As indicated by the subtitle, this book focuses on the Hebrew text of Esther. Although the authors refer to the volume as a ‘commentary’, it is not a commentary in the traditional sense. For example, there is minimal discussion of intertextual and literary aspects as well as interaction with other interpretations; instead, it focuses on features of the Hebrew text. According to the back cover of the book, the target audience of this book is Hebrew language students. And from the Baylor University Press website, the volumes in this series are intended as ‘prequels to commentary proper’ (http://www.baylorpress.com/en/Series/5/Baylor%20Handbook%20on%20the%20Hebrew%20Bible). The present book is thus aimed at intermediate Hebrew students and those seeking to understand the Hebrew text. In terms of its structure, the book contains an introduction followed by analysis of the text in four parts, then three appendices (Numeral Syntax in Esther, Bergey’s Features for Diachronic Analysis, Glossary of Linguistic Issues), a bibliography, and an index of linguistic topics that are discussed in the book.
The introduction outlines the theoretical underpinnings of the book. The authors also present their understanding of linguistic theory (e.g., syntactic components, syntactic roles, valency), verbal semantics, word order, subordinate clauses, and numeral syntax. Since the authors depart somewhat from traditional terminology and theory for Hebrew grammar, this section is required reading if one is to understand the rest of the book. For instance, binyanim is used throughout instead of ‘stems’; a subject-verb (S-V) word order is presented as basic, with the commonly found verb-subject (V-S) order a result of contextual ‘triggers’; verbal ‘valency’ is used, a term that describes ‘the number of arguments the verb requires in order to be semantically “complete”’ (p. 4). The authors then present a detailed defence of the traditional understanding of diachrony in biblical Hebrew, and argue in detail that Esther is a specimen of late biblical Hebrew (16 pages, half the length of the introduction).
The authors analyse the book of Esther in four parts: 1) Esther Becomes Queen of Persia (1:1–2:23); 2) Haman and Mordecai in Conflict (3:1–7:10); 3) The Jews and the Peoples in Conflict (8:1–9:32); and 4) Epilogue (10:1–3). Excluding the short treatment of Esther 10:1–3, each part is divided further into episodes, with ten episodes in total which correlate roughly to the narrative scenes of the book. Each episode is then divided into sections of 2–17 verses which include a translation and verse-by-verse analysis of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax.
There are many strengths of this volume for different groups of people. (1) For students with at least intermediate Hebrew proficiency who are studying Esther, this book would be an immense aid. The comments on Hebrew morphology, syntax, and grammar in traditional commentaries tend to be ad hoc, rather than comprehensive as in this volume. (2) For Hebrew language teachers, this volume is a good supplement for a class on the Hebrew text of Esther. I’ve previously used the Ruth volume in the same series for an intermediate Hebrew class on the text of Ruth, and we referred to it intermittently, especially to confirm our hunches and to corroborate our observations. My students did not always find the explanations in the Ruth volume convincing, although it did raise significant issues and generate productive discussions. I anticipate that this volume would be equally stimulating in this way. (3) For those in the preparation stages of writing a commentary on Esther, the detailed analysis of the Hebrew would be most helpful. Many factors are involved in exegeting a passage, of course, but this volume provides a firm foundation from which to start.
As for any book, a reviewer can find areas of concern or offer constructive criticism. First, for readers of this volume who have not encountered the terminology and theory for the Hebrew language used in this book (as detailed in the first half of the Introduction), my concern is that some might find learning it too difficult and thus give up before reaching the analysis of the text of Esther. Although I learned Hebrew using a textbook with a different approach, I think the effort needed to learn Holmstedt and Screnock’s method (as detailed in John A. Cook and Robert D. Holmstedt, Beginning Biblical Hebrew: A Grammar and Illustrated Reader [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013]; not listed in the bibliography, although mentioned in the text of the present book) is worthwhile. This approach gives alternative explanations for certain phenomena in the Hebrew text of Esther, such as how the syntax and grammar of the book work.
Second, more explanation for contested phrases would be appreciated. Let me provide two examples. (1) Apart from being described as an ‘adjunct to the verb’, there is no further discussion of the meaning of מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר (‘from another place’; Es 4:14; p. 156). This important but cryptic Hebrew phrase needs commentary from the standpoints of grammar and syntax. (2) The authors explain their translation of the phrase וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי אָבָדְתִּי (‘however I perish, I perish’; Es 4:16), on the basis that אֲשֶׁר is a ‘manner-free choice relative’ (p. 158). The reader is then referred to the comments on 5:3, which refers to a forthcoming work by Holmstedt. Given that their translation of the phrase differs from most others, a more detailed defence of their translation is required.
Third, the second half of the introduction has a mildly polemical tone, but the opponents of the authors’ views on Hebrew diachrony are not stated. For those who want to hear the other side of the debate, mention of the interlocutors would be welcome.
Fourth, for a revised edition or future volumes, a list of abbreviations for the scholarly works cited would be useful (e.g., BDB, HALOT, DCH, JM, WO, GKC, CAD). The abbreviations are given after the relevant entries in the bibliography, but a list at the beginning of the book would provide them in an accessible form for non-scholars.
In short, Holmstedt and Screnock have produced a volume worth having for intermediate and advanced Hebrew language students, along with translators and scholars. This is not only so for those already familiar with the different terminology and approach to Hebrew grammar employed in this book, but also for those who are willing to learn it.