Reviewed by Eric J. Tully
As academic disciplines become increasingly specialized, it is more and more difficult to keep up with the latest ideas and scholarship in a particular field or area. And yet, when we go to a book or corpus in the Bible, we want to be aware of current research and what we can glean from scholars’ fresh ideas and perspectives. David G. Firth has previously co-edited several books which present recent developments in the research of a particular book of the Bible and then examine specific interpretive challenges and literary or theological themes within that book. The following volumes have been published previously: Isaiah (with H. G. M. Williamson, 2009), Deuteronomy (with Philip S. Johnson, 2012) and Psalms (with Philip S. Johnson, 2013). The present volume under review, on Old Testament Wisdom Literature, is the first to cover a genre.
Following an introduction by the editors, the book is divided into three parts, each containing one to six essays by different contributors.
In the introduction, Firth and Wilson state that there has been a recent revival of interest in OT wisdom literature, which has great potential in speaking to new generations about relevant contemporary topics such as justice, faith, wealth, suffering, and sexuality (xiv). Their hope is that this volume would enable the reader to “see afresh some of the riches that God has offered to us in the wisdom materials of the Old Testament” (xv).
Part 1 (The Study of Wisdom Today), contains one essay by Craig Bartholomew which describes the current state of the study of Old Testament wisdom literature. In Chapter 1, “Old Testament Wisdom Today,” Bartholomew traces the history of research, via many different methodologies, in wisdom literature through a series of turns: historical criticism (late 19th-20th cent.), the literary turn (1970s onwards), the postmodern turn, and the theological turn. He includes up-to-date bibliography and concludes with recommendations for current study in the corpus.
Part 2 (The Wisdom Literature) contains four essays which provide an overview of the distinctive issues and contributions of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs respectively.
In Chapter 2, “The Book of Proverbs: Some Current Issues,” Ernest Lucas deals with a variety of issues in Proverbs that have implications for interpretation. On the question of intentional clusters of proverbs in chapters 10-29, he states that in some cases proverbs should not be interpreted atomistically, but in the context of those around them (41). Next, Lucas addresses retribution in the book which he calls a “rule of thumb” since Proverbs is not simplistic and acknowledges exceptions. Third, his discussion of the personification of wisdom leads into a treatment of female characters and gender issues in the book. Finally, he deals with wisdom and creation theology.
In chapter 3, “Job as a Problematic Book,” Lindsay Wilson surveys the book of Job and touches upon its various aspects that are literarily or theologically challenging including Job’s complaints, God’s role in the prologue, the role of Elihu, and the conclusion that Job spoke rightly about God. Wilson shows how the book teaches us about the character of God and about a faithful response to suffering.
In chapter 4, “Reading Ecclesiastes with the Scholars,” Katharine Dell explores the uniqueness of Ecclesiastes and considers how contemporary trends in biblical theology impact our reading of it. She considers the unity and structure of the book, its date, and its use of traditional wisdom forms. Dell is intrigued by Jennie Barbour’s suggestion that the character Qoheleth is a composite of Solomon as well as later kings of Israel and therefore alludes to the decline and fall of the nation (97-98).
Chapter 5, “Seeking Wisdom in the Song of Songs” considers the Song of Songs not primarily as love poetry, but as didactic wisdom. Rosalind Clarke makes a strong case that in the same way that Proverbs 1-9 contains the advice of a father to his son, the Song of Songs is presented as the advice of a woman to young girls (though it is also directed at young men). She writes, “The male character in the Song both embodies the Solomonic ideal (3:6) and is better than the Solomonic reality (8:11-12). The effect of this is to reinforce the image of the man in the Song as the true romantic ideal. He is as good as Solomon in all the way that Solomon was good, and better than Solomon in all the ways that Solomon failed (112).
Part 3 (Themes) contains six essays which address specific issues such as wisdom in other books of the Old Testament, the themes of retribution and absence, and the contributions of the wisdom books to Old Testament Theology.
In chapter 6, “Is Ruth also Among the Wise?” Gregory Goswell reads Ruth in light of its juxtaposition with Proverbs in the Hebrew canon. He seeks to show that “reading the book of Ruth in the Hebrew canon (in the position following Prov. 31) takes [the] interpretive move in a certain direction and encourages an appreciation of its heroine as an example of the wisdom ethic that is taught in the book of Proverbs” (117). Goswell is not claiming that these connections were necessarily intended by the author of Ruth. Rather, its proximity to Proverbs 31 and its shared language with Proverbs highlights features of Ruth that we may have missed otherwise.
In chapter 7, “Retribution and Wisdom Literature,” Lennart Boström revisits the issue of retribution raised earlier in Lucas’ essay. The “retribution principle” is the conviction that righteousness brings prosperity and wickedness brings suffering (135). Koch argued in 1955 that retribution in Proverbs is an automatic, mechanical process in creation rather than something directly brought about by God. Boström concludes, by contrast, that retribution comes about in three ways in Proverbs: by direct intervention of God, by social consequences, and by built-in consequences. His essay also considers retribution in Job and Ecclesiastes.
In chapter 8, “Worrying about the Wise: Wisdom in Old Testament Narrative,” David Firth argues that in most cases, characters called “wise” in OT narrative literature are actually either not wise or do not manifest a wisdom consistent with OT values (155). For the authors of the OT narratives, true wisdom promotes justice and faithfulness to Yahweh (173).
In chapter 9, “Wisdom and Biblical Theology,” Christopher Ansberry considers the contribution of OT wisdom literature to biblical theology in the concepts of creation, anthropology, and ethics. Ansberry has a helpful section on the “fear of Yahweh” which he states is the wisdom literature’s expression for faith (186).
Simon Stocks considers the so-called “Wisdom psalms” in chapter 10, “’Children, Listen to Me’: The Voicing of Wisdom in the Psalms.” Stocks’ criterion for identifying wisdom in the psalms is to look for “an address to other people arising out of reflection on personal experience” (196). His discussion of the relationship between the ‘original’ voice (i.e. the psalmist), the ‘contemporary’ voice (recitation of the psalm), and the ‘canonical’ voice (the canonical context of the psalms) is extremely helpful.
Finally, in chapter 11, “’Oh, That I Knew Where I Might Find Him’: Aspects of Divine Absence in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes,” Brittany Melton surveys Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, looking at places where God is silent, hidden, and inscrutable. She concludes that wisdom functions as a means of God’s presence to humanity, and the “absence of God’s tangible presence fuels the quest for Wisdom” (214).
This book would make an excellent textbook for a graduate, or advanced undergraduate, course on the wisdom books. Pastors about to preach on an OT wisdom book will find much here that is valuable for gaining some overall perspective and thinking about each book in the context of the rest of the corpus.
The book introduces the distinctive concerns of the various wisdom books, the criteria for identifying wisdom material, and the contribution of wisdom to biblical theology. The writing is clear and accessible, and most of the authors sprinkle in valuable insights for how these books are relevant for faith and our relationship with God. Some of the essays will need to be read with discernment by readers who hold to a verbal, plenary inspiration and inerrancy.
This book is highly recommended for all readers who want both an up-to-date overview of key issues in Old Testament wisdom literature as well as some fresh insights as to what these books can teach us about God and the world he created.
Eric J. Tully is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.
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Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature