Interview with Wisdom Lit Scholar James Crenshaw

I am delighted to share this interview with another of my former teachers, this time Jim Crenshaw, who recently retired from Duke University.  Dr. Crenshaw is one of the foremost authorities on the wisdom literature.  It is my hope that you will find this interview as illuminating and thought-provoking as I have found it.

(see HERE for my  other interviews with Walter Brueggemann, Richard Hays, and Nancy deClaisse-Walford)

Thank you, Dr. Crenshaw, for agreeing to take part in this interview!  By way of introduction, could you tell us a little about yourself and your educational background?

Born to B.D. and Bessie Aiken Crenshaw on December 19, ’34; reared in upstate South Carolina with an evangelical background, soon discarded for skepticism involving all things religious while clinging to a profound gratitude for life. Married to Juanita Rhodes in June of ’56; blessed with two sons, James Timothy and David Lee, born 1-15-’60 and 9-11-’64, and five grandchildren: Elizabeth & Emily, Connor, Clare, and Carolyn. Hobbies: gardening, fishing, and watching Duke basketball. Education: B.A. in “56 from Furman University with a major in English and minors in Political Science and Sociology; B.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in January of ’60; Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in ’64, with a summer as a Fellow at the Hebrew Union College Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem in ’63. Further study at Columbia University in the summer of ’67. Sabbaticals at Heidelberg (’72-’73), Oxford (’78-’79), and Cambridge (’84-’85). Phi Beta Kappa. Major Fellowships: Society of Religion in Higher Education, Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Humanities, Pew Evangelical Scholarships, The Association for Theological Schools, and The American Academy of Learned Societies.  Honorary Degree from Furman University in ’93; University Wide Distinguished Professorship, Duke University, ’93-present, McCarthy Visiting Professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, 2007-2008. Teaching Positions: Atlantic Christian College (’64-’65), Mercer University (’65-Dec. ’69); Vanderbilt University (January’70-’87), Duke University (’87-December, 2008). Former editor of the Society of Biblical Literature’s Monograph Series and current editor of Personalities of the Old Testament for the University of South Carolina Press.

What led you to biblical studies, the Hebrew Bible more specifically?

My fascination with the bible began at a very early age. After a year long contest of Bible Sword Drill at a Baptist Church, I was awarded the grand prize of a leather bound Scofield Reference Bible! Greek in college and a young New Testament teacher in seminary, Henry Turlington, convinced me that research into the bible was my future. Graduate study at Vanderbilt was eye-opening; my mentors in Bible were Leander Keck, whose Teaching Assistant I was, Kendrick Grobel, J. Philip Hyatt, Walter Harrelson, and Lou H. Silberman. A minor in Theology was guided by Langdon Gilkey and Gordon Kaufman. I actually took more course work in New Testament and taught it, along with Old Testament, for six years. The literary beauty of the Old Testament and its ancient Near Eastern context tipped the scales for me.

You recently retired from Duke.  Congratulations!  How are you finding retirement?

I wear retirement like a favorite jacket, if retirement aptly describes my present situation. I continue to do research and to write, having completed the translation of the book of Job for Our Common English Bible, forthcoming by Abingdon, a commentary on the book of Job for Smyth and Helwys, a book of poetry, Dust and Ashes (Cascade Books), and several articles. Still, I spend a lot of time attending to my flowers, vegetable garden, and walking with Nita on a Greenway near our house. Above all, I get to see our sons, their wives, and our grandchildren regularly.

You have written extensively on the Wisdom Literature.  What biblical book from the wisdom literature do you find the most interesting or enjoy working on the most, and why?

The books of Job and Ecclesiastes are my favorites, Job for its exquisite, though obscure poetic images and Qoheleth for its honesty. Both of these books raise questions that lie at the heart of modern religious inquiry: Assuming the existence of God, as their authors most certainly did, what is the character of this Being? Will anyone serve God for nothing? How should one respond to innocent suffering? Does life have any ultimate meaning? Given the sentence of death imposed on us all, how should each moment be lived? While others may stress the divine source of scripture, the questions pursued by Job and Qoheleth expose its human side. Because I believe the bible is the product of intellectual inquiry into life’s deepest mysteries, I want to understand what people long ago believed about these unknowns. Clarity in this regard may throw some light on our own situation today.

