The Cultivation of Wisdom
from Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament,
Suggested Scripture Readings:
Pr 1-3, 10-11
Links will be added soon
What Is a Wisdom Book?
The International World of Wisdom
The Origins of Wisdom in Israel
The Way of the Wise
The Book of Proverbs
The Book of Job
The Book of Ecclesiastes
The Book of Wisdom
The Achievement of Wisdom
What Is a Wisdom Book?
The wisdom writings of the Old Testament include a wide variety of books that are often overlooked by modern readers but reflect a very important side of Israel's religious faith. The ancient respect for wisdom is well-illustrated by an incident recorded in 2Sm 15-16, in which David's son Absalom led a revolt against his father. David was dismayed to hear that his chief advisor and wise man, Ahitophel, had gone over to his son's side. David begged God to confuse Ahitophel's talents because "the counsel (wisdom) which Ahitophel gave in those days was as if one went to consult God. For that was how both David and Absalom considered the counsel of Ahitophel" (2 Sm 16:23).
The wisdom books differ among themselves in both style and subject matter, but they all have in common certain characteristics which set them off from other biblical books:
(1) a minimum of interest in the great acts of divine salvation proclaimed by the Torah and the prophets;
(2) little interest in Israel as a nation or in its history;
(3) a questioning attitude about the problems of life: why
there is suffering, inequality and death, and why the wicked prosper;
(4) a search for how to master life and understand how hu mans should behave before God;
(5) a great interest in the universal human experiences that affect all people and not just believers in Yahweh;
(6) a joy in the contemplation of creation and God as Creator.
At times, wisdom seems decidedly secular in its outlook. Many of the sayings in the Book of Proverbs have no relation to faith in God at all. What atheist could not agree with Pr 10:4, "Lazy hands make a person poor, while active hands bring wealth." The same theme of secular optimism and confidence can be seen in the story of Joseph in Gn 37-50. Indeed Joseph never receives any word of revelation from God. He judges and acts wisely, and in the events around him he perceives the plan and wisdom of God.
These qualities appear in some degree or other throughout the Old Testament. But a few books can be specifically labeled "wisdom" because they maintain a consistent focus on the intellectual reflection about life's problems, the quest for universal truth, the rules for life, and the nature of created reality before God. These books are:
(3) Ecclesiastes (or more properly in Hebrew, Qoheleth)
(4) Ecclesiasticus (or, in Hebrew, Jesus ben Sira, or Sirach)
(5) The Wisdom of Solomon
To these should be added the Canticle of Canticles (So of Songs). Although it lacks the questioning-type wisdom, it values the beauty of creation and expresses confidence in human life and capacity for happiness. Certain psalms also must be classified with the wisdom literature: Ps 1, 19:8-15, 37, 49, 73, 111, 119, and perhaps others as well. Many scholars have pointed to strong wisdom elements in the prophetic books, especially Isaiah and Amos. Both prophets use typical wisdom expressions and are concerned with knowing God's counsel or plan, but only in a general sense. Besides these, there are echoes of wisdom thinking in such passages as the Garden of Eden story in Gn 2-3, the life of Solomon in 1 Kg 3-11, the Joseph narrative of Gn 37-50, and the Book of Daniel.
The International World of Wisdom
This special wisdom tradition is not unique to Israel. In fact, the evidence points to the opposite: Israel borrowed and learned its wisdom questions (but not its answers!) from other nations of the Ancient Near East. There are collections of proverbs from Sumeria and Babylon that date before 2000 B.C. Many sound like their counterparts in the Book of Proverbs. A Sumerian example says, "A chattering scribe- his guilt is great!" while Pr 18:13 reads, "He who answers before listening- that is folly and shame." Assyrian literature produced large collections of fables about trees and plants, and meditations on the sufferings of the just person and the meaning of God's justice. The most famous is the poem, "I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom," in which a man tries to figure out why God has punished him with suffering:
If I walk the street, fingers are pointed at me,
My own town looks on me as an enemy;
My friend has become a stranger,
In his rage my comrade denounces me (ANET 596).
In these and other lines, the poem is so similar to the Book of Job that many refer to it simply as a "Babylonian Job." Another work is sometimes referred to as a "Babylonian Qoheleth," because it explores the question of theodicy (the problem of God's relation to the innocent person who suffers evil) so thoroughly. Since Babylonian wisdom was well-established long before Israel existed, we must conclude that many biblical authors borrowed common wisdom themes when writing their own books.
