Robert Williamson Jr.
Fortress Press, 179 pages
Reviewed by Teri Peterson
As a parish minister, I am always on the lookout for materials that will help me teach and preach. It is rare to find a book that is intellectually rigorous while also resonating with our contemporary context, and even more rare to find one that combines those qualities with accessibility. “The Forgotten Books of the Bible” does this beautifully. In this one slim volume, we have been gifted an insightful commentary on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Lamentations and Ecclesiastes.
The structure of the book makes it easy to navigate, as each chapter is roughly two parts. The first half is commentary on the book under consideration. In many ways it reads like a traditional commentary, giving historical context, quoting verses, exploring the Hebrew and offering a bit of text-critical analysis. Yet sprinkled throughout are witty turns of phrase and little gems that will make this easy to read even for those who have never picked up a commentary.
For instance, Williamson explains that the title “Song of Songs” is akin to the central room of the temple being the “holy of holies” — and he does so by saying that the title tells us this is “the songiest of songs.” In discussing Ruth and Orpah’s husbands and their untimely demises, Williamson translates the names – something I have never thought to do before – and we discover that Naomi and Elimelech have named their sons in such a way that their fates are spelled out immediately: “It’s like naming your kids Sicky Sickerson and Deathy McDeath-face. Don’t do it. They will die.” And he describes the events that precipitate Esther’s rise to power as “Vashtigate.” These tidbits make the writing compelling and contemporary, providing a way in for those who might usually find biblical commentary too dry or difficult to read.
After the traditional commentary, Williamson deftly moves into how these texts speak to our current lives, churches and political and social contexts. Song of Songs becomes a moment to talk about consent and mutuality, body-positivity and healthy sexuality. Ruth offers an opening for discussion of immigration, complete with consideration of the “model minority” myth. Lamentations is a model for protest, trauma-informed communities and combating reward-punishment theology. Ecclesiastes is a commentary on our economic systems and their inability to provide meaning. Esther is tale of intersectionality as misogyny, racism, ethnic nationalism and religious bigotry weave in and out of the lives of both the powerful and the powerless.
Throughout the volume, Williamson highlights insights from a variety of scholars who do not share his particular social location — women, people of color, theologians from a variety of traditions. He makes an intentional effort to hear how these texts have spoken to different communities, including the Jewish community in which they have pride of place. He then shows us how to use those insights, along with our own contexts, to read these stories from different angles. Whether that is reversing the usual allegory of the Song of Songs and suggesting we might read the female lover as God, or seeing Ecclesiastes as a blueprint for how to “live in the face of death,” it is a wonderful and fresh read on an old, old story.
This book would be perfect for study groups and for preparing sermon series on these often-overlooked books.
Teri Peterson is pastor at St. John’s Church of Scotland in Gourock, and the co-author of “Who’s Got Time: Spirituality for a Busy Generation” and co-founder of LiturgyLink.net.