Maps and Wisdom

First Testament Problems

One of the challenges posed by the wisdom literature of the First Testament is what we, as Christian disciples and pilgrims, should do with it. Many Christians I have spoken to simply don’t see Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes as a priority in their Bible reading and reflection. Their thinking boils down to the question: “Why should I read Wisdom when it is so obviously trumped by the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles?”. Even those Christians I know who have read these three books recently see Job and Ecclesiastes as problems that need to be addressed, rather than life-giving Scripture to be cherished. A disturbing view emerges—once Job has been ‘explained’, there is no need to read all those tedious dialogues once, let alone to return to them at a later point. To be fair much of the First Testament, not just Job and Ecclesiastes, can be challenging. This challenge should however be the start of something and not the end. How could rich Scripture be a quick fix? How can we even know the issues it aims to address? Are we not simply narrowing its potential as a source information rather than being open to its transformative potential?

Full of Wind or Full of the Spirit?

If we see the Wisdom Books as the distillation of wise people’s observations and reflections from across the ancient Near East, curated and edited to become Scripture by generations of the sages of Israel, how could we imagine that its appropriation would be either quick or easy? How could it be as simple as reading a paperback self-help book by a contemporary privileged author who hasn’t seen death first hand or struggled with day-to-day survival? Why would we expect a podcast or sermon to crystallise the Book of Job into a paragraph of propositional truth? Such a view is especially ironic when Job is read carefully—it shows us that distilled overly simplified wisdom is the way to becoming full of wind (ruach) rather than spirit (ruach), see Job 26:4.

A Map or a Compass?

We have seen that the ancient Near Eastern understanding of wisdom is ‘living well’ and that the biblical development of this is ‘living well in fear of the living God’. This can mean that Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are seized upon for quick and precise answers. In short, these resources are incorrectly defined as maps for life. Both the testimony of Scripture and the experience of living the life of faith, reveal that God does not provide a map for our life. Indeed, such a map would be a denial of the very freedom and grace that Jesus Christ came to bestow upon his disciples. Despite the absurdity of God providing a map for our lives, time and again we seek the quick fix. Sometimes we hear those around us who claim to have received such instant guidance. And of course, God can choose to speak into our lives through dreams, circumstance and even in an audible voice. More often than not, however, having equipped us with Scripture, His Spirit and grace, he lets us make choices. We have a compass from him not a map. Our routine day-to-day choices come through walking with him in simple integrity. Less often, we face more complex choices. These are the choices that Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes prepare us for. They can only prepare us if we read, reflect and question these books.

The City Gate: Wisdom in Community

Perhaps another reason we struggle with Wisdom Literature is that we make it reading it a solitary exercise; a part of our individualistic devotions. When we remember the societal and corporate experiences and effort that shaped these First Testament books our individualism looks foolish rather than wise. Biblical wisdom is corporate and communal in its richness. Why not find a way in which you can work on First Testament wisdom with some friends, and so discover God’s wisdom together in the twenty-first century? Our church has found that once a month over breakfast works well for us. Where is your equivalent of the city gate (see Proverbs 1:21 and 8:3)?

Knowledge and Wisdom

Anyone reading the Book of Proverbs in a major English translation will encounter ‘knowledge’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘understanding’. Sometimes in the Book of Proverbs these three words sound like they mean the same things—the parallelism, that is such an important part of wisdom literature, appears to indicate this. So, for example:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7 (NIVUK)

Which indicates that knowledge is both wisdom and instruction. In addition, we can note that Proverbs later argues that:

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

Proverbs 2:6 (NIVUK)

Which indicates that wisdom is also knowledge and understanding.

It should be noted that these various terms belong to a wider group of what we might term cognitive processes that cluster as concepts. Other terms include prudence and shrewdness. Wider usage of these words in the Hebrew Bible indicates that these words have distinct meanings within this Hebraic cluster of concepts. In this way we need to ensure that any exploration of wisdom can account for the distinctiveness of these terms and at the same time their close relationship.

