David Penchansky, Understanding Wisdom Literature

Review by Martin A. Shields

David Penchansky is professor of theology at the University of St omas, Saint Paul, Minnesota. In Understanding Wisdom Literature he aims — according to the cover description — to focus on the “big picture” behind wisdom literature. e book examines the primary biblical wisdom texts — Proverbs, Job, and Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) — as well as Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. e inclusion of this last text is a little surprising given the work’s reference to “in the Hebrew Text” in its subtitle, but is useful in plotting the trajectory of wisdom in early Judaism. P’s book is also brief — 129 pages including the bibliography, index, as well as a 10 page introduction which primarily consists of a brief synopsis of each of the subsequent chapters. e work has very limited direct interaction with secondary literature — the “Subject and Author” index is less than two pages, so the vast majority of works included in the bibliography are never explicitly referenced.1 P has an engaging style and his work raises many challenging and interesting ideas which push the reader to wrestle with issues that are all too often ignored by biblical scholars, and to wrestle with the biblical (and post-biblical) texts themselves. is review will proceed by examining each of Penchansky’s chapters and conclude with a summary evaluation of the entire book.

1 Who Are e Sages?
Penchansky begins his discussion of the identity of the sages with an appeal to popular literature:


e bibliography also has some odd features — while my book is not referenced, a short review of it by Harold C. Washington is listed. I have written a response to Washington’s review, available at http://blog.shields-online.net/?p=155.

Martin A. Shields — review of David Penchansky, Understanding Wisdom Literature e sage, or wizard, takes prominent place in the stories of many cultures. From Merlin, Gandalf, and Dumbledore in the Anglo-American tradition…2

is is not particularly helpful since these “wizards” are not, in contemporary thought, predominantly associated with wisdom of the type generally found in the Bible. Appealing to them as examples of sages does as much to obfuscate as to clarify and ends up sounding more like an attempt to gain traction with a modern audience than adequately describe the sage in the ancient world. Beyond this, however, Penchansky offers a good explanation of the place of sages in the Bible, highlighting the generally negative attitude most of the text reflects. He does not, however, go far enough — failing to note the way that both Job and Qohelet themselves are strongly critical of the sages and the wisdom movement.3

2 What Unity in Proverbs?
Penchansky admits that, for him, the most problematical part of the Wisdom Literature is the book of Proverbs. He identifies three different streams in the work which he labels the “fear God” sages (cf. Prov 1:7) and the “get wisdom” sages (cf. Prov 4:7). While these two groups share many common presuppositions, P summarises their differences thus:
e sages ask whether it is possible to know how to live. e “Get Wisdom” group says yes, through careful observation of both the natural world and the human community. e “Fear Yahweh” group says no, God overrules human plans and human insight, and ultimately wisdom cannot be found, but is clouded in deep mystery. (24)

e third major voice P detects in Proverbs is that of Woman Wisdom whom he identifies as an Israelite goddess, depicted by the text as Yahweh’s daughter (31).

2. 3.

p. 11. I feel “Anglo-American” could really have just been “Anglo” given that the examples are all from the U.K.! For a more complete discussion of the matter, see Shields, e End of Wisdom, 7–20.


Martin A. Shields — review of David Penchansky, Understanding Wisdom Literature

For P, the first two groups are “manifestly wrongheaded” (32), bound to either abandoning wisdom in the face of God’s arbitrariness or else to an inflexible understanding of the cosmos which ultimately fails to account for reality. How these integrate with the divine daughter of Yahweh also escapes P, although he clearly believes that the existence of such a character has implications for our understanding of Israelite monotheism (33). In the end, he admits that reconciling these streams is beyond him. Reading Proverbs and then P’s analysis one is left with the impression that perhaps he has imposed an overly rigid grid over his reading of the text. ere is no indication either within the text itself or in the history of interpretation that these incompatible positions are actually present. Was the editor or author of the final form of the work oblivious to the problems created by juxtaposing such materials? at seems a rather ungenerous position to take — assuming that the modern reader is more discerning than the ancient editor who was immersed within the culture that produced the text. Perhaps such problems should signal an issue with our reading rather than with the author/editors, particularly when alternate ways of reading the do not pose the same difficulties. It makes better sense to note that the diverse array of material reflects the very nature of wisdom, particularly wisdom expressed primarily through aphorisms as it is in Proverbs. Bruce Waltke puts it well:
e sage teaches truth through aphorisms… [which] concentrate or distill truth and so by their nature cannot express the whole truth about a topic… [r]ather, it is a single component of truth that must be fit together with other elements of truth in order to approximate the more comprehensive, confused pattern of real life.4