Egypt also provides a large body of wisdom writings. The favored style was a father's advice to his son on how to get ahead in life. The most famous is probably The Instruction of the Vizier Ptah-Hotep. In it, an aging prime minister passes on to his successor (his "son") the rules for success: "If thou art one of those sitting at the table of one greater than thyself, take what he may give when it is set before thy nose!" (ANET 412). Compare this to Pr 23:1, "When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you!" The much later Instruction of Amen-em-opet (eighth-seventh centuries B.C.) has many proverbs that are found in a similar form grouped as a unit in Pr 22:17-24:22. Pr 22:24 says, "Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man," while Amenemopet commands, "Do not associate to thyself the heated man" (ANET 423).
THE WISDOM OF AMEN-EM-OPET AND PROVERBS 22- 24
One of the closest parallels between Egyptian and Israelite Wisdom is found in the Instruction of Amen-em-opet and the collection of proverbs in Pr 22:17-24:22. Both date to the same period of history, sometime between 1000 and 600 B.C. Some of the closer parallels:
Amen-em-opet chap. 1
Give your ear and hear what is said,
Give your heart to understand it.
Putting them in your heart is worthwhile.
Bend your ear and hear the words of the wise;
apply your mind to my knowledge,
for it will be a delight
if you guard them within you.
Amen-em-opet, chap. 6
Better is bread when the heart
is happy, than riches with sorrow.
Better is little with Fear of the Lord,
than great wealth and trouble along with it.
Amen-em-opet, chap. 18
One thing are the words said by men,
Another thing is what the god does.
The plans in the mind of a man are many.
But it is God's purpose that will prevail.
While the exact relation between Amenemopet and Pr 22-24 is not known, it seems probable either that the biblical authors had the same collection, or else that both the Egyptian and biblical writers were copying from an earlier source they both knew.
This international sharing of wisdom helps explain why Israel's wise people gave so little attention to Israel's own beliefs and dogmas. They had joined the larger and more universal search for the meaning of human life.
The Origins of Wisdom in Israel
Two major sources for Israel's interest in wisdom have been suggested by scholars. One is the family. The lists of proverbs, in particular, often dwell on the relations of parents and children, education, and moral instruction of the young. Here and there we find special evidence that fathers passed on golden nuggets of
experience to their children. Dt 32:7 has, "Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will explain to you." Pr 4:3 tells us, "When I was a boy in my father's house, still tender and my mother's only child, he taught me and said, 'Take my words to heart!'"
A second source would be formal education, especially in the royal administration. No one doubts that some education took place at home, but a professional class of wise men (and women) would require formal schools. Both Sumerian and Babylonian societies had schools where young boys learned how to be scribes to prepare them for careers in the royal court or the temples. The Bible itself indicates that Israel had its professional scribes like other nations: Ch 27:32-33, Pr 25:1, and Sirach 38:24-39:11. There are indications that there was even a special class of wise counselors that would be called on by the king (see 2 Sm 15:31; 2 Sm 16:15-17:23; 1 Kg 12:6-7). In this, Israel followed the lead of other nations. The Bible often refers to the wise men of Edom and Egypt, Tyre and Assyria (e.g., Ezk 28:3-4; Jr 49:7).
The king himself was considered to be the chief possessor of wisdom and judgment in the kingdom. David is called wise in 2 Sm 14:20 and Solomon is famed for his wisdom.1 Kg 3-11 describes his reign as the model of the royal wisdom. He first asks God for wisdom above wealth or power (1 Kg 3) and then judges accurately and wisely in the case of two mothers claiming the same child (1 Kg 3). His temple and its beauty are considered the product of his wisdom (1 Kg 6-8), and the rulers of the far corners of the world, such as the queen of Sheba, come to hear his wisdom (1 Kg 10). Even his government of the country is portrayed as wisely ordered (1 Kg 4). The authors of his story have included a summary of Solomon's complete mastery of wisdom in 1 Kings: 4:29-34:
God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding and insights as numerous as the sand on the seashore. Solomon's wisdom was greater than all the wisdom of the East and of the Egyptians. He was wiser than any other person- wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread among the surrounding nations. He composed three thousand proverbs and one thousand and five songs. He described plants from the cedar of Lebanon down to the hyssop that grows on the walls. He taught about animals, birds, insects and fish. And people came from all parts of the world, sent by the kings of every nation who had heard of his wisdom, to listen to the wisdom of Solomon (In Hebrew,1 Kg 5:9-14).
There is no complete statement in the Old Testament that actually says someone made his living as a teacher of wisdom, but it is highly probable. A passing remark of Jeremiah places the wise on the same footing as priests and prophets:
Then they said, "Come, let us plot against Jeremiah, for the teaching of the law will not disappear from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet" (Jr 18:18).
