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Conceptualizing Wisdom

November 13, 2007

John Hobbins has written an excellent post entitled Wisdom Literature: A Course of Study. In short, he holds that to study the biblical wisdom literature, one needs 1) to master the literature itself through in depth study of the primary texts, 2) to read other examples of wisdom from the ANE, and 3) to read the thoughts of scholars who have devoted themselves to the subject. While this is (of course) the way to study just about anything, the method in general crashes on the rocks of the survey course. How does one teach wisdom literature to a group of first-year undergrads in about one week?

This question has been near and dear to my heart over the last few months. Indeed, since I got the green light to teach at Eastern over the summer, I have been concerned first and foremost over how to teach the wisdom texts. I’ve read them myself, look at the way others have taught them, sought the wisdom of those who’ve been teaching them for years; but I was forced in the end to make my own way.

While I cannot claim any years of experience in teaching this literature, I have spent many years with these texts. I have done what John suggests, to the point where I almost pursued a dissertation on the Mesopotamian wisdom text Ludlul Bel Nemeqi. The corpus is vast; the oversimplifications in general introductions are extreme; and folks generally don’t read the texts well because they haven’t taken the time to know the genere.

None of this, however, addresses my question.

For this year I’ve broken the wisdom corpus into four groups:

  1. Wisdom Calling (Proverbs)
  2. Calling for Wisdom (Qohelet)
  3. Calling for Revelation (Job)
  4. Wisdom as Revelation (Sirach and Daniel 1-6)

Basically, this amounts to an Hegelian dialectic (a la Walter Brueggemann’s work on the Psalms) of orientation, disorientation and reorientation with the disorientation being stretched out over two sessions of differing calls. It also means that I teach Qohelet before Job and lump Daniel 1-6 in with wisdom literature (a position that I don’t meant to imply that I buy that apocalyptic is the child of wisdom).

It is in no way historical, but I hope that it provides my students with conceptual hooks upon which they can later hang personal study.

  1. November 13, 2007 11:33 am

    I can see how these books rebel against the bit sized treatment that they will inevitably receive in a survey. I’m leading about a 10-week bible study on Proverbs, Job and Eccl. so I know something of your struggle. What I am trying to do provide the tools that will help people read and appropriate these texts on their own daily Bible reading–something that will get them returning to the texts themselves.

  2. jimgetz permalink*
    November 16, 2007 9:41 am

    Dave b,

    We’re on the same page here. Today we tackled Proverbs and I spent have the class disabusing folks of the idea that they can read aphorisms the same way as prophecy. Some of the students seemed quite vexed at the outset.

    The nature of a first-year survey lends itself to lecture, very little interaction and tests that amount to vomiting back information. None of this really works for the wisdom canon, but yet after 12 weeks, it’s hard to get students to engage in more discussion, to take on the text, or to take on my interpretations.

    Qohelet will be better, since I already feel that most of this is chasing after the wind 😉

  3. November 16, 2007 5:20 pm

    Best wishes with that!

    I’m curious what textbook(s) you are using.

  4. jimgetz permalink*
    November 16, 2007 10:52 pm

    I’m using J. J. Collins’ massive Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. It’s a great book, but I’m finding it cumbersome to use the way I teach. I’d much rather have students reading the text than Collins’ interpretation of it.

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