us we must ask whether Prov 1:7 and 4:7 really expressions of different, incompatible positions as P maintains — or do they reflect different sides of the same coin? e exhortation to “get wisdom” clearly needs expansion — how should one “get wisdom”? e answer, according to Proverbs, begins with “fear Yahweh.” e nature of wisdom requires that the sage move beyond treating aphorisms as comprehensive accounts of the nature of the universe, for to do so is to fail to grapple with the riddles of the sages (Prov 1:6).


Waltke, Proverbs 1–15, 38.


Martin A. Shields — review of David Penchansky, Understanding Wisdom Literature

Consequently P’s treatment of the book of Proverbs overstates the dissonance through a failure to appreciate the nature of the material. It is quite clear from the book of Proverbs itself that the material it presents cannot be treated as simplistic edicts but that their interpretation requires subtlety and discernment in spite of the apparent simplicity of the aphoristic form.5 e case for P’s reading of Proverbs would be enhanced had he engaged with this approach to the text.

3 e Meaning of the Book of Job
P raises important questions about the nature of God as depicted in the book of Job — questions he is not alone in asking, but questions which are nonetheless ignored by many scholars. e issue of God’s character is succinctly highlighted on page 39:
e Satan had tricked Yahweh into sinning when he consented to afflict Job in a useless, gratuitous act of cruelty. After Yahweh realized what an evil thing he had done, allowing Job to suffer just so he could win a bet, the Satan convinces him to do it again, only worse. With Yahweh’s permission, the Satan covers Job with loathsome sores over his whole body and leaves him scratching himself on an ash dump. Yahweh in the story is gullible and impulsive, capable of thoughtless cruelty in order to win in an intellectual argument with his friend.

is reading of the book’s depiction of Yahweh’s character, however, is not without serious problems. Quite aside from how this slipped by all the early interpreters and the absence of such language describing Yahweh’s behaviour in Job, it overlooks a number of indications that the back story recounted in Job 1–2 was never intended to provide a comprehensive rationale for Job’s suffering.6 Furthermore, given the implicit identification of Yahweh with the remainder of the biblical traditions, there are legitimate grounds for the reader to infer details about Yahweh’s character from the remainder of the Hebrew Bible. Consequently, where there is ambiguity or uncer-

5. 6.

Prov 26 preserves a number of aphorisms which point in this direction. For a complete discussion of this see Martin Shields, “Malevolent or Mysterious? God’s Character in the Prologue of Job,” Tyndale Bulletin 61.2 (2010) 255–270.


Martin A. Shields — review of David Penchansky, Understanding Wisdom Literature

tainty in reading the text, the most natural inference in light of the historical and cultural context out of which Job arises is to favour that reading which aligns God’s character with that revealed in the remainder of the Bible. P proposes reading the entire work through the words found in Job 42:7 — “… you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” For P this is an affirmation of Yahweh’s guilt — as he explains:
Yahweh’s endorsement of Job’s side in the argument throws the entire interpretation of the book of Job into a tailspin. Job’s speech accuses God of failing in his governance of the universe, because he persecuted Job like a ravening monster. Yahweh endorses this particular message as the truth about him. e friends argued that it was impossible for God to ever be in the wrong. ey defended God’s integrity and justice. Yahweh declares those statements to be not true. (47)

ere are, however, problems with P’s reading of the book of Job as a whole. For one, he omits important sections altogether — including the very centre of the book itself, the poem about hidden wisdom in Job 28. ere is also no mention of the character Elihu and his extensive speech in the second half of the book. When making Yahweh’s declaration of Job 42:7 his hermeneutical key, he does so without considering that the words of Job to which Yahweh may have been referring were those most immediately on view — Job’s final response in Job 42:1–6. erein lies Job’s admission that he has spoken hastily and only now has come to realise how little he understands of the task of supervising and governing the universe. He there admits lacking knowledge and understanding — essentially lacking wisdom for these are fundamental constituents of Hebrew wisdom — while the friends have consistently insisted upon the certainty of their own belief that divine retribution was immutable.

