Old Testament Commentary Picks

A while back now, I created a list of my choices for the best New Testament commentaries by book. I tried to limit selections to one commentary per New Testament book. My Old Testament commentary collection is not as extensive (ironically I spent far more time on the Old Testament in my studies, but the vast majority of my preaching in based in the New Testament), but here are my choices for the best Old Testament commentary options. As with the New Testament, if you don’t see your preferred choice here, it may be because I don’t own it, and I’m always open to recommendations. I have tried to, wherever possible, limit my selection to one or at most two, though there are exceptions.

Genesis: I have more commentaries on Genesis than any other Old Testament book. Some are quite disappointing. But I do have three I highly recommend but for very different reasons. John H. Walton, Genesis (NIVAC) is the best for understanding the literary/historical context of Genesis 1-3. Walton has published a considerable body of work on ancient cosmologies and how Genesis relates to those. The one downside of this commentary is that everything after chapter 3 is covered in far less detail. For a better look at the narrative of the Patriarchs of Israel and the artistry of Genesis as a whole, Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation) is a must. Brueggemann is perhaps the best mind alive when it comes to capturing the literary techniques employed to build dramatic impact in the Old Testament. For the best all-around, most balanced, reader-friendly, and reliable commentary, I’d go with Victor Hamilton’s 2 volumes in NICOT.

Exodus: Peter Enns, Exodus (NIVAC) is a wonderful, accessible, but still in-depth option. If you want to get into linguistic stuff, John Durham, Exodus (WBC) is a great option, and his introduction is more comprehensive than Enns, and draws out the main theological themes wonderfully. But as with most WBC volumes, some of the exegetical value is lost in the formatting.

Leviticus: Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (NICOT) is my first choice, though Leviticus is not a book I have studied in any considerable depth. I do have a few hesitations with this one, but commentaries on Leviticus are not typically exciting reads.

Numbers: Although the introduction is much too short, Timothy Ashley, The Book of Numbers (NICOT) is my preferred choice. The text in its final form is the focus, and source criticism, though noted, does not take up much space, whereas in other commentaries on Numbers (and the Pentateuch more generally), it can become a distraction.

Deuteronomy: Peter Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (NICOT) is my first choice, even though it’s over 40 years old. It’s fairly succinct, without feeling like it’s lacking, as he avoids the tangents and unnecessary fluff which bog down critical commentaries. I understand a replacement volume in the series is in the works. Replacing Craigie’s is no easy task.

Joshua: With all the difficulties of the violence in Joshua, one doesn’t want commentators to tip-toe around it, or make excuses, but deal with it head on. Gordon McConville & Stephen Williams, Joshua (THOTC) is a good option. The Two Horizons series is a great avenue to deal with the big questions of Joshua. Though the exposition of the text is typically brief, it does get the main points well. But in this volume, the essays in the second part which wrestle with the theological themes gives this one its real value.

Judges: Barry G. Webb, The Book of Judges (NICOT) is great in overall scholarship and composition. However, I do believe he completely mishandles the Deborah narrative, both in his exposition and in the introduction. His reading of that narrative is hindered considerably by his strong complementarian views on gender which hurts an otherwise impeccable commentary. Less well known than Webb, but arguably better are Susan Niditch (OTL) and Tammi Schneider (Berit Olam).

Ruth: Ruth is one of my favourite Old Testament books, and where I first cut my teeth in Old Testament Hebrew. I preached through the book of Ruth in 2014. Two great commentaries were immensely helpful in that, and both are highly recommended. Kirsten Nielsen, Ruth (OTL) is a bit more scholarly focused and gives more on history of interpretation, but less on theological objectives, and impact on the original audience than one gets from Katherine Doob-Sakenfeld, Ruth (Interpretation). But overall both are excellent. I later added Frederic Bush’s volume on Ruth and Esther (WBC) which is a great technical option.

1 & 2 Samuel: The books of Samuel have probably occupied more of my time than any other Old Testament book. Among my favourite undergrad courses was my advanced Hebrew reading course with Keith Bodner which focused on translation of 1 Samuel. Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation) is in my mind essential reading for understanding Samuel. David Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel (NICOT) and Ralph Klein, 1 Samuel (WBC) are great scholarly works on 1 Samuel, but Brueggemann does what no other can do in analyzing the interplay and literary techniques which make 1 & 2 Samuel so powerful as story, drama and theology.

1 & 2 Kings: Simon DeVries, 1 Kings, Second Edition (WBC) and T.R. Hobbs, 2 Kings (WBC) are both in depth, scholarly treatments which I highly recommend.

1 & 2 Chronicles: My former professor Keith Bodner is currently working on a new volume in the NICOT series, which no doubt will be excellent. Right now, Sarah Japhet’s OTL volume is my go-to; but don’t take that as her getting a consolation prize. Bodner has his work cut out for him if he wants to exceed what Japhet has done.

Ezra/Nehemiah: Joseph Blenkinsopp (OTL), F. Charles Fensham (NICOT), and H.G.M. Williamson (WBC) are all worth having. Blenkinsopp and Fensham are more user-friendly than Williamson. Fensham has less detail than the other two. Blenkinsopp is a more text-critical approach, which may not be of interest to pastors.

Esther: The introduction of Karen Jobes, Esther (NIVAC) alone makes this one worth buying. Jobes did her doctoral research on the Greek version of Esther, so even though she’s a New Testament/Greek scholar, she is probably the best currently active biblical scholar to write on Esther, and the results here are impeccable. Frederic Bush (WBC) on Ruth and Esther is more technical, if you’re into that level of study, and also commendable, as is the OTL volume by Jewish text-critical scholar Jon Levenson.

Job: Two volumes are worthy of note: Tremper Longman III, Job (BCOTWP) and John H. Walton, Job (NIVAC). I would recommend either without hesitation. These two gentlemen are among the best Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern scholars currently active.

Psalms: The only commentary you will ever need on the Psalms is John Goldingay, Psalms (3 vols. BCOTWP). But if you want to avoid going to a three volume set, the recent NICOT volume by Nancy L. deClaisse-Walford, Rolf Jacobson, and Beth Tanner is surprisingly good considering it condenses the entire book of Psalms into a single volume commentary, and has three different authors. It still feels balanced, and features fresh, delightful translations by the authors.

Proverbs: Tremper Longman III, Proverbs (BCOTWP) has typically been my first choice. Overall, the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms is just outstanding. Longman balances critical research on Proverbs and the need to do exegesis of the text as we have it for the use of the whole church. The other commentary I go to, which I only recently added is Roland Murphy (WBC).

Ecclesiastes: Tremper Longman III has written what is probably the best commentary from a specifically evangelical perspective on Qohelet in the NICOT series. But I’d also strongly recommend Peter Enns, Ecclesiastes (THOTC) which is, like the Two Horizons volume on Joshua noted above, really valuable because of the theological approach to the text in the second portion. Enns is able to draw out the real value of this book without passing over or taking lightly the very real challenges of Qohelet. That said, Roman Catholic scholar Roland Murphy (WBC) finishes ahead of Longman this time. Murphy, like Longman has written commentaries and monographs on most of the Wisdom books of the OT, and this volume is, like his Proverbs commentary, absolutely superb.

Song of Songs: Tremper Longman III (NICOT) is the typically viewed as the standard, but I’d also add the less well known and more recent volume by Richard Hess (BCOTWP). Longman and Hess both read the book as an erotic song depicting human sexuality in a very positive light. Both interact frequently, and graciously with other commentators throughout history who have proposed various allegorical readings, but are also sensitive to other ancient near eastern erotic poetry and the light those texts shed on Song of Songs. They come to similar conclusions, so either will serve pastor and student/scholar well.

Isaiah: If you can go to a multi-volume set, go with Joseph Blenkinsopp’s AB. Because its immense size and all the difficulties of textual criticism, Isaiah cannot be comprehensively treated in a single volume. That said, John Glodingay, Isaiah (UBCS) is good intro level commentary, and J. Alec Motyer offers a mid-level stand alone volume (he also wrote the volume in the Tyndale series) which, though I have a few disagreements with, is overall very good. But Blenkinsopp is certainly your best option.

Jeremiah: I would strongly recommend Walter Brueggeman’s A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming. It is not a technical commentary, but focuses on sociological and literary reading of Jeremiah in its final form, highlighting the embodiment of the pathos of Judah in slow movement towards collapse and the aftermath of Babylonian conquest. Brueggemann is obviously not as detailed as the six author WBC 2 volume set, but six authors makes for a weird imbalance.

Lamentations: Commentaries on Lamentations alone are not exactly abundant. Robin Parry’s Lamentations (THOTC) and Dianne Bergant’s Lamentations (AOTC) are very good arguments for Lamentations being worthy of its own volume.

Ezekiel: There is not a book in the bible I’ve avoided the way I’ve avoided Ezekiel, so I don’t have a strong opinion on Ezekiel commentaries. But Leslie Allen (WBC) is where I go first on the rare occasion I am in Ezekiel, usually because of an inter-textual link between the NT and Ezekiel. Joseph Blenkinsopp’s Interpretation volume is also an excellent theological commentary.

Daniel: Although the format is a bit unorthodox, John Goldingay, Daniel (WBC) is my first choice. Some conservative evangelicals have disliked his conclusions on dating and some parts of interpretation, but I find his reading to be the most plausible. A more recent, and more user-friendly option is Carol Newsom’s outstanding OTL volume.

Minor Prophets: Every series has its own way of dividing up the “minor prophets”. So instead of doing each of the 12 individually, I’ll just condense them together and make a few suggestions. J. Andrew Dearman, The Book of Hosea (NICOT) and Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah (WBC) cover Hosea well, though Stuart is less strong on Joel and Obadiah than he is on Hosea, Amos, and Jonah. Leslie Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah (NICOT) is excellent, and gives all four books their due. James Limburg, Jonah (OTL) contains some unique features, like an appendix on Jonah in Jewish and Christian art, and his introduction and treatment of the genre and uniqueness of Jonah among the Twelve is very insightful. This is a must have, I think, and Limburg’s Hosea-Micah (Interpretation) and its partner volume, Nahum-Malachi by Elizabeth Achtemeier are also succinct, pastoral commentaries which are very useful for drawing out teaching and preaching content. John Goldingay & Pamela Scalise, Minor Prophets II (UBCS) is another great intro level commentary, which doesn’t feel like it lacks much in exegesis, even though it doesn’t cover technical or critical questions. Ralph L. Smith, Micah-Malachi (WBC) is much shorter than it’s counterpart by Douglas Stuart on Hosea-Jonah, but still a very worthy volume to have. Mark Boda’s recent NICOT volume The Book of Zechariah is a beast of a commentary, but incredibly well done. Mignon Jacobs, which has just replaced the older volume in the NICOT series and The Books of Haggai and Malachi, is excellent.

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