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God of Justice and Mercy: A theological commentary on Judges by Isabelle Hamley

21 January 2022

John Barton considers a Christian way to read Old Testament stories

THE key to this book lies in the subtitle. One might think, naïvely, that since the Bible is about God throughout, then any commentary is necessarily going to be theological. It seems hardly worth saying. But, within Old Testament studies at the moment, much more than this is packed into the term “theological commentary”. It means that the book being commented on is seen as part of the sacred canon of scripture, and is to be interpreted in the light of the Church’s rule of faith.

Whereas traditional academic commentaries on Old Testament books — especially the most egregiously bloodthirsty one, Judges — aim at a kind of neutral presentation of the religious content within its original historical setting, “theological” commentaries trace lines of connection into the New Testament and beyond, and explicitly relate the book under consideration to themes of Christian theology.

Isabelle Hamley does not propound an ahistorical Christianising of Judges; she sets it in a broadly historical context in the life of ancient Israel, with the exile as an important backdrop. But nor does she detach it from the rest of the Bible. She draws out links to other Old Testament and New Testament books, so as to produce an account of the book as harmonising broadly with Christian belief. Even the most gory episodes have something to teach us, she argues, if read in the light of the gospel. Nothing is to be rejected; there is here no “hermeneutic of suspicion”.

All this should make the commentary valued by Bible-study and discussion groups, especially as it is attractively written and beautifully clear. It makes Judges helpful for Christian believers, which is no mean feat.

alamySacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter (1650-60) by Pietro della Vecchia (1603-78) (Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University)

Often, Hamley speculates on the inner life of characters in the story — for example, Jephthah’s daughter — treating them as historical figures about whom we can ask psychological questions rather than as figures of legend.

Jephthah himself is to be condemned for not knowing, from the laws in the Pentateuch, that his vow to sacrifice the first person whom he met on returning home was illicit and ought to be broken — implying that those laws were already in force in his day, just as the Bible (read straightforwardly) would lead us to think. But were they really, and was Jephthah a real person anyway? This is a question that doesn’t get asked here. It may, of course, be thought that it doesn’t matter, for a theological reading.

Such a style of reading is here to stay, and this is a fine example of it. Hamley does not hesitate to introduce Christian terms such as grace, seeing in Judges the same juxtaposition of “justice and mercy” as we find in St Paul. Judges emerges as a profoundly Christian text: there is no consideration of how it might look to a Jewish reader, but that is, in any case, rare in Christian commentaries. The book will dissuade many readers from seeing Judges as a no-go area for Christians, and help to reintegrate it into the Christian Bible.

John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford, and an Anglican priest. His most recent book is
A History of the Bible: The book and its faiths (Allen Lane) (Books, 5 April 2019).


God of Justice and Mercy: A theological commentary on Judges
Isabelle Hamley
SCM Press £25
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