Proverbs, Covenant, and Deuteronomic Theology: Ryan P. O’Dowd’s “Wisdom as Canonical Imagination”

In his contribution to the book Canon and Biblical Interpretation (vol. 7 in the Scripture and Hermeneutics Series; Zondervan, 2006), Ryan P. O’Dowd offers an interaction with Tremper Longman that he believes to provide a richer canonical understanding of Proverbs and wisdom literature. By “attending to the hermeneutical nature of wisdom itself,” O’Dowd seeks to “rise freely and imaginatively above Longman’s insights in search of a canonical interpretation of wisdom” (pg. 374).

In Old Testament wisdom studies, great emphasis has been placed on the purportedly common and international character of wisdom, although as Donn Morgan has noted, this emphasis has been largely due to the academy’s movement away from anything considered “revelational” in the direction of things perceived to be more “secular” or “common” (see Donn Morgan, Wisdom in the Old Testament Traditions [WJK, 1981], 14, 16). Morgan himself notes, however, that “it must be seriously questioned whether contemporary epistemological dichotomies, such as reason-revelation, are operative in the biblical texts themselves” (pg. 15).

It seems to me that the biblical wisdom literature does not view itself as just another observation-based reflection on common or secular truths. O’Dowd’s imaginative-synthetic approach to Proverbs and Deuteronomy resonates with me in this regard:

First, I would like to challenge Longman’s concession, following a virtual consensus, that the ‘lack of obvious theological language’ in Proverbs is a ‘problem.’ If he means that the book lacks explicit reference to redemptive, historical, and/or covenantal theology, this is surely true. Yet, the nature of wisdom as an imaginative [i.e., synthesizing] literary genre, along with the explicit repetition in the book, give us good reason to appreciate the important underlying theological assumptions behind it. I have already noted above the material in Proverbs 3:18ff. and 8:22ff. as the foundation for a theology of creation – what I have called a picture of the whole. The resonances between these chapters and passages like Genesis 1-3, Job 26, 28, and Psalm 104 point consistently to Israel’s theology of the created order.

In addition to this, Proverbs begins with the explicit demand, ‘The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom.’ In fact, ‘the fear of Yahweh’ is repeated some fourteen times in the book. While I am certainly keen to avoid overreading these references, I am equally compelled to account for the emphatic identification of the fear of Yahweh as the beginning of wisdom, and also the wise woman’s chief characteristic (Prov. 31:30) in the book’s conclusion. These prompt us to ask, hermeneutically, what Proverbs intends for us to reconstruct by the explicit and carefully placed repetition of this phrase. Longman is right to see this signifying the need for a ‘relationship with Yahweh.’ Yet, given the rich use of this phrase in Deuteronomy and the deuteronomistic literature, there is a strong likelihood that it alludes to a more extensive theological context. In fact, without resorting to Weinfeld’s wisdom source theory for Deuteronomy, there is still good reason to see something like a narrative ‘metalepsis’ occurring here, by which ‘the fear of Yahweh’ in Proverbs persuades us to exercise a critical intertextual imagination and conclude that covenant commitment to Yahweh – with all its redemptive history and theology – is the entrance to the path of true wisdom. Wisdom in Proverbs thus unites a theology of creation with a theology of redemption such that wisdom, besides being theological, is conscious of the history of Israel’s redemption. Its hermeneutics work out of a theological/redemptive/historical picture of the world.

“Wisdom as Canonical Imagination,” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation (Zondervan, 2006),  pgs. 382-84. Bold emphasis added.

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA