Susan Niditch Westminster John Knox Press 2008-01-16

Niditch, Samuel Green professor of religion at Amherst (MA) College, has produced a volume that should be of interest and value to interpreters of Judges. The book has three major sections: a relatively brief introduction (26 pp.), the commentary proper (182 pp.), and a “literal translation” of Judges (69 pp.). In the commentary proper each section includes the author’s translation of the text, extensive technical notes focusing primarily on text-critical issues, and relatively brief exegetical comments on paragraphs within the text (the format is not verse by verse). Though Hebrew words are transliterated, the primary audience seems to be professional scholars. Pastors should find the commentary useful as an exegetical reference, but the volume does not offer much help in the areas of literary synthesis or biblical theology.

The “literal translation” differs from the translation accompanying the commentary proper. The latter “seeks to aid comprehensibility and readability by converting the Hebrew syntax to a more standard English word order whereby the subject precedes the verb” (p. 26). The literal translation follows Hebrew word order. The reviewer is not convinced that providing a literal translation of this nature is of value. Those who know Hebrew will not need such a translation, and those who do not have facility in the original text will probably regard it as weird. The following are some translations from Judges 1 (pp. 214–15): “and wage war did the descendants of Judah against Jerusalem” (v. 8), “go down did the descendants of Judah” (v. 9), “and capture it did Othniel” (v. 13), “and go did Judah with Simeon his brother” (v. 17), “and see did the guards a man going forth from the town” (v. 24). The inclusion of this translation makes the volume appear more substantial than it really is. The reviewer would have preferred that the space be devoted to additional commentary by the author, who has a well-deserved reputation as a prominent scholar in Judges studies.

Niditch, though sensitive to the text’s literary dimension, proposes a historical-critical model complete with redactional layers, which she calls “voices” (p. 9). She detects three such voices: (1) an “epic-bardic voice” that “may be as old as the stories themselves and as old as Israel’s origins in the latter part of the second millennium” (p. 9), (2) the “voice of the theologian,” who has traditionally been associated with an alleged deuteronomic movement (pp. 10–11), and (3) the “voice of the humanist,” who is responsible for chapters 1 and 17–21 (pp. 11–13). In the oldest layer “heroes supported by the divine helper (Yhwh) battle enemies” (p. 9). For the theologian, who is “strongly covenantal in orientation,” Israel’s “successes and failures in war . . . are viewed strictly in terms of Israel’s covenant faithfulness, in contrast to other explanations such as inferior weapons or inexperience” (p. 11). The humanist’s voice “is aware of tensions in [the] Israelite worldview and lets the tradition as framed reveal them.” This voice is “particularly attuned to the vagaries of power” and “the transience of political and military control” (p. 13). Despite taking this diachronic approach to the text’s literary evolution, Niditch does see an overall thematic unity in the book. She states that “all three voices would agree on the essential features of Yahwism, emphasizing, for example, God’s role in the fate of Israel [and the fact that] political and military successes depend upon the favor the Deity” (p. 13).