Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary OT – Review

I was fortunate enough to ‘win’ a little contest at the Koinonia blog that offered folks a free volume of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament (ZIBBCOT) in return for writing a review. I received vol. 2, covering Joshua (Richard S. Hess), Judges (Daniel I. Block), Ruth (Dale W. Manor), and Samuel (V. Philips Long). For the purposes of this review, I’ll concentrate on Block’s treatment of Judges – particularly the Samson narratives (which happens to be available online at Scribd for the month of November).

In writing this review, I claim no expertise in Judges, or Old Testament backgrounds or ancient Near Eastern culture. I am rather approaching this review as (1.) a librarian at an Evangelical seminary and (2.) an occasional teacher of adult Bible study classes.

As a librarian, I can’t help but notice the quality of printing and book construction. It is unfortunately rare these days to get a book with a sewn binding. Even the super-expensive publishers like Brill and Oxford have resorted to non-sewn (and hence weaker) bindings in many of their books (in an effort to cut production cost?). I must say that this trend is lamentable for libraries, where durability is at a premium. Book costs rise each year, and if other seminaries are in the same boat as GCTS, book acquisitions budgets are either flat or dropping. So, when we spend money on a book, we want it to last on our shelves (but I digress). I do hope that the ZIBBCOT becomes a dog-eared resource that withstands the test of time, and the sewn-binding is a good start. I also hope that Zondervan continues to use this method of binding when it comes to major reference works. Because of their heavy use, and unfortunately non-sewn binding, we’ve had to send other reference works (published in Grand Rapids and Downers Grove) to the bindery after only a few years of normal library use. I doubt that this will be the case for the ZIBBCOT.

Besides potential durability, the book is just downright handsome. I know. I know. Don’t judge a book by its cover. That’s well and fine, but these days a book needs to look good! The book and pages lay flat on the table while you’re reading (I wish all my books did this). The text is printed on high-quality, heavy, glossy paper. There are vibrant illustrations throughout – including full-color maps and images of various artifacts, dig sites, diagrams and charts. The text is clean and readable and the sidebars are consistently formatted. The book does unfortunately lack either a header or footer indicating exactly which biblical text is being treated on each page (this comes in handy when you want to make a quick consultation of the commentary). Still, pericopae and verses are clearly indicated throughout with bold-faced text.

I am often asked how to find OT background information by students taking introductory OT exegesis classes, and as an occasional adult-ed Bible teacher, I like to track down such info as well. As with just about any topic worth researching, there is (and there still remains) no one-stop-shop for such research (nor should there be only one). The ZIBBCOT will, however, certainly become a major destination along the way! I have often pointed students in the direction of the IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary (IVPBBCOT), and I’ve used this resource quite a few times to prepare for lessons. The major downside of the IVPBBCOT was its lack of footnotes and/or references to other textual evidence/related research. This was infinitely frustrating… A student would come to me with their appetite whetted, saying something like “The IVPBBCOT points me to Hittite suzerain-vassal treaties as a parallel to such-and-such text, but I can’t find any reference to the particular work it’s talking about.” Boy, is that frustrating! The IVPBBCOT is a helpful resource, but in an effort possibly to conserve space, it lost a great deal of usability. Just enough information is given to provide an appetizer, but then the main meal never comes. (Side note: Some of this lack has been made up with the IVP OT Dictionaries. Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible is a new addition to this cadre of Bible encyclopedias and dictionaries. I’ve not yet had a chance to see it, but if Zondervan wants to send one my way to review, I’ll certainly give it a looksee! Hint hint. Wink wink. Nudge nudge.) Anyway, the ZIBBCOT excels here. Most of the particularly interesting points in the commentary have end-notes that point to either clarifications or other resources that shed more light on each issue. References to ANE texts are often quoted generously, and are given in standard reference formats – making it relatively easy for a student (or a reference librarian) to hunt down the appropriate text. It may have been helpful (even if it increased the page count) to provide reference to ANET, COS or other standard collections of ANE parallels to the biblical text. For some, footnotes would be preferable to end-notes, but I suppose that footnotes would clutter the pages already packed with vibrant illustrations.

