writing samples, idols and religious artwork – and in the case of the early sections of Genesis, a number of well done artistic concept renditions. Of all of these, I found the maps the most powerful in advancing understanding of the text, though the rest helped immerse me in the material.
In the commentary on Genesis, the concept of the creation narrative as setting up “functionaries” within the cosmic temple will probably be hard for some to swallow – especially as it almost entirely ignores the debate over creation/evolution – but I believe the author and editor have done a good job presenting the information and staying on task.
Throughout the text, the authors are willing to admit where there is question or doubt about meaning, while pointing out any possibilities for understanding the context, even if they do not fit traditional renderings or are not fully conclusive in the end. One example is the comments on the traditional “cool of the day”, p. 35:
…If so, then then God is coming in judgment rather than for a daily conversation, which explains Adam and Eve’s desire to hide.
The problem is that though this Akkadian word is connected with the storm, it is more often a “storm demon” or a deified personification of the storm. Thus it is difficult to argue that the Akkadian word means “storm,” and one cannot therefore carry it over to a few ambiguous Hebrew occurrences…
The insufficiency of the alternative does not tacitly support the traditional translation, since that has no support either.
Overall, a detailed and thoughtful way of saying, “After much research, we don’t know for sure in this instance.” A reasonable statement, in such an event.
The text gives ample reason, at regular intervals, to situate the Mosaic Law, including hotly debated Deuteronomy, in the context of 1400-1200 BCE, rather than 9-7 BCE. This is supported within ZIBBCOT1 by details of archeological and textual relationships, rather than just being asserted – and for that I was grateful. However, text critical theories about the makeup of the first five OT books play almost no part in the commentary, and this left me wondering if some time should have been spent at least responding or dealing with how this might affect our understanding of the background. All that is offered is a note in the introduction to Genesis (pp. 3-4) that:
Many scholars unconvinced of the connection to Moses are more inclined to view the book against a mid-first millennium B.C. backdrop. The discussion is not without significance, but its impact on background issues will not often be felt. It is more important to become aware of how ancient culture differed in general from our own and to assess how the literature of the ancient Near East offers us understanding of that ancient culture. [bold mine]
Not wholly convincing, as these things go.
In summary, I give this book ★★★★☆. ZIBBCOT1 is detailed and picturesque, immersing the reader in the Biblical context. It suffers from some unmitigated repetition, but this might be expected based on the material being covered. Overall, it does a great job of providing needed historical and literary context for those trying to understand how Israel saw itself in relation to God and other ancient peoples.