Although it may be hard to prove exactly what a professional wise person did full-time, there are enough hints to put together a reasonable sketch. Wisdom sayings are directed to the educated, and education was usually restricted to the upper classes socially. The philosophy of life in wisdom books often reflects the concerns of people with money and those concerned with preserving political stability. The women mentioned in the Book of Proverbs seem to have the leisure time for study. And in general, the concern with good speech, skill in writing, proper manners, and career planning describes the ruling elite in Israel.
When David created an empire as large or larger than almost any other nation of his time, he had to find skilled diplomats, record-keepers and administrators quickly. This meant building a bureaucracy of scribes and political advisors from scratch. Under David and Solomon, a new burst of literary creativity took place, which included the first written story of Israel's faith, the J document. It also meant the founding of schools and the cultivation of wisdom as an art. In many early biblical passages, the word "wise" is used for skilled carpenters and craftsmen. From the time of the Davidic monarchy on, the real skill of the wise was in the field of education and statecraft.
The Way of the Wise
Wisdom literature uses many distinctive literary forms such as the proverb, the riddle, and fables. These are especially common in the Mesopotamian and Egyptian wisdom writings, but only the proverb is common in Hebrew. One or two fables occur in the Bible
(Jg 9:8-15; Ezk 19:10-14), and a single, complete riddle (Jg 14:12-18), but none of these is in the Wisdom books. A few proverbs probably were recited as riddles, and most of these occur in a small collection of the "Sayings of Agur" in Pr 30. One example is:
There are three things that are never satisfied,
four things that never say, "Enough!":
The grave, the barren womb,
the land which never has enough water,
and fire, which never says, "Enough!" (Pr 30:15-16).
One can imagine the teacher asking the question, and the students reciting the four answers, or even adding other possible variations.
The proverb was an important element in Israelite wisdom, as it was in other ancient nations, for it distilled the lessons of the past, of human experience that seemed to be always the same, and it did so in a practical and clever manner with a little bit of the sermon about it for teaching purposes. This was ideally suited to a society which learned by memory and had only a few educated professionals who actually read books. One of the best illustrations of how effectively a society can live by proverbs is found in James Mich-ener's novel, The Source. In chapter 7, "In the Gymnasium," he has created a confrontation between a Jewish elder who seems to speak only in proverbs and the educated, reasonable Greek governor of the small town. The traditional values of Jewish faith are able to withstand the allure of Greek culture represented by the governor because they have been so deeply absorbed by means of the proverbs that fill the mind of the Jewish elder (see page 496 below).
The love for proverbs is a love for capturing the difficult problems of experience as well as the ordinariness of life in a new and interesting way. It helps to explain the other literary means adopted by the wise in Israel. They frequently used dialogue formats such as occur in the Book of Job, or question and answer exchanges, as in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Comparisons, allegories, and long images from nature are sometimes found, and the teachers always enjoyed rhetorical questions for dramatic effect. These are all means of instruction. Above all, theirs is an educational outlook. And when not using one of the clever literary forms, they fell back on the straightforward lesson plan. Pr 1-9 is almost entirely written in such a teaching style with twelve or thirteen separate lessons in all.
Because these proved to be such an effective method of educating people to both the traditional values and to moral reflection, the prophets often borrowed the techniques of the rhetorical question or the dialogue betweeen God and people (or prophet and people) to convey their messages. Some prophets, such as Ezekiel, used the metaphor and parable as their favored way of making a point (see Ezk 16, 17, 18, 19, 29, 30, 31, 32). But the prophet spoke directly to the covenant demands of Yahweh, while the wise concentrated on the wider questions of human experience and the problems of life. Yet they shared a common concern for the place of justice in society, personal responsibility, and the proper human response to divine command. Wisdom, prophecy and law may have followed different ways, but they had similar goals in the real life of the Israelite.
The Book of Proverbs
Solomon's reputation for wisdom was so great that Israel considered him the founder of their wisdom tradition. On the basis of 1 Kg 4:29-34 quoted above, he was believed to have been the author of the Book of Proverbs as well as The Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. Even the latest book of the Old Testament, The Wisdom of Solomon, is attributed to him. One charming legend in the Talmud guessed that Solomon had written the Song of Songs in his lusty youth, Proverbs in his mature middle age, and the skeptical Ecclesiastes as an old man.
The Book of Proverbs contains a great number of sayings whose message is as old as the civilization of the Sumerians in 3000 B.C., and there is no reason why many of these could not have been collected under Solomon's command and formed into a book. But the present book also has many later additions. One group of proverbs in chapters 25-29 are attributed to Solomon but were not written down until two centuries later in the time of King Hezekiah of Judah. Other small collections are labeled from other wise teachers and kings. Altogether, there are seven sections in the book:
(1) Chapters 1-9, labeled "The Proverbs of Solomon, Son of David."
