Form and Wisdom

Some scholars have questioned the value of the genre of Wisdom. They argue that seeing Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job as part of a wider genre within the Hebrew Bible or within the Ancient Near East is just the unhelpful imposition of a modern genre. Whilst, I don’t share such a view, such views are a reminder that care is needed not to flatten wisdom literature. Paying attention to these three books is an essential part of ensuring we don’t make them into something they were never intended to be. We have already seen how these three books differ from each other. Each of them also contains different literary forms. This post will only scratch the surface of the different forms of literature within the three books we know as wisdom literature.

The two preceding posts paid some attention to the variety of content found in Job (Dialogue in Wisdom) and Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes and Wisdom). This Post will focus on the Book of Proverbs to ensure that that we appreciate that this book too contains a variety of forms and is also an edited collection of works.

Despite its designation as ‘proverbs’ the Book of Proverbs is not simply a collection of proverbs. Proverbs are the dominant form of literary unit found in the book, but its first nine chapters are very different in form. The opening chapter is nothing less than a hermeneutical call to see and use the wisdom found in the book. As the chapter proceeds we encounter a sustained exhortation to take learning, discernment, knowledge and righteousness seriously—and to recognise the foundation of these in Fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7). The opening chapter reveals the context of biblical wisdom as at least in part, the family. Verses 8–19 read as a father’s instruction to a child—this is of course metaphorical but points to the likely use, as well as origin of the book, and wisdom more generally. The gender-based imagery continues in the representation of Women Wisdom, perhaps a deliberate play on motherly instruction, see verses 20–33.

The first chapter closes with a key wisdom motif—found concisely in a hermeneutical wisdom foundation to the Psalter in Psalm 1—the two ways: the way of the fool and the Way of Wisdom. Chapter 2 also closes (verses 20–22) with echoes of Psalm 1. Of course, the dependence could be the other way around or the idea might simply be a pervasive stock concept. The other seven opening chapters continue the elegant and eloquent unpacking of wisdom in terms of teaching, wisdom personified as a woman and the call to pursue wisdom. In terms of form there are here diverse literary methods and units that all join together to provide a sustained call.

It is in chapter 10 that proverbs are finally encountered and the change in form is stark. These biblical proverbs are two-line sayings that share the Hebrew literary form of parallelism—we will meet this in more detail in the post ‘Hebrew and Wisdom’. This first collection of proverbs continues until 22:16 and often termed the first Solomonic collection (see 10:1). A second Solomonic collection is found in 25:1–29:27 (note 25:1). In these two collections of proverbs there is little indication of ordering by theme or other criteria. The collection of twelve proverbs concerning ‘fools’ is one of the few exceptions to this observation.

Within the Book of Proverbs there are clearly other smaller collections of wisdom and distinct literary units. Their origin is attested directly in the text rather than being the subject of speculation.

It is useful to recognise the spectrum of form in wisdom literature, even at the basic level discussed here. At one extreme there are the two-line pithy proverbs and their often dogmatic or apparently axiomatic claims. The other end of the spectrum is the dialogue found in Job, sustained chapter-after-chapter. The whole spectrum despite this enormous variety of form is still readily recognisable as part of an overarching aim to discern how the world works. Like science’s quest for understanding and critical realism’s quest for truth, wisdom has its established norms that are always open to question and enquiry. The apparent tension between parable and dialogue simply points to the limits of wisdom and human reason. From a stance of faith we can recognise the necessity of both wisdom/reason and revelation for living the life of faith.

Wisdom literature is not only concerned with reason but with revelation too. If in no other sense it is recognised as Scripture. For some, the relationship between wisdom literature and the wider religion

Author: PsalterMark

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

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