Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 15 (2015) - Review

Sasson, Jack M., Judges 1–12: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB, 6D; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014). Pp. xx + 593. Hardcover. US$100.00. ISBN 978-0-300-19033-5.

Appearing almost 40 years after Robert Boling's commentary in the same series, Jack Sasson's Judges 1–12 is substantially more extensive while covering just half the biblical book.[1] The format is as follows: 30 pages of introduction; nearly 60 pages of bibliography; the author's translation of chapters 1–12; detailed notes and comments; almost 80 pages of endnotes; and finally, indices by subject, modern author, ancient sources, and keywords. As one would expect, given Sasson's previous commentaries on Jonah (Anchor Bible) and Ruth (Johns Hopkins Near Eastern Studies/Sheffield), his approach is driven by a detailed philological analysis of the text. Fourteen very helpful tables dot the commentary, though a complete listing of these does not appear in the table of contents.

Given his expertise, Sasson heavily employs ancient Near Eastern documents—especially Mari—and unpacks the Hebrew text phrase by phrase. He typically begins each section with introductory remarks that are germane to the passage before moving into technical commentary and finally more holistic comments. It should be noted that his division is frequently based on the pre-Masoretic petuhot rather than chapter divisions. He often compares the Hebrew text with the Septuagint, Josephus, Pseudo-Philo, and the Targum of Judges. There is frequent engagement with rabbinic sources as well as constant conversation with modern scholarship.

Sasson's writing is engaging and also serves as a tip to Boling's style in the earlier Anchor Bible commentary on Judges. One may mention the following examples: “hiccuppy skirmishes” (p. 24); “I found in it chestnuts galore” (p. 27); “limpidly Semitic word” (p. 142); “with hints of Marquis de Sade perversions” (p. 248); “It is incredibly cheeky” (p. 266); “Gideon's response flows as lava…” (p. 331); “I imagine God might be unimpressed by the sacrifice of any acceptable animal, a giraffe possibly excepted” (p. 533). As Sasson expands on contributions provided by Boling, Sasson also serves as a model of intellectual honesty. To provide one example—among many—he writes (regarding Judg 5:17): “I simply do not know what the poet wants us to learn about Dan and its relationship with ships” (p. 301). This restraint is evident throughout the work and perhaps readers will occasionally wish Sasson would more frequently venture into conjecture. At the same time, Sasson is decisive in areas of disagreement with other scholars.

The strengths of this commentary are many, though undoubtedly Sasson's engagement with the Hebrew text and vast erudition of ancient sources stand supreme. The reader is constantly shown where else a relevant form/feature is found in the Hebrew Bible with painstaking detail and numerous examples. Though Sasson is not slavishly committed to the received Hebrew text, his readings are sensitive to it; for example, one may note his suggestion of the use of synchysis to show the deliberate disorder in syntax to match the emotion of defeat (Judg 4:15, p. 263), his awareness and eye for various types of puns, or his diagnosis for why a Greek translation went a certain way. Though his ancient Near Eastern parallels may not always convince readers, Sasson aims to illumine actions or events under comparable circumstances (p. 29).

For scholars interested in the question of Judges and its relationship to Deuteronomic influence, Sasson spends little time directly engaging this issue. For example, almost in passing he notes that Judg 3:7–11 is most often attributed to Deuteronomists (p. 220), though he does not develop this thought. Within the Gideon cycle, however, Sasson provides the clearest examples of Deuteronomic influence. He notes that the need to destroy Joash's altar to Baal in 6:25–32 is filtered through Deuteronomic eyes (p. 344) and also comments that the phrase, “man of Israel” is fairly common in Deuteronomic lore (p. 365). In sum, while Sasson acknowledges Deuteronomic influence in Judges, he does not aim to advance the conversation in this regard.

Sasson's overall approach is measured, as the following examples will illustrate, at the same time as they give insight into his interpretive views. On issues of historical geography and battle movements Sasson is prone to avoid specifics. For example, Sasson sides more with locating Bezeq (Judg 1:4–5) in the north, though without favoring a specific site (p. 130), and states that neither the Hebrew (Boachim) or Greek (Bethel) (Judg 2:5) should be preferenced or harmonized (p. 184). Historians and geographers are cautioned for their attempts to plot the battle of Baraq and Sisera on a map (pp. 274, 319) or to plot the rout of Midian in Judg 7:15–22 (p. 355). For literary readings, he has reservations about scatology, sexual innuendoes, or satire in the Ehud narrative (p. 248) while he demurs a sexual reading of Sisera and Jael in both chapters four and five. Staying within Judg 4–5, Sasson is reluctant to date the Song of Deborah as he draws comparisons to the Bible as a literary collection versus texts from specific rulers of which he sees parallels from before and after (p. 319).

Regarding other interpretive issues, and at the risk of simplification, below is a sampling of key interpretive conclusions. Related to Joshua and Judges, it is unclear and conjectural whether Joshua or Judg 1 was written first (p. 169). On the issue of translation, Sasson translates “judge” reluctantly (p. 187). Sasson focuses more on the cycling around the death notice of a judge rather than the “Judges cycle” (pp. 217–219) and suggests alternatives to several of Halpern's reconstructions of Eglon's palace and “throne room.” Sasson also suggests that the narrator never viewed Shamgar as a judge, and that this character should be removed from our list as a judge (p. 245). He leans against a historical, geographic, or economic interpretation for the Song of Deborah but rather sees independence and integrity to both the prose and poetry of the two accounts (p. 306). In the story of Gideon, Sasson does not appear to side with any view of why or when the Gideon lore made its way into Judges (p. 341), but leans toward two originally separate personalities (Gideon and Jerubbaal) later combined. On further issues of redaction in the Gideon cycle, he suggests a hint of how the two narratives were brought together through the etymology of Gideon (p. 346), and acknowledges the probability of separate traditions in the altars at Ophrah (p. 343). On the “minor judges” Sasson see dubious value or dubious objectives to these judges (p. 409). Sasson translates the enigmatic phrase in Judg 10:16 as “he lost patience with Israel's behavior” and in effect, from here onward, God pulls out of rescuing Israel (p. 415). This withdrawal of favor will set the stage for the remainder of the book and pave the way for a new political vision. Sasson is very cautious on the shibboleth incident and its ability to reconstruct intradialect distinctions. He suggests the episode may be anecdotal and may only suggest that the sibilant was pronounced differently on either side of the Jordan (p. 454).

In sum, Sasson's commentary is highly original and provides a steady supply of new vistas and insights to pursue. Indeed, when reading through his work, it does not feel so much like the final word as fresh words galore that will enable Judges to be examined from entirely new angles. This is a major contribution to Judges and I look forward to the completed work.

Ryan N. Roberts, Cornerstone University

[1] Robert G. Boling, Judges: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB, 6; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975). reference