Understanding Wisdom Literature: Conflict and Dissonance in the Hebrew Text

By Steussy, Marti J. | The Christian Century, May 2, 2012 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Understanding Wisdom Literature: Conflict and Dissonance in the Hebrew Text


Steussy, Marti J., The Christian Century


Understanding Wisdom Literature: Conflict and Dissonance in the Hebrew Text

By David Penchansky

Eerdmans, 141 pp., $20.00 paperback

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

People often assume--wrongly-that the Bible presents a single view of God and the world. In Understanding Wisdom Literature, David Penchansky shows how the Hebrew Bible's wisdom books, Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, speak differently from covenant-centered writings such as Genesis, Deuteronomy and Isaiah. Two additional wisdom books, Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon (found in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox canons), have connections to both the older wisdom books and the Jewish covenant traditions.

Penchansky, a Hebrew Bible scholar who teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, has focused throughout his career on neglected aspects of biblical theology. He celebrates the diversity and unconventionality of the Hebrew Bible's wisdom books while taking a dimmer view of apocryphal wisdom's rapprochement with traditional belief systems.

Wisdom's fundamental questions concern the fairness of life and how to negotiate life well. Israelite wisdom probably originated in family, village and tribal settings in which wise people grappled with life's questions on the basis of experience and observation. Some of this rural wisdom survives in proverbs about the diligence of the ant and the sad fate of lazy farmers, but Penchansky agrees with scholars who believe that the Hebrew Bible's books of wisdom were written in urban settings by professional sages who advised kings and who educated young people for careers in the court. Like their rural predecessors, these sages sought answers in ordinary experience rather than special revelation.

In a chapter titled "Sounds of Silence: The Absence of Covenantal Theology in the Wisdom Literature," Penchansky reviews various interpretations of the sages' silence about covenant theology. Is covenant theology unmentioned because though the sages embrace it, they are dealing with unrelated subjects? Does their silence indicate their disagreement with covenant theology and perhaps fear of persecution by its proponents? Do they simply consider covenant theology unimportant? Penchansky chooses the last option. He describes the sages as Yahwists--persons who assumed the power and importance of Israel's God--but Yahwists for whom the Abrahamic, Davidic and Mosaic covenants were not central to the interpretation and conduct of life. This suggests, says Penchansky, that Israel was less distinctive and more diverse than Christians have traditionally supposed and that there was an "uneasy tolerance" between its various factions.

The themes of diversity and conflict dominate Penchansky's discussion of the Hebrew Bible's wisdom books. He sees in Proverbs a conflict between two understandings: a "Get Wisdom" view (Prov. 4:7) that the universe operates by discernible rules that can guide profitable choices, and a "Fear God" view (Prov. 1:7) that God's ways are too unpredictable for us to count on, so that our best hope is an appropriate fear, somewhere between reverent piety and terror, of this powerful, unknowable God.

Conflict also appears as a theme in Penchansky's discussion of Job, a book that spotlights innocent suffering and associated questions about God's goodness and justice. Penchansky correctly notes that how we interpret the book will vary according to the voice in it that we emphasize, for the prologue, Job's speeches, his friends' speeches and the whirlwind speeches all portray God differently. Penchansky privileges Job 42:7, where God says that Job has spoken rightly. This affirmation must refer to Job's arguments in the middle of the book because if it referred to Job's patience recounted at the beginning of the book or to his submission (if it is that), recorded in 42:5-6, there would be no contrast between what the friends have said and the words that God approves.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Understanding Wisdom Literature: Conflict and Dissonance in the Hebrew Text
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?