A Guide to the Bible: a book review

While statistics tell us that the amount of people who read their Bible continues to fall, there is no shortage of guidebooks for Bible reading on the market. Popular level books by liberals (John Dominic Crossan, Harvey Cox, Marcus Borg), Post-Evangelicals (Peter Enns, Rob Bell), Traditional Evangelicals (Gordon Fee & Doug Stuart, John Walton, RC Sproul), Fundamentalists (Henrietta Mears, John McArthur) flood the market and continue to sell well. Perhaps better than ever, since modern readers find the Bible so disorienting. John Goldingay offers his guidance through the realm of Scripture in A Reader’s Guide to the Bible.

9286Goldingay is one my favorite Old Testament scholars and commentators. He is the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, the author of a masterful 3 volume Old Testament Theology and has written several critical commentaries, notably, Daniel in the Word Biblical Commentary, and 3 volume Psalms commentary in the Baker’s Commentary on Old Testament Wisdom. He also provides the Old Testament counterpoint to N.T. Wright, with the 17 volume Old Testament For Everyone Series (WJK).

In A Reader’s Guide to the Bible, Goldingay covers the history, narrative, and various genres of Scripture in 4 brief sections. Instead of providing a book by book overview, he opens with an introductory section, providing a broad chronology of the Bible, and a look at biblical geography (part 1). Next, he examines the story of Scripture from the Creation in Genesis to the early church of Acts (part 2).  In part 3, Goldingay explores the biblical genres which provide “God’s word for his people”: the instructions to the priests in the Pentateuch, the prophets, apostolic letters, the wisdom of Proverbs and Song of Songs, and Apocalyptic in Daniel and Revelation. Finally, in part 4, he examines Scriptures which describe Israel’s response to God—prayer in praise in Psalms and Lamentations, and the doubt and uncertainty described in Ecclesiastes and Job. An epilogue describes the value of reading the Bible today.

One of the things that Goldingay does quite well, is noting the contexts that the biblical authors wrote in and to.  He points, occasionally,  to various sources and settings behind the text (source criticism), but his focus throughout remains on the final form of Scripture. For example, in referring to the opening books of the Bible, Goldingay writes:

Some of the threads that make up the first five books in the Bible can be unwoven, and we can then see how the story was applied to the people in different periods. We will note some examples of this below. But it is a delicate exercise, and it is guesswork. Since only the conflated version has been preserved we concentrate on that. (35).

So in Genesis, Goldingay notes three-time periods that the final text is relevant to (1) the Exodus (Moses’ timeframe), (2) the Davidic Monarchy under David and Solomon, and (3) the exile (40-41). By reading Genesis with an eye to the concerns of these periods, Goldingay avoids reading modern scientific concerns back into the text (as in the creation accounts):

These stories thus relate to a period in Israel’s life, which helps to short-circuit the problems that arise when they are treated as scientific narratives. There are various ways of fitting scientific discoveries and the creation stories together. But we miss the point of Genesis if we concentrate on this question. Genesis is concerned with bringing a message to the people in its day that will help them understand their own lives and help them follow the truth (42).

This same focus on the contexts of the communities that produced and received these Scriptures is carried through the Deuteronomic history,  the time of the Exile and, in the New Testament the early church, as does the same reticence of falling down the source criticism rabbit hole(e.g. Goldingay mentions the various time periods/sections in Isaiah, the synoptic triple tradition, and Q, the questionable authorship of some epistles like second Peter, but on the whole, doesn’t question the contested letters of Paul, or chase down sources and authorship).

The essay that serves as the epilogue, underscores the continuing relevance of reading the Old Testament for Christians. Goldingay contends that the Old Testament provides the necessary background which enables us to understand Jesus, and asks all the questions which Jesus is the answer to (177-180). However, the Old Testament has its own intrinsic value as well. It illustrates God at work in the life of His people, and it addresses a broader range of concerns than the New Testament does (181-183).

Goldingay is a great scholar but this is not a heavy book. I’ve probably used more theological jargon writing this review than Goldingay did in his whole book. He presents a broad overview of the biblical story cognizant of the thought world of its original authors and their intended audience, but he does so, in simple, accessible language. And he does this in only a 186 pages.