4 Wisdom, Madness, and Folly: e ree Qoheleths
P identifies three distinct voices in the book of Ecclesiastes: pessimistic Qoheleth; fear God Qoheleth; and Enjoy Life Qoheleth. While scholars have long recognised the presence of contradictions within Qoheleth’s words, P’s analysis tends to exaggerate the dissonance. For example, disassociating the “pessimistic” Qoheleth from the “enjoy life” Qoheleth fails to recognise that the “enjoy life” affirmations in the text

Martin A. Shields — review of David Penchansky, Understanding Wisdom Literature

arise quite plainly out of resignation that itself arises out of Qoheleth’s pessimistic realisation that nothing makes sense — all is hebel. Qoheleth observes that there is no moral order to the universe that he can observe, so the only advice he can offer is to enjoy life when and where you can. While P acknowledges that many recognise that Qoheleth’s “fear God” exhortations carry a quite distinct connotation to those found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (55). Nonetheless, passages which appear to affirm some form of divine, probably eschatalogical, judgment demonstrate, for P, that there is a voice to be heard which does connect human behaviour with reward or punishment, and this contradicts the view of “pessimistic Qoheleth” who denies any such connection. P’s analysis, however, fails to explore all the possible approaches which may ameliorate the discord he identifies. For one, the frame narrator (who, for all intents and purposes, is the author of the final form of the book) directs us as readers to hear a single voice, the words of Qoheleth. Second, the frame narrator guides us to recognise that all Qoheleth has to say leads to the conclusion that “all is hebel” — since these words are quoted at both the introduction to and conclusion of Qoheleth’s words. e author is thus leading us as readers to read in a certain way and not in other ways, to make inferences which fall in line with these directions rather than in other directions that the ambiguities of Qoheleth’s words may also, on their own, allow. ird, P presumes that allusions or references to divine judgment refer to a judgment carried out according to criteria known to both Qoheleth and to us. But that is contrary to Qoheleth’s position. While it is clear from Qoheleth’s words that he affirms a high view of divine sovereignty, it is also clear that he has no definitive understanding of the basis upon which God makes the decisions he makes. e only definitive warning he gives, in Eccl 5:3–5 [E: 5:4–6], amounts to “don’t deliberately try and annoy God.” Otherwise he makes no explicit claims to knowledge about what behaviours result in divine favour or divine curse.


Martin A. Shields — review of David Penchansky, Understanding Wisdom Literature

5 Sounds of Silence: e Absence of Covenantal eology in the Wisdom Literature
In the fifth chapter of the book, P reviews possible reasons for the absence of references to the covenant within the biblical Wisdom Literature. He also argues, based on a review of terminology and concepts common to covenantal texts, a lack of any connection between them and the Wisdom Literature. He proposes four possible theories for the absence of such connections in the Wisdom Literature: (1) the WL is sympathetic but silent; (2) the sages held the covenants in disdain and thus avoided mentioning them; (3) similar to the previous but the sages’ silence was motivated by fear of persecution; and (4) the “special covenant claims of ancient Israel are sectarian disputes of little concern to them” (82). is last option is P’s preferred option for which he offers the justification: “[i]t is plausible psychologically, and it provides a rich textured view of Israelite society…” (83). It is difficult not to feel that P reads his own predilections and ideals back into the biblical text when reaching these conclusions. He overlooks at least one profound difficulty: how did such discrepant material come to be accepted among the group of books which constitute the Hebrew Bible? It is not sufficient to say that his approach avoids a monolithic reconstruction of ancient Israelite society — the Hebrew Bible is not that society, but a collection of texts which arose out of parts of that society. He also misrepresents the evidence. First, the silence is not so significant as he proposes. Job and Ecclesiastes are largely anti-wisdom, probably even polemical in their content. While Qoheleth never appeals to the covenant or the Torah, Ecclesiastes as a book does. Qoheleth establishes the limits of wisdom without himself proposing any means to move beyond those limits (as P himself acknowledges on page 84), but the epilogue — while affirming Qoheleth’s conclusion — moves the reader further by defining the ultimate task of people to be to “fear God and keep his commandments.” is is a statement never affirmed by Qoheleth, but which is built upon Qoheleth’s repudiation of wisdom as a means to find the profit in life (furthermore, it is advice apparently heeded by Sirach who does indeed seek wisdom from the Torah). Job, too, pushes the reader beyond the constraints of traditional wisdom by having the representatives of that movement — the three friends of Job — declared wrong by no less than Yahweh. Some wisdom, according to the book of Job, is hidden from human sight.

Martin A. Shields — review of David Penchansky, Understanding Wisdom Literature

So while P addresses a problem long recognised in studies of biblical Wisdom Literature, it is difficult to see how his solution adequately deals with the evidence.

6 Sophia and Simon: e Two Poles of Ben Sira’s Affection
P argues that Sirach moves in a new direction when compared to the biblical wisdom literature: “in Ben Sira’s most influential turn, he connects Sophia with Torah. No sage before him ever dreamed of doing such a thing.” is is half right: Sirach’s wisdom is inextricably connected with the Torah. But he is half wrong: Qoheleth’s frame narrator had done exactly this in response to Qoheleth’s discovery that wisdom alone had decisively failed to answer the key question he sought to answer. Outside the wisdom corpus, such a connection had also been made in (for example) Deut 4:6. To claim, as P does, that Sirach wrote as if Job and Qoheleth had never existed, is incorrect. Job and Qoheleth highlight the failure of both speculative wisdom and strict adherance to the notion of retributive justice, and Qoheleth’s epilogue points in the very direction that Sirach had proceeded and which was itself made explicit in the Pentateuch — obedience to God’s commands. P divides Sirach into two “poles”: Sophia, which focuses on the wisdom derived from the observance of the Torah; and ‘Simon’, his sycophantic (according to P) exaltation of Simon II, High Priest in Jerusalem c. 219–196 . P argues that Sirach’s treatment of Simon forms a major element in the book, and of this he is highly critical:
To give this backwater, petty religious dictator the most prominent place in a list that includes Adam, Enoch, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jeremiah is Ben Sira’s most spectacular gaffe. e absolute climax of the book points to a figure that history regards as undistinguished. (92)

It is worth noting that Simon is only mentioned in Sir 50, although a number scholars argue that this chapter forms the apex of the extended piece in praise of the ancestors extending from Sir 44–50. P is doubtless correct in noting the inferior nature of much of Sirach’s wisdom when compared to the canonical wisdom texts — one only need read Sir 30 to see this (and to understand perhaps why the work was translated into Greek by the grandson and


Martin A. Shields — review of David Penchansky, Understanding Wisdom Literature

not the son). Yet the roots of Sirach’s wisdom can be seen in Ecclesiastes, it does not move in a wholly new direction.

7 e Conservatism of Pseudo-Solomon
e final wisdom book P discusses is the Wisdom of Solomon. He follows a convention that has arisen and designates the author of the work “Pseudo-Solomon” although without any real explanation, certainly without noting that the book itself never explicitly claims Solomonic authorship.7 Nonetheless, this is one of the stronger chapters in the book, although the reader needs to have some familiarity with the texts P discusses (both in this chapter and throughout the book) because at many places he seems to assume a reasonable degree of pre-understanding of the issues he discusses. For P, these last two texts undermine the very aspects of wisdom he finds appealing: “Pseudo-Solomon moves the wisdom tradition away from that which made it so dangerous and transgressive, its elevation of the human voice over the divine” (108). However, P’s characterisation of the biblical wisdom literature in this manner has not been convincingly demonstrated but arises out of a selective and rather tendentious reading of the material, as discussed above. Qoheleth and Job make clear the very profound limitations of the human voice.

