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Wisdom Literature

Brennan Breed
Emory University

Background Essays

Wisdom Literature
NOAB Introduction to the Poetical and Wisdom Books
Ancient Near Eastern Parallels
Form Criticism
NOAB Introduction to the Book of Job
NOAB Introduction to the Book of Proverbs
NOAB Introduction to the Book of Ecclesiastes (see also Ecclesiastes, Book of)
NOAB Introduction to the Wisdom of Solomon
NOAB Introduction to the Book of Sirach

A Body of Literature

One way to approach wisdom is by way of the canonical divisions between the texts that constitute what scholars loosely refer to as wisdom literature. The Protestant canon, based on the Jewish canon, includes Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes (also known as Qohelet). The Roman Catholic canon and others based on the Greek Old Testament also include Sirach (Ben Sira) and the Wisdom of Solomon. In addition to these five books, scholars debate whether other texts should be considered wisdom literature such as certain Psalms (e.g., Pss 1, 34, 37, 49, and 73) and the Song of Songs. Other important witnesses to Israel's thriving wisdom tradition come from non-canonical texts found at Qumran such as 4QInstruction, also called Sapiential Work A. What counts as wisdom literature is determined not only by shared characteristics among these texts but also by genre exemplars from places and peoples outside Israel, from whom Israel inherited the concerns and approaches of the wisdom tradition.

Literary Genres

Another way to approach wisdom is as a set of literary genres that characterize its particular mode of discourse. Scholars helpfully classify these into more or less seven categories: proverbs or sayings (Prov 10.1), riddles or allegories (Prov 5.15–23; Ecc 12.1–7), hymns (Job 9.5–10; Sir 39.16–31), dialogue (Job 4–27), autobiographical narrative (Ecc 1.12–2.26), and lecture (Prov 2.1–22). These are not exhaustive; other forms are present in the books commonly considered "wisdom literature," such as prayer in Wisdom of Solomon (ch. 9). Wisdom cannot be defined by form alone. Certain forms are typically sapiential, that is, wisdom is typically formed in certain modes of discourse, but no form is in itself capable of defining the boundary by which a given text can be located inside or outside wisdom proper. Proverb is one of the most typically cited examples of a wisdom form. It is instructive to consider in detail since there are multiple categories of proverbs in the book of Proverbs. For example, "comparative sayings" compare two things. Often the comparison is made so as to say that one is better than the other. For example, "A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold" (Prov 22.1). Such proverbs rarely explain why the one is better than the other, which requires the discerning students to discover the reason for themselves (see the discussion of wisdom's didactic character below). Another category of proverbs are the "numerical sayings." For example, "Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a girl" (30.18–19). These resemble riddles since the final term almost always comes as a surprise and is the most extreme. The final item tends to transform ordinary occurrences into extraordinary mysteries (e.g., Prov 30.24–28). Other common categories of proverbs are "commands" (Prov 24.13) and "admonitions" (Prov 24.1–2), "rhetorical questions" (Job 4), and "happy" or "blessed sayings" (Job 5.17).

For more information, see A Guide to Reading Biblical Poetry.

Social Settings

Though the origin of wisdom literature is a source of constant scholarly debate, it seems clear that wisdom literature collects teachings from several spheres of life. Some sayings in the book of Proverbs, for example, seem to reflect the setting of a family or clan (cf. Prov 24.13) living an agrarian lifestyle (cf. Prov 10.5). These sayings seem to be traditional teachings of a community that seek to teach children how to be pious, industrious, contributing members of the community. Others, however, sound more like instructions for raising a child in the midst of a royal court (see "Kinship and Kingship" and "Sacral Ideologies of the Monarchic State" (Prov 23.1). These sayings are aimed at a privileged group, tend to emphasize social protocol and wise self-governance, and have little to do with religious sentiments. Wisdom originating in the royal court may have been designed to help train bureaucrats and future rulers to exercise their powers justly, righteously and prudently. This sort of wisdom may be seen in narratives describing the life of King Solomon . In 1 Kings 3, Solomon asks Yahweh for wisdom, and then with that wisdom proceeds to justly adjudicate a difficult case. It is likely from this world of royal wisdom and its narrative depiction that Solomon later came to be associated with the books of Israelite wisdom literature (cf. Prov 1.1). Yet even while Proverbs 1.1 claims that the book is a work of Solomon, it is clear that much of the book derives from other peoples (cf. Prov 30–31) and times (cf. the mention of Hezekiah in Prov 25.1). Thus the royal setting is, like the clan setting, simply one setting for wisdom literature among several. Still other sayings seem to resonate with a school-like setting, not entirely consonant with the world of the royal court, but more technical and philosophical than the collected traditions of a clan. Some scholars have suggested that this literature attests to the community of scribes and their educational system. The opening discourse of the book of Proverbs, for example, seems to be set within a family structure (cf. Prov 1.8), but the next nine chapters (Prov 1–9) form an integrated, well-constructed literary whole. Since Prov 1–9 does not resemble the more or less unrelated sayings that follow, many scholars have assumed that a more reflective, academic community produced this work, as well as much of the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Whether the thinkers, often called "the sages," responsible for these works were associated with a system of schools, the temple or the court is unknown. They did collect and reflect upon both clan and royal modes of wisdom, as well as the works of similar foreign wisdom authors. In the end, wisdom literature offers insight into at least several general social settings, offering multiple perspectives on the elusive topic of wisdom.

