An Introduction to Wisdom and Poetry of the Old Testament

By Donald K. Berry
Nashville, TN : Broadman & Holman (1995). xvi + 463 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Richard Bargas
8.2 (Fall 1997) : 227-230

Author Donald K. Berry is Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Mobile, Alabama. He received his Ph.D. at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has done additional studies in comparative literature at Indiana University. He also wrote The Psalms and Their Readers: Interpretative Strategies for Psalm 18 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993). Dr. Berry has also pastored churches in Kentucky and Alabama.

This volume has the format of a textbook for colleges and seminaries, with chapters carefully organized. Questions for discussion come at the conclusion of each chapter. In addition, it includes 27 tables of detailed studies spread throughout the text. These studies cover the types of poetic units in the Hebrew Bible (210-14), poetic units in Sirach (348), speakers in the Song of Songs (385), garden images in the Song of Songs (406), and many more. The tables convey a wealth of material in short compass, enabling the author to point the reader to more detailed studies without departing from the introductory nature of the volume. In addition to recognizing the sources for citations, the footnotes provide definitions, additional comments regarding more detailed studies, and bibliographic references to additional resources.

End materials include a glossary of selected terms (423-29). Some terms defined within the text are not in the glossary, but can be located through the subject index (e.g., acrostic, envelope structure, meter, parallelism, and wasf). However, some terms escape definition anywhere (e.g., chiasmus, ellipsis, apocryphon, proem, and taunt song). The work gives four separate, select bibliographies for Wisdom, Poetry, History of Interpretation, and Ancient Near Eastern Literature (431-40). It has indexes for names, subjects, and Scripture. The subject index is impressive because of its amount of detail. Subject matter is broader than just Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Lamentations, and the Song of Songs. It also discusses Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature, the deuterocanonical books, the pseudepigrapha, early Jewish literature, and materials in the nonpoetic and non-wisdom biblical corpus. It traces the history of interpretation from the ANE setting to modern times, including the patristic period, the medieval period, and the Reformation. Section titles in the text highlight contributions to the study of biblical wisdom literature and biblical poetry by Crenshaw, Delitzsch, Donne, Driver, Eissfeldt, Ewald, Gerstenberger, Herder, Hobbes, Mead, Rinkart, Rylaarsdam, Spinoza, von Rad, Whybray, and Wolff. Specialized studies that advanced the respective fields also receive attention, but without separate section titles referring to the individuals. These include studies by Berlin, Camp, Collins, Cross, Duhm, Gevirtz, Sievers, Gunkel, Hrushovski, Köhler, Kugel, Lowth, McKane, Mowinckel, O’Connor, Schökel, Watson, and others.

Berry carefully lays out his approach to the study of wisdom in Part One of the volume (1):

  • Which books do we include in the scope of wisdom?
  • What interests do the books of wisdom share with wisdom materials from other ancient civilizations?
  • How did the wisdom sayings fit within the community of worship in ancient Israel?
  • How were the books understood and interpreted in subsequent history?
  • What are the unique and common features of each of the wisdom books?
  • How does the combination of the books’ unique features expand the general concept of wisdom?

 In this reviewer’s opinion, the author does an excellent job of accomplishing exactly what he set out to do. Unfortunately, he does not introduce Part Two of the volume by a similar plan (173). However, he does arrange the material of the second part in much the same way as that of the first part.

The author’s view of Ecclesiastes is too negative. It places too much stress on skepticism. Michael A. Eaton and Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., have sounder interpretations of Ecclesiastes. The author refers to neither of these commentaries in his presentation of the history of interpretation.

In the brief definitions of the Hebrew vocabulary of wisdom, the only resource cited is BDB (once, 23). The author himself admits to oversimplification in the discussion of the Hebrew terms (5 n. 5). He could improve the discussions by providing some guidance for the student desiring more information.

Sometimes the author makes statements without explanation that leave the reader wondering what he intended. He implies that giving thanks to God has some sort of controlling effect upon God’s actions (189). In yet another instance, he seems to indicate that God Himself receives blessing by His association with Zion (191). His exegesis of Psalm 49:14-15 misses the mark when he says that “the psalmist is confident personal integrity brings deliverance” (372), implying a works form of salvation. Some statements are inaccurate, as in the comment that 2 Samuel 22 contains a “hymn identical to Psalm 18” (197). Psalm 18 has many differences that can be accounted for by the different functions served by the two versions of the hymn.

