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No. 51: E. John Hamlin, At Risk in the Promised Land: A Commentary on the Book of Judges

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 51
July, 1993
Copyright 1993, Biblical Horizons

E. John Hamlin, At Risk in the Promised Land: A Commentary on the Book of Judges
International Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.

Reviewed by Peter J. Leithart

For anyone who has developed a taste for the rich biblical theology of Meredith Kline, James B. Jordan, Vern Poythress, and others, it is difficult to find satisfying commentaries. Most evangelical commentaries include helpful guidance on historical, grammatical, and lexical questions, but precious little theological reflection. One exception to this generalization is the International Theological Commentary (ITC) series, published by Eerdmans. Many of the authors are from Third World countries, which perhaps gives them a sensitivity to ancient symbols and patterns that are lost on rationalistic Westerners. In particular, the volumes on Joshua and Judges, both written by E. John Hamlin, professor emeritus of theology at Payap University in Thailand, contain much useful material.

Hamlin’s commentaries are not without problems. His commentary on Judges is heaped with an overgenerous dose of anti-Western Third Worldism. He compares the Danite conquest of Laish to the Spanish conquest of Latin America, and favorably quotes Jose Miguez Bonino’s complained that the conquistadors were guilty of "spiritual `genocide’" (p. 158). He gives far too much credence to the uncertain findings of archaeology and to the biased conclusions of critical scholarship. In this connection, he gives exilic datings to both Joshua and Judges.

Moreover, Hamlin simply misconstrues a number of events in Judges. He suggests that Gideon’s vengeance against the leaders of Succoth was a headstrong overreaction to a minor violation. He believes that Jephthah killed his daughter, and thinks it is a sign of Israel’s patriarchalism that Jephthah, not his daughter, was later hailed as a hero. He takes the usual moralistic approach to the ministry of Samson. In short, Hamlin’s commentaries must be read critically. (One irritating feature of the ITC series is that it does not use footnotes; all references are included parenthetically in the text, which makes reading unnecessarily difficult.)

Still, Hamlin’s commentaries display a fine sensitivity to literary allusions and structures. He notes, for example, that the issue of kingship is introduced in the one of the early episodes of the book, when Adoni-bezek is captured and disarmed (almost literally). Throughout the book, the spectre of "canaanized kingship" hangs over Israel. Hamlin also points out several "bookends" that frame Judges as a whole. The book begins with a story of Achsah, who lights from her donkey to request springs of water. Near the end of the book, another woman on a donkey appears: the Levite’s concubine, who died after a night of abuse from the men of Gibeah. The book is also framed by instances of herem warfare: Judah and Simeon turned Zephthah into Hormah (1:17), and toward the end Jabesh-Gilead is utterly destroyed (21:11).

Hamlin gives hints of the structure of smaller units of the text, though too infrequently. Still, what he does say is often intriguing. Ehud’s assassination of Eglon, for instance, is framed by references to "sculptured stones." Ehud "turns back" from the stones to carry out his mission (3:19), and after killing the Moabite king he "passes beyond" the stones (3:26). Hamlin sees in these references an image of Ehud’s turning from idols and his determination to cleanse the Yahweh’s land of false worship.

Hamlin is a good deal bolder than many contemporary commentators in suggesting connections and interpretations that are not explicitly spelled out in the text. He connects the removal of Adoni-bezek’s thumbs and big toes to the rite of priestly ordination (Ex. 29:20), and concludes that Adoni-bezek was a Canaanite priest-king vanquished before the true priestly kingdom of Israel. Judges 5:30 suggests to him that Jabin and his general Sisera were particularly noted for afflicting Israelite women. This would add an additional layer of ironic meaning to Sisera’s eventual death at the hands of Jael.

Hamlin develops an interesting symbolic interpretation of Gideon’s warfare against the Midianites: while the trumpets sound the beginning of the year of release, the empty jars (worthless Canaanites) are broken and the light of salvation shines in the world. Like James Jordan, he interprets the lion that Samson killed as an image of the Philistines, and the lion’s honey as a sign of a "future period of peace after the destruction of the oppressing power when God would restore to his people the `land flowing with milk and honey’" (p. 135).

Hamlin’s commentary also makes some insightful theological observations. In his discussion of the cycle of decline described in Judges 2:6-23, he speaks of "God’s constructive anger," which disciplined Israel and returned her to her proper mission. He points out that the Canaanites represented a political-cultic complex "way of death" that God righteously has determined to exterminate. For all the trendy correctness of his political observations, some of his points are telling, and he must at least be commended for attempting to apply the Scriptures in the real world.

At Risk in the Promised Land is not as complete or as reliable a commentary as one would wish. But, if read with care, and especially if studied in conjunction with Jordan’s Judges: God’s War Against Humanism, it is a profitable book.