Of paramount importance to the narratives which comprise the Old Testament is the concept of “covenants.” The more one is able to identify the covenantal themes which run throughout the Old Testament, the better one will be able to reckon with the scriptural annals of Hebrew society and understand their bearing on the present. The Pentateuchal covenants are particularly significant within the books of Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, with each resuming covenantal language and motifs in their own distinct structure. What is evident in these Old Testament accounts is the fact that the apparent absence of covenantal conformity is as informative as covenantal obeisance.
Joshua, for instance, records the fulfillment of the promises of nationhood and territorial occupation initially given to Abraham. (Gn 15:1–6; 17:1–8) A traditional conception of the Pentateuch concludes with the Abrahamic promises still unrealized. Joshua’s archive of provincial conquests, then, is necessary to alleviate the mounting covenantal tension. “Thematically,” L. D. Hawk writes, “the goal of the pentateuchal narrative — the occupation of the land that God promised — requires the fulfillment that Joshua relates. From this perspective, then, it is better to think in terms of a Hexateuch rather than a Pentateuch.”1 Accordingly, the exegetically and theologically rich narrative of Joshua functions as a fulcrum upon which the overriding story of the Pentateuch gives way to the chronicles of the kings. Moreover, Joshua’s generation brings about a national Israel, albeit not straightforwardly and not without multiple events of covenant renewal. (Josh 8:30–35; 24:1–28)
Judges, however, stands in stark contrast to its canonical predecessor. While covenantal threads are apparent throughout, their presence is predominantly seen in their inverse. (Jgs 17:6; 21:25) Indeed, it is the absence of covenantal fidelity on display by Israel and her charismatic judges which furthers one’s apprehension of God’s covenantal proclivity. “Judges,” attests L. G. Stone, “shows very little overt or self-conscious concern with the covenant. The term covenant appears only four times in the book, and never within its Deuteronomic nuance.”2 From the outset, it is evident that Israel’s failure will take centerstage (Jgs 2:8–19), accentuating their need for a merciful Covenantor.
Therefore, as the time of the judges is brought to an end, it is obvious that Israel’s bloated self-esteem as exemplified through the tragedies of the judges is not a viable covenant-keeping solution. “In contrast to the ecstatic-charismatic ‘power’ approach to leadership embodied in the central section of the book,” Stone continues, “Judges 17—21 insinuates an alternative: kingship.”3 Such is the profound albeit opaque promise which serves as the undercurrent for the book of Ruth. With Israel still firmly attached to her own capacity to consummate God’s covenantal promises, the question of steady leadership which appears in the time of the Judges (Jgs 1:1; 20:18) is made gradually more translucent in Ruth (Ruth 2:12; 3:9; 4:10–14), once again demonstrating God’s covenantal bent for mercy.
L. D. Hawk, “Book of Joshua,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 567.
L. G. Stone, “Book of Judges,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 599. Emphasis original.