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

Cheung, Simon Chi-chung, Wisdom Intoned: A Reappraisal of the Genre “Wisdom Psalms” (LHBOTS, 613; New York: Bloomsbury T. & T. Clark, 2015). Pp. 256. Hardcover. US$112.00. ISBN 978-0-567-66152-4.

Identifying so-called “wisdom psalms” in the Psalter produces widely divergent results, depending on the criteria used. Wisdom Intoned is the publication of Simon Cheung's 2011 dissertation under Katharine Dell (University of Cambridge), and it addresses this contested issue. Cheung discusses Pss 37, 49, 73, 128, 32, 39, and 19 (in that order) to show two strong examples of wisdom psalms (Pss 37; 49), one borderline case (Ps 73), and four fringe examples. By focusing on tone and function more than “form,” Cheung breaks through the genre impasse. His chapter summaries and his conclusions are clear, and the volume includes an appendix of wisdom psalms lists before a bibliography and indices.

In Chapter 1 (“Classifying ‘Wisdom Psalms’”), Cheung notes that the earliest classifications reflected the assumptions of form criticism, often rigidly tying genres to separate social settings of origin. Wisdom texts were thought to arise separately from the temple and its liturgical interests, making a “wisdom psalm” something of a late oxymoron in the Psalter (pp. 3–4; cf. Gunkel; Mowinckel).[1] Subsequent scholars either argued for wisdom-specific features in the wisdom psalms that tied these to a class of sages (cf. Crenshaw; Hurvitz) or they argued for a predominance of wisdom-related features—a cumulative case argument (cf. Whybray; Murphy).[2] Cheung uses a cumulative case approach, viewing formal features of a psalm not as a “signature mark” (p. 5) indicating its authorship and origin (Sitz im Leben) but as clues to the rhetorical, communicative purposes of the text. Cheung thus shifts away from the form to the function of the texts (pp. 14–19). He defines wisdom psalms not as texts tied to a distinct social institution or class but merely as texts resembling other wisdom literature in the Old Testament such as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job (p. 21).

Chapter 2 (“The Salient Wisdom Features”) thus turns briefly to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job to establish a family portrait for wisdom literature. Cheung notes that Proverbs has a strong focus on acquiring wisdom (p. 23), and argues that Ecclesiastes has not broken away from the wisdom tradition but uses its tools and seeks wisdom despite being pessimistic (p. 24). Job is the least like the other books due to its laments and divine speeches (pp. 26–27), so Cheung relies almost exclusively on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes for comparison.

In place of the form/content/context triad of traditional form criticism, Cheung offers his own triad of features for identifying wisdom psalms: (1) wisdom-related themes, (2) an intellectual tone, and (3) a didactic intention (p. 28). By wisdom-related themes, Cheung means topics similar to those in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, especially if dominant or central (p. 29). By an intellectual tone, Cheung means that the psalm contains vocabulary about knowing or thinking and also employs an approach to learning and persuading that is rationalistic as opposed to supernatural (i.e., no appeals to divine revelation; pp. 30–32). Finally, by didactic aim, Cheung means that the psalm seems intended to teach, as inferred by examining the text's speech-acts to see whether there is a predominant pedagogical direction to them (pp. 37–49). Cheung employs a prototype theory of genre in which texts can have greater or lesser resemblances to the most prototypical example (p. 49).

Cheung begins his analysis in Chapter 3 (“Psalm 37: The ABCs of Living in the Land”) by providing a translation, thematic analysis, discussion of the intellectual tone and didactic aim, and concluding with a summary. Most chapters follow this pattern. For Ps 37, Cheung finds a central wisdom-related theme: the contrasting fates of the righteous and the wicked (p. 72). The intellectual tone is strong, the psalmist's knowledge being based on life experience without appeal to divine help or revelation (p. 73). The speech-acts are related to teaching, including acts of directing (i.e., exhorting), explaining, defining, assuring, disapproving, asserting, testifying, etc. (p. 78). This is a prototypical wisdom psalm due to such cumulative features. Chapter 4 (“Psalm 49: The Riddle of Death”) gives another strong example of a wisdom psalm. Psalm 49 has themes of death-as-fate-of-all, relativizing wealth, and wisdom in trusting God, all of which are found in Ecclesiastes and Proverbs (p. 94). The intellectual tone and speech-acts show a strongly didactic thrust (p. 99).

