Book Review – NIVAC Esther (Karen Jobes)

The NIV Application Commentary series takes a unique approach. It contains the full text of the NIV for the passage under commentary, but then deals with it under three headings. First is “original meaning”, which is essentially the material that would be found in a traditional commentary. This seeks to explain the meaning of the text, explaining the historical situation and meaning of words. The second is called “bridging contexts”. This section seeks to build a bridge between the world of the original hearers, and ours, separating what we might call the “timeless” principles or truths, from that which was tied to a specific point in history. Then in the section entitled “contemporary significance” the commentator is given free rein to give contemporary application of one or more of the principles identified in the bridging contexts section. Essentially this section serves as an example of how a preacher might apply the text to a modern congregation.

In a 30 page introduction Jobes outlines some of the unique features of the book of Esther, including its notable lack of reference to God or anything explicitly religious, and the enigma of why some Jews had chosen not to return to Jerusalem at this point. She identifies “reversal of destiny” (or “peripety”) as a key theme of the book, and the providence of God as the main theological lesson. The book of Esther teaches that the Jews still are God’s covenant people, even with no temple, no city and no prophet.

For the most part, Jobes deals with a chapter at a time, although some are broken into smaller chunks. She is cautious in her approach to application, rightly noting the dangers of an “exemplary” approach to hermeneutics (i.e. deciding that everything Esther or Mordecai does is there as a good example for us to follow). Indeed, she shows that there is a good deal of moral ambiguity about their actions, and they may show signs that the Jews in Persia have become secularised to some extent. In any case, the point of the story is not to say whether Esther and Mordecai did right or not, but that God’s covenant purposes were providentially fulfilled through them.

She picks up an idea from Ryken that Esther’s two names suggest a dual identity – she is the king’s wife and a Jew. As the story progresses, these two identities must merge into one. She discusses the challenges of how as Christians we attempt to live within our culture without compromising our values.

As with several other commentators, Jobes shows the link between Mordecai and Haman’s conflict and that of Saul and Agag. She argues persuasively that we are to see the counter-decree as an example of “holy war”. This explains why no plunder was taken, despite it being permitted.

The death of Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, provides the only basis for the cessation of holy war, and the infilling of the Holy Spirit provides the only power by which one may love one’s enemies as oneself

One strength of the bridging contexts sections, is how Jobes always seeks to interpret the events of Esther in the light of the gospel. She never uses allegories or even suggests that the events foreshadow the gospel, but she does nevertheless keep approaching topics in the light of the cross and new covenant.

Much of the discussion relates to “providence”, and Jobes shows how “God works mysteriously, patiently, and inexorably through a series of ‘coincidental’ events and human decisions, even those based on questionable motives and evil intents.” She includes a ten page postscript examining the doctrine of divine providence in a bit more detail.

Her analysis of the structure of Esther is very interesting. She shows how feasts are central to the narrative, and that the book starts with a pair of feasts, has another pair of feasts in the middle and ends with a pair of feasts. This leads her to conclude that the “pivot point” of the book is the king’s sleepless night. In other words, neither Esther nor Mordecai do anything to “turn” events into their favour – it is the providential work of God in a seemingly insignificant occurrence that changes everything. She also shows how the reversal of fortunes of both Haman and Mordecai are arranged in a chiastic structure.

Obviously, the book of Esther brings up various issues relating to women in particular. Jobes does not see this as central to the book’s message, noting that the main adversarial relationship in the book is not between male and female but between the Jews and their enemies. However, she does give some helpful thoughts in the final chapter on male and female partnerships, noting how Esther and Mordecai worked together as “lay leaders” in “secular vocations”. She also emphasises that being a wife or mother on one hand, or being ordained on the other, by no means exhaust the possibilities of vocations, and that much of the debate has been too narrowly focused.

Overall I have to say this is an outstanding contribution to the NIV application series, and I found it very helpful and thought provoking. This is the second of Jobes’ commentaries I have read (the first being her BEC commentary on 1 Peter which was also excellent) and I will be eagerly looking out for any forthcoming volumes from her.