We have already seen that wisdom conveys the idea of making wise choices and often has a strong moral dynamic. Knowledge is theological in the sense that it comes from a relationship with the God who founded the world through knowledge, although again we should note the parallel use of wisdom and knowledge in the verses that affirm this most succinctly:

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place;

by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.

Proverbs 3:19–20 (NIVUK)

In the Hebrew Bible knowledge of God is all about right relationship with him. Such a right relationship will be characterised by love and trust. There is a semantic relationship between the relationships between human beings, as creatures, with their Creator and the intimate knowledge between man and woman in marriage. Such a strong relational meaning for knowledge, and hence wisdom, is a strong antidote to some conceptions of knowledge and wisdom centred on sterile abstract thought or a faith founded in dry propositions. It is wise to see knowledge as founded in prayer and worship as well as being the cognitive processes recognised in contemporary thought.

 

Hebrew and Wisdom

The books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are of course part of the Hebrew Bible. This means that biblical wisdom is not in any simple sense a timeless philosophy of how to live well. It is instead a way of living well rooted in both Israelite culture and the Hebrew language. This is the organic particularity of all Hebrew and Christian Scripture. For this reason attention to the Hebrew nature of the wisdom material is necessary in order to appreciate it. This post will examine just a single facet of this Hebrew dynamic, a feature know as parallelism.

Parallelism is the name given to the widespread feature of biblical Hebrew whereby the written material can be seen to contain statements that are closely related. It is especially dominant in those parts of the Hebrew Bible that are identified as poetic.

It was Robert Lowth who famously laid the foundations of the modern understanding of parallelism in biblical Hebrew in the eighteenth century. He coined the term parallelism and identified three distinct forms, know as synonymous parallelism, antithetic parallelism and synthetic parallelism. Although this simple threefold classification has been shown to be a gross oversimplification of the riches of this literary phenomena, these three categories are still helpfully instructive as an introduction to parallelism.

In synonymous parallelism, two statements are made which have the same meaning. The following is an example from the Book of Proverbs:

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.     Proverbs 1:20 (NRSV)

Antithetic parallelism is very widespread in the Book of Proverbs and can often be recognised by the use of the word ‘but’. The two parts of the proverb have the same meaning but they are stated as opposites, as for example here:

The thoughts of the righteous are just;
the advice of the wicked is treacherous.     Proverbs 12:5 (NRSV)

In synthetic parallelism a second statement in some way advances or develops the first. A good example of this is:

Commit your work to the Lord,
and your plans will be established.     Proverbs 16:3 (NRSV)

Paying attention to these three types of parallelism will soon reveal that it is not always easy to distinguish between synonymous and synthetic parallelism—how much development demarcates the two? Adele Berlin in her monograph titled The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism has shown that parallelism is a far richer linguistic characteristic than the threefold categorisation indicates. I would strongly recommend this book although it assumes a high level of familiarity with complex linguistics and grammatical terms.

Parallelism goes beyond simply the occurrence of paired statement. It can follow a threefold or even longer set of statements. Its ubiquity invites us to see the common use of the inclusio as an extension of this manner of organising ideas and thoughts. On the larger scale it is echoed in the narratives of the Bible which seem to parallel one other. On a larger scale it can be seen in the rich intertextuality so important to both the first and second testaments of the Christian Bible. In this sense parallelism operates over the same three scales recognised in earlier posts on the Book of Psalms: microstructure (neighbouring lines), mesostructure (use of the inclusio) and macrostructure (intertextuality).

The ubiquitous presence of parallelism becomes a way of thinking and capturing reality, in other words its implications go beyond linguistic convention and the wisdom writings.

 

Further Reading

Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

God and Wisdom, Part 3

In this third, and final, post that reviews Tremper Longman III, The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017 we look at the final three chapters and the extensive end materials.

13. Wisdom and Gender

In this chapter Longman concludes, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the wisdom elements of the Hebrew Bible are patriarchal. This patriarchy is however tempered by the very positive depictions of women wisdom which is a unique contribution of the wisdom elements. He then returns to consider the very specific challenge of the father-son dynamic of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Longman argues that the New Testament provides what he terms a redemptive-ethical trajectory which enables readers to re-read the patriarchal elements. For example, he suggests that

Listen, my son, to the teaching of your father (Proverbs 1:8a).