(2) Chapters 10-22, labeled "Proverbs of Solomon."
(3) Chapters 22:17-24:22, labeled "The Sayings of the Wise."
(4) Chapter 24:23-34, labeled "Also the Sayings of the Wise."
(5) Chapters 25-29, labeled "More Proverbs of Solomon, Cop ied by the Men of Hezekiah, King of Judah."
(6) Chapter 30, labeled "The Sayings of Agur, Son of Jakeh: An Oracle."
(7) Chapter 31, labeled "The Sayings of King Lemuel: An Oracle."
The identity of Agur and Lemuel cannot be known, but the third section seems to be an adaptation of the Egyptian collection of Amenemopet, noted above. All the sections are primarily collections of individual proverbs with no absolutely clear order that governs their arrangement, except within the first section, Pr 1-9. This is a larger, planned whole with a mixture of short proverbs and long instructions. It forms a prologue to the rest of Proverbs and an explanation of wisdom as a way of life. Pr 1:7 declares the basic theme: at the heart of all wisdom stands fear of the Lord. And the author repeats it again at the end in Pr 9:10: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." This fear of the Lord is true reverence and worship, and suggests obedience to the law of Yahweh as the way to find wisdom. At the same time, the author or authors of Pr 1-9 have borrowed many early themes known from Canaariite religion, such as the woman, Dame Folly, who seduces the young searcher after wisdom, in order to illustrate their points, but the overall view is that of the post-exilic period stress on law and wisdom as one. Thus this prologue was probably added to many earlier collections only at the final stage of development of the book.
The older proverbs found in the remaining chapters can be divided between pragmatic, secular, often materialistic advice, and the specifically religious reflections on the role of Yahweh as God of Israel. This is to be expected since the wisdom teachers were eager to include the wisdom of all peoples within the vision of Israel's faith. The overall purpose of learning proverbs is to master life. And the way to life is praised endlessly: "The mouth of the just is a fountain of life" (Pr 10:11), and "He who takes correction has a path to life" (Pr 10:17). Other topics that dominate the proverbs are (1) the relationship of parents and children, especially in terms of respect for parents and discipline in education, (2) the contrast between the just and the wicked in their behavior, (3) the value of good friends and a loving wife, (4) the civic virtues of honesty, generosity, justice, and integrity, (5) personal mastery of passions and self-control, especially in sexual matters, (6) proper use of speech, including knowing when not to speak, (7) stewardship over wealth, prudence and hard work in planning for the future, (8) manners and proper behavior before superiors, and (9) the value of wisdom over foolish or careless behavior. These can be summed up in the words of a short maxim in Pr 13:20, "Walk with wise men and you will become wise, but the friends of fools will come to a bad end."
The nature of the proverb combines two somewhat opposed truths: it is evident to everyone as really so, but it is also ambiguous, and not always true in the same way in every case. Thus we can say, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," and "Out of sight, out of mind," and mean both because different aspects of our experiences are brought out by each. So, too, Proverbs was not a boring book to our ancestors, but a treasure of practical wisdom which invited reflective thought and new discoveries of its meaning, especially in light of Yahweh's revelation of his word. It revealed the order of the world God had created and God's ultimate power over it: "Man plans his ways in his mind, but God controls his steps" (Pr 16:9).
The Book of Job
The dramatic dialogue between Job and his three friends about the relation of suffering to human behavior, and Job's impassioned assault on God himself, have made the Book of Job one of the all-time favorite classics of world literature. Many modern playwrights, including Archibald Mac Leish (J.B.) and Neil Simon (God's Favorite), have used it as the basis of successful plays. Job itself is constructed like a dramatic play:
(1) Chapters 1-2 The scene is set with an old folktale about how God tested Job, who proved faithful in every case.
(2) Chapters 3-31 A dialogue between Job and three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, over the meaning of divine justice and Job's suffering, ending with Job demanding that God appear and defend himself if he is a just God.
(3) Chapters 32-37 A sudden appearance of a fourth adver sary, Elihu, who challenges both the friends and Job, and demands that they submit to the divine majesty and divine control of human events.
(4) Chapters 38-41 God himself appears and recites the power and marvels beyond human understanding that show Job's demands for justice to be arrogant. Job submits twice.
(5) Chapter 42:7-17 The final act of the old folktale in which God restores Job to his greatness and attacks the friends for accusing him.
