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Engaging Diversity in Theological Commentary

Review by Isabelle Hamley

Judges and Ruth:
Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible
By Stephen Fowl and Laura Smit
Brazos Press, pp. 288, $32.99

The Brazos Theological Commentaries on Scripture series is an open effort to bring Biblical Studies and systematics together, undergirded by the belief that theology illuminates the Biblical text and is essential to understanding how various texts need to be read in light of the bigger story. This commentary delivers what it promises: in both parts, for Judges and for Ruth, the authors carefully identify relevant theological themes arising from the text, and suggest ways of reading the texts that connect them with wider theological issues and debates.

The two commentaries are substantially different, despite sharing an overall purpose. The Judges commentary draws on a wider variety of theological themes, more loosely connected to the text itself, and often starts from theology and works the text into the bigger motifs. The Ruth commentary pays more attention to the text itself, and allows theological motifs to arise from the text. The combination of both illustrates the diversity in method of theological commentaries, and it is to the editors’ credit that such variety is allowed – the diversity enriches the series by enabling readers to explore text in different, yet still deeply theological, ways.

The Judges commentary consistently reads Judges together with Genesis 1-3, assuming and a certain understanding of sin and its consequences for the relationships of human beings with one another, God, and the natural world. The author in particular uses what she calls the ‘curse of Adam’ and the ‘curse of Eve’ to explore how sin affects men and women differently, and damages the relationship between the sexes. At times the strategy is illuminating, and works well in a text with many female characters, but it also feels a bit forced, and places more weight on the text of Genesis 3 than it can realistically bear.

The stress on the breakdown of relationship with the land and natural world is an important reminder at a time when Christians are re-evaluating their relationship to creation in the era of global warming and catastrophic climate change. In terms of methodology, Laura Smit’s attention to comparing texts stands out as particularly enlightening and helps her situate Judges powerfully within an overall canonical reading. She draws helpfully on contemporary literary readings of the text such as Webb’s. At times she does overuse discussions of form: the narrative patterns she highlights are sometimes questionable, and do not lead to theological conclusions.

More problematically, the search for patterns and relationships with wider theological motifs often lead Smit to flatten the text and close down ambiguity; she gives definite meanings rather than allow the text to suggest different possibilities for readers to wrestle with and explore. At times, the search for wider meanings also leads to odd interpretive choices that situate this commentary quite far from mainstream consensus, as we see most clearly with her evaluation of the Levite’s concubine of chapter 19 as a type of Christ. The allegorical reading of the text at times obscures the text itself.  Overall, Smit offers some highly original ways into the text, which will provoke readers to ask new questions.

Stephen Fowl’s commentary on Ruth, in contrast, pays more attention to the text (and offers a translation with notes, in a much more traditional commentary format), and allows far more ambiguity and multiplicity to remain. His focus on hesed (Hebrew for loving kindness) and its connection with justice as a guiding thread works extremely well, and leads to a helpful, unified reading with judicious connections to many other parts of the canon. His commentary is short – at times perhaps too succinct – yet enables readers to make both theological and practical connections. His reflections on the entanglement of human and divine agencies, and the difficulty of discerning the presence and activity of God when it is not made explicit, are both accessible and deeply relevant to a very wide range of readers. Finally, his focus on mission and the relationship between Israel and Gentiles is nuanced and carefully points the reader to a Christian reading of the Old Testament.

Both commentaries therefore aim to provide a theological framework for the two books, yet do so in very different ways. They have different strengths and weaknesses: a closer reading of the text is more faithful, but there are fewer wider connections emerging. A more conscious starting point in theology enables many more connections, but offers less careful listening to the possibilities generated by the text itself. Having both approaches in one volume will in itself invite readers to ponder the methodologies involved and yield deeper reflection of their own expectations of a theological commentary.

The Rev. Dr. Isabelle Hamley is chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury and was formerly a tutor in Biblical Studies at St. John’s College, Nottingham, U.K.


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