Can be re-read as

Listen, my daughter, to the teaching of your mother.

14. Intertestamental Wisdom from the Apocrypha to the Dead Sea Scrolls

In one of the longer chapters of the book intertestamental literature from the Apochrypha to the Dead Sea Scrolls is surveyed with a view to understanding the development of wisdom from Old to New Testament. The Book of Sirach, it is argued, makes a more explicit connection between wisdom and ethics than the Hebrew Bible does. In this way, however, the focus on practical everyday living is still very much to the fore. The Wisdom of Solomon goes further in this respect as the practical dynamic of wisdom recedes into the background with the ethical element becoming stronger with a clearer relationship to the law. The dead sea scrolls continue the wisdom traditions of practical teaching but a new development linking wisdom with an apocalyptic worldview emerges.

15. New Testament Wisdom

Longman demonstrates that there is a strong continuity in the understating of wisdom between the testaments. For Longman this centres on Jesus, who as ‘the epitome of God’s wisdom, or perhaps better, the very incarnation of God’s wisdom. He is the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests. His delight is in the fear of the Lord’ [p.256]. The book of James is foremost in Longman’s treatment as it is the book that most obviously echoes wisdom as central to all aspects of life. The contemporary church has perhaps often missed the opportunity to use this letter to celebrate the ongoing value of the Hebrew Bible’s wisdom material.

End Materials

This book finishes with two appendices which might equally well have been chapters. The first one, titled Wisdom in the Twenty-first Century, considers the challenge that wisdom, as a concept faces, in the contemporary Western world. This appendix makes a compelling case for our need of wisdom. The includes its veracity in helping to navigate modern life, live wisely, lead with wisdom, recognise wisdom’s place in education and its role in spiritual formation. The final section of the chapter looks explicitly at how the wisdom elements of the Bible show what a wise person looks like in terms of fearing God, knowing Scripture, interpreting well, forming good habits, knowing how to suffer and living with ambiguity (mystery).

The second appendix considers the question as to whether wisdom literature is a genre. It almost seems like a spoiler to answer this question, so I won’t.

 

 

God and Wisdom, Part 2

7. Sources of Wisdom: Experience, Observation, Tradition, Correction, and Ultimately Revelation
In this chapter Longman explores the expected role of experience and observation in wisdom. These are the sources that mark out the idea of wisdom, i.e. in this sense it differs from legal material, historical narrative and prophetic texts. Longman argues that despite these distinct points of departure of wisdom thought, they have a theological trajectory crystallised in the centrality of the idea of Fear of the Lord. Longman also explores the false claims to revelation within wisdom material, such as those of Eliphaz and Elihu, and he argues that though such views are found wanting they can also be instructive.

8. Wisdom, Creation, and (Dis)order
Longman explores the connection of wisdom with creation, a relationship which he points out is the subject of some scholarly disagreement. He starts out with a brief survey of various key wisdom texts in Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom Psalms and Song of Songs. He suggests that creation is a thread in all five texts, although he also points out that it is not a dominant concern. On this basis he makes that case that ‘the sages’ understand both the fact of creation and the existence of a creator as part of their worldview. Longman concludes this chapter by considering the role of wisdom in a world which is both ordered and yet broken.

9. Israelite Wisdom in its Ancient Near Eastern Setting
Israelite wisdom is more open to similar literature in other Near Eastern nations than is the case for prophecy and law. Longman argues that this openness is, however, not an uncritical one. He argues there ‘is, accordingly, no way that the Israelite sages who produced Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes would think that ancient Near Eastern wisdom teachers were wise in the most important sense of the word’ [p.163]. This is of course unsurprising in light of Longman’s central argument that Fear of the Lord is a necessity as a foundation for wisdom.

