Creation and Wisdom

In an earlier post we considered how wisdom literature grew from an oral tradition in which simple proposals about the nature of the world were tested by the life experience of those who heard them. Those ideas that were found to be useful survived and often evolved over time. Some of these ‘hypotheses’ became proverbs and other short pithy statements about life. In this sense human reason and observation, rather than revelation are to the fore in the origins of Ancient Near-Eastern wisdom. Appreciating this point of departure for biblical wisdom is essential for legitimate interpretation of this genre.

In the later stages of the development of Israelite wisdom it became interwoven with the wider principles of Israelite religion—in some respects the questioning which lies at the heart of the genre enabled wisdom literature to question the other parts of the canon. This inter-wisdom and intra-canon dialogue will be considered in our next post.

Later wisdom reflection attempted to critique religious dogma using the observations and reasoning of the wise. Often this collision of wisdom reasoning with revealed truth concerned creation, both in terms of the origin of the world and the sustaining of it by God. That there is one God and that this God is the creator of the universe is fundamental to Israelite religion. This did not stop the wise questioning God’s very character and nature as they attempted to explain the day-to-day. Despite this questioning, the worldview that the cosmos was made by Yahweh, the God of Israel, is an underpinning assumption of biblical wisdom literature.

The biblical wisdom books present three very different ways in which creation, and therefore creator are examined. In their different ways, each of the Hebrew Bible’s three wisdom books answers the question: “What kind of creation do we live in?”.

The Book of Proverbs sees creation as fundamentally ordered. The premise which underlies its very nature is the original conception of wisdom—that the world in which we live can be understood by careful observation and wise reflection. It assumes that the world is organised, logical and open to rational thought. Although we have said that wisdom literature’s concern with creation is not all about the origin of the world, Proverbs explores a central role for wisdom at the origin of the world:

“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,

    before his deeds of old;

I was formed long ages ago,

    at the very beginning, when the world came to be.

When there were no watery depths, I was given birth,

    when there were no springs overflowing with water;

before the mountains were settled in place,

    before the hills, I was given birth,

before he made the world or its fields

    or any of the dust of the earth.

I was there when he set the heavens in place,

    when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,

when he established the clouds above

    and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,

when he gave the sea its boundary

    so the waters would not overstep his command,

and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.

Then I was constantly at his side.

I was filled with delight day after day,

    rejoicing always in his presence,

rejoicing in his whole world

    and delighting in mankind.

Proverbs 8:22–31 (NIV)

The Book of Job has creation at its very centre. For much of the book, Job is to the fore as creature and throughout God is under trial as creator. As this work reaches its climax, God is not vindicated by rational argument but by nothing less that God unfolding to Job his perfection as creator.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels
 shouted for joy?

“Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?

Job 38:4–11 (NIV)

In this way, the Book of Job might be said to draw a limit to the extent to which wisdom can answer the deepest questions about creation. The Book of Ecclesiastes strays further from the order of Proverbs and questions just about everything to such a degree that the fundamental premise of wisdom is challenged to the core. What kind of creation do we live in? Ecclesiastes answers: “one that often seems ‘crazy’”.

Our next post develops this questioning dynamic of wisdom further. There we shall consider how the diversity of the three biblical wisdom books invites all those committed to Yahweh to continue questioning, albeit from a premise of Fear of Yahweh.

 

Biblical Wisdom

In the previous post we saw that wisdom literature emerged throughout the Ancient Near East. This naturally leads to the question of what differences there might be between the wisdom literature of different nations. For the biblical scholar the question is more acute—in what sense is the biblical wisdom material distinct from the wider Ancient Near-Eastern wisdom literature? This post will firstly identify the scope of the biblical wisdom literature and then return to the question of what might distinguish it from wider wisdom literature.

Three books of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) are generally recognised as being wisdom literature. These are the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. These three books will obviously be a major concern of this series of posts. In addition to these three books other parts of the Old Testament are said to exhibit wisdom elements. Most notably, several psalms are identified as either wisdom psalms and/or as containing wisdom elements. Wisdom psalms will be considered in a later post, and several subsequent posts will address the question as to just what is meant by wisdom literature. The two wisdom books of the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon, will also be considered in two later posts.

We have already considered the origin of wisdom literature within society’s smallest social units, such as family and village. This origin, together with its frequent concern with the everyday, means that there is generally little direct cultic content. The development of wisdom literature amongst the elite sections of society, such as the court and scribal circles, meant that although it developed in sophistication, it continued to have a universal influence because of the engagement of the learned elite with literature of other nations. At the same time however, some specific Israelite content and influence became possible as the court and scribal circles had a relationship with cultic worship.

Many scholars have recognised a very specific religious concern of biblical wisdom literature which marks it out as distinct from the wider body of Ancient Near-Eastern literature. This theme, or locus, concerns ‘Fear of the Lord’ as in some sense central to the pursuit of wisdom. Although the wider Ancient Near-Eastern wisdom literature mentions deities on occasions there are no other extant wisdom texts in which there is a recognition of the foundational importance of a relationship to a deity as a necessary basis for the successful pursuit of wisdom.