Although, I do have a couple of minor critiques. First, there is a small editorial error in the opening pages of the book (1-2). When Goldingay gives an outline for his book, he mentions 3 chapters in his introductory section (part 1). There are only 2 chapters in that section (“The Events of the Bible” and “The Land of the Bible”), so this throws all his other chapter numbers off by 1. Perhaps this is a reflection of an earlier draft. This is not really a substantive complaint, but I hate seeing this kind of editorial oversight in a finished product.

Secondly, I had a difficult time figuring out who the intended audience was for this book. This book was published by IVP Academic, (InterVarsity Press’s academic imprint), but I have a hard time envisioning this book being used in the classroom.  While Goldingay is a thoughtful scholar and there are some real gems here, its brevity, lack of critical engagement, footnotes or even a bibliography, means it is really intended as a  popular level book. In fact, the only suggested reading for those who want to go deeper with individual books is his “Old Testament for Everyone” and N.T. Wright’s “New Testament for Everyone” series, which are non-technical, lay commentaries. On the other hand, there is enough substance here that I think lay readers may also find the lack of works cited frustrating, or find his discussion of some scripture genres or books, overly brief. I followed along with Goldingay just fine, but I have also read a lot (and went to seminary). I wondered if certain sections would make as much sense, or provide enough detail for me if I was a total neophyte.

But on the whole, I found this a handy overview of the Bible, its history, narrative, and various genres, commending the whole scripture to the people of God. Serious students will want more than this book offers but as an entry-level guidebook, this is pretty good. I give it 3-and-a-half stars. – ★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Going Old Testament on Mark: a book review

Mark Through Old Testament Eyes is the inaugural volume of the new  “Through Old Testament Eyes” Background and Application Commentary series from Kregel Academic. Andrew Le Peau is the series editor and author of this volume. The commentary examines ways Mark utilized imagery, allusions and his literary structure to illuminate aspects and themes drawn from the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament.

Le Peau was a longtime associate publisher for editorial at InterVarsity Press and author of several of IVP’s LifeGuide Bible Studies, co-author of Heart, Soul, Mind, Strength: An Anecdotal History of InterVarsity Press, 1947-2007. He is currently an editor and writer living in the Chicago area.

9780825444111Mark Through Old Testament Eyes is made up of four repeating features :

  • a verse-by-verse or paragraph-by-paragraph running commentary on the text of Mark, discussing Old Testament background, the text as a whole and questions that may arise from the text.
  • periodic ‘Through Old Testament Eyes’ summaries which give a bigger picture of how Mark makes use of Old Testament themes and motifs.
  • sections on ‘what the structure means’ that discuss the context, literary structure, and imagery.
  • ‘Going Deeper’ sections that unpack the implications of Mark’s gospel for how we ought to live(10, these features will be consistent throughout the series).

Le Peau explores the links between Jesus in Mark’s Gospel and the Exodus, Moses, the Jewish Temple, and Israel’s Messianic hopes and the various ways Christ recapitulated Jewish symbols and practices around himself. As this is a “Background commentary,” it doesn’t address every question in the text. Le Peau doesn’t explore in-depth links between Mark and the other Synoptics, John or the later New Testament. Yet, because Mark (and other New Testament writers) built on and inhabited the Old Testament thought-world, the focus of this commentary (and series) illuminates the text well.

Several features of this commentary resonate with me personally. First, I was a student leader in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship when I was in college. There I learned to study the gospels in the context of investigative Bible studies and manuscript studies. Manuscript studies involved examining books of the Bible with the paragraphs and verse markings taken out. In the context of community, we would examine the passage, look for structural breaks, figures of speech, repeated words, phrases and themes, and contrasting elements in the text. Paul Byer was an InterVarsity staff member who pioneered the “Manuscript” study on Mark in the 1950s, Le Peau has taught Mark through manuscript studies with InterVarsity for the past fifteen years. When I read the ‘what does the structure mean’ sections of this commentary, I felt like I was on the similar ground to the ways I’ve been taught to engage the text fruitfully.

Secondly, the approach of looking to the Old Testament in order to properly understand the allusions, images, and intent of the New Testament, is very much the approach taken in my training in biblical studies. Rick Watts, who wrote Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (Baker Academic, 1997) and the Mark section of the Commentary on  the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2007), provides the general outline and themes Mark’s New Exodus which Le Peau follows (329, n. 11). Watts was my New Testament professor in seminary. So once again I feel I was on the similar ground.