The outline shows some of the inconsistency in the book from a modern logical point of view. The folktale in sections 1 and 5 has nothing bad to say about Job, but condemns the friends, while the dialogue sections present the friends as defenders of God and have God himself correct Job for his pride. As a result, we can detect two quite separate sources to the book. The prose folktale in chapters 1-2 and 42:7-17 was an older and quite legendary story of a wise man whom God tested and found faithful. A later author, unknown to us, composed the rich and profound exploration of human innocence and suffering, divine power versus a man's search for meaning, that creates the wisdom book as we now have it. Possibly a still later author inserted the remarks of Elihu in chapters 32-37 to prepare for God's speech in chapters 38-41.
The author had the courage to move beyond simple acceptance of God's will to ask hard questions of the traditional and overconfident wisdom so often found in Proverbs and sometimes in the prophets. If God does look after the just, and does always punish the wicked, as the friends claim, why does the opposite seem to be our real experience, in which evil people prosper from their deeds and the honest person never gets ahead (Jb 21:7-17) ? In many ways the author is writing a parody of the smug prophets and wise teachers who assure people that everything will be all right. But the book explores a still deeper question of how one who is faithful ever comes to know God or understand his or her relationship with God. Most of Job's long speeches are concerned with either the silence of God or Job's desire for a "right" relationship with God based on justice and mutual terms. Ultimately, the harsh reply of God destroys this hope- no one relates to God on a basis of justice or equal rights. God gives himself by means of his law and his revelation that we are to obey. For this reason, the author inserted a special poem on wisdom in chapter 28 that breaks up the dialogues but makes the firm point that no one can find the way to wisdom; only God knows it and he has given it to humans through reverent worship: "Behold, the fear of the Lord is wisdom" (Jb 28:28). But worship is also the means of knowing God face-to-face. As Job finally admits, "I had only heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you" (Jb 42:5).
Job was a well-known figure of wisdom, perhaps like Paul Bunyan in the legends of Minnesota. Ezekiel suggests that he was as famed for his justice as Noah (Ezk 14:14, 20). Thus the use of the old folktale as an opening both establishes the agony of Job's situation and makes it clear that God controls what happens. This permits the author to put on Job's lips words and ideas that might shock many Israelites. The happy ending relieves the bad taste such attacks on divine goodness have created, and shows in the form of a drama how one man can grow and change his mind by learning wisdom. Other ancient peoples also explored these questions of suffering and faith. They even came up with roughly the same answer of faithful trust in the greatness of God. The Babylonian work, "I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom," ends with the command, "Creatures endowed with breath... as many as there are, glorify Marduk!" (ANET 437). The author of Job has created a version that places these fundamental human questions within Israel's belief in Yah-weh. The final form most resembles the great psalms of lament with (1) their threefold cry of human pain and lament, (2) their call for help to God, and (3) their promise to praise God forever. Ultimately from the midst of doubt and questioning, Job teaches us, conies trust.
The Book of Ecclesiastes
No one has ever challenged the Book of Ecclesiastes' right to the title of the most skeptical book in the Bible. Ecclesiastes, also called Qoheleth, has a unified approach to the value of wisdom: pessimism. While Proverbs sought to provide guidelines on what to do and not to do, and confidently summed up the way to wisdom as "fear of the Lord," Ecclesiastes has its doubts whether such confidence has any basis in human experience. The author's theme song is sounded at the beginning and again at the end of the book, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity- and a striving after wind" (Eccl
Qo 1:2, Qo 1:14; Qo 12:8). Futility and emptiness result from the constant human search for the meaning of life. He is particularly aware of the useless attempts to understand the mystery of divine purpose behind the order of the world as it is, the tragic finality of death, the reasons for success and failure, and the justice of rewards and punishment for good and evil behavior. These are beyond our capabilities to discover.
The word Qoheleth is Hebrew for a "preacher," "head of the church assembly," or something similar, although no other example of the word exists in the Bible. The more traditional title of the book, Ecclesiastes, is nothing but a direct Greek translation of the Hebrew word. That the author was Solomon is implied by the first verse when it says Qoheleth was the son of David in Jerusalem, but cannot be taken as fact. The book shows the development of Israelite thought that comes after the exile, especially in its doubts about old answers and its attacks on the rational approaches of Greek thought that began to influence the Near East at that time.
