The Book of The Judges. An Integrated Reading

Written by B. G. Webb Reviewed By David Pennant

This book is a revision of Webb’s Ph.D. thesis entitled Theme in the Book of Judges: A Literary Study of the Book in its Finished Form (Sheffield University, 1985). Both works mark a somewhat new departure in study of the book of Judges, which has been the object of much historical enquiry, but little literary investigation.

Chapter one of the book argues that reading Judges as a unity is a sound course of action, despite the tendency of recent decades to see it more as a collage of stories. Chapter two looks at the Jephthah story as one unit, in an attempt to assess what the story appears to say as a whole. Particular attention is paid to the presence of themes which seem to run through the different parts of the story. This procedure is then applied to the book as a whole in chapters three to five. Chapter six draws some tentative conclusions as to how future study of Judges and the Deuteronomistic History might be affected by Webb’s reading of the book.

There are certain limitations to this attempt to arrive at an integrated reading’ of Judges. Firstly, the kind of approach adopted by Webb could be considered as being too subjective. Luis Alonso Schökel, who has been a pioneer of literary approaches to Scripture, has said that a professor speaking his feelings out loud does not constitute new OT scholarship. Webb has however been aware of this danger, and throughout the style of the book is cautious rather than bold. Indeed, far from using his insights to form the basis of far-reaching assertions, Webb has limited his conclusions to a mere four-and-a-half pages (pp. 207–211).

Secondly, the procedure followed raises several questions relating to how ancient Israelite literature should be read. Is this ‘an’ integrated reading in the sense that other integrated readings would be just as valid? What about the issue of authorial intention? The thematic links that are outlined beg the question as to whether such literary unity is the result of conscious thought or not. Understandably, these questions are not addressed; their treatment would have required considerable extra space.

Despite the caveats outlined above, this book has much to commend it. Few passages raised difficulties in my mind, with the possible exception of the account of Shamgar (pp. 132–133). Rather, I found Webb’s conviction that there are themes which connect the stories convincing. The most important contribution of the volume to my mind is the suggestion that the story of Samson recapitulates the history of Israel in the period of Judges in a symbolic manner (summarized on p. 179). Samson is accordingly to be understood as a symbol of Israel herself (p. 201). Webb moreover sees the Samson story as the climax of the book; this suggests that the concern of the book of Judges is to focus on Israel’s wayward behaviour in her relationship with God, as mirrored in Samson’s relations with Philistine women.

This suggestion is a new one. If Webb is correct in this way of reading the book, then there are implications for other narratives. Do any other characters in Judges behave in this way? Is the behaviour of Israel a key concern of other passages outside Judges which appear to be stories focusing on an individual? These questions call for investigation.

This book will be a valuable tool for those wishing to study the book of Judges.

David Pennant