Keith Bodner Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd 2009-10-12

Bodner, professor of religious studies at Atlantic Baptist University, New Brunswick, has produced an engaging, enlightening, and at times even entertaining literary commentary on 1 Samuel. Most traditional commentaries tend to be pedantic tomes that showcase the author’s research skills before their targeted readership, the professional guild of specialists. Such studies are mere reference works that focus on technical matters and are often concerned primarily with reconstructing the supposed prehistory and development of the text. While such works provide a foundation for interpretive work, they rarely, if ever, seriously address the meaning of the text at a literary-theological level. What is needed are more commentaries like Bodner’s, who opposes the trend and wrestles seriously with the text’s literary dimension and message. His volume is a breath of fresh air for the weary interpreter who is looking for meaning in the midst of the collection of ponderous scholarly commentaries on 1 Samuel. 

As Bodner explains in his introduction, his approach is particularly sensitive to the text’s  literary dimension, which of course is often the medium through which the author conveys his message. He offers a “close reading of the text that attends to matters of plot, character, point of view, irony, wordplay, direct speech, ambiguity, spatial and temporal settings, and the role of the narrator” (p. 8). Rather than opting for shopworn diachronic solutions to textual tensions, Bodner tends to prefer more creative literary explanations that respect the narrator’s obvious skill. The volume is full of insightful comments, including some provocative ideas that keep the reader fully engaged with both the biblical text and the commentator.

The reviewer found particularly helpful Bodner’s observations on the male characters’ responses to Hannah (p. 19), the dimension of poetic justice in the Lord’s punishment of Eli (p. 35), the symbolism of Eli’s posture (p. 47), the intertextual links involving the root dbk in chapter 6 (p. 57), the significance of Samuel using a flask, rather than a horn, of oil when anointing Saul (pp. 92–93), the narrator’s characterization of Jonathan (pp. 119, 203), the intertextual links between Saul and the judges with regard to seeking personal vengeance and making rash vows (pp. 139–40), intertextual linking in chapter 15 (p. 159), his assessment of Eliab’s criticism of David (pp. 182–83), intertextual links between Nabal, Saul, and Doeg (p. 262), the symbolism of Samuel’s robe in 28:14 (p. 298), and the intertextual link between 28:19 and the prophecy against Eli (p. 300).

On the more negative side, his exegesis at times can be challenged. For example he insists that the verb µjn, “repent,” be assigned the same semantic nuance in all four of its uses in chapter 15 (p. 164). However, doing so creates unnecessary problems and misses the irony that is at work in this chapter. The verb has the nuance “change his mind” or “retract” (a pronouncement) in verse 29. In verses 11 and 35 the verb has a different meaning, “to experience emotional pain, feel regret” (over a past action). Even though the same Hebrew verb is used in all three passages, this need not mean that it has the same sense of meaning or connotation in each case. God’s and the narrator’s statements pertained to a past action (God’s making Saul king), which God now regretted. Samuel’s statement pertained to God’s future course of action with respect to Saul. By saying that God would not change His mind in this case, Samuel marked his announcement about Saul’s demise as an unconditional decree. There is irony here: God regretted (or “changed His mind”) that He had made Saul king and so He decided that He would not “change His mind” (retract his decree) about removing Saul from kingship!

In the reviewer’s opinion Bodner’s assessment of Samuel is overly negative and his evaluation of Saul too sympathetic (see especially Bodner’s discussion of chaps. 13–16).