Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Timmer, Daniel, The Non-Israelite Nations in the Book of the Twelve: Thematic Coherence and the Diachronic-Synchronic Relationship in the Minor Prophets (Biblical Interpretation Series, 135; Leiden: Brill, 2015). Pp. xiv + 302. Hardback. US$163.00. ISBN: 978-9004235816.

In this monograph, Timmer provides a detailed survey of the occurrences of non-Israelite nations in the Book of the Twelve. He shapes this study as an “implicit critique” of the standard bifurcation between diachronic and synchronic approaches (p. 2). Instead, Timmer suggests that the “synchronic-diachronic boundary is not merely permeable, but should be collapsed” (p. 19). He seeks to challenge diachronically-oriented critics to consider whether textual coherence can be found in ways that they have not considered, and prompts synchronically-oriented critics to consider if their readings obscure tensions and evidence of development within the text. Timmer draws from a methodology of conceptual coherence, arguing that its breadth makes it suitable to move beyond diachronic-synchronic dichotomy. This method begins with the text as a whole, examining its surface elements, before diving into the concepts that lie beneath the text and influence its structure and message. Although this is a method that has been used to examine individual books, Timmer argues cogently for its utility in exploring a theme that stretches across the literary corpus of the Book of the Twelve.

The majority of the book consists of twelve chapters in which Timmer analyses the presence of non-Israelite nations in each book of the collection. The length of these chapters varies according to the prevalence of the nations theme in each book. Consequently, the Hosea chapter is quite short, in comparison to the actual length of the book, while the Nahum and Malachi chapters are among the longest. Each chapter follows the same structure, beginning with a summary of the vocabulary used to identify the nations, followed by a discussion of the characteristics of the nations, an analysis of the data, and brief conclusions. The summary of vocabulary includes tabulating the occurrences of proper nouns (Egypt, Assyria, etc), terms such as “people,” (עַם) and “nation” (גוֹי), and other catchall generic terms that clearly have non-Israelite nations in view. This provides a helpful repository of the vocabulary used to discuss the theme. The transition, however, to further steps of the analysis is awkward since the accumulation of vocabulary does not affect the evaluation of the nations.

The second element of these chapters is a discussion of the characteristics of the nations in each book, noting in particular their relationship with Israel and Judah. For example, in the discussion of Hosea, Timmer has a section on the nations (Egypt, specifically) as “The Place or Time of Israel's Origins” (p. 24). Another section considers the nations as the “Instrument or Setting of Israel's Future Punishment” (p. 25). Each of the remaining eleven books in the collection receives a similar treatment. For the most part, these characteristics are relatively obvious from a reading of each book, but Timmer's work in organizing them reflects the observant nature of his reading.

The third element of these chapters is an analysis of the preceding data. Timmer focuses on lexical overlap and/or distinction between Israel/Judah and the nations, looking first to see if the texts connect the people of YHWH with the non-Israelite nations via their choice of terminology. He also considers semantic overlap and/or distinction between Israel/Judah and the nations, highlighting the ways in which the texts consider the status and fate of Israel/Judah in comparison with the other nations. For example, while Timmer finds little lexical overlap between Israel and the nations in Amos, he does note a partial semantic equivalence in the moral category to which they are consigned in the oracles of Amos 1–2 (p. 61–2). This analysis permits Timmer to find thematic connections between Israel/Judah and the nations, even if the vocabulary does not explicitly make these links.

Timmer's final chapter draws together some overarching ideas about this theme. Timmer divides the books of the Twelve into five “classes” that range along a spectrum from negative to positive perspectives on the nations. It is notable that eight books (Joel, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi) fit within “class 5,” which allows for some among the nations to enter into a relationship with Israel/Judah and YHWH through various means. The other four classes each contain only a single book and range from Obadiah's consistent condemnation of all nations (especially Edom), and Nahum's condemnation of Neo-Assyria, which liberates many nations it had oppressed, including Judah. This lopsided categorization does seem to reflect the generally dynamic nature of the theme of the nations within the Twelve, since in the majority of the collection they receive both judgment and forms of an offer of salvation. This permits Timmer to conclude that the collection has a basic coherence in that it avoids assigning a common fate to nations with divergent characterization, or a mutually exclusive fate to nations with similar characterization.

There are two observations worth considering when evaluating this work as a whole. First, it is unclear whether Timmer succeeds in “collapsing” the diachronic-synchronic divide. In practice, Timmer's analysis gives priority to a broadly synchronic point of view, which makes sense given his identification of the text of the Book of the Twelve as his controlling mechanism. In his concluding chapter, Timmer deliberately pushes back against the idea that divergent perspectives on the nations must come from different places and times. He argues that this collection presents a “consistent logic for judgment and deliverance” (p. 232), which points to a fundamental coherence of this theme within the collection. Timmer occasionally comments that his analysis does not negate diachronic discussion of the composition history of the Book of the Twelve and he is quite conversant with redactional studies in the field. It is challenging, however, to see how this awareness of these diachronic theories actually affects the reading of the theme of the nations in the Book of the Twelve.

Secondly, somewhat paradoxically, Timmer's concern to thoroughly examine the non-Israelite nations in each book works against his ability to discuss them in the broader collection. Since each chapter addresses a single book in the collection and follows the same painstaking pattern, it renders the majority of this study more effective as twelve separate discussions of the non-Israelite nations with occasional links drawn between the individual books. By the time that the reader gets to the final chapter, it is challenging to remember the particulars of the discussion throughout the earlier chapters. It would be helpful to see a more deliberate presentation of the coherence of the nations theme being built throughout this study.

In summary, this is a thorough, thoughtful discussion of the range of vocabulary and perspectives taken by the Book of the Twelve concerning non-Israelite nations. Timmer is conversant with the relevant secondary literature, but frequent use of untranslated quotations from several languages will narrow the audience of this book to specialists. It is not evident that this study succeeds in breaking the methodological impasse between diachronic and synchronic approaches, but it provides a useful collection of the relevant data for further study on this theme. This study is worth reading for anyone who wants to explore the variety of ways in which the Book of the Twelve makes reference to non-Israelite nations.

Joel D. Barker, Heritage College and Seminary