Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Victor H. Matthews, Judges and Ruth (New Cambridge Bible Commentary; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).  Pp xxi + 270.  Cloth $55.00.  ISBN 0-521-80606-2.

Matthews ably addresses his intended “wide audience” (frontispiece) of ministers, scholars, and intellectually curious laypeople.  He examines the texts in their literary and cultural contexts, beginning his commentary on Judges with a literary, cultural, and archaeological analysis.  He makes brief comments on the place of artifactual and textual witnesses in reconstructing the ancient history, and acknowledges the tentative nature of artifactual and cultural syntheses based on the material evidence.  He affirms the received biblical text as an artifact that assists in reconstructing the society of ancient Israel (17).  Beyond these affirmations, further engagement with this thorny question is found in both his reading list and the footnotes.

Compositional history questions are dealt with summarily (5-6; 209-11), understandable in a commentary which does not engage historical-critical methodologies as a primary commentary tool.  Judges is given a redacted form in the exilic period (after an initial Josianic production).  Ruth is given a post-exilic compositional setting.

Using a multidisciplinary approach drawing heavily on newer critical methodologies, Matthews skillfully unfolds the biblical text in its ancient cultural context.  His choice of methodological approaches varies and often one or more approaches are used to engage the biblical text.  For example, he sets the Deborah-Jael narrative in its cultural context by considering related extra-biblical texts and genres (e.g., 64-65, 77).  The cultural context is further examined through critical studies on ancient hospitality codes.  Additionally, the Deborah-Jael narrative is examined from a feminist perspective which addresses modern, literary questions such as the construction and reversal of male-females roles in the narrative (66, 68, 78; a similar intertwining of feminist studies and ancient hospitality codes informs his discussion of Judges 19-20).  Ultimately, many of the critical approaches are used by Matthews to show the strong thematics he discerns within the books (such as Israel as the underdog, and the reversal of roles within Yahweh’s program of deliverance).

A commitment to canonical reading is also apparent in many ways throughout the commentary.  In Judges, the individual stories of judges are read as part of a coherent narrative of Israel’s downward spiral (8, 79), Judges 19 is read in light of Genesis 19; Judges 20 pairs with Joshua 7 as commentary on purging the evil from Israel (194), and Jotham’s vineyard fable sparks a discussion of the canonical use of the vineyard image (106).  In Ruth, canonical reading is apparent as the narrative is explored as analogically related to both the Exodus, and the return from exile.  Further, Ruth’s transformation into a true Israelite is read in light of Isaiah 56-66’s universalism (212). 

Matthews’ work with Ruth continues his commitment to set the text in its literary context by using narrative analytical techniques (for instance, patterns of progression of loss, and progression of gain, are traced through the book [218-19]).  He also continues his commitment to place the text in its cultural context as he explores her encounters with Boaz through the ancient hospitality protocols during a time of gleaning.  Her entry into his field is compared to a stranger’s entry into a town, which triggers the hospitality obligations which then continue throughout Ruth 2-4.  A new focus as he engages the book of Ruth is that he understands the book as voicing “resistance against the increasing emphasis on endogamy. . . during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah” (212), thus providing a canonical counterpoint to the “ethnic purity” of Deuteronomy 12-16 (212, 241).

Matthews works hard to engage the interested reader.  A suggested reading list is provided with bibliographic entries grouped according to critical approach (e.g., literary studies, redaction studies, social and archaeohistorical studies, social scientific studies, and historical critical studies for Judges; literary studies, and legal and social world studies for Ruth).  Recommended commentaries are included, with brief annotations.

Other helps include “Closer Looks” addressing cultural aspects that inform the text.  They are appropriately placed (e.g., a discussion of Baal with the Gideon narrative; a discussion of endogamy and Levirate obligations with the Ruth narrative), brief, and not especially technical and thus accessible to his intended audience.  Homiletical concerns are scattered throughout in sections entitled “Bridging the Horizons” (in connection with Judges 3, 12, 16, 21, and Ruth 4).  For instance, he addresses the moral ambiguity apparent in the “hero” Samson (165), and the integration of immigrants into a new society (242).  Although these homiletical sections could appear more frequently than they do, Matthews speaks warmly and honestly in them, revealing his personal interaction with the biblical text and his commitment to its continuing relevance.

The strength of this commentary is the skillful blending of various methodological approaches in service of textual commentary, and the commentary’s commitment to the text as a coherent and thematic whole.  While much of the critical discussion is relegated to the footnotes and suggested further readings, this is not a drawback for the broad-spectrum audience it intends to address. 

Dr. Lissa M. Wray Beal
Providence Theological Seminary