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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Characterizing Wisdom

And so to turn to the genre of wisdom. How can it be defined? Is this maxim making of an experiential nature the end of the story? Where does God come into wisdom, and what picture of God do we have from this literature? Moreover, where are the boundaries of the literature and of the genre? A close analysis of Proverbs indicates that there are profound theological themes underlying the maxim making. There are presuppositions such as that the good will be rewarded by God and the wicked will be punished. But there is also the recognition that human experience by itself is often limited, and sometimes contradictory. God is not outside the realm of interest of the maxim-makers, and we find clusters of proverbs that mention God in the main collection in Prov. 10–31. In Prov. 1–9 we find more overt mention of ‘the fear of YHWH’ as well as the depiction of an intriguing figure of Wisdom who is described as having assisted God in the process of creation and has been the subject of much recent attention, particularly by feminist scholars (see Camp 1985). She also provides a counterpart to the Woman of Folly, who lures young men but whose path ultimately leads to death and destruction (Camp 2000). The figure of Woman Wisdom calls to the young men learning by experience to be prudent and to follow her path, however difficult that may be. She offers all the gifts of wisdom, and she then claims to have a unique relationship with the creator God (Prov. 8: 22–31). She stands at the crossroads, therefore, between the quest for understanding, undertaken by human beings across the generations, and the wisdom that ultimately comes from God, which humans cannot fully know. God is described primarily in this literature as the Creator—of humankind and also of all nature and animals (Perdue 1994). God is not described as the salvific redeemer figure with special regard for Israel of other parts of the Old Testament. Indeed, surprisingly, the nation of Israel is never mentioned in this literature, nor its heroes such as Moses or David. Rather, God is the universal creator of the world in which everything has its part. The task of the wise man is to uncover the hidden order of the world and to understand the experience of humans within that wider context. This includes societal order as well as the order found in the natural world.

The book of Proverbs is thus our starting-point when looking at the genre of wisdom in the Bible. Its major forms of saying and instruction reappear elsewhere, and provide some criteria for discerning wisdom influence on wider material. For example, when a prophet such as Amos uses proverbs, he may well be showing knowledge of experiential wisdom, whether it be the language of the learned or just simple observation (e.g. Amos 3: 3–8). The question as to how widespread this genre was is a perennial one amongst scholars. Some see it as important to define as ‘wisdom’ only that literary corpus that contains the wisdom genre in large measure (Crenshaw 1982), whilst others are interested in discovering lines of possible influence across the Old Testament, whether of a formative or a scribal/redactional kind (Murphy 1990; Dell 2000). We might even look for a wider range of characters or narratives influenced by wisdom, of which a chief contender is the figure of Joseph in Gen. 37–50 (a theory propounded by von Rad (1966b)). His wisdom took him to a high position at the court of Pharaoh, and not only that, the stories of him tell of his dealings with his brothers that very much reflect the qualities of self-control and fairness espoused by the wise. Narratives where human experience, observation, and even intrigue come to the fore are also contenders for the influence of the wisdom genre, such as the Succession Narrative in 2 Samuel–1 Kings 2 (Whybray 1968), which could have been composed at court within the kinds of literary groups I have described.

It should not be forgotten that there is an important theological aspect to this wisdom—even in Proverbs (Murphy 1990)—that should not be downplayed, as some have sought to do. This paves the way for our consideration of the other wisdom books—notably, in the Old Testament canon, Job and Ecclesiastes—which are much more theological in their orientation. We also need to consider in the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Jesus, son of Sirach, which returns to the maxim style of Proverbs but, being a second-century BCE document contains a number of rather different emphases, and to the Wisdom of Solomon of a century later. When we get to the New Testament, we find the influence of the genre of wisdom in its pages and some interesting contemporary background material from Qumran.

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