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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 57, 2009

MATTHEW LEVERING, Ezra and Nehemiah (SCM Theological Commentary; London: SCM, 2008). Pp. 236. Hardback. 19.99.

One only learns from the preface that this volume belongs to the UK version of the US Brazos Theological Commentary series. It “was born out of the conviction that dogma clarifies rather than obscures” (11). The judgement of the editors is that it is the exegetes who obscure, particularly the historical-critical variety. Hence, authors have been chosen “because of their knowledge of and expertise in using the Christian doctrinal tradition … theological training in the Nicene tradition prepares one for biblical interpretation” —interpretation that will clarify rather than obscure the meaning of the text.

Given that doctrine is the one clear hermeneutical principle, I was puzzled to read that the editors “do not hold the commentators to any particular hermeneutical theory” and that “the commentary series is tentative and exploratory” (13). If the aim of the authors in this series is to show clearly just how tentative and exploratory biblical interpretation is they will be welcomed with open arms by their exegetical comrades.

Levering identifies three components of his particular hermeneutical theory or approach. They are summed up nicely on p. 23: (1) God’s gift of covenantal holiness (holy people in a holy land), (2) the contemplation of biblical texts such as Ezra and Nehemiah through other biblical texts (a version of intertextuality) and (3) the unity of past, present and future in terms of God’s purpose in history. His review of scholarship laments the dearth of studies on these books, both by the Fathers and “most theologians.” He singles out the venerable Bede as the first “Christian theologian to write a commentary on the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.” Hence Bede is invoked at various points to demonstrate continuity between the commentary and the founding Fathers of the “doctrinal tradition.” Having said this, Levering is not averse on occasion to criticise and improve on Bede’s commentary.

Ezra and Nehemiah manifest the overall unity of Scripture’s presentation of a holy people and holy land, with particular emphasis on a kenosis or period of suffering and purification as a prelude to the fulfilment of Israel’s vocation in the coming of Christ. The return to the land, the rebuilding of the temple, the commitment to the Torah, and the purification of the people are all steps along this path. A catena of biblical texts is invoked to illustrate the unity and continuity of this theme and its interconnection with other related themes.

Levering applies his criteria clearly and consistently and the book is not without appeal. Even though the Christological potential of texts is exploited, Levering gives due place to exploring the meaning of texts within their Old Testament setting (particularly via the technique of a catena of Old Testament quotations). But the tendency of patristic exegesis to indulge that other (allegorical) meaning appears on occasion, as in Levering’s take on Tobiah the Ammonite’s jibe in Neh 4:3: “That stone wall they are building—any fox going up on it would break it down.” In Levering’s reading, the wall becomes the church and the fox any opponent of Christ, who will of course not succeed. He does not say it explicitly but one gains the impression the real fox he has in mind is the devil (cf. 148).

Unfortunately, however, the conviction of unity and continuity in the Bible tends to determine the selection of texts that are discussed. There is no mention of Isaiah 56, Ruth and Jonah that would appear to challenge the exclusive stance of Ezra–Nehemiah vis--vis foreigners. I do not mind a commentary series with an avowed agenda. That is what we are supposed to do these days: stop pretending to be objective and confess our biases. But one would expect that a series of this kind would also examine critically its criteria and the evidence it assembles. I do not find this in Levering’s book. In line with the series manifesto (the preface) it tends to be dogmatic rather than argue its case. One dogma in particular that I would take issue with is the claim that one can only really read the Bible authentically from within a context formed by “a body of apostolic doctrine sustained by a tradition of teaching in the church” (10). This is a traditional position but it makes the risky (and unprovable) claim that those outside this context (e.g., an atheist) cannot grasp the meaning of biblical texts. On my reading this position excludes what the Bible itself includes. That is, it does not take account of biblical texts (and there are many) that portray outsiders as more attuned to God’s purpose and more ‘holy’ than Israel or the Christian community.

Review by
Mark A. O’Brien
St Dominic’s Priory
816 Riversdale Road
Camberwell VIC 3124