Review: Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (John Walton, Gen. Ed.)

Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary

John H. Walton, General Editor. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. 5 Volumes. Zondervan, 2009.

The issue of “Bible backgrounds” has been with us with particular force since the nineteenth century archaeological discoveries of Mesopotamian creation and flood myths. This put on the table the notion that the religious expressions of the ancient Israelites as found in the Old Testament could be profitably compared and contrasted to those of her neighbors and historical predecessors. Understanding the original meaning of the Old Testament could no longer afford to be merely a self-referential exercise, but a comparative one, where our growing knowledge of antiquity helps guide us in how the Old Testament is to be understood.

In this recently released five-volume set from Zondervan, John Walton (Wheaton College and Graduate School) has provided a detailed and accessible source of information for this intersection of the Old Testament and its ancient Near Eastern context.

These five volumes cover the entire Old Testament in English canonical order. The approach is consistent throughout: the relevant background information for each Old Testament book is given on a chapter-by-chapter basis preceded by introductory comments to each book. At every point where background information is available to illuminate the biblical text, that portion of the text is cited followed by an explanation of the extra-biblical data. It is, in other words, a “commentary” of sorts, but not in the conventional sense of the word. It is, however, the kind of commentary that is very much needed.

There are numerous strengths of this commentary set, the most obvious of which is the simple fact that a comprehensive accumulation of relevant background information exists in a highly accessible format. It is cliché in book reviews to suggest that “scholars and laypeople alike” will benefit from the book under review, but in this case it is most certainly true. Scholars here will find a handy reference to and reminder of a multitude of issues along with a very broad bibliography and extensive footnotes (737 to Genesis alone).

Yet, the depth and detail of these volumes does not take them out of the hands of the very people who most need to familiarize themselves with the information contained here: non-professional but motivated lay readers. The set is very much oriented to “bridging the gap” between the state of Old Testament scholarship and every-day Bible readers, a gap that is remarkably large, given the fact that so much information has been available for so long. Toward that end, Walton has amassed a simply stunning array of color photographs, drawings, charts, maps, and call-out boxes (none of which should surprise those familiar with Walton’s writings). It is fair to say that hardly a page goes by without some visual that is intended to grab the reader’s attention and bring him/her further in the biblical world.

Also, I appreciate Walton’s willingness to allow the extra-biblical data to both confirm and challenge conventional and popular interpretations of the Old Testament. If I may, it seems to me that this entire project—and much of Walton’s career—is centered on this very thing, and he has brought together a highly capable team of scholars to help achieve this goal.

For example, in his comments on Genesis (which, not surprisingly, Walton himself wrote), Walton is very direct on insisting that the “firmament” (Heb. raqia) is a solid dome of some sort (citing approvingly the important work of Paul Seely). This may not seem terribly daring, but, as many know, those who seek to reduce the disquiet between Genesis and science have tried to argue that the raqia was understood in antiquity as non-solid, i.e., like our atmosphere. Walton puts such thoughts to rest in the span of three succinct paragraphs, with footnotes (vol. 1, p. 17).

Likewise, Walton clearly understands the ancient conceptions of the cosmos, including those of the Israelites, as “ancient science” (my term, not Walton’s), i.e., that Genesis reflects a “nonempiricist” (p. 10) worldview, as distinct from a scientific one. Also, Genesis “offers an alternative encapsulation of how the world worked and how it came to work that way” (p. 9), meaning Genesis offers an alternate view of cosmology vis-à-vis the ancient Mesopotamian world, but the alternative nature of Genesis is not found in its more “scientific” nature. Genesis shares the “science” of the day. Where Genesis differs is in the theology that is espoused by means of familiar ancient categories.

Now, Walton shies away from referring to that ancient category as “myth,” and on a certain level I can understand why. Walton addresses this, too briefly I think, in an introductory essay on the nature of comparative studies (pp. vii-xv). Having said this, however, the appropriate focus is on how Walton takes great strides is addressing common misconceptions about biblical cosmology. Walton’s explanation of the Genesis account corrects the error, still espoused among some, that the cosmology of Genesis is merely “phenomenological,’ i.e., not really intended to describe reality as they see it (and so Genesis is not in “conflict” with science”).

As for the flood stories (one of the earliest challenges to conventional thought about the historicity of the biblical account) Walton is quite clear in his view that the Genesis account, like the antecedent Mesopotamian accounts, reflects the fact that “ancient audiences interpreted the epic event to reflect their own particular worldview” (p. 48). He even draws the analogy between “Nathaniel Hawthorne adapting the myths of classical Greece to his nineteenth-century A.D. audience in the Wonder Book, or Walt Disney reshaping the Arabian Nights in Aladdin” (p. 48).

This is a wonderful way of putting it and I couldn’t agree more, but comments such as these would appear to have some implications for how the biblical flood story (and creation and the rest of the primeval history) function as God’s word to us today. What I would like to see more of is substantive engagement of how background information affects “doctrine of Scripture,” at least on the popular Evangelical level. The implications are, in my estimation, quite profound, and the data we have call for such deliberate engagement.

I have focused my comments here on Genesis, in part because this is likely where readers will want to turn first. But I do not want to give the impression that the remaining volumes of this set are of any lesser value. I recommend this set without the slightest hesitation and with great enthusiasm. I cannot think of a better place for interested readers to begin familiarizing themselves with the tremendous and pervasive impact that extra-biblical data has had on our understanding of the Old Testament. If I may offer another cliché, Walton and his team “have done the church a great service,” and I hope this set becomes as widely used and warmly embraced as it deserves to be.