Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Frolov, Serge, Judges (FOTL, 6B; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013). Pp. 390. US$55.00, CAD$63.50. ISBN 978-0-80282-967-2.

In accordance with the FOTL mandate, Frolov's volume on Judges offers “a commentary, in which all texts throughout all books of the Hebrew Bible are form-critically interpreted” (p. xiii). It is not the mere identification of forms and genres which is paramount, but the contribution that these make to the intention of the text and its exegesis. To this end, Frolov takes a combined diachronic/synchronic approach. He begins each section of his commentary by dealing with preliminary textual issues (in a way which is often quite helpful), analysing the structure of each component, determining its genre, and discussing the original setting of the passage, considering whether it ever circulated independently or was part of its current co-text from the beginning. Only then does the author proceed to draw conclusions about the intention of the text within the context of the Enneateuch—that is, Genesis to 2 Kings—and finally make interpretive decisions. As Frolov rightly notes, “exegesis is constrained by formal features of the biblical text” (p. 9). Nevertheless, the author does not view his work as a typical commentary, and discusses exegetical issues and scholarly opinion only as far as they are relevant to the form-critical examination of the text (p. 2). As it turns out, however, Frolov includes a great deal of interesting, and often controversial, interpretation.

Interestingly, Frolov argues—and argues with some effectiveness—that the actual narrative of the judges as a literary entity does not correspond to the canonical book of Judges (pp. 16–29). The author concludes that Judg 1:1–26 belongs with the book of Joshua as a sequel, and that Judges proper begins in Judg 1:27. He also contends that the book actually extends well into what we know as 1 Samuel, ending at 1 Sam 7:17. He supports his contention not only by content and themes, but also by syntactic structure and the presence of motifs (e.g., “there was a certain man”) and patterns (e.g., the apostasy-deliverance cycle).

Frolov is definitely on the right track when he uses syntactic structure to delimit the components of the Judges narrative. The use of discourse signals in the Hebrew text is too often overlooked, and in Frolov's commentary they yield some valuable insights. However, it is curious that he limits himself primarily to Niccacci's monograph in implementing this strategy.[1] It is also rather curious that Frolov tends to refer to the very dated GKC grammar of 1910 to support his arguments when there are more recent grammars that incorporate much newer information on the nature of classical Hebrew.[2] Since the publication of Niccacci's book more work has been done on syntactic structure in Hebrew. Perhaps most significant for unit delimitation is Roy L. Heller's book.[3] Although Frolov is aware of Heller—he cites his article on Abimelech[4]—he makes no mention of his monograph, which is perhaps the most systematic and complete analysis of Hebrew narrative structure available.

Use of Heller's method would eliminate some of the problems that Frolov encounters in dividing up the Judges narratives, two of which are atomization of the text and an unnecessary degree of subjectivity. First, although Frolov rightly looks for disruptions in the syntax in determining the structural breakdown, his treatment of these disruptions is too equitable and results in a fragmented text. Just one brief example of this, although numerous others occur, is in Judg 1:22–23 (see pp. 36–37). Here, he treats two nominal (or verbless) causes as disruptive and uses them to break the narrative into episodes after vv. 22b and 23b. Heller, however, distinguishes what he terms “inner paragraph comments,” characterized primarily by participial and verbless clauses, which contain information closely related to the ongoing narrative and which do not significantly disrupt its flow. These are distinct from “extra paragraph comments,” characterized by very different verb constellations, which are further removed from the immediate narrative and which create far more significant disruptions to the flow of events. Use of this more nuanced approach, along with the identification of clear initial and terminal markers, would result in a more meaningful structure, one that does not require the breakdown of passages into numerous tiny episodes and “movements”—which, curiously, Frolov never actually defines—and would make the overall structural pattern much clearer by subordinating minor disruptions to more significant ones.

Second, a more comprehensive and systematic methodology would significantly reduce the amount of subjectivity that the interpreter must bring to bear on the analysis of structure. As already noted, Frolov sometimes attempts to dismiss what his method terms “potentially disruptive” (p. 23), but which he senses is relatively minor, for contextual reasons. The problem, however, is that these reasons are subjective. For example, Frolov remarks that the use of the plain perfect instead of the waw-consecutive imperfect may simply be due to “rhetorical or stylistic considerations.” He suggests that perhaps juxtaposition, onomatopoeic considerations, or avoidance of awkwardness might be in play and that “it probably does not disrupt the text's master sequence” (p. 171). Much, if not all, of this uncertainty could be avoided, however, by applying Heller's supported conclusion that plain perfects that appear in semantic or syntactic parallelism consistently do not disrupt the narrative backbone, something Frolov may be suggesting as just one possibility by mentioning “juxtaposition.” On the other hand, he sometimes dismisses clauses that are disruptive as not being structural indicators, as he does with Judg 2:15a and 23b, which are in fact disruptive terminal markers (pp. 67–68).

