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.

 

 

 

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

2 thoughts

  1. Hi,

    I receive your posts and appreciate them. I have a question. Lately I’ve been reading the Psalms again, and already in the course of the first twenty, I’ve been troubled by something I never noticed to the same degree before – the seeming outrageous psalms where David admits no awareness of sin or guilt and insists before God on his righteousness – as opposed to his enemies, “which, please punish Lord.” I don’t know what to make of them. If only the Psalms were in order of their writing, right? I remember many years ago Richard Longenecker talking about development in Paul’s theology over time. That was, and still is, a very intriguing idea. I’ve wondered now the same thing about the psalms. Could the “I’m so righteous” ones be pre-Bathsheeba. Could they be helpful, true and instructive (inspired) in that we see how a David who is not self-aware thinks–about himself, about God, about how it all works (even though he and his words are misguided)? Wow.

    Have you ever written anything about this – or read anyone who has worked on it? I’m very interested.

    Thanks ahead of time for whatever you’ve got.

    Bill

    Rev. William G Britton, Th.M. wm_britton@mac.com (516) 242-3721

    William G Britton wm_britton@mac.com (516) 242-3721

    >

    1. Hi Bill,
      Thank you for taking the time to post these important questions.

      Similar questions are the heart of the Book of Job too. In both the early Davidic psalms and in the book of Job we have a someone who puzzles us by their conviction of being right before God. Our experience tells us that we can’t last an hour without some sinful action or thought – David and Job were not fundamentally different; they are human. The issue is not so much that Job and David are perfect but that they are in right relationship with Yahweh. Presumably in David’s case he can have confidence of right relationship because of his identity as an Israelite, his position as God’s anointed king and his offering of sacrifices. In the same way today we are sinners, in word and deed, and yet can have right relationship with God in Christ.

      This is only the beginning of an answer. There are other issues, complications and questions that arise.

      I am writing a book on the Psalms which addresses this and related topics – if I ever get a publisher I’ll let you know. In the meantime I’m happy to continue a dialogue on these questions.

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