Chapter 5 (“Psalm 73: Crossing the Boundary”) is a transition to less prototypical wisdom psalms. Granted that Ps 73 includes themes of unjust retribution, wisdom's limits, and some intellectual vocabulary, Cheung finds the evidence mixed. It has no strong didactic bent, being mostly speech-acts of lamenting, thanksgiving, and professing/testifying, and it looks to divine presence and guidance for answers (p. 121–22). While it should not be cast out of the “family,” Ps 73 is not a close relative to Pss 37 and 49 (p. 122). Its similarities to Job are what distance it from the wisdom category and connect it with other genres of psalms and prophetic texts (pp. 122–24).

In Chapter 6 (“‘Wisdom’ in the Fringe [I]: Two Cultic Psalms”), Cheung treats Ps 128 and Ps 32 and resists a dichotomy between wisdom and cult. Even though these psalms are on the outer fringe of the family, they still share wisdom features to a lesser degree. Psalm 128 does focus on the good life, reverence for Yahweh, and individual rewards, but these wisdom themes are in service of invoking God's blessing (p. 133). Benediction, rather than instruction, is the main aim (p. 137). Psalm 32 likewise has other themes and speech-acts (e.g., thanksgiving) that overshadow its occasional intellectual tone and vocabulary (p. 147). Cheung concludes that liturgical and educational goals were not mutually exclusive (pp. 147–51).

In Chapter 7 (“‘Wisdom’ in the Fringe [II]: A Joban and a Torah Psalm”), Cheung treats Ps 39 and Ps 19. He finds that Ps 39 “refuses to be straitjacketed into any one kind of psalm genre” (p. 163). Wisdom themes play a supporting role to the primary focus on the “fervent petitions” (p. 163). Psalm 19 is also a prayer for help, and the praising of Yahweh's “torah” is preparatory for this plea rather than an indicator of wisdom features per se. The nature imagery and the meditative tone are actually what place this psalm within the margins of the wisdom family, not the presence of the “torah” theme (p. 176).

My primary criticism of Cheung's approach is that he dismisses Job's status as wisdom literature too easily. Supposedly Proverbs and Ecclesiastes “have in common their enshrining of wisdom, acknowledgement of wisdom's limitations, and observations on the complexities and contradictions of real life,” whereas Job “fails as a reliable reference point because of its multiple genres [e.g., laments, narratives] and its parodying tendency” (p. 49). This claim is unconvincing and inconsistent, not only because the book of Job shares those first features but also because the formal features of its multiple genres should not be as important as the intellectual tone and didactic function of those genres. In terms of intellectual tone, rarely does any character appeal to divine revelation, and even in Job 38–41 the content is comprised of lessons from the created world available to humble observation. Furthermore, to overemphasize the laments in the book is to neglect how the laments and other genres contribute to the book's pedagogical debate about wisdom, moral integrity, and reverence—the reverence that Cheung elsewhere calls “the cardinal sapiential value” (p. 149). Lastly, Cheung possibly creates a false dichotomy between supernatural revelation and natural reasoning. If we instead re-examine the content and function of supernatural revelation in Job or Ps 73, for example, we may find that the knowledge conveyed is in fact accessible by rational inference. Cheung assumes that the psalmist's knowledge about God's nearness and justice in Ps 73 is “divinely mediated” (p. 126), but the shift that takes place in the “sanctuary” (Ps 73:17) may simply be due to congregational support for the psalmist rather than due to a divine vision or theophany. More generally, though, the dichotomy between independent human rationality and knowledge dependent on God's guidance breaks down in light of texts like Prov 3:5–7, and so Cheung's study raises further questions about the complex sources of human knowledge even within the more intellectual wisdom texts.

These drawbacks do not detract from an otherwise excellent contribution to the field. The book is important and ideal for scholars interested in specific conclusions about these psalms or interested in the general debates about wisdom literature. Cheung's cumulative case approach involving content, tone, and function seems to be a better way forward than the form-critical classifications that have helped and hindered our understandings of the wisdom psalms in the past.

Alexander Coe Stewart, McMaster Divinity College

[1] Hermann Gunkel and Joachim Begrich, Introduction to Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel (Mercer Library of Biblical Studies; trans. James D. Nogalski; Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998); Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel's Worship (trans. D. R. Ap-Thomas; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962). reference

[2] James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction (rev. ed.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998); Avi Hurvitz, Wisdom Language in Biblical Prosody (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Press, 1991 [Hebrew]); Norman Whybray, Reading the Psalms as a Book (JSOTSup, 222; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1996); Roland E. Murphy, “A Consideration of the Classification ‘Wisdom Psalms’,” in G. W. Anderson (ed.), Congress Volume, Bonn 1962 (VTSup, 9; Leiden: Brill, 1962), 156–67; Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002). reference