Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 15 (2015) - Review

Brown, William P., Wisdom's Wonder: Character, Creation, and Crisis in the Bible's Wisdom Literature (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2014). Pp. 235. Paperback. US$25.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-6793-3.

William P. Brown's Wisdom's Wonder: Character, Creation, and Crisis in the Bible's Wisdom Literature is a thematic introduction to the biblical wisdom texts that offers a canonical reading of the corpus as individual books with a unifying theme. In chapter 1, Brown briefly sketches the unique challenges that the wisdom literature poses any interpreter. These challenges create a myriad of interpretations and controlling themes, but two views predominate. One view holds creation as wisdom's central theme, while the other views character formation and the developing self as the primary focus. Brown suggests this is a false dichotomy—character and creation work in tandem rather than being at odds. Creation is the context while character formation is the rhetorical aim (p. 5). “If one can discover…the nexus between creation and character,” writes Brown, “then one has come upon a common heuristic framework, a hermeneutical lens, by which to understand wisdom's subtle coherence and its striking diversity” (p. 5). The thesis of the book is that the concept of wonder is the nexus that provides the hermeneutical lens for understanding wisdom.

The book started out as an invitation to revise Brown's Character in Crisis, but turned into a full-fledged rewrite around expanded themes.[1] In a helpful preface Brown explains how the rewrite moves beyond the original by exploring previously neglected themes like the role of desire and the emotions, the diversity of the wisdom texts, the social and personal crises into which the sages spoke, and the self's relationship to the broader world. This is the second time Brown, now a seasoned and respected scholar, has been over this material and it shows in the ease with which he engages some of the most challenging texts in the Hebrew Bible. Readers will not find themselves evaluating an argument as much as trying on a new set of clothes to see if they fit.

Brown spends the rest of chapter 1 establishing key terms and concepts such as creation, character, wonder, and wisdom. These discussions are nuanced, detailed, and helpful for elucidating Brown's particular approach. Riffing on St. Anselm, Brown describes wonder as “fear seeking understanding” (p. 24), which is rooted in wisdom's “epistemological distinctiveness…namely, its appeal to experience” (p. 19). Wonder is an emotion akin to awe that results from “an experience of disorientation…in short, crisis” (p. 20). In wisdom's lexicon wonder is closely related to the fear of the Lord (p. 38). To put all of Brown's key themes in relation to each other, crisis creates wonder and animates the search for wisdom that will develop character. The body of the book offers readings of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes that develop the relationship of character, creation, and wonder in each text.

Chapter 2 treats Proverbs. It begins with a reading of the prologue (1:1–7), focusing on the litany of wisdom terms found there. Brown discerns in these verses the shape of the book as a whole—a growing up from “value to virtue” (p. 39). The son of Proverbs is a character void for readers to fill (p. 45). Over the course of the book they are taken on a “liminal journey” out of the home and into the bustling city streets where they must learn to adjudicate between competing pleas for allegiance (pp. 64–66). The fear of the Lord and Wisdom are the objects of wonder that guide “the son” in adjudicating between the various paths open to him as represented by the sayings of chs. 10–29 and the host of characters they present. Brown's reading moves beyond thinking about Proverbs as a collection of advice literature to treating it as “a manual of desires” for shaping character (p. 66).

Chapters 3 and 4 guide us into the morass of Job. Chapter 3 treats Job 1–31 and focuses on the “deformation” of his character (p. 67). Brown suggests viewing Job as a thought experiment that picks up where Proverbs leaves off. What happens if the righteous man, the wise and successful patriarch, is cut loose from all moorings that hold down his worldview? Brown exposits this question through a careful reading of Job that moves linearly through the material with an eye to how both God and Job develop from flat characters in the prologue to incredibly complex characters in the dialogues. Job matures through the dialogues as he gathers the strength to call God to account even as he maintains the integrity and fear of the Lord that characterized him in the prologue (p. 102). In Chapter 4, Brown discusses the resolution of the thought experiment in Job 32–42. The gist of Brown's reading is that God's response to Job situates him in the wonder of creation alongside the beasts—most climactically behemoth and leviathan (40:15–41:34). God's discourse “seems to diffuse rather than resolve Job's case” (p. 109). This decentering gives Job a new foundation for his worldview, one “couched in sublime wonder” (p. 126).

In Chapters 5 and 6, Brown turns to examine Ecclesiastes. As Qohelet observes the world, death and hebel are the great levelers that sever causal connections and strip wisdom of “moral potency and material promise” (p. 158). At first glance it seems like Qohelet's world leaves little room for wonder as a vehicle for character formation. However, in resigning himself to the inscrutability of the world, Qohelet observes “a transcendent…symmetry that rises above the fray of life's vicissitudes” (p. 160; e.g., 1:1–11; 3:1–8). This, says Brown, is the “unsettling side of wonder” (p. 160). Unexpectedly then, Qohelet too is concerned with character formation. We see this in the arc of the book which moves from pessimistic contemplation in the early chapters to become progressively more and more didactic in the later chapters. Maturity of character for Qohelet is to accept what good gifts come without pretense to certitude, “free from delusions of gain and grandeur, royal or commercial, moral or selfish” (p. 182).

Wisdom literature is so intricate and varied that not all of Brown's judgments or readings will satisfy. For example, I would like to see the fear of the Lord/God differentiated from wonder more clearly. It seemed to me that the former term could subsume the latter while uniting character and creation with the benefit of being a term already integral to all three wisdom books (Prov 1:7; Job 28:28; Eccl 12:13; pp. 37–39, 161–6). A different example is the source of crisis Brown sees behind Proverbs. He places its urban settings and fear of the other in a post-exilic context drawing parallels to Haggai and Nehemiah (pp. 40–41). It is certainly true that the final form of Proverbs was not complete till late in the Second Temple period, but this is insufficient to source the crises of Proverbs in a Ptolemaic socio-cultural milieu (p. 40 n. 38). Nothing in the collections or framing material of Proverbs demands this social setting and it is not obvious or non-controversial; thus Brown's argument would be stronger for suggesting a more universal crisis that more compellingly fits with the journey from youth to maturity—namely, adolescence.

A short concluding chapter helpfully summarizes each major theme through all three books and presents a brief synthesis. In Brown's hands, wonder proves a compelling lens for reading biblical wisdom. After reading his essays it will be difficult to view the wisdom books as hodge-podge collections or even simply as “advice literature” (p. 194). The book would provide an excellent, thought-provoking complement to standard introductions' discussions of authorship, dating, and textual issues. Wisdom's Wonder is artfully written and should serve as a model example of how canonical readings of wisdom literature that are attentive to the pedagogy, emotions, and dynamics of these books can open them up for contemporary readers.

Alexander T. Kirk, University of Toronto

[1] William P. Brown, Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996). reference