Old Testament 102: How wisdom might fit into existing Biblical Theologies

Brueggemann and Goldingay’s approaches to wisdom identified a worthwhile second peg in Biblical Theology theology that is often ignored in favour of focusing on salvation or redemptive history, bringing the issue of creation – what we are created to be/how we are created to live – into the mix. This approach puts the wisdom literature largely into the category of how we should live as people in God’s creation – but I’d suggest that the wisdom literature has a role to play in redemptive history. Because, as I’ve posted previously, I think the wisdom literature was part of an international wisdom dialogue, and that it put forward wisdom grounded in YHWH as true wisdom. Israel had a covenantal obligation (see Gen 12) to bless the nations. I think Solomon’s wisdom, as described in 1 Kings 4-10, is where we see that blessing most fulfilled in the Old Testament, and the linking of the wisdom corpus to Solomon’s reign provides a handy interpretive key with regards to its purpose. This doesn’t do away with the two poled creation/redemption approach. It’s not an either/or thing. To suggest that the Wisdom Literature only had one function or purpose and only has one way of being integrated with understanding the big picture is to create an unjustifiably false dichotomy.

Two of the problems that have caused the wisdom literature to be seen, as Brueggemann calls it, as the embarrassing step-child of the Old Testament, are its similarities to other Ancient Near Eastern wisdom, and the apparent presentation, in Proverbs, of a retributive “you reap what you sow” theology. Some scholars have suggested that Proverbs is so different in outlook to Job and Ecclesiastes that they can only be considered to have arisen in protest to this retributive idea. It’s very possible that this protest question is going to come up in the exam for the B Th people… so I’ll post my essay answer to that question again shortly.

I think that rather than being a problem for figuring out the Wisdom Literature, its similarities with other writings from the time and place are part of the answer. To touch on my current “big idea” – we’re used to the idea that part of the Genesis account is written directly to address other ANE creation accounts (the Gilgamesh Epic and Enuma Elish), and as I mentioned in my post on the Old Testament law and women last week, the laws in Leviticus are very similar to laws governing the same legal issues in contemporary cultures (just nicer, and designed to help Israel be “set apart” from their neighbours). So why do we get to the wisdom literature and go “oh no, it’s similar to the other nations” and then see this as a problem. Perhaps the Biblical wisdom literature seeks to address the influence of wisdom literature from other cultures on the people of Israel. Perhaps, in the light of the account of Solomon’s rule, it also seeks to participate in an international wisdom dialogue, and maybe it’s even presenting a philosophical apologetic for subscribing to Israel’s religious system to her neighbours… Norman Whybray, Bruce Waltke, and Christopher Wright have suggested there was an international wisdom conversation going on around the time the wisdom literature was emerging in Israel, Proverbs contains, by its own admission, wisdom from foreign kings, collected by Solomon (and others), and the account of Solomon’s reign in 1 Kings includes him giving his better wisdom to surrounding nations (as fulfillment of Genesis 12 – which is the intention of the 1 Kings narrative (Goldsworthy).

Most scholars are quick to dismiss the idea that Israel stole wisdom from other countries willy-nilly as it sought to develop its own social identity, but few explain the presence or influence of foreign wisdom in the Bible. Other than to suggest that all wisdom is developed out of observations of the same world. All agree that Hebrew wisdom deliberately creates a monotheistic distinction from conventional ANE thought. This deliberate distinction, not the similarities, should provide the most fruit for understanding the relationship between similar works.

Wright suggests Israel’s wisdom thinkers and writers took part in an international dialogue “with an openness to discern the wisdom of God in cultures other than their own,” and that such comparisons lead to the conclusion that there was “a lot of contact between Israel’s wisdom thinkers and writers and those of surrounding nations.”

Tying the wisdom literature to Solomon’s reign – the guy who built the temple, and reached the nations – seems to be a pretty good way to bring it alongside redemptive history, as primary documents from the time when Israel was at its peak… and its not doing an injustice to the text – because Proverbs and Ecclesiastes both present themselves as linked to Solomon, and most scholars acknowledge that the wisdom movement flourished under his reign.

Wright (2006) suggests “any wisdom that is associated with Solomon must be connected with the Solomonic tradition that God should bless the nations in their interaction with Israel.”

Here’s where I think that leads (from my essay):

Solomon participates in an international wisdom dialogue with foreign leaders, judges justly, and blesses the ANE world in fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise (Genesis 12:3), in the manner envisaged by the Psalm 72. His international focus is evident in his prayer dedicating the temple contains an international injunction (1 Kings 8:41-43). It is also feasible to assume that the description of Solomon’s collection of wisdom crossed national boundaries.

The aspects of his reign that I would suggest have bearing on our interpretation of biblical wisdom are as follows:

1. An interaction with the ideas of the nations and their rulers and wisdom, and thus with the religious beliefs of the nations (1 Kings 4:29-34, 1 Kings 10:23-24)
2. A theological focus, and corrective of international wisdom, based on the “fear of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:43).
3. A desire to see the nations come before Yahweh, recognising his rightful position as creator of the world and the basis of wisdom and righteousness (1 Kings 8:41-43, 59-61, 1 Kings 10:9, Psalm 72).

The reference to Solomon’s wisdom “surpassing that of Egypt and the wisdom of all the men of the east “ (1 Kings 4:30) invites us to compare Israel’s wisdom with the nations, and it is therefore feasible to expect similar interactions between wisdom literature linked to Solomon and the wisdom literature of the ANE.

