The NIV Application Commentary series, having begun two decades ago, has been completed with the final volume on Ezra-Nehemiah by Donna and Thomas Petter. I was excited to get this volume because 1) I don’t have many commentaries on Ezra-Nehemiah, and 2) I find it difficult to know the importance of much of what happens in Ezra-Nehemiah as well as how to apply these two books. Donna Petter wrote the commentary for Ezra, and Thomas Petter wrote the section on Nehemiah.
The introduction is quite short, a mere 13 pages for both books. I suppose it is actually 22 pages, but four pages are given to maps, one page to a timeline, and four pages for outlines. The rest covers a literary and historical setting, the three kings involved in these two biblical books, as well as the authorship, date, audience, and structure. They offer three themes of renewed worship, renewed worship and the promise of Zion, ad renewed worship and opposition.
If you are unfamiliar with the NIVAC series, each chapter is broken down into four sections:
- The biblical text;
- Original Meaning: this helps you understand the biblical text in its original context. What is the text saying? What is actually happening? Is this text using other Scriptures?
- Bridging Contexts: This section draws a bridge between the world of Scripture and our world today. Which actions are timeless and which are not?
- Contemporary Significance: Though it can be similar to the previous section, this section offers specific application for you today.
The authors do a good job on helping us to understand the rather boring details of lists of people in Ezra or the building projects in Nehemiah. Donna shows that Ezra 1 focuses on fulfilled prophecy which involves restoring Abraham’s seed (a people) to God’s land (a place) after the exile. Ezra 2 zooms in the the people who are returning, with the main point being that “genealogy defines the true people of God, whose identity and inheritance are rooted in a relationship; that relationship entails the promises of God” (73). In the beginning of Ezra 2, the people are described as captives (v. 1). At the end they are described as Israelites (“and all the rest of Israel,” v. 70). In verse 1 they are returning; in verse 70 they are residing.
One thing I wanted to know was how the Petters would interpret Ezra-Nehemiah. Are these two men generally positive or are they a mixed bag? Moses was the most humble man on earth, but he also killed an Egyptian. Abraham was saved by his faith, but he gave his wife away (twice!), had a son outside of God’s promises, sent that son and second wife away, etc. No one is perfect. Ray Lubeck has an interesting article arguing that while Ezra and Nehemiah were godly men who did good things, they also did some pretty lousy things (like both requiring Israelite men to divorce and put away their foreign wives and children). Is this true?
This volume takes a generally positive stance toward Ezra and Nehemiah’s actions, and it does a good job at it too. For example, Ezra 9:1 reads, “After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, ‘The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices…'” So the people, as well as the priests and Levites had married foreign women. Is that a problem? No. However, they had “not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices,” practices “like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites.”
The priests and Levites of all people were to remain holy, and partaking in “detestable practices” would stain the new temple. Donna writes that this “was clearly a contextually driven (and exceptional) interpretation of torah in order to protect the newly restored sanctity of Zion” (247). She points to Israel’s idolatry at Mt. Sinai and how the Levites killed the idolators (Exod 32:25-29) and to Phinheas at Baal Peor (Num 25; Neh 13:1-3). And while Malachi does write that God hates divorce, Donna points out that “Malachi rebukes some who were divorcing their true covenantal partners (Mal 2:13–16).” It is just before this in Malachi 2:10–11 that Malachi rebukes the covenantal people for intermarrying with women who serve a foreign god.
Paul tells a believing spouse not to divorce an unbelieving spouse simply because they are a non-believer (1 Cor 7). And while he wasn’t writing explicitly about marriage in 2 Cor 6, there is general wisdom for believers seeking marriage not to be “yoked” with a non-believer. So don’t marry an unbeliever, but don’t divorce them if you do marry them. God is at work.
But what about the wives and children who were sent away. Donna writes that while Ezra is silent about their welfare, “the people of Yahweh [were] very much a minority in a Persion province” (247). The foreign wives would go back to their majority culture and “would not necessarily be left without care” (247). But again, the text is silent, and we do not know.
Excluding the Foreigner
Nehemiah 13:3 reads, “When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.” This seems like an extreme act, especially if we think of certain Israelite heroes of the faith who married foreign women: “Joseph and Asenath (Egyptian), Moses and Zipporah (Midianite), Salmon and Rahab (Canaanite), Boaz and Ruth (Moabite), Bathsheba and Uriah (Hittite), Esther and Xerxes (Persian)” (Lubeck). Yet while Thomas acknowledges that foreigners did come to faith (such as Ruth and Rahab), “in the corpus of Ezra-Nehemiah, there is no discernable [sic] evidence that any of the ‘foreigners’ (including foreign wives) in their midst were Yahwists” (453).
As with many commentaries on Ezra-Nehemiah, this volume of fairly short, but it is still very helpful. The Original Meaning and Bridging Contexts sections were my favorite, though I appreciated the Contemporary Significance sections. The authors do a good job of placing Ezra-Nehemiah into its canonical context, as well as pointing forward to New Testament teachings and applications. Pair this with Ezra-Nehemiah (THOTC) by Shepherd and Wright and the volume by Greg Goswell (review).
- Series: NIV Application Commentary
- Authors: Donna and Thomas Petter
- Donna Petter is associate professor of OT and director of the Hebrew Language Program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary;
- Thomas Petter is semior pastor of Trinitarian Congregational Church and is associate professor of OT at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
- Paperback: 512 pages
- Publisher: Zondervan Academic (January 19, 2021)
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Disclosure: I received this book free from Zondervan Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.