Review: Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature

interpreting old testament wisdom literature

Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature, Edited by David G. Firth and Lindsay Wilson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A collection of articles on the wisdom literature of the Bible, discussing each book as well as recent developments in Wisdom literature scholarship.

Many of us find the Wisdom books (commonly Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs) as both confusing and compelling. Is there some rhyme or reason to the organization of Proverbs? What is the point of Job, his suffering, and all those long speeches? Is everything really hebel or as it is sometimes translated, empty, as Ecclesiastes would tell us? And Song of Songs, is it a sensuous love story, or something more?

The collection of essays in this volume touch on all these questions and more in their survey of the recent scholarship of the Wisdom literature. The work begins with Craig Bartholomew’s overview of current Wisdom literature scholarship. I found his framework of seeing this scholarship in terms of a series of “turns” quite helpful: historical criticism, then literary criticism, followed by postmodern criticism, and finally theological criticism. He surveys the important contributions of each. His most helpful advice:

“What Christian scholars should not do is continue to work away at sites in wisdom studies determined by others who have no interest in reading Old Testament wisdom as Scripture. We always need to be in dialogue with scholars of diverse views, but a Christian perspective will alert us to particular work sites crying out for hard labour if we are to retrieve Old Testament wisdom as Scripture today” (p. 33).

Part Two of the work devotes a chapter each to Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Ernest Lucas covers a wide range of issues from questions of structure in Proverbs, the focus on character and consequences in its nuances and contradictions, the personification of Wisdom, and the use of women in various personifications, questions of gender in who is speaking at different points in Proverbs, and the connection of wisdom and creation. Lindsay Wilson’s essay of Job focuses on the faith of Job, and how this is expressed both in the trial he undergoes, and the trial to which he would subject God. Katherine J. Dell’s essay reviews recent scholarship in Ecclesiastes, considering particularly the question of the unity of the book and the tension between pessimism, realism and joy, all of which one will find at some point. Rosalind Clarke explores the question of what wisdom might be found in the Song of Songs, finding evidence that there is wisdom for women, parallels to the personified Woman Wisdom of Proverbs, and in the role of Solomon.

Part Three on Themes considers broader issues. It begins with a delightful essay asking “Is Ruth Among the Wise?” In Hebrew scriptures (as opposed to those most of us read) Ruth follows Proverbs 31 and Gregory Goswell proposes that this “encourages an appreciation of its heroine as an example of the wisdom ethic that is taught in the book of Proverbs” (p. 117). Leonard Boström takes on the theme of retribution in Wisdom literature, that our actions will bring good or bad consequences based on the character of the act–that the righteous will prosper and the wicked suffer. The discussion of the differing portrayals of this principle in different books was helpful under the common but sometimes challenging understanding that retribution traces back to a sovereign creator who ordains in his creation certain consequences for actions, but that this does not reduce to an uncomplicated formula as, in the case of Job, the righteous suffer, and the wicked sometimes prosper. David G. Firth looks at wisdom in Old Testament narrative, and the paradox that the wise often are not approved by God, when “wisdom” is not accompanied by obedience to God. Christopher B. Ansberry considers the contribution of Wisdom literature to biblical theology, where there often seems to be a disjunct between the two. He highlights contributions to cosmology, anthropology, and ethics, and also how Jesus is presented as the wise man par excellence. Simon P. Stocks calls our attention to the “wisdom psalms” and the way their voicing parallels Lady Wisdom of Proverbs 8. Brittany N. Melton concludes the book with what I thought was one of the highlights of the collection, an exploration of “divine absence” in the Wisdom literature. She concludes:

“Wisdom is the way to God, but is not always attainable. As such, the determination to find wisdom was fuelled by the sages’ search for divine presence. And yet, even if wisdom is found, the mystery of God is preserved. In the wisdom literature we have a prime example of the tension between divine presence and absence. Insofar as wisdom is personified and takes on a much larger literary presence than God in these books, this speaks to divine absence. Where is God? He is hidden behind Wisdom (p. 216).

What I appreciated about this collection of essays was not only the many connections they made for me (including that of thinking of Ruth in light of Proverbs 31), but also that they exemplified Craig Bartholomew’s exhortation to scholars. Each studied these works as scripture, and engaged in their retrieval as scripture today, nourishing in this reader the desire to read these works of wisdom once more to hear in them the word of the Lord. This is an important resource not only in the academic setting, but for all who would teach the Wisdom literature, and who want their students or congregants to not only be informed of the latest scholarship, but to be shaped by hearing these books afresh as “scripture today.”

4 thoughts on “Review: Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature

  1. I find the Wisdom Literature of particular relevance in the context of campus ministry. Great to read Ruth being understood as an example of Proverbs 31! I will share that with my daughter who currently has an Old Testament class at Gordon College.

    FYI: On Sunday I had a brief conversation with friends about the value of teaching the Song of Songs in the local congregation.

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