Favorite Biblical Commentaries II: The “Historical Books” of the Old Testament
When the Protestant Reformers decided to eliminate the Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical books from the Protestant canon (the books we consider Scripture), they were largely deciding that the TaNaK or Hebrew Bible (the Bible of Jesus and Paul) should be identical to the Christian “Old Testament.” There is much to commend this idea, but the Reformers didn’t fully follow through because instead of following the Jewish division of the TaNaK into 3 sections (Torah or Law/Teachings; Nevi’im or Prophets–subdivided into Former and Latter Prophets; and Ketuvim or Writings), the Reformers largely kept the Catholic and Orthodox 4-fold division: Pentateuch (5 Books of Moses; corresponds identically to the Torah); Historical Books (includes the Former Prophets and some of the Writings); Wisdom Books (most of the Writings); and Prophets (corresponds mostly to the Latter Prophets, but includes some books that are in the Writings). Further, some of the individual books in the Hebrew Bible are divided in two (e.g., Samuel becomes 1 & 2 Samuel; Kings becomes 1 & 2 Kings; Chronicles becomes 1 & 2 Chronicles, etc.) I think this was a mistake, but it is done. This is one reason why I continue to use the term Old Testament, awkward as it is. Because the Hebrew Bible is something different–changing the shape of the canon changes its interpretation.
II. The “Historical” Books (I use quotation marks because it is not clear that either the intention or outcome of many of these books was to provide historical accounts.)
The “holy wars” of Joshua and Judges are some of the toughest places in Scripture for pacifists like me.
- Marten H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua. (New International Commentary on the Old Testament). (Eerdmans, 1994). Best technical commentary.
- Jerome E. D. Creach, Joshua. (Interpretation: A Commentary for Preaching and Teaching). (Westminster/John Knox, 2003).
Not a full commentary, but very helpful for Christians struggling to know what to do with the violence–even genocide–that the text claims God commands is Walter Brueggemann, Divine Presence Amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua. (Cascade Books, 2009).
Another book full of “texts of terror” (Phyllis Trible).
- Trent Butler, Judges (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 8). (Thomas Nelson, 2006). Best current critical commentary.
- Susan Niditch, Judges: A Commentary (Old Testament Library). (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008.) An excellent replacement volume for the older OTL commentary on Judges by Alberto Soggin. A believing feminist perspective.
- Terry L. Bresinger, Judges (Believers Church Bible Commentary). (Herald Press, 1999). Bresinger, a minister of the Brethren in Christ (small denomination that mixed Mennonites with Wesleyan Pietism), teaches at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. He writes for ordinary Christians, but this gem is full of profound insights. The essays after the commentary proper should not be missed. They cover such topics as Ancient Near Eastern texts, archeological periods (placing Judges in the Bronze Age), Caananite, the Asherah, Ashtoreth, and Baals, hero stories, war and violence in Judges and more.
Set in the era of the Judges, Ruth was probably written after the Exile as a response to the “no foreign wives” policy of Ezra and Nehemiah, reminding Israel that King David’s own grandmother, Ruth, was a Moabite woman.
- Katherine Doob Sakenfield, Ruth. (Interpretation: A Commentary for Preaching and Teaching). (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1999).
- Carolyn Curtis James, The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules. (Zondervan, 2008). Reading this now on the basis of recommendations by others. Extraordinarily powerful–gets past the surface to insights too often missed and shows the relevance for both women and men of faith, today.
- Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., The Book of Ruth (New International Commentary on the Old Testament) (Eerdmans, 1989). Excellent technical commentary.
From a Jewish perspective:
- Rabbi Leonard S. Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, Ruth: A Modern Commentary. (Urj Press, 2005). Gives a fresh translation of the Hebrew text into English, interacts with both traditional rabbinic and modern critical interpreters. Relates the books to such contemporary issues as mixed marriages, conversion to Judaism, the roles of women, sexuality, and rebuilding lives after extreme loss.
First and Second Samuel:
This is one book (Samuel) in the Jewish Bible and is known as First and Second Kingdoms in most Eastern Orthodox Bibles.
- Tony W. Cartledge, 1 & 2 Samuel. (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary). (Smyth and Helwys, 2001).
- Ralph W. Klein, 1 Samuel. (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 10) (Thomas Nelson, 1987).
- A. A. Anderson, 2 Samuel. (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 11) (Thomas Nelson, 1989).
A helpful contemporary Jewish perspective is:
Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. (W. W. Norton, 1999).
First and Second Kings:
This is one book in the Hebrew Bible and in Orthodox Bibles is known as 3rd and 4th Kingdoms.
- Daniel Berrigan, S. J. The Kings and Their Gods: The Pathology of Power. (Eerdmans, 2008). In my childhood, Fr. Berrigan was primarily known as a priest and peace activist. Some knew he was also a poet, but few realized his training and deep roots in biblical interpretation. In the last 20 years or so, he has been writing to awaken the Church and the churches by curing “biblical illiteracy” through non-traditional, theological commentaries that are informed by, but not not subservient to, critical methods. Here, as with all his commentaries, he powerfully connects the world of the text to the world of contemporary, imperial America–indicting us before the Word.
- Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings. (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary). (Smyth & Helwys, 2000). Comes with CD Rom version.
- Marvin Sweeney, First and Second Kings: A Commentary. (Old Testament Library) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2007).
1 & 2 Chronicles:
This is one book and found in the Writings in Jewish Bibles. It is found here in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Bibles and all refer to it as 1 & 2 Chronicles. The Chronicles covers the same time period as Joshua to 2nd Kings, but the writers/editors come from a different perspective than the “Deuteronomistic historians” that cover Joshua to 2 Kings. Because of this repetition, few contemporary Christians know 1 & 2 Chronicles–missing that perspective and thus getting only “one side of the story.” To that extent, our canonical formation is distorted.
- Steven L. McKenzie. 1 & 2 Chronicles. (Abingdon Old Testament Commentary) (Abingdon Press, 2004). McKenzie writes in a lively style that lends itself to Bible studies and preaching.
- Sara Japhet, I & II Chronicles (Old Testament Library) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993). In addition to the translation and commentary proper there are essays on the Chronicler’s sources (named in the text and otherwise), genre and forms, themes, etc.
Ezra, Nehemiah & Esther:
In the Jewish Bible Ezra-Nehemiah is one book (called “Ezra”) and it is found in the Writings. The Orthodox canon contains a book omitted from Catholic, Jewish and Protestant canons called I Esdras. This book is combined with Nehemiah in the Orthodox canon and called II Esdras. I confess to disliking the exclusionary tone of Ezra and Nehemiah. No new perspective or powerful commentary has yet been able to help me reclaim these books as active parts of my canon. While I admire Esther’s courage, the sexism of the book as a whole and the bloodily violent “solution” at the end is disturbing. Israel’s life in Exile is precarious–even for one who is made “Queen” of the emperor’s harem.
- David J. A. Clines, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. (New Century Bible) (Eerdmans, 1984). No longer easy to find, I still find this commentary by the Australian Plymouth Brethren scholar, Clines, (transplanted to Cambridge) a gem. I found it while in college (shortly after it had been published) and have consulted it ever since.
- Carol M. Bechtel, Esther (Interpretation: A Commentary for Preaching and Teaching). (Westminter/John Knox Press, 2002).
- Johanna van Wijk-Bos. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. (Westminster Bible Companion, 1998).
- Derek H. Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah. (Tyndale Old Testament Commentary) (IVP, 2009).
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