Wisdom: An International Phenomenon

Biblical wisdom literature offers an interesting perspective from which to view ancient Israel's religious life. While most of the Hebrew Bible presents Israel and Judah's collective memories, including their stories of national origin, their specific laws, rituals, divine covenants, and the prophets who often called them to remember these things, the books associated with wisdom literature share little of these concerns. In the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, absent are the figures of the patriarchs and Moses; and mentions of the covenant at Sinai or the Davidic promise are not to be found. Jerusalem and its temple are hardly mentioned at all. The authors do not recount revelation given to a particular prophet by a specific deity; in contrast, the teachings of wisdom literature are told in the voice of humans and given as the results of human thought and observation. Moreover, the discoveries of close parallels between Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Canaanite didactic literatures and biblical wisdom literature show something of its international character. A large section of the book of Proverbs, for example, borrows heavily from (but also significantly alters in certain places) an older Egyptian source called the Instruction of Amenemope (Prov 22.17–24.22). Thus, scholars presume that wisdom literature was a widespread mode of discourse in the ancient Near East that emphasized generally available knowledge and downplayed cultural particularities and nationalistic narratives. This cosmopolitan attitude can be seen in Proverbs' unabashed incorporation of texts written by foreigners (Prov 30–31), and in the exotic Job's foreign setting and nationality (1.1). Israelite wisdom literature does refer to Yahweh, the distinctive deity of Israel, but it does not imagine Yahweh as a mighty warrior set on punishing Israel's foes—or Israel itself, for that matter. Rather, wisdom literature speaks of Yahweh as primarily active and available in the realm of creation and the ongoing process of the natural world. Regardless of national or creedal affiliation, wisdom literature claims that perceptive individuals may discern Yahweh's desires by observing the universal manner in which the world is ordered. In this way, divine teaching is open to all people.

Anthropological and Experiential Concerns

Wisdom scholars typically note how the questions to which the assorted content that makes up wisdom literature supplies the answers are fundamentally oriented toward the human being and its experience. Wisdom tries to name what is good for humans on the basis of what can be learned from experience (see the article on Other Traditions of Biblical Religion). Human being is not simply the endpoint of reflection about what is wise, good, and just, it is also the point of departure. The sages are responsible for critically reflecting on their experience discerning from it what is true, what is good, and what is just and, of course, what is false, bad, and unjust. Wisdom is not empiricism, it does not believe that all knowledge derives from experience, but it certainly gives experience a central role in illustrating the sages' wisdom (cf. Prov 30.18–19).

Focus on Order and Harmony

For wisdom literature, the phenomenon of order, whether in the natural world or in human societies, was of utmost concern. The questions, "where does order come from?" and "how can humans locate, achieve and foster order?" underlie the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Scholars most often characterize wisdom as a project that sought to promote living in justice and harmony. When disharmony or injustice is encountered, it is generally understood either a result of the failure to live in accordance with the wise order with which God has infused creation, or it is a temporary discord aimed at restoring the harmony of justice (cf. Prov 1.22–33; 3.25; 20.26; and 26.27). The books of Job and Ecclesiastes inquire about the truth of this notion. Such a vision of peace and order can function not only conservatively, as a protector of the status quo (cf. Prov 30.22), but also as a principle in the name of which the status quo can be overturned (cf. Prov 16.5). The order, balance, and harmony prized by the sages is more than simply rational and ethical, it also has an important aesthetic dimension; it is beautiful, smooth, shining, straight and splendid (cf. Prov 1.9; 4.9).

