God and Wisdom, Part 1

The form of this post is a little different to the previous ones in this #AtoZWisdom series. It is a book review. The book in question is by Tremper Longman III and the reason why it provides a fitting post on ‘God and Wisdom’ will soon become apparent.

Tremper Longman III, The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017

Both the title and subtitle of this book distil the backbone of Tremper Longman III’s account of wisdom in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (OT/HB). He argues, with clarity and conviction, that the diverse elements of wisdom in the OT/HB find their unity within a theological framework. Such a view is not shared by all scholars. Indeed, some drive a wedge between wisdom (often in the form of the three books, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job) and the cultic life of Israel. Longman not only sees the wisdom elements of the OT/HB as theological but in his commitment to a canonical reading (p.26) he sees ‘Fear of the Lord’ as the specific theological locus. Perhaps some will find such a reading displays too great a hermeneutic of trust, but the book makes an excellent case for such a reading—and despite the claim of theological canonical unity the wisdom material is not flattened but is permitted its wide-ranging claims and emotions.

The book has fifteen chapters and covers more ground than many introductions to the wisdom books of the OT/HB. I would recommend this book, because of its clarity, to anyone wanting a first introduction to wisdom literature. The book engages with wider technical scholarship, but it is written without pretension and little prior knowledge is required to get the best from it.

The rest of this review will make some brief comments about each chapter to give a flavour of the book’s thesis—and yes that is what it is, a coherent argument for a specific reading. For this reason, readers already familiar with biblical wisdom will also find this book stimulating.

The length of this review means that it will be posted in two parts. In this post the first six chapters are covered.

1. Proverbs: The Fear of the Lord Is the Beginning of Wisdom

This chapter considers three ways in which the Book of Proverbs defines wisdom. The first of these is at the practical level, as a skill for living. Longman suggests that wisdom, in this sense, parallels how emotional intelligence can lead to success in life. The second aspect of wisdom is the ethical level—the Book of Proverbs continually equates a wise person with a good person. The third level, according to Longman, is the theological level and especially the Fear of the Lord as expressed at the outset in Proverbs in 1:7. The theological perspective is further developed by considering the rich imagery of woman wisdom who permeates the Book of Proverbs.

2. Ecclesiastes: Fear God, Obey the Commandments, and Live in Light of the Coming Judgement

Longman explores from the outset his view that the Book of Ecclesiastes is the product of two voices and not just one. He argues that the bulk of the book, 1:12–12:7, are the words of Qohelet as indicated in by the constant use of the first person. He identifies Qohelet as a pseudonym of a post-exilic author. The case is made for the prologue (1:1–11) and the epilogue (12:8–14) being the second voice; the editor who commends the work to his son and thereby to all subsequent readers. This epilogue is key to Longman’s theological approach to the book. He argues that the work shows the limits of human wisdom—it is Fear of God (12:13) that is an essential stance for overcoming the limits of wisdom.

3. The Book of Job: “Behold, the Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom” (Job 28:28)

Longman dismisses the unhelpful caricatures of the Book of Job, such as a supposed concern with answering the questions of either suffering or theodicy. He rightly sees the book as a wisdom dispute. The three friends of Job share a similar wisdom view—so-called retribution theology. Because of this view they are convinced that Job’s suffering testifies that Job must have sinned. Job shares their perspective but knows he has not sinned. Thus, argues Longman, Job’s concern is that God is unjust (p.47). Longman sees Elihu as largely sharing the same view but being especially ‘full of hot air’. In the light of Yahweh’s speeches to Job and the book’s epilogues, Longman argues that Job makes three key contributions: (i) God is the source of wisdom, (ii) the proper human response to such wisdom is submission, and (iii) the fear of the Lord already articulated in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes is central.

4. Other Sources of Wisdom: Deuteronomy, Psalms, Song of Songs, and Prophecy

In this chapter Longman explores various parts of the OT/HB some of which are generally recognised to have some wisdom elements (for example Psalms) and others that are more controversial with respect to the role of wisdom (Deuteronomy for example). Longman is at pains to point out that even if there were such a concept as wisdom literature the books mentioned in this chapter would not be part of this literature. His argument is that wisdom motifs and ideas are found more widely in the OT/HB than is generally appreciated. This is important to the argument about the nature of wisdom in later chapters.

