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Reading the Wisdom Books Canonically — An Excerpt from "Canon and Biblical Interpretation"

Categories Old Testament Book Excerpts

9780310523291Canon and Biblical Interpretation is a unique, landmark volume in the "Scripture and Hermeneutics Series." It examines the canonical approach to interpreting the Bible and the various criticisms that have been leveled against such an approach.

Leading biblical scholars contribute explore a canonical interpretation in relation to different parts of the Bible, such as the Pentateuch, the Wisdom books, the Psalms, and the Gospels. Essays address such issues as canonical authority and the controversial relationship between canonical interpretation and general hermeneutics.

In our excerpt today, Tremper Longman III explores a canonical interpretation to the wisdom literature in the Old Testament. "While there is a place for studying these books in isolation from each other," Longman writes, "it is important to ultimately read each wisdom book in the context of the others, and also to read them in the light of the broader canon including the New Testament."

Read the excerpt and explore the book yourself to understand what it means and why it matters to read Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job canonically. Also, check out the Scripture & Hermeneutics Pack (Just $150 | Retail Value $300).

The purpose of this chapter is to explore a canonical interpretation of wisdom literature of the Old Testament. While there is a place for studying these books in isolation from each other, it is important to ultimately read each wisdom book in the context of the others, and also to read them in the light of the broader canon including the New Testament.

Defined narrowly as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, the wisdom texts of the Old Testament fit strangely with one another and with the rest of the canon, at least on a first reading. Proverbs’ optimistic view that wisdom leads to reward (‘the LORD will not let the righteous go hungry’ [10:3] seems in tension with Ecclesiastes’ skepticism about appropriate retribution (‘nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful’ [9:11]) as well as with a righteous, but suffering Job.

In addition, Christian interpreters are further concerned with the question of wisdom literatures’ relationship to the New Testament. Or perhaps I should say, ought to be concerned. Conservative scholars as well as others today are loath to read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament for fear of distorting the original message of the book. While I agree that there is a danger of such distortion, this should lead us to be careful rather than to avoid a canonical reading. Indeed, I would suggest that to read the Old Testament without reference to the New Testament is not a Christian reading of the Old Testament at all.

The Book of Proverbs

We begin with an analysis of the book of Proverbs in isolation from the rest of the canon. In this way, we will recognize the apparent tension of the book with the other two main exemplars of biblical wisdom, Job and Ecclesiastes. Note that we will examine the finished form of the book of Proverbs and not discuss the pre-history of the book in any detail.1 In spite of the opening superscription that appears to assign the whole book to Solomon, there are multiple indications that the book as we have it now is a collection of wisdom sayings and proverbs that came from diverse historical periods. I will address the issue of the coherence or lack thereof in the final form of the book as I describe it, but if there is coherence, it is a redactional and not an authorial coherence.

As is well known, Proverbs has two major components, themselves amenable to subdivision. Chapters 1 – 9 are largely extended discourses of two types. The predominant type is a father’s speech to his son; the less frequent type is the speech of a woman named Wisdom addressed to all the young men who pass her by (Prov. 1:20–33; 8; 9:1–6). In one place, very significant as we will discover, another woman, named Folly, addresses the exact same audience (Prov. 9:13–18). Fox has correctly described the typical components of the discourse as consisting of an exordium, a lesson, and a conclusion, though there is considerable variety in the amount of space devoted to these three elements. The exordium includes a call for the recipient to pay attention, which is accompanied by motivation to do so. The lesson is the object of teaching and the conclusion, which brings the teaching to a close sometimes by describing the consequences of listening or not listening to the lesson.

Proverbs 2 is an example of a discourse that has a major emphasis on the exordium, which essentially takes up the first half of the chapter. It invokes the son (‘my son’, v. 1), calling on him to pay attention. Motivations are given, notably the fact that if the son seeks wisdom God will grant it to him. The lesson includes avoiding evil women and men (vv. 12–19) and the conclusion is stated in the last three verses (vv. 20–23).

On the other hand, the second main component of Proverbs is chapters 10 – 31, where the predominant genre is the proverb per se. We will describe the proverb in the light of a specific example, namely Proverbs 10:4:

A slack hand makes poverty;
a determined hand makes rich.

This proverb is not chosen because it is a particularly impressive proverb, rather because it is fairly typical. The proverb is a brief, pointed statement. Proverbs express ideas that are commonly accepted as true. They do not argue for the truth of the statement or nuance it. Proverbs can state an insight, make an observation, or offer advice in the form of an admonition or prohibition. This particular proverb is an observation. Even an observation, however, can imply advice. The fact that it is hard work and not laziness that makes a person rich is intended to motivate a person to get to work.

Though formally different, the two sections of Proverbs are similar in their lack of obvious theological language. Indeed, the theology of the book of Proverbs has often been approached more as a problem than anything else. The book’s teaching majors in practical advice and observations and seems distant from the theological concerns of the bulk of the Old Testament. We look in vain, for instance, for any connection with the events of redemptive history. Nothing is said of the patriarchs, the exodus, the establishment of the monarchy and so on. In addition, while the term covenant (berit) is not absent from the book (Prov. 2:17) and associated words like ‘covenant love’ (hesed )4 – occur even more often (Prov. 3:3; 14:22; 16:6; 19:22; 20:6, 28), the concept of covenant cannot be said to be a major theme of the book.

Finally, it may also be pointed out that reference to God, though frequently made by using God’s covenant name Yahweh, occurs sporadically in the text. In particular, many of the proverbs in 10 – 31 have no reference to God and at first glance appear relatively isolated from a broader context. No wonder the book has been described as containing secular advice. Some scholars have even gone so far as to say that when Yahweh’s name is found in a proverb that it is a sign of a late addition to a consistently secular book.

-Tremper Longman III

Canon and Biblical Interpretation

Edited By Craig Bartholomew, Scott Hahn, Robin Parry, Christopher Seitz, Al Wolters

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