Reviewed by James Adcock
James D. Nogalski is currently Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He joined the faculty of the Religion Department at Baylor in 2007. Previously, he received a Doctorate of Theology from the University of Zürich, Switzerland, and a Master of Theology from the International Baptist Theological Seminary of Rüschlikon, Switzerland. His 2015 publication, Interpreting Prophetic Literature: Historical and Exegetical Tools for Reading the Prophets, is an excellent resource for college and seminary students who wish to have a short introduction to the exegesis and interpretation of portions of the Hebrew Bible’s Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets).
The aim of Nogalski’s work is to fill in a perceived gap in Old Testament Introductions, which often assume a Hebrew language knowledge and do not focus on the latter prophets and their speech forms (Page 1). However, Interpreting Prophetic Literature is not “intended to be read as a typical introduction to the latter prophets or the Hebrew Bible, but focuses on the art of reading prophetic literature” (1-2).
The first chapter introduces the broader Ancient Near Eastern background of prophets and prophecy and the role of the prophets in the literary narrative of the Hebrew Bible, while also giving an overview of the interpretive process itself and how to use the English translations. Nogalski generated his idea for the book and its practical value from teaching his students and fielding their questions. He concludes the first chapter by stating: “if one wishes to interpret prophetic literature as Scripture, one must also learn to hear these texts as theological witnesses by ancient communities of faith that deserve responsible theological reflection for today’s world” (15).
Chapter two, “Analyzing Literary Parameters and Rhetorical Flow,” discusses how the interpreter can “limit the passage” (17) by an understanding of typical indications which delineate and classify speech units or literary forms. Common formulaic markers include things like a change of speaker, switch of addressee, or divisions of poetry and the types of poetic parallelism in the Latter Prophets. Thus, chapter two covers issues such as noting types of messenger formulas and their significance for interpretation of the context. This reviewer particularly enjoyed the description of “Lady Zion” as a symbolic figure in the Latter Prophets (36-38).
The third chapter is entitled “Selecting Key Words” and is rather straightforward, but also includes place names and their literary associations. Chapter three is one of the shortest chapters of the book and thankfully does not overemphasize the value of word studies over that of contextual exegesis – a common mistake among preachers and teachers.
Chapter four, “Literary Forms and Rhetorical Aims,” provides some of the most helpful and insightful aspects of the book for this reviewer. It attempts to prepare the reader to enter the literary context and social milieu of the ancient audience and how they understood the literary features of the prophetic texts. Nogalski writes: “This chapter will seek to illustrate some common recurring forms in prophetic literature in order to show how recognition of these patterns can influence one’s understanding of the texts” (57).
The following fifth chapter is entitled “Analyzing a Unit’s Relationship to the Context” and attempts to outline some common prophetic literary themes and their contexts. Following the important work of Walter Zimmerli, Nogalski notes that many prophetic collections begin with judgment sayings against Israel and often terminate with “some kind of eschatological promise or collection of oracles against the nations” (80). Chapter five contains some of the most speculative portions of the book, since it attempts to explain processes of how prophetic collections were gathered together and put into their literary forms.
Chapter six, “Common Themes in Prophetic Texts”, focuses “on the thematic elements that run through a prophetic book” and “on thematic distinctions within prophetic books” (91). Nogalski claims that literary units in prophetic books have two types of messages: “(1) negative expressions of judgment, confrontation, and warning; (2) positive words of hope, promise, and restoration” (91), which the sixth chapter explores in depth. This reviewer found chapter six to be the most helpful to him personally, since one does not often find similar introductory essays on such a topic.
The seventh chapter, “Developing a Hermeneutic Approach”, addresses issues of “applying biblical texts to modern life” (117). Chapter seven asks two questions: “For whom is the modern message intended?” (117-119) and “How does one adapt an Old Testament prophetic text for a modern community of faith?” (119-121). Nogalski ends chapter seven stating: “Prophetic texts challenge complacency with a power and a passion that testifies to the dynamic power of God’s presence in this world” (122).
There were several sections that immensely impressed this reviewer as particularly helpful for a classroom or pedagogical setting. One is hard pressed, moreover, to find commentaries or other resources to give such concise and informative overviews of biblical material. The summary of Amos and the outline of Malachi, amidst other discussions (e.g. Lady Zion in pages 36-38), are particularly helpful for a general audience. One notes many instances of Nogalski referencing Jeremiah to illustrate his various points or categories, but sometimes one wonders if the use of Jeremiah was always the most appropriate for the author’s example. The author must speak in generalities often, so that it is up to the academic instructor to be more specific with his students. Nogalski often ends a section with thought provoking comments that sometimes reach into New Testament implications (71, 74, 76, 77, 84, 94-95, etc.). Perhaps, some evangelical readers may disagree with Nogalski’s attempt to encourage theological dialogue or establish interpretive links and theological perspectives. However, this reviewer found little to object to within Nogalski’s work, generally speaking.
The author is very light on his use of footnotes, almost to a fault, but this is understandable for the genre of an introductory textbook. Yet, an annotated bibliography at the very end of the volume for future research would have been very welcome, especially given the nature of the book as an introduction for beginning academic levels. This would be an excellent textbook for both the graduate and undergraduates since it represents a unique attempt to introduce a general audience to a specific need in the academic literature. Highly recommended.
James “Seth” Adcock has a PhD in Hebrew Bible and Textual Criticism from the University of St. Andrews.
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Interpreting Prophetic Literature