Curtis, Edward M. Interpreting the Wisdom Books: An Exegetical Handbook. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Academic, 2017. 204 pp. Pb; $21.99. Link to Kregel
This new contribution to Kregel’s Handbooks of Old Testament Exegesis covers four difficult books in the Hebrew Bible: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. Curtis contributed a commentary on Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs in the Teach the Text Commentary Series (Baker 2013) and Discovering the Way of Wisdom (with John J. Brugaletta, Kregel, 2004). This handbook joins Gary Smith’s recent Interpreting the Prophetic Books and Richard A. Taylor, Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature to complete the Handbooks on the Old Testament series.
The first section of the book provides definition of wisdom and the nature of poetry. Curtis understands wisdom literature as a kind of general revelation. By carefully observing life this literature draws accurate conclusions about God’s orderly universe. But this literature does not always answer “enigmatic and anomalous experiences,” perhaps generating the speculative wisdom of Job and Ecclesiastes. The unit on poetry is a basic introduction to Hebrew poetry (parallelism and other literary features), but also a very helpful section on interpreting metaphors. Metaphors can be a problem for Bible students who are taught to “read the Bible literally,” but Curtis provides a basic method for teasing out the meaning of a metaphor.
The second section of the book explores the main themes of the four Old Testament wisdom books in canonical order. These short summaries of the books briefly gather the main theological points of the books under a series of headings. One particularly helpful section is on the application of proverbs. He begins with the warning “a proverb on the mouth of a fool is useless” (Prov 26:7) and explains there is a contingent time and place for a proverb to be used and there is a kind of life-skill in knowing that time and place. Although Curtis does not do this in his book, tt is possible to rearrange the wisdom material so the student encounters Proverbs as the “way wisdom works,” and then read Job and Ecclesiastes as “the way wisdom does not work.”
The Song of Songs is the one book of the Hebrew Bible that is difficult to classify. Although it is usually placed with other wisdom books, it is not at all like Proverbs, Job, or Ecclesiastes. Curtis does not defend the inclusion of the Song in a book of Wisdom Literature other than to observe sexual relationships are part of the created order. It is not surprising his comments on the Song focus on “one-flesh relationships” (lifelong monogamous, and by implication heterosexual relationships). He rejects allegorical interpretation for the most part, he does recognize some insights of allegorical interpreters “reflect legitimate applications” of the marriage metaphor in the Old Testament.
With this material in mind, Curtis then offers two chapters on exegetical method applied to the Wisdom books. Although most pastors will not take the time to worry about textual critical issues for the Wisdom books, Curtis has a short section on determining the text for the Hebrew Bible with a few examples drawn from Proverbs and Job. He develops a series of recommendations for interpreting the poetry and metaphors of each of the wisdom books.
Throughout both these methodological chapters, Curtis offers a detailed and annotated bibliography of resources needed for interpreting wisdom literature. Some of these are generic Hebrew Bible tools: a good lexicon, for example, is a necessary took regardless of the genre. Other bibliographies target Wisdom literature, such as a list of recommended commentaries. An appendix prepared by Austen M. Dutton suggests a number of electronic resources, from free on-line resources to professional (and expensive) Bible Software such as BibleWorks, Accordance and Logos.
The final section of the book is a guide to proclaiming Wisdom literature. Of all of the volumes of the Handbook of Old Testament Exegesis, the various genre of wisdom literature are challenging for preaching and teaching. Curtis offers some specific guidance using Proverbs 2 and Job 28 as examples. Following this model, he gives a series of suggestions for how to preach the four books. For example, with respect to Proverbs, the “proclamation should reflect the big picture and recurrent themes” (159). It would be confusing to preach through the whole book of Proverbs “verse-by-verse” the way someone might move through Galatians. There is simply no sustained argument from verse to verse! In his final chapter in the book, Curtis gives several case studies. These provide a simple sermon outlines and illustrations to serve as examples of what could be done for a particular text.
Conclusion. Curtis says “Proclamation should do justice to Qoheleth’s tensions” (161). Although he makes this comment with respect to Ecclesiastes, it really does apply to the whole of the wisdom literature. Although the attraction of wisdom books is the often clear-cut and simple observations on how to live a successful life, there are frustrating, unanswered questions. If you raise up your child in the way they should go, why do they sometimes stray from that way, despite the claim of Proverbs 22:6? It seems as though there is always an assumed “most of the time” for any given proverbs. For this reason, Proverbs and the rest of the Wisdom literature is often better discussed than proclaimed.
Nevertheless, as with the other contributions to this series, this handbook for the Wisdom books succeeds in its goal of providing students of Old Testament wisdom with the tools for teaching and preaching this difficult material in the Hebrew Bible. This would make a good textbook for a college or seminary class on the Prophets, especially in more conservative circles.
NB: Thanks to Kregel Books for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.