Biblical studies: June 2008 Archives

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. This is not an exhaustive list, just the commentaries that I think are most worth paying attention to.

Gordon Wenham's WBC (1987, 1994) receives the best all-around reviews of any commentary on Genesis and from a wide range of people. Wenham is a moderate to conservative evangelical. He spends some time on source-critical issues, generally taking a skeptical stance toward those who think they can delineate sources and identify different time periods for different parts of the book. Wenham is good at historical background, often defending the plausibility of the narratives, particularly in the patriarchal section. He spends more time than most academic commentaries dealing with matters of theology and even Christian application. Of the Genesis commentaries that are accessible enough for someone like me (i.e. someone not knowing any Hebrew) to read, Wenham's is the most detailed on textual criticism. One strength is his proportionally-greater treatment of the structure of individual passages, although some might think it's a bit much. I did think the commentary was a bit briefer than I expected once you get through the literary and source-critical issues. His structural analysis shows a tightly-woven narrative by a single mind, which undermines the credence he shows to the general source-critical approach (as skeptical as he is of particular proposals in source criticism). Wenham has an absolutely stellar NICOT on Leviticus and a pretty good exposition in TOTC on Numbers. He also has done a lot of more general work on the Pentateuch and is generally seen as one of the top Pentateuch scholars of our time.

Victor Hamilton's NICOT (1990, 1995) is about at the same level. He is a conservative evangelical, and the series is generally seen as being more conservative than WBC, which is probably the reason he gets a little less attention from the less-conservative end of scholarship. I think the commentaries are about equivalent in quality, with Wenham perhaps winning out a little more often in terms of incisive exegesis but Hamilton giving a little more depth on more issues, especially in his introduction. Hamilton is particularly better on linguistic issues such as grammar and close analysis of particular words, but I think he may sometimes overdo it chasing lexical rabbit trails, and he's perhaps less strong on big-picture thinking. He takes the time throughout his commentary to look at the New Testament use of Genesis. I would say that Hamilton and Wenham balance each other pretty well as a pair. Hamilton is also known for his Handbook on the Pentateuch.

Bruce Waltke had a set of exegetical notes he would distribute to his Genesis seminary classes, and one of his former students, Cathi J. Fredericks, talked him into letting her edit them for publication in this 2001 volume. He did expand on them in places, but these are mostly brief exegetical notes with theological summaries for each unit he discusses. I generally find his exegesis to be the best of any of the Genesis commentaries I've looked at, but there isn't a lot of detail here on historical background, language, and many other things you might expect to look to a commentary to help you understand. The book is uneven, having much more discussion on the parts he chose to expand on and much less of insight on the notes he chose to leave as they were. It makes it hard to tell the intended audience also, since it doesn't have enough depth on every matter for academic work, has a bit much on structural and rhetorical elements for the average paster, and isn't evenly balanced in amount of detail across the whole book to be a first choice for any purpose. Nevertheless, I recommend it with Hamilton and Wenham as an excellent supplement to their more detailed work. Waltke is a conservative evangelical, and he's also known for excellent commentaries on Proverbs (NICOT) and Micah (Eerdmans) as well as an oft-cited Hebrew grammar.

There are those who think there's something immoral about translating the measurements in the Bible into contemporary units (e.g. miles or gallons). They claim that it's anachronistic, because the writer of the passage wouldn't have had a clue what a pound or an inch is. I can accept this argument with respect to passages where the numeric values are clearly symbolic, as in the temple measurements in Revelation. Translations that remove that by using contemporary units and thus different numbers are removing a key enough feature of the text that it's worth keeping the original values and units. But some people think it's changing the Bible to use contemporary units anywhere.

When I was reading Andrew Hill's commentary on Chronicles, it occurred to me that the Chronicler does exactly the thing such people spend so much effort calling evil. He translates units used in the early Kings text into the Persian units of his own day. People who make this claim are almost all inerrantists. If they were to remain consistent, they would have to admit that the Chronicler was inspired by God to do something they think is immoral, and thus they'd have to give up inerrancy, at least about Chronicles, or give up their view that this kind of translation is always bad.

