Book Reviews

The Historical Writings

“It sets the standard for a new generation of introductions to the Bible.”

This endorsement comes from Mark Boda (McMaster Divinity College) about The Historical Writings: Introducing Israel’s Historical Literature, which has just been released by Fortress Press, co-written by Mark Leuchter and myself.

My fourth book, not as academic as my dissertation, but more academic than God Behaving Badly, or Prostitutes and Polygamists.

Here is how it begins,

“The historical books of the Bible contain some of the best known stories of Scripture. Rahab the prostitute from Jericho helped the Israelite spies, providing vital insider information on the state of the nation (Joshua 2, 6).  Gideon the judge from Manasseh defeated the massive army of Midian with only three hundred men armed with trumpets, jars, and torches (Judges 7).  David the shepherd from Bethlehem nailed the Philistine giant Goliath in the noggin with his slingshot and chopped off his head with the giant’s own sword (1 Samuel 16).  Elijah the prophet from Gilead talked trash with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel before his drenched altar was scorched by a flame sent by YHWH (1 Kings 18).  Nehemiah the cupbearer from Susa was granted leave by King Artaxerxes of Persia to return and rebuild the wall around Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2). Manasseh the king from Judah, whose idolatry was legendary, prayed and repented from his Babylonian prison and was restored to his throne in Jerusalem.”

Then we give an overview of the less familiar and more disturbing stories, the conquest/genocide of Canaan (Joshua 6-12), the rape of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19), the cursing and hair-pulling of his country-men by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13).  How is one to understand these stories?  There there are many ways, but we’d recommend reading, The Historical Writings.

Mark and I wrote the introduction together.  I wrote the chapters on Joshua, Judges and 1, 2 Kings. Mark wrote the chapters on 1, 2 Samuel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1, 2 Chronicles.  It was a new experience to co-write a book, but Mark’s a good friend and we complement each other well.

Since it is a textbook, we were able to include a lot of extra stuff (which also makes it a bit more expensive that my last two books, $49 currently on Amazon).

There are 81 maps and images.   Art by Tissot, Poussin, Rembrandt, and many others. Images of the Merneptah stele, the Amarna letters, the Cyrus Cylinder, and many others.

There are 85 sidebars, including “The Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter” and “‘Satan’ as a Cosmic Figure.”

There are 30 tables.  My two favorites are “External References to Rulers of Israel and Judah” (19 extra-biblical sources including the Kurkh Monolith, the Mesha Stele, the Black Obelisk–on the cover of Righteous Jehu) and “Seals Mentioning Names of Biblical Characters” (29 names including Jezebel, Hezekiah, Manasseh, and Jehoahaz).

The cover image is of the Tel Dan Stele which contains what most scholars consider to be the oldest reference to King David.  The letters highlighted in white on the lower right (see image here for more details) read “house of David.”  Reading from the right of the white letters, the fourth and sixth characters look like the Greek delta (triangle-shaped), that’s how the Hebrew/Aramaic letter dalet–the first and last letters of David’s name–were written at that point in time.

So, technically, there are two Davids mentioned on the cover, an author, and a king.

Advertisements

The Reformation Commentary, Dead White Men, and Make-Up

The newest addition to IVP’s Reformation Commentary on Scripture (vol. 5) just came out, on the books of 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, edited by my BTS colleague Derek Cooper, and his colleague, Martin J. Lohrmann.

This is an impressive work (740 pages) which has been in the works for almost 8 years.  Many of the commentators included in this volume have never been translated into English (from Latin).  There is a lot of wisdom contained here, which was previously inaccessible to most modern readers.

Obviously, since this book focuses on the OT, and particularly the historical books, I may be more excited about it than many of you all, but for pastors, teachers, and scholars it contains many gems of Scriptural insight.

The commentators include the usual suspects (Jacobus Arminius, John Calvin, and Martin Luther), as well as some lesser known names (Johannes Bugenhagen, John Mayer, and Konrad Pellikan), each of whom are important Reformation figures and who commented extensively on the historical books of the Bible.

In addition to literally thousands of quotations from commentators, and three indices (Author, Subject, and Scripture), there’s an extremely helpful, forty page appendix giving paragraph sketches of Reformation era figures and works (686-725). If one wanted a quick introduction to the Reformation’s major figures, this appendix would be a great first stop.

For those of you who are thinking, but hasn’t the Western church read enough of these “dead white men“?  Yes, great point.  We desperately need to be reading more scholars from other parts of the world, who can open our eyes to new perspectives, many of which are closer to the thought and mindset of the ancient Near Eastern world than our own.  But these Reformation scholars still offer us profound insight on our own story, particularly for those of us who come from a Protestant tradition.

I’m looking forward to using this resource as I work on my 1, 2 Kings commentary for the Story of God commentary series for Zondervan.  (If you like this section of Scripture my co-authored textbook on the Historical Books comes out in July.)

