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)?

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.

 

 

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.

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.