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Introduction to Wisdom Literature

Wisdom, as the name suggests, is about reasoned thinking. Its use as the name of a genre comes from the word “wisdom,” which occurs frequently in these three biblical books as well as in other such nonbiblical writings. Still, it is a modern genre designation rather than an ancient one.

The wisdom books contain different kinds of literary forms, but these fall into two basic categories.1 James L. Crenshaw, Urgent Advice and Probing Questions: Collected Writings on Old Testament Wisdom (Macon, GA: Mercer, 1995), 2. The first is brief aphorisms or “proverbs.” These typically consist of two lines and offer advice or insight about life, the workings of the world, and human relationships. They are based on observation and experience; they can be religious or theological in orientation but are not necessarily so; they cover a wide range of topics such as marriage, prosperity and poverty, industry and sloth, and so on. They are, therefore, very similar to modern aphorisms such as, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes one healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

The other basic form in wisdom literature consists of more extensive reflections on issues related to the meaning of life, its brevity, the causes for suffering and hardship during life, and the like. These reflections may be narratives, poems, dialogues, or various other literary types.2 Ibid., 48–76. What makes these different types of literature similar is their themes and function rather than their form.

What distinguishes these books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job) is a set of related genres and themes, defined primarily by a common educative function of fostering discernment, reflection, and action concerning life in general (“existence” or the human condition) and for a wide spectrum of specific situations.3 Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “Form Criticism, Wisdom, and Psalms 111–12,” in The Changing Face of Form Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Marvin A. Sweeney and Ehud Ben-Zvi (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 83.

Wisdom literature reflects a discrete outlook and worldview from all the other kinds of literature in the Hebrew Bible. It is a perspective based on and informed by reason and personal experience rather than history or tradition. Unlike the other genres treated in this book, wisdom writings exhibit no real interest in Israel's historical traditions. Ideologically, wisdom is grounded in creation. The basic concept behind it is that God has placed the secrets to success and human happiness in the created order, and it is up to humans to discover these secrets by means of observation and intuition. Wisdom thought explores what is good for human beings, and wisdom literature attempts to articulate it.

Wisdom is the reasoned search for specific ways to assure well-being and the implementation of those discoveries in daily existence. Wisdom addresses natural, human, and theological dimensions of reality, and constitutes an attitude toward life, a living tradition, and a literary corpus.4 James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), 24–25.

There are four main thematic categories of wisdom.5 Cf. Crenshaw, Urgent Advice, 2–3. They are: juridical, experiential, theological, and natural. Juridical wisdom is the employment of wise judgment in a legal setting. It is best exemplified in the Bible in the story of Solomon's discovery of the true mother of the disputed baby (1 Kings 3:16–28). Experiential wisdom arose out of real experiences of daily life and can be found in the majority of biblical proverbs or aphorisms. An essential principle of theological wisdom is the “fear of God.” The deliberations about human suffering in the book of Job and about the meaning of life in Qoheleth also illustrate theological wisdom. Natural wisdom is not represented in the Bible. It consists primarily of encyclopedic lists of items and phenomena found in the natural world and was, therefore, a kind of ancient natural science.

Wisdom was based on observation of the world—what might be called “natural revelation”—and on reason. There is nothing distinctively Yahwistic or Israelite about it. Wisdom was a widespread phenomenon in the ancient Near East, particularly in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Its primary function or intent was education. Wisdom writing sought not only to move its audience to act sensibly but also to promote reasoned thought and reflection. In Egypt, wisdom occurred almost exclusively at the royal court for educational purposes. Egyptian wisdom texts are mostly in the form of “instructions”—lists of practical dos and don'ts in the form of proverbs.

In Israel, wisdom seems to have developed in three stages: family, court, and school.6 Ibid., 3. That is, it began at home in the context of parental instruction, then became associated primarily with the royal court and the instruction of young nobles, and finally it became the property primarily of the scribal class, who were charged with educating the elite. That is why some biblical texts refer to “the wise” as a professional group in parallel with priests and prophets (cf. Jer 18:18).

This does not mean that all scribes or sages were in agreement about all matters. Quite the contrary. Wisdom was based on reason, experience, and observation, and since these things vary from person to person, the sages reached different conclusions about such questions as the meaning of life. “Experience was sometimes ambiguous, forcing the wise to question their own hardened dogmas.”7 Ibid., 4. Dialogue and debate were essential components of wisdom. The debate took different forms, as we will see in our treatment of the biblical wisdom books. Wisdom literature does not provide a “road map” to daily living or clear answers to the mega issues of life, but what it does do is sketch the parameters for debate and give approval to reasoning and contemplation, dialogue and disagreement.

Notes:

1. James L. Crenshaw, Urgent Advice and Probing Questions: Collected Writings on Old Testament Wisdom (Macon, GA: Mercer, 1995), 2.

2. Ibid., 48–76.

3. Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “Form Criticism, Wisdom, and Psalms 111–12,” in The Changing Face of Form Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Marvin A. Sweeney and Ehud Ben-Zvi (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 83.

4. James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), 24–25.

5. Cf. Crenshaw, Urgent Advice, 2–3.

6. Ibid., 3.

7. Ibid., 4.

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