Third, this book is just interestingly written. Le Peau introduction begins with an explorations of the way the Toy Story trilogy pays homage to Star Wars in allusions, references, and characters, and how Star Wars itself alludes to earlier films and history (12-16) This ‘family film criticism’ gives Le Peau a way to talk about Mark’s use of Old Testament themes: Exodus and Isaiah. The commentary itself doesn’t have these kinds of pop-cultural references, but several of the ‘going deeper’ sections relate stories from church history, contemporary Christians, case studies and Le Peau’s own life. It makes this an interesting read for a commentary, which readers of commentaries everywhere understand, that is no small thing.

This is not a technical commentary and Le Peau stays away from linguistic and biblical studies jargon. When he does use technical terms (e.g. chiasm) these are clearly defined and described, so that non-scholars can understand, and Le Peau perfers a more accessible term (such as sandwiching) to technical terms (such as ‘inclusio’)(20). Le Peau does not include long streams of Greek syntax or highly technical, text-critical debates. So, for example, in his discussion of Mark’s structure and the longer ending of Mark (16:9-20), he bases his conclusions on a close reading of the text— where it differs in content, style, and use of the Old Testament, from the rest of Mark’s gospel (300). He does not cite evidence from the Church Fathers or ancient manuscripts.

Le Peau also notes some of the political tensions in Mark. Mark’s Jesus is in direct conflict with Satan and his demons, but underlying the spiritual conflict is also Jesus’ opposition to the structures and institutions of his day. For example, his comments on Jesus’ first miracle, casting out a demon in a Capernaum synagogue (Mark 1:21-28), Le Peau comments, “What, we may well ask, is an evil spirit is[sic] doing in the synagogue in the first place? This suggests that the established religion of the Jews has become corrupted, setting the stage for the further tensions between Jesus and the Jewish leaders we will see in Mark” (47).  Elsewhere, he notes how ‘the nearness of Kingdom of God’ implies a move beyond ‘personal salvation’ toward the corporate care of the poor and oppressed (40-41). I did feel at times, he could have explored the political/social implications a little more than he did, but I was glad to see, he was cognizant of these dimensions to Mark.

On a whole, this is a solid commentary, which will helpful for teachers, preachers, and students of Mark. I give this four stars. – ★ ★ ★ ★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Singing Advent

Advent is a time for singing a new song and for imagining new possibilities in the coming of Christ. We note the not-yet-ness of our experience, but we press in with anticipation and longing. We allow ourselves to hope, again.

The traditional Advent carols (e.g. O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and Come Thou Long Expected Jesus) describe this sense of longing.  But the wider culture presses past the waiting, directly to Christmas (but with less Jesus. Everywhere we go, there is Christmas. Walk into any coffee shop or mall, or turn the radio dial and you hear crooning of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, or how I’ll be home for Christmas (if only in our dreams). Rudolph dances the Jingle Bell Rock. Holiday cheer is in full swing. And beyond the music, there are colorful lights, Silver Bells, tree trimming, Christmas parties, and holiday classics on TV. Only eager seminarians, disgruntled ex-pastors, and cranky liturgists seek to deny people all their early celebrations, but there is something pathological about our inability to wait.

The gospel of Luke commends two songs for Advent that describe the hopes. The first comes from the lips of  a Palestinian teenager, Mary, as she considers who the child she carries, is:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  (Luke 1:46-55)

This is more than just a mother’s hope for a child. Mary senses God will do something new through her baby boy and it will change everything. Donald Kraybill notes:

Five types of people are startled and surprised in Mary’s vision. Those at the top of the social pyramid—the proud, the rich, and the mighty—topple. Stripped of their thrones, they are scattered and sent away empty. Meanwhile the poor and hungry, at the bottom of the pyramid, take a surprising ride to the top. Mary sings words of hope and judgment. Hope for the lowly, as she describes herself, and judgment for those who trample the helpless. (The Upside-Down Kingdom, Herald Press, 2011, 16).

The Advent of Jesus would mean a radical reversal of the way things are. No longer would the proud, powerful and prosperous oppress the poor. No longer would they assume they can do whatever they want to us (because they are a celebrity). God would depose leaders, impeach presidents and remove kings from their throne, and those on the bottom of the social order—minorities, the incarcerated, the alien and the poor—would find themselves elevated to places of prestige.

In short Mary’s song, the Magnificat, hopes. It envisions a day when all injustice will cease.