I don’t think that the ZIBBCOT completely replaces any commentary including the IVPBBCOT. When doing research, both should be consulted in tandem, given that just a spot check reveals that one commentary may give information that the other is lacking. For instance here are the entries for Judges 13:5:

IVP Bible Background Commentary: ritual importance of hair. There is a Phoenician inscription from the ninth century reporting the dedication of shaven hair by an individual in fulfillment of a vow made to the goddess Astarte. It is of importance that in the biblical text there is no discussion of what should be done with the hair that is cut. It is neither dedicated as in the above inscription, nor is it deposited in the temple as in some cultures. The dedicated hair is uncut, not cut. Hair (along with blood) was one of the main representatives in ancient thinking of a person’s life essence. As such it was often an ingredient in sympathetic magic. This is evident, for instance, in the practice of sending along a lock of the presumed prophet’s hair when the prophecies were sent to the king of Mari. The hair would be used in divination to determine whether the prophet’s message would be accepted as valid.

Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary:
No razor may be used on his head (13:5). Presumably the razor was a sharpened bronze or copper instrument. Egyptians shaved with a stone blade at first, later with a copper blade, and during the Middle Kingdom with a bronze razor. (ZIBBCOT 2.187)

As seen from the two excerpts above, one commentary covers material that the other does not. Note that the ZIBBCOT does not mention much regarding the importance of the hair in ritual observance. Still, for the love of all that is holy, why can’t the IVPBBCOT provide a simple reference to where that Phoenician inscription is found or at least an article that mentions it! If the ZIBBCOT had mentioned it, it would have been given an end-note! 🙂

Now while the ZIBBCOT may not replace other commentaries, it excels at what it does, and besides references, gives content that others do not give. For instance, in discussing the infertility of Samson’s parents, the ZIBBCOT helpfully cites (and quotes) passages from ancient Near Eastern literature, including the Ugaritic Legend of Kirta, the Code of Hammurabi, along with Mesopotamian and Hittite magical texts. These texts help demonstrate that “the problem of childlessness and divine involvement in overcoming it plays an important role, not only in biblical narratives but also in extrabiblical texts” (ZIBBCOT 2.186). It then devotes an entire side-bar to “The Importance of a Son,” which briefly speaks of the importance of children in the ANE which includes a lengthy quote from “Dan’el’s plea to the gods in the Ugaritic Epic of Aqhat” that illustrates the importance of an heir (2.188). In this instance, the IVPBBCOT only gives a short paragraph on “barrenness” in its comment on 13:2. In addition to having information that the IVP commentary lacks, the ZIBBCOT provides a supplement to Block’s full commentary on Judges in the New American Commentary series, which lacks mention of the extrabiblical material in its comments on 13:2. (Block wrote both the ZIBBCOT and the NAC commentaries.)

In addition to the commentary itself, John H. Walton’s essay on methodology in the book’s frontmatter is worth reading. It steers the interpreter between the Fundamentalist hazard of ignoring ANE parallels for fear of Scripture reflecting or borrowing from it’s ancient Near Eastern neighbors and the ‘critical’ hazard of embracing ANE parallels as a sure sign of Scripture’s status as a non-original or non-inspired text.

Over all, I heartily recommend the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament. It will serve as a helpful reference resource in libraries, and it will serve as an excellent tool in the hands of a careful pastor or teacher who wants to delve into the ancient Near Eastern culture in which the OT was written.

2 thoughts on “Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary OT – Review”

  1. Yes, it is frustrating that the decision was made that there would be no footnotes in IVPBBCOT, but if footnotes had been included it could not have been a one-volume work (as the 12,000 +) endnotes in ZIBBCOT demonstrates. On the donation of hair to Astarte, it is an inscription on a bowl from a Cypriot temple that indicates it contained the hair of the donor. It is mentioned in Milgrom’s JPS Torah Commentary on Numbers in the excursus on Nazirites (#11, p.356 with no footnote). Milgrom’s comment is noted in ZIBBCOT in the discussion of the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6 (349).

    Yet I know that this was just one example, and that the frustration can be multiplied many times over. Thanks for this helpful review.

  2. In the age of Kindles and iPads, I can’t remember the last time I’ve handled a well constructed book. Sewn bindings? Pages lying flat? Sounds like a dream to hold!

    Thanks for you helpful recommendations. I’d definitely want a text with footnotes and references…

    I’m going to see if Zondervan is available at any of my local libraries. I have a feeling that such fine books won’t grace its shelves anytime soon (or ever), but you never know…

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