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.