Reid, Garnett, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Judges. By Trent Butler. WBC 8. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009, xcii + 538 pp., $49.99.
Think Adrian Monk - or go back, if you remember him, to Peter Falk's Columbo on television. Trent Butler likens his work in solving the riddle of Judges to that of a detective. Over the course of his investigation, Butler unravels many enigmas, examines evidence that may help solve a few more, and leaves some to stand as cold cases.
This volume stands in the top tier of studies on this knotty book for four reasons: (1) it tackles difficulties in the text honestly and offers plausible solutions; (2) it converses with an extensive sampling of modern literature on Judges; (3) it displays sustained sensitivity to the rhetorical features of the text; and most noteworthy (4) it views the book as accurate historical testimony and gives the textual record the benefit of the doubt instead of presuming it to be a hypothetical reconstruction of dubious historical value.
The translation is Butler's own. It is lively but not at the expense of transparency, colloquial but not eccentric. His rendering of 5:26, for example, retains the participles mahaqa and mahasa in his rendering, "shattering, piercing" (p. 115) while most versions transform them into full verbal clauses. He also preserves the ambiguity in idiomatic expressions, avoiding speculative reductionism. The reader, then, may interpret for himself whether "sustain your heart" (19:8, p. 405) means "refresh yourself" (niv) or something with more spiritual substance.
Text-critical notes to the translation amount to a veritable textual commentary on Judges. Here Butler is thorough and judicious, focusing mainly on variants involving LXXA and lxxb. The Old Latin version also receives special attention via Niditch's recent work (S. Niditch, Judges [WJK, 2008]). He even mentions the mysterious apocryphal judge Asemada, known only in the OL at 17:1.
According to Butler, Judges shows that Israel's covenant disloyalty to Yahweh and to each other brings anarchy and self-destruction. The cycle leading from obethence to apostasy to deliverance deteriorates as the period unfolds. At the core of this degeneracy is failed leadership; in fact, he argues that the judges are mere caricatures of leaders. Butler discusses the "no king in Israel" refrain in detail and concludes that the writer looks to a true king emulative of Joshua's earlier leadership. Further, Judges is the rhetorical and theological foil of the book of Joshua - the anti-Joshua. The people of God have now abandoned their commitment seen at the close of Joshua and are serving Canaanite gods. Notable in Judges is the absence of specific, detailed statements about God. Yet the text makes a significant theological point metonymically. The individual stories are parts representing the whole - that is, the larger message that God's people desperately need to be one with him if they are to be one with one another.
Also characteristic of the volume is Butler's repeated affirmation of the accuracy of the Judges narrative in depicting true history. Contrasting his continual assertion in the 1983 WBC volume on Joshua that Deuteronomic redactors had reworked many accounts, he takes nearly every opportunity he finds in Judges to cast doubt on theories that "long-removed historians created material to construct a previously unknown identity for Israel" (p. 58). Such a welcome shift builds upon Provan, Long, and Longman's verification principle in viewing testimony as real history.
Butler astutely examines literary features in the text as well. He credits the author, not hypothetical "imbecille editors" (p. lvii), with a dexterous employment of "complex structures . …