Focus on Creation and the Natural World

The sages' focus on creation stems on the one hand from their experiential wisdom and, on the other, from their speculative or theoretical wisdom. The sages understood the experience and observation of the world as a source, or at least a resource, for the exercise of wisdom (Prov 6.6–11). Creation also plays a prominent role in the speculative/philosophical reflections on wisdom. Wisdom is the principle by which God structured and created the earth and the heavens (Prov 3.19–20); wisdom appears to God at the moment of creation in Job 28.23–27; personified wisdom is present alongside God when God creates the world in Prov 8.22–31; wisdom "covers the earth like a mist" in Sir 24.3; and wisdom is "poured out upon all [God's] works, upon all the living" in Sir 1.9–10. Within creation lies a principle of order that is expressed in the harmonious society as well as the proper functioning of the natural world. The relationship between creation and wisdom developed in later Jewish and Christian literature (cf. Col 1.15–16).

Theoretical and Speculative Concerns

While many of the individual sayings that together constitute the book of Proverbs are focused on practical advice and ethical attitudes, within the wisdom tradition a more reflective or speculative current led the sages to examine larger themes such as the nature of divinity, the human condition, the purpose of life and the problems of evil and suffering. Over time, sages began to think of wisdom as something more than a skillful approach to the problems that one confronts in life. Wisdom came to signify the unifying principle of order that undergirds the universe, and the sages believed that reflection upon the world could lead one to glimpse aspects of this principle. In Proverbs 1–9, wisdom was personified and pictured as a woman who stood alongside Yahweh at the time of creation (8.22–31). (For a discussion of Woman Wisdom in feminist biblical scholarship, see "Conversation: Speaking with the Biblical Texts".) In later wisdom literature, such as Sirach and writings from Qumran, the figure of Wisdom takes on more varied personifications. Sirach identifies Wisdom with the Torah, and 4QInstruction (or Sapiential Work A) refers to Wisdom abstractly as a "mystery that is to come." Such understandings of Wisdom heavily influenced later Jewish and Christian interpreters.

Didactic Approach

Many wisdom texts strike readers as overtly pedagogical. These works seem crafted so as to teach readers how to acquire wisdom. Many scholars have associated the wisdom tradition with the scribal class, which needed to teach skills associated with writing. (For more information, see also "Literacy in Ancient Israel" ; "Writing in Antiquity"; and "Scribes and Scribal Techniques".) The book of Proverbs begins with the fiction of a family relationship between the book of Proverbs and the reader, with the reader playing the role of the student-child and the author playing the role of the teacher-father (cf 1.8–10). This fictional setting underscores the educational function of the book itself. In order to communicate its goals and persuade the reader, Proverbs offers vivid contrasts between the righteous and the wicked, Woman Wisdom and the "strange" woman, the lazy and the wise, and gives hyperbolic descriptions of the fate of those who choose wisely or poorly. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes, in contrast, seem to ask much of the reader. Both books have puzzled readers for millennia, and some scholars have wondered if their authors crafted them in order to force readers to think and grow. Yet even within the book of Proverbs, complications arise: two concurrent proverbs (24.5–6) directly contradict each other, which raises the possibility that Proverbs does not attempt to offer simple morals or advice that is applicable at all times. Instead, the didactic construction of the book of Proverbs, as well as Job and Ecclesiastes, requires readers to wisely contextualize all teachings (see the conclusion to "The Perspective of Wisdom").

Further Reading

  • Brown, William P. Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996.
  • Brueggemann, Walter. In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1973.
  • Camp, Claudia V. "Wise, Strange and Holy: The Strange Woman and the Making of the Bible" (320). Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Supplement Series; Gender, Culture, Theory, 9. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic, 2000.
  • Collins, John J. Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age. Old Testament Library. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.
  • Crenshaw, James L. Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. 3d ed. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
  • Goff, Matthew J. Discerning Wisdom: The Sapiential Literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum (116). New York, N.Y.: Brill, 2006.
  • Murphy, Roland E. The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature. 3d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002.
  • O'Connor, Kathleen M. The Wisdom Literature. Collegeville, Pa.: Glazier, 1988.
  • van Leeuwen, Raymond C. "Cosmos, Temple, House: Building and Wisdom in Mesopotamia and Israel." Pages 67–92 in Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel. Edited by Richard J. Clifford. Symposium. Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.
  • von Rad, Gerhard. Wisdom in Israel. Translated by James D. Martin. Trinity Press International, 1993.

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