Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., Handbook on the Prophets (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002). Pp. 512. Hardcover. ISBN:  080102529X. $ 32.99

Designed as a counterpart to Victor Hamilton's recently published Handbook on the Historical Books (Baker, 2001), this volume by Robert Chisholm surveys the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. Handbook on the Prophets adopts a chapter-by-chapter approach to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Minor Prophets, with a brief introduction at the beginning and a bibliography (from approximately 1990 onwards) at the end. Chisholm is a member of the teaching faculty at Dallas Theological Seminary, and so it is not surprising that there is a theologically conservative angle to this book. However, in an era as fragmented as our own, it is a bold task to attempt a reading of the prophetic corpus in its entirety. To this end, Chisholm's efforts are directed toward providing "an overview of the prophets' message through a running commentary that analyzes the structure, themes, and message of the prophets. Indeed, one must see the forest as well as the individual trees, for the individual parts will not make sense without a feel for the whole" (p. 9). I will summarize Chisholm's contribution by focusing on two areas of his book: his treatments of Isaiah and Jonah.

First, with regard to his study of Isaiah, I will restrict my discussion to Chisholm's introduction and his comments on the opening chapter. He begins with several brief statements by way of introduction, firmly locating the book of Isaiah in the eighth century, corresponding with the ministry of the prophet during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. He remarks that the book contains two major literary units: chapters 1-39 (which "reflects for the most part the concerns and sociopolitical realities of Isaiah's time"), and chapters 40-66 (which "anticipates the exile and addresses concerns of the future exiles in Babylon"). While Chisholm briefly mentions the controversy over provenance and authorship, there is no substantial discussion of these issues. Granted, the secondary literature (as the enormity of Blenkinsopp's bibliography in his recent Anchor Bible volumes attests) and critical issues are vast, and can easily bog down the beginning student. But one suspects that a more sustained attempt to inform the reader about developments in the past decade of research -- especially recent focus on the unity and canonical shape of the book -- would not be incompatible with Chisholm's views. From a pedagogical standpoint, however, perhaps a very brief introduction is the wisest course of action. Turning then to his "running commentary" on Isaiah starting with chapter 1, Chisholm's central interest is to explain the intricacies of the text for his audience. Chisholm dates the opening oracle of chapter 1 closer to the end of Isaiah's career in 701 BCE, and suggests that "the message begins with a courtroom scene" (p. 15). Toward the end of the chapter (vv. 29-31), he notes the problem of "worshipping pagan gods in orchards and gardens, apparently as part of some form of fertility cult. Appropriately, the Lord would make these sinners like a dying tree with fading leaves and like an unwatered garden. They would be deprived of the fertility they sought" (p. 18). As a slightly longer sample of his exposition, consider the following paragraph addressing 1:5-9 ("Why do you seek further beatings? Why do you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint," NRSV):

    In its near-fatal condition, Israel resembled a severely battered human body that had been deprived of medical attention (vv. 5-9). A foreign army (the Assyrians) had invaded the land, burned its cities, and stripped its fields of produce. Only the preservation of Jerusalem (called here Daughter Zion) kept Israel from being annihilated like the ancient twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, prime examples of God's devastating judgment (see Isa. 13:19; Jer. 49:18; 50:40; Amos 4:11; Zeph. 2:9). The divine title "LORD Almighty" (traditionally "the LORD of Hosts") is especially appropriate here, for it often depicts the Lord as a mighty warrior-king who leads his armies into battle (see 1:9, 24; 2:12) (p. 16).

With respect to the book of Jonah, the format is the same: introduction followed by commentary on the various chapters. In terms of critical matters, Chisholm seems resistant to the modern paradigm, but does not swallow the traditional fundamentalist line either. He also discusses the structure of the book of Jonah, and notes that "many scholars regard the thanksgiving song in 2:2-9 as a later addition to the book. However... it is integral to the book's structure and provides a foil, as it were, for Jonah's prayer of complaint in 4:2-3" (p. 409). In terms of commentary, consider two of Chisholm's observations. First, he has a nice insight on the nature of the storm in Jonah 1, "To emphasize the severity of the storm, the author utilizes the device of personification and pictures the ship as actually thinking it would be destroyed. NIV translates the last clause in verse 4 as 'the ship threatened to break up,' but the Hebrew text literally says, 'the ship thought [it] would be broken'" (p. 410). Second, Chisholm has a general remark on the prophet's disgust over the divine decision to spare Nineveh, and this remark looks both backward and forward, both to the beginning and the end of the book:

    Jonah was sent on a mission to warn the Ninevites that God was about to judge their moral evil (Heb. ra'ah). His mission was successful; the Ninevites changed, prompting God to relent from sending calamity (Heb. ra'ah again). However, rather than celebrating God's mercy (the same mercy he had experienced when delivered from death), Jonah was displeased and overcome with anger. The statement "Jonah was greatly displeased" literally reads "Jonah was displeased [with] great displeasure." Ironically, the Hebrew term ra'ah, translated as "displeasure" here, is used to describe Jonah's emotional state. At the beginning of the story the term characterized the evil Ninevites; by the end of the story it applies to Jonah-in more ways than one... (p. 414).

In the light of the author's stated aims ("to acquaint readers with the prevailing themes and central messages of these biblical books") and intended audience ("not the professional scholar or even advanced students... [but] college students taking a survey course on the prophets, students taking introductory seminary courses on the prophets, pastors, and laypersons engaged in serious Bible study"), in my view Chisholm certainly succeeds in providing a general overview and reading of the entire prophetic corpus for his intended readership. While there is not much by way of stated methodology (or even discussion of poetry as a genre), the focus is clearly on communicating the content of the prophetic books in an introductory manner. Consequently, this book may appeal to an undergraduate or a seminary context, and perhaps those of a more conservative proclivity are the most likely beneficiaries. Given the general need for careful study in the prophetic books, Chisholm's volume provides a handy resource for teachers of this difficult material, and can usefully be added to syllabi for survey courses.

Keith Bodner
Tyndale College