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.

 

 

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

Ecclesiastes and Wisdom

This book is one of the most marginalised of the Old Testament. There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this. One in particular perhaps stands out for contemporary readers—its first words seem to question the basic understanding that many have of Scripture. Whether the modern reader goes to Ecclesiastes with certainty or in the hope of straightforward guidance, either way they do not get what they hoped for or expected. Instead they read:

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?

Ecclesiastes 1:1–3 (NRSV)

It is not only the stranger to wisdom literature that would be surprised by vanity and meaningless as a point of departure. Any student of the Book of Proverbs would also think that there is a category mistake here. How can this be the same type of literature as Proverbs? Is it in fact the opposite? A worldview of vanity and disorder is surely antagonistic to the order assumed in Proverbs? To an extant this is the same issues covered in the previous post on Dialogue. Here we have simply stated the question at its most acute.

There are other challenges with Ecclesiastes but in this post we are going to consider this one issue; the apparent antagonism between not just Ecclesiastes and Proverbs but all three wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible. I suggest some initial reasons, below, why the differences between these three books might not be as extreme as they first appear. We will then consider that their diversity in many respects matches what we find the biblical psalms.

An underpinning ethos of wisdom is the ongoing testing, refining and discarding of inferences based on observation. Contemporary analogues exist such as in science the notion of a working hypothesis and in philosophy the methodology of critical realism. Biblical wisdom, at least in part, seeks to establish how to live well based on wise reflection on the nature of creation. In this way, Proverbs can be seen to lean towards a wholehearted embracing of the efficacy of the wisdom method. We might even say it embodies a hermeneutic of trust. Ecclesiastes comes to a different conclusion after trying variations of approach. Both books, look to what is needed in addition to wisdom—Fear of the Lord—one as an opening assumption (Proverbs 1:7) and the other in conclusion after highlighting various problems (Ecclesiastes 12:13). The Book of Job tests a very specific assumption of reward which is found wanting. In Job the necessity of revelation alongside wisdom comes through an encounter with Job which silences his wise enquiries (Job 40:3–5). In their different ways all three books encourage wise reflection but also recognise its limits.

In addition, it is vitally important to acknowledge that none of the three wisdom books claim to be an end in themselves. This is true not only of the biblical wisdom but in addition to wider Ancient Near-Eastern wisdom literature. In short, such literature is not an end in itself, it is an educational resource and approach to living. The individual literary units are not to be blatantly or blandly applied to life situations. The Book of Proverbs provides the most succinct indication of this in its twin proverbs:

Do not answer fools according to their folly,

    or you will be a fool yourself.

Answer fools according to their folly,

    or they will be wise in their own eyes.

Proverbs 26: 4, 5 (NRSV)

In many respects the three wisdom books exemplify the three categories of psalms identified by Brueggemann. He articulated what has been recognised as a very fruitful paradigm which connects the ancient psalms with the modern life of faith. Put simply the psalms can be classified into three categories of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Brueggemann uses the term typology of function recognising that the hermeneutical connection between then and now operates at a very human contextual level.

We can conclude by noting that in this way:

  1. Proverbs is a book founded on order. The author is oriented and trusts that wisdom works day-to-day because of the existence of a creator and their implicit trust in him. Many psalms have a similar underlying basis. The author of Proverbs, and its accepting reader, would feel comfortable singing hymns of trust and faith to God.
  2. Ecclesiastes is a book in which the orderly nature of life and extent to which trust in God can deliver the good life is being questioned. In modern parlance a hermeneutic of suspicion is operative. The sort of suspicion we all encounter in the dark moments of life—the death of a loved one, the failure of a relationship or the loss of health. These are the moments in which the laments of the Psalter or the cynicism of Ecclesiastes eclipses simple trust. They are the moments of exile, whether real or metaphorical. Trust is still key but it is not longer simple and unquestioning
  3. The Book of Job is a book of movement. It starts with the questioning cynicism of Ecclesiastes. It proceeds with some received wisdom being painfully showcased as wanting. It concludes with an answer which is not rational but revelatory—a revelation of God that demands reorientation.

We will return to Eccelesiastes in future posts. It is my hope that the second part of this post will be developed into an academic publication in due course.

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.

 

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.