Book Review – Baker Exegetical Commentary on 1 Peter (Karen Jobes)

In this commentary on 1 Peter, Karen Jobes makes some important contributions to the academic study of this epistle, while at the same time providing an excellent resource for pastors and Bible students who want to wrestle with the meaning and application of the text. The introduction is comprehensive and defends traditional authorship of the letter (bolstered by a thorough appendix on the quality of the Greek which indicate an author whose first language was not Greek) and and early date (based largely on the observation that the letter does not address state-sponsored persecution). She also puts forward her thesis that the Christians to whom Peter writes had been recolonised by the Roman empire – literally exiled and living as resident aliens. She shows throughout the commentary how this makes many of Peter’s points particularly apt, but acknowledges that the main thrust of the argument does not depend on whether his readers are literal exiles or not.

The commentary itself is very thorough, and manages to deal with issues of Greek grammar and syntax without losing focus on the message of the book. Jobes seems to have a very good understanding of the types of questions that preachers will be asking of the text, and while this is not an exposition of 1 Peter, it is full of theological and pastoral observations. As with all volumes in the Baker Exegetical Commentary series, the layout is excellent, including the full text of the passage being commented on, and with regular summaries of argument. Technical notes are kept out of the way at the end of each section rather than as footnotes, and Greek is both transliterated and translated.

Peter quotes from and alludes to the Old Testament regularly in this letter, and whenever he does, Jobes highlights not just the passage quoted but similarities in the flow of argument and thought (especially with Psalm 34).

There is a substantial section devoted to dealing with the difficult passage at the end of chapter 3. She rejects the view that Christ preached through Noah to Noah’s generation, and also the descent into hell view, in favour of the modern consensus that views 1 Enoch as the background to the passage – the risen and ascended Christ has proclaimed victory over fallen angelic beings and powers. She differentiates between Paul’s use of ‘flesh’ (Greek sarx), which connotes our sinful human nature, to Peter’s which is merely referring to bodily life on earth (as opposed to the eternal spiritual state Jesus was in after his resurrection). This means that her interpretation of a number of verses does not fit well with the English translations, which use the word “body” as a translation (for example, in her view baptism in 3:25 is said not to morally transform the believer, rather than not physically wash the believer that most modern translations imply).

It is also of interest to see how a female commentator in a conservative evangelical commentary series approaches the injunctions of 3:1-6 concerning a wife’s submission to her husband. She (rightly in my view) interprets this section along with the preceding section addressed to slaves as being motivated by Peter’s concern for the vulnerable situation that wives and slaves find themselves in if they convert to Christianity. Slaves and wives found themselves right at the bottom of the social ladder of their day, and so Peter writes pastorally, and should therefore not be criticised for failing to undermine these social structures. She defends Peter against modern critics by claiming that he dignifies slaves and wives by affirming their rights to their own religious beliefs.

She notes that Peter leaves the details of how submission is to be worked out to the wives and husbands themselves (for example, would an unbelieving husband allow his wife to worship with the Christian community). She also contrasts Peter’s teaching on wives and husbands with Paul’s, which is targetted at believing couples. While she indicates a moderately complementarian leaning by affirming that the NT does envisage some form of “submission” from wives to husbands, she stresses the freedom that is given to the married couple to work this out between themselves, without specifying the exact details of how this works out in practice. The implication is that in a Christian marriage, this “submission” should have a very different dynamic to that found in other marriages of Peter’s day. She quotes approvingly an unamed evangelical who states that while the NT teaches a wife to submit, it does not ever give the husband the right to demand it.

I found this an excellent commentary to consult as I studied my way through 1 Peter recently. It provides answers not just for exegetical questions, but pointers for application, and discussion of theological implications. Her thesis concerning the recipients of the letter and her appendix assessing whether the quality of the Greek rules out Petrine authorship will probably be of more use to academics than Bible teachers, but these are kept separate from the main commentary so they do not get in the way for those not requiring such information.