Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 3 (2000-2001) - Review

Tammi J. Schneider, Judges (Berit Olam; Collegeville, MN : Liturgical Press, 2000)

This study is one of a "multi-volume commentary" of a series titled "Berit Olam." The series, as declared on the cover of the volume, "brings to all interested in the Bible, be they lay people, professional biblical scholars students or religious educators, the latest developments in the literary analysis of these ancient texts... The reading of the books of the Hebrew Bible offered here all focused on the final form of the texts, approaching them as literary works...". A review of such a study should refer to two basic questions: (1) does the reviewer accede to the declared principles of the series and (2) does the reviewed volume conforms with these principles. Unequivocal positive answers to both questions necessarily lead to an approbation of the volume; any other combination of answers would produce a more ambiguous response. The latter is the case here.

1. The principles of the series are very welcome to this reviewer. So many English readers and potential readers of the Hebrew Bible are interested only in the final product, that they deserve a series which would admittedly ignore the previous stages of its manufacture. This principle, which gives up a comparative discussion of ancient versions, possible errors, detailed, sometime tiresome discussions of minute exegetical issues etc., is not only legitimate but also methodologically expected when literary aspects are the focus. Less understandable is the statement (again on the cover) that the series is directed to "all of God's people": does it mean only Jewish readers? Why? The good news, however, is that practically the present volume of Judges absolutely neutralizes this declared policy: nothing in it would fit only those with whom God is said to have made an 'everlasting covenant' ("Berit Olam"), and a religious belief of any kind is not at all a preliminary condition for the reader to benefit from this volume.

2. Does the present study conform with the other terms of reference of the series? With no hesitation I suggest a positive answer. This is not an interpretation like the well-known commentaries on the book of Judges, like Moore's (ICC, 1895), Boling's (AB, 1981), Soggin's (OTL, 1981) or Amit's recent one (Mikra LeYisra'el, Hebrew, 1999). It offers no overall translation of the book; giving up a systematic lexical and syntactic exegesis of the entire text (even the Poem of Deborah is not interpreted word by word), it avoids dealing with every crux; it skips speculations about the pre-history of the final MT. Instead, Schneider examines "how the entire book of Judges functions as a unified literary document" (p. xiii). Thus she hierarchically divides the text into chapters (e.g., "Chapter 7, GIDEON/ JERUBAAL, Judges 6:1 - 8:35) and sections (e.g.,"The Bezek Incident: Judges 1:4-7", p. 5; "The Leaders of Amalek: Judges 8: 4 - 21", p. 119) once again, without delving into arguments about other possible divisions of the continuous text. Each chapter is concluded with a "Summary", which usually illuminates the role of the chapter in establishing the alleged thesis of the whole book of Judges. This makes a very pleasant, (too?) guided reading, which focuses indeed in literary aspects; and since literature is often, and definitely in our case, a vehicle of transmitting ideology, a strong emphasis is given also to this aspect.

3. The idea that "the book of Judges stresses the theological message that during the narrative period of Judges the Israelites strayed from their deity" (p. 287) is self evident to any one who reads the book, and no commentary is needed to grasp it. On the other hand, the question to what extant each story and episode contributes to establishing this idea of the entire book is less obvious. Schneider's answer to this question is a clear cut one, and she hammers it throughout the whole study: "the book of Judges is organized to show a degenerative progression; each cycle (= story; episode. Y.H) shows a generation beginning yet lower on the scale of legitimate behavior" (p. xii). Schneider is very tenacious to prove this thesis, which makes a very coherent study. Two more features could be mentioned, which add to create coherence to the study: a sensitivity to the Hebrew lexicography with all its possible allusions, and a strong feminist orientation. Promising as they are, these features also reveal some of the shortcomings of the study, which I could have discussed more expansively were it not for editorial limitations. Here are some examples to demonstrate my reservations.

