Perspectives on Israelite Wisdom

Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar

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John Jarick
The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , December
     520 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Perspectives on Israelite Wisdom is a collection of twenty essays on a breadth of topics related to the critical scholarship of Old Testament wisdom traditions. These essays were originally presented as papers for the Oxford Old Testament Seminar between 2011 and 2014, and have been subsequently revised for this volume, which is the fifth in the series. This volume has been organized into three sections: Part 1, “Issues in the Study of Israelite Wisdom”; part 2, “The Wisdom Corpus of the Hebrew Bible”; and part 3, “Other Texts in Relation to Wisdom.”

Part 1 includes five essays that focus on particular issues in the study of Israelite wisdom. In the first paper, Stuart Weeks re-examines Walther Zimmerli’s article on the “place and limits” of wisdom (“Ort und Grenze der Weisheit im Rahmen der alttestamentlichen Thelogie”, in Les Sagesses du Proche-Orient Ancien. Colloque de Strasbourg 17-19 mai 1962; Travaux du Centre d’Études Supérieures Spécialisé d’Histoire des Religions de Strasbourg; Presses Universitaires de France, 1963, 121-37), and concludes that, despite the difficult and idiosyncratic nature of the wisdom books, they provide direct engagement with theological and moral issues, some of which can be traced back to the earliest extant human literature. John Barton then considers the relationship between Old Testament wisdom literature and ethics, noting that wisdom ethics were likely always theological in a loose sense and bore much similarity to virtue ethics. Although Jenni Williams concludes that men and women seem to exercise the same kind of wisdom in the Old Testament, she notes that the contextual spheres in which they exercise wisdom differs. Aulikki Nahkola demonstrates the potential that paremiology—that is the formal study of proverbs as originally oral folk sayings—can offer the study of the book of Proverbs. Will Kynes concludes Part 1 with a reflection upon the development of the classification of “wisdom literature” as a genre, which he traces back to the nineteenth-century, and suggests that “wisdom” would be better understood as a concept rather than as a genre.

Part 2 focuses upon issues pertaining to those books of the Hebrew Bible that have customarily been associated with wisdom traditions: Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Gary Rendsburg contends that the language of Proverbs differs from standard biblical Hebrew (Judahite Hebrew), and instead reflects Israelian Hebrew, suggesting that Proverbs contains material that may have been “transferred/imported” from northern Israel to Judah. James Patrick notes that within the Hebrew Bible, the phrase “the fear of the Lord” only appears in the wisdom and Deuteronomist literature, and concludes that the book of Proverbs and Deuteronomy employed the phrase in a similar way. David Clines examines the Lord’s description of the infrastructure of the universe in Job 38-41, which Clines contends is employed to help turn Job’s attention away from the injustice that he suffered to the maintenance of the world created by God. Focusing upon Job’s response to the divine speeches in Job 42.1-6, Terje Stordalen demonstrates how most scholarship has tended to favor a “tame” interpretation of Job, which has been influenced by the work’s canonical history. John Jarick demonstrates how the Book of Ecclesiastes shares the structure of an ancient Greek public speech. Jennie Grillo then demonstrates how Jerome and Gregory of Nyssa’s readings of Ecclesiastes might be utilized as a corrective for later Christian interpretations, which tend to assess the text negatively. In the final paper of part 2, Mette Bundvad utilizes spatial theory to reconsider the relationship between what he refers to as the “cosmological poem” of Ecclesiastes 1.4-11 and the “royal fiction” of 1.12-2.20.

Part 3 considers how other texts may exhibit various wisdom elements. Susan Gillingham demonstrates how the Psalms inform assessments of wisdom in terms of writing, thinking, and living. Edmée Kingsmill contends that there is much to favor designating the Song of Songs as a wisdom book, particularly since it employs similar language and imagery to the book of Proverbs. John Day examines the relationship between the Garden of Eden stories of Genesis 2-3 and wisdom, concluding that these stories display the sentiment that wisdom should be sought out in obedience to God, and not solely through human autonomy, after the manner of Adam and Eve. Highlighting the presence of “wisdom” and “wise” in the Pentateuch, Philip Yoo questions why such terminology is absent from Leviticus and Numbers, and concludes that the wandering generations in these books, who cannot be called “wise,” serve as a warning to future generations to seek wisdom and fear the Lord. Katharine Dell suggests that much of Jeremiah 1-25 originated from the prophet and that this work exhibits key wisdom elements, which should not be understood as merely redactional. Deborah Rooke compares the biblical story of Nabal (1 Samuel 25) with the oratorio Nabal of 1764 (a work composed by Thomas Morell and set to Handelian music), and notes the ways that the oratorio subtly changes 1 Samuel 25 by highlighting David’s righteousness, Abigail’s innocence, and Nabal’s foolishness. James Aitken examines the poems of Sirach 34 and 35, and argues that Ben Sira does not reject the symposium, but rather Sirach, like other classical works, employs the symposium as a setting to illustrate proper behavior. In examining “friendship” in Sirach, James Harding cautions that the question of intertextuality must be resolved through a case-by-case analysis of the relationship between manuscripts and versions of Sirach and works that now constitute the Hebrew Bible.

As a whole, this collection of essays has much to commend it. These essays serve to highlight current trends in the study of wisdom literature, problematize the concept of “wisdom literature,” suggest new approaches to the study of Old Testament wisdom literature, and offer intriguing interpretations of particular texts that exhibit wisdom traditions. Particularly notable were the essays in part 3 that investigated the influence of wisdom traditions upon works of the Hebrew Bible outside of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job, and which serve to expand the horizons of where one might expect to find wisdom language, motifs, and traditions. However, several of the essays in this collection could have been strengthened further through some additional discussion about how the study of the wisdom literature found at Qumran might shed light upon the Old Testament wisdom literature. Overall, however, the collection of essays in this work is a fantastic assortment that would certainly serve both scholars and advanced students alike in gaining a deeper sense of current trends and concerns in the study of the Old Testament wisdom literature.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew D. Knight-Messenger is a Ph.D. candidate at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada.

Date of Review: 
November 7, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Jarick is Lecturer in Old Testament at the University of Oxford.


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