February 12, 2008
No Chloroform Here!
The Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings is nearing completion. And, among other things, I’m spending hours worming my way through page proofs. While it’s detailed work, it’s also gratifying to see this seventh volume in the series unfold and to be reminded of its various facets and layers of perspective.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this project is that it has more literary-type articles than other volumes. It goes with the territory of this corpus, of course, and it underscores the necessity of grappling with the form in which this biblical literature comes to us. Here is a fairly complete list of the literary-type articles:
Acrostic; Ambiguity; Autobiography; Chiasm; Disputation; Editorial Criticism; Ellipsis; Form Criticism; Frame Narrative; Inclusio; Intertextuality; Lyric Poetry; Merism; Meter; Novella, Story, Narrative; Parallelism; Personification; Poetics, Terminology of; Proverb, Genre of; Refrain; Rhetorical Criticism; Sound Patterns; Stanza, Strophe; Terseness; Word Play.
In addition, each biblical book covered in the DOTWPW has an individual article devoted to its ancient Near Eastern background, which is for the most part its literary background.
As those who are familiar with this neighborhood of Old Testament literature will know, the literary context of its wisdom and poetry is very rich. Reading these articles is a powerful reminder of what we might call the incarnational principle of God’s Word. It is not a Word dropped from heaven or one whispered by angels into the prophet's ear. This Word emerges from the heart of Israel and is in conversation with its surrounding cultures.
There are proverbs that are strikingly reminiscent of those of the Instruction of Amenemope, Job evokes comparisons with the Egyptian Disputation of a Man with His Ba and the Akkadian Babylonian Theodicy, and Ecclesiastes shows surprising links to texts from Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt. Wisdom is famous for its “international” character. It’s almost as if in some cases international wisdom has been baptized and woven into the texture of these books, but in Proverbs especially.
In other instances it’s international imagery that has been woven into the biblical fabric, and though the biblical matrix transforms meaning, the international elements are recognizable nonetheless. This is well brought out in the DOTWPW’s articles devoted to imagery and to iconography in relation to the psalms.
The DOTWPW reminds us of what we should well know: the Word of God comes to us in the words of men—not in haphazard or casually spoken words of men but, by God’s special providence, words that are shaped in the artful and stylistic conventions of their time. And for this body of literature, it is to sages—learned scribes—that we look for the actual authors and editors. Much could be said about this literary artistry of the Old Testament—and much has been speculated, based on what we know of ancient Near Eastern scribal culture—but the essence is that there were trained and skilled intellectuals, some within the royal court and others of priestly and levitical lines, who wrestled with theological issues, cared much about their craft and took pains with their texts.
Mark Twain once called The Book of Mormon “chloroform in print.” I’ll leave you to test the merits of that claim. But of one thing I’m sure—only a rube would say that about this slice of Old Testament literature (or the rest of the Old Testament, for that matter). The literary and formative powers of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job, or Song of Songs and Lamentations, are manifest. Call it their effective history, their reception history or the old-fashioned power of the Word, it is an inescapable reality.
So our contemporary words about this Word—preached, taught or sung—should reflect its qualities. And that takes us back to the value of the DOTWPW, and learning about chiasm and inclusio and merism and sound patterns, and even—can it be?—ambiguity and terseness.