Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Penchansky, David, Understanding Israelite Wisdom Literature: Conflict and Dissonance in the Hebrew Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012). Pp. 141. Paperback. US$20.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-6706-3.

David Penchansky has provided a unique and well-written introduction to Israelite wisdom literature (i.e., biblical and extrabiblical) for both undergraduates and graduates. As his subtitle states, this work focuses on understanding the wisdom books through the disparities in voice and “fissures” in meanings. Penchansky's sensitivity as a teacher is evident throughout the book. He avoids reductionistic surveys and chooses instead to demonstrate fairly the uncertainty and difficulties in reading the wisdom books, which ultimately allows students to read the Bible with depth and nuance. As an interpreter, Penchansky wears his heart on his sleeve by sharing his personal difficulties in embracing certain interpretations of the wisdom books—intellectual honesty that benefits students. While this book is formatted as an introduction, it is filled with fresh ideas and provocative insights.

Aside from his chapters that survey the individual wisdom books, Penchansky spends two chapters pondering two tantalizing issues: the identity of the sages and the general absence of covenantal theology in biblical wisdom. He supports the conventional hypothesis that the sages were a development of the wisdom tradition in the urban centers. But he portrays the sages as being disdained by exemplifying how the Bible's non-wisdom authors portray them negatively (e.g., Gen 3 [the serpent as wise counselor], 2 Sam 13:3–5 [the rape of Tamar]; Isa 30:1–2, 31:1–2; Jer 8:9). However, as a whole these examples are less convincing since the arguments are too generalizing. For example with the narrative of Tamar's rape, Penchansky argues that since Jonadab is described as “a very wise person” and also devises the scheme for Absalom to rape Tamar, the author is implicitly condemning the wise. However, the lexeme “wise” (חכם) has different semantic ranges in different genres. Generally in wisdom literature, one cannot be considered unrighteous and wise, but in non-wisdom literature, the wise may be cast as wicked, and wisdom tends to be morally more neutral; specifically, how wisdom is utilized determines the (moral) worth of the person but not the wisdom itself.

Regarding the absence of covenantal theology in biblical wisdom, Penchansky only argues that there is an absence of references to specific biblical covenants (e.g., Davidic, Mosaic, Abrahamic, etc.). He proposes several explanations, but he settles upon the idea that the sages simply did not deem the Yahwistic covenant as important. He intimates that the sages left out and/or decentered the Yahwistic covenants as a result of their disillusionment. Unfortunately, Penchansky does not address the salient issue of the Solomonic frames to Proverbs and Qoheleth. Regardless of whether the Solomonic frame is original or not, one must question the presence of this disillusionment in light of the central conceptions of Solomon that go hand-in-hand with the Solomonic frame: Davidic kingship, founder of the Jerusalem temple, and wisdom via the Davidic covenant (1 Kgs 3:6–9). Ultimately, Penchansky may be correct and there may be an undercurrent of disdain, but he unduly boxes himself in with a theory that is difficult to substantiate.

In his chapter regarding Proverbs, Penchansky discusses the disunity between the ideologies of “Get Wisdom” versus “Fear God.” The “Get Wisdom” ideology proposes that one lives successfully by acquiring wisdom through carefully observing the “rules of nature.” In contrast, the “Fear God” ideology asserts that one can only hope to live well by fearing God because the unknowable God can overrule events and the “rules of nature.” While this dialectic is present to some degree, it may be overstated. For example, Penchansky cites Prov 3:5–7 as describing the preference of fearing God over acquiring wisdom; however, this example is dubious since the passage's frame is a father-to-son lecture, which is based upon acquiring wisdom. While these ideologies may have been set in opposition originally, the final form of Proverbs proposes that the acquisition of wisdom (and knowledge of God) begins with fearing the LORD (1:7, 2:5, 9:10, 15:33); that is, while the processes are distinct endeavors, they induce each other.

Penchansky's focus on dissonance is most profitable in his chapters concerning Job and Qoheleth. For Job, Penchansky exemplifies how identifying the hermeneutical lens of the book through different passages yields differing portrayals of God and solutions to the problem of evil. By using the divine speeches (chs. 40–42) as a hermeneutical center, he understands Job as insulting God and having no right to question God. Specifically, (1) Job's suffering is a result of God's inattention since humans are just a minor element among all of God's responsibilities and (2) humanity is not capable of questioning God since God is infinitely wiser and operates through principles that are wider and (in)different to human concerns. In contrast, by switching the hermeneutical lens to the narrative frame, Penchansky offers (and eventually prefers) the interpretation that God has been in the wrong. Because God restores Job and proclaims that he has spoken rightly, Job's silence (in the final chapter) may be “a mute protest against one whose supreme power has abused and used Job disgracefully in order to win a bet” (p. 47). In the end, Penchansky has given two intriguing, conflicting, and equally persuasive readings.

For his chapter on Qoheleth, Penchansky, like most other scholars, notes the disparity in message(s) throughout the book, but he does not delve into diachronic issues. He surveys well the discordant voices and does not attempt to untangle the voices of Pessimistic Qoheleth, Fear-God Qoheleth, and Enjoy-Life Qoheleth. Ultimately, Penchansky prefers Pessimistic Qoheleth as the true voice since he regards it as the most noble and helpful. Penchansky does something very unique as a scholar: he puts his feelings front and center as a key component in making difficult hermeneutical decisions. He makes an intuitive decision but does not try to hide it with academic, “objective” dressings. He reveals to students what really happens in the process of interpretation with many scholars. He returns to students a valuable component of interpretation which many teachers are trying so hard to strip away—their feelings.

For his chapters on Ben Sira and Pseudo-Solomon, Penchansky helpfully describes for students how these books depart from biblical wisdom through their conservative reflexes. He describes Ben Sira's correlation of wisdom and Torah as a narrowing of Israelite wisdom that made it less international and less focused upon “careful observation as a source of divine truth” (p. 93). This restriction/redefinition of wisdom removed the open and questioning nature of wisdom by equating wisdom with the revelation of Torah. More importantly, many readers may find this notion of conservative reflex to be a more persuasive reason for the general lack of covenantal references in biblical wisdom: the sages simply wanted to offer a wisdom that had an international, open, and “common sense” appeal. For Pseudo-Solomon, he explains that although the incorporation of Hellenistic (associated) ideas of the after-life and resurrection into Israelite wisdom may seem progressive, it was a means to conserve the wisdom ideal of God's divine retribution. He argues that Pseudo-Solomon mutes the wisdom traditions of Ecclesiastes and Job (i.e., the willingness to question God's justice) by solving the problem of evil through divine retribution in the afterlife. Thus, similarly to Ben Sira, Pseudo-Solomon also dismisses the trend toward a certain openness and the willingness to question God's righteousness that can be seen in previous biblical wisdom traditions, in order to recontextualize the wisdom enterprise for a Hellenistic context.

In the end, Penchansky has written a very instructive book that should be included in any class that examines Israelite wisdom. Penchansky has offered a unique survey that both introduces the major points of Israelite wisdom and also models for students how to critically engage the text with open hearts and minds. While some may disagree with his readings, few will disagree with how profitable this book will be for students who wish to learn how to read the Bible with sophistication and an eye for detail.

Kevin Chau, University of the Free State