Having completed his syntactic structural analysis, Frolov proceeds to Genre and Setting. His conclusions regarding genre are usually sound and helpful. His ruminations on setting, however, invariably conclude that none of the individual components of the Judges narrative ever circulated independently. Frolov's agenda here is the promotion of his conviction that the Enneatuch was created (largely out of whole cloth?) by a single author or group of authors, likely one or more of Jehoiachin's scribes, at his court-in-exile, in order that they might “speak for YHWH” (p. 342). The scribes' apparent intention was to use the model of Moses, who “recapitulate[d] the commandments in what we now know as Deuteronomy without explicit authorization from the deity” (p. 338) in order to justify the authority of Jehoiachin's relatively powerless court.

In fact, Frolov interprets Judges as a “massive apologia of monarchic government” (p. 343). There is nothing novel in this; many scholars view the purpose of Judges as an argument for the Davidic monarchy. However, Frolov pursues this concept with such single-minded intensity that he tends to see a king behind every bush—to him every judge, both major and minor, is a model of monarchy or an argument for its necessity, and even the story of Abimelech has pro-monarchic implications (see pp. 193–5). Thus, the reader is inclined to disagree with him if only in reaction to his dogged argumentation, which tends to overestimate the evidence.

Frolov further refines the purpose of Judges to consist of an argument that only Judah is qualified to provide royal leadership. This is also not new, but results in two controversial interpretations. First, in Judg 1:19 Frolov suggests an alternate translation that does not require emending the text to include יכל,“but the lowlanders are not to be dislodged,” which implies not that Judah could not drive out the inhabitants but rather that Judah was not permitted by YHWH to drive them out (p. 48). Second, Frolov argues that what is often deemed to be Judah's shameful betrayal of Samson in Judg 15:9–15 is actually a noble act designed to force him to fight the Philistines rather than his own people, and is thus an act “akin to that of YHWH with regard to such reluctant leaders as Barak or Gideon” (p. 271). Although his second interpretation is rather less convincing than the first, which is possible according to the grammar, Frolov certainly stimulates the reader to look at Judges in a fresh way.

Some of Frolov's innovative ideas on Judges are, however, not ultimately convincing. The author views Ehud very negatively for killing a “physically incapacitated individual” (p. 112), the obese Eglon. In his opinion, Ehud sacrifices his own dignity—and purity—in an utterly pointless attempt to remove an enemy leader when military strategy on the battlefield was the deciding factor (p. 115). However, Frolov seems to overlook entirely the deliberate use of satire as a weapon to dishonor the Moabite enemies, and the pervasive and obvious use of double entendre in the passage undermines his attempt to dismiss it as a literary device. Later in the commentary, his comparison of the story of Jephthah's daughter to the “beauty and the beast” archetype, and his conclusion that she becomes “a bride of YHWH” because “after all, according to Ezek 23:2–4 he does not mind marrying proven harlots” (p. 223), is an example of conclusions that stretch the credulity of the reader.

Overall, Frolov's commentary is stimulating and interesting, and contains some valid insights. It is a worthwhile resource even if the author does sometimes succeed only in reconfirming the readers' original convictions at the expense of his own.

Mary L. Conway, McMaster Divinity College

[1] Alvierro Niccacci, Syntax of the Verb in Classical Hebrew Prose (LHBOTS, 86; London, T & T Clark, 1990). reference

[2] Willhelm Gesenius and Emil Kautzsch, Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar as Edited and Enlarged by the Late E. Kautzsch (trans. A. E. Cowley; 2nd ed.; Oxford: Clarendon, 1910). reference

[3] Roy L. Heller, Narrative Structure and Discourse Constellations: An Analysis of Clause Function in Biblical Hebrew Prose (HSS, 55; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004). reference

[4] Roy L. Heller, “What is Abimelek Doing in Judges?” in K. L. Noll and Brooks Schramm (eds.), Raising up a Faithful Exegete: Essays in Honor of Richard D. Nelson (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010), 225–35. reference