Review of Zondervan’s Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Vol. 1

I recently got the opportunity to review Zondervan’s new “Illustrated Bible Background Commentary” for the Old Testament. I was given Volume 1 (which covers the Pentateuch) to review. The series contains 5 hardcover volumes and is in the same vein of their New Testament commentaries of the same name (4 volumes).

A friend of mine in Old Testament Survey at Urbana Theological Seminary recently had to write her final research paper on polygamy and she asked me for help.  I flipped open to the back hoping to find a topical index, but alas, no such thing.  That’s about the only negative thing I have to say about this commentary.  They have a picture index (which spans all five volumes) but no entry for polygamy or marriage – not that I would want to see a picture of those things.  Undeterred, I flipped open to the first major instance of polygamy I could think of – Abram, Sarai, and Hagar (and Ishmael) in Genesis 16.

Flipping to Genesis 16 (pp. 86-87), I found a extended discusion on marriage in its Ancient Near Eastern context along with a picture of an ancient marriage contract.  The text notes

The solution proposed by Sarai is not as shocking or outlandish as it would seem to us today. In the ancient world, barrenness was a catastrophe… because one of the primary roles of the family was to produce the next generation… Marriage contracts of the ancient world, therefore, anticipated the possibility of barrenness and at times specifically dictated a course of action.

The text then goes on to describe a particular marriage contract found by archeologists and even includes some text from the contract itself. The text then concludes that “it is therefore plausible that Sarai is simply invoking the terms of her marriage contract.”

The biggest strength of the commentary is that it collates the most pertinent background information and summarizes it.  In terms of value per page, you will not find anything better than this.  For a full discussion of all of the background material, a detailed commentary on that specific book (or section of the book) would be needed.  Still, the inclusion of primary source material and the extensive biography is a great starting point for those looking to go deeper; it would simply not be possible to find all of this information without already have some exposure to the primary sources or some expertise in the field.  Finally, the pictures, charts, tables and timelines are indispensable in illuminating the context.

They’ve got some of the best scholars in the field writing in their respective niches; whether you agree with John Walton about bara or not, he has an amazing grasp on the relevant background material.  For those looking to shore up the “historical” in their grammatical-historical exegesis, I highly recommend this series, both Old and New Testament.  While not replacing specific commentaries (nor claiming to), Zondervan’s Illustrated Bible Background Commentaries should be on your shelf next to other useful tools like Carson & Beale’s Commentary on the NT’s Use of the OT.

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