It is interesting to note that an argument for a seminal role for ‘Fear of the Lord’ is found in all three wisdom books, as well as in some psalms which are identified by scholars as wisdom psalms. The Hebrew word commonly translated as ‘fear’ has a semantic range which places it somewhere between honouring and respecting somebody, on the one hand, and being terrified of someone, on the other. Such an awe for God is seen as transformative in the biblical wisdom literature. This is clearly the case in Proverbs were from the start we read that:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,

    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7 (NIV)

In this way, Proverbs claims that wisdom does not reside in the Book of Proverbs, or other literary works we call wisdom, but in using them from a certain perspective. Fear of the Lord is a lifestyle which provides a lens for the correct appropriation of wisdom literature. such a committed stance is also to the fore in Job:

And he said to the human race,

    “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom,

    and to shun evil is understanding.”

Job 28:28  (NIV)

In Ecclesiastes we find that such fear of God can be understood as obedience to God’s instruction:

Now all has been heard;

    here is the conclusion of the matter:

Fear God and keep his commandments,

    for this is the duty of all mankind.

Ecclesiastes 12:13 (NIV)

Future posts will return to these three wisdom books and to the significance of ‘fear of the Lord’. Our next post will look at the theme of Creation in wisdom literature.

 

Ancient Near-Eastern Wisdom

But where can wisdom be found?

Job 28:12a

This question lies at the heart of the Book of Job, one of the three wisdom books of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible. The same question has been articulated in countless cultures over several millennia. It is also the backbone of the twenty-six post that make up this A to Z series. Although these posts are primarily concerned with biblical wisdom literature, this is not as narrow as it first appears. For it is recognised by all who read, reflect and study biblical wisdom that it shares much in common with the literature of other Ancient Near-Eastern cultures. In recognition of this wider cultural context this is where we start our acrostic journey.

As we explore the theme of biblical wisdom, one aim is to gain a deeper insight into just what is meant by wisdom in a broader sense. At the outset, however, a working definition seems essential. We will consider wisdom to be that insight into the world that enables someone to live well in it. How did the peoples of the Ancient Near East attempt to appropriate such insight? Where could such wisdom be found? It has been suggested that there are essentially two ways in which ancient peoples sought and appropriated wisdom.

The earliest insights gained about the world in which human beings lived was based on simple observation by individuals who then passed on what they saw to those around them, with supporting comment and reflection. In this way families and small communities in the Ancient Near East tested, evolved and distilled wise sayings into an oral tradition. The pithy proverbial sayings, such as those in Proverbs 10–29, are one of the larger threads of wisdom literature, and are helpfully understood in this small social context. Of course, this sort of process has been echoed in human societies all around the world. In a way proverbial wisdom is hypothesis testing ahead of the scientific method—a proverb would only survive word of mouth transmission if it was found to reflect reality.

The second way in which wisdom grew helps explain how it moved from oral tradition to literary phenomenon. As Ancient Near-Eastern societies became more sophisticated and developed a more complex social structure, a class of people emerged who had sufficient education and time to reflect to greater levels of sophistication on the world around them. These privileged groups have been variously identified as members of the royal court, those counted as scribes of various types and members of wisdom schools. Sometimes the detailed nature and function of such groups is the subject of significant disagreement among scholars. By the second half of the first millennium BC it is clear that there were individuals who were designated by their culture as sages—that is their role within the wider society was to be wise and to help others gain wisdom.

It is in these later stages that wisdom literature matured into a more thorough-going attempt to understand the way the world operates. Such reflection explains the immense difference between the individual proverbs that emerged within society at large and the Book of Job which represent a much more sustained and elegant attempt to explore a specific concern—that of theodicy. Proverbs assume that simple choices and actions enable a person to live well. Job asks: If one is to live well then how can the bad things that beset human beings be avoided? Can a deity be appeased? Can our actions enable calamity and suffering to be avoided? Many of these matters will be the subject of later posts. For now, all we will do is point to some examples of wider Ancient Near Eastern parallels to the biblical wisdom books of Proverbs and Job.

A number of Egyptian writings have some clear parallels with the biblical book known as Proverbs. These Egyptian writings often have short reflections collected together to form collections of a didactic nature like those in Proverbs 1–9. Arguably the most famous Egyptian wisdom work is Instructions of Amenemope. It has been suggested that Proverbs 22:17–24:22 has a direct literary dependence on this work. This matter is not settled, but the broader issue is clear, the biblical wisdom books are part of a wider literary movement in the Ancient Near East.

The Book of Job also has parallels in Egyptian wisdom literature. Perhaps the closest of these texts is The Protests of the Eloquent Peasant. Although in this work the main protagonists’ misfortunes lay fair and square with people, his way of dealing with disaster in a series of nine speeches is similar in form to the Book of Job. The parallel is furthered, as these speeches, awash with poetic devices, are sandwiched between prose a prologue and a prose epilogue. This mirrors the form of the Book of Job as a whole. A prominent work in Babylonian wisdom literature, sometimes referred to as The Babylonian Job, connects even more closely to Job’s subject matter. It concerns someone who is afflicted with terrible illness and laments this on the basis he has not sinned. This ‘Babylonian Job’ eventually gets as answer from Marduk (head of the Babylonian pantheon).

Having recognised the wider Ancient Near-Eastern setting of the biblical literature, the next post will consider the distinguishing features of biblical wisdom in this context.