The second Advent song we hear is Zechariah’s song (Luke 1:67-79, the Benedictus). Zechariah speaks these words after receiving his comeuppance. Like Mary, he had an angelic visitation and the promise of a child, though he didn’t  trust the angel’s words. He and his wife were far too old. The angel prophesied that Zechariah would not speak until after his son is born (Luke1:20). Immediately his voice is gone and Zechariah is mute. When Zechariah’s voice returns, his son had been born and having scrawled the child’s name on his tablet, out of his mouth comes this song of praise:

 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us

in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us  that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear,  in holiness and righteousness

before him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah was a first century Palestinian Jew. Since the days when Babylon tore down Jerusalem’s walls and carried its inhabitants into captivity (586 BCE), the Jews were oppressed by powerful neighbors. They returned from their exile 70 years later, but never fully returned to the days of past greatness. Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome all dominated them. They were at the mercy of foreign leaders and their economy suffered by bad trade deals. Israel’s former glory did not return.

Knowing the singer, we know what key and what tune to apply to Zechariah’s song. He sensed, at last, God was acting to restore his people, rescue and heal them, and renew His covenant with them. God was about to act. Would this be the moment when God Makes Israel Great Again?

Hope and restoration have become political rhetoric. One leader comes promising hope and change. Another comes promising a restoration of past greatness. How easy it is to be cynical at the hollow din of such words.

But if only we can learn to sing again, the way Palestinian teenagers and old men once did, as they imagined the things God could do and was doing in their midst. What is the song God placed in you? What is your song of hope?

 

Theology Gone Wyld: a book review

5202Rich Wyld is an Anglican priest with a PhD from Durham University in theology.  He is the brain behind the Theologygrams blog where he has created hundreds of ‘theology diagrams’ which describe the world of the Bible, theology, church history, ethics and life in the church. With Vin diagrams, pie charts, tables, graphs and just a bit of cheek, helps us visualize the world of theology.

Theologygrams: Theology explained in diagrams (IVP, 2017, previously published in the UK by Darton, Longman & Todd) collects a number of Wyld’s reflections on the Old Testament, the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament, the Life of the Church and Theology. Wyld has a gift for being silly without being wholly irreverent. He describes this as “quite a silly book about some quite serious stuff” and says his “intention is never to mock or belittle God, theology, the Bible or the Church” (4). So this isn’t a book making fun of faith, though Wyld does give us a fair share of good-natured ribbing.

Because it doesn’t seem fair to review a book of diagrams without sharing some of them, here are a few pictures previously published on Wyld’s blog and included in the book:

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This is a fun little book. A perfect stocking stuffer for a theology buff. Some diagrams are more serious and content heavy than others. Some are mostly silly with a side of theological reflection. I give this book four stars – ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review

Hebrews and James, Reformation Style: a book review

Until now, I had not read any of the commentaries in the IVP Reformation Commentary on Scripture series. My interest in the theological interpretation and historical theology usually drives me to a much earlier era. I love the Desert Fathers and patristics and have spent some time with the Ancient Christian Commentary series.  However, my interest was piqued by the lastest Reformation Commentary volume, edited by Roland Rittgers, in part because of the celebration of the Reformation’s quincentennial, and partly because volume XIII, examines the books of Hebrews and James.

2976I love these two epistles, yet Martin Luther had a lower estimation of them.  Luther liked Hebrews, though he did not place it on the same footing with apostolic teaching (3). He regarded it as a non-Pauline epistle, but he did think the author of Hebrews was at least a disciple of the Apostles, and Luther’s lectures on Hebrews (1517-1518), influenced and impacted his maturing Reformation theology (pp. xliii-xliv). James, on the other hand, he regarded as an epistle of straw, “with nothing of the nature of the gospel about it” (200). Despite Luther’s opinion of these books, other Reformers were more charitable in their assessments, many regarding the former as Pauline, and the latter as apostolic and authoritative.

