Mignon R. Jacobs is professor of Old Testament Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ohio. Among her other books is Gender, Power, and Persuasion: The Genesis Narratives and Contemporary Portraits (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).
Jacobs has produced a very different commentary within this series. It is a highly disciplined, precise, and carefully crafted work. I must admit it took me some time to appreciate the wisdom and usefulness of this approach.
In the introduction Jacobs states, “My primary task was to interpret the texts, first, as prophetic literature and, second, as diverse intertextual voices within the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament canon” (p. xiii). Where there are “various interpretative options” the commentator steps back to “allow these options to coexist” even though this “may jar readers who want a single, decisive interpretation.” Jacobs states that “my faith commitments and theological stance shape this approach to writing a commentary” (p. xiii) without inviting the reader to engage with these commitments. The focus is on the text.
The result is a rigorous, technical, and extensive investigation. Matters of textual criticism are set out in some detail. Jacobs’s conservative approach to the text resists textual variants that evidence paraphrase and harmonization, as well as modern speculations that lead to emendation. Typically, the evidence is left to speak for itself. On rare occasions Jacobs states a personal opinion in terms such as “I retain the MT” (p. 111).
The commentary works most helpfully as a translator’s handbook and would be an outstanding help for students, pastors or scholars wanting help to read the Hebrew text with precision. Jacobs provides an extensive investigation of the semantics and syntax of the Hebrew text of these books. Footnotes include extensive citations of competing scholarly opinions, often without comment. If read quickly, some of the semantic discussions seem unnecessarily redundant, e.g., “to despise the name is a particular formulation designating an action that results in the defamation of Yahweh’s character or reputation” (p. 188). However, discussions like these do bring out the finer nuances of the language and require of the reader pause and consideration.
Jacobs is to be commended for a very cautious and honest approach when dealing with passages where translation options cannot be firmly settled. Tendentious argument is vigorously resisted. Personal preferences are occasionally stated simply and without argument. This work is an exemplary model of interpretative integrity, allowing a question to remain unresolved at the limits of the available evidence, while setting out the data fully and clearly. So, for example, after a detailed discussion of the translation difficulties and options in Malachi 3:13–15 (pp. 253–60), Jacobs focuses on the issue of divorce in Malachi 2:16 (pp. 260–63). One option is to read Yahweh as the one who hates divorce (cf. NASB, NRSV). This raises questions with respect to both Deuteronomy 24:1–4 and Ezra 9–10 (cf. Mal 2:10–12). An alternative translation would be “the one who hates, divorces, and covers his garment with violence.” How then to understand “covering his garment with violence?” Is this a public display of violence as a product of one’s arrogance? Is it the imagery of taking a wife (cf. Deut 22:30; Ruth 3:9; Ezek 16:8)? The implication then might be that “marriage to one woman conceals the divorce of a previous one” (p. 262). The overall force of the passage is a warning against acting treacherously (2:15). In conclusion Jacobs issues a timely warning, “Much caution should be exercised, especially considering how these verses have been used on issues of divorce, intermarriage, and alliance” (p. 263). Jacobs leaves the reader to work through the possibilities.
One of the great strengths of this commentary is Jacobs’s extensive investigation of intertextual data to clarify the meaning of words, phrases or concepts. The Scripture index locates over four thousand OT citations within the work—a remarkable number for a commentary on two short prophetic books. This contrasts with an indicator of the major desideratum of this commentary: there are only seventy-four citations from the NT (and fifty-two from the apocrypha) in the whole work.
In the author’s preface Jacobs states, “My approach … is to inquire about the significance of the text for both the ancient and the modern audience” (p. xiii). In the body of the commentary the only matters of significance for a modern audience appear to be those pertaining to academic questions of textual criticism, semantics, and syntax. Insufficient attention is given to questions of biblical theology engaging with the New Testament’s use of these books, their place in the development of our understanding of Jesus’s person, life and work, let alone eschatology.
Haggai’s prophecies with respect to the construction of the second temple focus on a most significant event in preparation for the coming of Jesus as the embodied temple of God (John 2:13–25). The final destruction of the second temple in turn brought closure to the transition from shadow to reality, as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in each believer transferred the temple function to the expanding missionary church. Much more could be said about Haggai’s contribution to this theme within its canonical context. More could be said about Haggai’s discussion of holiness, particularly with respect to Jesus’s power to make clean what was unclean, and to sanctify his people once for all time.
The New Testament writers make extensive use of the Book of Malachi. Pastors and students will look for a deeper and more extensive discussion of issues such as the universal expectation of Malachi 1:11, the relationship between faith and lifestyle (1:6–2:9), covenant family life (2:10–17), and especially the eschatological expectations of Malachi 3–4.
Jacobs states, “Recontextualizing the ideas and themes most often requires reconceptualizing. This task is not the primary concern of a commentary, even though it might offer specific theological stances for the reader” (p. xiii). This may explain the reasons for this deficiency. However, it does contrast with Jacobs’s approach to another difficulty.
Contemporary sensitivities are a matter of genuine concern, particularly with respect to the issue of the Bible’s gendered language with reference to God. The Hebrew text uses masculine pronouns, even though the Creator exists without actual gender. Jacobs states “to avoid the masculine pronoun, I use Deity (the Deity) or God” (p. xiv). In places this usage is open to suggesting that God/Yahweh and “the Deity” are two different beings, for example, “God is also aware of those who honor and reverence the Deity and will bless them” (p. 153); “Yahweh’s hatred, like the Deity’s love, is compelled by Yahweh’s choice” (p. 174); and “a perception that Yahweh requires of people something that the Deity does not require” (p. 266). This approach produces readings that are awkward at best. As a general tendency it also depersonalizes God.
Overall this volume provides a valuable resource, particularly for Hebrew students, scholars and pastors who want to have a precise and faithful understanding of the Hebrew text in its historical context.