10. Wisdom, Covenant, and Law
In this chapter Longman addresses the claim that was highlighted in chapter 9, namely that wisdom is concerned with universal matters and is in some sense distinct from the wider Old Testament. Anyone who has read the book, or even this review, up to this point will know Longman’s likely conclusion—he argues that there are connections between the various Old Testament covenants and the Law.

11. The Consequences of Wise and Foolish Behaviour: The Issue of Retribution Theology
This chapter is an important one in that it addresses some of the terrible category mistakes that have been made regarding the wisdom elements of the Old Testament. He addresses the fact that a proverb is not a promise and the even more insidious claims of those who articulate a so-called prosperity gospel. The way this is approached is helpful—the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes are both recapitulated in terms of their identification of a simple theology of retribution in this life as ‘wrong-minded’. On this basis he helps unfold a more nuanced appreciation of the Book of Proverbs. In this way the three books generally identified as wisdom literature are seen to be of one mind in rejecting the notion of retribution theology.

12. The Social Setting of Wisdom
This chapter is helpfully frank about the limitations of the data available about the social setting of wisdom. The evidence for both the existence of schools and sages in Israelite society is considered. Longman concludes that despite some evidence we cannot be certain of the existence of schools of professional wise people. There is judged to be sufficient evidence to conclude that the wisdom has a variety of social settings and the canon has made use of proverbial instruction from every stratum of society.

The third and final part of this review will follow very soon.

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

Dialogue in Wisdom

One of the things that many modern readers find especially challenging about wisdom literature is its use of dialogue. In the modern Western world and Church nothing really prepares us for Scripture’s internal debates. And yet when we meet the Bible on its own terms we find that dialogue and questioning are a common feature. This use of dialogue is especially obvious in the book of Job, where much of the book is a series of dialogues. There are various reasons why dialogues can be difficult to appreciate and to appropriate. The issue of appreciation concerns an expectation of what the Bible is. That the Bible is meant to be in some senses both didactic and authoritative is part of an orthodox understanding of the nature of Scripture. When these ideas combine, however, to form a simplistic notion of guidance then some genres of biblical literature becoming flattened. In this way various misconceptions can arise. With regard to wisdom literature, one of the most problematic is reading wisdom as promised blessing—what would have been an observation validated by reflection is misread as a guaranteed truth. This is especially ironic as much of the concern of wisdom is the debate, and hence dialogues, around key issues such as personal and national blessing.

Each of the three biblical wisdom books has a distinct role for dialogue. One way of looking at Proverbs, for example, is that it has been shaped by hundreds of years of dialogue (as well as reflection). In the case of Ecclesiastes, the book’s often pessimistic claims invite the reader with faith to reply. In the Book of Job, dialogues play a more explicit role in the text. The book commences with a narrative opening which sets the scene concerning the cause of Job’s afflictions. Three dialogues then follow in which Job and his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, dispute the cause of Job’s afflictions:

Dialogue 1

Job                         3

Eliphaz                  4–5

Job                         6–7

Bildad                    8

Job                         9–10

Zophar                  11

Job                         12–14

Dialogue 2

Zophar                  20

Job                         21

Bildad                    18

Job                         19

Zophar                  20

Job                         21

Dialogue 3

Eliphaz                  22

Job                         23–24

Bildad                    25

Job                         26–27

As the dialogues unfold, Job’s friends put him under trial and Job puts God under trial. In the three cycles of dialogue various nuances of argument are put forward—it is a demanding task to enter the debate and distinguish the subtlety and distinctiveness of the various views. Even when we start to discern the different views, choosing between them can still be tricky. There is also a temptation to simplify the journey of reading into the destination. But what if not only the outcome of the Book of Job is important but also the ups-and-downs of the dialogues too. For if the only things that mattered were normative answers to the questions addressed by the Book of Job, then why would the book even exist in anything like its canonical form?

The bigger picture is important here too. In some ways the three biblical wisdom books can be seen as a dialogue between three different takes on what wisdom actually is. Although we have seen that they share a common role for Fear of the Lord as a basis for wisdom, in many other respects they differ enormously in their stance. Appreciating their distinct nature and differences will be a central concern of the rest of this series of posts.

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.