By Charles Halton
Wisdom literature is one of the most accessible yet perplexing genres within the Bible. The Book of Job explores the nature of suffering, Proverbs gives guidance on matters as routine as avoiding laziness, and Ecclesiastes reflects upon the vanities of life. And yet, Job openly disputes with God, Proverbs lists blatantly contradictory statements side by side (26:4-5), and Ecclesiastes presents such a pessimistic view that an editor felt the need to add a clarifying appendix.
David Penchansky enters this confusing landscape with Understanding Wisdom Literature, but instead of reconciling the tensions within wisdom literature he revels in them. Penchansky develops an interpretive approach that he outlined in 1990 in his treatment of the Book of Job entitled The Betrayal of God: Ideological Conflict in Job (Westminster/John Knox). He works from what has come to be an accepted truth within the guild of biblical studies: most biblical books have a complex development that involved the contributions of multiple scribes or authorial groups. Penchansky scours texts for seams in which the work of the various authors meet, and he then pries them apart. It is here, Penchansky claims, that the interpretive keys are found: textual dissonance marks points at which the editors, tradents, or interpreters of biblical precursor texts tried to conceal disparate voices under the guise of harmony. Instead of following these acts of concealment and discerning a singular message for each book Penchansky divides texts into their constituent, often diametrically opposed, voices.
For instance, he says that the people who wrote biblical wisdom literature, the sages, urged their readers to "get wisdom," pitting themselves over and against the prophets, who encouraged and at times excoriated their auditors to "fear God." Penchansky says that these are two totally different perspectives on how to navigate through life. The prophets, he contends, tried to cultivate a "sense of servile, abject terror in the fact of a massively superior and hostile heavenly being," while the sages "figured out the way the universe works" through "their own observations and judgments, constantly tested by subsequent experience." The sages were not shy about their different perspectives, and in their writings they even "fight with each other and against everybody else"; they were "warring parties" engaged in a "clash of wills" with their ideological opponents (whose views also ended up within Scripture).
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