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Understanding Wisdom Literature: Conflict and Dissonance in the Hebrew Text (review)

From: Hebrew Studies
Volume 53, 2012
pp. 386-388 | 10.1353/hbr.2012.0008

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David Penchansky provides in this book his understanding of several wisdom texts—Proverbs, Job, Qoheleth, Ben Sira, and the Wisdom of Solomon. He is not afraid to offer opinions that run against the grain of conventional views in the field. At times his readings are quite astute and worth pondering, such as the thesis that Job 42:7 is important for understanding the book as a whole (p. 45). In other instances, his opinions are idiosyncratic and unpersuasive. For example, his division of Proverbs into distinctive and opposed categories, "Fear Yahweh" and "Get Wisdom," is not helpful because the book as a whole encourages one to both fear God and acquire wisdom, and the two themes go together, as Prov 1:7 asserts (p. 23).

The author also offers his understanding of wisdom literature as a whole. He emphasizes, as the title of the book indicates, the "conflict and dissonance" of the views expressed on a variety of subjects in these texts (p. 7). Proverbs asserts that one should trust God, for example, whereas Job implies that the deity may not deserve such treatment. Penchansky's goal is not to solve such conflicts. Rather he is devoted to "exploring and elucidating the contours of the fault lines in the material" (p. 8). This approach allows one not only to appreciate the diversity in the material but also discern major points of theological difference within the sapiential tradition, about which, presumably, sages in ancient Israel disagreed and debated with one another.

More problematically, the author stresses at the outset a distinction between "Hebrew wisdom," referring to Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes and "Greek wisdom," signifying Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon (p. 1). Penchansky grants that the dichotomy is not fully accurate since Ben Sira was originally written in Hebrew. Nevertheless, this bifurcation is operative for the book as a whole. The distinction conveys that the "Greek" books were written in the context of Hellenization and the "Hebrew" ones (which are also available in Greek in the Septuagint) were authored before this. For Penchansky, wisdom literature faced a sort of existential crisis during the Hellenistic period. The imposition of Greek culture on Jewish authors "so traumatized" the sages that the sapiential tradition was transformed and, in the opinion of the author, not for the better (p. 111). The tradition became, he asserts, more close-minded and bereft of the ambiguity and richness found in earlier texts like Job and Qoheleth. The identification of wisdom with the Torah in Ben Sira is used to "close [his students] off from other possibilities or dangerous questioning" (p. 94). The Wisdom of Solomon expresses "hostility towards Greek domination" and, by teaching that the righteous will attain a blessed afterlife, discourages readers from probing the painful elements of life, as one finds in Job (p. 108). Lamenting the changes in the wisdom tradition, the author remarks when concluding his chapter on the Wisdom of Solomon, the last of the texts under scrutiny to be composed, that "we end this book in a sad place" (p. 108). Indeed it does.

Penchansky's narrow framework for Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon does not do justice to these rich texts. First, he treats Hellenism as a monolithic, and negatively valued entity, and it is assumed that both texts were affected by the same imposition of Greek culture. But Ben Sira, written in Palestine in the second century B.C.E. , was exposed to much less Hellenization than the Wisdom of Solomon, written (most likely) in Alexandria, Egypt, in the first century C.E.

Also, while Penchansky is quite right that forms of ethnic nationalism are present in both compositions, his approach leaves little room to appreciate the rich tensions (or, one might say, conflict and dissonance) in them between universalism and particularism. While Ben Sira's association of wisdom with the Jewish Torah, a document for him not readily available to Gentiles, can be understood as a narrowly nationalistic source of wisdom, the sage also emphasizes that God poured out wisdom upon the created order as a whole (1:9). The wise man for Ben Sira studies not only the Torah but the world. He makes caustic...

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