Book Review: Judges and Ruth (BTC)

Reviewing commentaries is a tricky business – particularly for me as a generalist, and an in-publisher editor of commentaries! I tend to offer my review based on the format and content of the volume, and it’s utility or otherwise to preachers and pastors. Occasionally I’ll digress into particularly theological or stylistic quirks.

Judges and Ruth BTC Book Review

At the outset of this review I should note that this volume is a book of two uneven halves. It’s a nicely produced 270pp hardback (unless you are reading it in the future and it’s moved to paperback!) that covers both the books of Judges (dealt with by Laura A. Smit) and Ruth (engaged with by Stephen E. Fowl). An entry in the ‘Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible’, this is a series that I’ve had mixed feelings about – some are superb, readable and theolgical, others seem disconnected from the idea of commentary. Paired volumes – in the sense of two different authors writing about two different books of the Bible – are tricky for all involved (I’ve not yet had to manage one in-house, though one of the series I look after pairs Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs with different authors) – and so this review will be split into two parts, with their own rating out of 5, and then an overall rating.

Smit’s commentary on Judges, in my view, is a solid and helpful ‘theological commentary’ – with her theological convictions largely running with the grain of the text, and (more importantly) the grain of Scripture as a whole. Early on (p. 12) she writes “my own reading of this book is neither especially feminine nor feminist. I am simply open to the idea that both men and women are made in God’s image and can reflect Christ’s glory, and therefore to the possibility that types of Christ may as easily by female as male“. Whilst the phrasing my unnerve some folk, in my reading Smit is careful and lead by the text. She goes on elsewhere to nicely capture one of the key themes of Judges, which is also arguably a key theme in the Old Testament: “Without right worship at the heart of their communal life, the people of Israel will not find rest in Canaan, because without right worship – no matter how effectively they may conquer territory -they will not be living as holy people in a holy land” (p. 15). The echoes or hints of New Testament themes are something Smit takes seriously – “the book of Judges is a lived-out proof of the doctrine oforiginal sin… We need a Saviour who offers more than education and law, more even than a divinely given education and a divinely given law. We need a Saviour who offers a new creation.” (p. 18) – Amen!

Writing before 2018 (when this volume was published), Smit’s carefulcomments on the fact that “YHWH is never depicted as a female deity” (p. 49) would be well heeded by those arguing about metaphor, pronouns and other things at the moment. Her comments on the book from a structural point of view are helpful – helping me notice things I’d not seen before, despite feeling I knew the narrative of the book well. Gideon’s story serves as a useful focus – “The story culminates with the question of kingship – and indeed this may be seen as the theme of the entire book of Judges” (p. 106). Smit’s theological leaning – or, perhaps, her faithful reading of the text – unpacks the application of a lot of the story of Judges: “The relationship between God and His creatures can never be one of equality but must be a relationship of sovereignty on His part and submission on ours” (p. 178). Again, in an age when it’s tempting to remake God in our image and bend his commands, Smit offers us the book of Judges as an aid to discipleship. Smit’s treatment of Judges is packed with helpful insight and clarity, and takes us to the 194th page of this book. Overall, this is a concise rather than brief commentary, and whilst it doesn’t go verse-by-verse, it would be a valuable addition to a preacher’s preparation (or, in my case, an encouraging devotional companion!). I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Fowl’s commentary on Ruth, however, is the weaker portion here. At just 62 pages, this would not be a standalone commentary (this is often the case for Ruth, which I think is a shame, with notable exceptions being Hawk’s short AOTC, or Lau’s new NICOT) of much size, and Fowl spends 19 of those on his introduction and acknowledgements. Ten pages of that introduction have little to do with Ruth, but seem more like an apologia for the genre of ‘theological commentary’, and a response to Luke Timothy Johnson’s 2012 review-in-progress of the series. It is just as well Ruth is a short book as each chapter (which takes about a page/page and a half of space!) gets around 6-7 pages. What comment is there is by and large helpful – with a healthy focus on the sovereignty of God, and the way in which discipleship is ultimately an interaction with it: “as one grows in holiness, becoming ever more closely conformed to the image of Christ, it should be both more difficult and less important to distinguish between one’s own desires and actions and those of God” (p. 231). Indeed, Fowl’s almost-closing words sum up this balance between providence and discipleship well: “Ruth is both a story of God’s providence and a story of humans learning how to percieve, interpret, and name God’s providence. In this regard the story urges both patience in how one interprets, percieves, and speaks about one’s situation before God and a certain humility that leads one to repent of and reverse one’s initial judgements inthe light of subsequent events” (p. 250). It was disappointing – especially given that Smit had noticed it in her commentary on Judges – that Fowl didn’t have much to say about ethnicity and identity. While the commentary he offers is good, it is brief, and overshadowed by the slightly strange introduction. Overall, I’d give the ‘Ruth’ section of this book 2 out of 5 stars.

Overall, this is, as I said at the outset of my review, a book of two halves and a mixed bag. It’s probably worth buying if you are wanting to think about Judges, or preach it – and if you can find a good price then Fowl’s short comments on Ruth are a nice sweetener. But ultimately the almost cursory treatment of Ruth lets this volume down – I gave it a 3 out of 5 on GoodReads, which is being generous to the Ruth portion, and harsh to the Judges majority.

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