God and Wisdom, Part 1

The form of this post is a little different to the previous ones in this #AtoZWisdom series. It is a book review. The book in question is by Tremper Longman III and the reason why it provides a fitting post on ‘God and Wisdom’ will soon become apparent.

Tremper Longman III, The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017

Both the title and subtitle of this book distil the backbone of Tremper Longman III’s account of wisdom in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (OT/HB). He argues, with clarity and conviction, that the diverse elements of wisdom in the OT/HB find their unity within a theological framework. Such a view is not shared by all scholars. Indeed, some drive a wedge between wisdom (often in the form of the three books, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job) and the cultic life of Israel. Longman not only sees the wisdom elements of the OT/HB as theological but in his commitment to a canonical reading (p.26) he sees ‘Fear of the Lord’ as the specific theological locus. Perhaps some will find such a reading displays too great a hermeneutic of trust, but the book makes an excellent case for such a reading—and despite the claim of theological canonical unity the wisdom material is not flattened but is permitted its wide-ranging claims and emotions.

The book has fifteen chapters and covers more ground than many introductions to the wisdom books of the OT/HB. I would recommend this book, because of its clarity, to anyone wanting a first introduction to wisdom literature. The book engages with wider technical scholarship, but it is written without pretension and little prior knowledge is required to get the best from it.

The rest of this review will make some brief comments about each chapter to give a flavour of the book’s thesis—and yes that is what it is, a coherent argument for a specific reading. For this reason, readers already familiar with biblical wisdom will also find this book stimulating.

The length of this review means that it will be posted in two parts. In this post the first six chapters are covered.

1. Proverbs: The Fear of the Lord Is the Beginning of Wisdom

This chapter considers three ways in which the Book of Proverbs defines wisdom. The first of these is at the practical level, as a skill for living. Longman suggests that wisdom, in this sense, parallels how emotional intelligence can lead to success in life. The second aspect of wisdom is the ethical level—the Book of Proverbs continually equates a wise person with a good person. The third level, according to Longman, is the theological level and especially the Fear of the Lord as expressed at the outset in Proverbs in 1:7. The theological perspective is further developed by considering the rich imagery of woman wisdom who permeates the Book of Proverbs.

2. Ecclesiastes: Fear God, Obey the Commandments, and Live in Light of the Coming Judgement

Longman explores from the outset his view that the Book of Ecclesiastes is the product of two voices and not just one. He argues that the bulk of the book, 1:12–12:7, are the words of Qohelet as indicated in by the constant use of the first person. He identifies Qohelet as a pseudonym of a post-exilic author. The case is made for the prologue (1:1–11) and the epilogue (12:8–14) being the second voice; the editor who commends the work to his son and thereby to all subsequent readers. This epilogue is key to Longman’s theological approach to the book. He argues that the work shows the limits of human wisdom—it is Fear of God (12:13) that is an essential stance for overcoming the limits of wisdom.

3. The Book of Job: “Behold, the Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom” (Job 28:28)

Longman dismisses the unhelpful caricatures of the Book of Job, such as a supposed concern with answering the questions of either suffering or theodicy. He rightly sees the book as a wisdom dispute. The three friends of Job share a similar wisdom view—so-called retribution theology. Because of this view they are convinced that Job’s suffering testifies that Job must have sinned. Job shares their perspective but knows he has not sinned. Thus, argues Longman, Job’s concern is that God is unjust (p.47). Longman sees Elihu as largely sharing the same view but being especially ‘full of hot air’. In the light of Yahweh’s speeches to Job and the book’s epilogues, Longman argues that Job makes three key contributions: (i) God is the source of wisdom, (ii) the proper human response to such wisdom is submission, and (iii) the fear of the Lord already articulated in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes is central.

4. Other Sources of Wisdom: Deuteronomy, Psalms, Song of Songs, and Prophecy

In this chapter Longman explores various parts of the OT/HB some of which are generally recognised to have some wisdom elements (for example Psalms) and others that are more controversial with respect to the role of wisdom (Deuteronomy for example). Longman is at pains to point out that even if there were such a concept as wisdom literature the books mentioned in this chapter would not be part of this literature. His argument is that wisdom motifs and ideas are found more widely in the OT/HB than is generally appreciated. This is important to the argument about the nature of wisdom in later chapters.

