The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Genesis-Deuteronomy

By John H. Walton and Victor H. Matthews
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (1997). 284 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Grisanti
9.2 (Fall 1998) : 262-263

As the title suggests, this volume focuses on providing background information of the biblical text. This attention to background information (culture, history, geography, and archaeology) does not have an apologetic agenda, but serves to shed light on the culture and worldview of God’s covenant people, Israel. With reference to the background of Israel and the larger ancient Near Eastern world, Walton and Matthews emphasize that the question of whether the Israelites “borrowed” from their neighbors is not at issue. Rather, they argue that the presence of various common elements of the culture is a legitimate part of the inscripturation process.

Since the authors target the nonprofessional market rather than the academic and scholarly communities, they omit footnotes, include less than three pages of bibliographic references, and make only vague references to ancient Near Eastern primary material.

A brief introductory section, which introduces the reader to the kind of comparative material that is relevant for that particular biblical book, precedes the commentary section. The exposition of each biblical book is divided into a number of sections headed by the Scripture reference and a brief statement of that section’s theme. In paragraph form, various sections or individual verses from that large section receive treatment. Once again, the verses involved and a brief title that highlights the focus of that material introduces each paragraph.

An asterisk marks important or uncommon terms found in the text of the commentary and directs attention of the reader to a glossary of 108 words located after the commentary section. Although the book has no indexes, four charts (Major Tablets of Old Testament Significance, Major Inscriptions of Old Testament Significance, Legal Texts of the Ancient Near East, Ancient Near Eastern Literature Containing Parallels to the Old Testament) and four basic maps (Abraham’s travels, the Ancient Near East, the Exodus, Archaeological Sites of Palestine: Middle Bronze Age) provide some information especially relevant to the background issues raised in the text of the commentary.

The volume offers any student of the Bible a wealth of information concerning places, peoples, customs, rituals, laws, ceremonies, festivals, worship practices, and seasonal patterns. However, it does not provide a good substitute for commentaries that give more careful attention to the text of Scripture.

One weakness is the book’s regular failure to point out the significance of a cited parallel Ancient Near Eastern custom or document. It is up to the reader at that point to perceive the impact of that association on the meaning of a given passage. As one would expect, the reader will not always agree with the interpretations offered. For example, the authors suggest that an approaching thunderstorm caused Adam and Eve to hide from God in Gen 3:8 (drawing on Akkadian terminology). The writers present both the early and late date for the Exodus and remain ambivalent, and reject the face value meaning of the large numbers in the preconquest censuses.

In spite of these problems, this volume and others like it open up a new world of information to the student of the Bible. The challenge lies in using that background material properly in interpreting God’s Word accurately.