The Wisdom Books Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes
The Character of OT Wisdom • Wisdom material is scattered through OT but concentrated in Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes (Apocrypha: Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon). • Hokma (= wisdom) – generally means skill, ability, craftsmanship, cunning; in wisdom literature it means “skilled at living;” practical knowledge based on experience; ability to live a successful life (as defined by wisdom teachers). • Wisdom literature is distinctive in making no reference to covenant traditions, God’s saving deeds in Israel’s history, or the law revealed at Mt. Sinai. • Basis of wisdom is not special revelation but observation. • God created world; instilled a certain “order” in how world operates. • Wisdom is based on observation and experience of how the world is ordered, close observation of actions and their consequences: What works, what doesn’t? What leads to a successful life, what leads to ruin?
The Character of OT Wisdom • International character of wisdom literature – very similar material is found in Egypt and Mesopotamia. • Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope is very similar to Prov. 22:17-24:22. • Mesopotamia – close parallels to Job and Ecclesiastes. • Social setting of wisdom: • Family and village – collective wisdom of the culture passed down from parents to children. • Formal education – schools that trained the elite in literacy; teachers would have collected, preserved, created wisdom material for use as teaching handbooks. • Royal court – professional wisdom teachers employed to train royal sons and government officials; clearly seen in Egypt; Solomon may have brought this practice to Israel.
The Character of OT Wisdom • Solomon and wisdom • Traditions of Solomon’s own fame for wisdom: • 1 Kings 3:1-15 – Dream at Gibeon: asks for wisdom to rule well. • 1 Kings 3:16-28 – Judgment between 2 harlots illustrates wisdom. • 1 Kings 4:29-34 – Skill at composing proverbs (3000) and songs (1005). • 1 Kings 10:1-13 – Queen of Sheba visits to test him with riddles. • Traditionally regarded as author of: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. • Probably employed wisdom teachers (perhaps imported from Egypt). • Types of wisdom thought: • Practical / conventional / traditional wisdom • Practical advice for the art of successful living – wisdom leads to a good life; folly leads to ruin. • Best exemplified in Proverbs. • Speculative / skeptical / critical wisdom • More scholarly, questioning enterprise; probes and tests the limits of wisdom; challenges assumptions of traditional wisdom. • Exemplified in Job and Ecclesiastes.
The Book of Proverbs • Complex collection of traditional wisdom material. • Evidence of 8 earlier collections (see 1:1; 10:1; 22:17; 24:23; 25:1; 30:1; 31:1; 31:10). • Some attributed to Solomon; others to “the wise,” Agur, and Lemuel. • Basic unit of book is the mashal = “proverb,” “saying” (pl. meshalim is Hebrew title of book). • Distilled wisdom of generations of observation/experience of life, boiled down and couched in form of terse, witty, pithy saying. • Often strung together by catchword; sometimes more extended composition (Prov. 1-9). • Theme: practical advice for the art of successful living. • Way of wisdom/righteousness leads to success/the good life. • Way of folly/wickedness leads to ruin/misery/death. • Success is defined in “this-worldly” terms: happiness, health, prosperity, longevity, good family/friends, respect in community, to be well remembered.
The Book of Proverbs • Wisdom’s advice on the way to success: hard work, discipline, study, piety, good manners, careful use of language, sexual propriety, etc. • Prov. 2:20-22 – way of the upright vs. way of the wicked. • Prov. 3:1-2 – wisdom’s reward: length of days and abundant welfare. • Prov. 6:6-11 – lesson of the diligence of the ant vs. laziness of the slacker. • Prov. 10:4, 26 – slack hand vs. diligence; laziness irritates one’s employer. • Prov. 11:12-13 – belittling another vs. silence; gossiping vs. keeping confidence. • Prov. 5:1-23 – sexual fidelity, avoiding adultery (the “strange” woman). • Prov. 16:23; 18:7, 21 – mastering the tongue. • Prov. 23:29-35 – avoiding drunkenness. • Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 15:33 – fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. • Personification of Wisdom • Prov. 9 – Lady Wisdom is depicted as a beautiful, alluring woman, inviting the simple ones to come eat her bread and drink her wine; contrasted with Dame Folly, depicted as “strange/foolish woman,” seducing them to taste her forbidden fruit (cf. Prov. 7). • Prov. 8:22-36 – Personified Wisdom speaks; she is the first of God’s creation and the “master craftsman” by which God made heaven and earth; becomes background for Logos concept in John 1:1-18.