5. Joseph and Daniel: Paragons of Wisdom

In this chapter, and the next, Longman further broadens the concept of wisdom to the narratives of the OT/HB. This chapter is concerned with the Joseph and Daniel narratives. Longman explains that some scholars, for example von Rad, have made much of the wisdom influence in the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37–50). Others, like Crenshaw, have argued quite the opposite. Longman steers a clear middle road. He does not argue that wisdom is the dominant genre or theme within the Joseph narrative or the Book of Daniel. Rather he points to some core similarities between the characters at the heart of these stories. These are (i) their use of wisdom to interpret dreams, (ii) they acknowledge God as the origin of their wisdom, (iii) they use their wisdom to guide their foreign royal masters.

6. Adam and Solomon: From the Heights of Wisdom to the Depths of Folly

In this chapter Adam and Solomon (and the king of Tyre) are explored as examples of individuals who journeyed from wisdom to folly. The example of Adam is of course interesting due to the account of his folly at the outset of the HB/OT. The account of the fall in Genesis 3 is rich with the language of wisdom: the serpent is described as crafty/prudent (3:1), there is the tree of knowledge (2:17) and the fruit is perceived by Eve as being useful for gaining wisdom (3:6). The negative outcome of the story shows the stark problem of humanity seeking wisdom on their own terms without God. Longman shows that Solomon, despite his wisdom, followed a similar path of trusting in things other than God.

 

Form and Wisdom

Some scholars have questioned the value of the genre of Wisdom. They argue that seeing Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job as part of a wider genre within the Hebrew Bible or within the Ancient Near East is just the unhelpful imposition of a modern genre. Whilst, I don’t share such a view, such views are a reminder that care is needed not to flatten wisdom literature. Paying attention to these three books is an essential part of ensuring we don’t make them into something they were never intended to be. We have already seen how these three books differ from each other. Each of them also contains different literary forms. This post will only scratch the surface of the different forms of literature within the three books we know as wisdom literature.

The two preceding posts paid some attention to the variety of content found in Job (Dialogue in Wisdom) and Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes and Wisdom). This Post will focus on the Book of Proverbs to ensure that that we appreciate that this book too contains a variety of forms and is also an edited collection of works.

Despite its designation as ‘proverbs’ the Book of Proverbs is not simply a collection of proverbs. Proverbs are the dominant form of literary unit found in the book, but its first nine chapters are very different in form. The opening chapter is nothing less than a hermeneutical call to see and use the wisdom found in the book. As the chapter proceeds we encounter a sustained exhortation to take learning, discernment, knowledge and righteousness seriously—and to recognise the foundation of these in Fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7). The opening chapter reveals the context of biblical wisdom as at least in part, the family. Verses 8–19 read as a father’s instruction to a child—this is of course metaphorical but points to the likely use, as well as origin of the book, and wisdom more generally. The gender-based imagery continues in the representation of Women Wisdom, perhaps a deliberate play on motherly instruction, see verses 20–33.

The first chapter closes with a key wisdom motif—found concisely in a hermeneutical wisdom foundation to the Psalter in Psalm 1—the two ways: the way of the fool and the Way of Wisdom. Chapter 2 also closes (verses 20–22) with echoes of Psalm 1. Of course, the dependence could be the other way around or the idea might simply be a pervasive stock concept. The other seven opening chapters continue the elegant and eloquent unpacking of wisdom in terms of teaching, wisdom personified as a woman and the call to pursue wisdom. In terms of form there are here diverse literary methods and units that all join together to provide a sustained call.

It is in chapter 10 that proverbs are finally encountered and the change in form is stark. These biblical proverbs are two-line sayings that share the Hebrew literary form of parallelism—we will meet this in more detail in the post ‘Hebrew and Wisdom’. This first collection of proverbs continues until 22:16 and often termed the first Solomonic collection (see 10:1). A second Solomonic collection is found in 25:1–29:27 (note 25:1). In these two collections of proverbs there is little indication of ordering by theme or other criteria. The collection of twelve proverbs concerning ‘fools’ is one of the few exceptions to this observation.

