Pursuing Wisdom: A Review of “Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature”

*This post is by guest writer Chris Wermeskerch. Chris is currently a M.Div. student at Northern Seminary. He loves memes, theology, Star Wars, and God. Not always in that order. 

Collecting essays from an eclectic range of scholars and theologians, David Firth and Lindsay Wilson have created a unique package in Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature. The title is, in a way, a bit of a misnomer. More than a straightforward commentary on the four traditional wisdom books, this collection discusses a wide range of scholarship on the canon as a whole, really. This is part of the book’s overall strength, but unfortunately, it stands as a weakness toward the end of the book.

The book starts with an overview of the study of Old Testament Wisdom literature today. As a seminarian, I felt like this would be too much of a review for me. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see which avenues were explored in this section. Questions were raised related to the genre of the books, the definition of wisdom, and a history of the study of the wisdom books. I found this part to be interesting, being both well-paced and well-researched.

One of the most interesting discussions came from the definition of wisdom in this first section. After discussing the nuances of their definition, Wilson and Firth define wisdom simply as learning to live successfully in Yahweh’s world. By crafting a basic definition, the rest of the authors are able to bring more voices into the discussion and explore the topic in new avenues.

I’m not the most unbiased source, but I do feel like this section was easily accessible to a wider audience. Whereas a lot of books that seek to review the history of interpretation would be too far-reaching, studying too many scholars and bringing too much information to bear on the subject, Firth and Wilson bring together a good blend of in-depth, focused research, and readability that is rare in too many academic books these days. For this, I am thankful.

The second portion moves to cover the more traditional wisdom books. I was surprised to see the chapter headings. I expected far more basic overviews of the books, something along the lines of “The Theme of Proverbs” or “Job’s Theodicy”. Instead, we are brought to face more challenging topics. The chapter on Proverbs deals with current issues in the study of Proverbs. The chapter on Ecclesiastes deals with the book and its place in current scholarship. I loved this chapter as I would be hard-pressed to bring in an Ecclesiastes scholar from the 21st century.

The other two chapters proved to be the most interesting, and the ones which issued the most challenges. The first, on Job, is called “Job as a Problematic Book”. This immediately captured my attention, maybe due to the word “problematic” and how it is currently used in common vernacular. This chapter, written by Wilson, may be one of the most fruitful essays in the book. Inside, she seeks to answer two questions: “First, is Job’s use of laments and complaints consistent with him being regarded as one who is faithful to God? Second, does his pursuit of litigation against God disqualify him from being regarded as righteous?” (p.62). With the recent popularity of books on lament, such as Soong-Chan Rah’s Prophetic Lament, this essay becomes particularly important. In fact, I would love to separate this chapter into its own book. In terms of Christian living and formation, I couldn’t recommend any essay more highly.

The chapter on Song of Solomon, “Seeking Wisdom in the Song of Songs” is simply one of the most interesting academically. Other essays seek to help elucidate scholarship on the topic book; uniquely, this essay seeks to understand the book in light of the canon. Rosalind Clarke uses the three major characters in the wisdom literature, Solomon, women, and Lady Wisdom, to find meaning in the Song that helps us live more successfully in Yahweh’s world. If you feel like you nothing of the Song beyond its scandalous thoughts on sex, this essay will prove invaluable to any reader.

Unfortunately(!!), the book has yet another section to go. This section seems to be a bit out of place, based on the title alone. The third section follows the themes of wisdom in other books of the Bible, outside of the “wisdom canon” (my term, not theirs). The third section focuses on wisdom in Ruth, retribution in wisdom literature, wisdom in the OT narrative books, biblical theology, the Psalms, and divine absence in the wisdom books.

No, I’m not exaggerating in the above section. I simply abbreviated the chapter titles. All of these questions are covered in just over 100 pages. To put it simply: this is not enough time to deal with half of these questions, let alone all of them. My biggest critique of this collection stems from this. Simply: some of these ideas should have been given much more time to breathe, and many were extraneous enough to cut from this book and bring into another space.

As interesting as this section was, there was a lot more to say on the wisdom literature itself. In this sense, I would have loved to see more space given to the themes of retribution in the wisdom literature, biblical theology, and the concept of divine absence. I feel like this would have rounded the book off well, not straying too far from the core concept while bringing us far deeper into our understanding of them.

My critique notwithstanding, it is not as if the chapters that I would have cut were useless. In fact, I learned a lot about Ruth and the Psalms from the chapters dedicated to those books. The chapter on Ruth plays up the oft-noted connection between Proverbs 31 and Ruth, both being women of valor and displaying how women should live in Yahweh’s world. While they are oft-noted connections, I seems like most books do not deal with this concept in much depth. Because of that, I am very thankful for this chapter.

The chapter on divine absence in the wisdom books was particularly interesting, though, and by itself redeemed the third section. Brittany Melton writes about the portrayal of God in the wisdom literature when it describes him as either elusive or hidden, and that his ways are unknowable. She writes about the way that Israel thought about both Wisdom and God because of his hiddenness. Out of this, she postulates, Israel developed a personified view of wisdom in Lady Wisdom (cf. Proverbs 8). If God is creator, but hidden, how do we experience him? According to Melton, through Lady Wisdom, who created with God and wants to be found, calling us in the streets. This chapter might further revolutionize the way we read Proverbs.

Discerning readers of my review have already noted that I used the word “revolutionize” twice, about both Proverbs and Song of Solomon. I do not use those terms lightly, in fact. This book will serve as an indispensable resource for both seminarians and lay readers. Despite the brevity of most chapters, and some extraneous ideas, there is still a lot of depth to be found. Further reading is encouraged by the inclusion of a bibliography, so even the short chapters do not serve as an end to the studies. This book is a must-own addition for anybody who wants to become far more acquainted with Israelite wisdom.

*Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 

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