Book Review: Robert B. Chisholm, A Commentary on Judges and Ruth

Chisholm, Robert B. A Commentary on Judges and Ruth.  Kregel Exegetical Library; Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2014. 697 pp. Hb; $39.99. Link to Kregel

Long time Dallas Theological Seminary professor Robert Chisholm wrote Interpreting the Historical Books for Kregel’s Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series. This new commentary on Judges and Ruth in the Kregel Exegetical Library offers a more detailed application of Chisholm’s method from that introduction. He describes this method as a “literary-theological” method (p. 14). By this he means that he attempts to track the author’s literary strategies in the canonical form of the book in order to identify the text’s theological message.

Chisholm, Judges & RuthThe introduction to Judges (88 pages) begins with an overview of the literary structure of the book. With respect to chronology, Chisholm is open to the idea that the three major judges overlap with earlier material (p.22), although this is not critical to a literary-theological reading of the book, although he makes an attempt to create a chronology of the period (p. 34-53). After surveying a number of options, he argues for the Exodus about 1260 B.C., the invasion of Canaan in 1220 B.C. with the completion about 7 years later. The chronology of Judges begins in 1190 (Judg 3:8) and ends with Samson’s 20-year leadership sometime between 1110 and 1070. This overlaps with Eli’s 40 years at Shiloh (1130-1090) in 1 Samuel; the anointing of Saul is about 1050. This chronology does not differ much from other conservative writers, although it will not please everyone.

Chisholm is inclined to date the book before David and he detects something of an anti-Benjamin/anti-Ephraimite agenda (p. 66). While Judges is not wholly “pro-Judah” it does seem to argue Israel needs a strong, godly king. Chisholm is content to see the book as in the context of an early Davidic dynasty, although it is entirely possible this message would have been of interest in the late Solomonic period or just after the split. For example, Dale DeWitt’s unpublished dissertation “The Jephthah Traditions: A Rhetorical and Literary Study in the Deuteronomistic History” argues for a post Solomonic context for Judges.

Of interest is Chisholm’s eleven page section entitled “What Role Do the Female Characters Play?” (69-80). There are indeed a large number of female characters in the book and many of them are portrayed in a very positive light (Deborah is a judge, Jael kills Sisera, Delilah gets the best of Samson), although others are tragic figures Sisera’s mother, Jephthah’s daughter, the Levite’s concubine). For Chisholm, the book portrays strong women as warriors and leaders in contrast to the weak spiritual leadership of men like Barak and Jephthah. Ultimately the “downward spiral of Judges” paves the way for Hannah, the woman who gives birth to Samuel at the darkest moment in the Judges period, who will anoint David as king.

In his 32-page introduction to Ruth Chisholm surveys the bewildering number of suggestions for the genre of Ruth. Since he does not care much for form-critical categories, he focuses on the literary and theological nuances of the book. He therefore highlights the fact that God is concerned for the needy and rewards those who demonstrate loving kindness (hesed) such as Ruth and Boaz. While he notices the canonical placement of the book of Ruth after Proverbs, Chisholm does not treat the book as wisdom literature. To me this is an important oversight since the book does illustrate via narrative the type of woman described in Prov 31:10-31 as well as the way a person of wisdom demonstrates hesed.

Each section of the commentary begins with a translation and narrative structure analysis. The translation is a “slightly revised version” of his contribution to the NET version. Chisholm breaks English verse into Hebrew phrases in order to visually demonstrate the flow of the original. He then assigns a narrative tag to these Hebrew phrases (initiatory, focusing, complementary, sequential, etc.) These categories are briefly described in the introduction (pp. 81-86) and Chisholm devoted the first chapter of Interpreting the Historical Books to reading narrative. The footnotes in this section of the commentary are concerned with narrative features of the Hebrew clauses and occasionally textual variants.

After a short comment on the literary structure of the pericope, Chisholm proceeds to the exposition of the text. This follows an outline developed from his narrative reading and covers sub-units rather than a phrase-by-phrase commentary.  Hebrew occasionally appears in this expositional section without transliteration, but a reader without knowledge of Hebrew will be able to follow the commentary. More technical details of Hebrew syntax appear in the footnotes. Chisholm occasionally interacts with other major commentaries on Judges and Ruth, although this usually appears in the footnotes. The result is a very reading exposition of the text which provides sufficient detail for pastors and teachers presenting sermons and lessons on Judges and Ruth.

Following the exposition of the text, Chisholm offers a section entitled “Message and Application.” First, he includes a few “thematic emphases” of the pericope. These are exegetical in nature and are closely connected to the text examined. Second, he gives some “theological principles” drawn from the section. These are broader than the thematic observations, connecting to theological themes of the whole book and to the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Not surprisingly, the theological teaching in Judges often centers on sin and its effects, while in Ruth God’s sovereignty is the main feature.  Third, Chisholm offers a few “homiletical trajectories” intended to give a preacher some hints at how they might present the text in a sermon. For each, Chisholm gives a short “exegetical idea,” “theological idea,” and “preaching idea” summarizing the section. For a busy pastor preparing a sermon on Judges or Ruth, these sections will be the most valuable.

Conclusion. Chisholm’s commentary on Judges and Ruth is an excellent exposition of the text from a conservative scholar. For the most part he assumes the historicity of the text and ignores any discussion of potential sources or anachronisms. He specifically eschews these methods in the introduction (p. 15), characterizing these as “creative scholarly conjecture” (p. 30).  He considers revisions of Noth’s Deuteronomisitc History to be a “debate going around in circles” (55). His exposition of the text is based on the assumption the book was intended to be read as a literary whole.

There is less historical background material in this commentary than might be expected. Major commentaries on Old Testament books can become bloated with material accessible in other resources (Bible Dictionaries for example). Since his interests are literary and theological, there is no need to offer descriptions of geographical locations or comments on archaeology (or the lack thereof) as background to the stories.

I would recommend the book to pastors and teachers who are preparing sermons on the often overlooked book of Judges.  Chisholm’s exposition is easy to read and provides excellent illumination of the text for the purpose of serving the Church today.


Review of other commentaries in the Kregel Exegetical Commentary series:


NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.




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