A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Michelle Knight
The End of the Beginning: Joshua & Judges is an immensely readable analysis of two of the most troubling, moving, and remarkable books in the Hebrew Bible. The first in a multi-volume work on the Deuteronomistic History, End of the Beginning covers the narratives concerned primarily with the entrance and settlement of the people of Israel in the land of Canaan. Johanna van Wijk-Bos offers an insightful analysis of these carefully constructed biblical texts, attending to literary dynamics, social realities, the texts’ compositional complexities, and the unfolding biblical narrative. A former professor of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, ordained pastor in the PCUSA, and renowned author, van Wijk-Bos brings a lifetime of wisdom and study to bear in her most recent book.
The purpose of her volume is twofold. First, the book offers a “close reading” of these biblical narratives, so as to “find a guiding hand in our own lives as individuals and communities” (x). As an author with “deep commitments to feminism and issues of gender” (x), van Wijk-Bos gives special attention to episodes and perspectives that reflect her own interest in these matters. Second, her analysis highlights the “multiplicity of voices” in these texts (xii). Her commitment to resisting undue unanimity in the biblical material results in a volume that does not minimize, but highlights, apparent contradictions and tensions in the books of Joshua and Judges.
In the view of van Wijk-Bos, “different versions [of a given event] do not alter the essential truth of the story; in fact, they enrich it” (29). In her estimation, “the multiple levels of truth in the biblical stories were eradicated and the variety of perspectives was reduced to one that validated one people’s superiority over another and legitimated its claim to conquer another people’s land and even eradicate its existence” (33). Thus, the volume attends to textual details throughout that its author identifies as remnants of a lost multiplicity of perspectives.
Structure and Contents
The volume addresses each of the books evenly and in turn, dedicating five chapters to each. The section related to Joshua—“Entering the Land”—unfolds in three cycles: Crossing and Conquest (Joshua 1–12), Occupation (Joshua 13–21), and Conflict and Unification (Joshua 22–24). Van Wijk-Bos begins with an introduction to the book of Joshua, which introduces the text’s historical setting, important concepts (e.g., herem, the so-called “ban”), and its composition setting, namely, the traumatized post-exilic community. Given these factors, the author judges that “demands to follow God’s instruction and trust in the divine promise of the gift of the land” hold together the various narratives that have been preserved in the book of Joshua (49).
In each of her text-centric chapters, van Wijk-Bos describes the narratives in Acts and Scenes that span chapters (e.g., Act 1, Scene 1 encompasses Joshua 1–2); no further sub-headings or versification interrupt her prose. At points, van Wijk-Bos includes several verses in her own translation and arrangement to highlight textual details that are especially illustrative of her argument. Regarding each swath of text, van Wijk-Bos offers an interpretive summary that highlights dynamics in the Hebrew text, literary techniques, narrative elements (e.g., plot, characterization, etc.), and historical observations. Sections often commence with insightful quotations the author has incorporated from her extensive research.
When van Wijk-Bos shifts to Judges, she once again introduces the book with an overview of its contents, its relationship to Joshua (i.e., it “contrasts starkly” [181), the historical context of the narrative, and its compositional setting. She suggests that it is “extremely difficult to speak with certainty” about the “actual historical existence of the characters depicted in Judges or the historical realities underlying the period” (187). Following Robert Polzin, she argues that Judges “is not so much about repentance and deliverance as it is about deliverance in spite of backsliding” (190).
Judges—“Delivering the Land”—also unfolds in three cycles: Setting the Stage (Judges 1:1–3:6), Oppressors and Saviors (Judges 3:7–16:31), and To Do What is Right (Judges 17–21). It is worth noting that in her analysis, “cycles” means something different than it often does in Judges scholarship; van Wijk-Bos uses the term to describe top-level narrative units, not the cyclical framework that surrounds similar episodes. As in her treatment of Joshua, the author analyzes the text of Judges with an eye toward stylistic features, the underlying Hebrew text, and gender dynamics.
Evaluation and Conclusion
In End of the Beginning, Johanna van Wijk-Bos offers one of the most readable and enjoyable textual analyses this reviewer has read to date. Her seamless writing and easy style is a welcome respite from the fractured style of most commentaries. This at points created a bit of a disconnect; her careful analysis invited the reader to follow the text closely, but the book was not structured with the standard trappings of a reference work (i.e., headings and sub-headings, verse references, etc.) that might have made it easier to navigate alongside other sources.
The bibliography for the volume was excellent. Van Wijk-Bos read widely and inclusively, engaging a variety of perspectives and availing herself of popular commentaries less frequently than most. The result is an abundance of fresh insights and conversation partners.
End of the Beginning is most useful to the reader seeking to engage Joshua and Judges carefully, with an eye toward the text’s literary dimensions. The volume is truly an analysis, not a commentary or devotional work; Van Wijk-Bos is more apt to lay out the details of a narrative and gesture toward modern application or thematic trajectories. Teachers and preachers will find the book most useful when they are getting a feel for the narrative and its modern reception, rather than, say, writing a sermon. Evangelical readers will note how van Wijk-Bos’ view of Scripture allows for more fluidity in terms of the text’s historical claims than do more conservative views of inerrancy. Moreover, those hoping to highlight the unified voice of the text will have difficulty utilizing End of the Beginning without significant critical engagement. Therefore, it is to the reader eager for a fresh analysis of Joshua and Judges that this reviewer highly recommends End of the Beginning—especially for those comfortable with gleaning new insights while carefully evaluating some of her assumptions and conclusions.
Michelle Knight is Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.
Editor’s Note: Although the book under review evidently has much to offer, we should clarify (as the reviewer subtly suggests) that neither the author nor her book reflect the theological commitments of Books At a Glance.
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THE END OF THE BEGINNING: JOSHUA AND JUDGES, by Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos