The Book of Judges – A Hermeneia Commentary

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Mark S. Smith and Elizabeth M. Bloch-Smith, Judges 1: A Commentary on Judges 1:1 – 10:5. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021. ISBN 978-0800660628. $85.00. lviii + 864 pp.

I am a frequent user and an enthusiastic promoter of the Hermeneia commentaries. The Hermeneia commentaries are scholarly commentaries that seek to explore and explain every detail of the biblical text. The publishers of commentaries on the Old Testament impose a limit of words on authors. The Hermeneia commentaries are “designed to be a critical and historical commentary to the Bible without arbitrary limits in size or scope.”

Fortress Press, the publishers of the Hermeneia commentaries, describes the intent of the series,

The Hermeneia commentary series seeks to offer authoritative interpretation of the earliest texts of the biblical books and other literature closely related to the Bible.

The name Hermeneia, from the Greek, has a rich background in the history of biblical interpretation as a term for the detailed, systematic exposition of a scriptural work. The series, like its name, carries forward this old and venerable tradition. The name also avoids a long descriptive title and the inevitable acronym, or worse, an unpronounceable abbreviation.

Hermeneia is designed to be a critical and historical commentary to the Bible without arbitrary limits in size or scope. It utilizes the full range of philological and historical tools, including textual criticism (often slighted in modern commentaries), the methods of the history of tradition (including genre and prosodic analysis), and the history of religion.

Hermeneia is designed for the serious student of the Bible. It makes full use of ancient Semitic and classical languages; at the same time, English translations of all comparative materials-whether Greek, Latin, Canaanite, or Akkadian-are supplied alongside the citation of the source in its original language. Insofar as possible, the aim is to provide the student or scholar with full critical discussion of each problem of interpretation and with the primary data upon which the discussion is based.

I have used the Hermeneia commentaries extensively in my research and in my work as a professor of Old Testament. My favorite is the commentary on 1 and 2 Chronicles by my friend Ralph W. Klein. When I wrote my commentary on 1–2 Chronicles, Ralph’s commentary was not available to me. Ralph’s commentary on Chronicles is the best commentary on the market today.

Another favorite Hermeneia commentary is the two-volume commentary on Jeremiah by William L. Holladay. I have done much research on Jeremiah and Holladay’s commentary is the first one I consult when studying Jeremiah.

Fortress Press has sent me their latest Hermeneia commentary release for review, and again, it is an amazing commentary.

Judges 1 was written by Mark S. Smith and Elizabeth Bloch-Smith. Mark Smith is Hebrew Professor of Old Testament Literature and Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary. His wife, Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, is a Professor of Biblical Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary.`

In the Preface of the commentary, Mark Smith wrote,

Our work addresses a wealth of archeological, iconographic, and textual evidence, both within ancient Israel and beyond. Our perspectives have been shaped by our rather different religious and academic traditions, which in turn have advanced and balanced each other’s perspective. This is the first commentary on Judges produced jointly by a Jewish scholar and a Roman Catholic Scholar, not to mention by an archaeologist and a textual scholar (p. xvi).

The first volume on Judges covers only Judges 1:1—10:5. These chapters go from the days after the death of Joshua until the time of the minor judge Jair.

This commentary discusses everything you need to know about the book of Judges and some more. The whole commentary, from the preface to the indexes is more than 900 pages long. The introduction alone is 49 pages long and has 296 footnotes.

It is impossible to review such a massive commentary in a short blog post. I have decided to review two important sections of the commentary in order to see how the Smiths deal with these two sections. First, I will review their section on Deborah, the only woman judge in Israel. I will also review their treatment of Gideon. The story of Gideon is found in Judges 6—8.

The introduction to the commentary, pages 1–49 provides an abundance of information about the book of Judges. The Smiths believe that the title of the book, “Judges,” is a misnomer (p. 1). The book takes its name from the major political and military leaders in pre-monarchic Israel.

According to 1 Chronicles 17:10, the judges were appointed by Yahweh over the people of Israel in order to subdue their enemies. Nehemiah called the judges “saviors who saved [the people] from the hands of their enemies” (Nehemiah 9:27). In the book of Judges, the judges are also called “saviors” (Judges 3:9, 15).

The Smiths raise the possibility that the collection of “judges” was known in the Persian period “by the term saviors” (p. 4).

This commentary on Judges offers a wealth of information to those who want to do an in-depth study of the book of Judges. This book is mostly addressed to scholars, Old Testament professors, and seminary students. Most lay people do not dedicate the time and effort that is necessary for an in-depth study of a biblical book. However, for anyone who wants to really know the book of Judges, this commentary is the one to consult.

My next two reviews of this commentary will focus on the section dealing with Deborah and Gideon.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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