For the past month or so I have been meeting once weekly with some other seminarian friends to sit together and work through the book of Judges: our procedure is not only to translate sentence by sentence, haggling over grammatical fine points, but also to speculate freely about the role of different units within the book’s larger message and framework. I love this kind of seminar-style, collaborative close reading. I have realized that some of my most cherished and formative times have taken place in a like setting – whether in a Wycliffe workshop reading through Romans during my undergraduate internship, or piecing through Exodus and Job with a professor and precept here at seminary. Not only is close reading one of my favorite things to do, but recent conversations have confirmed for me that this exercise is pedagogically one of the best I could offer future students.
I am only just starting to read Cleanth Brooks to familiarize myself with the theory behind New Criticism, but, in short, I believe in close reading. Data such as fills up survey courses and Bible study notes at best provides only the loosest guidelines for skillfully approaching a text. More often than not, this auxiliary information fails entirely to enrich actual readings, concrete attempts by preachers and students to navigate the overall shape and local puzzles of a given biblical text. Most of this informational bric-a-brac is quickly forgotten by students, and if not, usually support the lineaments of a given reading which students can no longer fill out in detail from memory. Case in point: from class, I can trot out Hans Walter Wolff’s theory on how king Jeroboam is the decisive negative archetype and “federal head of badness” in the Deuteronomistic History, the inverse version of David into whose legacy all the bad kings fall (much like being “in Adam” in Paul). But I would rate my actual command of 1 Samuel-2 Kings as poor to miserable. Some conversance with the history of recent scholarship on this tract of biblical text has not vaunted me into a closer and richer understanding of these books. My good friend who teaches Bible in a Christian high school, digging attentively through these materials on his own, has a far finer and fuller comprehension of the narrative, characterization, and literary features of these books than I do. I of all people will not gainsay the value of historical and linguistic scholarship: much of my life may be spent on these. But there is no substitute for what I am doing with this informal Judges reading group: slow, relentlessly inquisitive, creative reading. Also, while biblical scholars (ideally) should join deep historical and philological erudition to detailed and dynamic knowledge of the texts, the kind of familiarity that close, collaborative reading produces lies within the reach of most undergraduate students or adult Sunday school participants. And it is probably much more memorable and impacting than interpretive summaries at 10,000 feet or nifty factoid side-bars – all distilled from someone else’s hard work.
In any case, regarding Judges, combing through the first chapters has forced us to generate a number of hypotheses about why the people of God determined to keep some of these oddball stories. Why the tale about the lord of Bezek, getting his thumbs and toes lopped off? Perhaps the key lies in his one-liner about how God (not YHWH, note) has repaid him for having committed the same violence himself on seventy kings: is this here some kind of moral justification for Israel’s violence against the Canaanites, i.e., that its function is retributive? Why the weird scene, suddenly close and personal rather than wide-angle and national, of Achsah preempting her husband, getting off her donkey, and demanding springs from her father Caleb? Perhaps the scene serves as a parable of what the Israelites should have been: maybe Achsah’s acquisitiveness and eagerness even to exceed her promised inheritance stand sadly over against the litany of various tribes content to dwell in only a fraction of the land ceded them by YHWH.
How should we today, constructively and Christianly negotiate the theology of the judges (i.e., “characteristically Deuteronomistic theology”)? The Israelites do evil, worship Baals, and abandon YHWH; YHWH’s anger is kindled against them and he gives them over into the hand of their enemies. But – paradoxically! strangely! YHWH then raises up judges to deliver them, pitying them in the oppression and suffering he had instigated by withdrawing his protection and blessing. YHWH’s own agency is then oddly bound up with these judges, as though they were somehow his proxies. YHWH is with them. Israel does not listen to YHWH – or the judges. YHWH acts by their actions, sometimes speaks by their speech. YHWH’s initiatives fall into ruin when the lives of the judges end. All of this seems rich with theological dynamics recognizable also in the NT. I need to do much more thinking about how really to read the OT from the standpoint of Jesus. But my instinct is that Jesus’ “fulfilling the OT” is not a matter of stepping into specific prophecies or repeating mystical prefigurations (important though these were, in one mode or another, to certain NT authors). Rather it is a matter of Jesus’ “accordance” with the OT. For envisioning the significance of Jesus, the NT writers drew on the fertile soil of OT thinking, as here in Judges, about God’s bizarre mercy even beyond judgment. They brought to bear insight from scripture into the ways that human leaders can act on God’s behalf, effecting God’s deliverance, announcing God’s words, suffering God’s own failure to secure the fidelity of God’s people. They knew that God's works often defy human expectations: that the shabby, dubious, cowardly, and apparently profligate can indeed embody God's saving intentions.
Some trails that close reading fuels…