The biggest difference between the Biblical wisdom literature and that of the surrounding nations is the centrality (at least in the final form of the texts, but I’d argue also in their fundamental purpose) of the concept of the “fear of the Lord” – it’s an important theme in Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as in Proverbs. And it’s indelibly linked to salvation history.

The “fear of Yahweh” is a touch point of Jewish orthodoxy synonymous with faithful obedience (Deuteronomy 4:10; 5:29; 6:2, 13, 24; 10:12, 20).

The phrase occurs throughout Proverbs (Proverbs 1:7, 2:5, 9:10, 10:27, 14:27, 15:16, 15:33, 16:6, 19:23; 22:4; 23:17, 31:30, and an injunction to “fear the Lord” occurs in Proverbs 1:29; 3:7; 8:13; and 24:21), it occurs almost exclusively in the passages tied to Solomon (Chapters 1-24), and does not appear in those collected under Hezekiah.

The passages linked most strongly to other ANE wisdom writings fall in passages attributed to Solomon. Those passages are either directly proceeded by, or followed by, a reference to fearing Yahweh (Proverbs 22:4, Proverbs 24:21, and Proverbs 23:17).

The phrase is also used to contrast with the teaching of wise (Proverbs 13:14) and the fear of Yahweh (Proverbs 14:27), with both considered as the “fountain of life.”

Retributive theology was a big concept throughout the Ancient Near East. And you can read Proverbs as advocating such a position, if you remove any notion of God (and some scholars go so far as to suggest that the Fear of the Lord is an addition by a pious sage wanting Proverbs to be more Godly – Von Rad is one of them). But Waltke suggests that any Proverbs that lend themselves to this interpretation should be considered in the broader scheme of the book, and are likely to be eschatological.

The idea that Job and Ecclesiastes stand in conflict with Proverbs is popular modern wisdom scholarship, and some have tried to identify retributive theology in the ethics of the prophets, suggesting it played an important role in Jewish theology. Any concept of retributive theology legitimately found in the Old Testament is carefully grounded in the will of Yahweh, and is usually the fruit of a promise. I would suggest this view actually describes the purposes of the wisdom authors in addressing ANE conceptions of reality.

Here’s the bonus bit – from a comment from my dad in response to one of yesterday’s posts:

“Can I suggest that there’s lots of Deuteronomic content in Proverbs, particularly relating to the blessings of living under covenant in the land? It’s often observed that Proverbs is overly idealised, and ‘over promises.’ But I’d suggest, no moreso than the blessings of Deuteronomy would lead you to expect. In fact, if you allow for an allegorical reading of the “son” material as referring to Israel, who is not to prostitute himself to other gods, Proverbs is (arguably) just saying that ‘all the Deuteronomic blessings will be yours if you remain faithful.’ Conversely, there are clear exile warnings in the early chapters of Proverbs, which also fit it neatly into the Deuteronomic schema. From there, it’s a simple step to building it into the metanarrative of a Biblical Theology. (Theory Part B – It’s all integrated by Hosea, who was one of Hezekiah’s men, as specified in Proverbs as those who ‘gathered and Solomon’s teaching.’) Hence, there are heaps of proverbial statements in Hosea, and echoes of Hosea’s “Israel as son” theology in Proverbs.)”

So there’s another response to the idea of protest that seems plausible, and also ties the wisdom literature to redemptive history… Here’s what I reckon is going on, from the conclusion of my essay:

“I propose that the wisdom literature adopted and critiqued the wisdom conventions of surrounding nations in the same way that Israel’s historians adopted and critiqued stories of creation and the flood from the ANE and contrasted them with an account grounded in the actions of Yahweh. A true understanding of wisdom, like a true understanding of history, is grounded in understanding Yahweh’s involvement in the world, not in its ANE equivalents. If the wisdom literature is an apologetic for Yahweh as the author of life, in a deliberate comparison with other ANE gods, and if this apologetic occurs in the context of an international wisdom conversation, then it was both didactic for the people of Yahweh, and a declaration to the nations. “

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

3 thoughts on “Old Testament 102: How wisdom might fit into existing Biblical Theologies”

  1. I remember reading articles by Goldingay and Schultz and concluding that we don’t have to try to work the wisdom lit writings into a redemptive historical framework.

    That’s what I argued in the exam too. It was liberating. I said that there are 2 streams running side by side throughout the OT.

  2. Here’s an email I sent to a friend of mine in 88 when he asked me the same question.

    “I’ve had a look back over my papers and, as usual, I didn’t take notes. But I remember reading the following 2 articles before the exam. (I didn’t even copy them. I read them straight out of the journal)

    1. Goldingay, J. “The ‘Salvation History’ Perspective and the ‘Wisdom’ Perspective within the context of Biblical Theology.” Evangelical Quarterly, 51(1979): 194 – 207.

    2. Schultz, R. L,, “Unity or Diversity in Wisdom Theology? A Canonical and Covenantal Perspective.” Tyndale Bulletin 48(1997): 271 – 306

    The Schultz article was straightforward and simple. The Goldingay article is where the mnoney is. Fascinating and, for me, cogent and persuasive.

    Have an eye on Goldsworthy’s view to play him off against Goldingay.”

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