donderdag 21 februari 2013

Review of: Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel (SHBC), Smyth & Helwys, 2005; in: Theology Today

Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel (SHBC), Smyth & Helwys, 2005.

Review in: Theology Today 2007 63: 504
Review door: Jacqueline E. Lapsley
Gevonden op:

Margaret S. Odell
Macon, CA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005.
565 pp. $60.00.

The Smyth & Helwys commentary series, to which Margaret Odell’s commentary on Ezekiel belongs, seeks to reach a wide audience of younger Christians with scholarly commentary on biblical texts in a user-friendly and multimedia format. Without question, Ezekiel could benefit from considerably more understanding in the wider culture than it presently commands. Odell is to be congratulated on producing a fine volume that should further that laudable goal.

Odell is associate professor of religion at St. Olaf College and has been a core member of the seminar studying Ezekiel in the Society of Biblical Literature for many years. The commentary is therefore thoroughly researched, providing the reader with a coherent and eminently readable interpretation of this prophetic book. It is well informed by the plethora of recent work on Ezekiel and related areas.

The commentary offers a wealth of detail on ancient Near Eastern iconography and context (including lots of photographs) that often provides helpful background for understanding Ezekiel. Odell explains this complex background carefully and clearly and connects it to particular features in the biblical material. In the “Connections” section at the end of each passage, Odell reflects theologically on the passage, bringing Ezekiel into conversation with contemporary concerns. These sections are often thoughtful, informative, and apt to provoke further reflection. While reflecting on Ezekiel’s symbolic acts, for example, Odell dissects the purity rules of our own culture and thereby illumines the ways in which they blind us to the profundity of Ezekiel’s theology.

Despite my general admiration of the volume, I have a couple of reservations about Odell’s approach. My main qualm is that the keen attention to ancient Near Eastern context leaves little room to explore the literariness of Ezekiel’s text-how its theology is bound up in the way the language of the text works. Odell does not adequately account for an obvious but critical feature of the book: its strangeness. I suspect that in Ezekiel, literariness and theology are inextricably entwined and that attention to their intersection will help in unraveling the book’s undeniable weirdness. Yet in this commentary, as in many others, the text of Ezekiel itself sometimes disappears under the weight of the historical information deemed necessary to understand it.

An illustration of my other qualm-the way particular theories sometimes take over interpretation-occurs in the introduction. Odell outlines her theory that the structure of the book of Ezekiel finds its source in Esarhaddon’s Babylonian inscriptions. She provides a long historical excursus to back this claim. The argument is based on circumstantial historical evidence of Ezekiel’s familiarity with Assyrian models. The effect is strained. Moreover, it is difficult to discern, even if the idea proves tenable, how such knowledge helps the reader understand Ezekiel’s theology in a more profound way. Exposition of the theory does not seem to deepen appreciation of Ezekiel’s theology but becomes a distraction to it.

The commentary text is surrounded by various hyperlinks, each with its own icon to indicate areas such as language-based concerns, historical issues, and interpretations from across the ages (it also comes with a searchable CDROM). These are sometimes helpful and illuminating. The inclusion of many visual interpretations of Ezekiel’s visions is a welcome addition to the standard commentary genre. For example, boxes offering thumbnail sketches of the history of interpretation of a passage genuinely enlighten and enrich understanding. I have a concern, however, about some of these “hip” features. Maybe because I do not belong to the “visual generation of believers” to whom the book is targeted, I find the fragmentation of the text into these various “boxes” to be a bit disorienting on occasion (much in the way that postmodem pastiche can and often tries to be). In the discussion of Ezekiel’s inaugural vision, for instance, Odell begins with a brief reference to Calvin’s interpretation, but then immediately the reader is “hyperlinked” to a fragment of a Rainer Maria Rilke poem. The basic thematic connection to Ezekiel’s vision is apparent, but the leap from one extracted thought of Calvin’s, to an extracted thought of Rilke’s, then back to historical data of the sixth century BCE, while possibly useful to preachers, is not an arrangement predisposed to foster genuine understanding.

I suspect, however, that the multitasking mode necessary to read this and other Smyth & Helwys commentaries will come naturally to the “visual generation.” They will also likely fare better with the faint peach-colored type in the hyperlinked boxes. If they find Ezekiel more accessible and more interesting as a result, which seems likely, then it will have been work well done.

Jacqueline E. Lapsley
Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, New Jersey
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