The Tree of Life – Roland E. Murphy

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I just finished this book on the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. Philip (see sidebar) asked me if I would comment on the book. I really wished I had read Gerhard von Rad’s “Wisdom in Israel” first as Murphy is heavily influenced by that book. If I had to do it over again I would read that first.

Murphy’s introductory material is quite helpful. He talks about the nature of the wisdom literature: what was considered wisdom lit., who the sages were, comparisons with other cultures (like Egypt), and the literary forms used to compose wisdom literature. His introduction was pretty thorough and gives some good tools for understanding the wisdom literature.

With any book this length that covers this much material you can be sure that most treatments will be too brief. This was the case in his handling of the book of proverbs. I wanted to mention a couple things I found helpful in his chapter on proverbs. 1) The best way to teach proverbs is to only handle a handful at a time. The individual sayings don’t group together all that well and it is easy to get lost in them even within reading a chapter or two. Classes will get more out of proverbs if taught more in depth on a few key proverbs in each section rather than trying to cover every proverb in the book. 2) his discussion on multiple levels of meaning in proverbs was helpful. 3) He points out a few numerological aspects of proverbs that were quite interesting. For instance the three names (Solomon, David, Israel) in 1:1 add up to the total number of lines in the book – 930. The title at 10:1 is numerically 375 which adds up to the number of lines in that collection (10:1-22:16). Chapters 25-29 are known as the Hezekian collection which has 140 lines = Hezekiah numerically.

While Murphy does not see Job as a historical character (which many would agree with), his chapter on Job was very helpful. He does a good treatment of the “devil” in Job as well as theodicy and the structure of the book. His chapter follows the course lined out in the book itself and he offers some helpful insights along the way. One line on Job I thought was a little much was his statement that “The maker of all things is astonished at the things He has himself made.” p, 43. He cites the need for a response in the book of Job on the part of the reader and points to Liberation Theology/Gutierrez’s book “On Job” as an example.

Ecclesiastes was adeptly handled. He again looks at numbers within the book to show some of the hidden undergirding of the book. Murphy’s discussion on “vanity” and its double meaning are helpful. Unlike others, Murphy sees this book as a profound testimony to faith. “He offers no consolation, nor does he limn the ‘soft’ side of God that one finds in the rest of the Bible. He simply accepts God on God’s terms. That is his faith.” p58. He sees this book as bringing balance to the OT, saying “there is more to religion than salvation.” p59.

He gives a section to Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon, which I won’t discuss.

His final three chapters were very well done – Chapter 7 – “Wisdom’s Echoes” – examining wisdom literature in chapters of psalms and deuteronomy. He makes some good observations there. Chapter 8 – “Wisdom Literature and Theology” attempts to make a bridge between two subjects few have accomplished. There has always been a problem linking the wisdom lit to the rest of OT theology. The problem is that the wisdom sayings rarely mention God and are more about everyday happenings. Murphy’s conclusion is that Israel saw their everyday activities as an important connection with God. They didn’t make all the secular distinction of various areas of their lives and activities that we do today. Therefore, everyday activities was seen in light of being the people of God. “Wisdom in the theological sense of God’s presence, of an intimacy and community with God, is not separate from the world, but is in the midst of everyday life with its customary, even petty events.” p125 – quoting J. Marbock. His final chapter is on Lady Wisdom and includes a concise treatment of personification in the OT.

Finally, the appendix offers some great bibliographic material for further study including references to Ancient Near Eastern texts (Pritchard), Wisdom in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and Greek thought.

It is a good read and won’t take you very long to collect some helpful nuggets of wisdom on the Wisdom Literature. I would recommend, if at all possible to pick up Gerhard von Rad’s “Wisdom in Israel” and read that first to give some basic underpinnings for where Murphy is coming from.

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