Wisdom & Creation: The Theology of Wisdom Literature, by Leo G. Perdue. Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1994. 420 pp. $21.95. ISBN 0-687-45626-6.
PERDUE'S long-awaited magnum opus is a comprehensive treatment of a long-neglected part of the biblical canon, the wisdom corpus. Beginning with his dissertation, Wisdom and Cult (1977), Perdue's scholarship has displayed unflagging zeal for including wisdom within the purview of Old Testament theology. We are all the wiser for his efforts.
Perdue sets the stage for his investigation by contending that the center of wisdom theology is creation. But creation is not exclusively related to cosmology; it is stretched to include "anthropology, community, ethics, epistemology...and society" (p. 35). Taking his cue from von Rad, Perdue contends that biblical wisdom holds both cosmology and anthropology "in creative tension" (p. 41). The pun appears to be intentional, for Perdue finds the notion of creation to encompass both poles of the dialectic. How this dialectic is developed in each of the wisdom books, from Proverbs to the Wisdom of Solomon, sets the agenda of his study. The dimensions of cosmology and anthropology are conveyed through the imaginative use of metaphor and rhetoric. What the sages offer are not creedal statements, but stories, poems, and instructions. Any systematic presentation of wisdom's theology is bound to lead to distortion. By identifying the evocative metaphors for God, humanity, and reality, Perdue finds that the sages heighten the freedom and mystery of God as well as evoke a particular world view marked by beauty, order, and justice.
Perdue has laid out an impressive groundwork for a comprehensive treatment of wisdom theology. The task Perdue sets forth is monumental in scope, but his results are sometimes disappointing. Perdue notes the dialectic of cosmology and anthropology running throughout the wisdom corpus, but his analysis frequently gives the latter short shrift. His methodology suggests that these two poles are essentially parallel frames of reference, as when he states that "cosmology as central to wisdom theology provides an important corrective to reading the tradition through primarily a human lens" (p. 46). Aside from the obvious question of whose lens, other than the human lens, the wisdom tradition can be read through, Perdue changes the rules of his investigation by regarding anthropology as simply another creation tradition to be set alongside cosmology. An anthropocentric frame of reference is more than an anthropological tradition of creation. By equivocating in this way, Perdue diffuses the dialectic, reducing it to variant streams of creation traditions. Consequently, issues related to human character and practice, issues no doubt central to the ethos of wisdom, are not given the full treatment they deserve.
Two examples suffice to demonstrate both the suggestive insights and the shortcomings of Perdue's treatment. In his investigation of Proverbs 1-9, Perdue explores his dialectic by identifying a wealth of mythological antecedents to personified wisdom such as the fertility goddess and Queen of Heaven. Folly, too, is portrayed as a fertility goddess. Perdue suggests that these opposing figures are rival goddesses engaged in mortal combat for sovereignty (p. 100). To be sure, there is nothing wrong with identifying ancient Near Eastern parallels …