JudgesWritten by J. Alberto Soggin Reviewed By Walter Moberly
The book of Judges is not one of the easier books of the Old Testament for the modern reader to appreciate. A good commentary should therefore help overcome such various difficulties as the text may present, so that the book may live afresh. What sort of help does Soggin provide?
Soggin approaches the biblical text with historically-orientated questions. He assumes that matters of historical and geographical detail, the development of the material before it reached its present literary form, and levels of editorial interpretations represent the most important issues in understanding the text. As such, the commentary shares the assumptions of most modern critical analyses of the Old Testament. And, in general, Soggin’s analysis reflects the modern scholarly consensus, although at times he takes an independent stance; for example, he queries the general consensus about the antiquity of the Song of Deborah, and proposes a new understanding of the so-called ‘minor judges’ (10:1–5; 12:8–15).
What sort of material does Judges contain? Soggin is in general hesitant to claim much for the possible historical value of the stories. The book contains a wide variety of traditions ranging from the Abimelech material (ch. 9) where ‘we should presuppose the basic historicity’ to the ‘minimally historical’ Samson cycle. But in general there is little that the modern historian can build upon. The rather negative historical evaluation arises from the belief that a long and complex history of transmission underlies the present text, a process in which the content was often substantially transformed—whether it be the simple extension of an originally local tribal tradition into an ‘all Israel’ tradition, or a more radical process such as the historicization of a myth (Jephthah’s daughter). Soggin also believes that it is possible to discern several stages of reinterpretation at the literary level, especially at the hands of the deuteronomistic school. The result is that the final text of Judges tends to be viewed primarily as an entrée to the analysis of a highly complex set of problems that lurk beneath the surface.
Although Soggin presents much useful and interesting material, I nevertheless found the work as a whole disappointing and insufficiently helpful in bringing the ancient text to life. First, Soggin builds throughout upon the work of W. Richter, available only in German and likely to be unfamiliar to most English readers. Richter’s arguments about the pre-literary development of the material and its redactional reworking are generally taken as established. This means that Soggin tends to assume rather than argue the complex development of the material. Those who still need to be convinced that so many layers exist, or that if they do exist they can still be accurately reconstructed, will find little to persuade them.
Secondly, Soggin makes little concession to those who advocate a more truly literary approach to Old Testament stories in which appreciation is at least as important as analysis. Although Soggin makes some use of J. L. Crenshaw’s stimulating study of Samson (see Themelios, Jan. 1981 for a review), he attempts no such literary appreciation of his own either in the Samson cycle or elsewhere. Coming away from his commentary, one would hardly believe that these are stories that have stimulated artists, poets, musicians, and ordinary readers and believers down the centuries.
Thirdly, the theological dimension of the commentary is minimal, even on the level of determining the interests and concerns of the ancient writers (Soggin legitimately eschews the task of presenting a theological message for today as beyond the scope of commentary proper). For example, Buber’s suggestive theological discussion of attitudes to kingship and authority in Judges as a whole (Kingship of God, ET 1967) is almost entirely ignored. Passages rich in theological implication, such as Gideon’s test of the fleece (6:36–40), receive no serious theological analysis or reflection. And in the Samson cycle, having determined that chapter 13 as a whole, and 14:4, 15:19, 16:28, represent a secondary theological interpretation of the stories, Soggin assumes that one’s evaluation of the cycle must discount these theological elements. For some reason, a reconstructed ‘unreflective’ text, which, if it ever existed, has been superseded, is preferable to the actual, and theologically interesting, text which confronts, and always has confronted, the reader.
In conclusion, one might suggest that a more appropriate title for the book would perhaps be ‘Studies in the History, Tradition-history and Redaction of Judges’. For the pursuit of such technical areas of enquiry the book contains much valuable material which the specialist student will need to consult. But the ordinary student or the preacher, who are more interested in what Judges is than in how it may have come to be and whose difficulties with the text are not usually concerned with its tradition-history, will find but little assistance or illumination.