Andy asks in his comment about Walter Brueggemann's commentary on 1 and 2 Kings. Do I think it's worth buying? The book costs over £30, it has 644 pages, a CD Rom with the text of the book, pictures, maps, and other searchable data. Some folk complain about its cost, and right enough, it isn't cheap.
But it is beautifully produced. This is a book lover's treat. High quality paper, multimedia presentation, sidebars, two colours of ink, the book stays open on the desk. And I haven't mentioned anything about the author, or the written content. Years ago I read David Gunn's The Fate of King Saul, and encountered the biblical narrative in all its literary power. I realised that an understanding of literary genre, appreciation of skilled storytelling, and an understanding of linguistic devices and literary criticism was a remarkably fruitful approach to biblical interpretation, yielding quite unexpected theological results. Few scholars within the church have exploited this approach more creatively and productively than Walter Brueggemann. His first sorties into Kings include the old two volume Knox Preaching Guides which are still amongst the most stimulating comments on these royal narratives.
This Smyth and Helwys commentary is on a different scale, and is worked at a much more sophisticated level of exegesis, theological reflection and biblical criticism. But those familiar with Brueggemann's writing know that he is the master of biblical commentary and crafted critique which together call in question all status quos which dare to place themselves over and against God and his purposes. Few writers so consistently, persistently, even insistently bring to light the biblical critique of power. The hegemony of empire, the tyranny of the market, the idolising of the economy, the bondage that is consumerism, the hubris that disguises itself as political self-sufficiency. And all of this is to be found in this commentary where Brueggemann sets the biblical narratives of bad kings and good kings, of false prophets and true prophets, of cynical abuse of power and the divine exercise of power, against the backdrop of biblical history and our own contemporary realities.
Like several commentaries the Smyth and Helwys format has exegetical comment which explores text, history and canonical connections; but it also has sections called connections, where Brueggemann becomes more explicit about how these words and stories become the Word of God to our age, and within our story. I confess that I am a Brueggemann fan; have been since the early 1980's, a bit before he became so well known. His tireless explorations of violence and intrigue, speaking truth to power, prophetic faithfulness and divine loyalty; the thick texture of his prose; the subversive intent of his language; the transformative power he discerns in the stance of hopeful imagination; these and many other qualities in his writing have brought major swathes of scripture to life for me. This commentary does all of the above, and is simply a joy to read. I am reading through this big, sumptuous, illustrated, exegetical wrestling match between text and interpreter during Lent. And if Lent is supposed to be the time when we discipline ourselves in an ascetic way, then I am surely failing. because this book is pure pleasure.
Not that I agree with all that Brueggemann writes. And yes when he focuses the ancient text on the power games of contemporary empire he often has his own nation in the sights. And there are times when he is so keen to show the free floating application of the bible text that its historical rootedness seems of little consequence over and against the critique it offers to our current history. But can he write! That isn't a question, it's an exclamation.
But if what you are looking for is a guide into the undomesticated realities of biblical politics and power games, read Brueggemann.
If issues of justice and peace, violence and power, faithful living and faithless existence, God centred worship and self centred atheism, are crucial issues for contemporary reflection, Brueggemann offers unrivalled access to the key texts, including in this volume the books of Kings.
If the study of Scripture is for you both an adventure in learning and a seeking of God's Kingdom through a life of graced renewal and faithful obedience, then Brueggemann the Lutheran scholar will be a demanding but rewarding companion.
And if it matters to you that a biblical commentary should avoid the obvious, challenge our safe assumptions, mess up our comfort zones, and yet seek to remain in sensible touch with the meaning of the biblical text, then read Brueggemann's books.
As to whether this expensive, expansive commentary is worth buying? Those who buy commentaries are usually preachers, pastors, scholars. And there are cheaper alternatives to this on Kings. The Interpretation commentary by R D Nelson, is a very fine treatment of these books, theologically astute and seriously engaged with the text. The New Interpreter's Bible (a set I rate very highly - I often use it for lectio divina) also has a good entry but it's bound with about 6 other biblical books and costs as much as this big Brueggemann volume. Marvin Sweeney's new entry for the Old Testament Library is just out and yet to be reviewed, and is very likely to establish itself as an important mid-range critical and theological commentary. But none of these offer the one thing I prize most about the Smyth and Helwys volume - the original mind and brilliant writing of Walter Brueggemann.
Is it worth buying? Not for me to encourage others to spend their money pursuing my enthusiasms - but for me, this commentary mingles aesthetic enjoyment in a beautifully produced book, literary pleasure in reading such articulate and truth-slanted theology, intellectual provocation by a mind restlessly and faithfully prophetic, and spiritually clarifying argument both for the life lived faithfully towards God, and against life lived faithlessly in the endless spiral of wanting that is the consumer empire. Yet buying this book may well be just another such surrender. Precisely the double bind Brueggemann is so good at exposing. But yes - if book buying is part of your budget, and good commentaries are important voices in your conversations, then this one is a shrewd, ethically astringent and theologically imaginative voice that few of us can afford to ignore in our conversations about the meaning and demand of scripture.