Monday 2 April 2018

Mary Evans on Judges and Ruth

Mary J. Evans, Judges and Ruth: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (London: IVP, 2017).

I was recently asked to attend a book launch at London School of Theology of, among others, Mary Evans’ recent addition to the Tyndale Series, and to offer a commendation of it – which I was very happy to do.

For thirty years or thereabouts, Mary taught at London Bible College, now London School of Theology, where she was Senior Lecturer in Old Testament and also served as Vice Principal.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that Mary is a long-standing friend. I sat under her teaching as a young, slightly cheeky, wet-behind-the-ears undergraduate student, and then I became her slightly less young but still slightly cheeky and still wet-behind-the-ears colleague for 16 years. Mary had a reputation among students for down-to-earth Bible teaching, and a reputation among her colleagues for being an innovator in ways of doing theological education at a time when everything had become a tad stale and samey. Mary has been a visiting lecturer at colleges for different lengths of time in a number of countries around the world, has served on the boards of several Christian organisations, and written and contributed to many books.

The following is a lightly-edited version of what I said at the launch:

This is going to be less a book review and more a personal testimony. I really enjoyed reading through Mary’s commentary on Judges and Ruth. And as I did so, I found myself feeling grateful for three things.

First of all, I found myself feeling grateful to God for his word, the Scriptures.

It would be easy to become cynical at what might feel like a never-ending stream of commentaries on the Bible, each with their own distinctive slant. That, I think, would be a shame. Commentary writing has an ancient pedigree. It reminds us of our place as the most recent in a long line of those who have gone before us, who themselves have sought to understand the Bible for the benefit of others. But most of all, commentary writing keeps us close to Scripture. I see our ongoing writing and reading of commentaries as a mark of a commitment which says that this collection of texts matters.

A good commentary – like this one – reminds us that God always has yet more light to shed from his word. And that’s something to be grateful for.

Then second, I found myself feeling grateful to God for London School of Theology.

Not only did Mary write this commentary, as a former long-standing member of LST faculty, but the general editor for the series is David Firth, a former LST student, and the theological editor at IVP (named by Mary in the Preface) is Phil Duce, also a former LST student! Plus, Mary’s contribution to this series puts her in the company of Dick France and Donald Guthrie, also significant figures in the history of LST and of evangelical biblical scholarship more generally.

I say this not as a line for the next marketing campaign, but as a grateful reminder of the work LST has been directly or indirectly responsible for over the years, and the significance of good scholarship done for the church.

I know that Mary didn’t write the commentary whilst being employed at LST, but those of us who have worked at the School know that our experience becomes part of our iceberg when we move on. It takes a certain type of person nurtured in a certain type of community to produce a book like this. It’s a certain type of institution which says this type of work matters and that we will not only allow, but actively encourage our people to give good time to it.

So, third, I’m grateful to God for Mary.

For those of you who don’t know Mary as well as I do, this commentary is just a single slice of a highly productive life serving God by serving others.

And it reminds me of the things Mary does really well – like its down-to-earthness, like the way I’m drawn into the story so that I have to imagine the force it would take for a woman to crush a man’s skull with a pointed-but-not-necessarily-sharp tent peg, like the quirky asides such as telling us that Judges has one tenth of all the references to donkeys in the Old Testament!

There were new things for me, too. Like many, I’ve seen the references in the final few chapters of Judges that ‘there was no king’ as an apologetic for the monarchy that would follow this period. But Mary reminds us that the kings didn’t do that much better! And I think Mary is distinctive in suggesting that the writers of Judges are asking about the possibility of good government, and that while kingship could be blamed for many things, it couldn’t be blamed for the situation described in these times.

I think also I’ve tended to see the opening reference in Ruth, ‘In the days when the judged ruled’, to provide a contrast with what’s gone before. But as Mary points out, even in the book of Ruth not all is as it should be in Israel.

But the thing that really sticks out is Mary’s commitment to the text. Many commentaries are actually meta-commentaries – commentaries on commentaries. What we get is: ‘So-and-so says X, but such-and-such says Y.’ And there’s due acknowledgement of scholarship in this commentary, but it never gets in the way of Mary’s own running reflections on the text.

This commitment to go where the text goes shows up in Mary’s treatment of gender-sensitive passages, of which there are many in Judges and Ruth. Helpfully, in my opinion, Mary writes from a stance of trust in Scripture rather than suspicion of Scripture. Mary writes from a perspective that listens for the critiques of patriarchy where they occur – and they are there – but which recognises that the questions and issues of the original audience aren’t necessarily ours, and it does no-one any favours to turn Judges and Ruth into protofeminist texts!

The constraints of the Tyndale series means that there isn’t a lot of space to reflect on implications for Christians today of this period in the life of God’s people, but Mary makes the most of what there is. The commentary certainly drew me in to reflect on my own way of life as a member of God’s covenant people, and left me thankful for the one, the only one, who truly can save us.

So, with all that in mind, I give thanks to God for his word, for LST, and – on this day – for this book and for Mary too. Thank you.

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