Commentary writing is unlike any other type of writing. It’s a long and complex process that requires hundreds of hours of research before even a single word is put to the page. With multiple editorial and review passes that follow, the final product is a culmination of years of work and involves a whole team of people alongside the author.
This interview with JoAnna Hoyt, author of Amos, Jonah, & Micah: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, will shed some light on this complicated writing process.
1. What did you learn about God from writing these commentaries?
I learned from Amos that God’s definition of social justice is founded upon his truth alone. I learned from Micah that God is steadfastly faithful, even when we are unfaithful. And I learned from Jonah that God is not subject to our whims, even if we have good theology.
Putting all three books together, I learned anew that God is a God of his word. Amos and Micah call people back to God’s covenant—and he acts on his covenant. And Jonah shows that God is both merciful and just, just as he had previously revealed.
2. Was there a passage that challenged you in terms of its difficulty?
There were many difficult and challenging passages. (Especially in Amos!) Many of the difficulties were due to the syntax, and lexical and textual critical issues. It was quite common for me to spend prolonged periods of time on just one word or verse. One passage that stands out for technical difficulties is Micah 2:12–13. The verbs are just odd, especially when considered within the wider discourse structure. I wrestled with those verbs for a long time before I felt comfortable enough to put anything in writing.
The most difficult passage, though, came from the book that I thought would be the easiest: Jonah. The last verse is extremely difficult, not because of syntax, but because of its history of interpretation. Jonah, famously, ends in a question—except, there is no interrogative marker in the verse. Since unmarked interrogatives are a commonly accepted feature of Hebrew, most everyone accepts such an interpretation here. It’s tradition, after all. (Cue internal recording of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof singing, “Tradition!”) Nearly everyone affirms it’s an interrogative with no supporting evidence, aside from the statement that unmarked interrogatives exist—and this is one.
However, when I first came to this verse, I was stunned by the absence of an interrogative and the lack of detailed discussion on supporting the traditional translation. As I researched this issue I found tradition a hindrance. My preliminary research led me to conclude, contrary to tradition, that it was a declarative sentence. I presented this research at ETS a couple of years ago. During my presentation, I could feel the audience squirming internally, much as I had while researching it. I was challenging tradition. The Q&A time confirmed their uncomfortableness. But it was that uncomfortableness that made the dialogue engaging and helpful as we wrestled together with the evidence for and against the traditional translation. While I loved wrestling with all the difficulties of these three books, daring to question tradition on this verse was the most difficult challenge.
3. Did anything you encountered in these books make you laugh or react with amusing surprise?
Oh, many things did! But most of them are way too technical to explain in this answer and few would find them amusing. (I’m the type of person who finds the most random and small Hebrew features enthralling and amusing.)
Content-wise, there isn’t much that can be considered amusing. (The books are quite serious with their list of sins and coming judgments.) One thing that does stand out as amusing is the rabbinical interpretation of Jonah’s fish. The fish is first described with a masculine noun, and then later with a feminine noun. Determined to account for this, Jewish rabbis have taught that there were actually two fish. Jonah was first swallowed by a male fish. But Jonah was quite comfortable in his belly, and he was quite content to stay there and not repent. After a while, God decided to shake things up, so he had the male fish spit Jonah out and he was immediately swallowed by a female fish—a pregnant female fish. Now that Jonah was forced to share a fish’s belly with baby fish, his attitude changed, and he quickly repented so he could get out of there.
4. Today’s Christians often struggle with making sense of Old Testament books in relation to their lives. What spiritual insight do these three prophetic books have for Christians today in the Western world?
A lot! It is easy to think of the Old Testament books as distant and unrelatable to those of us who live after the cross and the empty grave. (And the name “old” sure doesn’t help with that perception!) But the God of Jonah, Micah, and Amos is the God of the cross and the empty grave. And their stories (and the rest of the Old Testament) reveal pieces of who God is.
Amos, who is known as the prophet of social justice, is insightful for our current social climate where social justice is becoming a stronger and stronger rallying cry. The book does have a strong focus on social justice, but it also demands that we define social justice upon God and his gospel—nothing else. Studying Amos can help us learn how to approach the social justice issues of our day in a way that honors and glorifies God.
Micah helps us balance our theology of God. In the Western world, we like to think of God as love. And he is. But his love does not exclude or deny his judgment. Micah’s structure of his oracles (the indictment of sin, lamenting of sin, promises of hope) places the focus squarely on sin and its consequences. But it also balances it with the hope of God’s promise. We have a lot to learn about balancing our theology of God, and not overemphasizing one area at the sacrifice of another.
Jonah causes us to reconsider what we do with our theology. Jonah had a good theology (cf. 1:9; 4:2) and could have passed a theology test with flying colors. But he thought his knowledge of God’s mercy gave him the opportunity to tell God how to be God—to dictate when God could be merciful, and when he couldn’t. Spoiler alert: that didn’t work.
We’re just like Jonah. We have our theology and we can easily fall into the trap of trying to tell God how to be God. Spoiler alert: it won’t work for us either.
5. Complete these sentences:
In Amos God is . . .
just toward both the needy and the guilty.
In Jonah God is . . .
not controlled by man
In Micah God is . . .
steadfastly faithful in spite of the unfaithfulness of his people.
* * *
Explore the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series.