The mantra of Bible interpreters the world over is context, context, context. You can twist the Bible into supporting virtually anything you want but when you read and interpret the Bible in its context then everything changes.
Context changes everything is the slogan Zondervan Bibles has chosen to showcase their new Bible the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture (2016). Containing the full text of the NIV version of the Bible, this study Bible is edited by world renown scholars John H. Walton (OT) and Craig S. Kenner (NT). While this study Bible draws on the work of many scholars, Dr. Walton has drawn extensively on his own work in the Zondervan Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament and Dr. Keener has drawn on his work in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament.
While there are numerous good study Bible’s out there in a number of good translations, the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible stands apart from the rest for a number of reasons. Written with the purpose “to increase your understanding of the cultural nuances behind the text of God’s Word,” the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible “has been developed with the goal of allowing readers to immerse themselves in the culture, the literature, the geography and the everyday life of the people to who the Bible was originally written.” There are several features of the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible which facilitate these stated goals and an example of each will be given from the book of Deuteronomy:
- Introductions – The introductions to each book orient the reader to any relevant issues related to the broader cultural, literary, and geographical settings to the book. Most of Deuteronomy addresses the re-giving of the Mosaic Law. Similar to the OT, there are numerous collections of laws from neighboring cultures such as the Sumerian Laws of Ur-Nammu and the Old Babylonian Laws of Eshnunna.
- Sidebars – Throughout each book there are full-color pictures of cultural artifacts, geographical locations, and comparison or data charts which bring to light more detailed information about a key aspect of the text. In Deut. 27 there is a picture capturing Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal where the former mountain was a reminder of God’s covenantal blessing’s and the later God’s covenant curses.
- Study Notes – The bulk of the information about the text comes from the study notes themselves. In keeping with the stated purpose of this study Bible, these notes expand on the cultural, literary, and geographical issues in the text. As such, they do not primarily intend to address theological or practical issues, though they are sometimes given a nod in passing. This should not be seen as a weakness. For instance, in the notes on Deut. 6:4 which says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” they focus on the ancient near eastern (ANE) thought regarding deities and worship. Some of the notes say the following, “The claim that a deity is one or alone, as maybe Enlil and Baal, relates to the supremacy of that god’s rule…Another possibility is that this statement demands a unified view of Yahweh, in contrast to the views of the other Near Eastern peoples who would have many different shrines celebrating or emphasizing a different perspective or aspect of their gods.” (306) If you were to compare these notes of the same verse with those of the ESV Study Bible or even the NIV Zondervan Study Bible you will see a noticeable difference in the content of the discussion around the same topic.
- Articles – In addition to the sidebars, there are a few hundred short articles tackling various important issues raised in the text. For instance, there is an article addressing on Deut. 34 and the death of Moses and the authorship of Deuteronomy. In it, the issue is raised as to whether or not Moses penned the entire book of Deuteronomy himself or if he had the help of trained scribes. At the back of the study Bible, there is both a canonical and alphabetical list of the articles for quick reference.
- Ancient Near Eastern Parallels – This feature of the study Bible plays a major role in the formation of everything mentioned above. Much of the content of the notes draws on the parallels that the OT & NT text has to other cultures. Some will think the editors have gone too far with the comparisons. The intent is not to imply that the biblical text has simply copied ANE sources, historical accounts or cultural ways of life. Rather, the desire is to show the points of similarity and dissimilarity between the life lived by those who did not follow God and those who did. The point is to teach us about the text rather than imply that the biblical text is in some way inferior to the surrounding ANE cultures.
In addition to the printed options for the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, there is also an app for OliveTree where you can purchase either the study Bible itself or the notes. Both options work seamlessly in your app alongside your other books. You can also check out the OliveTree Bible study app which enables you to get the most out of all the tools in your library including the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.
The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible is definitely a study Bible that you want to have on your shelf next to your other favorites. It truly has content that no other study Bible has and it adds to the readers understanding of the biblical text and the world surrounding it. It brings to life and clarity the world and point of the text in a way that no other study Bible does.
I received this book for free from the Zondervan for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”