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Spring 2013 · Vol. 42 No. 1 · pp. 101–103 

Book Review


Gordon H. Matties. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Harrisonburg, VA and Waterloo, ON: Herald, 2013. 524 pages.

Reviewed by Walter Brueggemann

Gordon Matties of Canadian Mennonite University has made an impressive and compelling contribution to the Believers Church Bible Commentary series. The series, as its title indicates, intends to read the Bible for the sake of the church, more specifically for “believers” who stand in the peace traditions. It is beyond doubt that the Book of Joshua is among the greatest challenges for any interpreter, for any Christian interpreter, and most especially for interpreters in the tradition of the peace churches. Joshua is of course permeated with war, aggression, and violence in much of which the God of Israel is centrally implicated. Matties has boldly and courageously taken on the task of commentary in which he takes seriously the attestation of the text and works primarily to resituate that witness of the text in the life of the church. He is clearly up to speed about critical matters while at the same time exhibiting an imaginative interpretive capacity that precludes any reductionist, one-dimensional reading of the text.

The clue to Matties’s winsome approach is that he intends “an hospitable hermeneutic” that will allow the book to have its say within the larger chorus of voices we call Scripture” (20). That intention is termed by some as “canonical criticism.” However, here the approach is much more dynamic and imaginative, and is closely focused on the practical life of the church. Matties clears the ground for this perspective by identifying three “inhospitable readings” that seek to dismiss, diminish, or explain away the parts of the text that are unpalatable to us. In what follows, he will explain nothing away. These unworkable, temptations include: rewriting the text to make it more acceptable; dismissing the text because the archaeological evidence will not support it; or forcing the text to fit certain predetermined outcomes.

Against all of that, Matties invites the reader to participate in a “difficult conversation” to see that the text is complex and does not easily accommodate our preferred reading. Such a hermeneutic, as proposed and practiced here,

allows all the voices to be heard around the table without predetermining what those voices must say. Hospitable hermeneutics, unlike a hermeneutic of suspicion, also gives us a place to be honest with our understandings (right or wrong though they may be), our feelings, and our identities as interpretive communities. For if the conversation with the book of Joshua is a “difficult conversation,” it will require vulnerability from all sides, including the text, which has already become vulnerable to misuse and misappropriation. Such “dialogism” . . . recognizes voices intensely engaged with each {102} other, simultaneously listening and responding as well as being influenced and shaped. (422)

The notion of the text itself being vulnerable means that it cannot be taken up as though it were an “absolute word.” Instead, the text is recognized as a word that is subject to the force and insistence of other voices that are sounded in its presence.

This commentary conducts precisely such a conversation, and requires that the reader participate, facing all of the difficulties of such an enterprise. Such an approach lets us acknowledge and grapple with the difficulties of the text in terms of its “war world.” But it also shows that the conflicting voices pertain not only to the history of interpretation, but to the text itself. Thus Matties extends the work proposed by Robert Polzin, who showed that any absoluteness in the text may be subverted in the text itself by counter voices.

I may mention a few impressive examples of such a conversation. In Joshua 5 Matties considers the enigmatic commander with the sword. He shows the way in which the exchange of Joshua with the mysterious stranger is made to be deliberately ambiguous; we are not sure whether the stranger is an adversary or not.

Joshua’s encounter with the divine Other has revealed that there is another army, another commander besides Joshua, another Sovereign besides the king of Jericho, and another place determined off-limits to ordinary human transgression. (136)

The “no” of the commander is richly ambivalent and allows us “to imagine an alternative to human violence.” His comment shows, moreover, that translations have functioned to dissolve the ambiguity upon which the text itself insists.

In the narrative of the fall of Jericho in chapter 6, the victory of Israel concerns worship rather than warfare. The rescue of Rahab, moreover, is resolved with reference to Hebrews 11:30 wherein the matter is all “by faith.” Thus characteristically the commentary looks the text fully in the face, and then invites us to ponder the rich interpretive tradition of the church that has not explained away the text, but has continued to read the text in terms of theo-politics that has a focus on the reality of God rather than on the fortunes of human initiative. The text knows, as this commentary makes clear, that matters are thicker than simply human violence conducted in the name of God.

A special feature of the book is that after a full and carefully nuanced commentary on the entire text, Matties has another eighty-one pages of closely parsed material under the rubric of “essays.” In these pages he offers a rich inventory of topics that will greatly illuminate our reading of the {103} text. I am astonished by how much data and how much background work Matties has been able to include. Thus, for example, as though it were almost in passing he offers a quick but thorough summary of the archeological data that pertains to the Book of Joshua. He explores the way in which “Joshua” reappears in the royal narrative as “Josiah.” He has an entry on “figural reading” that shows the inventive imagination of the church over time. Here, as throughout the commentary, Origen “figures” prominently as an interpretive voice that did not linger over “historical” matters.

Without moving too far from the text, there is also an edge of contemporaneity to the commentary. Thus with reference to “cities of refuge,” there is a linkage to the church as “shelter” for refugees and for those found guilty of sexual misconduct. Matties is clear on the ways in which the land claims of Joshua have been used to impose colonial control over land in modern state maintenance, an exploitative use of textual memory that has continuity with the triumphalist venture of the old crusades.

In the sure hands of this skillful interpreter the book of Joshua is seen to be an arena for interpretive contestation that regularly runs back and forth between our most ancient memories and the urgent realities that now face the church. In a culture that is being “dumbed down” in order to reduce all human issues to technological proportion, Matties insists that we must think and struggle and study beyond our temptation to over-simplification:

The aim of the book is to foster a faithful people, and to do so by affirming that God is responsive to the choices all peoples make in their world. Joshua 11:20 can be understood to suggest God’s judging role as that role is exercised in partnership with Israel. But partnership with Israel in warfare is not the normative and prescriptive way of God for the nations in other parts of the Bible. . . . Human choices have consequences. And the Lord will honor, will not thwart, and will even strengthen human resolve to oppose divine sovereignty in history. (274)

Publishers, editors, and the author are to be congratulated on this first rate job of such “fostering”!

Walter Brueggemann
Professor Emeritus of Old Testament
Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia

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