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.