EZRA, NEHEMIAH, ESTHER: New International Biblical Commentary, by L. Allen and T. Laniak

This book is the 9th volume of the New International Biblical Commentary and, like the other volumes, it is based on the New International Version (NIV).  The editors of this commentary series, Robert Hubbard Jr. and Robert Johnston, have sought to present the Old Testament in such a way that the reader will not feel “skittish about the Old Testament’s diverse portrayal of God,” but will learn how to “navigate this strange and sometimes forbidding literary and spiritual terrain. … so that the power and meaning of these biblical texts become transparent to contemporary readers.”

Accordingly, the approach is not precritical, anticritical or critical.  Rather it is, what the editors call, “believing criticism.”  Authors have been chosen who will write as “believing critics” – scholars who can speak for both church and academy.

Volume 9 of this series covers three biblical books: Ezra, Nehemiah (by Leslie Allen) and Esther (by Timothy Laniak).  In each case, there is a careful section-by-section analysis of the biblical text as found in the NIV as compared with the original Hebrew and/or Aramaic and modern translations.  There is a separate section of notes at the end of each chapter where many technical comments are found.  Each commentary also contains a select bibliography and Scripture and subject indexes.

Leslie Allen is aware of the tremendous difficulties in arranging the material of Ezra and Nehemiah in a coherent chronological order.  Therefore, he uses the books not so much as a window on what really happened in the post-exilic period, but rather as “history related literature.”  Allen sees Ezra and Nehemiah not as separate books, but as books whose parts add up to a structural whole.  He believes that opposition to the three missions of Ezra and Nehemiah provide a dominant theme that holds most sections of the books together.

Timothy Laniak’s commentary on Esther has a long introduction in which he discusses: the plot of the book (that Laniak calls “u-shaped,” following J. Levenson’s organization of the book into two themes, reversals and banquets in a chiastic structure); the text of the book (there were two Hebrew Vorlagen, but only one gives an etiology of Purim); the historicity of the Esther story (Laniak concludes that “while uncertainty lingers over some of the identifications and historical events mentioned …, there is considerable accuracy in many of the story’s details); the morality of the Esther story; the theology of the book; and the story of Esther and its message.

Laniak is not put off by the fact that the name “God” is not used in the Book of Esther.  Laniak believes God’s identity is joined to that of His people.   In spite of the fact that the Jews were in “exile,” there was still a message of hope from God close to the surface of the story, epitomized in how Esther, a “nobody,” became a deliverer of the Jews.  “Jews did not need to wait for a priestly or royal figure to have hope.  With a distinct, yet ‘biblical’ hermeneutic, the book of Esther invites its readers to find hope anywhere, anytime, and through anyone.”

All in all, this book has remained true to its purpose, namely, to show how the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther can be read for spiritual benefit and yet to take account of the historical, textual, linguistic and theological problems posed by the books.  The authors hope that the reader may come away from the reading of this commentary as a “believing critic.”

Merlin D. Rehm
Trinity Lutheran Church
Scarsdale, NY

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