Within the Book of Proverbs there are clearly other smaller collections of wisdom and distinct literary units. Their origin is attested directly in the text rather than being the subject of speculation.

It is useful to recognise the spectrum of form in wisdom literature, even at the basic level discussed here. At one extreme there are the two-line pithy proverbs and their often dogmatic or apparently axiomatic claims. The other end of the spectrum is the dialogue found in Job, sustained chapter-after-chapter. The whole spectrum despite this enormous variety of form is still readily recognisable as part of an overarching aim to discern how the world works. Like science’s quest for understanding and critical realism’s quest for truth, wisdom has its established norms that are always open to question and enquiry. The apparent tension between parable and dialogue simply points to the limits of wisdom and human reason. From a stance of faith we can recognise the necessity of both wisdom/reason and revelation for living the life of faith.

Wisdom literature is not only concerned with reason but with revelation too. If in no other sense it is recognised as Scripture. For some, the relationship between wisdom literature and the wider religion

S is for Song of Songs

Perhaps one of the last things the person new to the Hebrew Bible might expect to find is a book of erotic poetry. This is, however, exactly what the Song of Songs appears to be at face value—eight chapters of poetic episodes that speak of the intimate sexual relationship between a man and a woman. This erotic poetry has traditionally been seen as the work of King Solomon and the text itself mentions him several times. It is likely, however, that he is the deliberate subject of the book rather than its author. The clearest evidence of this is that once we have appreciated the obvious erotic nature of this book, it becomes clear that there is more going on than just love and sex. In particular it becomes apparent that the sexual relationship between King Solomon and his many wives is contrary to the rich mutuality intended by God for the relationship between a man and a woman.

In this way the broad nature of Song of Songs dismisses any idea that the Bible is prudish or rejects the importance of, and positive aspects of, human sexuality. For here in the Hebrew Bible we see the sexual union of man and woman celebrated joyfully. The more subtle agenda is however a critique of the all too commonplace corrupted sexual relationships in which the relationship is uneven.

A large number of interpreters of the Song of Songs have supressed both of these perspectives by either dismissing or at least subordinating the eroticism of this poetry beneath an allegorical interpretation. To be fair, allegorical interpretations abounded from early on in the history of the interpretation of this book. It is likely that for cultural reasons both within Judaism and early Christianity that the allegorical interpretation eclipsed the literal one because of a wider cultural disdain for sex—gnostic influences sought to separate the supposedly corrupt body from the purity of the spirit. This is not to say that there is no intention of allegory in these poems. It is very much the case that the collectors of the texts that now make up the Hebrew Bible saw not only erotic poetry but also a connection between the love between man and woman with that of the love between Yahweh and Israel. In this way it is vital that an allegorical interpretive dynamic should neither overshadow the literal celebration of the sexual union of man and woman, nor should it become fanciful, as allegory can so easily become. Rather than using the term allegorical, the term parable is probably a more appropriate one. Viewing these poems as parables implies that they have an analogical function in connecting the erotic relationship of love with that of God for his people. Allegory would attempt to interpret every detail in a fashion that is clearly forced and alien to any authorial or editorial intent.

A lot of attention has focused on identifying the narrative of the Song of Songs. Some see a simple story of lover and beloved. Others have seen a more complex narrative in which the shepherd and the king are two separate male characters. In this latter interpretation, followed by Iain Provain [1] for example, a contrast emerges between the true love between the women and the peasant shepherd with that of a forced relationship between the women and Solomon. I am more persuaded by Tremper Longmann III [2] who sees the book as an anthology of erotic poems. Free from an imposed storyline these poems speak of the delight of sexual intimacy and carry an analogical insight into the love of God for humanity and the possibility of its reciprocation. There is also within the poem an implied criticism of the still prevalent practice of powerful males purchasing women as commodities. In all of these ways it really is a Song of Songs.

 

References / Further Reading

  1. Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs: An NIV Application Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
  2. Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs: New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Downers Gove: Eerdmans, 2001.