8 Conclusion
P’s brief concluding chapter offers a revealing summary of the preceding material. Harold C. Washington says in his review of my book that “It is often observed in studies of Ecclesiastes that—perhaps because of the book’s tensions and ambiguities—commentators tend to project upon Qoheleth their own worldviews and dis-


e impression that the author seeks to draw a connection with Solomon is largely inferred from Wisdom 7.


Martin A. Shields — review of David Penchansky, Understanding Wisdom Literature

positions.”8 is is certainly seems to be the case with P’s book, and is reflected in part in his conclusion:
In the midst of the rigid, patriarchal, conservative Israelite society, there emerged a more progressive movement, the wisdom tradition, the tradition of the sages. Whereas religious elite controlled most segments of Israelite society, the sages, the wisdom movement, promoted independence of thought and honest debate. e priests claimed authority from tradition and sacred texts, and the prophets received messages from God. e sages, however, trusted their own experience and observation as a source of knowledge. ey fashioned a unique voice and tradition when compared to the other collections of the Hebrew Bible. (111)

For P, wisdom was and is a “living tradition that responds and changes when faced with a different context” (112). is is reflected in the evolution of wisdom:
… early wisdom, the first wave, tended towards optimism and confidence. ey were certain that God governed the universe with consistency and justice. But subsequent sages, confronted with tragedies, both national and personal, had this confidence shaken. ese sages, the second wave, responded by questioning and challenging the basis for that earlier confidence. ey considered the implications of a universe where one cannot depend upon God. (112)

While, by and large, I think P is correct, he also doesn’t go far enough. e emphasis in both Job and even moreso in Ecclesiastes is that there is wisdom that cannot be attained. Qoheleth’s declaration that all is hebel, ‘senseless’, highlights not merely the failure of traditional wisdom’s naive expectation that there ought to be a perceptible moral justice in the universe, but the failure of more progressive and speculative wisdom to provide any answers at all. In the end, these sages have little to offer except to say that the simple answers derived from a simplistic reading of wisdom materials like Proverbs cannot be sustained. For the important questions, the ones which most deeply trouble and concern people, the sages could offer no satisfactory answer.


http://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/5240_5519.pdf (Washington notes that I do not commit this error).

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Martin A. Shields — review of David Penchansky, Understanding Wisdom Literature

9 Assessment
ere are a number of good points to note about P’s book. His recognition that wisdom is viewed negatively throughout most of the Hebrew Bible, for example, is an important observation which has considerable bearing in understanding the relationship of the wisdom literature to the remainder of the Bible. P also doesn’t pull any punches, raising questions and issues which are often avoided, overlooked, or downplayed. ere is no doubt that these are important questions which scholars need to face and address. at being said, it should be apparent by now that I don’t find P’s analysis of biblical and post-biblical wisdom particularly satisfying. His answers to these difficult questions are unconvincing. Furthermore, P’s approach to the biblical texts wisdom texts tends to downplay the final form of the text — Proverbs is divided into three voices, he is silent on Elihu’s place in Job and appears to ignore the poem of chapter 28, Ecclesiastes is a conglomeration of three distinct and seemingly incompatible voices contrary to the frame-narrator’s opening directions to the reader. P also fails to address the presence and significance of the anti-wisdom elements in Job and Qoheleth. While P quite reasonably finds readings which contrive to even out all the inconsistencies of the texts unsatisfying, his own approach pushes too far the other way — frequently highlighting and unnecessarily exaggerating dissonance even when such a reading is less plausible than less discordant alternatives. Yet the biblical wisdom texts exhibit degrees of sophistication and subtlety in their construction which imply considerable skill in those who put them into their final form. ere is a spectrum upon which works on the biblical Wisdom Literature can be placed, proceeding from a point wherein everything is reconciled and consistent both internally and within the broad spectrum of biblical literature, and progressing to a point which finds discord at every possible turn. P’s work clearly lies toward the latter end of this spectrum, but ultimately it fails at too many points to serve as an adequate overview of biblical Wisdom Literature, nor does P adequately defend his readings to make it a work likely to compel many to agree with him who do not already do so. P’s understanding of wisdom literature comes at the expense of too many controlling factors to make it compelling.

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