I came across an oblique reference to this while scanning my file of unblogged things that I've thought about blogging, but I don't have any references. I thought it was an interesting enough point that I figured it deserved a blog entry, even if I couldn't remember what part of the book this occurred in.

A.W. Pink, Racist?

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In his section on the so-called curse of Ham (which is really the curse on Canaan, Ham's son), Daniel Hays [in From every People and Nation: A biblical theology of race] presents a little bit of information on biblical mmentators and scholars whose works are still available who present outdated and exegetically-unsound positions about that passage. He wants to make the point that it's easy to walk into a Christian bookstore and come out with a book that furthers ridiculous claims about the passage in question, and I'm glad to see someone complaining about that.

One author he picks on is A.W. Pink, whose Gleanings in Genesis offers one such outdated and exegetically-unsupportable interpretation. Pink assumes the traditional view and then tries to explain how the curse on Ham has indeed been fulfilled in some ways, thus defending the statement as a true prophecy:

The whole of Africa was peopled by the descendants of Ham, and for many centuries the greater part of that continent lay under the domination of the Romans, Saracens, and Turks. And, as is well known, the Negroes who were for so long the slaves of Europeans and Americans also claim Ham as their progenitor.[from 1950 Moody edition, p.126, as quoted in Hays, p.53]

He goes on to discuss C.F. Keil's comments (but attributes them to Keil and Delitzsch even though the Genesis commentary in the Keil-Delitzsch series was written just by Keil; Delitzsch did write a commentary on Genesis, but it's not included in that series):

In the sin of Ham there lies the great stain of the whole Hamitic race, whose chief characteristic is sexual sin; and the curse which Noah pronounced upon this sin still rests upon the race ... the remainder of the Hamitic tribes either shared the same fate, or sigh still, like the Negroes, for example, and other African tribes, beneath the yoke of the most crushing slavery.

Hays notes in a footnote that this statement is even worse, since it takes the peoples who most significantly dominated the ancient near east to have been slaves. I would have thought that the main reason it's worse is that it seems to attribute sexual sin as the chief characteristic of the whole Hamitic race. That is indeed racist in the extreme. Hays then cites a third, multi-author commentary that explains the curse as being fulfilled by the European trade in African slaves. He then says something that doesn't seem at all to be justified about Pink or the third commentary:

Woe to the one who says to his father, "What will you engender?" or to a woman, "What will you writhe over in labor?" [Isaiah 45:10]

John Oswalt (Isaiah 40-66: New International Commentary on the Old Testament) comments on the last part of the above verse as follows:

Commentators have questioned why woman is used in the second bicolon instead of the expected parallel, "mother." The solutions offered have generally been inconclusive, but this may be another example of the Bible's careful refusal to give even the appearance of labeling God as Mother. Once that equation is permitted to stand it becomes all but impossible to maintain the doctrine of transcendence on which all biblical revelation stands or falls. This is so for two reasons: (1) because there is a physical continuity between mother and child, and (2) because of the total association of mother goddesses in the ancient Near East with fertility and reproduction.

I think Oswalt is right that the biblical authors are reluctant to make explicit statements about God as mother. This is worth contrasting with using clear feminine imagery about God, which they certainly do, albeit not as often as they use masculine imagery. But they don't speak of God as mother.

I'm curious what it means if Oswalt is right about the reasons for avoiding such a conclusion. Oswalt's reasoning seems to me to be friendly to some feminist views, in at least one respect. The reason for not using explicit mother language is at least in part culturally-conditioned, since his second explanation involves something true only of the immediately surrounding cultures.

But it does also involve something universal, even if it is contingent. The close physical continuity between mother and child is not culturally-relative. Only in science fiction scenarios with artificial wombs can you minimize that continuity, and even then it doesn't remove it entirely, since an egg has a little more connection with a mother than a sperm cell does with a father, and the fertilized egg has more connection with the egg than the sperm cell that fertilized it.

Yet both explanations do not rely on any sense of God being male, and thus the usual view that God is neither male nor female but has chosen male language to be more revealing of his nature seems to make sense on Oswalt's account.

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