When Daniel Block writes a commentary, he really writes a commentary.
Block is known for writing excellent OT commentaries (Ezekiel is 1,758 pages [NICNT 1-24, 25-48], and Deuteronomy [NIVAC] is 880 pages). Judges/Ruth? A whopping 767 pages total. Block’s commentary is longer than Younger’s [NIVAC], and his Judges section is longer than Webb’s [NICOT] (which I’ve heard is also one of the best on Judges).
Suffice it to say, length doesn’t always constitute greatness. There are plenty of commentaries that are long, but are just too long, or, for the pastor’s purpose, they don’t have much good to say. With Block this isn’t the case. Even in dense works like How I Love Your Torah, O Lord (see my review here), where scales the Hebrew text to find Moses’ meaning on smaller portions of Deuteronomy, he always brings it back to a final block (pun intended?) of spot-on application for the reader.
On top of that, the New American Commentaries [NAC] are “fundamental tool[s] for the…teacher who seeks to interpret and apply Scripture in the church or classroom….[it] focuses on communicating the theological structure and content of each biblical book…seek[ing] to illuminate both the historical meaning and contemporary significance of Holy Scripture” (Editors’ Preface). Both the NAC commentaries and Block seek to show the unity and uniqueness of Scripture, and they purpose to build up the body (2 Cor 12.19).
After a 52 page introduction which looks at the background to the book of Judges, the composition and genre of Judges, and it’s history of interpretation, Block turns to the main theme of Judges: The Canaanization of the Nation of Israel. Why is Israel so rotten in Judges? Once Joshua was out of the picture, Israel failed to fulfill God’s mandate to drive out the Canaanites and to teach their children the memory of Yahweh’s acts of salvation. Israel is becoming like all of the other Canaanite nations around them, those nations which they were supposed to drive out. As the leaders go, so do the people. And if the leaders in Judges do lend any support, it’s proving that statement true. Multiple times Israel forgot God and worshiped idols (2.11; 3.7,12; 4.1; 6.1; 10.6; 13.1), and their leaders (save Othniel and Deborah) weren’t much better. In fact, as the list goes on, the judges get worse. Yet still God’s grace in His promises reigns true, and even in the worst of times God is gracious. When He is needed most, He is still there, even if not always seen.
Though written most similarly to a short story, Ruth is taken to be a historical writing. It “evidences a high and entertaining literary style” and “communicates a lofty moral and spiritual ideal” (p 602). It develops the theme of “from emptiness to fullness.” The book of Ruth, short as it is, like the other books of the Bible, isn’t written merely to tell us about history. It opens up a world to us and teaches us about God, the world, the human condition, the people of God, and the individual believer’s life of faith. God rewards the godly who walk circumspectly after Him in these evil days.
The Chocolate Milk
Theological and Practical Implications: Block’s exegesis of the text is highly practical. He doesn’t merely parse the Hebrew to find out if a verb is reflexive or intensive. This is definitely an added bonus to the pastor/teacher who knows Hebrew, but Block continues in and looks for the meaning of the text. What does the text say? What did it mean for the original audience? What does it mean for us today? Sometimes the TAPI sections are only a paragraph (after Ehud and Shamgar in J 3), and sometimes they can stretch up to four pages in length (after Jephthah’s war and sacrifice narrative in J 11). Block keeps his eye on feminist interpretations, and shows how here in Judges, this evil patriarchal system which abuses both its power and its women is not to be the norm. It’s what happens when man loses sight of God and “everyone does as he saw fit.” Yet in spite of man’s purposed misplacing of God, God’s grace triumphs even in the worst of times.
Different commentaries and commentators serve different purposes. Some go for redaction (editor) criticism, some form criticism, and others reader-response criticism. Thankfully here Block dabbles in narrative and historic criticism, seeking to understand the story going on along with the history (as much as can be currently known) behind it. Scholastic discussions over grammar are a’plenty, but they are not overbearing. Even a layman (like myself) can pick up this book and understand it’s main message and application to Israel then and to us now. Block is aware of the literature and genre used throughout Judges and Ruth, informing us of the differences between narrative, poem, fable, etc and it’s purposes.
Though he looks at grammar, it often times is still blanketed with guidance for the non-Hebrew reader. In Judges 15.18-19, Samson has just slaughtered one thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. Noting the use of qara instead of za’aq/sa’aq, the Hebrew reader would see in v18 that Samson’s cry was different than other afore-mentioned crisis cries. This was no national emergency. Rather, it was a personal crises – Samson was thirsty. Despite acknowledging and calling out to God, even his pious prayer exudes narcissism. And Samson names the spring En Hakkore, interpreted as “the spring of the namer/caller.” Forget the grace of God. Samson was able “to manipulate and move the hand of God” (p 447).
Block is a conservative evangelical scholar. In all that I’ve read from Block, he holds a high view of the inspiration of Scripture, not allowing wild, liberal interpretations to sway his view (as much as possible, and from what I can tell). He is aware to text-critical issues, but relegates many of those problems to the footnotes. If one wants to dig deeper, one can do so.
Block helpfully read Judges 14-15 backwards, showing us the cause-and-effect relationship between Samson and the Philistines, along with how J 14.4 is the key to chapters 14-15. I do wonder why this same structure couldn’t be done with ch 16. There is still cause and effect in ch 16, but perhaps the reader should now be the one to read it backwards and do the work. Block does again repeat this ‘backward’ structure for chapters 19-21, which is helpful for showing the importance of the key statements “In those days Israel had no king,” and “…no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”
The Spoiled Milk
There are no Theological and Practical Implications in Ruth? It was helpful in the Judges section, coming in at the end of each major section, but once one arrives at Ruth, there are no TAPI sections. Now, let it be said, there are 35 pages of introduction, part of which is the instruction of what the book of Ruth teaches us about God. He works in natural events, seemingly chance events, the daring schemes of humans, and in the legal process. Even still, it was a bit disconcerting going from the Judges commentary with TAPI sections, to the Ruth commentary with a very implied application within the commentary text.
But considering the introduction, this is not a big deal. However, you still may want to find some more assistance if you are preaching through Ruth, such as Block’s separate Ruth commentary in the ZECOT series.
Highly! While not as user-friendly as Davis’ Judges commentary (Focus On The Bible), Block is still highly readable. Aside from the grammatical discussions (which can get a bit into semantics and definitions in context), Block always keeps the big picture in mind, and everything revolves around and flows from that big picture. Doing so keeps the reader from falling off of the bandwagon, or from losing the plot. Block reviews the Canaanization cycle with every new block of narrative, reminding the reader of the seriousness of Israel’s downfall and idolatry. One can tell that Block has put a lot of time into Judges, as he is well aware of the opposing opinions and is well able to defend his stance, though some will still disagree (though I’ll say I’m pretty convinced on most, if not all, of what Block says). The judges are not superstars. They are real people with real faults, yet we learn that even in the worst of times, when seemingly nobody is following God, He can guide people to bring about His purposes.
- Series: New American Commentary (Book 6)
- Hardcover: 767 pgs
- Publisher: B&H Academic (Sept. 20, 1999)
- Amazon: US // UK
- Reading Level: Pastors, Teachers, Seminary students
[Special thanks to Chris at B&H Publishing for sending me this book for review! I was not obligated to provide a positive review in exchange for this book.]