The book has much in common with other wisdom literature, however. The author undertakes the investigation of experience at all levels, and asks questions about creation, justice, the wise versus the fool, just and unjust, and even quotes a large number of proverbs that he actually thinks will work in life. But certain things are clear to him that others have never allowed. While admitting that God does direct all things, he insists that we cannot know what God is doing or why, and so our proper human response is to enjoy what God gives us now and use it the best we can. As Qo 5:17 puts it: "Here is what I understand as good: it is well if a person eat, drink and enjoy all the fruits of work under the sun during the limited days that God gives to one's life, for this is a person's lot." For Qoheleth, everything has its proper time: "a time to be born and a time to die... a time to weep and a time to laugh" (Eccl 3:2-4), but the "why" is known only to God and not to us. His advice to enjoy life as it is may not seem very religious, but he tempers it with warnings "to fear God" (Eccl 5:6).
The Jewish rabbis fought a long time over whether the book was fit for the sacred canon of Scripture. The positive decision was made possible because Solomon was thought to be the author, and an editor added a pious afterword in Qo 12:9-14 that summed up his message as "fear God and keep his commandments" (Eccl 12:13). It was fortunate that they recognized its inspired nature, for it teaches the great gulf between the transcendent God and our human striving to understand and so control him. In the
end, Ecclesiastes' message is one with that of Job- trust and surrender yourself to God's loving care even if you cannot know where it will lead.
The Song of Songs (The Canticle of Canticles)
The third book attributed to Solomon is the Song of Songs, mainly because his name is mentioned in chapters 3 and 8. In both cases he seems more of a model to follow than an author, and we can safely say that the famous king did not write these songs. Like so many other wisdom books, The Song of Songs shows signs of being worked and reworked through many centuries. At the oldest level are love poems, perhaps wedding songs, many of which could go back to the time of Solomon. At the latest level are Persian and Greek phrases that indicate additions made after the exile. There seem to be hints of a dialogue between a young lover and his beloved (bride?), and perhaps even a chorus of the daughters of Jerusalem. At least the tradition of identifying different speakers goes back to the Greek translations before the time of Christ. But there is not enough unity among the different songs to say more than that it is a collection extolling the undying power of love between two people.
The close parallels between the language of The Song of Songs and Arab wedding songs from Syria were discovered in the late nineteenth century. The wedding customs included a dance with a sword by the bride on the day before her wedding in which she described her own beauty (So 1:5; So 2:1). For the week after the wedding, the couple is treated as a king and queen with much feasting and still more songs extolling the bride's beauty (So 4:1-15; So 5:10-16). Such village customs last over many centuries and can help us discover the original setting and use of the Song of Songs. The religious use of such love songs may even go back to hymns and ceremonies surrounding the sacred marriage rituals of the Canaanite followers of Baal. Certainly, Israel was not the only ancient nation to sing the beauties of the female body (and sometimes of the male). We have examples from both Babylon and Egypt (see ANET 467-69), and Ps 45 is also a wedding psalm.
But the lusty nature of the songs gave scandal to many of the Jewish rabbis, and as late as the second century A.D. they still had not fully agreed that the book should be in the sacred canon. One of the deciding factors was the belief that it described allegorically the love of Yahweh for Israel as a beloved bride. The Christian Church accepted it quickly for the same reasons- it could easily describe in allegory the love of Christ for the Church, or for the soul of the believer. St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century wrote a great number of sermons on the Song of Songs describing the love of Christ for the soul and the mystical union that came from this love. They have become the classic source of such a mystical spirituality. Other Christian writers of the Middle Ages saw an allegory of Christ's love for his Blessed Mother. In all of these cases, the later interpretations have gone far beyond the original Old Testament book with its rather graphic description of sexual love as a joyful and positive ideal. But they also underline the power of the book to lead people in all ages to discover that love, sexuality, and creation are gifts of God's goodness.
THE SONG OF SONGS AS A WEDDING SONG COLLECTION
Researchers studied Arab village life in the late 19th century to find parallels to the ways of ancient Israel that might still be carried on almost unchanged through the intervening centuries. One remarkable parallel to the Song of Songs was the custom of singing a wasf, which was a wedding song about the beauty of a bride's or groom's body. Compare the following Syrian wedding song with Cant 7:1-4:
Syrian Wedding Song
Her teeth are like pearls,
Her neck like the neck of an antelope,
Her shoulders are firm,
Her navel like a box of perfumes
with all spices flowing from it;
Her body like strains of silk,
Her limbs like firm pillars.
Your thighs rounded like a jewel
are the work of a master hand.
Your navel is a rounded bowl
that is always filled with wine.
Your belly is a stack of wheat
surrounded by lilies.
Your breasts are like two fawns,
the twins of a gazelle.
Your neck is like an ivory tower.
Your eyes like pools in Heshbon.
