Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings: A Brief Review

As promised beforehand, I have been able to sample some essays in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings edited by Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns.

One important article for me, entitled "Wisdom and Biblical Theology" (853-58), authored by Daniel J. Estes, had me once again pondering the value of Biblical theology as opposed to just OT Theology and NT Theology. Estes demarcates his essay into five sections: 1) Emphases on OT Wisdom; 2) Neglect of Wisdom in Biblical Theology; 3) Connections between Wisdom and other OT Texts; 4) Place of Wisdom in OT Theology; and 5) Place of Wisdom in Biblical Theology. Regarding the first section of this well-written article, Estes observes that "wisdom functions within the same theistic worldview that permeates the rest of the OT" (854). Estes notes that wisdom is inductive in nature, looking at patterns of cause and effect, and eventually arriving at lessons that can be applied to other situations (e.g. Prov 6.6-11). Wisdom emphases include, a) The art of skillful living (e.g. Prov 9.10) connected of course with the 'Fear of YHWH'; b) Retribution theology which looks to a person's acts and their subsequent consequences (e.g. Prov 26.28), while simultaneously realizing that retribution should not be an overly-rigid thought category(i.e. Job; cf. Prov 20.24) due to its failure in explaining the mysteries of God; and c) Character formation is at the heart of true wisdom.

Next, Estes addresses the neglect of wisdom in Biblical Theology (henceforth, BT). Estes observes that Eichrodt, with his stress on covenant and Von Rad with his focus on salvation history ignored theology in their treatments. Two factors on the opposite end of the scholarly spectrum have relegated wisdom to the sidelines in these treatments. One, is the similarity OT Wisdom texts show to their Ancient Near East (ANE) neighbors writings. Therefore, Wisdom texts in the OT are often labeled as 'pagan'. Secondly, the Prophets and their emphasis on 'special revelation' has trumped the 'general revelation' of the sages in the minds of interpreters.

Following this section, Estes explores the connections between Wisdom texts with the remainder of the OT. First, he notes that a) The OT Wisdom texts are monotheistic, pointing to the dissimilarities with ANE texts. Estes remarks that the God found in the Wisdom texts shares the same attributes with the prophets and psalmists; and b) citing Overland, Estes states that Prov 3.1-12 is rooted on the Shema of Deut 6.4-9  as an example of  "sapiential rendition of classic covenantal piety "(855). Following this section, Estes addresses the place of Wisdom in OT Theology, demonstrating that Wisdom texts are best at answering ethical questions, such as "What has value?"; "What can be known and how can it be known?"

Finally, for me the most important section is the final one, where Estes addresses the big question, namely, 'what is the place of Wisdom in Biblical Theology?'  Estes, wisely, (I know, pardon the pun!) that the OT narrates a story that finds its completion in the NT, "where the creation that has been marred by sin early in the OT finds its restoration only at the end of the NT." Estes continues, "The Two Testaments fit together like a two-volume novel or a two-reel film, with the OT anticipating the NT, and the NT referring back to the OT. Therefore, it seems misguided to read the OT in isolation and to construe its meaning as though it were a complete story in itself " (858; emphasis mine). Continuing this train of thought Estes remarks and I quote in full:
It may well be that the various attempts by OT theologians to ascertain the center of the OT have failed at this very point. Just as an exclusive focus on covenant, salvation history or the mighty acts of Yahweh has obscured the contributions of wisdom to OT theology, so too viewing the OT in isolation from the NT could well lead to theological distortions. J. Barr correctly champions the agenda of biblical theology, and he rightfully urges that in this effort NT texts be seriously engaged rather than treated superficially (858; Emphases mine).

Estes concludes the article by mentioning the contribution of OT wisdom books to biblical theology is only in its inception and much more needs to be said and done regarding its effect on the NT especially.

Some final thoughts are in order here, as Estes, I believe, has hit upon something that I believe to be true, although, I would qualify from the other direction as well! OT and NT theologies (of which, admittedly, I am a fan!) are at times, artificial, and I am now very happy to see works, such as James Hamilton's biblical theology and Greg Beale's forthcoming work , who both seem to realize the necessity of a holistic approach to theological interpretation of the Canon, not just the tidy bifurcation of  theologies for each of the Testaments. As Estes notes, finding a center in OT Theology to the exclusion of the NT is at best a 'distortion', and I would dare to say the reverse is true, namely, finding a 'center' for NT Theology at the expense of the OT also distorts the biblical evidence.

Estes has written an excellent and thought-provoking essay, that is both informative and challenging. I hope that the sage advice he offers in this article, will be 'wisdom' for present and future interpreters of the Bible.

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