Beldman, David J. H. Judges. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2020. 316 pp. Pb; $30. Link to Eerdmans
David Beldman’s commentary on Judges in the Two Horizons series is an example of Theological Interpretation of Scripture. This is an attempt to do quality exegesis while reflecting on the biblical and systematic theological ramifications of the text in contemporary culture. Beldman previously contributed briefly on the book of Judges, Deserting the King (Lexham, 2017).
Historical questions (authorship, origin, audience, and date) typically dominate most Judges commentaries. Others employ a wide range of contemporary approaches, such as reception history and literary criticism. A reader needs to be interested in all these approaches. For Beldman, theological interpretation does not short circuit intellectual rigor, but it will redirect approaches to the task at hand: hearing God’s word in the book of Judges.
In fifty-six pages, the introduction to the commentary, Beldman describes the literary context of the book of Judges. Judges is part of the broad context of unfolding covenantal history. It is a literary composition in its own right even if it draws upon sources. Regarding the literary structure of the book, it focuses on narrative cycles associated with the careers of various judges.
Second, he discusses Judges as a Hebrew narrative. Nothing in the Bible was written solely for the purpose of history. Everything is theological. Beldman argues Judges was written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator who is reliable and trustworthy (it is not satire). But the narrator is reserved in making evaluative statements about the characters in the story. The stories unfold in a way that allows the characters to speak for themselves. For example, a common question for interpreters of Judges, “was Gideon a good guy or a bad guy?” The book does not answer this question directly. Whether Gideon is a good or bad character is for the reader to decide. Following Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg, Beldman argues the reader ought to follow the narrator’s clues to determine the author’s evaluation (16).
Third, Beldman briefly sketches the historical context. Judges presents a picture of Israel settlement. Between the conquest and the monarchy. It is a time when Israel takes on the characteristics and practices of the Canaanites. He sketches the social structure and economy of Israel and Canaan (the household-clan-tribe-nation) developing through the book (21).
Beldman has little to say about the date for the book because there is competing evidence. For example, Judges 18:30 mentions a grandson of Moses who ministered at the shrine at Dan “until the captivity of Israel,” implying a date after destruction of Samaria in 722 BC. But in Judges 1:21, the Jebusites dwell in Jerusalem “to this day,” implying a date prior to David’s capture of the city of Jerusalem. He remains unconvinced that the book is anti-Saul, and pro-David (implying a date during David’s reign). As a compromise, Beldman tries to “hear judges” from the perspective of the rise of the monarchy in Israel, the fall of the northern and southern kingdoms, the exilic experience, and even the post- exilic return to the land. How would a reader hear judges differently in each of these periods?
Fourth, Beldman surveys various perspectives in the history of interpretation, from early Jewish and Christian medieval interpreters to the Renaissance and reformation interpreters and (classic) art, music, and theater. He deals briefly with modern criticism, and both the literary and postmodern approaches to the book.
The body of the commentary is based on large sections of the book and focuses primarily on literary observations rather than detailed Hebrew grammatical and syntactical issues. When Hebrew appears, it is always transliterated. He interacts with major English commentaries web, block, Butler, etc. This makes for a very readable commentary.
Near the end of the exegetical portion of the commentary, Beldman provides a retrospective evaluation, observing that endings are the preeminent location of truth in a narrative. What does the end of the story tell you about the entire story? By the end of the book, the reader believes Israel has degenerated, or “Caananized” (222). The worst moral behavior in the book is found at the end and the book concludes with the words “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25). But this conclusion circles back to the introduction. In the first section, Yahweh commanded Israel to drive out the Canaanites. But at the end of the book, Israel wages war on the tribe of Benjamin. The book ends with Israel wiping out one of their own tribes (224). The reader is therefore shocked: how did this depraved behavior emerge in Israel so early in the settlement period? There are two themes found throughout the book: a lack of kingship, and a lack of a central shrine. As readers, the author tricked us into thinking there was a steady decline of Israel into the chaos described at the end of the book. But there was no steady decline: the moral and ethical failures which result from a lack of central leadership were there from the very beginning (229).
