Review of Dodson, The ‘Powers’ of Personification

Joseph R. Dodson. The ‘Powers’ of Personification: Rhetorical Purpose in the Book of Wisdom and the Letter to the Romans. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008. 263pp. 9783110209761. $155.00 (cloth). Published in Bulletin for Biblical Research 20.2 (2010), 288-89.

This book is a slightly revised publication of an Aberdeen dissertation done under Simon Gathercole’s supervision. The book is divided into four sections. The first section on Personification discusses the definitions, specifications, and purposes of personification. The second on Wisdom treats the personification of death, creation, logos, wrath, and wisdom in Wisdom. The third section on Romans examines the personification of sin and death, the law, grace and righteousness, and creation and the power of the Spirit. Section four examines the personification of evil and creation in Romans and Wisdom. Dodson states that the book is “most concerned with two questions: 1) Are there any common contexts in which the sage in Wisdom and Paul in Romans employ personification? 2) For what purposes do the authors employ personification?” (2). He concludes that both authors employ personifications in discussions of theodicy, “to explain the reason for evil (distancing God from the blame), to encourage the righteous within suffering (diverting attention away from the problem),” or to point to the solution for evil and suffering (deferring the resolution to a final day)” (221).

Dodson suggests that the personification of death in Wisdom enables the sage “to remove God from the blame of death in the world” (68). On Paul, he writes: “Paul uses the trope to get around difficult issues. . . . the personifications of Sin and Death explain the problem of evil so that God is distanced from its origin” (150). Dodson posits a development in thought whereby Paul espouses conclusions on the problem of evil that depart from Old Testament teaching: “One way some OT writers treated this issue was to claim that both good and evil come from the Lord [footnoting Isa 45:7; 2 Sam 24; Amos 3:6b; 1 Sam 19:9; Ezek 20:25]. As Hebrew thought progressed . . . it began to refuse ‘to acquiesce in the idea that evil as well as good proceeds from the divine nature.’ . . . Rather than placing the blame of evil on God then, these authors often blamed evil angels instead” (205). These developments produce tension in a monotheistic framework with a sovereign God. As Dodson writes, “This tension became characteristic of Hebrew religion which never completely divorced evil powers from God, despite the fact that the evil angels still work as if they were against him” (206). Dodson explains, “It is this framework which Wisdom and Paul inherit—a framework which sought to remove God from the blame of evil by pointing to evil powers, while simultaneously attempting to enforce the idea of his sovereignty” (207). All of this brings Dodson to the conclusion that, “In Wisdom and Romans, then, the Powers of Personification march into texts which concern the paradox of evil in order to exonerate God and to explain the history of Israel, to point away from the present problem of suffering and to ensure a future solution” (222).

Dodson’s thoroughly researched discussion carefully examines personification in Wisdom and Romans in an effort to get at the purposes for which this device is deployed. He boldly wades into deep and complex theological waters and seeks to explain how Paul and the sage have navigated the currents. When looking at a device such as personification in a piece of literature, there is a constant struggle not to lose sight of its wider argument. This book sent me back to the primary sources to examine them again with new questions and heightened sensitivity to the way authors use personification and other literary tools. Dodson deserves our thanks for pushing us to see what the texts say and how they say it.

1 Comment

Filed under Bible and Theology, Books

One response to “Review of Dodson, The ‘Powers’ of Personification

  1. steve hays

    It seems to me that Dodson makes unreasonable demands on Scripture. The question is not whether, from God’s standpoint, there’s a solution to the “paradox of evil.”

    But should we expect that solution to be expressible in the concrete, popular language of the Bible?

    For divine revelation to be generally accessible to most human beings, it has to use fairly nontechnical language. It has to express itself in fairly succinct terms. It can’t read like a long grueling treatise in philosophical theology.

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