Published by Eerdmans on May 31, 2023
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Where is the line between God’s mercy and judgment?
In the latest volume of the New International Commentary on the Old Testament, James D. Nogalski offers a new translation of and commentary on several of the Minor Prophets—the Books of Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah—that grapple with this theme in radically different ways. This volume includes a robust introduction for each book, delineating its textual transmission, historical context, literary form, and major themes. The introduction also discusses the role of each book within the collection of the Twelve (Minor) Prophets. The commentaries proper explain the texts verse by verse, illuminating each book’s structure and canonical significance, yet always with an eye toward pastoral application. Academically rigorous and accessibly written, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah is an invaluable resource for scholars, students, and pastors.
New International Commentaries are the one commentary set of which I own every volume and it has become my constant companion in biblical exegesis and sermon preparation. Even when I don’t agree with the conclusions, I’ve found the NICOT and NICNT series to reflect the very best in contemporary scholarship—both engaging in and enlightening, deftly balancing between a commentary meant for laypersons and a commentary meant for academics. The result is a versatile series that is beneficial for biblical scholars, but especially helpful to clergy.
In recent years, the NICOT series has undergone significant revision with published volumes updating and taking the place of older volumes. James Nogalski’s The Books of Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah is no different, replacing Leslie Allen’s 1976 volume on Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah. I don’t know if this means that a standalone commentary on Micah will be forthcoming or if it will be shuffled together with other Minor Prophets in a future revision. The purpose for updating Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah is evident: A lot of scholarship on these books has changed in fifty years and Allen’s treatment of these books in his commentary is somewhat minimal. Allen spends 107 pages on Joel to Nogalski’s 169; a mere 43 pages on Obadiah compared to 103; and 60 pages on Jonah compared to 107. While Allen’s 1976 volume is primarily a commentary on Micah with the other books appended onto it and viewing them through the lens of Micah, Nogalski’s 2023 text is a more comprehensive and balanced commentary on Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah.
The author, James Nogalski, holds a Doctor of Theology degree from the University of Zurich and his academic expertise is in the area of the Book of the Twelve—the minor prophets from Hosea to Malachi. He’s written several commentaries on the Book of the Twelve as a whole and coauthored a book with Ehud Ben Zvi—founder of the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures—concerning differences between Jewish and Christian interpretation of the Book of the Twelve. Suffice it to say, when it comes to Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah, Dr. Nogalski is one of the best.
The Books of Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah begins with a short introduction to the Book of the Twelve as a whole, then the individual books’ place within that scroll. This contextualization helps properly set the books and their theological themes in their appropriate places. The commentary for each book begins with an introduction to the book as a whole, then an expositional commentary based on Dr. Nogalski’s personal translation of the text. I especially appreciate the book’s thorough outline (particularly in comparison to the lack of rigorous outline in the older volume), allowing readers to easily find their place and understand the text’s progression at a glance.
The introductory sections cover the historical backgrounds of each book, their composition, authorship, date, place of origin, and other such topics. Nogalski also includes a section for each book relating the book to its place within the Book of the Twelve and a section for contemporary theological reflection. This commitment to contextualize the books in their ancient context yet for a contemporary audience is a tremendous help to pastors trying to make these ancient readings relevant for their congregation. I love the prophets, but the work needed to draw the line from then to now is often more than most laypeople can bear. The Books of Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah not only makes it bearable, but enjoyable.
I also appreciate how Nogalski is willing to point out where we simply don’t know things. For example, Nogalski begins the conversation on Joel by saying “the historical background of the book of Joel is notoriously difficult to pin down with absolute certainty” and that the book has “resisted scholarly attempts to explain its structure and its setting.” Nogalski also follows the scholarship even if that is not where most of his pastoral and layperson audience might go. NICOT is written as an evangelical work and, typically, evangelicals hold to a historical view of much of the Old Testament. The story of Jonah is seen as history—simple, straight facts. Nogalski challenges that, pointing out the satiric nature of the book, calling its view of Nineveh as “fictive.” I do think, given the audience, Nogalski could have explicated this view more thoroughly. Instead, he says simple that “most scholars” believe Jonah to be a fictional story. While correct, that appeal to authority remains a weak argument absent an explanation of the evidence which has led to that belief.
If I have one criticism of this volume, it is that Nogalski assumes his audience will accept this, rather than spending time to explain this belief and mollify the concerns of conservatives about the impact of Jonah being read as satiric fiction. (As an aside, Allen also held to the fictive interpretation, calling Jonah a parable and giving a more robust defense of the position than Nogalski. In 1976, the fictive position was still somewhat in question among scholars; now it is assumed. Yet, the perception of evangelical laypersons has not shifted. Make of that what you will.)
Overall, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah is a helpful and necessary update. We don’t often read these texts except to perhaps blow by them in a day or two in an annual read-through-the-Bible program. Nogalski has spent a lifetime showing others the depth, beauty, and purpose of the so-called “minor prophets.” This work shows them not to be minor at all—even if they are fictional stories or compiled resources or late additions to canon. They have value and purpose, not just for its original readers but for us today.