Bob Becking’s commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah is a welcome contribution. Becking, Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Utrecht University, is no stranger to Ezra-Nehemiah. He has not only contributed to Ezra-Nehemiah scholarship in the past but is also a published scholar in the study of Persian history. This dual specialisation allows for an elaborate study of the nexus between history and the biblical text, which is the aim of the series.
The commentary begins with a helpful 20-page introduction. This introduction covers a great number of issues within a small space. Issues which have caused various disagreements (e.g., the unity of Ezra-Nehemiah, authorial relations to 1 and 2 Chronicles, and historical reliability) are assessed (pp. 1–9). Additionally, the introduction offers adequate summaries of the ancient witnesses and traditions; some of these, like 1–2 Esdras and 4–6 Esdras, are not well known by many readers of Ezra-Nehemiah (pp. 9–13).
A number of readers may demur on Becking’s conclusions from the outset. For instance, Becking argues that Ezra and Nehemiah were originally two separate arrangements (pp. 4–5). This has significant impact on the exposition of the text. This example, however, can be considered a minor point of controversy for the reader. Perhaps the most notable claim is that the book of Ezra is a pseudepigraphic writing (p. 6). Nonetheless, for Becking, the historical inaccuracies or fabrications do not devalue the text since “there is more at stake than … pure history” (p. 1).
Each chapter begins with “Essentials and Perspectives,” which gives a helpful overview of its content and themes. This section, at several points, sound sermonic and can be helpful for the preacher. For example, Becking laments that the Netherlands’ (his home country) pessimism towards law and gravitation towards “freedom and happiness” has caused “moral disorder” (p. 240). Yet in Nehemiah 8–12, Becking argues, “the tôrā is presented as a compass” and “the tôrā leads to joy” (p. 240). Next, under the title “Scholarly Exposition I: Introduction to the Exegesis” there is an explanation of historical, contextual, and structural matters. Each chapter then ends with “Scholarly Exposition II: Exegesis,” which is virtually a verse-by-verse interpretation of the text. The commentary’s superstructure is logical and easy to navigate. Moreover, it helps the reader to understand the presuppositions that the commentator has before he enters into the exegesis of the text.
Becking’s analysis of the final-form of Ezra-Nehemiah is rather refreshing. A noteworthy example can be found in Becking’s study of the chronological inconsistencies of Ezra 3–6. Instead of attributing the composition to mere historical blunder, Becking utilizes narratology in order to understand the justification behind the formation of the story (pp. 48–53). He remarks that the story is “constructed with an apparent intention to relate past events in a non-chronological order” (p. 48). An approach like this is ultimately helpful for readers of Hebrew narrative. Not all narratives ought to be chronological, and its achronological structure may indeed serve a purpose.
For the modern reader, the intermarriage crises in Ezra 9–10 and Nehemiah 13:23–31 are perhaps the most morally confusing parts of the Hebrew Bible. Becking offers a moderated analysis of the events. One nuance he adds to the debate is the translation of the word נָכְרִי which is used to describe the wives. This word is usually translated as “foreign” evoking images of race. However, as Becking notes, נָכְרִי can be easily translated as “different” or “strange” and rarely has ethnic connotations (p. 137). Therefore, these women may have been scrutinized for their “strange” lifestyles. Becking, however, still finds that “Ezra 9–10 places before the reader, a moral problem” (p.138), a problem which this commentary does not solve, but nevertheless attempts to make sense of.
I have only two minor critiques of this commentary. The first being less significant than the latter. The careful reader will be more or less frustrated by a number of typological errors and missing references. For example, the translation of Nehemiah 2:4–5 contains a typological error (p. 181; cf. p. 178). Moreover, there are a number of citations that cannot be located in the bibliography (e.g., p. 23, n. 23; p. 180, n. 38).
The second critique has to do with a missing element within the commentary. Although there are small remarks concerning the shifting narrators (third person to first person and vice versa) and language (Hebrew to Aramaic and vice versa), nothing substantial is said of them. For example, Becking briefly concludes his assessment on the language shift in Ezra 6:19–22 saying, “With the celebration of the Passover, the narrative reaches its target. This makes it understandable that the narrator suddenly shifts from Aramaic to Hebrew” (p. 94). Additionally, for the Artaxerxes Edict, Becking finds that a language transition is adopted to give an impression of authenticity (p. 110). For a commentary with a copious amount of references, it was surprising to see that this topic, which is of great interest, is not developed any further (see, e.g., Joshua Berman, “The Narratological Purpose of Aramaic Prose in Ezra 4:8–6:18,” Aramaic Studies 5 , 165–91).
Overall, Becking’s commentary is a well-researched and dynamic work that only a skilled scholar could produce. Even though readers may have reservations about Becking’s conclusions, it is impossible not to appreciate Becking’s deep and thought-provoking analysis of Ezra-Nehemiah.