Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

O'Dowd, Ryan, The Wisdom of Torah: Epistemology in Deuteronomy and the Wisdom Literature (FRLANT, 225; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009). Pp. x+213. Hardcover. €69.90. ISBN 978-3-525-53089-4.

In The Wisdom of Torah: Epistemology in Deuteronomy and the Wisdom Literature, an adapted version of his PhD thesis, O'Dowd states that the “main purpose is to explore the conditions and contexts for knowing in the ancient Hebrew world, focused particularly on the literature in the traditions of wisdom and torah,” and also to provide a “‘meta-critique’ of modern epistemology” (p. xi). The book commences with a methodological chapter, in which O'Dowd briefly explores approaches to epistemology. A stark contrast is drawn between modern (and post-modern) approaches and that betrayed by the Hebrew Bible, which “is not theoretical in its approach to life and worldview ... [r]ather, ancient Hebrew thought communicates through a holistic approach to life: ethics, history and worship are grounded in a mythical, narrative framework,” where “[t]o know is to live in ethical conformity with God's ordered reality, not to escape from it into objective analysis” (p. 3). This “mythical, narrative framework” is the key aspect of O'Dowd's study, the scarlet thread that runs through his book. The foundations for the framework are established in the remarkably short (given its scope) second chapter, which explores Genesis 1–11, the patriarchal material and Exodus. A failing of the chapter—which might also be said of the whole book—is that it paints a decidedly monochromatic picture of this material and takes little account of its diverse origins and its likely development over some considerable period of time. This inevitably leads to a rather narrow understanding of Hebrew epistemology, which lacks the colour and variety of the biblical text and which is then contrasted with a somewhat monochromatic (if not stereotyped) picture of epistemology in the modern and post-modern contexts.

Three chapters are devoted to consideration of Deuteronomy, where “actualisation” is the driving theme. O'Dowd describes the “book's overall strategy of depicting Israel in a liminal journey where the events of the past and promises of the future continually (re-)shape her present worldview.” He explains that, “‘Actualisation’ describes this process wherein the climatic events of the past are renewed in the present and the future. Actualisation grounds Israel's life, purpose and knowledge in a [sic] unfolding narrative of redemption” (p. 25). Here epistemology equates with knowledge of God and God's world acquired through obedience to Torah. This gives a more precise focus to his earlier statement that “to know is to live in ethical conformity with God's ordered reality”; however, “epistemology” rather gets lost behind discussion of Torah-obedience in the present and for future generations. O'Dowd argues well his case for the importance of actualisation in Deuteronomy, showing how the narrative in the early chapters establishes the foundation upon which the law code in chs. 12–26 is built, leading into the focus on obedience “today,” both for the community at Moab and for all generations to come, in the final chapters. In this way Torah-obedience is tied in to Israel's story in the past, is directly commanded to the Israelite community in the “present” of Deuteronomy and continues on a trajectory into the future. O'Dowd rightly notes the importance in this regard of the movement from a focus on the actual words of the Lord to the spoken words of Moses to the written word, which will continue to speak the Lord's word long after Moses has gone. It should be noted that the “present” of Deuteronomy for O'Dowd is not an historical “present,” but the “present” of “Deuteronomy's own aesthetic and represented world.” Again, a shortcoming of the book is that it fails to take sufficient account of the historical development of the text: O'Dowd's “meta-critical hermeneutic” is insufficiently engaged with historical-critical interpretation.

The next two chapters deal with the wisdom literature, one chapter on Proverbs and another on Ecclesiastes and Job. O'Dowd adopts a “final-form” approach to all these books and in each case the framework of the book is determinative for its interpretation. Thus, in relation to Proverbs, he states that “Proverbs 1–9 and 31 create an envelope for the book and situate the bulk of the individual proverbs within the cosmic, mythical worldview of created order” (p. 114). It is clear that, as with his discussion of Deuteronomy, the “cosmic, mythical world view of created order” is determinative for epistemology in his reading of the wisdom literature; he says, “Knowledge is, therefore, a matter of applying God's design for creation in every area of human existence—intellectual, religious, emotional, aesthetic and social” (p. 120). This again flattens the diversity and the creative tensions—if not contradictions—within and between these books. It should be acknowledged that O'Dowd seeks to resist a simplistic and overly narrow reading of Proverbs (“a ‘crystal cage’ optimism”) and argues for, what he calls the “polyacoustic voice” or “the polyphony of voices” or the “multivalency” in Proverbs and in the wisdom literature as a whole. This allows “the knower…to recognize the ambiguity and mystery that are inherent in human life,” but nonetheless, the creation order sets “the boundaries and limits of human morality and knowledge” (p. 136). This means that, according to O'Dowd, the fundamental worldview underlying each book is basically the same (and the same as Deuteronomy) and this determines and constrains epistemology. O'Dowd imposes an interpretative framework upon each book which severely constrains interpretation. Thus, for example, for O'Dowd the few instances in Ecclesiastes where Qohelet issues “traditional affirmations,” “deconstruct the fruitless, disengaged rhetoric which dominates” (p. 152). This seems to me to deprive Ecclesiastes of all that makes it truly engaged with life in a world of hebel (“vanity”). But my biggest concern here is that O'Dowd has ignored what must surely be a crucial aspect of any epistemological study of Ecclesiastes—the repeated emphasis throughout the second half of the book on what is not known (6:12; 8:1, 7, 16–17; 9:1, 10, 12; 10:14; 11:2, 5, 6). This is a key theme in Ecclesiastes which has a significant bearing on interpretation.

In his final chapter, O'Dowd draws together his study under five headings: Ontology (“knowledge is acquired and justified on the basis of a preconceived understanding of reality,” p. 163); Ideology (true knowledge is “inhibited by the ambiguities of life and distorted by the ideologies of idolatry and evil,” p. 166); Liminality (the experience of transition is woven “into the ontological realities of the story behind these texts,” p. 168); Hermeneutics (“Reason is not excluded, but it is set within a larger interdisciplinary matrix, focused on right relationship to God and his creation,” p. 170); and Ethics (“ethics and knowing were always inseparable for Israel,” p. 173). He then traces the development of epistemology into the inter-testamental and New Testament periods, before reflecting on some implications for today. O'Dowd argues that a Hebraic epistemology for today would be holistic rather than dualistic; it would adopt a “mythical/storied framework for knowing” rather than a systematic one (p. 181); it would be based on the “fear of the Lord” (which “would remind us of the place of wonder and of the ‘other’ in our journey to knowing,” p. 182); and it would “highlight the ethical and relational aspects of knowing” (p. 182, his emphasis).

Overall this is a very interesting and thought-provoking study, which engages with important issues in relation to epistemology. However, the scope is too large, with the result that insufficient attention is paid to the particular issues relevant to the study of epistemology in the individual books. Moreover, O'Dowd interprets the literature against the background of a particular worldview and at best flattens out the diversity of the material, or at worst skews interpretation to fit into the hermeneutical straightjacket he imposes upon it.

Doug Ingram, St John's Nottingham