Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Carolyn Pressler, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2002), Pp. xii, 312. Paperback. ISBN 0664255264. $ 24.95.
This is a part of the Westminster Bible Companion series that is intended to help church laity read the Bible more fruitfully. Pressler's three commentaries achieve this end. She writes in a clear and well-ordered manner for the intended audience and deals well with the main areas that a commentary should cover: biblical content, issues of the history of Israel and of the text, and problems of interpretation and appropriation. The latter is evident in her struggles with the violence and holy war ideology of Joshua and Judges. The majority of her comments concern the biblical text as it stands and her discussions of the other issues are complements to that. She provides relevant background for important lexical, geographical, and archaeological matters. She also briefly discusses other significant interpretations of the text under consideration presenting arguments both for and against. She is never heavy-handed in presenting her own interpretation.

Pressler structures her commentary on Joshua around five themes: warfare (and its challenges for a modern religious readership), the land, the unity of the people Israel and the faithfulness of God. Although final ownership of the land is important for Israel's existence and identity, the book of Joshua defines Israel primarily through its faithfulness to the Lord. The closing ceremony at Shechem revolves around worship of only the Lord by Israel and her leaders. In an ideal covenant, God's and Israel's faithfulness would mirror one another without the divisiveness of sin and anger.

Israel's unity in military, political, and religious matters is stressed by the consistent use throughout the book of phrases such as "all Israel" and "the entire people" and by the story in Joshua 22 that emphasizes the full membership in Israel of the Transjordanian tribes. Even the allotment of the separate tribal territories is presented as an action of, and involving all, Israel. Rahab's role in the fall of Jericho and her powerful confession of the Lord undermine any attempt to understand the people Israel as closed and exclusive. Her inclusion in Israelite society is matched by the similar inclusion of the Gibeonites, through their ruse that allies them with Israel. Pressler emphasizes the positive message of Rahab and the Gibeonites, but does not give equal space to the clouded picture of Joshua and Israel who violate clear divine commands on how to conduct the conquest.

Joshua is a near-perfect leader in the mold of Moses. The Lord commands him directly or through previous Mosaic directives, Joshua commands the people and they, as a whole, do all that Joshua commands. But this type of leader and of the proper succession of a new leader ends with Joshua; the closing reports of deaths and burial mark the end of an era.

This leads directly into Judges and its depiction of Israel's disintegration. Pressler centers her presentation of Judges on the phrase "a downward spiral." She traces the increasing chaos in terms of Israel's leadership and unity. Israel's faithlessness to God, doing what is evil in his eyes, is a given from the opening chapters and is the ultimate source of the dissolution. God is caught in a tension of justice and mercy; he consistently punishes the people, but never destroys or abandons them. Even in the best times with Othniel, Ehud, and Deborah, Israel is not united and these judges lead only a tribe or group of tribes, not "all Israel." The disintegration deepens with Gideon, Jephthah and Samson, greatly flawed leaders. Their leadership is characterized by apostasy, civil war, personal and violent revenge, and child sacrifice. In the final chapters no judge, even a flawed one, is present to prevent the cultic disorders and violence of Micah and the Danites, the far deadlier rape of the Levite's wife and the resultant slaughter of fellow Israelites whether of Benjamin or Jabesh-gilead. Pressler regards the "no king in Israel" refrain of the last chapters as pointing to the need for a king to quell the chaos, but does not balance this positive view with the sharp criticism of monarchy in the episode of Abimelech and in Jotham's fable.

Pressler discusses Ruth's different placement in the Hebrew and Greek canons but reads the book on its own, not in conjunction with Judges or Samuel. She consistently addresses the variety of interpretations of Ruth, both positive and negative, and opts to read it as a story of God effecting blessing by working, in an unobtrusive manner, through the varied and productive relationships between Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. She discusses the feminist and womanist objections that the book of Ruth ultimately serves patriarchal and assimilationist ends since the book closes with the Davidic genealogy and the Moabite Ruth is absorbed into Israelite society. Even more than with Joshua and Judges, her even-handed approach to interpretation reveals itself.

Peter D. Miscall
Aurora, CO