A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Daniel Cho
One of the pastoral challenges of teaching from the Old Testament historical books is providing an application that is both true to its original audience and relevant to audiences today. Evoking memories of old-time VBS and Christian leadership curricula, the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther may seem familiar, but pastors and teachers will soon face layers of unforeseen challenges. In Ezra and Nehemiah, there are hermeneutical challenges with different types of literary forms, non-linear chronology, and the unknown identity of the third-person narrator. Furthermore, pedagogical challenges arise as they encounter extensive lists of people, mandated divorce, imprecatory prayers, temple liturgy, and corporal punishments. Esther has its unique challenges. Hermeneutically, teachers and pastors have to process the lack of mention of God and unfamiliar uses of literary devices; pedagogically, morally ambiguous narratives such as commodification of women, absurdity in the law-making process, and celebration of strategic violence.
This is where the work of Douglas Nykolaishen and Andrew Schmutzer lends a helping hand. Their commentary, in the series Teach the Text, covers the postexilic historical books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther; Nykolaishen covers Ezra and Nehemiah, and Schmutzer covers Esther. The commentary has an easy-to-follow structure. Each biblical book has an introductory chapter, and then the book is divided into preaching units. Each preaching unit includes six to seven pages comprising five main sections:
- Big Idea
- Key themes
- Understanding the Text
- Teaching the Text
- Illustrating the Text
They both use the NIV translation and offer comments on the translation as needed. It should be noted that these two scholars have different hermeneutical and pedagogical emphases, and their differences are a great resource for pastors and teachers. Although their methodological emphases vary, by focusing on movement from the meaning of the text to its effective communication in a clear and concise format, their works seek to equip pastors and teachers to navigate the text with a keen awareness of both ancient and modern contexts.
Nykolaishen’s hermeneutical work is refreshingly theocentric and contextually aware. In Big Idea, he has the word ‘God’ in every unit. It successfully sets up the expectation that the hermeneutical and pedagogical focus of each unit stems from God and God’s people in relation to God’s promise. Second, in Understanding the Text, he places each unit in its proper literary, historical, and cultural contexts. Upon this foundation, he offers key exegetical insights on relevant verses, helping readers avoid fragmented interpretation. Lastly, through his writing style, he assumes the role of teacher and offers corrections. A distinctive feature of Nykolaishen’s work is his frequent comments about what the text was not intended to be, directly confronting common misreadings and misapplications of the text. These are not scholarly disagreements, but corrections of fragmented or “careless reading and interpretation” (80). Considering many of the fragmented interpretations are shortsightedly translocating contemporary needs onto the text and thereby failing to incorporate its canonical context, his corrections are effective in keeping the theocentric and contextual focus. Nykolaishen’s intent to build his hermeneutical work on a strong theocentric and contextual foundation is self-evident, and the readers will benefit from his work.
Like Nykolaishen, Schmutzer places the text in proper literary, historical, and cultural contexts. Schmutzer’s unique contribution comes from him acting as a personal tour guide. He focuses on providing an in-depth and vivid description of the narrative, accomplishing this in three ways. First, he offers a historical and cultural backdrop to bring color to the narrative. His insight into the Persian sociological context allows him to comment on the nature of Ahasuerus’ extravagant banquets, the historicity of Vashti and Esther, the process of becoming a royal woman, and the role of shame. He is mindful of Jewish tradition as well; for example, by identifying that Esther’s fast was overriding Passover, Schmutzer captures the intensity of the narrative. Second, he highlights the tone of the narrative by describing the plot movement and the effects of literary devices. He identifies the chiastic structure of the narrative by noting the recurring banquet scenes, and recognizes that irony and coincidence appear at key points keeping the story moving forward with suspenseful twists and turns. He dedicates the largest portion of his work to unpacking the effect of these literary devices. Lastly, he addresses how other OT themes shape the intended meaning of the narrative. He interprets the tension between Haman and Mordecai as a redeemed retelling of the tension between the Amalekites and Saul, and he sees a literary connection between the Exodus narrative and the Esther narrative. Reading Esther with these theological themes in mind helps to round out the narrative and see the theological significance of the text. Schmutzer successfully excavates various layers of the narrative, and it will be a great resource to pastors and teachers.