5. Joseph and Daniel: Paragons of Wisdom

In this chapter, and the next, Longman further broadens the concept of wisdom to the narratives of the OT/HB. This chapter is concerned with the Joseph and Daniel narratives. Longman explains that some scholars, for example von Rad, have made much of the wisdom influence in the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37–50). Others, like Crenshaw, have argued quite the opposite. Longman steers a clear middle road. He does not argue that wisdom is the dominant genre or theme within the Joseph narrative or the Book of Daniel. Rather he points to some core similarities between the characters at the heart of these stories. These are (i) their use of wisdom to interpret dreams, (ii) they acknowledge God as the origin of their wisdom, (iii) they use their wisdom to guide their foreign royal masters.

6. Adam and Solomon: From the Heights of Wisdom to the Depths of Folly

In this chapter Adam and Solomon (and the king of Tyre) are explored as examples of individuals who journeyed from wisdom to folly. The example of Adam is of course interesting due to the account of his folly at the outset of the HB/OT. The account of the fall in Genesis 3 is rich with the language of wisdom: the serpent is described as crafty/prudent (3:1), there is the tree of knowledge (2:17) and the fruit is perceived by Eve as being useful for gaining wisdom (3:6). The negative outcome of the story shows the stark problem of humanity seeking wisdom on their own terms without God. Longman shows that Solomon, despite his wisdom, followed a similar path of trusting in things other than God.

 

Perceiving, Proclaiming and Partaking of the Cross

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’   Mark 8:31–33

1. Perceiving the Cross

I have lost count of the number of times I have correctly predicted the future. Please don’t be anxious this is not a claim to be a clairvoyant or a confession of divination. Simply the acknowledgement that I am a parent.

I recall all three of my children running around in circles in our house. My words proclaimed wisely: “If you don’t calm down someone’s going to get hurt”. The sentence was barely finished and we were weighing-up whether go to take a child to hospital, as a swelling grew before our eyes on their forehead.

I also recall making the comment: “If you drag him round by his arms like that you will dislocate something”. The uncontrollable crying was only silenced two hours later in hospital as a doctor fixed an elbow joint with a dull click.

More recently by knowledge of the world had me observe: “If you keep kicking the ball that hard you’ll break a pane of glass in the greenhouse”. This time I hadn’t quite foreseen what would happen. There were three broken panes.

This is no prescience, or anything unnatural, this is cause and effect. Years of observing how the world works and inferring what will happen next. This is what the Bible calls wisdom. Jesus has often been labelled as a Sage, a biblical wise man in the tradition of Solomon and in the tradition of the Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. Many of his words recorded in the gospels echo the wise way of looking at the world and at life, for example:

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.   Matthew 6:28–29

As Jesus discovered his mission, to preach and teach about God’s Kingdom, and grew in his understanding of the scope of what he was doing and teaching; as he realised he was the Son, as he worked out what this meant—he didn’t need to be the wisest sage to put two and two together—to realise he would come into massive conflict with the authorities.

As hostility grew with the religious leaders, to his words and deeds, it would have become painfully clear to Jesus that there was not going to be a happy conclusion to his ministry on earth.

As the best teacher of his day, as the wisest sage, as the most remarkable worker of miracles he was not destined to become ‘Professor of the Kingdom’, at the University of Jerusalem, but rather he was so bugging the scribes, the elders, the chief priests, that a conflict was inevitable. And when the Romans eventually noticed, well, others had done less—and been less—and been silenced by execution.

In this way Jesus perceived that death was the outcome of his words and actions. But wisdom and reason only get anyone so far. Although Jesus gave up the attributes of deity prior to his Incarnation, as a man he was still able to receive from God—he was still able to experience revelation.

That he was not only proclaiming a message but was the message, didn’t come from being wise—this could only come from revelation.

Whilst reason pointed to his death at the hands of Jews and Romans in an unholy alliance to silence an inconvenient truth, only revelation can point to the significance of that death. Human wisdom points to cause and effect. It is only revelation that can truly explain.

