A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Thomas Hoak
Mignon Jacobs is Professor of Old Testament studies as well as Dean and Chief Academic Officer at Ashland Seminary. Jacobs is an active leader in the Society of Biblical Literature, and her other books include The Conceptual Coherence of the Book of Micah and Gender, Power, and Persuasion: The Genesis Narratives and Contemporary Portraits.
Eerdmans’ New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT) has been a trusted evangelical commentary set for 50 years. Under its third general editor, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., the aim of the series to approach the text with all the tools of biblical scholarship, with a commitment to broad evangelical convictions. Notably, Hubbard Jr.’s editorship has introduced an explicit emphasis on “…the so-called new literary criticism, reader-response theories, and sensitivity to gender-based and ethnic readings.” Having completed the set some time ago, the publisher is now retiring or replacing selected volumes. Among these is Pieter Verhoef’s volume, The Books of Haggai and Malachi. Jacobs’ work by the same name takes the place of Verhoef’s in the NICOT set.
Jacobs’ volume assumes the same basic shape of other volumes in the NICOT series. Haggai and Malachi have separate introductions, with typical sections like date and provenance as well as a brief consideration of the structure and message. In both introductions, Jacobs provides an extended discussion on the historical context of the prophet, including not only the sociopolitical realities of his era but also a reconstruction of the prophet’s individual social location on the basis of textual and intertextual factors.
In the commentary proper, the typical NICOT formula is again followed. Jacobs offers a translation of the text along with copious notes, and follows this translation with her comments on the translated verses. The text is discussed in sections that accord with Jacobs’ structural outline offered in the introduction to each book. The major section is introduced and summarized shortly and the comments are offered unbroken except for the notation of a new minor section.
In the author’s preface to the volume, Jacobs offers some insight into her precommitments and how they will affect her hermeneutical approach. She frames her work as a discussion with several models of interpretation in conversation. “At various points in this book, I discuss intertextual variations on the various interpretive options and allow these options to coexist.” (xiii) In practice, this approach yields a commentary with a distinct style, and Jacobs admits that this emphasis may “jar some readers who want a single, decisive interpretation.” (xiii)
Indeed, Jacobs’ approach often results in something less than a conclusion. This doesn’t mean that Jacobs doesn’t make any definitive statements. When Jacobs is dealing directly with the text itself, the commentary reads much like any other. But when it comes to drawing conclusions from the fruit of her exegesis, especially regarding the broader meaning of a passage, she is reticent to offer a firm interpretive decision. The common alternative is a survey of relevant positions for the reader to consider, though in some cases Jacobs does assert her own view.
As noted in the preface, Jacobs emphasizes intertextuality in both Haggai and Malachi at the level of the book of the twelve, the OT, and with some helpful consideration of NT quotations and allusions. Throughout the volume, Jacobs notes the way that the prophets interacted with the nation in general and the cult in particular, through the lens of previous revelation.
One final emphasis worth noting is the Jacobs’ use of sociological tools for interpretation, often using technical terms like “the community” (i.e., Israel), “traditions” (i.e., Scripture), and “social location.” Jacobs uses these tools to analyze the text as it would have been received by the original audience, with special attention given to the power dynamics of the community at the time of the original writing.
The Books of Haggai and Malachi is written at an academic level and often utilizes technical language, including analysis of Hebrew grammar, though all Hebrew words are transliterated. This book is most appropriate for scholars and pastors with some proficiency in Hebrew. Because of Jacobs’ frequent presentation of numerous interpretive views, this could be a useful tool for those who are looking for an entry point into the ongoing discussion on any number of challenging passages.
Pastors who are searching for a commentary that will prepare them to teach these books might be disappointed by the dearth of both application and interpretive conclusions.
Evangelical readers are likely to have some concerns with some of Jacobs’ presuppositions. Jacobs refuses to refer to God as “He,” preferring rather to refer to God as “the Deity” or “Yahweh.” (xiii). Jacobs suggests the possibility that prophecy can challenge other Scripture (124, 140) and relies on the documentary hypothesis (139), both of which may bring up questions of textual unity for Evangelical readers.
Two components of Jacob’s interpretive approach were particularly helpful. The first is Jacobs’ focus on intertextuality. In every case, Jacobs gives a thorough treatment of the way that the author connected to other passages and interacted with existing traditions. Jacobs shows a real concern to understand the way that the voice of God in Scripture developed through the diversity of situations into which God sent his prophets.
A noted focus was also helpful, which was Jacobs’ focus on understanding the context into which Haggai and Malachi prophesied. Jacobs’ commitment to the role of power in the prophetic situation was borne out by her concern to discern the way the original audience would have reacted to the words of the prophets. This perspective will be helpful to those who are unfamiliar with the regular effects of power on a community, an especially pertinent point when interpreting the prophets.
On the whole, Jacobs’ volume offers a novel approach to the text that will be jarring to those who do not set their expectations appropriately, as she warns from the outset. As a result, a charitable reader might call Jacobs’ approach “generous,” but one might also call her approach simply “postmodern.” For those looking for a commentary that engages seriously with the text and presents a range of interpretive options, Jacobs’ work is not a bad option. For those looking for a commentary with an emphasis on the message of the text and its contemporary application, other options should be considered.
Thomas Hoak is a Master of Divinity student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.
Buy the books
THE BOOKS OF HAGGAI AND MALACHI, by Mignon R. Jacobs