Tammi J. Schneider, Judges, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999). xxi + 290pp.
Two things stand out in Tammi Schneider’s commentary on the Book of Judges. The first is readability and the second is a literary/theological methodology. As to readability, this is a commentary that can be read straight through from cover to cover. It is written in a very clear style that informs the reader of what is going on in the text without getting bogged down in critical minutia. As to her literary/theological methodology, Schneider’s presentation is not critical but seeks to read the text as a literary presentation and draw theological conclusions from how the author is telling the story.
The main thesis of the author is “that during the narrative period of Judges the Israelites strayed from the deity” (287). To show this basic thesis Schneider argues for two unique things. The first unique argument Schneider makes is that there is a downward spiraling pattern in the book of Judges. The book starts with Othniel, ‘the model judge’ (43), and ends with Samson, a judge ruled by his selfish, and lustful motivations. While, their is a clear critique of leadership in the book of Judges, and Samson is far from a model character, it may be pushing the argument a bit too far to say that each Judge is categorically worse than the last. Ehud (Judg. 3:12-29) and Deborah (Judg. 3:31-24) do not seem to be pictured as having negative qualities. If there is a generally downward pattern to the book of Judges, it can be seen just as much with the people, and it is a general pattern.
The Second unique argument that Schneider makes is that “the judge’s relations with women are the cornerstone of the critique of the leader’s strength or legitimate behavior” (40). In other words, the treatment of women in the book of Judges functions as a barometer of how wicked the people (and specifically the judges) are acting. Again, Schneider may be over stating her case, but only barely. Judges begins with Othniel who is married to Achsah, Caleb’s daughter, and then spirals downward through Jephthah, who sacrifices his own daughter because of his own rash vow, through Samson who pursues multiple Philistine women, and finally ands with the rape of the Levite’s concubine. It is no wonder that the book of Judges garners so much feminist criticism. Women play amazingly key roles but are rarely seen as the ‘main character’ in a story. Judges clearly ends, picturing Israel in a near anarchic situation with the civil war with Benjamin. One of the way the author of Judges hints at that theme is by the treatment of women. (The pattern doesn’t hold up completely because, for example, Manoah’s wife, though she is not named, is seen as the most important person in the narrative of Samson’s birth.)
One of the most helpful gems I drew from this commentary is Schneider’s identification of the use of the word הָרַע as “the bad thing.” The common phrase in the book of Judges is ‘The Israelites again did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord.’ Schneider notes the articular form of רַע connotes a specific action, which she identifies as “intermarriage leading to worship of other gods” (273). I think she is right in noting that speaking of Israel doing ‘evil’ again is too general and denotes to us that they behaved badly in general. When in fact what they did was the evil thing, which is turning away from their God.
In the final analysis, Judges is a bleak book. Schneider’s commentary on the book is very highly recommended, not for a critical analysis, or as a reference work per se, but as a good presentation of the literary narrative of the book of Judges.