Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & Samuel for Everyone -- Review
JOSHUA, JUDGES AND RUTH FOR EVERYONE (The Old Testament for Everyone). By John Goldingay. Louisville: WJK Press, 2011. 197 pages. 1 and 2 SAMUEL FOR EVERYONE (The Old Testament for Everyone). By John Goldingay. Louisville: WJK Press, 2011. 196 pages.
The Hebrew Bible is a complicated book. It is full of poetry, wisdom sayings, and intriguing stories, not all of which sit well with our modern sensibilities. Sometimes Christians like to make a distinction between Old Testament religion and what we find in the New Testament. In this scenario God seems more distant and more liable to use violence. The fact is, there is a lot of violence, and a bit of sex as well, mixed into this story. But it is our story nonetheless. The earliest Christians didn’t have New Testaments to carry around. They had the Hebrew Bible, or at least portions of it. So, we’d best attend ourselves to these words, and ask the question – what might they say to us today? Having expert guides is helpful, especially ones who can bring their expertise to the general public. There are many excellent scholarly commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, but many of them are inaccessible to the non-scholar. Indeed, many are inaccessible to the non-specialist (people like me whose expertise lies elsewhere).
Years ago William Barclay produced his Daily Study Bible series on the New Testament, a model that N.T. Wright picked up on in a series of commentaries on the New Testament published by Westminster John Knox Press. John Goldingay, a Brit like Wright and currently David Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at my alma mater Fuller Theological Seminary, has been in the process of producing a similar series on the Hebrew Bible. As I noted in my review of his Genesis commentaries, Goldingay takes a cautious approach to the texts. He’s an evangelical scholar with a high view of scripture, but he’s also a critical scholar seeking to balance his critical studies with his faith profession.
In these two commentaries Goldingay takes up the books that fall immediately after the Torah. One brief commentary takes up the story of Israel from the time that the people crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land led by Joshua, through the monarchy of David. These are times of conquest and identity formation. We start with the charismatic leadership of Joshua, through the often chaotic era of the Judges, when Israel was more a collection of tribes than a nation, through the monarchies of Saul and David. The story of Ruth, the Moabite woman, who would have among her descendants David, fits into the period of the Judges. These are intriguing stories that often raise difficult questions – such as the issue of ethnic cleansing and the interesting phenomenon that is David, a man who is seen as close to God and yet whose life fails to exemplify godliness in any real way.
As Goldingay takes us through these stories, he offers his own translation of the text, begins each section with a personal reflection, which range from thoughts about his wife’s recent death from MS to conversations with students. These reflections lead into his exposition of the text. The focus here is less on critical analysis, and more on the central message of the text. The goal is helping the reader engage the text in ways that will allow the “uninitiated” (non-scholar) to hear a helpful word that will enhance one’s spiritual formation. These words, however, are grounded in solid biblical scholarship. He makes it clear that the texts date from a period long after the events described might have happened. There is an assumption of historical veracity, but no effort is made to prove this to be true. On those points where something out of the ordinary occurs, such as the day the sun stood still over Joshua’s battlefield, he understands that this involves poetic license. I thought it interesting, however, that in the conversation about David and Goliath, he doesn’t say anything about the possibility that there might be textual variations that are more believable than the traditional ten foot tall giant. In addition, the commentary doesn't explore every passage, and thus he avoids a conversation about the section of Judges 19 where, as with Sodom a group of men seek to rape a visitor to the community. Does he avoid this passage because it is too controversial?
This isn’t a commentary that covers every issue in any depth. These are brief commentaries, after all, but they do make the biblical stories accessible to the general reader. The scholarship is solid, but as I said, cautious. It doesn’t push the envelope but it will does lift up. The translation is modern and readable. He uses modern terminology where possible to make sure we understand the meaning – thus he offers us “covenant chest” rather than “ark of the covenant.” There is a glossary at the end of each volume that lifts up words and phrases that stand out in the narrative and that require further elaboration. For those looking for a solid, middle of the road, readable commentary series on the Old Testament, one that is conversational in style, this would seem to fit nicely.