A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by G. T. Tran
Summary of Content
The title of the book comes from Gen 45:22 (13). Upon reconciling with his brothers, Joseph gave them new clothes, but to Benjamin, he gave “five festal garments” (RSV). Following this metaphor, Barry G. Webb calls the Song of Songs the “garment of love,” Ruth the “garment of kindness,” Lamentations the “garment of suffering,” Ecclesiastes the “garment of vexation,” and Esther the “garment of deliverance.” While Judaism eventually adopts these books to be read in its major festivals, “no consensus has emerged about their proper use, or about how they address us as Christians” (14).
In this work, Webb employs a biblical-theological approach to deal with that predicament (14-16). For each of the five books, he seeks to 1) understand its own message, 2) explore its relationship to the rest of the Old Testament, and 3) reflect on how it relates to the New Testament teachings and the gospel (16).
The Song of Songs (ch. 1) is a single love poem (17-18, 22, 26). It is a book “for those who want to know, or perhaps remember, what it is like to be in love and to make love” (18). Thus, any attempt to allegorize the Song should be rejected (29). Overall, its message is in line with the rest of the Old Testament, such as those of Prov 5:15-19 and Gen 1-3 (29-31). One apparent tension between the Song’s teaching and the New Testament has to do with the topic of singleness (32). But rightly understood, Paul and Jesus’ instruction shows no idealization of singleness (33). As for the book’s relationship to the gospel, Webb explains, “[F]rom a New Testament perspective, the love depicted in the Song is not only a taste of what was given in creation, but a sign of what will be consummated in the new creation – a sign of the gospel” (34).
Ruth (ch. 2) is a “romantic comedy” in that it talks about courtship and marriage (37). The story moves “from death to life, barrenness to fruitfulness, emptiness to fullness, curse to blessing” (38). Throughout the book, the theme of kindness recurs, and the most notable is Yahweh’s kindness to Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz (50-51). Regardless of the various placements of Ruth in the canon, it readily and fully “participates in the discourse of the Old Testament” (53). Ultimately, the kindness which God demonstrates in Ruth “is a kindness that not only builds up Israel, but draws in the Gentiles to share in her covenant blessings. In this way, too, Ruth throws light on an aspect of the gospel that comes to full expression in the New Testament, as Matthew seems to be at pains to show us” (56).
Lamentations (ch. 3) exhibits a remarkable acrostic structure where grief is put into shape (60-61). It brings us “into a dark shaft of tragic loss and acute anguish” (59) and “shows us God’s wrath as a directly experienced reality” (79). Although Jerusalem’s fall can be explained by the covenant curses in Deut 28, the event still creates a “theological angst” regarding Zion theology so prominently taught in the Psalms (77). Webb sees significant allusions to Lamentations in the New Testament, especially from Mark’s account of the crucifixion (79-80). He posits, “The unfailing love and righteous wrath of which it [Lamentations] speaks find their climactic meeting-point in the cross” (81).
Ecclesiastes (ch. 4) is “the most enigmatic book” in the Old Testament (83). Webb subscribes to the frame narrative theory (84) but carefully distances himself from the stance of Michael Fox and Tremper Longman III who both hold that the frame narrator criticizes Qohelet (102n32). Qolehet’s teaching on hebel rests on the earlier chapters of Genesis and maintains a different emphasis than Proverbs (103-5). Interestingly, while Qohelet’s hebel is set within the backdrop of creation and the fall, Rom 8:19-24 puts it against the backdrop of creation and redemption (107-8). Hence, the new creation will transform the present reality of hebel, and this hope is given to us in the gospel (108).
