The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel

“Fear of the Lord,” Ellen Davis writes in her introduction to the Old Testament, “is the deeply sane recognition that we are not God.” If she’s right, she raises an interesting possibility for one of the most well-known references to the fear of God in the OT. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Prov. 9:10) Tremper Longman’s new book takes this as a title and proffers to offer a “theological introduction” to wisdom literature. While the book definitely qualifies as an introduction, “theological introduction” evokes something more complete than what Longman provides.

For the first half, the book focuses on different sources in wisdom literature, with a chapter for each book traditionally identified as wisdom literature. The second half moves to a theological synthesis of wisdom under headings such as “Sources of Wisdom,” “Wisdom, Creation, and (Dis)order),” and “Wisdom, Covenant, and Law.” The book concludes by touching on wisdom in the intertestamental period and the New Testament.

The strongest part of the book is the introductory material in the first half. Longman presents an interesting interpretation of Job and helped me think through what, exactly, Ecclesiastes is all about. His interpretation of Proverbs didn’t reveal all that much, but had some good moments. Unfortunately, the fatal flaw of the book rears its head during the later sections of the introduction. Longman deals with “Wisdom Elsewhere in the Old Testament,” a promising subject that highlights how different sections in Deutoronomy, and even different characters in the Biblical story have been read as wisdom literature. Longman’s approach to all of this is frustrating. He does little more in this (and following) sections than list relevant texts, restate them in his own words, and move on.

The problem intensifies in the theological portion of the book. As he goes through different topics, he continues to provide more or less the services of a concordance, organizing texts relevant to the subject. He doesn’t deeply analyze the text, map the trajectories of different themes, or synthesize the broader ideas being conveyed.

There are other issues as well: Longman constantly restates points established earlier, some three or four times throughout the book. When he deals with the story of Joseph, he spends four pages explaining the entire story. While it’s helpful that he doesn’t assume his readers are scholars, it’s also unlikely that they’re biblically illiterate. A “theological introduction to wisdom in Israel” is not the kind of book someone with no background in the Bible is likely to pick up.

All of these concerns are well illustrated in his examination of the story of Joseph. After explaining the story, Longman examines how wisdom plays into the story. He notes that Joseph’s wisdom is connected both to his ability to interpret dreams and to his skill in managing the palace. He also notes that Joseph resists the advances of Potiphar’s wife in line with the admonitions from Potiphar, that he interprets dreams through revelation rather than through “dream commentaries,” and that he endures suffering well.

Several concerns arise. First, even if all this is true it’s not clear where it gets us. Joseph indeed seems like someone who, over time, becomes more wise and serves God better. But how does this impact our theology of wisdom? Does it at all? If it doesn’t, then bringing it up seems odd–there are dozens of people in the Bible who embody various wisdom principles. Why mention Joseph?

Longman connects Joseph to the vision of wisdom in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. But before doing that he explains (again) the interpretation he put forward of each book. He does this throughout the entire book. It seems like every time he mentions one of these three books he re-explains his interpretation.

Further, he starts his retelling of the Joseph story by insisting–as he does repeatedly throughout the book–that he is not assuming a distinct class of Biblical literature known as “wisdom” literature. All that is well and good, but one wonders why we need to be reminded over, and over, and over–in quite emphatic terms–that he is not saying that.

This isn’t to say that the book is useless. The book introductions at the beginning are helpful, and Longman has many throw-away comments throughout that really are brilliant. His explanation of the Ancient Near Eastern context of wisdom literature is helpful and his chapter on gender issues in wisdom literature is challenging and thoughtful. Maybe the book just needed to be shorter and more focused in its intent, rather than the wide-ranging “theological introduction” it attempts to be.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.