It is no secret that the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament is one hand beautiful and on the other hand challenging. Job constantly breaks away from what is conventional wisdom, both in the past and in the present. Proverbs offers snippets in the other direction, only to have Ecclesiastes push again towards a less common view. And Song of Songs, well, its a bit too racy for most Sunday mornings. And yet, these are some of the most beloved books of the Old Testament, frequently the subject of studies and devotionals. Part of this stems from the tension between their plain meaning and the difficult aspects of the texts. In an effort to help provide some ways forward on this front, Edward Curtis has penned the latest edition to Kregel Academic‘s Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis. I have written previously on my admiration for the entries on the Prophets and the Apocalyptic writings. So I won’t rehash things like layout or form of the book.
Perhaps the reason these books are so helpful is because they offer a perspective into things that a lay person might otherwise be unfamiliar with, but they do not create a sense that the Bible is impossible to understand without this other information. Take, for instance, Curtis’s exploration of the Ancient Near East literary context for the Wisdom books. Though he explains that such background information “sometimes brings clarifying insight to meaning that would not be apparent to a reader today” (90), he recognizes the methods of understanding these books in the past still have value, even if they did not depend on this kind of specialized knowledge (86). This kind of thinking is prevalent throughout the book, and invites interpreters to work within a broad framework for understanding.
The book also has helpful explorations on how to develop a sermon out of these texts, which are inherently practical already, as well as a brief excursus on the digital resources out there for exegeting the Wisdom literature. These appendices are incredibly helpful in light of technological developments in the last couple of decades. Though Curtis uses all of this to explore books like Job and Ecclesiastes most, I found these tools most helpful in reading through the Song of Songs. The Ancient Near East context for “apples” and “lilies” are simply things I am not likely to encounter in most of reading, so Curtis gave me something to truly consider when trying to analyze some of this challenging, yet beautiful poetry (90). These images, along with other garden types, remind the reader that Song of Songs is poetic in the sense that it does not always warrant criticism, lest the reader “explain the joke” (139). Curtis brings this common sense approach to the whole of the genre, making the reader acutely aware of the limitations of criticism on this kind of writing.
While the book does not set out to solve any long lasting debates, Interpreting the Wisdom Books serves as a helpful and important primer on how to engage these specific books. It is a starting point, a place of departure. Curtis’s admonition, “to approach the task with humility and openness both to the text and to the insights of those whose work reflects the strengths we lack,” summarizes precisely why such a book is vital to any students of Bible, be it pastors or Sunday School teachers or busy moms trying to raise four kids (110).