I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m a study Bible connoisseur, but I’m in the neighborhood. I’ve used and profited from several different ones over the years, mainly the MacArthur Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible, the Reformation Study Bible, and more recently the NIV Zondervan Study Bible.
Even more recently, I had the opportunity to check out the newest Zondervan study Bible, the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. You can find a good deal of insights on it at the book’s website. The project is headed up by John Walton and Craig Keener, the former of whom was highly influential in my own understanding of Old Testament contexts. While there is an editorial team involved, those two scholars are responsible for the bulk of the study notes found throughout this Bible.
One particular book of the Bible where these kinds of notes are handy is Job. Notoriously one of the hardest books to translate from Hebrews, it also has the distinction of being enigmatic even after translation. It is one of the few books in the Old Testament than mention Satan, and he also has dialogue with God in the early chapters. The end of Job is just as curious and open to a range of interpretations.
If you’re utilizing the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible as you’re reading, you not only have notes throughout the text, there are numerous sidebars that go into detail on key issues. Here are some that you’ll find in Job:
- Innocent Suffering in Ancient Near Eastern Texts
- Retribution Principle
- How the Book of Job Differs from Ancient Near Eastern Thinking
- Ways in Which Job Still Thinks Like an Israelite
- Death and Sheol
- Cosmic Geography
Those are all within the first 10 chapters. After that, they are a little more sparse, but thankfully, there’s an entry for the Identification of Behemoth and Leviathan. Many of these may eclipse what the average person wonders when reading Job, but they hit all the hot-button topics that tend to come up in a seminary classroom (or at least in some of mine).
Drawing on some of these sidebars, you would learn that Job most likely takes place before Moses, or is at least set in that time period. You’d also learn that throughout Job, “Satan” has a definite article before it (“the satan”) and in Hebrew that is something that is not done. In all likelihood, “the Satan” character who appears in Job is not the same as the devil of later parts of Scripture, specifically the character who tempts Jesus in the New Testament (you’ll need to read the sidebar for yourself to see the whole argument).
You’d also learn that there are many different versions of a story like Job throughout the ancient Near East. They do not however have a prologue quite like Job. Along those lines, you’d see in detail how Job presents a much different take on the problem of righteous suffering than its ancient Near East counterparts. Even though set before Moses, you’d see some evidence that Job thinks like you’d expect an Israelite to do.
You’d read about the connection between death and Sheol in the OT and ancient Near East (and that the latter is not necessarily “hell”). This ties into what you’ll find out about ancient understandings of cosmic geography and how they differ dramatically from modern scientific understandings (but still have their own logic based in observational evidence). You’ll also find out why it is extremely unlikely that either Behemoth or Leviathan refer to current or past zoological specimens (i.e. they aren’t real animals).
All in all, just within Job there is much to glean from this study Bible. The insights don’t necessarily change any major doctrinal understanding of the book, but they certainly enhances one’s understanding of what’s going on. In my experience, that is often the best of what cultural studies have to offer. They give insight into context and the thinking of the original audience but they don’t need to lead to major revisions (although they might). If that’s something you’d find interesting to explore further, I’d highly recommend picking up your own copy of this next study Bible.