4. The claim that each cycle shows a degenerative progression is sometimes strained and farfetched. E.g., in Jud. 12:8-15 we read about a peaceful period of 25 years during the rule of some 'small' judges, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, In order to fit this information into the alleged pattern of the book Schneider claims that here we are facing another stage of deterioration, since "These leaders were not deity-appointed... No leadership qualities are listed. They do not respond to any specific crisis" (pp. 190 - 191). This is a very forced reading! Another example is the last cycle -- "Civil War" (Jud. 20:8 - 21:25). This is supposed to be the worse situation in the whole period of the Judges. However, Schneider ignores the dialectic character of the story of this war: The book begins with a description of a period in which the tribes acted separately (e.g., chapters 1; 5) and even fought each other (12: 1-7), while the last cycle describes a well organized amphictyony  whose tribes act as a unified nation (although, yes, against one of their own tribes). Such forced readings conceals one of the most important literary achievements of the book: the author/redactor (not merely author) success of creating a coherent book out of sporadic traditions, without coercing them into a strict dogma.

5. Many commendable examples of Schneider's sensitivity to the Hebrew language could be raised, but let me mention only one problematic one -- the way she translates the Hebrew word 'isha: "in Hebrew the word for woman and wife is the same. Most translators decide for the reader which meaning is intended... this author will translate 'wife/women,' and let the reader determine which is the better translation" (p. 9 n. 16). One can wonder why an interpreter, while offering his/her own reading in so many other delicate and ambiguous issues, would avoid a decision in this case, but one can still understand the point. What is not clear is Schneider's inconsistency, e.g., in pages 196-200 we find at least 6 "woman/wife" besides about 3 "woman." Another example of over sensitivity is the claim that the singular usage "Canaanite" in Jud. 1:1 "creates a more personal situation" (p. 2) a fact which is missed by "most translations" which use the plural 'Canaanites': but the biblical data seem to invalidate this assertion, since the singular Kena`ani is used more than 50 times in the Bible while the plural form is used only twice. A similar case can be found in p. 204: the Hebrew term for the Philistines is 'arelim (Jud. 14:3), commonly translated "uncircumcised." This translation is criticized by Schneider who suggests "foreskinned ones," since the text wants to emphasize the crudeness of the Philistines. But, again `arel(im) is the only biblical term for uncircumcised so there is no justification in disqualifying the common translation just in this case.

6. The feminist-gender orientation of the author is stressed already in the "Acknowledgments" (p. ix), where Schneider acknowledges "The women of the Orange County Jewish Feminist Institute" for being her "inspiration." Appreciated as this orientation is, it sometimes reminded me the advice of the Wisest of all men -- "Have you found honey? Eat only as much as you need, lest you be filled with it and vomit"(Prov. 25:16): justified, sweet and healthy as honey, an excessive feminist reading might appear as a parody on feminism. Such is, e. g,, the discussion on Sarah's laughter in pp. 196-197: it is too long, illuminate nothing in Samsom's mother's behavior, and the claim that "Sarah's laughter was not rooted in the reproductive aspect of the messenger's claim but the sexual" (p. 196) is odd, to say the least. Schneider's accusations against the sexism of some commentators are many times baseless, and it seems she finds sexism on every high hill and under every green tree. Take, e.g., the following: "Samsom's story is another example where modern scholarship is particularly sexist with scholars describing Samson as, for example, 'a helpless hero in the power of a woman'" (p. 193): is this a sexism? And if so - is it the 'sexism' of the cited Crenshaw or the 'sexism' of the original story? An even more strange accusation (against the text? the 'commentators'?) could be found in a discussion about the (unasked by 'sexist' commentators ) question why didn't Manoah's wife need evidence to the messenger's promise ("This might mean simply that, because she was a woman, she lacked the ability to question. If her gender were different this would be evidence of her great faith in the deity," (p. 201).

Space exigencies prevent a discussion of other important problems, such as the methodological question, how can the author claim for a political agenda of the Book of Judges when its historical Sitz im Leben is not discussed? Is there a real evidence for an pro-Davidic message in the book?

I am sure that the attentive reader -- and Schneider's study well deserves such a reader -- will be confronted by these and other interesting questions when reading this intriguing study.

Yair Hoffman
Tel Aviv University, Israel.