In the Two Horizon commentary series, a large section of the book is devoted to theological reflection. Beldman therefore begins by placing Judges into the context of the overall “grand narrative of scripture.” Looking back to the Abrahamic covenant, two elements of God’s promise to Abraham were impossible to fulfill in Genesis 12: that Abraham’s descendants would become a great nation and they would live in a particular land. The fulfilment of those promises is the theme of the Pentateuch. Judges describes Israel as persistently unfaithful, a condition that will result in oppression by the foreign nations and exile from the land. But Beldman points out the promise to Abraham remained foundational for future restoration (Jer 29:5-7).
In the second section of the theological reflection, he connects the book of judges to systematic theology. Beldman covers Judges’ contribution to several topics (God, the Holy Spirit, sin, and providence). But far more interesting is his section on Judges’ contribution to a political theology. Like Daniel Block, Beldman rejects Judges as a pro-David and anti-Saul propaganda. For Daniel Block, Judges is a “prophetic book and not a political tractate” (271, citing Block’s Judges commentary, 57-58). However, Beldman interacts a length with Yoram Hazony’s article “Does the Bible have a Political Teaching” (Hebrew Poetical Studies, 2006). For Hazony, the historical core of the Hebrew Bible has a political ideal: a limited government situated on a scale between an oppressive imperial ideology (Egypt) and political chaos (Judges). Beldman thinks this suggestion is creative and insightful, but by expanding the “historical core” to include the exilic experience of diaspora communities (Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther), Beldman argues for a politics of “participation and subversion” (272). Stories like Daniel show that diaspora Jewish communities could participate in many aspects of imperial politics, although there were some issues that required active resistance. Beldman considers this a give unto Caesar type politics found in later second temple Judaism and early Christianity. I would suggest Portier-Young’s Apocalypse against Empire (Eerdmans, 2014) for readers interested in more details of the post-exilic period.
The last section of theological reflection covers two difficult issues in the book of Judges. First, Beldman discusses violence in Judges. As is well known, Judges describes the utter annihilation of the Canaanites (often referred to as the Canaanite genocide). That God himself commands the total destruction of the people of Jericho, every man woman child and animal, is disturbing for many modern readers. Beldman begins with the observation that all violence is alien to God’s creation. The cycle of violence begins when Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden. Second, he observes that the conquest of Canaan was a onetime, limited judgment on the Canaanite nations in the history of God’s redemption plan (281). Once Israel settled in the land, they were to cease military expansion and begin their priestly role, drawing the nations to the Lord. He admits that this may not be a satisfactory answer for everyone, but he is clear that the violence of the book of Judges is not a model for the church to follow today. He does not discuss any political ramifications for modern Israeli politics.
Second, he deals with the problem of the treatment of women in the book. The treatment of women in judges is unique. On the one hand, the story of Deborah and Jael seems to elevate women (and humble Barak and Sisera). But the horrific crimes against the Levite’s concubine and Jephthah’s daughter are shocking. Beldman observes this as “in line with the rhetorical purpose of the book, most women in Judges are exploited and victimized” (287). But it is also important to understand violence against women is not normalized or excused: it is part of Israel’s degeneration.
Conclusion. Beldman concludes “Judges is a book for our times because it exposes idols in our midst that compromise our way of being in the world” (297). More than a historical and grammatical commentary on the text of Judges, this Two Horizons commentary provides a challenge to readers of this difficult book in the Hebrew Bible.
Reviews of other commentaries in this series:
- David J. H. Beldman, Judges
- James McKeown, Ruth
- David J. Shepherd and Christopher J. H. Wright, Ezra and Nehemiah
- Lindsay Wilson, Job
- Ernest C. Lucas, Proverbs
- Bo H. Lim and Daniel Castelo, Hosea
- Stephen G. Dempster, Micah
- Heath A. Thomas, Habakkuk
- Jeannine K. Brown and Kyle Roberts, Matthew
- F. Scott Spencer, Luke
- Andy Johnson, 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- Robert W. Wall and Richard B. Steele, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus
- John Christopher Thomas and Frank D. Macchia, Revelation
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.