Understanding Wisdom Literature: Conflict and Dissonance in the Hebrew Text

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


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.

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