A review of
Old Testament Wisdom Literature:
A Theological Introduction
by Craig Batholomew and Ryan O’Dowd.
Review by Mark Eckel.
Old Testament Wisdom Literature:
A Theological Introduction
Craig Batholomew and Ryan O’Dowd.
Hardback: IVP Academic, 2011.
[ ChristianBook.com ]
Cloud watchers, unite! Wonder, mystery, miracle, and marvel enfold us in God’s world. All of life screams of The Creator. Yet, we Westerners tend to disregard the wisdom resident in creation. Comfortable in our homes, we forget that one look outside the window might refocus our attention on what matters most. Daily life surrounds us with displays of Heaven’s call to humans everywhere. And what is that “call”? Order, rhythm, pattern, and wholeness bear silent testimony to what should be painfully obvious—because Truth exists, the world works. Pragmatists that we are sometimes, we think the opposite; if it works it must be true. Creation and Wisdom should be forever linked in First Testament studies.
Experiential wisdom can be providentially practical. Biblical wisdom is tied to daily life and its connection to real-world experiences for every time and place. So, it was with delight that I opened Bartholomew and O’Dowd’s Old Testament Wisdom Literature (OTWL). The authors invest time in obvious concerns: “the fear of The Lord,” poetic devices, theology of wisdom, etc. But this text supersedes all others for its intersection with and excitement for God’s creation. Using the literature they love so well Bartholomew and O’Dowd give an overview reminiscent of symphony conductors. Because language is relational, the authors know it is lyrical. Whereas some other wisdom literature texts approach the subject as a mechanic to a car, Bartholomew and O’Dowd view wisdom as artists—no wonder they quote Wolterstorff’s Art in Action at length. Our fragmentary culture, full of distractions, needs the unity of thought found within biblical wisdom. Chapter 3, for instance, could have been cumbersome; Hebrew poetry tends to be an alien form of communication to Westerners. Here the authors easily explain poetry concepts, connecting Genesis to wisdom to ordinary life.
Western unresponsiveness to poetry is associated with a naturalistic worldview dedicated to scientism. OTWL makes sure one sees obvious similarities between pagan views then and now: not much has changed. The reason is plain, “Wisdom rather than science was the key to unlocking the living structure and order in creation” (34). Understanding Chapter Two helps everyone understand the necessary confrontation between lifeviews which are at odds. Reality, time, law, sex and creation, these worldview issues are nicely compared in a table on page 45. Because we are “embodied creatures” living and thinking are inextricably connected—a materialistic outlook simply considers our outward looks. Hebraic poetry-forms celebrate the wholeness of human experience whereas separation into columns and data points is celebrated in the 21st century. Where else but Hebrew poetry would one find women-wisdom-valor as a keynote address (Chapter Five)? Where else but Hebrew poetry would one find wisdom trumping knowledge (Chapter Seven)? Where else but Hebrew poetry would one find a theology of time (Chapter Nine)? And where else but Hebrew poetry would one find a direct connection to revelational truths and Incarnational Truth (Chapter Ten)? Wisdom is the craft of human artistry where even scientists agree—a crucial argument for any theorem must include beauty.
The artistry of creation is no more clearly seen than in Proverbs (Chapter Four). “The echoes of eternal cosmic Lady Wisdom are merged with the mundane” (99) says it all. Job (Chapter Six) deserves and is given a clear connection to creation. And why does creation cry as a woman giving birth? Here “theodicy” is well explained; left as a mystery but knowing the God of Mystery governs gives Job—and us!—hope. Connecting Ecclesiastes (Chapter Eight) to Augustine’s Confessions and Saint John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul marks the consistent connection of past to present in OTWL. The last two chapters are worth the price of the book. The “character-consequence motif” apparent throughout the text is given full voice here. Key to faith-learning integration is “wholeness,” a word to which Bartholomew and O’Dowd are committed. Connections between Hebrew wisdom and education, politics, spirituality, the ordinary and suffering provide marvelous climax to a book so dedicated to application.
An issue that might be minor for some readers, but was major for me was the reintroduction of footnotes to the text. Thank you IVP for allowing my eyes to drop to the bottom of the page instead of the back of the book! References to important books or articles direct bibliophiles toward new library acquisitions. Some notes of constructive criticism are included in any review of any book. While I would cheer a much needed Evangelical reinvestment in “tradition” (28-30), more care could have been taken to identify biblical “tradition”—which is textual and transcendent. Any scholar wishing to understand second temple Judaism (231-38) would be encouraged to include Nicholas Perrin’s new work Jesus, The Temple (Eerdmans, 2010). Referencing Doug Blomberg without giving appreciation to the connection between wisdom and education in Marvin O. Wilson’s Our Father Abraham makes me wonder why. And to leave unacknowledged Qohelet’s refrain “life is a gift of God” makes the discussion of Ecclesiastes incomplete. But as with so many reviewers, such quibbles are only that.
Recently, I was visiting my family in Colorado. We visited Glen Eyrie and viewed Pike’s Peak from a nearby visitor’s center. I simply sat for half an hour in awe. I remembered the famous line from Psalm 148, “Praise Him from the earth . . . you mountains.” Natural history and Hebrew poetry are linked, and the authors highlight this connection here. It is exciting to see a wisdom literature text that I will use and encourage others to write into their required reading. The down-to-earth clarity of writing is joined effortlessly with the salient detail necessary to unwrap First Testament wisdom. Bartholomew and O’Dowd’s book will well serve serious students of Scripture not to mention Christian higher education for this and future generations. Hopefully those who use the wisdom found in this textbook will become what the famed Hebrew scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel called “text-people.”
Mark Eckel is Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of Old Testament at Crossroads Bible College. Some of his writings can be accessed at www.warpandwoof.org.