Commentaries on Samuel

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This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post.

I don't usually give NIVAC volumes pride of place, but Bill Arnold's (2003) really is my favorite commentary on Samuel. He has a great sense of the narrative flow of the book, and he gives arguments for his conclusions, something not all the authors of this series do as well as he does.

The series' strength, when it's done well, is to present the original meaning of the passage, often giving it the length a brief, popular-level commentary will usually give, followed by two further sections. Bridging Contexts looks at the theological, existential, and moral principles behind the text in its original setting in order to abstract away from that setting, which allows the author to move to Contemporary Application to apply those principles in our day. Some authors in this series do not make good use of the format, using the different sections to talk about whatever they feel like but without ever using the format the way it was intended. Others are not careful in their abstracting from the original text or not very thoughtful in how to apply the text.

Arnold is among the best writers I've read for this series so far. (Karen Jobes, who did Esther, and Craig Keener, who did Revelation, are in the same league. Craig Blomberg's I Corinthians would have been if his hadn't been one of the earliest volumes and thus not allowed as much room as the series tended to allow as it went on.) Arnold has a great sense for the narrative flow of the text, and his theological and moral reflections strike me as honest, careful, insightful, and aware of scholarship in not just theology but also ethics, which several authors in the series lack. In other words, he isn't just a linguist or historian, as many biblical scholars are.

I particularly liked his treatment of the problem of lying and the problem of war in Samuel. He raises questions many commentators ignore, and he doesn't try to get around the text but simply faces it. He brings in background work by theologians who have engaged with a larger philosophical tradition on these ethical and theological issues. Several commentators on this book disappointed me greatly in how easily they would avoid what the text says in certain places just so their favored ethical theory might come out true, which strikes me as just eisegesis.

David Toshio Tsumura has released the first volume of his Samuel commentary for NICOT, covering I Samuel (2007). I have not looked at it much except through Amazon's previewing features, but it looks absolutely excellent from what I've seen so far, and the few indications I've gotten from people who have explored it for themselves confirm that initial judgment. It appears to be like the most recent volumes in the NICOT series in terms of depth of analysis and format. I very much like almost all of what this series has produced in the last ten years, and I expect Tsumura's work to be as good. It will probably be the evangelical standard for decades.

By one measure, Ralph Bergen's NAC (1996) has been until now, and still is for II Samuel, the most detailed, recent commentary by a conservative evangelical on Samuel. It's possible that Youngblood (see below) rivals it (e.g. it is longer), but Bergen is much more recent and up-to-date. I prefer to have something much more detailed, with much more time for lengthy reflection, than Bergen provides, but it still is the best you can get for greater than popular-level detail by a conservative, evangelical commentator on II Samuel.

Issues of Hebrew language and linguistics are one of Bergen's strengths, and his work is also noted for its discourse analysis. He is aware of historical background concerns as well, but he has taken some criticism for ignoring a lot of recent work in narrative-rhetorical criticism, despite some reviews treating that as one of his strengths. His discussion of the problem of lying disappointed me more than most. His view seemed to me to be at odds with any plausible reading of the text. But problems like that were rare in my use of the commentary.

Ralph Klein's WBC on I Samuel (1983) was the best academic work on I Samuel until Tsumura appeared. From what I've seen, I would prefer Tsumura, but for all I know there may be many things Klein is better at. Klein is a skilled textual critic. He is more conservative than McCarter (see below) but just as knowledgeable about the issues, and he's more willing to defend rather than emend the MT than McCarter is. He still seems a bit too Septuagint-friendly for my tastes. Those with higher views of the LXX than I have will like him, although some might like McCarter even more.

I'm not sure I would consider him an evangelical, even though the series advertizes itself as evangelical (in a very loose sense). Klein has a concern for the final form of the text, but he does engage in redaction criticism in a way that's far more speculative than I think is warranted. He is perhaps rivaled only by Tsumura on matters of language, but he gives very little attention to other matters that I would very much want in my preferred commentary on any book, particularly with regard to theology and literary issues.

Arnold Anderson's WBC on II Samuel (1989) is not as good as Klein's on I Samuel. It is much thinner. Klein is a little more focused on certain aspects of commenting, and Anderson is more balanced in his approach, but he is less detailed than Klein and isn't on the cutting-edge level, as Klein was in his time (and as his forthcoming revision probably will be once again). The main use I have for Anderson is in textual criticism, since the more conservative commentaries have little of that.

Longman calls Anderson moderately critical. I will sell it once I have Tsumura's second volume. He sees Samuel as an apologetic for the Davidic line through Solomon. Some have criticized him for losing the big picture in the details. Anderson thinks the source materials for Samuel (History of David's Rise, Succession Narrative, etc.) were fairly close in time to the events they describe, which I find somewhat refreshing.

