Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Sneed, Mark R. (ed.), Was There a Wisdom Tradition: New Perspectives in Israelite Wisdom Studies (SBLAIL; Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2015). Pp. xi + 325. US$40.95. Paperback. ISBN 978-1-6283-7099-7.

Even those with only a moderate exposure to the SBL program unit Wisdom in Israelite and Cognate Traditions will be aware of the recent discussions surrounding the question of whether or not there ever was such a thing as an Israelite wisdom tradition. The editor of this current volume, Mark Sneed, among others, has been instrumental in this discussion, and I welcome this important discussion being put into print and made available to a broader audience. The primary question of the volume, as the title suggests, is centered on the existence of a wisdom tradition in ancient Israel. To the editor's credit, the volume's contributors answer this question in a variety of ways. Although, to be accurate, all but one of the essays (p. 3) challenge or in some way modify the dominant paradigm set out by Gunkel, that of a wisdom corpus that was “non-Yawhistic” and representative of a “worldview distinctive from that of the prophets and priests” (p. 2). In terms of structure, the essays in the book are divided into three parts: genre theory and the wisdom tradition, case studies, and one essay focussed on ancient Near Eastern (ANE) comparison.

Seven essays comprise the first part and, it must be said, in terms of the primary question the volume seeks to address, they seem to be the most relevant. Kynes's essay challenges the existence of a wisdom tradition, suggesting it is a construct of modern scholarship, and advocates dropping the paradigm of ‘wisdom’ literature in favour of intertextual studies that “would foster a more healthy relationship between the texts associated with the category and the rest of the biblical corpus” (p. 33). Similarly, Sneed's essay challenges the dominant paradigm by noting the variety of modes and genres within those books typically designated as wisdom literature. Unlike Kynes, Sneed does not suggest fully throwing away the category, but he does offer the challenge that the boundaries of genre “can never be hard and fast and that there may be more than one way to configure them” (p. 63). The point, it seems for Sneed, is that when it comes to identifying a wisdom genre we can only “grasp the general features, but never the details” (pp. 62–63). In his essay, Fox offers something of a different tone from the previous two authors, suggesting that wisdom literature—although, importantly, not a ‘wisdom school’—can be a useful “heuristic genre” (p. 82) as it recognizes affinities between certain books. That being said, Fox does suggest that the category has been “spread too wide” and should be limited to those texts that “purport…to discover and teach insights about the ethical and successful life…without appealing to revelation or laws” (p. 82). In his essay, Miller suggests seven categories by which wisdom literature has and can be identified, three of which are particularly important: instructional rhetoric, realized eschatology, and experiential epistemology. While not providing a strict definition of wisdom literature, Miller argues that these specific characteristics show how the “texts relate to each other” (p. 109). Similar to Miller, Schellenberg's essay suggests that there is a wisdom ‘worldview,’ distinct from other OT literature and shared by the five wisdom books. To explore this question, she focuses on four areas: cosmology, epistemology, ethics/understanding of society, and theology. Dell, building her argument upon adaptations of speech-act theory in the wisdom psalms (and identifying markers such as a ruling wisdom thrust, intellectual tone, and didactic intention) suggests that wisdom literature can be understood in terms of “family resemblance” (p. 155). Thus, she sees wisdom literature as a spectrum, consisting of an identifiable core (Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) to which other books are ‘related’ such as Job, which itself is related to other books by elements such as lament. Weeks finishes the first set of essays by critiquing the assumptions of form criticism and noting the difficulties associated with identifying specific genres. In place of strict categorization, Weeks suggests scholars utilize the current field of genology. Similar to Dell, he also suggests scholars should speak about these texts in terms of family resemblance.

The second part of the book consists of four essays that present case studies on the subject. The first essay, from Saur, looks at wisdom psalms, and presents an analysis of how wisdom thinking presents itself in three of those psalms—namely, Pss 37, 49, and 73. Ultimately, Saur concludes that the psalms reflect a broader “sapiential discourse that went on in ancient Judah and Israel” (p. 199) and, thus, was not limited to a class of ‘sages’ even though they connect to other wisdom literature. Forti, in her essay, suggests that greater methodological precision is needed in identifying the wisdom psalms and suggests a number of criteria: thematic, ideational, linguistic, stylistic, lexical, and figurative. This is followed by an analysis of Pss 39 and 104. Heckl's essay differs from the preceding two in that he explores the growth of the Hebrew canon, and the incorporation of the books of Job and Proverbs into that canon during the later Persian/early Hellenistic period. Heckl's basic argument is that the books of Job and Proverbs, in their frame narratives, reveal an awareness of the Pentateuch and the prophetic books as already semi-canonical. In the final essay of part two Hamilton looks at wisdom material in the book of Ezekiel and argues that while there were discrete traditions in the OT these often interacted with each other and, thus, the ‘boundaries’ between these traditions were not rigid. The third part of the book—on ANE comparison—consists of one essay by Shupak that focusses on the relationship of Egyptian and Israelite wisdom. In the essay, Shupak argues that Egyptian wisdom was found in the scribal class and was initially secular in orientation, though it later became concerned with the cult. She argues that Israelite wisdom was influenced by Egyptian wisdom and, indeed, followed a similar trajectory of development.

Given the nature of the volume and the number of essays, I will limit my comments to a few general observations. First, this volume is a welcome and, I would argue, needed contribution to discussions about Hebrew wisdom literature and tradition. While one might not agree fully with all the positions of the various authors, Sneed is correct when he says that we need a “reassessment” (p. 2) of the current consensus.

That being said, the value that parts two and three of the volume add to this conversation is not apparent. Indeed, the essays are well-written, but if the focus of the volume is a reassessment of the consensus regarding wisdom tradition they appear somewhat tangential. Their methodological frameworks are not always clearly defined, nor is it always apparent how their work specifically relates to the primary questions introduced at the beginning of the volume.

Nevertheless, the volume is stimulating, especially in its first section, and offers a valuable contribution to the study of Hebrew wisdom literature. I would highly recommend it for those who are generally interested in the topic and especially for those who want a good introduction to an important and burgeoning conversation.

Alexander Breitkopf, McMaster Divinity College