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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Judges: At Risk in the Promised Land, by E. John Hamlin - a Brief Book Review

E. John Hamlin's commentary on Judges, subtitled At Risk in the Promised Land, was the third of three commentaries I used for our study in the book. I consulted it the least, generally preferring James Jordan's and Daniel Block's over Hamlin's, mainly due to the fact that Hamlin's is especially brief (182 pgs.), and that much of the same territory Hamlin covered was also covered by Block or Jordan. For a shorter commentary, however, it is quite good at touching on all the important points. I didn't always agree with his conclusions, of course. Like most commentators, he believes that Jephthah actually put his daughter to death as a sacrifice, whereas I believe the argument can be effectively made that Jephthah's daughter was simply made to serve at the Tabernacle for her entire life as an offering. Hamlin also agrees with the majority of commentators who hold that the entirety of Samson's life was conducted strictly in self-serving ways. I think a better reading of the text shows that, while certain elements of selfishness may be involved, Samson generally behaved righteously through the beginning of ch. 16, when his inclination turned more definitely toward evil. And Hamlin views the actions against Benjamin by the other tribes of Israel to be unwarranted and excessive. When one looks at how the Mosaic Law instructs Israel to deal with Canaanized peoples, however, it becomes clear that the rest of Israel acted in full accordance with God's Law. A few serious disagreements to the side, Hamlin's commentary is still quite good. He brings out important historical and cultural factors pertinent to understanding Israel's interactions with the other inhabitants of the land. Hamlin was (or is, I do not know) a professor in Thailand, and this comes out at times, as he uses illustrations, or refers to things or places that would be more known to readers in eastern Asia than to us in the West. This I found refreshing, though I didn't always get the reference. And he does a great job at highlighting important Hebrew words in the text, and discusses ways that those words are used elsewhere in Scripture, though his habit of expecting words to carry the exact semantic range at the time of the writing of Judges as at other points in Israel's history, such as the time of the exile, is overreaching, I believe. This last matter can be explained, though, by what I believe to be the biggest flaw of Hamlin's commentary. In attempting to set the time of the composition of the book of Judges, Hamlin proposes that Judges was written during the reign of Jehoiakim, in the years leading up to the Babylonian captivity. This wouldn't be such a big problem if Hamlin didn't then seek at times to shape his interpretations according to the belief that his dating of the composition was absolutely correct. Knowing Hamlin's theory hung on slender evidence, I often found myself unwilling to take seriously his readings that leaned heavily upon his theory. While it may actually be that Judges was written during Jehoiakim's reign, other theories concerning the date of composition seem to me to be just as valid, and with no way of determining for sure, Hamlin would have done better to avoid such a speculative approach. All in all, would I recommend Hamlin's commentary? For those who aren't seeking an in-depth study of the book, I would. But for those willing to do some more serious spade work, a commentary such as James Jordan's is a far better choice.

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