As indicated by the series title, this book focuses on how the book of Judges should be read. Brettler concentrates on issues of methodology. The first chapter describes the movement in recent decades away from reading Judges as history. The second critiques literary readings of Judges. Brettler concludes that Judges is neither history nor literature, in the sense of belles letters. His own approach tries to borrow insights from both historical and literary readings. He attempts to be sensitive to the presence of literary techniques and structures while also taking account of the diachronic development of the literature, its genre(s), historical and cultural setting, and even its textual history.
Brettler finds three kinds of materials about Judges in the book: the short story, the narrative cycle, and poetry and prose. These are represented, respectively, by the Ehud story (Judges 3:12–30), the Samson cycle (Judges 13–16), and the Deborah story (Judges 4–5) as parade examples, and Brettler devotes a chapter to the analysis of each. The Ehud story is political satire mocking the Moabites. The Samson cycle consists of at least three originally independent blocks—essentially chapters 13; 14–15; and 16—each with different views of Samson’s origins and the source of his strength. Chapter 13 sees Samson as the son of the messenger of God and is positive in its orientation toward women. Chapters 14–15 are “historicized wisdom” and envision the spirit of YHWH as the source of Samson’s strength. Chapter 16 connects Samson’s strength to his hair and has a stronger theological interest than the previous units. Samson seems to represent Zedekiah, promising the destruction of Judah’s Babylonian persecutors. Judges 4–5 represent competing accounts that Dtr juxtaposed without attempting to decide between them. Brettler suggests that the poem in chapter 5 was recited before war as a way of mustering troops to battle. It is not, therefore, antiquarian in interest.
The sixth and seventh chapters of this book treat the conclusion and introduction of the book of Judges. The story of the Levite in Judges 19–21 draws on earlier texts (esp. Genesis 19) to depict the collapse of pre-monarchical Israel and hints, via its setting in Benjamin, at Saul’s ineffectiveness. Judges 1:1–2:10 fits better as a kind of conclusion to the material in Joshua and only secondarily came to serve as the introduction to Judges. Its main interest is in the tribe of Judah, especially in contrast to the powerlessness of the northern tribes. In a concluding chapter, Brettler discusses the coherence of the book of Judges as a whole, arguing that its diverse materials have been edited together with the objective of legitimating the Davidic kingship.
As a whole, this book admirably accomplishes its purpose of guiding the reader of Judges. It is erudite—well acquainted with primary and secondary literature—yet well written and easily accessible to non-specialists. The first two chapters alone are worth the price of the book. Readers may remain skeptical about some of Brettler’s specific proposals. For example, It remains dubious that a tradition existed in which Samson’s father was a semi-divine messenger, that Judges 14–15 are as much a wisdom tale as Brettler claims, that Samson is a type of Zedekiah in Judges 16, and that Judges 5 is a call to arms rather than a victory hymn. But Brettler’s ideas are provocative in the best sense and worth serious consideration. Moreover, Brettler rewards his reader with small, but delicious, insights sprinkled here and there: e.g., the idea that a Levite was chosen as the prominent figure in Judges 17–21 because the story required a landless wanderer without close kin (p. 84) or the observation that it makes no sense to send a piece of the dismembered woman in Judges 19 to Benjamin (p. 90). In short, this is an eminently useful, readable, and thought-provoking volume.
As an aside, there are a few minor corrections of scholars’ names that should be noted. The name of the Spanish scholar, Julio Trebolle-Barrera (using surnames of both parents according to Spanish custom) appears erroneously as J. T. Barrera, and Van Seters is consistently misspelled as van Seters.