A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Brendan DePhillippeaux
While other handbooks on Old Testament exegesis are presently available, the Kregel Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series (HOTE) is more specialized than many of these due to its emphasis on appreciating the distinctions between Old Testament literary genres. Each of the six volumes in this series is dedicated to covering one of the six genres found in the Hebrew Bible. Previous volumes have done this through treatments of the Pentateuch (Vogt 2009), the Historical Books (Chrisholm 2006), the Psalms (Futato, 2007), the Prophetic Books (Smith, 2014), and Old Testament Apocalyptic Literature (Taylor, 2016).
The sixth and most recent volume in this series deals with the OT corpus of Wisdom Literature. Its author, Edward Curtis, has a Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania and currently serves as professor of biblical and theological studies at Biola University and Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California. He has published articles in journals such as Criswell Theological Review, Christian Scholar’s review, and Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, to name a few. He is also the author of such books as Discovering the Way of Wisdom: Spirituality in the Wisdom Literature, Song of Songs (Bible Study Commentary), and Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs (Teach the Text Commentary Series).
Dr. Curtis’ most recent publication Interpreting the Wisdom Books follows the same basic outline as other volumes in HOTE. It is arranged according to a six-chapter structure that addresses 1) genre distinctives, 2) major themes, 3) tools and methods for textual analysis, 4) interpretation, 5) proclamation, and 6) application of the book’s interpretive methodology to specific biblical texts for sermon preparation (16). Although individual authors are given some freedom to deal with this material in their own way, this basic structure is consistent throughout the series. In the preface to this edition, series editor David M. Howard Jr. very clearly identifies its intended audience as primarily masters-level graduate students who have some knowledge of biblical Hebrew, though pastors and laypersons without such knowledge will also find it useful and accessible (15).
Although it is not possible to be all things to all people in a relatively small book, Dr. Curtis does a reasonably good job of reaching this target audience. Generally speaking, he keeps the principles, methodologies, and resources in this book within the spectrum of usability for both pastors and students. For example, in chapter 3, he offers a very useful summary of how textual corruption may have occurred in the OT and makes a good argument for the value of textual criticism in the process. After summarizing principles and methodology that govern the discipline of textual criticism, he then includes an example of their application to Proverbs 9:1, arguing why this is a likely case of textual corruption, and then provides a viable emendation (100-105). He treats the issue at length and with a high degree of skill. Pastors and new students will find his summary of the discipline to be a helpful introduction, and seasoned academics who are already familiar with it will benefit from seeing an example of it in practice.
The text reads at a first-year masters level of technicality. Difficult or unfamiliar terms are often clearly explained in the body of the text or in the footnotes. For instance, in the first chapter when Curtis begins to discuss the role of metaphor in Hebrew poetics, he jumps right into discussing the respective roles of source and target domains, a concept with which most non-academics will be unfamiliar. However, if readers are attentive and willing to invest in a bit of extra reading, he helpfully explains what he means by these two concepts in the footnotes below the main body of the text (37). Linguistics are addressed at a low degree of technicality and theological or interpretive debates/differing views, while they are at times addressed, are not delved into at great depth. The book is very concise and well organized, making it a helpful resource for grad students at a higher level who need a refresher on OT genre distinctives. While this book is best suited to a theological educational setting, probably as an introductory textbook, it could also serve as a helpful primer on the Wisdom Literature for pastors beginning a sermon series on that part of scripture, or as a resource for the academically-inclined layperson’s private study.
The volume stands up very well to the goals and expectations of the overall series of which it is part. Because it is a handbook, its main purpose is not to argue a particular theological perspective, but to provide broad principles and particular methodologies for the exegesis and interpretation of individual books, towards the goal of sermon/lesson preparation (15). For the most part, Dr. Curtis does this very effectively, providing interpretive principles derived from each individual book’s distinctive genre, structure, and content, as well as broader principles relevant to the entire corpus of Wisdom Literature itself. He also does not shy away from ranking the practical usefulness of certain exegetical tools in relation to the corpus as a whole. For instance, in chapter 5 he argues that studying the poetry is more important to understanding Wisdom literature than ANE background, due to the universal nature of the themes it addresses (146). This priority is expressed in the fact that 23 pages of the first chapter (where more foundational genre distinctives are addressed) are devoted to a treatment of Hebrew poetics and proverbs (32-55), while ANE background is given 12 pages in chapter 3 (88-100). This sort of specificity and prioritization helps to give readers a sense of the corpus’ uniqueness, allowing them to adjust their exegetical priorities to fit the study of this corpus. Likewise, particular books are given specific attention concerning their exegetical peculiarities. This happens most noticeably in chapter two, where helpful framing devices are explored, such as the “two ways” in Proverbs and the epistemological box “under the sun” in Ecclesiastes (68, 71). Due to such specificity, this book feels very nuanced and tailored to the exegesis of particular books in this particular corpus of scripture.
Dr. Curtis lends further assistance to pastors and students by offering them a rather large array of exegetical resources for such a small handbook. For example, between pages 105 and 113, he lists almost 70 publications ranging from word study tools like lexicons and concordances to commentaries. This is not even to mention the appendix at the end of the book which introduces readers to numerous online resources and bible software programs which are currently available. This volume contains exegetical resources ranging from the highly technical to the reasonably accessible, so both students and motivated pastors should be able to find something of value in its pages.
One small criticism should be noted regarding this book’s fifth and sixth chapters. While some other books in this series provide helpful examples of how to organize detailed study material into exegetical and expository outlines, such concrete examples of sermon preparation are lacking in Dr. Curtis’ volume. Only a single, rather minimalistic exegetical outline can be found in chapter 5 (149-150), and chapter 6 does not provide anything more in this regard. While these final chapters would have been augmented by providing such materials, they still offer some useful homiletical principles and walk the reader through their application to particular studies in the books of Job and Proverbs, which any reader will find beneficial.
Overall, this book is theologically and exegetically sound, providing numerous helpful resources in a dense and concise format. It will appeal primarily to academics and pastors in need of a primer or a refresher on exegeting the Wisdom Literature, but not so much to those who want to specialize in one part of the exegetical process or to develop a detailed exegetical or homiletical method. The book meets its goal of being a useful handbook meant to assist the exegetical and homiletical process alongside of other, more specialized resources. I fully expect to use other volumes in this helpful series as needed in my future exegetical endeavors.
Brendan DePhillippeaux is an MDiv student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.
Buy the books
Interpreting the Wisdom Books: An Exegetical Handbook