Israel among the nations: A Commentary on the Books of Nahum, Obadiah, and Esther

Written by Richard J. Coggins and S. Paul Re’emi Reviewed By Martin J. Selman

To produce a commentary on an OT book from a Christian perspective is one of the most difficult exercises in contemporary theological writing. The editors of the International Theological Commentary, therefore, are to be applauded for their declared aim, ‘first, to develop the theological significance of the OT and, second, to emphasize the relevance of each book for the life of the Church’. Though Nahum, Obadiah and Esther may not seem the most attractive books of the OT through which to make such an attempt, yet each book in its own way raises an issue with which so many struggle today, namely, how should the people of God live when subject to the domination of an unfriendly political power?

These two commentators have approached their task in two very different ways. Coggins, who teaches at King’s College, London, has written on Nahum and Obadiah in the traditional mould. In many ways it is a most useful commentary, whose major strength is a careful and judicious verse-by-verse exegesis. There is a special concern for translation of difficult words and emendation of the text is generally unwelcome. One is also encouraged that Nahum and Obadiah are placed in the mainstream of Israel’s prophetic and cultic life rather than being treated as examples of false prophets, as is sometimes alleged.

On the other hand, Coggins is more persuaded of the literary rather than historical merits of both prophets, and those who look for precise historical and geographical data will be disappointed. The theological contribution is also less satisfying than one might have been led to expect by the editors. Though the reader is grateful for the emphasis on the prophetic theological tradition, a consistent Christian approach must surely give more attention to the theological dimensions of the whole of Scripture. Further, while the author is well aware that some issues of the 7th and 6th centuries BC are still alive today, the theological reflection provided here does not give the reader any real guide to interpretation. For example, while one accepts that the prophetic message of judgment supports neither an all-inclusive religious tolerance nor a rigid condemnation of all non-Christian religions, one looks for some clearer principles by which we may receive the prophets’ words as Christians now. This is not the first commentary to discover that the whole question of biblical relevance is far more demanding than appears at first sight.

The contribution on Esther is more superficial and limited in scope. The Introduction particularly is confusing on various historical and literary issues, and reads more like a hastily assembled collection of short notes. The commentary itself is unremarkable, apart from its sympathy for the LXX, not only in its more overtly religious interpretation of the Hebrew text but in accepting the minority view that the Persian king was Artaxerxes I rather than Xerxes. The author, who is a Hebrew Christian, also often seems to show greater interest in Jewish matters than in ‘the life of the Church’.

There is a curious imbalance in this volume. Four chapters of Nahum and Obadiah receive 102 pages, but 38 pages cover all ten chapters of Esther. Yet this is a fair indication that the book’s chief value lies in Coggins’ exegetical foundation, which will be useful to anyone who has an interest in Nahum or Obadiah. On Esther, however, the recent commentaries of Baldwin and Clines, not mentioned in this work, would seem to provide more reliable assistance.

Martin J. Selman

Spurgeon’s College, London