Esther (ch. 5), which provides the basis for Purim, highlights the theme of deliverance (111, cf. 118, 125). The book’s uniqueness lies in the fact that the deliverance recounted here is not the same as other deliverance narratives (e.g., Joseph’s story, the exodus, the judges); it is a deliverance when God seems most absent (124). The story is told by ways of ironic reversals (116) and judicious use of humor (125). In terms of its relationship to the Old Testament, Esther fleshes out the war Yahweh declares on the Amalekite (1 Sam 15:16) and demonstrates a close affinity with the story of Abraham (127-28). Since the book shows a conflict between two communities (e.g., Esth 3:8), it is connected to the New Testament teaching that believers are God’s elect who are at odds with the hostile world (130-31). Further, God’s hiddenness in Esther continues to mirror the situation in our world today, especially in the West (131). Borrowing the garment metaphor, Webb concludes, “To put on Esther is to affirm that God is our deliverer, and to share in the laughter of heaven” (133).
Evaluation of Content
At least two aspects of the book are worth noting. First, Webb’s firm grasp of the five Scrolls enables him to discuss and highlight some details without losing the big picture. He zooms in just enough so readers may see the trees but not miss the forest. This can be clearly seen in his brief treatment of the major parts of Ecclesiastes (89-102). Second, Webb’s close reading of the text yields many insightful and perhaps even surprising reflections. For example, he states that the Song of Songs discourages elevating singleness to a state superior to marriage (32). As for the book of Ruth, it is partially “a study in the application of the Mosaic Torah to the daily life of the people of God” (54). When it comes to Lamentations, there are hints of Zion’s protest amidst her suffering (64, 78). In Ecclesiastes, Qohelet uses the phrases “under heaven” and “under the sun” with different nuances, not interchangeably (95). Further, while popular movies tend to portray Mordecai and Esther as pious Jews, Webb calls into question their character based on how the book portrays it (118-21).
My critique has to do with 1) Webb’s take on the climax of the Song, and 2) his overemphasis on Lam 5. First, Webb contends that the Song reaches its climax in 8:5-7 (23-24). He explains, “The movement to generalizations about the nature of love itself, as distinct from the particulars of his love for her and vice versa, is a strong indication that a point of consummation has been reached. It confirms that the cameo of the couple presented in 8:5 is indeed the climax of the Song” (24). However, this assertion seems hard to uphold if we account for the book’s chiasm. The chiastic structure below comes from Craig Glickman which I adapt and slightly modify (see “Appendix C: The Elegant Design of the Song” in Craig Glickman, Solomon’s Song of Love: Let the Song of Songs Inspire Your Own Romantic Story [Howard Publishing Co., 2004]).
A. Words of mutual love & desire 1:1—2:7
B. The man’s invitation to the woman 2:8-17
C. The woman’s nighttime search 3:1-5
D. The wedding 3:6—5:1
C’. The woman’s nighttime search 5:2—7:10
B’. The woman’s invitation to the man 7:11—8:4
A’. Words of mutual love & desire 8:5-14
Accordingly, the climax should be the couple’s wedding, which is D (3:6—5:1), not a portion in A’ (8:5-7).
Second, I think Webb slightly overemphasizes the role of Lam 5, especially the last verse in the book (5:22). For example, he comments, “The last attribute of God to be mentioned is not his mercy, but his anger (5:22)….Only the future, it seems will reveal whether or not the man’s confidence in the unfailing nature of Yahweh’s mercy has been justified” (75). But this seems to throw Lam 3, the book’s climax where we see the resolution to trust Yahweh (esp. 3:21-27), under the bus. I concur with Thomas Schreiner’s assessment, “[C]hapter 5 does not represent the climax of the book, so the last verse should not be given undue weight” (Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments [Baker Academic, 2013], 369).
All things considered, Five Festal Garments is a delightful and edifying read. Those wishing to better understand the five Scrolls as well as those planning to teach and preach these books will cherish Webb’s thoughtful reflections. I recommend the book!
G. T. Tran
Buy the books
FIVE FESTAL GARMENTS: CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS ON THE SONG OF SONGS, RUTH, LAMENTATIONS, ECCLESIASTES AND ESTHER, by Barry G. Webb