Understanding Wisdom Literature: Conflict and Dissonance in the Hebrew Text by David Penchansky, Eerdmans, 2012 (978-0-8028-6706-3), xii + 129 pp., pb £12.99
Article first published online: 10 JAN 2013
© 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Reviews in Religion & Theology
Volume 20, Issue 1, pages 110–113, January 2013
How to Cite
Jones, P. H. (2013), Understanding Wisdom Literature: Conflict and Dissonance in the Hebrew Text by David Penchansky, Eerdmans, 2012 (978-0-8028-6706-3), xii + 129 pp., pb £12.99. Reviews in Religion & Theology, 20: 110–113. doi: 10.1111/rirt.12042
- Issue published online: 10 JAN 2013
- Article first published online: 10 JAN 2013
David Penchansky, professor of Theology at the University of St Thomas in St Paul, Minnesota, has written a refreshingly candid introduction to the three Wisdom Books of the Hebrew Bible as well as the apocryphal books of Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon. Understanding Wisdom Literature is consistent in tone with previous books by the same author, which highlight neglected themes in biblical study. The book is comprised of seven short chapters, book-ended by an introduction and conclusion.
From the outset, Penchansky argues that the biblical authors treat sages with suspicion (with the exception of Joseph in Genesis 37–50). Not surprisingly, then, the first sage Penchansky identifies is the serpent of Genesis 3, whose words to Eve are paraphrased thus: ‘Do not listen to Yahweh, but instead use your own senses and reasoning to make an intelligent decision’ (p. 16). This characterization of the serpent, as an irreligious sage seeking to discern the best path through life by trusting in earthly insight, leads into the second chapter. In Proverbs, Penchansky identifies two wisdom schools that are apparently pitted against one another, what he calls the ‘Fear God’ sages and the ‘Get Wisdom’ sages. Penchansky also acknowledges the prominence of Lady Wisdom (and her nemesis) throughout the book, but no attempt is made to force a simple, dialectic framework upon a book that resists systematization. Rather, Penchansky recognizes that such attempts are bound to fail, just as the two schools themselves ultimately ‘provide half-baked explanations’ for the abiding presence of evil in the world (p. 32). The discussion again provides a segue into Chapter 3, which considers the concerted effort made by Job's friends to reduce the complexities of life to rigid, pre-packaged clichés.
Throughout Chapter 3, Penchansky engages with Tsevat's famous essay, ‘The Meaning of the Book of Job’ (1966). Whereas Tsevat treats Yahweh's speeches in Job 38–41 as an interpretive clue for the book, thereby emphasizing that Job learns his place in the world by humbling himself before God (such a reading is based on a certain reading of Job 42.6), Penchansky proposes Job 42.7 as the book's hermeneutical key: ‘You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has’. It is unfortunate, however, that Penchansky takes the Hebrew term nekonah, translated as ‘right’ in 42.7 by the NIV and NRSV, to mean true, as this pushes his conclusions in a dubious direction. For Penchansky, because what Job has spoken is true, Yahweh's final verdict amounts to a concession that he has attacked an innocent family in order to win ‘an intellectual argument with his friend’ (p. 39, 48). But Yahweh makes it clear that Job does not fully understand what is true (Job 38.2; 40.2). Furthermore, given the nuances of nekonah, the point is not that God considers the content of Job's outbursts to be ‘true’ or ‘correct’, but that Job has spoken ‘what is right’ in the sense of what is ‘fixed’ and ‘established’, that is, in accordance with reality. Penchansky's understanding of what is for him the critical verse proves problematic also for the fifth chapter on covenantal theology. There, by the same token, Penchansky interprets ‘not right’ to mean untrue, and therefore deduces that everything the friends say is ‘unreliable’ and ‘worthless’ (p. 72), which is surely an overstatement. After all, much of the counsel given by Job's friends is true to some extent, if not overly reductive. Another concern I have with the chapter on Job is that since the transformative element in Job's encounter with God is passed over almost completely, Penchansky's reading does not offer much in the way of an answer to the question posed at the beginning of his chapter, concerning the theological knot of undeserved evil (p. 35).
In Chapter 4, Penchansky identifies three voices at odds with one another in the book of Ecclesiastes: Pessimistic Qoheleth, Fear God Qoheleth, and Enjoy Life Qoheleth. (‘Qoheleth’ is the Hebrew term for Teacher or Preacher.) Dividing up the text according to these themes may serve some purpose, but it seems equally plausible to suggest that Qoheleth struggled to discern a singular proposal for the meaning of life. Indeed, perhaps holding these voices together is part of Qoheleth's message.
In Chapter 5, Penchansky goes to some lengths to demonstrate how covenant theology, so central to the rest of the Bible, is altogether absent from the wisdom literature. Since Israelite covenants were not at the center of Israelite consciousness, the concept of covenant ought to be de-centered from its modern, theological perch as well. The chapter's conclusion seems to suggest that such a resolve would promote the theology of Ecclesiastes to a more central place (p. 84).
Chapter 6 offers a brief exploration of the apocryphal Wisdom of Ben Sira, which esteems obedience to Torah as the embodiment of wisdom (p. 90). Ben Sira's aversion to honest questioning is at odds with the earlier complaints in Job and Ecclesiastes, which is precisely the point Penchansky wishes to make. Hellenization created a situation whereby Ben Sira's students were forced to sustain their Jewish identity not through openness to foreign ideas, but by binding themselves exclusively to the land and Law of Israel. Thus, instead of hearing each dissonant voice in its own right and maintaining the tension (as Penchansky wishes to do), Ben Sira settles for a harmonization between law and wisdom. So too, with Pseudo-Solomon, who authored the Wisdom of Solomon. Rather than encouraging questions, tradition becomes authoritative and doubt sinful (p. 97). Pseudo-Solomon's emphasis upon retributive justice is a step towards conservatism, away from Qoheleth's openness to ambiguity.
Understanding wisdom literature (as the title promises) requires that differences (or dissonances) be reconciled to some extent, and this is where Penchansky's approach can seem arbitrary. Of Job, it is said that ‘[t]he reader must decide which portion and which voice to listen to, in order to produce a meaning from the book’ (p. 48). Similarly, concerning the choice between three Qoheleths: ‘I cannot say that one argument is superior, because the superior argument would only be the one I find most convincing’ (p. 63). Moreover, Penchansky's discussions are somewhat circular, presenting categories which he then proceeds to break down (e.g. the ‘Fear God’ and ‘Get Wisdom’ schools of Proverbs both ultimately prove inadequate). Beyond identifying dissonance in the Hebrew text, one must also account for why the final redactors allowed such conflict and dissonance to stand. What did they hope future generations would gain from such texts?
Penchansky's book is a helpful guide for coming to terms with the dissonant voices within the wisdom literature. He is frank about the proliferation of voices within these books and their resistance to harmonization, and he finds creative ways to present the disparity. To this reader, the book's greatest benefit is its delineation of the historical traditions associated with wisdom literature, accounting for the shift from ancient Israel's inquisitiveness to the impact of Hellenization, which quenched questions and drowned out doubt. The book persuasively suggests that ‘ambiguity might be the true “essence” of the wisdom tradition’ (p. 113), and will provoke thought among students and lay readers alike.