The Reformation Commentary on Scripture follows much the same format as the Ancient Christian Commentary does. Each book is broken up into sections by pericope, with verse by verse (or paragraph by paragraph) commentary drawn from the writings of various reformers. The first thing I noticed was the breadth of voices which Rittgers includes. There were Catholic reformers and Christian humanists, (e.g. Gasparo Contarini, Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More), Lutherans, Calvinists (e.g. John Calvin, Theodore Beza), Swiss Reformed (e.g., Heinrich Bullinger, Huldrych Zwingli) Anglicans, Puritans, and Radical Reformers (e.g. Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, Melchoir Hoffman).  Jacobus Arminius provides a counter-voice to some of the hardline Calvinist comments on Hebrews. Given the era, the voices included were mostly male, though Rittgers does include a sole entry from Marguerite of Navarre (104-105).  Some of these commentators were familiar to me. Many were not. There is an appendix with “Biographical Sketches or Reformation-Era Figures and Works” which profiles most of the references included here (though curiously doesn’t profile Edward Dering, who comments extensively on Hebrews but lucky for me there is Wikipedia).

Often the differences of opinion between the Reformers fall predictably along the hardened denominational lines of latter days. The Reformers wrestled with Hebrew’s apparent teaching that we can lose our salvation. Anabaptist commentators like Derek spoke forcibly of the forcibly of the need for excommunicating false believers (82). The Protestants loved what Hebrews says about the supremacy of Christ, but went to great pains to show, against Catholic sacramental theology, that Christ is not sacrificed again in the mass, but once alone for our sin (see, for example, Johannes Bugenhagen’s comments on Heb 9:11-12. p 125). In dealing with James, Lutherans, in general, were less sunny toward the epistle as Luther had been, whereas magisterial Reformers, and Anglicans regarded it much more favorably.

I read through this commentary in about a week’s time. There is enough here that is devotional. The Reformers read the Bible with an eye toward what it meant in life. Their comments are pre-critical in the sense that they do not occupy themselves with sources, literary form or the text’s setting in life. They are much more concerned about explicating what the implications of these epistles are for the lives of the faithful. This isn’t to say that they were unaware of debates about issues like authorship, but their answers were meant to either give weight to either the text or their critique of the epistles’ theology. As theological interpreters, they read the Bible in a Christocentric way.  Hebrews especially send the Reformers back over the Old Testament, looking for the ways the Hebrew Bible testifies of Christ. James’ critique of favoritism and partiality toward the rich, mirrored the era’s critique of corruption in the Church.They were serious readers. They engaged the words on the page.

It is fruitful to read commentaries from people outside of our own era. The sixteenth-century Reformers had their own blind spots and weren’t privy to some of the critical insights we have today. Yet their God-focused, Christ-centered interpretative tradition shaped our theological traditions. Rittgers has compiled an accessible entry point into their theology. I give this commentary four stars. – ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Simply Pray: a book review

There are lots of books on prayer, but reading them doesn’t necessarily make you a better pray-er. Developing a prayer life (or just knowing what you are ‘supposed to do’ while you are praying) can be difficult. But does it have to be? We know that ‘the prayer of a righteous man availeth much’ (James 5:16, KJV), but is it only those people with heroic prayer disciplines whom God listens to?

4481Charlie Dawes is a pastor in the DC Metro area and the former vice president for student development at South-eastern University. In Simple Prayer: Learning to Speak to God with Ease, he describes how to develop intimacy with God through praying short sentence prayers, or sometimes just a single word, which calls to mind God’s presence. In his introduction, Dawes says:

This book is for those too busy to pray and those who found their prayers to be lifeless. This is a chance to connect our prayer with historic prayers that have carried believers for centuries, and for those prayers to create space in our inner life for us to be with God(10).

Many of the prayer sentences Dawes points us to, are drawn directly from Scripture—a phrase from the Lord’s prayer, or a plaintive cry of someone Jesus encounters. However, Dawes also draws on the wisdom of the Christian tradition—the desert fathers and the Jesus Prayer.

Simple Prayer is divided into eight chapters. Chapter 1 discusses what simple prayer is. Dawes doesn’t just offer a simple definition. Instead he describes how prayer shouldn’t be transactional or ‘a performance.’ He describes the goal of prayer as ‘union with God’ and gives the example of praying Your Kingdom Come—a line lifted from the Lord’s prayer—as a short, focused prayer that reminds us (and Jesus’ disciples) that the powers we around us are not the ultimate powers. In this way, Dawes invites us to find ways to pray phrases from our Bible reading as a way of entering deeper into what the Spirit of God is saying. That is basically his method. Dawes writes, “Simple prayer is not about making prayer easier or reducing the amount our lives are devoted to prayer, it is about making it more accessible and more precise” (20).

