The End of the Beginning

Joshua and Judges

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Johanna W. H. Van Wijk-Bos
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    , November
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Johanna W.H. Van Wijk-Bos’ The End of the Beginning, Joshua and Judges is a splendid commentary on two books of the Bible. Van Wijk-Bos aims to give a running commentary with selected translations, giving special attention to the abundant violence and thus the need for an Israelite monarchy to impose order. She does this with references to postexilic influences on the texts, as she places the books’ final formulation as most likely in postexilic times (about 5th century), with material going back three to four centuries. The “beginning” of the title is the beginning of the entry into the land and the apportioning of portions to the tribes. The “end” of this beginning is the turn to the appointment of a king, in the following books of the Bible, a new beginning indeed.

Our author pays careful attention to the women and their roles in the story. Especially Rahab, the saintly prostitute, Deborah, the prophet and war leader, and the hapless, nameless,  daughter of Jephthah, doomed by no fault of her own, are treated with empathy within the context of the attitudes of the books’ authors to women.  This is one of the strongest points of this commentary.

Van Wijk-Bos consistently refers to previous commentators not only to disagree with them but also to enlist their wisdom. To a degree, then, there is here a cooperative effort, with Van Wijk-Bos the main voice and the determining voice when needed. Thus, her expertise as well as her modesty in this work comes through in bright light.

The commentary excels in its detailed attention to nuances in the text, especially with regard to an enhanced sensitivity to the Hebrew of the original. So, for example, Van Wijk-Bos says that in a given passage a Hebrew term appears so-and-so many times as a pointer to what the writer wished to be the message. This can easily be missed in translations that provide stylistic changes for the same Hebrew word. Or, she will note a use in one passage of two terms in the Hebrew for what might be translated by the same English word or phrase. So, in Joshua’s division of the land, Van Wijk-Bos knows to differentiate subtly between a nahalah and a ahuzah, both translatable as land given as an “inheritance.” She distinguishes between them, translating only nahalah as “inheritance” and ahuza as a “holding” (from the verb le-ehoz) when applied to the tribes depicted as their occupation being a work in progress.

Interpreting the texts as pointing forward to the need and then the actuality of a monarchy, Van Wijk-Bos dismisses the verses in Joshua attesting to occupation and peace in the land as exaggerations contradicted by the rest of Joshua and Judges. She sees inclusion of a number of stories as all meant to show the lamentable lawlessness of the Israelite society, about which something radical must be done. Such stories include the violent tales of the land yet to be subdued; of Israelite backsliding from devotion to God; of Jephthah, who must kill his daughter; of Samson the violent and untamed; and of the intertribal wars with Benjamin. While some read the end of Judges as relatively peaceful, Van Wijk-Bos interprets the writer there as portraying utter chaos in the Israelite presence in the land, verifying that “In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Alas, there are some disappointments. The cover notes that Van Wijk-Bos is an ordained pastor of the Presbyterian church. So some might expect, on top of the scholarly expertise, more of a faith engagement with the text from a devout Christian who accepts the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, as in some sense holy, from God. Van Wijk-Bos makes sure to express theological distress over the “grim reading,” “horrific violence,” and “atrocities,” such as Joshua’s armies destroying entire populations, and asks why God did not intervene to save Jephthah’s daughter from death. The author’s responses are less than satisfying compared to expectations. These include that perhaps some people were better off dead than alive in an unbearable life and that it appears that God is not always benevolent. Van Wijk-Bos goes out of her way to tell the reader that people today are not to emulate the ways of the Israelites in this book, but nowhere addresses the issue of how such passages are to be squared with faith in the Old Testament. Can Christians accept the Old Testament, and if so, how? Why did God allow such horrific depictions to stand and influence history as they have and perhaps still do?

More deeply, there is here a tendency to a reductionism of these books to their postexilic contexts. National, economic, and political causes and reasons are paramount. There should be place here for recognizing a religious impulse as motivation, whether or not that impulse reflects a divine reality. This lack is most felt in the characterization of the Song of Deborah as a “comic” recitation of what happened to the Israelite enemies on the part of Deborah and Barak: a kind of making fun of the defeated enemy. But this song is no more detailed than the Song at the Sea in Exodus, or the lengthy book of Esther, and one might think that the details of all of these are because the real motivation for the song is a desire to sing gratitude to God for saving the people, marveling how God made it happen, gratitude for detail after detail, including gratitude for the aftermath of the war. A straightforward religious explanation is in order here.

But perhaps dissatisfaction is not fair and those who expect theological engagement to such depth are wrong. After all, Van Wijk-Bos is a masterful expert who has written a masterful book. That is sufficient to make this book expansively worthwhile, and in fact it is at times so engaging that it is hard to put down.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jerome Gellman is emeritus professor at Ben-Gurion University, Israel.

Date of Review: 
April 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos taught as Professor of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary from 1977 to 2017.


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