Review of Right in Their Own Eyes: The Gospel According to Judges by George M. Schwab

George M. Schwab, Right in Their Own Eyes: The Gospel According to Judges. The Gospel According to the Old Testament. Phillipsburg, N.J: P&R Publishing Co, 2011. xxi+242pp. ISBN 9781596382107 $12.00 (paper).

With nothing more to go on than their published works, it is easy to come to the conclusion that most academic theologians have no desire for the books to be read outside of a handful of other professors in their field. The writing is abstruse (at best) and supporting material is often referenced in works locked away in German or some other language that the average reader can’t access. This seems to be especially true of works on the Old Testament, though there are a few exceptions. A notable one is Right in Their Own Eyes: The Gospel According to Judges, by George M. Schwab. This volume is an addition to Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing’s “The Gospel in the Old Testament” series, which seeks to promote a Christ-centered, redemptive-historical reading of the Old Testament.

Schwab’s work is divided into three sections. The first consists of matters of date of composition, style, and authorial agenda/purpose. Schwab argues for an early date for the rule of the judges (3-4) and reconciles the chronological difficulties related to their rule by contending that some ruled simultaneously (6). Because the order of the judges does not appear to be organized chronologically, Schwab posits geographical arrangement governing the order of presentation (8-9). Schwab also presents his case for the theology of the book as whole, which is composed of two elements. First, Schwab sees the book of Judges as something of a sermon on Deuteronomy (24-26), especially with its themes of covenant faithfulness to YHWH. Second, Schwab argues that the book is a sustained apologetic for the Davidic monarch, rather than Saul’s monarchy (22-23).

The second part of the books focuses on the cycle of judges, with each major judge given their own chapter, while the minor judges are grouped together and dealt with in a chapter of their own. Chapter six breaks this pattern as the author engages in an extended excursus on the question of “holy war” and the interpretive problem Israel’s military engagements present to the modern reader (63-64, 67-70). The final segment of the book handles the twin conclusion of Judges. These two accounts are examined in light of their view of the tribe of Levi and their ideological support of David as covenant-keeping king.

There are a number of commendable feature to Schwab’s work. Each chapter concludes with a section designed “For Further Reflection” that is particularly helpful especially for students or study groups. I rarely find these types of features well done, but this is certainly an exception. Second, though it is amply clear that this book is written from a strongly intellectual standpoint, it is written in a very clear and understandable style that provides easy reading for the nonacademic and average layperson. There are places where Schwab is interacting with important academic articles and scholarly monographs (e.g., 69), but none of this material is presented in an abstruse fashion. This leaves the reader receiving strong scholarship in a format that is quite understandable. Third, I have rarely read a work such as this—that is, by a respected academic—that brought out the incredibly humorous nature of several of the narratives in Judges so well. Schwab does an outstanding job showing just how hysterical both the Eglon/Ehud narrative (55) and the Sisnera story (85) truly are. This feature alone should provide for some very lively preaching!

Perhaps the finest aspect of the book is the inclusion in each chapter of section titled “Toward the Eschaton.” Each of these sections are full of application and situate each Judge in the larger redemptive scope of Scripture, often with references to the New Testament. One of the finest qualities of these sections is that Schwab doesn’t read Judges with rose colored glasses; instead, he presents each of the judges as they are: severely flawed individuals used by God despite these flaws. While this list does not exhaust the commendable qualities of Schwab’s work, it does give some idea of the usefulness of his book.

Dr. George M. Schwab is Professor of Old Testament at Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, SC, and received his Ph.D. from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1999. It is precisely because of his current position and where he received his own theological education that makes it so difficult to offer any critical remarks on Right in Their Own Eyes. In spite of the excellent features above, this work isn’t without defects. The author uses alliteration in each of the subheadings within each chapter, felicitously on some occasions (“Judging Jabin,” 77), but on others, this distracts from the work, rather than enhancing it (“Gideon’s Gidgee,” 121). Alliteration is a recognized method of aiding memorization, but here it leaves the reader wondering what exactly a gidgee is. While this is truly only a minor grievance, there are two other problems I noted in reading Right in Their Own Eyes that present greater and far more troubling deficiencies.

On occasion—though certainly not often—Schwab employs a very odd exegesis that borders on allegorical. An excellent example of this is in the opening pages of the work, which starts the book on a rather strange note. When discussing Samson’s slaying of the lion, he writes,

The word translated ‘carcass’ in verse 8 is found in this form elsewhere only in Proverbs and in prophecy—speaking of the fall of the nations or the wicked…and once (Ezek. 32), the fallen nation is called a lion of nations. The word nations in Ezekiel is goyim, which sounds like the rare word in verse 9, glossed the ‘body’ or ‘carcass’ of the lion.

Thus he concludes, “The dead lion is described in language that evokes the wicked, the nations destined for judgment” (xvi). The word play seems forced at this point, and the appeal to Ezekiel leaves you with the impression that Ezekiel is the key to understanding this passage—an oddity indeed, given the differences in date between Judges and Ezekiel. One wonders how the original audience of Judges could have understood this passage without Ezekiel at hand for reference.

More troubling is Schwab’s discussion of the use of “round numbers,” which he closes by writing, “…what if the ancient audience were fare more tolerant of numberical inexactitude than we are? How wildly off can an inerrant figure be?” (13, emphasis mine) Coupled with his wholly unnecessary jabs at “literalist pastors” (67), this final question takes on a more ominous tone. If an attentive reader were to combine these statements, he or she wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask if Dr. Schwab has an axe to grind with inerrantists, and whether he believes in biblical inerrancy. These statements certainly raise such questions, but the author never answers them.

Despite the commendable aspects of the book which have already been mentioned, the author’s nearly allegorical exegesis, unnecessary polemical shots at “literalists,” and unanswered questions regarding the inerrancy of the text left such a lingering effect on this reader that it cast a pall over the whole work. While it is an excellent little book in many ways, I am only able to recommend it hesitantly and with some grave concerns.

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