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.

 

 

 

W is for Wisdom

The wisdom material in the Hebrew Bible represents a sizeable amount of content. Although the precise definition of wisdom literature is disputed, the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are usually recognised as sharing this label, albeit in different styles and forms. Some of the psalms are also said to be wisdom psalms and many others contain phrases or concepts which are similar to those in the three books identified above.

There are some basic hurdles that need to be overcome if wisdom literature and ideas are to be treated in context. A basic challenge at the outset is that by definition much of the material that is identified as wisdom is collected and passed on as a multi-generational dialogue. The proverbs, aphorisms, images and arguments originated, not as divinely dictated texts, but rather as the distillation of the reflections of the wise. The sages, as they are known, who did this reflection and writing, observed the world and made hypotheses. These proposals were then considered by the next generation of sages. Over time those sayings, principles and ideas that appeared most useful and proved true were collected and others discarded. Proverbs within the book of the same name are the most obvious example of this idea. By their nature biblical proverbs are not infallible; they function as wise sayings not as rules for the universe. The two proverbs below provide a helpful illustration of this. Their value and truth is in their application by the wise person:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.

Proverbs 26:4 (NIV)


Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.

Proverbs 26:5 (NIV)

These two biblical proverbs echo more starkly the polarity of these two very well-known English proverbs:

Many hands make light work.

Too many cooks spoil the broth.

A popular misreading of much wisdom literature is to see it as promises. Whilst the God of the Hebrew Bible is a God who makes promises, the proverbial literature and wider wisdom material are not to be read in this way. This is in part due to the issue of context indicated in the example above of two otherwise contradictory proverbs. A further aspect to bear in mind is that sometimes alternatives are put forward and there is an obvious dialogue; sometimes the reader is expected to question the text. This can be demanding. The Book of Job for example, is largely a series of dialogues. These dialogues are never intellectually resolved. Instead the reader is left enriched and but with deeper questions—the definition of wisdom perhaps?

In the closing dialogue (Job 38:1‒42:4) Yahweh appears and effectively trumps wisdom by contrasting Job, as fragile mortal creature, with his own awesome transcendent majesty. This conclusion to Job provides a helpful pointer to the limits of the Wisdom endeavour: Yahweh’s glory remains a step beyond human reason, although reflecting on the divine person and the created order is an essential exercise for anyone who would want to merit the label of wise.