The Old Testament books of Joshua, Judges, and Ruth separately and together are too frequently disregarded, at best, and maligned, at worst, in the teaching and preaching of the church. The Revised Common Lectionary offers only six readings for sermon consideration from these three books in its three year span (Josh 3:7–17, 5:9–12, 24:1–25; Judges 4:1–7; Ruth 1:1–19, 3:1–4:17). One suspects the record is no better in churches where lectionary readings are not followed. Joshua and Judges, and Ruth to a lesser degree, are troubling books for Christians today. Describing life and religion in pre-monarchic, tribal Israel these books are filled with war, graphic descriptions of national and domestic violence, sacrifice, and the picture of a deity that seems to participate in and sanction these activities. Acknowledging not only the difficulty of the content, but also of the interpretation of these books, the editorial agenda of the New International Biblical Commentary series is “to help readers navigate this strange and sometimes forbidding literary and spiritual terrain.” This is achieved through the rejection of recent re-appropriations of “pre-critical” and “anti-critical” literary approaches that reduce the text to paraphrases and allegories, while at the same time calling attention to the limits of critical approaches that admit no normative dimensions to the text. Employing instead “believing criticism,” this methodology brings together “a firm commitment to modern scholarship with a similar commitment to the Bible’s full authority for Christians” (pp. ix-x).
This commentary on Joshua, Judges, and Ruth by J. Harris, C. Brown, and M. Moore is a fine example of the intersection of critical analysis and a theological outlook. Joshua and Judges are a part of the canonical Former Prophets and the literary Deuteronomistic History. As such, the book of Deuteronomy and the themes of the larger history play an interpretive and theological role. Ruth is one of the Writings in the Hebrew scriptures and not a part of the Former Prophets or the DtrH, but is in its present location in the Christian canon due to its historical setting “in the days when the judges ruled.” The authors “take a canonical-historical approach to the books, viewing the books as a whole and relating them to other books in the canon” (p. xv).
Women appear frequently in the narratives, especially in Judges and Ruth, and the roles they play provide important interpretive keys. These characters offer a full range, from some of the strongest women characters, such as Deborah, Jael, Ruth, and Naomi, to the most abject victims, like Jephthah’s daughter, the Levite’s concubine, and the virgins at Shiloh. The Song of Deborah (Judges 5:1–31) is one of the oldest poems in the Old Testament, dating from before the monarchy, probably the late 12th to early 11th century. This “ancient epic poetry” celebrates the tribes’ victory over the better-equipped Canaanites, led by their commander Sisera” (p. 178). “As poetry, it focuses on a few carefully chosen scenes and presents them not concretely but impressionistically. It speaks in lyric, rhythm, and imagery. It was surely intended, in the context of Judges, to be read along with the narrative” of chapter 4, which is later interpretation of the epic poem (p. 178).
Acknowledging that “one could write a whole book of the textual issues in the Song,” Cheryl Brown’s treatment of the poem generally deals with the text of the Song according to the NIV translation” (p. 182). The NIV tends, at time, to be overly cautious in its translation. At Judges 5:7 this makes a critical interpretive difference. The NIV reads עד חדלו as “village life ceased until” (BDB, 292), taking עד as the common adverb until, and חדלו as the common verb to cease, without noting the unusual pointing of the second חדלו in the verse. But, the same expression עד חדלו with the same unusual pointing for the verb also occurs in 1 Sam 2:5, and there עד appears to be the rare and perhaps archaic noun meaning “plunder” or “booty” (BDB, 723II; in Gen 49:27 one “devours” עד and in Isa 33:23 it is “divided”), while חדלו appears to be a verb meaning “to grow fat” (KBL, 3rd ed., 281), thus rendering the text, “the sated hired themselves out for food, but the hungry grew fat from plunder.” The parallel with 1 Sam 2:5 provides support for the NRSV’s more daring rendering of the verse. The interpretive question centers on the conditions when Deborah arose as a mother in Israel. Did “the peasantry prosper, growing fat on spoil because Deborah arose” or did “village life (the peasantry) cease, cease until Deborah arose” as a mother in Israel?
All the translations and many translators have a failure of nerve at 5:30, as Brown notes:
“Instead of ‘a girl or two for each man,’ the Hebrew literally says ‘a womb, two wombs for every man.’ Rape in warfare has been and continues to be a common practice. But what is especially shocking is that here women accept it and even excitedly expect it” (p. 183).
This is a well written and carefully edited commentary, with only 383 pages of text, excluding suggestions for further reading, an index of biblical citations, and a general index. The attention to detail, archaeology, social setting, and the theological pay-off of these biblical books make this commentary a valuable tool for preachers and teachers and can, hopefully, encourage a closer look at some neglected texts. The NIV Commentary on Joshua, Judges, and Ruth can be appreciated and apprehended by religion specialists and novices alike. This is a valuable resource for pastors, teachers, small groups, and students of the Bible of any proficiency.