Nykolaishen, consistent with his conviction that “study is not merely for the sake of knowledge but must translate into personal application,” leads the readers to the world of pedagogy in Teaching the Text by taking a three-step strategy (80). First, he states a guiding theological principle of the text. He then finds an NT church example of the principle. Lastly, he applies the OT principle in light of the NT passage. Such a strategy has strengths and weaknesses; it rightfully reminds the reader that the Bible is one unified book and that interpreters must be mindful of its overall movement, however, if not done carefully, it can undermine the unique canonical contribution of each OT unit. A strength of OT narrative is its ability to teach the audience through a vivid display of human emotion and experience. Applying the OT principle through the NT passage can effectively trace the movement of a principle, but it may not be as effective in capturing the experiential dimension of the OT narrative. Furthermore, without sufficient qualifiers, the selected NT passage may be arbitrary chosen based on theological preferences of the author. Moreover, frequent uses of such strategy may give the impression that NT is what gives the OT text its present relevancy. While Nykolaishen offers a helpful resource by showing the movement of the OT principle to the world of the NT, readers should beware of not missing the richness and the relevancy of OT experiences for the people today.
In contrast to Nykolaishen, Schmutzer does not apply the passage from a New Testament perspective. Instead, Schmutzer is more interested in the connection between OT theology and contemporary issues. He bolsters the OT theology by adding a New Testament example, if necessary. To his credit, he does not stay in the abstract but boldly deals with women’s rights, anti-Semitism, and other systemic corruptions. For example, commenting on Vashti’s dismissal, he helpfully attempts to separate himself from a common feministic approach while upholding women’s rights. However, his broad and ambivalent conclusions about these issues can be anti-climactic. After diving into the treacherous waters of commodification of women, the conclusion offered is, “Christ purifies culture” without much explanation (218). While it is helpful to acknowledge the complexity at the intersection of contemporary issues and the biblical text, it is not as helpful to invite teachers and pastors into such complexity only to provide a simplistic response.
Schmutzer believes that biblical wisdom literature offers a moral ground in which the readers can evaluate the actions of the character, and therefore he does not shy away from offering negative moral evaluations of the king’s drinking practice, extravagant banquets, commodifying descriptions of women, and development of absurd laws. Although his moral evaluations may have some value, they can distract readers from seeing the intended plot movement. In Esther, moral ambiguity is intentional and it sets the stage for a unique contribution of the book, the theme of divine passivity and God’s sovereignty and promise over his people, which encouraged the exiles to make sense of their lives and God’s promise. It should also be noted that the Scripture does not resolve many of the moral issues that Schmutzer raises; the drunken, egotistic, unwise, and womanizing King Ahasuerus remained as a king unaffected. Schmutzer’s attempt to apply OT theology to present issues is praiseworthy, but pastors and teachers would have benefited more if he resolved the tension between his moral approach and the plot movement.
The final section, Illustrating the Text, is a great resource, containing many creative and up-to-date illustrations. The section is not limited to stories but includes activities, testimonies, and other forms of visual aids. It should be noted, however, that it is each pastor and teacher’s responsibility to know the pulse of the people they are serving. Although the book offers a wide array of illustrations, pastors and teachers must use their own discretion to choose what will be most beneficial for their churches.
Nykolaishen and Schmutzer’s work provides an insightful introductory commentary for a wide audience. Because the commentary is accessible, it can be a helpful resource for those at various stages of theological competency. While many commentaries tend to be dense, this one is pleasantly efficient and readable; it keeps discussion of technical details to a minimum, covering topics that are essential to understanding the overall narrative of the book or that have pedagogical significance. When the authors use literary terms such as chiasm, enveloping, flash-forward, and pericope, which may not be familiar to a layperson, they walk through the function of each in simple language. Those who are exegetically trained will benefit from these windows into the authors’ exegetical method. However, due to its brevity, the authors do not have much space to justify their exegetical choices. For this reason, the commentary will be most effective when it is coupled with other technical commentaries.
Various groups will benefit greatly from this commentary. For lay-leaders and pastors who are seeking to teach, they will be able to identify the driving theme of the unit and its key pedagogical principles. For seminary students, the differences in the authors’ methodological emphases will be enriching, allowing them to see multiple ways to move from meaning to application. Lastly, the commentary can be beneficial for those who want to go deeper with their devotions. Its pedagogical focus will help these readers apply biblical truth to their everyday life. This commentary is exceptional for biblical pedagogy, and I highly recommend it.
Daniel Cho has his MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.
Buy the books
Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther (Teach the Text Commentary series)