Review of P. Jenson, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah: A Theological Commentary

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Peter Philip Jenson, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah: A Theological Commentary (LHBOTS 496; New York and London: T&T Clark, 2008). Pp. ix+227, Hardcover, US$140.00, 978 0 567 04222 4.

With this relatively small commentary Jenson offers readers a helpful and accessible guide to interpreting the books of Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah. The volume combines strong scholarship, good writing, and capable and detailed exegesis. What is lacking, however, is explicit methodology and, given the subtitle of the volume, significant theological reflection.

Each of the three biblical books are examined separately, and Jenson explicitly reads them as individual books and not sub-sections of a larger “Book of the Twelve” (1-2). The commentary is structured along a familiar format. Each book is introduced briefly. In this introduction Jenson reflects upon issues like provenance, literary development and structure, and overall theme. These introductions are generally rather short, but provide the reader with a basic understanding of the historical and literary issues involved. Jenson then moves to a detailed examination of each verse. Within the detailed examination Jenson provides a short introductory synopsis of each literary sub-section outlining the theme(s) of the passage that is about to be examined. These sub-section summaries are also very brief, taking up only one or two pages. The actual commentary is presented in a verse-by-verse format, usually offering one or two short paragraphs of commentary for each verse.

Though he does make some note of historical-critical concerns, Jenson primarily engages in a synchronic, literary examination each book. The goal of the commentary is to be an explanation of the English text of these biblical books, with an eye to “the plain sense of the text” (1). He certainly does interact with various English translations, but still makes extensive reference to the Masoretic Text (MT) as an arbiter between English versions. All Hebrew is in transliterated format and the discussions that involve the MT are generally accessible to the non-specialist. Discussions of Hebrew tend to focus on the semantic range of individual words, though Jenson does on occasion make note of literary structures in the Hebrew text (e.g. his discussion of the structure of Micah 4-5 on pp. 141-142).

In cases where there are significant disagreements among scholars over important interpretive issues Jenson does a good job of laying out the various major options and tends to take a middle path for his own interpretation. His discussion of the genre questions surrounding the book of Jonah is a case in point. He examines various options including historical narrative, imaginative literature, satire/parody, and the final (very general) category of story (31-35). Jenson suggests that the broader category of “story” is helpful as it encompasses various elements of the other genres discussed. Though he is certainly correct that overly narrow genre identifications can inhibit one's engagement with the text, his “story” genre is so very general that one wonders by the end of the discussion if a genre classification is helpful or necessary at all.

One of the more frustrating aspects of the commentary is a lack of clearly defined methodology. Though Jenson does from time to time make note that he is interested in synchronic readings, nowhere is he explicit about how he reads generally, about the nature of the connection between these three books, or about the nature of the connection between these books and other canonical and non-canonical material. This theological commentary makes extensive reference to other biblical books (particularly as found in the Protestant canon), but does not discuss how Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah may be connected to books as wide-ranging as Genesis, Matthew, and Revelation. Certainly in a commentary that purports to be theological (and not of historical nature) one may expect to find reference to other Christian canonical works, but the nature of these canonical relationships, which is a matter of some importance to the interpreter, should be examined and explained.

Despite its subtitle, there is very little clear identification of theological method in this commentary. If it were presented as an exegetical commentary alone this matter would be of no concern at all, but since it is explicitly and saliently presented as a theological commentary one expects to find more than one or two sentences describing the kind of theology that is being advanced or assumed. In fact, it appears from the very brief instances of theological reflection that Jenson is doing little more than describing the theology of the various books. Very occasionally he will connect these brief musings with some very basic question of Christian theology, but this never takes the form of more than a one or two sentence statement.

The lack of extended introduction to the commentary as a whole, as well as the lack of conclusion and reflection for each book, is a serious oversight in the design. It would have taken only a little extra time and space to improve the commentary significantly. Had this commentary not been marketed as a theological commentary, many of the concerns mentioned here would have not arisen, or only in a minor way. But it is marketed as such.

Some of these issues may relate to the fact that this work was originally commissioned as a commentary for the (now defunct) New Century Bible commentary series. Jenson was likely writing with certain series constraints in mind, but still the lack of extended introduction and conclusion is notable. The volume does contain a good bibliography and extensive indexes of both authors and sources (ancient and modern). This book would serve very well as a secondary textbook for a seminary course on these prophetic books, or as a resource for clergy, but due to the fact that it has been published in the relatively expensive Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies series (formally JSOTSup) it may have difficulty finding its intended readership (cf. with usual prices of volumes in the New Century Bible series). T&T Clark should consider releasing this volume in paperback format.

In sum and leaving aside the issues raised by the subtitle, Jenson offers a good introductory exegetical commentary of Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah. Though there are elements that might have been included to increase the volume's usefulness, the reader will find Jenson's careful and detailed exegesis helpful.

Colin M. Toffelmire, McMaster Divinity College