The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges

Written by Lilian R. Klein Reviewed By David Pennant

This is a provocative book. Unfortunately, it is not as accessible as it might be, since its style is sometimes condensed to the extent that it is not always easy to grasp the author’s meaning. Further, an understanding of current theory about the workings of irony is assumed; the subject is outlined in a technical way in Appendix One, in a manner which did not leave me much the wiser (pp. 195–199).

Having said that, most of the book consists of a chapter-by-chapter study of Judges, and the bulk of the author’s individual insights are easily grasped. One of the author’s most helpful suggestions is that paying careful attention to the proper names in the book frequently assists our understanding of the stories. Klein demonstrates that a character’s name and actions often comment on one another. Another valuable emphasis is that the book of Judges is not merely a loose collection of stories; rather, there are interlocking motifs, which allow one part of the book to relate to another. It is in this area that much of the irony perceived by Klein lies. Later events, when viewed in the light of earlier events, take on an extra significance, in a manner which is often ironical. In both of these areas—personal names and the presence of theme in the book—Klein reaches somewhat similar conclusions to B. G. Webb (The Book of the Judges, JSOT, 1987). These books were written independently—Webb’s work was not available to Klein. With regard to attempting to tease out the possible significance of individual stories in Judges, the two books may be helpfully compared and contrasted.

The book is less helpful, however, in its main theme. The book of Judges, we are told, is a tour de force of irony (p. 20). Irony is detected with unerring frequency. Klein’s chosen title even elevates irony to something approaching personality. However, there is little justification advanced for the view that irony is so pervasive and so important. This seems a dubious procedure. Irony is an elusive concept, not always as readily detectable as Klein suggests. This might not matter if her style were not so dogmatic; however, opinions are usually stated strongly, as if they had the status of facts. Some pronouncements at least seem capable of other explanations, such as the assertion that God is the ‘master-ironist’ (pp. 191, 196). One wonders whether this means any more than the fact that God knows everything, which seems to be true by definition; if so, it is hardly surprising that the presence of irony is considered so widespread. There is perhaps a danger that the concept of irony becomes so diluted, when treated in this way, as to mean very little. Another statement which seemed to require more support was that the Abimelech story marks the ironic climax of the book (p. 78). Here and elsewhere I found myself unconvinced, if only because of the brevity of the argument.

This is unfortunate, since the book contains much valuable material. Scholarship in Judges has tended to ignore the possibility of overall theme. Frequently, the kind of proposal being made breaks new ground in an exciting way, and it would be a great mistake to consider apparent excesses of the book as grounds for rejecting the argument altogether. To my mind, it will prove useful if used as a source book alongside existing commentaries, providing its contributions are carefully sifted.

David Pennant