Sirach is the longest of the wisdom books with fifty-one chapters. It is a mixture of proverbs and lengthy essays on major themes
within the wisdom tradition: use of speech, self-control, evil friends, the value of work, death, sickness, etc. Unlike Proverbs, it tends to group many sayings on the same topic close together: chapter 9 treats women, chapter 4 discusses the duties to parents, and chapter 19 deals with the proper use of speech. Between these discussions, Sirach has grouped reflections, hymns, poems and essays on (1) the value of wisdom and (2) how to obtain it. These are spaced throughout the book (chapters 1, 14, 24, etc.) but appear most dramatically at the end in a long recital of Israel's history which the author calls "In Praise of Famous Men." It stretches from chapters 44 through 50 and describes all the important Old Testament figures as wise men. At the same time, the author's interest in priestly matters and Torah is apparent from the large amount of space he gives to Aaron and priests after him.
The book can be divided into two major parts, chapters 1-24 and 25-50, with an appendix in chapter 51 that serves to summarize the book- it is a hymn in praise of wisdom. Other than the large groupings of sayings by certain themes, there is no real order to the book. The author identifies himself only at the end of chapter 50, but luckily his grandson translated the original into Greek and wrote a preface that gives us the one known date for a wisdom book. The youth arrived in Egypt in 132 B.C. and soon after translated his grandfather's book from Hebrew. That would place the writing of Sirach between 190 and 175 B.C. For many centuries it was thought to be only in Greek in the Septuagint. But a partial copy of the Hebrew original was found at the end of the last century hidden in a synagogue storeroom in Cairo, and another when archaeologists excavated Masada in Palestine in 1964. A few fragments also turned up at Qumran in 1947. Despite this evidence that first century Jews in Palestine used Sirach, it was never accepted into the Jewish canon because it was not from the time of Ezra or before. Its popular name in Church circles, Ecclesiasticus, "The Church Book," might also be a factor. The Christians liked it all too well in their catechetical instructions for Jews to be at ease with it.
Above all, Sirach stresses the ethical aspects of everyday life. He exalts the role of law and fear of the Lord as true wisdom. As a result, wisdom becomes tamed, and the wild questions of a Job and Qoheleth are no longer heard. But he does recognize a God of compassion, the ambiguity and uncertainty of human life, and the limits to human knowledge. Wisdom can be attained, but it is in the form of guidelines for human action, and not in speculation.
The Book of Wisdom
The Book of Wisdom is known only in Greek and may be the last book of the Old Testament to be written. It makes use of the philosophical arguments found in Philo of Alexandria and other Jewish writers in the Greek world of Alexandria, Egypt in the first century B.C., and employs many Greek oratorical devices of the same period. The book can be divided into the following major sections.
Chapters 1:1-6:21 Justice and wisdom under the eye of God brings victory and immortality to the just.
Chapters 6:22-11:1 Solomon's praise of wisdom for its unmatched value.
Chapters 11:2-19:5 A long review of the history of Israel up to the exodus as evidence of God's mercy on Israel.
Chapter 19:6-22 Concluding psalm in praise of wisdom.
The three major sections blend well together. The first ten chapters are quite conservative in seeing the goodness of wisdom in creation as a gift of God that has been specially revealed to Israel, and in accepting the attitude that God punishes evildoers and rewards the just. The author seems to have little or no interest in the problem of innocent suffering presented by Job, or in the understanding of what God wants raised by Qoheleth.
The main interest of the author is to reassure the Jewish community living in Egypt that keeping their faith is worthwhile despite the hardships in a pagan land. To achieve this, the author describes the mercy of God during the first exodus from Egypt as a symbol of hope for his own times. He even provides a long insert, or aside, in chapters 13-15, on the foolishness of pagan idolatry to show that it is not as profound as Jewish law. The book builds its case with much repetition and rhetorical overkill. The great events of the Old Testament become the object lessons of various philosophical approaches to wisdom. For example, the list of wisdom's attributes (Ws 7:22-30) tries to use deep philosophical terms but succeeds in making wisdom so abstract that it clashes with the Israelite tradition of wisdom as practical and concrete:
In her is an intelligent, holy, unique, many-sided, subtle, agile, clear, pure, certain keen... spirit. For wisdom is mobile beyond all motion.... She is an aura of the might of God and a pure effusion of the glory of the Almighty (Ws 7:22-25).
The Book of Wisdom stands out from previous wisdom writings in Israel by its intense concern with two themes: (1) salvation history as a lesson for learning wisdom, and (2) immortality as an explanation of how God rewards the sufferings of the just. If it is not the most profound of wisdom books, it does throw light on the struggles of Judaism in the Greek and Roman eras to preserve its heritage of faith in the midst of alien values and to fight pagan ideas by means of their own arguments.