Robert Gordon's volume in the Library of Biblical Interpretation series (1986) is baffling. It seems to have no intended audience. It is far too thin to count as a decent scholarly commentary. Its treatment is not quite as thin (but almost on some aspects) as most popular commentaries. Yet at the same time, it uses Hebrew text in Hebrew font without transliteration or translation, and a lot of the argumentation is in notes that are fairly technical. He uses (without definition) terms that hardly anyone would know without attending upper-level seminars in biblical studies. It could not be used with ideal effectiveness by someone with no Hebrew language training. I stopped using it altogether except to refer to it when others cited it. Once I've got both volumes of Tsumura, I may well sell this one as well.

Its focus is largely literary and historical-grammatical, and though many reviews have called it evangelical, I would have a hard time classifying Gordon as within the mainstream of what I know as evangelicalism. Gordon has virtually no introduction, since the series editors insisted that he publish his introduction separately. It has been released as the Old Testament Guide on Samuel. That volume, while thin, is widely regarded as excellent scholarship. It's too bad that only a small portion of it made it into the introduction to the commentary.

Joyce Baldwin's TOTC is excellent for such a brief commentary. This series is usually pretty lightweight in terms of page length. This particular volume is worse than usual, since the whole of both I-II Samuel is a pretty hefty length of text. The Hosea commentary in this series is longer than this, and that's for a book less than 1/4 the length of Samuel. But Baldwin is very good, particularly in historical awareness and theological reflection, and she selects what's especially important to emphasize. I found that I got far more out of Baldwin than I did Anderson/Klein, Gordon, and McCarter combined. She does deal with some critical issues in the introduction (e.g. responding to Wellhausen and Noth), but the commentary itself largely just explains the text.

Walter Brueggemann's Interpretation (1990) is one of the best in the series. It's written on the popular level and is thus very easy to read, but it's not lightweight in terms of the level of reflection. Brueggemann is very observant on matters of structure and literary characteristics, a weakness in many of the other commentaries. He also asks provocative questions to move us away from our cultural assumptions and theologically safe positions. Three key themes are socio-political analysis, David as a person, and the work of God in history. Sometimes his insightful thinking can move into unhelpful speculation, but often it's thought-provoking and imaginative in the good sense of trying to reconstruct what's likely to have been going on in the background that the text doesn't explicitly say.

Sometimes he moves in directions I would ultimately want to resist (e.g. he thinks the final editors are unfair to Saul and oversimply the socio-political realities they describe, he sometimes will criticize things the text describes as being in God's will, and he sees the murder of Uriah as typical of David's abuse of power rather than exceptional), but it's always worth thinking through why it's worth resisting and why his suggestions are wrongheaded. This commentary is very light on historical background in favor or ideological, theological, and literary matters.

Ronald Youngblood's EBC (1992) is highly regarded by a number of evangelical commentary reviewers. I have never opened a page of it, preferring to wait to get it until the revision appears. It's possible that Youngblood is a better option than Bergen for a primary evangelical commentary at a detail greater than Arnold will allow. Youngblood is more substantial than either, and his revision should be even moreso. He does interact significantly with the literature available at the time, which is less true of most entries in the EBC, and he does treat textual issues. He's also particularly strong on literary issues. Some reviewers have recommended him over Bergen, but others pay him less attention. I suspect Arnold would still be my favorite. Either way, the revision will be better than the original. Those teaching or studying Samuel before that point may well want to get a copy of this volume (which includes Deuteronomy by Earl Kalland, Joshua by Donald Madvig, Judges by Herbert Wolf, and Ruth by F.B. Huey). Otherwise it may be best to wait.

I haven't had the chance to look at Mary Evans' NIBC (2000), but it's in a series that gives a very brief exposition (she has something like 5 pages per chapter), organized section-by-section, with some notes at the end of each section on more technical matters. These are usually still brief. This series is intended for a popular level. Reviewers seem to me to prefer Baldwin in general. Evans is keen on the theme of power, both proper and appropriate use of it and its misuse. Longman says she shows good literary sense in terms of the plot and narrative.

Kyle McCarter's AB (1980, 1984) is often regarded as the classic, standard work on Samuel. It contains more information than any other recent commentary on matters related to textual criticism, archeology, source criticism, Hebrew language, and historical background. I prefer Klein on textual criticism, and I expect Tsumura is even better. On all other matters besides textual criticism, there's plenty in the above list that McCarter shouldn't be necessary except for academic work, and I think Anderson should do as a temporary substitute on text criticism (for less money) until Tsumura's second volume is done. I had access to library copies of McCarter on my shelf as we worked through Samuel in sermons, and though I did refer a lot to commentaries I hardly had much reason to look to McCarter (and when I did I didn't find him to be all that helpful with the kinds of questions I was asking).