 The author’s neglect of conservative scholars shows up in their omission from his references in text, footnotes, and bibliographies. He makes only passing references to the Job commentaries by Robert Alden and F. I. Andersen. Conservative commentaries and studies are pretty much ignored. The lone exception is Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting Old Testament Literary Forms (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995) by D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese, Jr., to which Berry refers four times. One of the disappointments is the lack of any reference to John H. Sailhamer’s presentation of narrative/poetic seams in the Pentateuch.

In the treatment of poetry in the Pentateuch, the volume has overlooked Leviticus 26 in spite of the fact that its poetic content was long ago identified by Karl Elliger. The covenant curse text has many similarities to Deuteronomy 28, which Berry and many others identify as poetic. Leviticus employs chiasmus, proverbial numbers, inclusio, repetition, assonance, and even parallelism (see esp. v. 42). The author probably ignored it because of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia’s prose formatting of the entire chapter. The chapter could at least have received as much attention as Berry gave to “measured prose” or “narrative poetry” in 1 Samuel 17:42- 47 (313).

Berry repeatedly refers to Daniel’s poetry as “Hebrew poetry,” even when it is in Aramaic (204-5, 343-45). This oversimplification needs further exploration, especially with regard to the poem of Nebuchadnezzar.

The author’s redactional stance on the date and authorship of books of the OT becomes clearer as the reader progresses through this volume. He questions that Solomon produced any finished work such as Ecclesiastes (25). He proposes the righteous sufferer of Ugarit as “the basis of the prose framework of Job” (33). Berry implies that there is even a difference in the view of Yahweh’s inspiration of scriptural wisdom in Proverbs 1–9 as compared to chapters 10–31 (37). He also claims that “the model for royal wisdom could have been adapted from the Assyrians or Babylonians and applied to Solomon retroactively” (38). He dismisses a patriarchal date for the book of Job as an early Jewish attempt to associate the book with the Pentateuch (51)—even though he later admits that “Job may come from originals dating to the patriarchal period” (95). His identification of Job as a postexilic production is based upon “its philosophical debate style” (95).

 He even dismisses the NT’s citation of Proverbs 8 as a reference to a person of the Godhead as being influenced by Greek hypostatic thought (46-47, 62- 63). Berry does not consider that the personification of wisdom as a person of the Godhead may have arisen in the deuterocanon and the NT as a result of Proverbs 8 per se. Some of his illustrations of Jesus’ dependence on Sirach and Paul’s employment of the Wisdom of Solomon are tenuous, at best. Similarity of thought or of illustration does not prove a common source. This would be especially true within the same cultural setting. Writers within the same culture may be expected to utilize some amount of similar phraseology, observations, and illustrations independent of one another. Berry himself admits that “the mere presence of wisdom terminology serves as poor support for the claim of dependence. The scholar needs to be sensitive to the shades of distinction between supposition and proof” (90).

The author’s reluctance to date any biblical poetry prior to 1300 B.C. (209), indicates the degree of redactionism he accepts. He would evidently follow either a late dating for Moses or deny Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch since Genesis 4, Genesis 49, and Exodus 15 contain examples of poetry that the conservative scholar would date no later than 1400 B.C. for Moses’ editing. These compositions existed prior to Moses recording them. The oral forms of the Genesis poems predate Moses by centuries.

 In spite of his redactional viewpoint and the various shortcomings identified by this review, Berry has produced a very readable and informative volume. It has a wealth of information in its pages. Berry’s ready wit and awareness of his own times contribute to the volume’s readability. At one point he wryly observes that a certain Babylonian document mentioned incantations, “especially their lack of effect” (34). In his discussion of Bernard of Clairvaux’s allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs, he observes that Bernard’s “interpretations show amazing agility” (258). One of the many pieces of information included by the author is the account of Sebastian Castellio (1515-1563) being denied ordination in Geneva because of his literal interpretation of the Song of Songs (270). The author also employs contemporary rap music to describe the lively performance involved in biblical poetry (292 n. 133).

 The histories of interpretation and the book by book analyses are worth enduring the frustrations of its shortcomings. The professor teaching courses in either OT wisdom literature or poetry will appreciate this volume’s sound pedagogical approach to the materials.