The Achievement of Wisdom
Few readers give the wisdom books as much attention as they do the law or the prophets, but it must be remembered that wisdom lasted much longer than the prophetic movement as a central part of Israel's life. At the dawn of the national state with David and Solomon, wisdom already had a long tradition that could be taken over for structuring how Israel was governed. The prophets Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah frequently borrowed wisdom's insights for their messages. And in the post-exilic period when prophecy failed, wisdom reached its peak. Its international character allowed it to borrow from the best of other cultures and to adapt the most difficult questions of Israel's belief to new and deeper answers.
Some of wisdom's major achievements can best be listed rather than described at length:
(1) The importance of order for understanding God's creation and the role of humans within his plan. Order governs proper manners and ethical behavior and it explains the role and limits of everything known.
(2) The importance of cause and effect. Acts have conse quences, and moral decisions for good or evil reap their rewards. Everything has its reason, and often what seems unexplainable can be explained by analogies to common experience.
(3) Time is important. Israel's sense of history was strongly oriented to the future, while most pagan nations were oriented toward the ideal first moment of creation in the past. Time moved on for Israel and God would always act again at his chosen moment. Thus nothing was ever hopelessly lost because of the past. Indeed, Israel, could be labeled simply as a "people of hope."
(4) God is revealed in creation. The beauty and order of nature teach us lessons about God and give us confidence that we can trust our experience. God gives special knowledge of himself in the law, in the prophets and in historical events, but these must be measured against wisdom's discovery of order and meaning to show how reasonable Israel's faith is.
(5) Wisdom reveals that the transcendent mystery of God actu ally interacts in the world by its use of personification. Usually pictured as a woman, wisdom invites us to find her in the world through the life of worship and obedience to the law. Several major passages actually treat wisdom as an independent being, often called a hypostasis (in Greek), that stands by God's side, comes into the world, and speaks to humanity (Pr 1:20-33; Pr 8:22-31; Si 24:1-31; Ws 9:9-11; Jb 28:1-28). While it is not likely that Israel thought of wisdom as a real divine being, its description as a person signified that God truly communicated himself and his plan to the world and that he could be heard and understood by humanity in personal relationship.
(6) Suffering has some meaning. It is either the consequence of evil done, disciplinary correction from God, or a testing of faith to deepen it. Based on experience, the wise affirmed that evil does not pay in the long run. Their answers to the mystery of why good people suffer were not adequate, yet neither are modern answers; but they did understand and teach that all things are in the hands of a good and merciful God.
(7) Life is positive. Creation is good because it is from God and it is orderly and under control. If misfortune happens, there is an explanation- and there is hope. We can rely on the lessons of experience to plan for the future, but above all we should enjoy what God gives in life.
(8) Humans are responsible for the world and are made co- creators with God (Gn 1) and his deputies over the earth (Gn 2). They must exercise this wisely and prudently according to God's plan.
(9) The divine plan is known by wisdom to be a gift beyond human control or total understanding. Fidelity to the revelation of the law is more true to wisdom than is human intelligence trying to figure it out. More than knowledge, wisdom is the person of God who asks us to imitate him (Lv 19) and be in his image and likeness (Gn 1:26). Thus wisdom is above all ethical, and "fear of the Lord" requires honesty, humility, justice, etc.
(10) Finally, wisdom knows its limits. God's thoughts are beyond our understanding, and we must not challenge the basic structure of the universe and attempt to make God conform to our expectations. The basic virtue of the wise is trust, and on that trust is based our firm commitment to Yahweh for better or worse.
Wisdom does not stand opposed, therefore, to the teachings of the Pentateuch or the lessons of the prophets. It serves to unite teaching and reality, to integrate the ideals of faith into the practical experience of everyday doubt and uncertainty. And above all, it helped Israel understand that their faith in Yahweh spoke to the concerns of everyone in the world and had a universal message that was not to be kept hidden only in Judah.
1. How would one describe a Wisdom Book? How are Wisdom books different from other biblical books? What Old Testa ment books may be classified as Wisdom Books?
2. Is wisdom tradition unique only to Israel?
3. What are the origins of wisdom in Israel?
4. Describe some literary forms found in Wisdom literature.
5. What is contained in the Book of Proverbs?
6. What takes place in the Book of Job?
7. Describe the content and characteristics of the Book of Qohe- leth (Ecclesiastes).
8. What is the Song of Songs? What are its distinctive features? Why does disagreement exist over whether this book should be included in the canon?
9. Briefly describe Sirach (Ecclesiasticus).
10. How could one describe the Wisdom of Solomon? What are its approach and major themes?
11. What are some major achievements of the Wisdom Books?
Wisdom Literature p. 13