JOEL AND OBADIAH, OLD TESTAMENT LIBRARYWritten by John Barton Reviewed By Nathan MacDonald
This latest addition to a venerable commentary series is a detailed work on two of the smallest members of the OT canon, the prophecies of Joel and Obadiah. Barton’s approach is self-consciously historical-critical and the commentary focuses on the familiar questions of historical background, textual difficulties and the exegesis of individual verses. As might be expected of the Oriel and Laing Professor of Oxford, this volume is characterised by succinct, clear discussion of the critical issues with nuanced conclusions. Moments when Barton’s comments are, perhaps, overstated (for example, his characterisation of a Deuteronomistic theology of punishment which is not mollified by mercy, 32) are rare. To the traditional concerns of the historical-critical commentary Barton also joins more recent interests in inner-biblical citations (especially in Joel) and literary artistry.
The commentary also contains many theological reflections. It gives proof, if proof were needed, that a historical-critical approach is not necessarily a non-theological one. Not only is Barton to be thanked for making the theology of two, obscure books accessible, but also for giving a sympathetic reading of the book of Obadiah.
Perhaps the most provocative element is Barton’s championing of a division of both books into two parts, and a (characteristic) perceptible coolness towards final form or canonical approaches. The original book of Joel ended at 2:27 and the original Obadiah constituted verses 1–14, 15b. Barton labels these semi-seriously/semi-tongue-in-cheek ‘Deutero-Joel’ and ‘Deutero-Obadiah’. ‘Deutero-Obadiah’ may be a suitable name for verses 15a, 16–21 which Barton sees as the work of a late post-exilic writer. ‘Deutero-Joel’ less so, for Barton sees the end of Joel as little more than a pastiche of eschatological oracles, and he provides no obvious logic for ascribing these to one author. For Barton the literary partitioning takes a clear interpretative priority. The task of the historical-critic is the interpretation of a passage in its original, historical context. Despite claiming in the preface that ‘historical criticism is concerned not only with original components of biblical books but also with the books themselves’, Barton cannot hide how ill at ease he is with interpretations that consider the books as a whole. The section of the introduction dedicated to reading the book of Joel as a whole is primarily a summary of other scholars’ proposals and Barton’s desire to be seen as slightly distant from them.
All this leads to the obvious question of who is expected to buy and read this book. The implied reader is expected to be reading the English and not the Hebrew. The commentary on individual units occasionally ends (especially in the section on Obadiah) with theological reflections on the modern world and the ancient text. All this suggests theological students and pastors. Barton’s clear and reflective exegesis and theological comment will certainly make this a valued component of a student or pastor’s library, but might they not be more interested in what the church has accepted as Scripture, the whole books of Joel and Obadiah?
St Andrews University