The next seven chapters give various examples of simple prayer, and describes how to pray particular sentence prayers. Chapter 2 is devoted to describing the theology and practice of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner). Chapter 3 discusses the simple prayer of faith, using the prayers of the Roman Centurion who told Jesus, in faith, “Say the word (and my servant will be healed),” and the desperate father who cried, “I do believe, help me overcome unbelief.” Dawes sees these sentences (“say the word” and “Help me overcome unbelief”) as simple prayers we can each pray, to teach our hearts to trust, even when faith feels feeble. Chapter 4 explores the simple prayer for forgiveness; chapter 5, prayer for unity; and chapter 6 prayers for restoration. These chapters each follow the same pattern: description of phrases drawn from the Bible and instructions on how to pray each.

In chapter 7, Dawes discusses the history of monologistos—prayers that consist of a single word or phrasein the desert tradition (notably, in John Cassian’s Conferences, and John Climicus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent (103).  Dawes, then discusses several words and phrases in scripture which have been meaningful to his own spiritual life (selah, You know me, and Hosanna)The closing chapter explores simple prayer of finding your way, or more precisely prayers that align our lives with with the things God wants to accomplish.

As you may expect, Simple Prayer is a simple book.  It is just 130 pages and is mostly devotional reflections on Bible verses with invitations to pray the phrases. Dawes has done the ground work and it is possible to use this book as a prayer guide, praying the phrases which Dawes has highlighted for us. Yet simple prayer is not simply limited to these particular words and phrases, and you can take the method Dawes employs and pray other Biblical phrases.

As with other books on prayer, reading this book does not guarantee we will become better pray-ers, but Dawes does invite us to pray and gives us an accessible and focused way to do it. There is no formalic method here like centering prayer or stages to lectio divina (though this is a form of it). As someone who hates formulas and can over-complicate things, this instructive for me. It doesn’t have to be hard, simply pray.  I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review

Joel: An Introduction

The book of Joel is an enigma, smothered in mystery, wrapped in a tortilla and served to someone, somewhere. Maybe not a tortilla, but some sort of flatbread. Maybe no wrapping at all.

Its superscription identifies the book’s contents as, “The word of the LORD that came to Joel son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1). However, it does not give us any historical indicators or points of reference. Joel’s name is a combination of the Divine names YHWH and Elohim, his father’s name means ‘youth of El.’ This is loaded with symbolism for ‘a prophet of the LORD.’ But at least in the superscription, we are given no indication if Joel prophesied to the Northern or Southern Kingdom (later references in the book and mentions of the temple indicate Judah).

This lack of historical indicators and the vagueness of the prophet’s origin make it difficult to know when this book was written. Scholarly opinion ranges from the early monarchy to the post-exilic period. An early date points to references to the temple (Joel 1:9, 13,14,16; 3:18). A late date points to the fact that there are no references to any monarchs, north or south. The early part of the book describes a locust plague  (1:1-2:27), the latter part of the book (2:28-3:21) is apocalyptic with a post-exilic flavor. So some critical scholarship questions the overall unity of the book. I don’t have a firm opinion on the date of Joel either way. I do think there are strong thematic links between the first and second halves of the book. The whole enchilada is meant to be read together regardless of the different tastes of its ingredients (thus, wrapped in a tortilla).

This lack of specific historical indicators serves us well as contemporary readers. When we read of the ecological crisis brought on by an army of locust and the ravages of war, we can enter into Joel’s metaphor. We can identify in our own personal and corporate lives, ‘the years the locust have eaten’ (Joel 2:25). When we read its apocalyptic promise of renewal, restoration, vindication, and God’s spirit poured on all flesh, we are filled with the hope of God’s work in our own contexts. As Christians, we read Joel’s promises through the lens of Jesus—the Word-made-flesh who inaugurated the coming of God’s kingdom, and Pentecost (cf. Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2), but we press forward toward the day when God’s kingdom comes in fullness and his justice reigns on the earth.

So as we look at Joel, pay attention to the ways in which the crises of Ancient Israel mirror our own economic and ecological context. These three short chapters have something to teach us.


References

Fuhr, Jr., Richard Alan & Gary Yates, The Message of the Twelve. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2016.

Garrett, Duane A. Hosea, Joel. Vol. 19A. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997.

Stuart, Douglas. Hosea–Jonah. Vol. 31. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002.