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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The Perspective of Wisdom

Dianne Bergant

Wisdom in Israel

Even a superficial survey of the religious traditions of biblical Israel shows that the predominant conviction of the people was that God was active in their history. God had chosen them, guided them, revealed the law to them, and rewarded and punished them according to their fidelity to that law. In effect, God was perceived as the principal actor in the drama of their history.

In addition to this view, some of the biblical literature provides a rather different perspective. It suggests that God can be known through the experiences of everyday life, experiences that do not necessarily contribute to the national story that many refer to as “salvation history.” This additional perspective, known as “wisdom,” is more interested in the unfolding of life in general and the successful living of that life in particular. Since the Israelites maintained that their God was responsible for the world and everything within it, they believed that living in harmony with this world and with others was both the basis for and the consequence of their relationship with God.

These two quite different perspectives flow from the same fundamental conviction, namely that God is involved both in nature and in human history and, through this involvement, is accessible to women and men. This means that human experience, whether within national events or the particular incidents in one's personal life, is the locus of an encounter with God. It also means that the circumstances of life influence the way God is perceived.

The wisdom literature includes the books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, as well as the deutero-canonical or apocryphal books, The Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus. (Several psalms have been classified as wisdom psalms: 1, 37, 49, 73, 91, 112, 119, 127, 128, 133, 139.) The wisdom books deal with general questions of human welfare, human value, and human dignity, though the teachings relative to these humanistic concerns must be understood within the context of Israel's Yahwistic faith. The underlying presupposition of their message is that whatever benefits humankind is a good to be pursued and whatever is injurious should be avoided and condemned. Success or happiness is the criterion for evaluating any course of action and is also considered concrete evidence of the wisdom and the righteousness of the person who succeeds.

Reflection on life and observation of nature led the sages of Israel to conclude that there was some kind of order inherent in the world. They believed that, if they could discern how this order operated and harmonize their lives with it, they would live peacefully and fruitfully. Failure to identify and conform to this order would result in frustration, misfortune, and misery. The primary function of the wisdom tradition seems to have been instruction in a style of living that would assure one of well-being and prosperity. Since its emphasis was on education and training, the literary forms found in this tradition function pedagogically. These forms include: proverbs that describe particular life situations; parables, riddles and questions that tease the mind and lead to new insights; and stories that have a moral to teach.

A sapiential (wisdom) tradition is not unique to Israel. All cultures, both ancient and modern, have treasuries of wisdom that have been gleaned from experience, have passed the test of time, and have been handed down through the generations. It is by means of such a tradition that individuals learn the values, mores, and patterns of behavior expected of members of the group. That Israel was not alone in its quest for wisdom may be seen by pervasive biblical references to the sages of other nations, usually in passages that exalt the wisdom of an Israelite over that of a non-Israelite (e.g., Joseph in the court of Pharaoh, Gen. 41 ; Daniel in Babylon, Dan. 5 ). In fact, Israel's search for wisdom participated in a broad sapiential movement in the ancient Near Eastern world.

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