What questions or issues do you think need to be explored in future scholarship on the Wisdom Literature?

I think the generative influence of societal conflicts is the most promising area of investigation today. In short, how did sages respond to controversial issues of their day that evoked many different views. The development of personified wisdom is the most obvious place to begin this investigation, but other promising topics are the finality of death and the other-worldly struggle between order and chaos. Answers to these questions are far from transparent.

What, if you had to choose, has been your favorite book you have written, and why?

Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil has given me most satisfaction, largely because it is the culmination of a lifetime of research. In my view, the questions  raised in this book are those facing modern believers just as they vexed the ancients. Far too many modern scholars refuse to ask such troubling questions, especially those reflecting negatively on the god of the bible. For interaction with a text, my commentaries on Joel and Ecclesiastes have given me much satisfaction. Education in Ancient Israel and Old Testament Wisdom have helped fill a void in modern research. That, too, is gratifying.

Your introductory volume on the Psalms, published in 2001, brought about a sort of implied paradigm shift in Psalms study because you chose to organize and discuss the Psalms according to collections rather than the traditional literary form.  What was the rationale behind that, and what is your assessment of current Psalms scholarship both in general and in light of your book?

For me, the focus on genre in Psalms has yielded rich dividends, but I think its usefulness has diminished. We need to try other ways of studying the book. After all, the arrangements into five books, and even some smaller compositions, was the earliest way of approaching the psalms. I believe the intuitive insight of ancient readers has utility today. As for contemporary research, I think too much attention is paid to labels like wisdom, to forcing structural design on texts that defy “Procrustean beds”, and to locating ritual explanations for certain psalms. The key questions ought to be: Why were such agonizing laments used as prayer, why did someone feel the necessity to interject confessions of confidence into these cries for help, and does this intervention suggest that honesty in petition was not welcome in certain circles?

What one scholar has most influenced your thought, and how?

I cannot single out just one scholar who has influenced my thought. Perhaps Gerhard von Rad deserves that honor, but James Barr is a close second. The sheer beauty of von Rad’s prose, not matched, however in Weisheit in Israel, and his evangelical piety are rounded out by Barr’s (Humean) secularism and philological emphasis. Both scholars contributed much to the way I interpret ancient texts. A distant third influence is Johannes Pedersen, whose socio0logical/psychological approach to ancient Israel has not been sufficiently appreciated among recent scholars. Perhaps I should also mention Lou H. Silberman, who first introduced me to the rich area of Judaica.

In addition to Wisdom Literature and the Psalms, much of your career has been devoted to the issue of theodicy or the portrayal of God in the Hebrew Bible.  Your A Whirlpool of Torment: Israelite Traditions of God as an Oppressive Presence (Fortress, 1984) and Defending God (Oxford, 2005) especially come to mind. Those these are quite different books.  How, as you look back, would you describe the character of God in the Hebrew Bible?

The character of God in the Hebrew Bible has long troubled me, and I have struggled mightily to mitigate its negative impact on contemporary believers. There are too many disturbing features of the divine persona, as highlighted in Jack Miles’ God: A Biography. From my first book, Prophetic Conflict, to my recent book of poetry, Dust and Ashes, I have refused to accept the biblical depiction of deity as a helpful paradigm. In the end, I have been forced to view scripture as a literary construct of those who created god in their own image. It is becoming increasingly clear that the character of deity in the bible–the mandate for genocide, violence, wrath, sacrifice, patriarchy, slavery, boasting, and so forth–has left a legacy of hatred that the world can no longer bear. As I try to justify my worship by highlighting other features of scripture, it requires an enormous leap of faith. Still, I am not willing to forsake my Judeo-Christian heritage. The myth of divine pathos, while intellectually troubling, is at the same time emotionally compelling.

What are some of the best places in your view to study Hebrew Bible/Old Testament today, and why?

I hesitate to answer this question, for the response depends on what one intends to concentrate on during graduate study. I have always tried to match a student with the strengths of a given program, whether theological, linguistic, literary, philological, archaeological, interdisciplinary, or whatever. Students looking for excellent mentors need not worry. They will be well served at a number of institutions.

