Understanding Wisdom Literature, by David Penchansky

People often assume—wrongly—that the Bible presents a single view of God and the world. In Understanding Wisdom Literature, David Penchansky shows how the Hebrew Bible’s wisdom books, Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, speak differently from covenant-centered writings such as Genesis, Deuteronomy and Isaiah. Two additional wisdom books, Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon (found in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox canons), have connections to both the older wisdom books and the Jewish covenant traditions.

Penchansky, a Hebrew Bible scholar who teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, has focused throughout his career on neglected aspects of biblical theology. He celebrates the diversity and unconventionality of the Hebrew Bible’s wisdom books while taking a dimmer view of apocryphal wisdom’s rapprochement with traditional belief systems.

Wisdom’s fundamental questions concern the fairness of life and how to negotiate life well. Israelite wisdom probably originated in family, village and tribal settings in which wise people grappled with life’s questions on the basis of experience and observation. Some of this rural wisdom survives in proverbs about the diligence of the ant and the sad fate of lazy farmers, but Penchansky agrees with scholars who believe that the Hebrew Bible’s books of wisdom were written in urban settings by professional sages who advised kings and who educated young people for careers in the court. Like their rural predecessors, these sages sought answers in ordinary experience rather than special revelation.