The New American Commentary series (covering Old and New Testaments) utilizes a traditional format involving a running, verse-by-verse commentary that is quite easy to reference. Sure, if you want more intersection with history, theology, and application, you’ll perhaps want to supplement with other commentaries. But for what it does, and depending on the volume in question, the series is quite useful. It is not overly technical, nor is it elementary; it is a solid, mid-level series. When evaluating commentaries, it is actually best to think in terms of individual authors than whole series’, as most series have at least a certain level of inconsistency.
As for Daniel Block’s volume on Judges and Ruth, we have an example of NAC at its best. In his Old Testament Commentary Survey, Tremper Longman gives Block’s work the full 5 stars and recommends it for laypeople, minister’s, and seminary students. Here’s what he has to say:
This substantial contribution is clearly the best thing available on the book of Judges. Block is thoroughly aware of all the literature that precedes him, and he incorporates what is good and criticizes what is bad. His own perspective may be idiosyncratic on rare occasions, but it is usually very insightful. This commentary is particularly strong in literary and theological analysis.
Evangelical, thorough, and detailed exegesis.
It is generally agreed among evangelicals that this is among the best available commentaries on Judges and Ruth, which I would not contest at this point in my studies. I am a tad biased though, having studied under Dr. Block at Wheaton College Graduate School. I can attest: He is a first rate scholar with a heart for the church and discipleship.
From the outset, Block begins clearing away misconceptions with his discussion of the misleading title of “Judges” (you will have to read for yourself to find out why!). He offers a clear and evenhanded approach to the dating of these books that acknowledges divergence of opinions even within evangelicalism. The date depends on the date of the Exodus and Joshua’s death, both of which are hotly debated. All in all, a good traditional introduction to the commentary.
Block is quite thorough in this commentary, yet he doesn’t waste words on unimportant tangents. This economy of words is quite effective and makes for an eminently readable commentary. He is evangelical, yet skillfully conversant with critical scholarship. He is intellectual, yet his commentary also penetrates will and emotion. I cannot think of a more helpful and balanced source for understanding Judges and Ruth.
A skillful commentator helps the reader avoid the pitfalls many interpreters make. This is especially the case when it comes to “character studies” in Christian writing, teaching and preaching. We often look at the Old Testament as an extended catalogue of characters, and we look at their behavior as models to follow or avoid. While the Bible does sometimes put characters forward as examples, on the whole this is a dangerous misuse of Scripture. Its not a book about heroes, but rather a book about One Hero who uses faulty human instruments. All that being said, I loved reading Block’s handling of the various characters in the book of Judges. He does not slip into the modern pitfall of character studies for emulation, and the careful reader will be helped in avoiding these pitfalls as well.
Take Gideon as an example. While he broke down Baal’s altar at the beginning of his “ministry” in 6:32, he was involved with reintroducing Baal worship at the end of his ministry in 8:27. Judges 6:32 says “Therefore on that day Gideon was called Jerubbaal, that is to say, ‘Let Baal contend against him,’ because he broke down his altar.” Block comments,
Gideon’s action here appears to have exposed the impotence of Baal irrefutably. But this account should be read in light of 8:27, according to which Gideon himself revives and expands the influence of the Baal cult at Ophrah, and 8:33, which seems to have the Israelites entering into some sort of covenant with Baal. Did Baal contend for himself? Apparently yes. In the end he is vindicated. He has risen again in Israel, which makes the coming deliverance that Yahweh provides all the more remarkable. Despite the nation’s fundamental Canaanization, God still acts on their behalf. (p. 271)
Block does a service to the church in following Scripture’s lead in pointing her eyes toward God as dispenser of incredible and undeserved grace. The Gideon account is not mainly about Gideon, but God.
And in case you thought Block was “too academic” for you, he closes many of the sections with “Theological and Practical Implications” (a characteristic true of all the NAC series I believe). His comments regarding the implications of the Gideon account are masterful. He draws “four major truths” from the account of Gideon. It is worth reproducing at length:
First, like the rest of the stories of the deliverer governors [Block’s name for the Judges], this account declares that if anything positive happens in the lives of the people of God it is by his grace, and not on account of merit. Evidence of any positive disposition toward Yahweh on the part of the Israelites as a whole or even Gideon in particular is scant. Nonetheless, moved to pity by the cries of his people over the distress caused by the enemy, God intervenes, calling forth his agent of deliverance and effecting the victory over the enemy. Yahweh is the only hero in the account.
Second, with God on one’s side no enemy is invincible, and the victory is sure…Indeed, God often deliberately selects ridiculous means to achieve his ends that we might learn that his kingdom is built ‘not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit’ (Zech 4:6).
Third, the greatest obstacle to the work of God among his people and in the world at large is the faithlessness of his people. Gideon was one of these faithless persons. He refused at first to follow the call of God. Only after he had (presumptuously) subjected Yahweh to a series of tests and after he had witnessed Yahweh’s gracious answer did he finally accept the call to deliver his people. But Gideon’s fleece was not about discovering the will of God, and his actions are not to be taken as a normative paradigm for discovering the will of God. It was about stubborn resistance to what one knows clearly to be God’s will. In such cases God is not obligated to respond, and if he does, it is only by grace.
Fourth, those who are called to leadership in the kingdom of God face constant temptation to exchange the divine agenda for personal ambition…Gideon began to act like it had been achieved with the ‘sword of Gideon’ rather than the ‘sword of the LORD.’ Before long ‘Thy kingdom come’ was replaced with ‘My kingdom come…’ (p. 307)
So while Block is an intellectual and his commentary answers intellectual questions, this passage should make clear that Block is also a pastor at heart, and his commentary directs God’s people into correct interpretation for the sake of right thinking and living. Incidentally, I love how Block swipes away any notion that “Gideon’s fleece” was a good thing! Amen! This lucid writing and profound insight characterizes the whole commentary, and probably all of Dr. Block’s writing in general.
Judges and Ruth boast a decent array of quality modern commentaries. I have already suggested that you may want to supplement Block’s volume, depending on your interests (but that is really true of any commentary). While I stand by that statement, I also want to acknowledge that if you choose just one, this is “the one” to choose! Block’s attention to interpretive detail, his engaging writing style, and his relevance for the church today make this a true gem of a commentary. Take and read!
Buy it here.