“Are you interested in reviewing our new NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible?”
Luckily, the question arrived in an email so I didn’t have to pretend to be all nonchalant in my response. I was able to reply without betraying my unnatural level of excitement.
I spent 15 years working in Christian retail and my favorite moments involved helping people find study materials that would equip them to get more out of their studies. When it came to study Bibles, that was a lot easier said than done. I managed a store that had more than 100′ of shelving space devoted to study Bibles. Some of them were wonderful, a lot of them seemed like weird money grabs. I mean, does anyone really need an NRSV Asthma Sufferer’s Devotional Bible?
I didn’t think so either.
I devoted a lot of time in getting to know the features of different Bibles so I could guide people to what they needed—always on the hunt for the holy grail of study Bibles. I have to say that I’m a pretty tough critic. In my opinion, a lot of study Bibles just don’t need to exist.
Would you be willing to do a selective review?
As we talked about the review a little more, I realized that Zondervan was looking for people to focus their reviews around a specific biblical book. By the time they got to me, the list of books that reviewers had already chosen included heavy hitters like Genesis, Job, Mark, John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, etc. That was fine because I immediately wanted to focus on Leviticus.
Why Leviticus? BECAUSE I DON’T LIKE LEVITICUS. I know it’s super unspiritual for a pastor to say so . . . but, at best, I endure Leviticus. You don’t have to leave me a comment reminding me that Leviticus is profitable for “teaching, for reproof, for correction” and all. I get it. Leg day is profitable, too—and I dread it as well.
If a study Bible is going to focus on cultural backgrounds, then it better be able to make Leviticus more interesting. Luckily, it really did. I spent the week reading through the notes and articles related to Leviticus, and I enjoyed it more than many of the study Bibles I’ve been exposed to in a long time.
Here are 5 reasons why I loved this Bible:
1. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible does what it says
I’ve seen quite a few study Bibles with an identity crises. They’re so unfocused in their intent that readers end up wading through tons of random (and often unhelpful) information. It’s like someone loaded a confetti gun full of Bible facts and fired it at the reader. It then becomes the reader’s job to take all these scraps of information and create something useful out of it.
The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible knows exactly what it is. It really has a laser focus. It takes the biblical narrative—and Scripture itself—and places it in the proper cultural and historical context. As I read through Leviticus, and jumped around to other books, there wasn’t a moment when I felt like the notes and articles strayed from their intended target.
2. John Walton is kind of a super hero
Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for Craig Keener. In fact, if you can get your hands on a copy of his commentary on Revelation from the NIV Application Commentary series, do. It’s pretty amazing.
That said, I have been an enthusiastic John H. Walton fan since I had to read Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context for a class some years ago. He is currently the professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and a former professor at Moody Bible Institute where he taught for 20 years. His understanding of literature of the ancient Near East permeates his commentary work and really keeps students grounded in their Old Testament studies.
I didn’t have to spend too much time in Leviticus to see the impact of having Walton curating the study content. I don’t think this study Bible would be what it is if Walton and Keener weren’t at the helm.
Listen to Dr. Walton expound upon the Tower of Babel in this brief video clip.
Now imagine him giving you that level of insight about the entire Old Testament.
3. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible challenges me
I honestly can’t remember the last time I picked up a study Bible and then had to spend the day processing what I had read. I’m no johnny-come-lately to the Old Testament, and it still really rocked some of my perceptions. This isn’t the Bible for you if you’ve sat through a few Sunday school classes and think you have the Bible all figured out.
Obviously when you’re wading through Leviticus, you’re wading through the law. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible pretty quickly confronts you with the fact that having a law isn’t what set Israel apart. Most of the Near Eastern cultures of the time had collections of laws and codes. Part of the fun of reading through Leviticus in this Bible (and it did turn out to be a lot of fun) was learning about what made Israel’s laws unique.
When I discovered how God used the law to set Israel apart from her contemporaries, it gave me an all-new appreciation for the ways God was at work in the ancient world. Without the proper context, it’s easy to over dramatize the ways God guided and led Israel. Understanding the law within an ancient cultural framework, particularly in light of the laws of other near eastern cultures, really helped me discover the subtle ways God has always been working—and is still working today.
It has often bothered me that there was such a divide between the education one gets in many seminaries or Bible schools and the one people get in most churches. Many committed Christians have an understanding of Scripture and ancient cultures that is pieced together from anecdotes and illustrations they’ve picked up in sermons and Christian living books. It’s a hodgepodge of strange, and sometimes questionable, ideas.
For instance, they might not understand how Genesis mirrors or differs from other ancient creation accounts. They often don’t even know that these other creation accounts exist or how they can inform our understanding about Genesis 1–3.
As I was flipping through this study Bible, I realized that this was a great primer for anyone interested in a more nuanced and informed understanding of Scripture. I can really see this as being a tool used to awaken a desire in regular church attenders to learn more about the Bible’s background. This makes this a valuable tool for me because I’m extremely passionate about making academic resources and understanding more available to the people in the pews.
The strength of this tool was that it made this level of information available without placing it over people’s heads. You can really tell that Walton and Keener are educators because the information is presented in a way that’s intended to be accessible.
5. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible protects me from myself
One of the things I kept thinking as I read through the cultural background notes was how grounded it kept me. We sometimes approach Scripture as if it’s a magic book that is not anchored in a particular time or place. In our modern context, we attach a lot of emphasis and meaning to things that might not make any sense to its original readers. I often imagine an ancient Israelite sitting through one of our Bible studies and thinking, “Dude . . . what in the world are you even talking about?!”
It’s crazy to think of contextual Bible study as being revolutionary, but it truly is. One of the reasons Leviticus has always bothered me was that I’ve been trained to approach the Bible as if it is a story that’s supposed to have some immediate application to my cultural experience. I read it as if it is a story about me—and I know better! We become much better Bible students when we learn to first see Scripture through the cultural lenses of the original audience.
The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible really helped remove myself from the equation enough to see the book of Leviticus for what it was. When I began to grasp the how Leviticus worked within its own context, I was able to see its impact on my life differently.
Great job, Zondervan
I received this Bible with no expectation that I needed to give it a positive review, and I was pleasantly surprised that I ended up loving it as much as I did. With all the study Bibles that are available today, you’d think we’d have exhausted the number of ways there are to create really good Bible study content a long time ago. I’m glad that’s not the case. I would easily place this in the top three study Bibles available on the market. I enthusiastically endorse it.