A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Eric Tully
As the proliferation of biblical commentaries continues both within Evangelical circles and in the broader academy, it is important that a commentary series justify its existence by serving a particular audience or making some methodological contribution. The Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament, edited by Daniel I. Block, focuses primarily on interpretation at the discourse level as well as attention to rhetorical strategies in the text.
In the series introduction, Block writes, “Many commentaries available to pastors and teachers try to resolve the dilemma [of challenging OT texts] either through word-by-word and verse-by-verse analysis or synthetic theological reflections on the text without careful attention to the flow and argument of that text” (9). The authors are concerned with three principal questions: (1) “What are the principle theological points the biblical writers are making?”; (2) “How do biblical writers make those points?”; (3) “What significance does the message of the present text have for understanding the message of the biblical book within which it is embedded and the message of the Scriptures as a whole?” (10). Thus far, commentaries on Ruth, Nahum, Joel, Hosea, Jonah, and Obadiah have been released in the series, and Zondervan’s website indicates that Leviticus and Judges are coming soon.
The volume under review—Joel, by Joel Barker—was released in 2020. It is a slim volume at 192 pages, but, due to the short length of the book of Joel, Barker has sufficient space to address the text in sufficient detail. Following the series introduction and a preface, the volume has a select bibliography (4 pages), translation of Joel (5 pages), introduction to the book (17 pages), commentary proper (126 pages), and indices (Scripture, Subject, and Author).
In the introduction, Barker notes that there is a lack of information necessary to draw firm conclusions about the date of Joel’s ministry and book. There is no date in the superscription and no identifiable person or event in the four chapters (three in English). He lists six options for the date, ranging from the ninth century to the second century BC. Baker agrees with the majority position that dates the prophet to the sixth-fifth century BC in the early postexilic period. This would explain the lack of regnal year in the superscription (there was no king), the absence of a major enemy such as Assyria or Babylon, and the focus on priestly leadership (29-30).
Noting dramatic shifts in tone or content at 2:18 and 3:1 [English 2:28], many scholars have suggested that the book was written in multiple parts and combined later. Barker finds “these claims of disjunction are exaggerated” and argues for the essential unity of the book, seen in the repetition of key themes (32). Some scholars have also suggested that the Book of the Twelve was formed by the work of a series of redactors. James Nogalski, for example, argues that Joel was created for inclusion in the corpus, to link Hosea to Amos (see his essay in Reading and Hearing the Book of the Twelve, Atlanta: SBL, 2000).
Barker acknowledges the shared themes (such as the Day of the LORD) with the other books in the Twelve, but also wants to preserve Joel’s unique contribution. He writes, “The themes that Joel shares and potential allusions to other biblical books can be understood as part of his rhetorical strategy rather than signals of shared redactional layering. Consequently, I read Joel as an independent literary work, and I do not focus on how its composition influences the broader discussion of the formation of the Book of the Twelve” (35).
Barker wrote his doctoral dissertation on rhetorical strategies in Joel (From the Depths of Despair to the Promise of Presence: A Rhetorical Reading of the Book of Joel, Siphrut 11; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2014), so it is no surprise that his analysis of Joel’s rhetoric in the book is a particular strength. In the introduction, he mentions four overarching strategies employed by the prophet: inclusion (speaking to the widest possible audience), recursion (returning to a theme but with new meaning), delay (building suspense), and divine agency (emphasizing YHWH as the primary actor). In addition, the commentary of individual pericopes is filled with insightful observations about how the prophet communicates his points effectively.
The commentary is divided into eight pericopes:
- Superscription (1:1)
- Despair on Account of the Locusts (1:2-14)
- Despair in the Day of YHWH—The Drought (1:15-20)
- Despair in the Day of YHWH—The Invasion (2:1-11)
- Hinge: The Call to Return to YHWH (2:12-17)
- Divine Deliverance from the Locusts and Drought (2:18-27)
- Deliverance through the Spirit of YHWH (3:1-5 [2:28-32])
- Deliverance through Divine Judgment on the Day of YHWH (4:1-21 [3:1-21])
Each pericope is discussed in the course of six categories: (a) the main idea of the passage, (b) the literary context, (c) translation of the passage and exegetical outline, (d) structure and literary form, (e) explanation of the text and (f) canonical and practical significance. In this last category, Barker seeks to create a bridge from the sense of the text in the world of the author to other biblical authors in the OT, biblical theology, the NT, and the significance of the passage for readers today (11).
In the explanation of the text, Barker pays special attention to the arrangement of material, repetition of words and themes, and the flow of the argument. The series uses the Hebrew script (not transliteration) for Hebrew words and also provides a translation in parentheses. Authors also use Hebrew versification when it differs from English and put the English verse range in brackets. Despite these signals that the work might be more technical, in my view the discussion is quite accessible to a wide range of readers from different levels of academic training, including well-informed laypeople. There is good theological engagement, though the emphasis is on the meaning within the OT.
This is a very good commentary on Joel—one that I will recommend to my students for their future work. Barker’s explanation of the text is convincing and succeeds in his goals of explaining the rhetoric and argument of the text at the discourse level.
Eric J. Tully is Director of the PhD (Theological Studies) and Associate Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.
Buy the books
JOEL: A DISCOURSE ANALYSIS OF THE HEBREW BIBLE, by Joel Barker