Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction

Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O'Dowd

Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2018. 336 pages. Softcover. $35.00.

Reviewed by Walter R. Steele, Pastor, Resurrection Evangelical Lutheran Church, Quartz Hill, California on 11/07/2018

Torah, the Law of Moses, expresses the will of God. Wisdom guides the believer in how to live it. The two are intimately connected. That understanding undergirds Bartholomew and O’Dowd’s thesis. Wisdom and Torah go hand in hand.

The focus of this book is on the theological interpretation of biblical wisdom literature. The authors limit their discussion to the three books that clearly meet the criteria, namely, Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Their goal is to create a discussion that will ultimately result in a theology of Old Testament wisdom. They begin with a general introduction, which is followed by a very helpful discussion of the similarities and the differences between the wisdom theology of the Bible and that of the Ancient Near East. Furthermore, they compare and contrast the wisdom of Egypt with that of Mesopotamia. The Egyptian worldview subsumed all of creation into a harmonious substance while that of Mesopotamia lived in polytheistic naturalism. While pagan wisdom assumed polytheism, chaos, and the violent clash between the gods and nature, Israelite wisdom declared that God is not part of creation and is ipsum esse subsistens. Therefore, wisdom is not to be founded on human observation of nature and its processes, but is grounded in the fear of Yahweh.

Following a helpful section on Hebrew poetry, which would be valuable to any one studying the Old Testament, the authors outline Proverbs and give the reader an overview. Rather than understanding Proverbs as teaching a cause and effect dynamic, they argue that a character-consequence structure is more in keeping with the teaching of Proverbs. The foundation of that character is the fear of Yahweh. It is encouraging that they uphold Solomonic authorship of the sections assigned to Solomon. The following chapter is a deeper investigation of Proverbs 31, seeking to understand how it serves the theological purpose of the book as a whole.

The authors’ treatment of Job takes the historicity of Job seriously. The echoes of the creation accounts in Genesis are clearly brought out in the discussion. Helpful charts showing parallels between Job and Genesis are enlightening. It was a delightful surprise to read the way in which the suffering of Job and the sufferings of Christ were held up and compared, especially how Job, like Christ, intercedes for others, even those who challenged him. The follow-on chapter is an in-depth reading of Job 28, which asks where wisdom can be found. The answer includes tie-ins to the writings of Paul.

Ecclesiastes is the final book treated at any length. The authors reject Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes, placing the book within the postexilic period, as late as the fourth century B.C. Nevertheless, treating Qoheleth as a Solomonic figure, they argue that the problem with Qoheleth is not found in his observations but in his methodology. The issue is not solved until the epilogue, where it is resolved in fearing God and keeping his commandments. A treatment of the well-known and often misinterpreted Ecclesiastes 3:1–15 follows. The book next moves to a discussion of Jesus as the Wisdom of God, followed by chapters on the theology of Old Testament Wisdom and its application in the world today.

For the person desiring a deeper study of the topics presented, the authors provide a ready bibliography for recommended reading with introductory studies, commentaries, and scholarly resources. These are very helpful. While this book is a good start for the development of a theology of Old Testament wisdom, and while the connection to the creation accounts in Genesis are excellent, it suffers from its failure to ground the study more deeply in Deuteronomy. Applying Torah to the new situation of living in Ertz Yisrael is exactly what Moses is doing. Some discussion of that should have been included.

This book can be a helpful tool for the person preparing a Bible study on any of the three wisdom books. Paired with the commentaries in the Concordia Commentary series, this book can simplify the work. It would also be a good text for a continuing education course on wisdom literature.