And it was a vicious cycle as Jesus recognised who he was—Son of God and Messiah—so he upset the authorities more and more. There was an inevitability that he would die because of his words and deeds. Our passage does not mention the cross. We read this back into this episode. But Jesus was probably all too aware of the likely nature of his death.

As Jesus wrestled with God the Father in prayer; perhaps in those profound moments of baptism and transfiguration, he received an answer:

the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again

 Through wisdom Jesus saw his death; through revelation he understood its significance and glimpsed resurrection too.

2. Proclaiming the Cross

As Jesus understood his death and resurrection—as he reasoned and as God revealed—he became the first to proclaim the cross. And what a result. If healing, miracles and inspired preaching caused hostility, the preaching of the cross inspired disbelief and fear. So off-the-mark is Peter that Jesus sees the hand of the deceiver, of Satan, at work.

From Peter’s perspective, so unwelcome and so unexpected was Jesus’ proclamation that he simply saw it as wrong. In his mind it went again everything he had learnt. That your Rabbi should die would surely mean they were a failed teacher. That a Messiah should die was unthinkable. It did not stand to reason. Jesus’ death as Son of God, as Messiah requires new knowledge—revelation, first to Jesus, then to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.

Peter was so bewildered by the thought of Jesus’ death, that in all likelihood he couldn’t see beyond this to remotely comprehend Jesus rising again.

Jesus, of course, had to start with his disciples—a constant education by drip-feeding information. They might not understand his death and resurrection before they happened, but they needed to afterwards.

The drip-feed education is seen in two further episodes in Mark, for example in the second one we read:

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.   Mark 9:30–32

The thought of Death and Resurrection caused Peter to disbelieve and to fear. The proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection always has a result. Its meaning provokes response. Disbelief is perhaps the normal first response. Fear is perhaps the natural step beyond disbelief. An emotional response of fear is a belief of sorts.

We can expect similar responses as we share the gospel. Some will simply disbelieve. Some will make a more significant move and be fearful. Such people are only a hair-breadth away from the belief that inspires fear to the belief that inspires faith.

3. Partaking of the Cross

The disciples journeyed with Jesus, but they were also on a different sort of journey—a journey of discovery as to who Jesus was. This journey can only end when the significance of both his death and resurrection are understood. The disciples had already partaken of the First Covenant—they were circumcised—and each year they remembered the Covenant during Passover. Each and every Sabbath they heard the Law of the Covenant read. This First Covenant came as Revelation, as God revealed himself in mighty acts and in his Word. The disciples needed fresh revelation to understand the New Covenant. They had partaken of a First Covenant that knew its foundation in the blood of a lamb. They were soon to experience the Last Supper at Passover.

The disciples some forty, or so, days after that Passover would understand John’s baptism afresh in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They would understand that baptism marked the start of partaking in the gospel. A step into water, being submerged and coming up out of the water, marks the journey from old life to new life. It marks the entry into a new covenant with God.

Hearing the gospel is a way of receiving the gospel, of receiving grace. Sharing bread and wine is a way of receiving the gospel and receiving grace. Being baptised in water as obedience to Jesus; being baptised by Spirit by the laying of hands, such a baptism is a way of receiving the gospel and receiving grace.

We would do well to remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a self-help gospel. The good news of new life only comes through grace—through God’s undeserved favour. Representing the Gospel as a lifestyle choice—a self-help gospel—like all the other lifestyle choices is one of the reasons for the frailty of the Western Church.

In the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’, Captain Miller and others, give their lives, as the film’s title reveals, to save private Ryan from death in combat. As Miller dies, having given his own life, he tells Private Ryan to “Earn this”.

In contrast, the cross does not speak of earning. We cannot earn it, we can only receive it. We can partake, in what is a remarkable gift of new covenant, new relationship, new life. The normal Christian birth comes, first through hearing the Word, then through baptism in Spirit and Water, and then is regularly renewed, remembered and celebrated through Bread and Wine.

So, carry on receiving this gospel—listen, be filled, be cleansed, be fed—imbibe the very water of life. All these things are what it means to perceive the cross, proclaim the cross and partake of the cross.

 

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.

 

 

 

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.