Old Testament 102: Some more on protest in the Wisdom Literature

That last post probably makes more sense in the light of what the other wisdom books say about retributive theology, here’s the bit of my essay that directly proceded the stuff from Waltke:

Internal Protest

Von Rad (1972) suggests Jewish wisdom presupposed Yahweh as the “order underpinning creation” who would only act at last resort.[1] In order to reach this view he inexplicably dismisses Proverbs that call for trust in the Lord (Proverbs 3:5; 14:26; 16:3, 20; 18:10; 19:23; 28:25; 29:25; 30:1-14). The extreme version of this view reduces God to a deistic first-cause with a hands-off approach to creation,[2] and in this view the Yahweh of Proverbs functions the same way as the gods of the ANE.[3]

A retributive “reap-what-you-sow” theology is bound to result in disappointment in a broken world. Seemingly good people suffer, protest literature exploring this disappointment is common in the ANE.[4] Whybray suggests Israel’s protest literature was not unique, and not dependant on foreign works.[5]

This view of protest within the canon has become popular in modern wisdom scholarship,[6] and some have tried to identify retributive theology in the ethics of the prophets, suggesting it played an important role in Jewish theology.[7] Any concept of retributive theology legitimately found in the Old Testament is carefully grounded in the will of Yahweh,[8] and is usually the fruit of a promise.[9] I would suggest this view actually describes the purposes of the wisdom authors in addressing ANE conceptions of reality.

Ecclesiastes and Wisdom

If Ecclesiastes is understood as a protest against the mindless pursuit of wisdom characterised by the “wisdom movement” typified by the statement in 8:16-17, then this has been interpreted as a critique of Proverbs’ embracing of wisdom “Wisdom is supreme, therefore get wisdom” (Proverbs 4:7).[10]

However, it is possible that both statements reflect two sides of the same coin if they are read in the light of the “Fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:6, Ecclesiastes 12:13). Qoheleth’s objection to the wisdom movement must then be understood as a rejection of the wisdom movement as it exists in the ANE.[11]

Job and Retribution

Job maintains his blamelessness in the face of his friends, who clearly advocate a doctrine of retribution (for example Elihu’s words in Job 34:4-9).[12] His words in 9:22 speak out against such a doctrine, and his views on Yahweh’s rule of the world, and his own righteousness, are vindicated when Yahweh rebukes the friends because they have “not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7,8), dismissing any possible inkling of an acts-consequences nexus.

A major theological purpose of Job seems to be to overturn retributive theology,[13] theology that is commonplace in the ANE,[14] and not as clearly advocated in Proverbs as some suggest.[15]


[1] Von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, p 191

[2] Waltke, B, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ Andrews University Seminary Studies, Autumn 1996, Vol. 34, No.2, pp 333-334 citing Huwiler, E.F, “Control of Reality in Israelite Wisdom” (Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University, 1988), p 64

[3] Whybray, N, ‘The Social World of the Wisdom Writers,’ p 246, Blenkinsopp, J, Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament, p 46 suggests the acts-consequence nexus is an unhelpful hangover from Israel’s adaptation of ‘old wisdom’.

[4] Dell, K.J, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1991), p 38

[5] Whybray, N, ‘Two Jewish Theologies,’ p 181

[6] See Morrow, W.S, Protest Against God, pp 129-146, Dell, K.J, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, pp 35-56, Shaking A Fist At God: Insights from the Book of Job (Ligouri: Triumph Books, 1995), pp 37-66, Enns, P, Inspiration and Incarnation, pp 74-82

[7] Hubbard, ‘The Wisdom Movement,’ p 11 citing Gerstenberger, E. ‘The Woe-Oracles of the Prophets’, Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962) 249-263

[8] Lucas, E, ‘The Acts-Consequences Nexus,’ p 8 suggests any character-consequences nexus in Proverbs is not the result of an impersonal order, but rather the “will of Yahweh.”

[9] Israel’s occupation of the Promised Land was certainly linked to their righteousness – cf Deuteronomy 30.

[10] Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, p 78

[11] Crenshaw, J.L, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, p 24 suggests Qoheleth’s rejection of observing signs is a rejection of Mesopotamian wisdom, and p 26 suggests his embrace of life as opposed to suicide contrasts with Egyptian and Mesopotamian skepticism.

[12] Some have suggested that Job’s friends are representatives of the wisdom movement, or that all the characters are sages, Perdue, L.G, Wisdom Literature: A Theological History, pp 90-91, Zimmerli, Walther, ‘Expressions of Hope in Proverbs and The Book of Job,’ Man and His Hope in the Old Testament, Studies in Biblical Theology, SCM Press, London, 1971, pp 16-19, When confronted with Job’s plight, Eliphaz calls on Job to return to God, Bildad links righteousness and hope, and Zophar demands Job turn to righteousness. For Zophar the question is straightforward, if Job’s fortunes are in tatters then his righteousness is in question (Job 11), that the friends’ understanding of the underlying order of things, Dumbrell, W.J, The Faith of Israel, p 259 suggests the dialogues “explores the limits of traditional wisdom” before turning to an understanding of the world centred around Yahweh’s controlling interest.

[13] See Dell, K.J, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, pp 35-56

[14] Dell, K.J, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, p 39, Blenkinsopp, J, Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament,’ p 48 suggests retribution was a common theological belief of the ANE.

[15] For example, Dell, K.J, Shaking A Fist At God, p 40, Dell suggests Job’s friends draw their theological inspiration from Proverbs.

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.