David J.H. Beldman on the Book of Judges

David J.H. Beldman on the Book of Judges July 13, 2020

David J. H.  Beldman
Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary Series
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020.
Available at Eerdmans.

Reviewed by Dr. Lindsay Wilson.

This is a good book in a series that takes seriously the theological message of the Old Testament. It is more self-consciously theological than others in the series (the 3 sections are theological introduction, theological commentary and theological reflection). Amongst other volumes in this series, it surprisingly stands out in giving nearly 60% of the words to commentary on the text (the series guidelines are 40%), which makes it more like the traditional commentary format. Yet, in his comments on the text he still focuses on literary and theological matters with his key (well-chosen) interlocutors being Dan Block and Barry Webb. Beldman himself is a published author on Judges, having written a short, popular introduction (in the Transformative Word series), and a major monograph based on his PhD on the difficult end section of chapters 17-21. His introduction sets the book in its literary and historical contexts, but also makes room for reception history—how it has been read (or to use his preferred term, ‘heard’) from early Christian and Jewish times as far as contemporary postmodern listeners. His key metaphor in the introduction is ‘hearing Judges’, by which he means ‘hearing God speak’ through the book. His focus is on how Judges operates as scripture, not merely as an historical record. His basic conviction is that “Judges is a book about God’s covenant people whose witness and way being in the world had been deeply compromised by the religion and culture of the surrounding nations.” This conviction provides the hermeneutical foundation for a thoroughly relevant reading of the book, inviting us to face our own ‘idolatry’ in the twenty-first century.

He follows literary readers of the text like Barry Webb who view Judges as a book in its own right, and not simply part of Deuteronomistic History. His view is that the narrator is portrayed as omniscient, reliable and reticent (i.e. restrained in giving evaluative comment). The section from 2:6-3:6 is helpfully read as outlining Israel’s covenant infidelity, the core problem that leads in chapters 3-16 to the raising up of a succession of judges. The flawed character of these judges points forward, he argues, to Israel’s longing for a better leader who will address the underlying issue. The most original contribution is made in his discussion of the problematic chapters 17-21. Effectively, he re-reads the book as a whole from the perspective of this end, bringing the story to a close by showing a progressive decline in Israel’s behavior. This final section also recalls the opening circular patters of 1:1-3:6, highlighting the lack of progress or forward movement in the book. The surfacing of images connected to kingship and cult in these final chapters identifies a way forward for Israel—to return to grounding their communal life in God’s kingship, and in the cultic practices that drew attention to all that he had done for them in the past.

The final section of the book (Theological Reflection) is surprisingly short (perhaps half of other volumes in this series), but it is clear and insightful. He deals with Judges and biblical theology, systematic theology and its lessons for today. After showing the place of Judges in the grand narrative of scripture (reading it in its place in the OT first, and then as part of the Bible as a whole), he turns to its connection with systematic theology. While Beldman was confident and comfortable in outlining its role in biblical theology, he seems slightly less so in relation to systematics. There is more limited interaction with secondary sources, but still some useful input in areas such as the doctrine of God, the Spirit (claiming a bit too much here, I think), sin and political theology. He leaves contentious issues like violence, the treatment of women in the book, and idolatry/autonomy to the final section (Hearing Judges Today). In retrospect, I would have liked this section on Theological Reflection to be expanded, as this is really the main distinctive contribution of the series.

All in all, we are in the hands of an expert guide who walks us thoughtfully through the book of Judges. This is a useful tool for preachers, as well as for theological students and educated laypeople who want to grapple with the many problems that the book presents. What emerges is a reading of the book that highlights its usefulness in addressing our contemporary world.

Lindsay Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Old Testament at Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia.

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