Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 7 (2007) - Review

David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007). Pp. xxii + 698. Hardcover, US$50.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-2359-5.

The NICOT series is written by evangelical Christian scholars and aimed at an evangelical Christian audience. Unlike some commentary series designed for a broad audience, however, it seeks to employ contributors who are trained biblical scholars. David Tsumura's specific areas of expertise are Ugaritic and Semitic languages, and he makes extensive use of stylistic and linguistic analysis in this volume. Not surprisingly, given the evangelical orientation, Tsumura dates 1-2 Samuel to the tenth century (based largely on the “to this day” reference regarding Ziklag in 27:6), affirms its historicity, and eschews the existence of the narrative sources frequently postulated behind Samuel (the Ark Narrative, the History of David's Rise, the Succession Narrative). More surprising is Tsumura's dismissal of text-critical work in Samuel and his insistence throughout on following the MT, consistently rejecting variant readings, especially those of the LXX and 4QSama. The commentary's introduction is unusual for its focus on the topics of grammar and syntax, discourse analysis, and poetic analysis, all of which are devices to which Tsumura appeals throughout his work in defense of the MT's readings.

Tsumura's working principle, articulated on p. 380, is that “‘text-critical’ solutions miss the characteristics of linguistic expressions.” There may well be instances where the MT has been imperfectly understood and where scholars have, therefore, too readily accepted variant readings. There are certainly places in the commentary where Tsumura's methods lead him to propose innovative and intriguing explanations of readings in the MT. I found his proposal regarding the crux, tēred mĕʾōd in 20:19, as an idiom for nightfall to be one such intriguing possibility. However, the volume is peppered with other cases where Tsumura's explanations for the MT are forced and nonsensical, if not patently inaccurate. Before noting a sample of these, it is worth returning to Tsumura's discussion of 20:19, where he states, “I would like to assume that the MT is correct …” Here is the basic flaw of Tsumura's approach. Tsumura nowhere justifies this assumption, and without such justification, there is simply no reason to privilege one textual witness over other, more ancient, and by most appearances, better ones.

It is this assumption above all that leads, nay forces, Tsumura to engage in the sorts of “gymnastics” that one finds here in defense of the MT. To cite a few examples, Tsumura contends that the word na'ar, a noun of the “segholate” pattern, can also be an adjective meaning “young,” primarily so that he can make sense of the MT reading hanna'ar na'ar (1:24). Tsumura rejects the genuineness of the famous 4QSama plus in 10:27a, though he fails to explain how this verse with the unusual information it supplies would have been added, and in fact, he later draws on the “tradition preserved in 4QSama” to explain the events described in the MT (p. 305). In another famous case—that of the regnal formula for Saul in 13:1, which states that Saul was a year old (ben-šānāh) when he began to reign and reigned two years, Tsumura rather disingenuously says that “no age [for Saul] is specified.” While begrudgingly admitting a “possible textual problem,” Tsumura speculates that ben-šānāh may mean “a certain age” and that while “it is almost certain that the actual length of Saul's reign was more than two years,” the figure here is from God's viewpoint, even though from a human standpoint Saul occupied the throne longer than two years. In 14:25, Tsumura follows the MT reading, “all the land entered the forest,” but he can only guess at what this means. In 17:4, he accepts the larger figure for Goliath's height (six cubits = 9 feet rather than LXX's four cubits = 6 feet) and turns to a discussion of gigantism. Parenthetically, though it is not a text-critical matter, Tsumura similarly suggests that Jonathan was hypoglycemic, based on the statement in 14:27 that his eyes brightened when he tasted honey—a proposal that is ironic in view of Tsumura's common appeals elsewhere to idioms as a means of avoiding textual emendation.

Beyond issues of textual criticism, Tsumura's working principle regarding literary criticism is articulated on p. 479: “A synchronic reading should have priority, not because a diachronic approach is useless to the correct understanding, but because methodologically synchrony has priority, as a diachronic approach involves a hypothesis about composition …” But Tsumura's synchronic approach also involves a hypothesis about composition, and practically, Tsumura goes to lengths to defend this hypothesis in the face of indications of diachronic development. For instance, David's designation as both the seventh son and the eighth is the result of the Samuel writer adopting “the practice of epic writing,” though Tsumura does not explain how or why the poetic form of epic was transferred to prose. In order to resolve the tension between depictions of David in 16:18 and chapter 17, Tsumura treats the expressions gibbôr ḥayil (“a powerful person”) and ʾîš milḥāmāh (“a man of war”) together as designating social status. While this is likely for the former expression, it is not likely for the latter, as the juxtaposition of the two expressions indicates. In chapter 17 as a whole, where textual- and literary-criticism merge, Tsumura ignores the double death of Goliath (vv. 50-51) and again ironically, is compelled to take Saul's question in v. 58 (“Whose son are you?”) literally, as an inquiry about the identity of David's father, rather than an idiomatic way of asking about David's identity—none of which resolves the tension with chapter 16, where Saul is informed about David's family and social background (16:18) and even sends to Jesse (16:19, 22).

There is, to be sure, a great deal of value in this commentary, especially in Tsumura's linguistic and structural analyses. But so much of the volume is preoccupied with attempts to counter previous text-critical and diachronic work on Samuel that one cannot help but approach Tsumura's explanations with skepticism. Tsumura's linguistic expertise is a rich resource for the study of biblical narrative and the book of Samuel in particular. It is a shame that he is unable to employ it in cooperation with other valuable critical tools of biblical scholarship, specifically textual and literary (source) criticism.

Steven L. McKenzie, Rhodes College, Memphis