What other projects can we expect to be forthcoming from you, who is publishing them, and when should they be available?

Besides the commentary on the book of Job, now complete, you can look for a monograph on Qoheleth entitled The Ironic Wink, which will appear in my series on Personalities of the Old Testament. Other volumes in this series are in the works (Steussy on Samuel, Koosed on Ruth, Balentine on Job, and Fried on Ezra). Beyond that, I am under contract to write a volume on Twentieth Century Interpretation of Wisdom literature for Brill. And more? Mi yodea”? Art is long, but time is fleeting!

Thank you, Dr. Crenshaw!


Reviews and Interviews Forthcoming . . .

In addition to those volumes I have yet to review in the “Book Reviews” tab (see above), there are a few volumes I have been made aware are on their way to me.  I look forward to reviewing these.  They are:

Walter de Gruyter
Joel Willitts, Matthew’s Messianic Shepherd-King

Keith Gruneberg, Abraham, Blessing, and the Nations

Hagedorn and Pfeiffer, Die Erzvater in der biblischen Tradition

Bruce Waltke, Genesis

Bruce Waltke, Old Testament Theology

Any suggestions on which you would like to see first (and why?).

There are also a number of interviews forthcoming.  Dr. James Crenshaw (ret.) of Duke will be featured soon, as will Genesis scholar Laurence Turner.  And, coming up very soon, will be a special NT edition of my interview series with Dr. Richard Hays of Duke.  That should be a captivating and worthwhile read!

Wisdom Psalms: Is There Such a Thing?

Do wisdom psalms exist?  Scholarship has wrestled with this issue ever since Gunkel’s seminal and ground-breaking form-critical analyses.  Given that form-criticism is still the primary method within psalm study, this is a question worthy of consideration.  I here wish, only briefly, to outline the history of scholarship on the topic.

Hermann Gunkel did not see the wisdom saying as being one of the major Gattungen in the Psalter.  They have no distinctive form of their own.  Rather, wisdom had an entirely separate Sitz im Leben originally, outside Israel’s cult.  Wisdom, argues Gunkel, should instead be seen as having “penetrated the lyrical genres and finally completely disintegrated them” (Introduction to the Psalms, 21).  In other words, wisdom psalms represent a degeneration of a once allegedly pure form.

Gunkel’s student, Sigmund Mowinckel, had a stronger aversion to the designation “wisdom psalms.”  For Mowinckel, wisdom psalms are inimical to the cult, and instead occupy space as a type of “learned psalmography” that is entirely non-cultic.  Similar to Gunkel, these types represent a later dissolution of style and mixing of motifs; they are degenerate literature that made their way into the Psalter as a result of the overall redactional role of the wisdom school in the preservation of the Psalter.  His list of non-cultic poems is as follows: Pss 1, 19b, 34, 37, 49, 78, 105, 106, 111, 112, 127.

Contra Gunkel, Roland Murphy has argued that the classification “wisdom psalms” can be said to designate its own particular form based upon certain criteria.  These critiera are: (i) ashre formula; (ii) numerical saying; (iii) “better” saying; (iv) address of teacher to son; (v) acrostic; (vi) simple comparison; (vii) admonition.  Murphy also notes specific things one would expect to crop up in wisdom psalms: the contrast between the rasha and tsaddiq, discussion of the two ways, a preoccupation witht he problem of retribution, practical advice regarding conduct, and fear of YHWH as equated with the observance of Torah.  He cautions against applying these formal characteristics too rigidly, but does advance a list comprised of Pss 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112, 128 as authentic wisdom psalms.

J. Kenneth Kuntz (1973) builds upon Murphy’s categories, adding rhetorical questions as another stylistic feature, and pointing out an emphasis also on sapiential vocabulary.  Kuntz’ list includes Pss 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112, 127, 128, 133.  He sees wisdom as often coexisting with other forms in the Psalter, primarily thanksgiving.