Book of Job • Story of the protests of a suffering righteous man – challenges traditional wisdom assumptions that suffering results from wickedness. • Authorship and date of writing • Gives impression of great antiquity (most folk literature does), but also shows points of contact in language and theme with post-exilic period. • No way to identify author; no reference within the book. • Structure of book shows signs of having been edited – composition by stages. • Prologue (Job 1-2) and epilogue (42:7-17) are prose; central section is poetic. • Prose – patient Job; poetic – impatient/demanding Job. • Prose – traditional wisdom; poetic – speculative/questioning wisdom. • Postexilic author/editor may have taken ancient folk story and inserted dialogue material into it.
Book of Job • Structure and content of the book • Prose prologue 1-2 • Job’s lament 3
Book of Job • Structure and content of the book • Prose prologue 1-2 • Job’s lament 3 • Conversation with 3 friends 4-31(3 cycles, the last incomplete) • Friends – espouse traditional wisdom: Job suffers because he sinned. • Job – protests his innocence; demands audience with God so he can plead his case. • Elihu speeches 32-37(breaks pattern, probably added)
Book of Job • Structure and content of the book • Prose prologue 1-2 • Job’s lament 3 • Conversation with 3 friends 4-31(3 cycles, the last incomplete) • Elihu speeches 32-37(breaks pattern, probably added) • Dialogue with God 38:1-42:6 • God parades mystery of creation before Job: takes humans out of center; there is no simple cause and effect humans can understand. • Job repents and acknowledges his finitude. • Prose epilogue 42:7-14 • God declares the friends wrong and Job right. • Restores Job’s fortunes twofold.
Book of Job 4. What is the message of Job? • Does anyone serve God for nothing? • Does God rule justly? • Is there such a thing as innocent suffering? • Why is there suffering? (theodicy = study of the problem of evil) • Traditional wisdom: because you made bad choices. • Deuteronomist: because you sinned. • Job: challenges these traditional theories but offers no alternative. • For some inscrutable divine purpose. • For no discernable reason whatsoever. • How do I react to suffering? • Prologue – patient Job of calm acceptance. • Poetry – impatient, angry, demanding Job.
Ecclesiastes“All is vanity and chasing after the wind” • A wisdom teacher’s quest for the meaning of life • Finds little of lasting worth (all is vanity). • Like Job, this is speculative/skeptical/critical wisdom – challenges simplistic assumptions of conventional wisdom. • Title of the book • Hebrew: Koheleth = lit., “one who gathers / assembles” (information or students), i. e. “a teacher.” • Septuagint: Ecclesiastes = “one who gathers / assembles.” • Luther: Der Prediger = “the Preacher” (followed by KJV). • Author • Traditionally attributed to Solomon (1:1, 12; 2:9). • Calls himself Koheleth, “the Teacher” (1:1, 2, 12; 2:9; 7:27; 12:8, 9, 10) – anonymous wisdom teacher who assumes role of Solomon to conduct “royal experiment.” • Date of writing – late Persian or early Hellenistic period (350-250 BCE).
Ecclesiastes“All is vanity and chasing after the wind” • Thesis: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:2; 12:8). • Vanity = hebel – lit., “vapor,” “breath,” “puff of air.” • Becomes metaphor meaning fleeting, temporary, ephemeral, transient. • Or, futile, absurd, meaningless. • “Vanity of vanities” is superlative: the most vain thing of all; everything is “utter vanity.” • Preface states thesis (1:2-11) • “What do people gain from all their toil?” Koheleth is searching for meaning of life, something of permanent value. • Finds nothing: Life is in perpetual motion, yet there is nothing to show for it, no profit, no net gain. • Rest of book demonstrates this conclusion.
Ecclesiastes“All is vanity and chasing after the wind” • A “royal experiment” (1:12-2:26). • Posing as “Solomon,” Koheleth claims to have tried everything and found nothing that satisfies (1:12-18). • The testing of pleasure, work, wealth, and fame (2:1-11). • The testing of wisdom (2:12-17). Same fate befalls wise and foolish. • Conclusion: despair – there is no gain from all one’s efforts (2:18-23). • Consolation: The best one can do is simply to “eat, drink, and find enjoyment in their toil” – enjoy life and toil as God gives it (2:24-26; cf. 3:13; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7)
Ecclesiastes“All is vanity and chasing after the wind” • Five main themes in Ecclesiastes • Wisdom cannot achieve its goal. • God is remote. • The world is crooked. • Death cancels everything. • Pleasure commends itself.
Ecclesiastes“All is vanity and chasing after the wind” • Epilogue (12:9-14) • Perhaps added by a pupil of “the Teacher.” • Pays tribute to Koheleth’s wisdom: his words are like goads – sharp, hard to take, but ultimately useful. • V. 13-14 tend to soften Koheleth’s skepticism and make book more acceptable.