Koowon Kim’s contribution is one of thirteen volumes published thus far in the Asia Bible Commentary series by the Langham Global Library in partnership with the Asia Theological Association. The goal of the series is to provide a resource that is “biblical, pastoral, contextual, missional, and prophetic for pastors, Christian leaders, cross-cultural workers, and students in Asia” (p. xi). The authors are evangelical scholars all across Asia who seek to contextualize the Bible for particular Asian contexts by demonstrating its cultural relevance and leveraging cultural resources with which to engage the text. Kim is a seminary professor at Reformed Graduate University in Seoul, South Korea.
Kim’s 1 Samuel begins with a brief introduction followed by the commentary and then selected bibliography. In the body of the commentary are also embedded fifteen brief topic studies in inset boxes that highlight a biblical theme or issue for particular discussion from a pastoral, cultural, or even historical point of view. Kim is explicit in how he contextualizes his commentary for Asian audiences (p. 10). First, he introduces Chinese, Korean, or Japanese folk sayings or Confucius’s teachings for “illustrative purposes.” Secondly, he applies the text wherever possible to the situation of Korean churches as he knows them. And thirdly, in his commentary on the David narratives of 1 Samuel 16–31 he includes relevant episodes from the Chinese epic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms—a work of historical fiction recounting the turbulent period of Chinese history from the end of the Han dynasty into the so-called Three Kingdoms period (ca. 170–280 CE).
Kim’s volume is a worthy commentary in the tradition of western, historical, and textual biblical scholarship. There are many exegetical and theological insights in his exposition of 1 Samuel that make the book a fascinating read and help for pastors. For example, he notes the contrast of Hannah considered by Eli as a “wicked woman” (בַּת־בְּלִיָּעַל) in 1:16 with Eli’s sons who are referred to in the narrative as “scoundrels” (בְּנֵי בְלִיָּעַל) in 2:12 (p. 29). In Samuel’s victory over the Philistines at Mizpeh, Kim intriguingly suggests that Yahweh is here depicted as a divine warrior striking out at the enemy as Israel stands by and watches (p. 71). Israel is merely Yahweh’s armor-bearer as “The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Kar” (1 Sam 7:11 NIV). His assessment of Saul’s quick ascent to the throne compared with David’s long and tortuous one is theologically profound and fruitful: “This season of suffering characterized David’s rise to the throne, for David became a man of obedience through suffering, which is an essential trait of an Israelite king” (p. 172). Kim writes clearly and concisely, summarizing in excellent fashion each section of the biblical narrative. The commentary is conversant and grounded in previous scholarship although statements are not cited as often as one might wish as to their sources.
There are a number of problems, however, with this work. First, there are several rather egregious errors. For example, in the man of God’s condemnation of Eli in 1 Samuel 2:29, Kim argues that the double-meaning of כבד “to be honored” and “to be heavy” is suggested in the text: “Further, we are told that Eli had “honored” [כבד] his sons more than God by “fattening” [כבד] himself and his sons on the choicest part of the offerings made by God’s people (pp. 34–35). But the Hebrew text does not have כבד for the word “fattening.” The editors should have caught this misstatement as well as others upon which the exegesis and exposition so fully depend.
A second problem is that Kim tends to (a) moralize the Old Testament story and (b) over-interpret the text. In critiquing the priesthood of Eli, for example, Kim reminds readers that the church today has become like a “business” selling sermons like merchandise (p. 38). Recently, evangelical scholars have expressed concerns over moralizing the Old Testament story. Rather, the focus should be on the redemptive-historical themes raised, that these motifs are part and parcel of the narrator’s larger theme of “those who honor me, I will honor” and reflect the theology of the Deuteronomic historian. Kim also has the tendency to over-interpret the text. Perhaps the most notable example is the conclusion that Saul failed in obeying the Lord not two times (as in 1 Sam 13 and 15) but three times (cf. pp. 6, 98–103). When Samuel anoints Saul in 1 Samuel 10 and after three signs are fulfilled thereafter, he tells Saul to “do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you” (v. 7). Kim interprets Samuel’s latter words to imply that Saul should attack the Philistine outpost at Gibeah (p. 99). In fact, the implied action becomes to Kim a “command,” which of course Saul fails to do and thus becomes his first “failure to obey.” When asked why Samuel didn’t just come out and tell Saul directly to attack Gibeah, Kim writes that Samuel apparently “wanted Saul to figure out the Lord’s will, based on the wisdom he had acquired through his life experience and rational judgment” (p. 100). Surely, this asks too much of the reader to infer and the explanation is rather tortuous.
The Asia Bible Commentary seeks to contextualize the Bible for its Asian audiences. Kim does well to bring up on almost every page an Asian proverb, illustration or parallel that relates to the narrative stories of 1 Samuel. Pastors in Asian contexts will no doubt appreciate the parallels and illustrations, but these are for the most part illustrations only. Contextualization requires more, involving the integration of the thought world of the Bible and more importantly the redemptive-historical themes of the Scriptures with the thought world of the target culture. Many of the Asian examples seem piecemeal and tangential to the actual theology of the book. Kim includes Korean and Asian parallels on everything from betrothal type-scenes (p. 90) to armor-bearers (p. 164) to victory chants (p. 176) to the composite bow (p. 195). But how do these illustrations bring to bear in a foreign culture the religious and theological themes of 1 Samuel? One of the more helpful comparisons is Hannah as a model of the Korean “fighting” woman who “fights” with herself, her family members and even with God (p. 11). Yet, surely in as hierarchal and patriarchal as the Korean culture one cannot overlook the fact that Hannah was a woman and yet was fundamentally instrumental in executing God’s next movement in his redemptive-historical drama. In such an honor and shame-based culture as the Asian, one cannot overlook the redemptive-historical meaning of God’s removal of Hannah’s shame in this story.
In summary, Kim’s commentary on 1 Samuel is a valuable contribution filled with many worthwhile insights and grounded in traditional, western biblical exegesis. But it would be unwise to rely solely on this work for critical study, its interpretation of 1 Samuel and contextual sermon preparation.