Leo Perdue’s 1977 dissertation, Wisdom and Cult, argues for three types of wisdom psalms: (i) Psalms written for the cult [19A, 19B, 129]; (ii) not intended for cultic use but reflecting cultic rituals [Pss 32, 34, 73]; (iii) non-cultic psalms written as teaching aids in wisdom schools [Pss 1, 37, 49, 112, 127].

Katharine Dell‘s recent article, “A Cultic Setting for Wisdom Psalms?,” challenges two prior assumptions within scholarship: first, the assumption that wisdom was inimical to the cult, and second, that because wisdom psalms don’t neatly fit a presumed pure ‘form’ or ‘type’ they de facto pose a problem.  She argues, contra Mowinckel, that wisdom psalms were liturgical pieces from the very beginning.  Her list is incredibly inclusive: Pss 1, 14, 19, 25, 32, 33, 34, 36, 37, 39, 49, 51, 53, 62, 63, 78, 90, 92, 94, 104, 105, 106, 111, 112, 119, 127, 128.

In a brief 1988 article, Avi Hurvitz argued for the presence of specific wisdom vocabulary in the Psalter as a method of adjudicating what is and is not a wisdom psalm.  Foundational for Hurvitz is the concept of “linguistic opposition” or synonyms for wisdom words in non-wisdom texts.  He treats two examples: hon and sur + mera, arguing that both serve as hallmarks of the sapiential nature of the psalms in which they occur.

The late Gerald Wilson has argued for the presence of a wisdom frame that encompasses not only Books IV and V (Pss 90, 145) but also the entire Psalter (Pss 1 and 145 both speaking of “two ways,” and ashre appearing in Ps 2:12 and Ps 144:15).

There are those since Gunkel and Mowinckel, though, who argue against the existence of wisdom psalms.  R.N. Whybray (1995) contends that making an absolute distinction between wisdom psalms and other psalms in the Psalter is mistaken.  He questions the criteria put forward by Murphy and Kuntz (see above), namely the ashre formula, noting that this ‘form’ occurs almost exclusively in the Psalter and thus cannot be indicative of wisdom lit.  At bottom for Whybray, the notion of “wisdom psalms” is helpful if it extends the corpus of wisdom literature, but also weakens the distinctiveness of the idea of ‘wisdom’ and draws attention away from the character of the Psalter as a whole.  Whybray has a much more modest list: Pss 34, 37, 49, 78.

My former teacher at Duke, James Crenshaw, also argues that the category wisdom psalms is not only “vague” and “misleading” but also “useless in scholarly research.”  For Crenshaw, the only way one can adjudicate what is and is not a genuine wisdom psalm is to attend to matters of scope, percentage, degree, or some other metric that is ultimately problematic.  He also presses Kuntz (see above), claiming that there is too much equivocation in his attempts to articulate what is and is not a wisdom psalm.  Either an acrostic structure does or does not indicate wisdom.  It cannot be both, says Crenshaw.  Crenshaw instead sees wisdom elements in the psalms but objects tot he claim that some psalms merit the title wisdom psalms.  He is also critical of the idea that sages structured the entire book of Psalms by interspersing wisdom psalms at critical junctures throughout.

What is my view?  First, I should state that while I find form-criticism to be a helpful entry point into the Psalter, I by no means consider it to provide any sort of definitive statement about the psalm, nor do I see it as the only (or most fruitful) entry point into psalm study.  That said, since Gunkel I think we have seen the dissipation of the romantic notion that the various forms of the psalms cohere into a ‘pure’ form.  Instead of having parade examples of a clear thanksgiving or clear lament, the forms of the psalms to me seem often to be of a mixed bag.  On the topic of wisdom psalms specifically, I do agree with Crenshaw that it remains a bit unclear as to what rubric decides what is and is not a wisdom psalm.  Similarly, I do note the presence of wisdom elements in many psalms throughout the Psalter.  So are there wisdom psalms, specifically?  I am happy to admit there are some psalms that seem to attain a certain ‘critical mass’ of wisdom elements and thus could rightly be called wisdom psalms, if one is fond of the form-critical methodology.  Psalm 1, for instance, is a paramount example of what I would call a classic wisdom psalm.  It contains an ashre formula.  It speaks of the two ways and uses the language of rasha and tsaddiq.  Psalm 1 also makes use of similes, and speaks of the Torah as the object of “meditation,” possibly a wisdom word.  I am also convinced that Psalm 1, as an introduction to the entire Psalter, thus orients the reader to receive all that follows as wisdom instruction for the life of faith.  Both Perdue and Kuntz liken Ps 1 to Prov 1:1-7, seeing it as functioning in a a similar, introductory way. 

