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

J. Clinton McCann, Judges (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 2003), Pp. x, 146. Hardcover. ISBN 0-8042-3107-9. $ 22.95.

J. Clinton McCann's commentary on the book of Judges is another in a series designed for use within the context of the Christian confessional tradition, its liturgies, teaching and preaching. Such a context already determines something of the approach to the document, and also sets the commentator a difficult task of integration. Judges, as McCann states, has a bad reputation with its stories of violence and increasing social and political chaos. Granted its rich narrative material, which has received much attention in recent years, several other issues shape one's reading and understanding of the book of Judges. The first is the violent nature of the stories it narrates. The second is the theological problem of the God it portrays, who at times is shown to have initiated such violence. The third is the broader problem of the relationship of this violence to modern Christian morality and ethics -- a link demanded by the nature of the commentary series itself.

The book has a useful introduction on the topics of the study of the book, the nature of the Judges and the formation of the book, the book within the context of the Christian canon, and a brief section on the theology of the book.

Along with many current interpreters, McCann sees the book in its final form as a product of the post-exilic period (pp. 8-12). It contains a clear three-part literary structure but also pivots thematically on the outcome of the story of Gideon (6:1-8:35). It is at this point that the serious deterioration of Israel's condition begins in earnest (p. 65). In McCann's mind the book has a surprising relevance to the modern faith context with its presentation of contemporary and current issues of social, political and religious life (p. 2). As such, the book is a form cautionary tale for the modern (especially the modern US) reader.

After a brief, and helpful introduction to the role and character of the 'judges' and their times (pp. 3-8), McCann establishes an overtly confessional basis for his interpretation of the book in all its difficulties.

    Nothing in the book of Judges should be construed as a contradiction of God's universal sovereignty and God's will for justice and righteousness among all the peoples of the earth (p. 13).

Thus, in this reviewer's understanding, the book is worked to fit a preconceived pattern which is drawn not from the material exclusive to the book itself, but rather from the shape of the Christian canon. From this perspective, the apparent violence of the book is diminished and accommodated by the insistence that the topoi of Land, Canaanites, and Violence be taken "symbolically." Land is symbol of life and access to life (p. 16); Canaanites are symbolic of ways of life that perpetuate injustice (p. 19); and the violence initiated and enacted by God is "righteous wrath... vengeance in the service of God's creational purposes for humankind" (p. 21).

In addition, McCann notes, along with many others, the remarkable roles given to women in the book, as heroes ands victims, and its literary style and genre which involves, among other things a sense of humor. Overall, the book of Judges is interpreted as a tale of persistent disobedience of the covenant people -- throughout called "Israelites" -- and the equally persistent attachment of God to covenant loyalty and grace. In this mode the book is truly "prophetic" (p. 25).

The form of the commentary is that of expository essays on successive passages of the book, which is divided into three sections, "From Joshua to the Judges" (1:1-3:6); The Stories of the Judges" (3:7-16:31); and "Complete Deterioration and Terror" (17:1-21:25). McCann demonstrates his familiarity with recent literature on the book, and in the body of the commentary enters into discussion with the authors and their ideas.

The commentary section on the book is very well-written, and where necessary homiletic and didactic elements are interspersed with a sound exposition of the document itself. Attention to the nuances of the language of the document and its relationship with other canonical documents is characteristic of the commentary, and it is in this judicial and careful inter-textual and inner-textual approach where the real strength of the commentary lies. The style of writing is attractive, and the completed volume will be of great help in the preparation of sermons and studies on the book. Possessing particular value is the fine exposition of the fulcrum of the book in the story of Gideon and his son and successor, Abimelech (6:1-9:57, pp. 61-75).

However, given the overtly canonical and theological thrust of the commentator's agenda, there are some surprising detours into matters of historical and social interest of "the period of the Judges" (1200-1020 B.C. [sic!]). Among these is the occasional reference to subsistence agriculture and the supposed "egalitarian" society that it engendered (pp. 55-56). Here McCann falls into the trap of many recent, and especially US scholars, of making a theological virtue out of a social and demographic necessity. The danger in this, is that it is not always clear whether the deterioration so often expounded in the commentary is a matter of religion (i.e. failure to remain loyal to the covenant God), or a matter of growing social complexity (viz: the abandonment of subsistence agriculture, and a move toward the establishment of Monarchy). Both the so-called "pre-Monarchic" and "Monarchic" periods of Israel's history demand more analysis than is offered here.

Nevertheless, the volume is a fine addition to a helpful series of commentaries. It does not satisfy completely the questions on violence and the God of violence which the author raises at the beginning, but it is a valuable contribution to the rehabilitation of a book which has been by-passed for so long in popular exposition of the faith community to which it is addressed.

T. R. Hobbs
Hamilton, Ontario