February 13, 2008
The Known, the Known Unknown and the Unknown Unknown
As a very unpopular U.S. Secretary of Defense once declaimed about matters related to the contemporary Middle East:
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.
He was ridiculed for that. But the fact is that for interpreters approaching OT wisdom, poetry and writings, the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings offers something in each category of Rummy’s known and unknown, and not a few things “we don’t know we don’t know.” And that latter category can make all the difference!
I can’t tell you what your known knowns and known unknowns and unknown unknowns are. But never mind. What good is all this detailed reference-book information when it comes to theological interpretation or preaching or teaching? Is it just interesting but not necessarily significant? Here are some random thoughts in response to that question, centered on our knowledge of the Old Testament’s ancient Near Eastern background.
*The greater our knowledge of the text’s ancient Near Eastern background and the more informed our literary sensitivity, the finer our tuning as we dial in the signal of the text. It helps us tune out the static and get the text “on station.”
*The ancient Near Eastern background “backlights” the Old Testament text, allowing important elements to stand out more clearly, in 3-D if you will.
*We are guarded against category mistakes, such as taking proverbs to be “promises” or psalms as proper “prophecies” or Song of Songs as something “really” other than love poetry (at least in its original composition).
*We are reminded of the errors that have been made and the false trails followed when too much weight has been put on speculative background hypotheses, such as Mowinckel’s confidence in a background of a New Year’s enthronement celebration for some of the psalms or Dahood’s enthusiasm for Ugaritic solutions to Hebrew lexical conundrums.
*We also find suggestive models for doing theology today. For instance, the likelihood that Psalm 29 is a Yahwistic adaptation of a Baal poem, or at least incorporates such motifs, suggests possibilities for a vigorous contemporary apologetic that is not afraid to trade skillfully in the language and imagery of Canaan to recapture intellectual ground for Christ.
One last thought. If you are midstream or late in your theological or ministry career and still coasting on your MDiv course in Old Testament wisdom and poetry from two or three decades ago (no matter how good it was!), you definitely need the DOTWPW for a refresher course. But also as a guide into your unknown unknowns! And for the known price of fifty bucks, it’s a fraction of the cost of a seminary course. I know that for sure.