While it will take me a long time to fully appreciate all the wisdom here, I smiled as I read these comments on the face-painting on Jezebel before her brutal death (2 Kgs. 9:30-8–thrown from a tower, trampled on by horses, consumed by dogs, who defecate her remains in a field), which is part of the Jehu narrative, on which I wrote my dissertation. When these guys talk about “face-painting” it’s not painting butterflies on the cheeks of little girls at a fair, but the general practice of using make-up.  John Mayer observes that Peter Martyr Vermigli condemns the practice of face-painting, along with Cyprian, Chrysostom, and Augustine, “It is practiced to allure men, and it changes their natural face into something artificial. But rather than bettering the face, it actually mars it” (p. 444).

Do you agree with these reformers about the use of make-up? 

Jesus Behaving Badly?

“I am a historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ easily the most dominant figure in all history.”H. G. Wells.

Since my wife Shannon is on staff with InterVarsity, she occasionally receives free books from InterVarsity Press.  She received a recent package of books on Saturday, but since she had just left for 9 days in Nigeria, I decided she wouldn’t mind if I opened it for her.

What did I find?–Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee (the book, not the person) written by Mark L. Strauss.

Several close friends said, “Dave, IVP just sent me this book about Jesus.  They stole your idea!  You should get a cut.”  While I appreciate their concern for me and my intellectual property, the whole “X Behaving Badly” meme predates me by a long time.  (I wrote God Behaving Badly which came out in 2011.)

Strauss uses the Wells quote at the beginning to show how everybody loves Jesus, which is sort of the problem.  Most people (except Old Testament professors) think that God in the Old Testament is the one who behaves badly, while everybody loves Jesus.

But as Strauss shows, there’s a lot of problems with what Jesus says and does.  We all know about him over turning the money-changers tables, but he also cursed a helpless fig tree, he sent a herd of pigs to drown in the sea, he encouraged people to cut off hands and pluck out eyes, he spoke about hell more than anyone else in Scripture, he told his followers to hate their parents.  Jesus appears to be judgmental, provocative, chauvinistic, racist, anti-environmental, and angry.  Jesus really did behave badly.   How do we make sense of this Jesus?

If any of these behaviors of Jesus are problematic for you, you should definitely check out Strauss’ book.  The tone is similar to that of my own in God Behaving Badly, casual academic, for a general audience.  I appreciated his relevant comments about the Greco-Roman background to the Gospels.  He brings his scholarly insights to bear in a light, engaging manner, without overwhelming you with footnotes and references.  He tells personal stories, where we get a glimpse into his family and a sense of how engaging he must be as a teacher.  I really enjoyed reading it.

I must confess that it took me longer to figure out the cover of the book than it should have.  I just didn’t imagine the table looking like that.

Which story about Jesus do you find the most troubling?    

Jefferson, Selma, and the Ordinance of 1784

As we remember MLK’s march for voting rights fifty years ago, it’s interesting to go back further in our history, we can wonder how the story of race in the US might have been very different, and how a march in Selma, Alabama might not have even been necessary if one man from New Jersey hadn’t been sick over 230 years ago.

I had never heard of the Ordinance of 1784, but I learned a little about it as I was recently reading Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012).  (If you enjoy presidential history, you’ll love it. It’s a great read.)

Jefferson is a bit of a conundrum when it comes to the issue of race and slavery. He most famously wrote that “all men are created equal…” in the Declaration of Independence, and yet he owned hundreds of slaves. He argued for the abolition of slavery, but only freed a few of his own. He was almost certainly in a long-term relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and probably fathered several of her children.

In 1784, the new US government was trying to determine how to govern the territories generally to the west of the Thirteen Colonies, as the expectation that they would eventually become states and join the union. Jefferson drafted the ordinance, he was kind of the “go to guy” for this sort of thing.

The fifth article of the ordinance essentially said that after 1800, none of the newly formed states that were formed from these territories would have slavery or involuntary servitude (Meacham, 173).

As the congress debated the fifth article, they voted to remove it by a margin of only one vote.  Unfortunately for Jefferson and other proponents of this fifth article, a member of the New Jersey delegation, who apparently would have voted to keep it in the Ordinance, was sick in bed.

Future states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, home of Selma, would not have been slave states after 1800 if this fifth article had passed.  It didn’t, and they became slave states.

Jefferson wrote, “Thus we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment” (Meacham, 173).  Two years later, he was expressed a similar sentiment, but slightly more positively, “The voice of a single individual would have prevented this abominable crime; heaven will not always be silent; the friends to the rights of human nature will in the end prevail” (from Wikipedia).

Obviously, even if slavery were not allowed in these post-Thirteen Colonies Southern states, racism would likely have still continued unabated.  Since the Selma March for equal voting rights was still necessary a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.  But it’s hard not to imagine that things could have been very different, but for the absence of one person’s effort as Jefferson so eloquently put it.

This story convicts me to not be like that guy from New Jersey in 1784, but like those marchers in 1965, and like even the confusing Thomas Jefferson, to do something to advance racial equality.  We haven’t fully overcome yet, but we are slowly making progress.