Book Reviews

The Sword and the Stylus

An Introduction to Wisdom in the Age of Empires

Leo G. Perdue Grand Rapids 2008-06-17

Perdue, a highly regarded and prolifically published expert in the Old Testament wisdom literature (witness his recent work, Wisdom Literature: A Theological History [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007]), covers in this book the standard introductions to the biblical literature and his analyses of them. But he adds something virtually unique to the subject, namely, “A Prolegomenon to Wisdom in the Empires.” Under the loosely defined rubric “empires” he includes Egypt, Mesopotamia, Ugarit, Aram, Greece, and Israel (and Judah). Each of these he considers as to their cultural boundaries (both spatially and historically), wisdom’s social character and the roles of sages, and the social institutions of scribes and sages. Especially helpful is his brief attention to the rhetoric of wisdom literature in Israel and Judah (pp. 80–84).

To the observation that previous studies have also included in their scope the wider ancient Near Eastern world (e.g., Martin Noth and D. W. Thomas, Wisdom in Israel and in the Ancient Near East [Leiden: Brill, 1955]), Perdue takes the position at the outset that these works for the most part have universalized wisdom by asserting its timelessness and by betraying an insensitivity to the milieux in which the various traditions arose and developed. That is, each culture, he argues, produced its own peculiar ways of viewing the world and drawing conclusions based on its own experience. “In this volume,” he says, “I move away from the stranglehold of idealism, which has dominated most research concerning wisdom for the past century. Idealism understands the teachings of the sages as disconnected ideas that are seen as eternal thoughts the savants understood to be true” (p. 1). He then describes in great detail the technical language and ideation of biblical wisdom which set it apart, while conceding correctly that the larger world in which Israel was immersed necessarily impacted it and its intellectual and religious culture.

Following his lengthy prolegomenon (pp. 1–84) Perdue turns to a diachronic overview of Hebrew/Jewish wisdom literature commencing with Proverbs. He denies its Solomonic authorship in any sense but allows that it could have largely ancient monarchic roots. He situates Job in the Neo-Babylonian Empire period, mainly on the basis of alleged Babylonian parallels. The wisdom psalms of the Psalter have Persian provenance, he maintains, pointing particularly to the three Torah psalms (Pss. 1, 19b, 119) for evidence, and he relegates Qoheleth to the Ptolemaic period. Deuterocanonical texts include Ben Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. Finally he takes into consideration various apocalyptica (such as Daniel), and then Qumranic and rabbinic wisdom writings. The whole is capped off with a lengthy conclusion (45 pp.), a valuable bibliography, and a number of indexes that make the contents of the book much more easily accessible.

This impressive effort is important for serious students of Old Testament wisdom even with the caveats expressed above and others, more minor, not worth mentioning.

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Eugene H. Merrill
Eugene H. Merrill is a former faculty member of DTS. Dr. Merrill has been heavily involved in international Christian ministry in Europe, Asia, and the Near East. As a scholar Dr. Merrill regularly contributes to leading journals, periodicals, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and commentaries. Academia runs in his family as his wife, Janet, holds a doctorate in counselor education from Columbia University and his daughter, Sonya, earned a Ph.D. in medical ethics from the University of London and an M.D. from Harvard University.
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