A Commentary on Judges and Ruth: a book review

While Evangelicals declare that all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16), we do not make much space for certain books of the Old Testament in worship. Take the book of Judges. Besides the Gideon and Samson stories in children’s Bibles and Sunday school lessons, Judges is left untouched by many churches. The Sunday Revised Common Lectionary has just one reading from Judges in its three year cycle (Judges 4:1-7) which highlights Deborah, the female Judge and prophetess. Of course, this is a mere fragment of the Deborah/Barak story, ignoring the main action of the chapter (the actual battle with Sisera and his destruction at the hands of Jael). The book of Ruth fairs a little better (it is not a violent book, so the RCL is less reticent to exclude it). There are two passages included in year B (not too bad for a four-chapter-book).

But the books that are most difficult for us, and feel archaic to our modern sensibilities, sometimes have the most to teach us. Robert Chisholm does a masterful job of mining the depths of Judges and Ruth and bringing homiletic insights to working preachers. I have not read Chisholm in any substansive way before, though I did reference his From Exegesis to Exposition several times in seminary. In A Commentary on Judges and RuthChisholm examines the passage through a synchronic lens, with an eye for its historical impact and literary craft. He then draws out the theological import and suggests a direction for pastors who will be preaching from the passage.

The book of Judges and Ruth occupy the same historical period in Biblical history (the time of the Judges, cf Ruth 1:1).  But their tone could not be more different. Judges describes Israel’s failure to possess the land, their repeated fall into idolatry where they ‘do evil in the eyes of the Lord,” and the way the surrounding cultures contribute the the moral decay of the nation. In the beginning of the book, when a ‘Judge’ is raised up by God in response to the people crying out and returning back to him, the Judge acts decisively to deliver the nation. Othniel (3:7-11) and Ehud (3:12-31) set the standard. However when Deborah commissions Barak to deliver the people, we see him hesitate (4:8). This hesitancy to act (or to follow) is evident in every cycle in the later part of the book (i.e. Gideon, Jepthah, Samson). When you get to Jepthah (10:6-12:15), a generally righteous judge you find that he is so affected by the surrounding culture that human sacrifice is an acceptable offering in exchange for victory (336).  Samson’s twenty year ‘rule’ is not accompanied by any sort of crying out to the LORD by the people, no one rallies around him, and he only fights the Philistines on his own whim.  The epilogue of Judges (17-21) records two episodes which evidence the moral degradation of the nation (including nationally sanctioned rape).

The tone of Ruth is much more hopeful. Naomi returns from Moab a widow who had lost her sons. Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law comes with her, though there is no prospect of an heir or a future for her there. When she goes to glean in the fields of Boaz, she is treated with kindness. When Naomi hears of it, she hatches a plot to get Ruth hitched. In the end Boaz marries Ruth and the two become the great grandparents of David (and she is included in the Messianic line of Jesus).

For each episode in these books, Chisholm presents a translation and narrative struture (noting the Hebrew syntax in his translation), discusses literary structure, exposits and discusses the message and application. The final section is where he draws out the exegetical and theological themes and points at homiletical trajectories. This is a tightly organized and well presented framework and it read well (which you can’t often say of higher level commentaries). Chisholm is a confessional scholar and so sits under the text. As an exegete, he has a sharp eye for the original context, and his exposition is helpful for drawing out a message for today which is faithful to the text. I also appreciated that he discusses at length in his comments, the degradation of the treatment of women throughout the book of Judges. He is cognizant of feminist critiques of Judges, even if his reading is much more conservative (i.e. he hints at Deborah’s appointment as Judge the result of the lack of male leadership. Though certainly the Hebrew scriptures attest elsewhere that God’s choice is not necessarily society’s choice). I appreciated his handling of the Ruth story as well (some of his translation notes are golden here!), but it his reading of Judges which garners my highest praise.

This is the second volume in the Kregel Exegetical Library I have reviewed (the first was Volume 1 of the Psalms by Allen Ross). On the strength of these two volumes, I think this is going to be an excellent commentary series. Both volumes have strong introductions, attentiveness to historical and literary forms and practical insights. I can’t recommend this commentary enough. So if you are preaching on Judges or just want to delve in for personal study, this is well worth the effort. I give it five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Kregel Academic for providing me with a copy of A Commentary on Judges and Ruth in exchange for my honest review. I was not asked to write a positive review, but sometimes, they are that good.

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