Judges. By Trent Butler. WBC 8. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009, xcii + 538 pp., $49.99.
Think Adrian Monk—or go back, if you remember him, to Peter Falk’s Columbo on television. Trent Butler likens his work in solving the riddle of Judges to that of a detective. Over the course of his investigation, Butler unravels many enigmas, examines evidence that may help solve a few more, and leaves some to stand as cold cases. This volume stands in the top tier of studies on this knotty book for four reasons: (1) it tackles difficulties in the text honestly and offers plausible solutions; (2) it converses with an extensive sampling of modern literature on Judges; (3) it displays sustained sensitivity to the rhetorical features of the text; and most noteworthy (4) it views the book as accurate historical testimony and gives the textual record the benefit of the doubt instead of presuming it to be a hypothetical reconstruction of dubious historical value.
The translation is Butler’s own. It is lively but not at the expense of transparency, colloquial but not eccentric. His rendering of 5:26, for example, retains the participles ma˙åqâ and ma˙åsâ in his rendering, “shattering, piercing” (p. 115) while most versions
transform them into full verbal clauses. He also preserves the ambiguity in idiomatic expressions, avoiding speculative reductionism. The reader, then, may interpret for himself whether “sustain your heart” (19:8, p. 405) means “refresh yourself ” (niv) or something with more spiritual substance.
Text-critical notes to the translation amount to a veritable textual commentary on Judges. Here Butler is thorough and judicious, focusing mainly on variants involving lxxa and lxxb. The Old Latin version also receives special attention via Niditch’s recent work (S. Niditch, Judges [WJK, 2008]). He even mentions the mysterious apocryphal judge Asemada, known only in the OL at 17:1.
According to Butler, Judges shows that Israel’s covenant disloyalty to Yahweh and to each other brings anarchy and self-destruction. The cycle leading from obedience to apostasy to deliverance deteriorates as the period unfolds. At the core of this degeneracy is failed leadership; in fact, he argues that the judges are mere caricatures of leaders.
Butler discusses the “no king in Israel” refrain in detail and concludes that the writer looks to a true king emulative of Joshua’s earlier leadership. Further, Judges is the rhetorical
and theological foil of the book of Joshua—the anti-Joshua. The people of God have now abandoned their commitment seen at the close of Joshua and are serving Canaanite gods. Notable in Judges is the absence of specific, detailed statements about God. Yet the text makes a significant theological point metonymically. The individual stories are parts representing the whole—that is, the larger message that God’s people desperately need to be one with him if they are to be one with one another.
Also characteristic of the volume is Butler’s repeated affirmation of the accuracy of the Judges narrative in depicting true history. Contrasting his continual assertion in the 1983 WBC volume on Joshua that Deuteronomic redactors had reworked many accounts, he takes nearly every opportunity he finds in Judges to cast doubt on theories that “long-removed historians created material to construct a previously unknown identity for Israel” (p. 58). Such a welcome shift builds upon Provan, Long, and Longman’s verification principle in viewing testimony as real history.
Butler astutely examines literary features in the text as well. He credits the author, not hypothetical “imbecilic editors” (p. lvii), with a dexterous employment of “complex structures . . . literary figures, complicated characterization and plotting, and exquisite use of irony” (p. lvii). As with Joshua, Judges displays a thematic structure anchored by the themes of failure and lack of leadership. The Judges author has sprinkled satire, mirroring, inclusio, chiasm, hendiadys, pun, and other literary devices throughout his work. However Butler wisely cautions against imposing chiastic structure where none is evident (“pan-chiasm,” p. 412). Many of Butler’s insightful appendices in the volume offer fresh approaches to genre analysis and narrative structure as alternatives to hypothetical redaction postulates.
For added value, this work navigates a deft course through many of the traditional difficulties in Judges, including: the book’s provenance (a polemic against Jeroboam’s illicit worship centers in the north); complexities in Deborah’s song (“Commentary on
Judges 5 may be the most difficult task that an interpreter of the OT attempts,” p. 135); the Gideon, Barak, Jephthah, and Samson fiascoes in light of Hebrews 11:32; the Spirit’s “clothing” Gideon; the 300 years of 11:26 (a round number); Jephthah’s daughter (he did sacrifice her out of a lack of trust in Yahweh); the sibbolet/ŝibbolet issue in 12:5– 6; chapters 17–21 as occurring early in the period; and the curious reading in 19:18, among others.
More features that enhance the value of the commentary include: Butler’s attention to key Hebrew words and important syntactical features; his restraint in offering unsubstantiated speculation (p. 297, though he does some on p. 327); welcome restraint in discussing sexual allusions in the text; relevant archaeological and geographical details; a pastoral tone in his summary comments; and a wry sense of humor (such as the “goat parade” in 15:1–3).
The work’s strong points thus outweigh the few areas of concern I have. Some frustrations are due to the cumbersome WBC format. The “Form/Structure/Setting,” “Comment,” and “Explanation” sections, for instance, tend to promote a repetitious style. As a case in point, note that the opening paragraph in the “Form/Structure/Setting” units for 13:1–16:31; 17:18–31; and 19:1–30 are exactly alike except for changing the text reference numbers. Butler occasionally gives too much weight to oral tradition in the composition of Judges, in my opinion. Archaeology has shown that a dominant written tradition existed early in Israel’s history, as suggested by Judges 8:14—which curiously stands without note in his “Comments” section on the verse. Butler seems fairly certain that “separate traditions lie behind” portions of the Abimelech story (p. 233), and that the Samson narratives “incorporate folklore elements” (p. 347). How would he or we know that? I would also like to read more on how he views inspiration and the Spirit’s role in producing the text. And in a related vein, the volume seems a bit thin in defining the role of Judges within the larger framework of OT theology. Is “the basic question of the Old Testament and even biblical theology: who are the people of God?” (p. 33)? My inclination is that he overstates this thesis. Finally, as I read to understand Butler’s views on what the text is saying, it was often difficult to know what his conclusions were, so thorough was his treatment of the relevant literature.
Still, Butler’s Judges is a commendable work and takes its place alongside Block and Younger as indispensible tools in solving the riddles posed by this essential, enigmatic OT voice.