So do wisdom psalms exist?  Yes, I think it is safe to speak of such a category, inasmuch as it is safe to say a given psalm is a lament or a hymn of praise.  We must recognize these categories are not without their own inherent difficulties.  But they do present an adequate way of thinking and speaking about the psalms, both individually and in relationship to one another.

What do you think?

James Crenshaw on God as “Oppressive Presence”

My former teacher at Duke, James Crenshaw–one of the world’s  foremost authorities on wisdom literature–has also written prolifically on texts that reveal God to be a problematic character.  One such volume is his A Whirlpool of Torment: Israelite Traditions of God as an Oppressive Presence. Overtures to Biblical Theology.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.  In this slim volume, Crenshaw examines five texts that highlight an irrational, unpredictable, and fickle God: 1) Gen 22 [Akedah]; 2) Jeremiah’s Confessions; 3) Job; 4) Ecclesiastes; 5) Psalm 73.  I do not intend here to offer a full review of this book but rather to reflect upon, in a series of posts on each chapter, these images.  As always, I wholly welcome and look forward to your thoughts and comments!

“One of the most perplexing features of the Hebrew Bible is the believer’s conviction that God has become a personal enemy, wielding extraordinary power to frustrate the cause of truth and righteousness.  A sense of personal betrayal and outrage accompanies the recognition that God has trifled with deep affections and treated solemn promises with complete indifference.  Nothing within the believer’s inner thoughts or public conduct justifies such divine abandoning of prior relationships.  Rather, a change in God seems to have occurred: Human constancy is met with divine inconstancy, faithfulness with fickleness.  Faced with this new situation, the believer struggles to grasp the meaning of the new face of God adn to recapture the previous relationship of mutual trust.  This religious quest to understand the experience of God-forsakenness gave rise to a significant body of literature in which the agony and ecstasy of faith find poignant expression” (ix).

And, in a bit different, though not entirely dissimilar vein, Crenshaw shares a personal poem he wrote, and includes it prior to the first full chapter.  Here it is:

THE TEAR: Genesis 1

Had God known the course
     of those first words
He would ne’er have spoken–
Ripping night from day,
     land from sea,
        you from me.

Instead, God shattered eternity’s silence,
     and then cried–
‘Til a tear fell
     from Her eyes into mine,
Exploding into a shriek of eternity (xv).

Now do you see where I get it from?!  What do you think?  Reflections?

Pictures with important scholars

Recently I have had the good fortune of reflecting upon my time at Duke, as a result of both my interview this month at biblioblogs and my dissertation preparation and writing.  In doing so, I was led back to the album of pictures from my Duke hooding.  It was great to be reminded of those times.  In light of that–and to continue the trend of ‘getting to know me’–and also because discussion of these names have come up again and again both here on my blog and in my comments on others’.  I thought I would share a few pictures of me with some of my Duke profs . . . and some very seminal scholars to boot!
Richard Hays

Richard Hays

Stephen Chapman

Stephen Chapman

Jim Crenshaw

Jim Crenshaw

Briefly, as if any of them needed clarification, Richard Hays is George Washington Ivey Professor of NT, and is well-known for his use of intertextuality and “echoes of Scripture” in Paul and, now, his current work, on echoes in the gospels.  Stephen Chapmanwas a student of the late Brevard Childs, and is among an elite group of scholars still doing canonical criticism.  And Jim Crenshaw, who just retired two years ago, was professor of OT and is one of the world’s leading scholars on wisdom literature.  He has also written prolifically on the prophets.  His concept of God–especially in the book of Jeremiah (see his Whirlpool of Torment and Defending God)–is very similar to my view.
I hope you enjoy these pictures!
Comment away!