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Friday, April 13, 2018

"Interpreting the Wisdom Books" (Edward M. Curtis)

TITLE: Interpreting the Wisdom Books: An Exegetical Handbook (Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis)
AUTHOR: Edward M. Curtis
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2018, (208 pages).

One of the challenges of interpreting the Bible is to recognize the literary genres the each book belongs to. Without understanding of genre, we would risk starting on the wrong path. Genre interpretation gives us a clearer perspective that nuances the essence of each book more succinctly and accurately. This is at least far more effective than mere literal interpretation which could render awkward understanding. There are at least eight different genres: Narrative; Law; Poetry; Wisdom; Prophecy; Gospels; Letters; Apocalypse. This handbook treats the wisdom books as Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Very often, we need background information and context in order to better appreciate the proverb or the associated verses that try to highlight a theme. It can be quite a challenge to read the Bible alone as a 21st Century reader, let alone interpret them. Thankfully, we have formidable scholarship, archaeological studies, and historians who could fill in such gaps. This handbook stems from a conviction that the Bible is best studied when we approach the original languages as closely as possible. Aimed at an intermediate to advanced level of seminarians, students, and trained pastors, this handbook follows a familiar six-chapter format:

  1. The Nature of the Genres
  2. Viewing the Whole: Major Themes
  3. Preparing for Interpretation
  4. Interpreting the Text
  5. Proclaiming the Text
  6. Putting It All Together: From Text to Sermon
Apart from the use of exegesis to aid those trained in some Hebrew, there is another powerful tool in the use of themes. This way, readers will not be bogged down by too much verse-by-verse analysis. At the same time, using themes help us grasp the books more accurately. Chapter One paves the world to give us an overview of the nature of Old Testament wisdom. This is necessary especially in an age where wisdom means so many different things to different people. By defining and outlining what Old Testament wisdom is, readers will be be waylaid by the many modern and liberal options on what wisdom is and is not. The wisdom of Israel are compared to other nations in the Ancient Near East. According to Curtis, "Wisdom literature reflects the human struggle to understand how things work in the world that God created, and the search generally proceeds without special revelation. The struggle for answers takes place the way we normally experience life in the world." A key thought in this is that wisdom is essentially a bidirectional approach. It is first a gift from God above to us below. As we live out our calling on earth, our use and implementation of such wisdom is an expression of our search for God. Biblical wisdom is tied to the fear of the God; the search for truth; and man receiving God's revelation.

Chapter Two deals with the individual themes specific to each of the wisdom books. With Job, we learn about the unique relationship between God and humans. Often, the book is thought to be about suffering and retribution. We learn that it is much more, that we ought to see God beyond what He could do toward Who He is. Proverbs are more than practical common sense principles. They reveal God's wisdom for the world rather than human practicalities. They are not one-time implementations but a life-long process. Ecclesiastes distinguishes the temporal from the eternal, and gives us a broader perspective of our perceived complex world. The commentary on the Song of Songs examines allegorical, historical, and literal readings and lands on the theme of human love meant as a gift from God. Curtis does so without jettisoning the allegorical interpretation. Chapter Three gives us some tools for interpretation. We learn to use parallels to shed light on similar themes. We learn how textual criticism could bring us closer to the best texts we have. Unlike the New Testament, there are fewer copied texts we could refer to and the challenge is then to determine the texts closest to the originals. Most of the differences are minor, dealing with spelling and non-critical areas, all of which do not impact doctrine or reasons for faith. Readers are assured that the strict rules of scientific analysis and textual distinctions give ample reasons for a high level of confidence in the authenticity of the texts. This is particularly important for an exegetical commentary like this because meaning is going to be drawn out of the texts per se. This is particularly challenging for the book of Job, said to be the "worst preserved in the Hebrew Bible." Curtis provides a lot of resources for anyone interested in the textual criticisms of all four wisdom books. An important point to remember is the use of such commentary and resources, that they should not replace our own exegesis of the texts, but to complement our work of interpretation and humble openness.

Chapter Four puts together some general guidelines for interpretation, both general and specific. In general, we need to employ all the tools available to us, such as genre awareness, contextual background, word and textual meaning. Other guidelines include literary styles such as repetition, key themes, background studies, and applications. Then there is the individual wisdom books in which we pay special attention to its unique genre and purpose. Some of them contain a mixture of narratives, poetry, parallelism, and harmonizations. Chapter Five is about preaching and the homiletical aspects of teaching the wisdom books. Special care is taken to describe both rhetorical tools and how to deal with difficult passages such as Job 28. We also learn to see a balance between honest struggle and earnest faith. The last chapter about putting it all together is an interesting application of the guidelines mentioned in this commentary.

That is not all, there is a helpful list of computer and Internet resources to help readers carry on the study and learning of these texts. The challenge nowadays is not just about the availability of these tools but the discerning needed with regard to which is most appropriate for our use.

My Thoughts
First, this is one of the most application-minded commentaries in the market today. Curtis does an excellent job laying down the basic groundwork for interpretation before going into applying the use of wisdom literature for our everyday living. This is seen in the final three chapters where readers learn about moving from the text to our modern context; from understanding to interpretation; from sermon preparation to message delivery. The author uses familiar themes such as friendship, love, human needs, and life principles to build bridges between the ancient and the modern. He also helps us see the use of the wisdom books for evangelism, for spiritual enrichment, and for relationship building.

Second, a basic level of understanding Hebrew would be most beneficial in the use of this book. Scattered throughout the book are Hebrew words which are not transliterated. This means that without an understanding of Hebrew, one would find it hard to understand or let alone pronounce the words used for exegesis. While those who don't know any Hebrew could skip these Hebrew words mentioned and grasp the meaning of the texts from the description, they would possibly miss out the nuances behind each word that the author is trying to get at. Of course, one could still use modern Bible software to parse these but that would take additional work, especially if one uses the hard copy of this commentary.

Third, I appreciate the way the author cross references the use of wisdom literature as a whole, and how it relates to the general revelation of Scripture. This requires a big picture understanding of the Bible, and a reminder that the Bible books are not to be interpreted as isolated texts from the rest of the Bible. The use of general and specific revelation is a good way to apply both the general thrust of Scripture with the specific meaning of each book.

In general, as a handbook for Old Testament exegesis, this book is rather ambitious, not only providing background information and the exegesis of the texts, it also provides lots of practical advice for delivering and teaching the wisdom books. Plus, the four wisdom books do appear quite broad themselves. Job is more than simply a book about suffering and theodicy. Proverbs is more than simply good advice. Ecclesiastes may utter "meaningless" in many areas of life but is still quite meaningful. The Song of Songs is not some erotic biblical book but a beautiful relationship played out through the use of literary devices and emotional connections.

Edward M Curtis is Professor of Old Testament at Biola University. He has done extensive research in Genesis, Job and the Song of Solomon, and is author of several commentaries. He contributes to such journals as Criswell Theological Review; Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society; Faculty Dialogue; Bibliotheca Sacra; and Christian Scholar's Review, and has presented articles before the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Regional Institute for Biblical Research. Curtis was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to participate in a seminar on the Bible and Cuneiform Literature at Yale University.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Kregel Academic without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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