Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review
Hendrickson's New International Biblical Commentary--Old Testament
Series has a welcome addition in the volume, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. The
editors of the series seek to offer commentaries that engage the books of
the Old Testament seriously, while assisting readers in the often difficult
navigation of the OT's "literary and spiritual terrain" (vii). This
particular task is performed ably and well in this book by Leslie C. Allen
(Ezra-Nehemiah), and Timothy S. Laniak (Esther).
In his contribution to this commentary volume, Leslie Allen presents Ezra-Nehemiah as "a book of new beginnings"--"the OT equivalent of the Acts of the Apostles" (3). Consistent with the literary and spiritual foci of the NIBC series editors, Allen's offering is structured with primary emphasis on investigating the literary text, while also being attentive to theological concerns therein. In the midst of this, care is taken not to eclipse or diminish historical matters as they are relevant to the commentary task, even though Allen no longer sees the task of reconstructing postexilic history as the best way into an exploration of Ezra-Nehemiah material.
Allen views the content of Ezra-Nehemiah as a literary whole and organizes his approach to the text into three parts, or literary sections. As he describes it, "[T]he three parts tell the story of three missions, and each mission falls into two parts after it is assigned and described" (4). The initial mission is presented in Ezra 1-6, and reports regarding the early Jewish returnees from exile. The second mission, found in Ezra 7-10, concerns mainly the commission and return of Ezra, who is charged with the tasks of temple refurbishment and the encouragement/admonition of Torah obedience among the returnees. These things are to be undertaken (embraced) in order that life back in the land might be a source of future hope. The material in Nehemiah 1-13 describes the third and final mission, that of Nehemiah. Nehemiah's central task is one of rebuilding: reconstructing the walls of Jerusalem; and overseeing the repopulation process--in other words, to build up a community. Allen contends that the three literary parts of the text "run along parallel lines," although readers should not mistake this clear structural pattern to be void of distinctiveness and complexity in the ways the various missions are presented. For example, even though the theme of opposition is a central one in the majority of the missions (sections), the way in which conflict is presented and worked through in each narrative instance is by no means cut-and-dried or simplistic.
Allen's style is lucid and inviting as he assists the reader in an exploration of Ezra-Nehemiah. And by no means attempting to be a stand-alone, exhaustive commentary, this work will communicate to a wide audience while also serving to guide readers into a broader dialogue with Ezra-Nehemiah scholarship (esp., Williamson, Clines, Rudolf, Blenkinsopp), with which Allen is in regular contact (esp. in the very helpful 'Additional Notes' sections).
Timothy Laniak's work on the book of Esther provides an equally compelling, yet markedly different, venture into a biblical text. Laniak begins his 'Introduction' with several paragraphs concerning the interpretation of biblical stories in general--material that is very helpful broadly speaking, and especially so as the story of Esther is encountered. "A biblical story calls its readers to enter its world," contends Laniak, "to be captivated by its characters, intrigued by its plot, and affectively engaged through suspense and complication till its final denouement" (169). Laniak sets out to help readers become increasingly competent in ancient conventions (e.g., of literature, of historiography), so that the discernment of contemporary relevance will flow naturally and fairly from the story read as a whole.
The interpretive approach employed by Laniak is set up by a serious look at a wide variety of factors necessary and helpful to any reading of the Esther story. Concerning the literary aspect, the following elements are briefly introduced: point of view, setting, plot, themes, characterization, intertextuality, and genre. By having a better handle on these "rudiments," Laniak proposes that the already well-loved story of Esther might be even more deeply appreciated. Integral as well to a broader grasp of the book of Esther is a beginning apprehension of the stages of development and the existence of multiple Esther stories (MT, LXX, and AT). Laniak's presentation of this important aspect of Esther studies and possible interpretive implications is quite useful, but suffers from the lack of at least some interaction with the work of Kristin De Troyer (esp., The End of the Alpha Text of Esther [Atlanta: SBL, 2000]). Space is also allotted and well utilized concerning the following issues: the story of Esther and its relationship to history; honest grappling with matters of morality in the story of Esther; the story of Esther and its theological presentation; and the range of hope-filled messages that the story offers in its subtle, rich complexity.
Laniak communicates very well, and this is especially helpful in the commentary format in which precision and clarity are at a premium. In large part due to his experience and expertise in Esther studies (cf. Shame and Honor in the Book of Esther [Atlanta: SBL, 1998]), Laniak is able to offer a rich resource here that will be of interest and use to a wide audience. Moreover, the very helpful 'Additional Notes' sections provide the reader an opportunity for further exploration of notable resources in Esther studies (esp., Fox, Clines, Levenson, Bush).
Charles D. Harvey