Textually, McCarter favors the LXX much more than I would like, although he offers much more detail on the LXX and DSS than anyone else. His source-critical methodology focuses on redactional processes to explain different ideologies within the text, almost completely minimizing the final form and often ignoring theology. Those doing academic work on Samuel will need access to McCarter, but I don't think it's all that necessary for preaching and teaching.

David Jobling's Berit Olam (1998) on I Samuel is strong on literary and structural issues, from a very critical perspective that is explicitly and deliberately feminist and postmodernist. If you care about structuralist and Marxist readings of Samuel or interpretations focusing on the Philistines as "the other", you'll enjoy this, but if you're interested in understanding the text this wouldn't be my recommendation. Some conservative reviewers nonetheless find valuable insights in this commentary, but he stands far apart from any attempt to reconstruct authorial intent or to discover what message the text offers to us apart from whatever concerns we might want to derive from it. In some ways this isn't exactly a commentary on the text if that means that it moves through the text in order to discuss it. It reads more like a series of essays that are arranged in a more generally chronological order.

Tony Cartledge's S&H (2001) is an awful lot of money for a lot of bells and whistles but not all that much content. I think this series would be bad enough to count as exploiting pastors, if it weren't for cheaper alternatives at the same level (which there usually are). This volume may be more substantial in size than most in the series, but I still don't think it's worth the price of some of the most expensive academic commentaries. Despite Cartledge's focus on the final form of the text, many evangelicals will be bothered by his attitude toward its historicity. He is familiar with scholarship, but he doesn't really interact with it much. For a $70 book, I'd expect a lot more.

Forthcoming Commentaries:

On the scholarly level, look for Graeme Auld's OTL replacement. The HCOT volumes will be split with a different author for each volume, Ake Viberg doing I Samuel and Jichan Kim writing on II Samuel.  Ralph Klein is revising his WBC on I Samuel, which the Thomas Nelson website projects for August 2008. (The dates on that site are highly unreliable.) David Tsumura's NICOT will have a second volume on II Samuel at some point. I expect Tsumura, once completed, will be the evangelical standard.

On the mid-level, David Firth is contributing the volume for the Apollos Old Testament Commentary. I have already mentioned Ronald Youngblood's EBC revision, which will be packaged with the Kings revision by Richard Patterson and Hermann Austel. (The current edition is with Deuteronomy through Ruth.) Craig Morrison on II Samuel for Berit Olam is supposed to be coming out in Nov 2007, according to Amazon.

At the popular level, Daniel Block's BCBC should be excellent by a conservative evangelical with a great scholarly reputation. Francesca Aran Murphy is doing I Samuel for BTCB, which will focus on systematic theological concerns. I'm not sure yet what to make of this series. Two of the three volumes so far have disappointed me, and I'm undecided on the third. J. Robert Vannoy is doing the CBC, which will probably be packaged with commentaries on other books in the vein of the EBC, but those arrangements haven't all been announced yet (as far as I can find, anyway).

4 Comments

thanks for these commentary overviews Jeremy. They are very helpful, especially as I am just now beginning to think about building up an Old Testament collection of commentaries, having got a few good ones on most NT books.

I'm just about to start reading Mary Evans volume on Samuel in the Bible Speaks Today series. I will post a review as always when I'm done.

My thanks for the commentary reviews as well Jeremy. They are invaluable for me as I'm building a commentary library. I especially like the breakdown into the three categories. Again, many thanks...

Jeremy, I've posted a three part review of Tsumura's first volume here:

http://evepheso.wordpress.com/book-reviews/

This is an awfully good summary of what's out there. Thanks, Jeremy.

I will take McCarter's text-critical judgments over those of Tsumura's, but a case can be made for preferring MT to the base of LXX and/or the reconstructed archetype nevertheless, on the grounds that doing so ensures that Jews and Christians are exegeting the same text.

Two additions come to mind: Bruce Birch's NIB commentary. He is a thoughtful exegete. Michael Fishbane's Haftarot commentary in the JPS Bible Commentary series. This does not include a running commentary on 1-2 Samuel (just the passages in the lectionary cycle), but is still worth looking at. In fact, I think the volume belongs on the shelves of all evangelical Christians who are interested in seeing what sensitive canonical exegesis looks like from the pen of a master Jewish interpreter.

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