Old Testament 102: Wisdom and Biblical Theology (an attempted answer)

Right. Here goes. This is my attempt to synchronise all of those posts on wisdom literature and the Old Testament the way I’d approach answering a question about how wisdom fits into Biblical Theology. I haven’t fact checked any of this – I put it together from memory. Under “exam conditions” except that I typed it, so it took about half the time to write that it will tomorrow…

The Wisdom Literature has presented a dilemma for scholars seeking to integrate it into popular Biblical theology framework – Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes contain no obvious allusions to redemptive history, especially to touchstones such as the covenant and promise fulfillment (especially the Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 12). A further challenge is presented by the appearance of a strong dependency on the wisdom literature of other Ancient Near Eastern nations, similarities that have prompted some scholars to treat the wisdom literature as an errant step-child of Old Testament theology.

Von Rad and Eichrodt were the first 20th century scholars to have a bash at piecing a theology of the Old Testament together, and both struggled to find a place for the Wisdom corpus in their ideas of redemptive history and covenant fulfillment. Von Rad even dismisses the most natural link in Proverbs to this redemptive work – the reoccurring phrase “the fear of the Lord” on the basis that it is simply an adoption of ANE wisdom through a monotheistic lens. I would suggest that the “Fear of the Lord” is a unifying theme of the wisdom books (reoccurring throughout Proverbs, and bookending Job and Ecclesiastes) – and rather than being the result of redaction, that it serves to locate wisdom alongside the covenantal responsibilities of Israel. Where the law establishes the floor of Israelite behaviour, the wisdom literature, in understanding how humans were created to live, establishes a goal for God’s people to strive for.

Goldsworthy, Brueggemann, and Goldingay have suggested worthwhile approaches to integrating the wisdom literature into Biblical Theology, approaches Wilson describes, and critiques at some length.

Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Wisdom suggests the “Fear of the Lord” and a linking of the wisdom literature to a wisdom movement patronized by King Solomon (ala the account of his reign in 1 Kings 4-10) provides fertile ground for understanding where wisdom fits into redemption history, and in particular into his rubric of God’s people, living in God’s place, under God’s rule. The wisdom movement, which emerged under Solomon’s reign, sought to understand how God’s place (creation) worked, and thus how best to live under it.

Christopher Wright goes a step further – suggesting that the wisdom literature was part of an international wisdom conversation, and that the 1 Kings account of Solomon dispensing wisdom to the nations is a fulfillment of the Genesis 12 promise of blessing on foreign nations. He suggests the link to Solomon expressed in both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes should be read with this in mind. This perhaps explains the presence of ANE wisdom both overtly (in the case of Proverbs, which includes contributions from foreign kings) and covertly (in similarities between the wisdom literature and contemporary documents – eg Ecclesiastes and the Gilgamesh Epic).

This approach highlights one approach traditionally used to bring the wisdom literature inline with the Old Testament – seeking to find elements of the redemption story in the wisdom literature (eg the link between the “Fear of the Lord” and Deuteronomy 4, and the explicit conclusion of Ecclesiastes that true wisdom is to fear the Lord and keep his commands), and to find elements of wisdom literature in other Biblical texts – an approach that Crenshaw has advocated for understanding such texts as the Joseph Narrative, and the book of Esther. Wilson suggests that Crenshaw takes his conclusion a bridge too far, wanting to see those accounts purely as wisdom when in fact wisdom is simply a part of the picture.

A second, no less fruitful approach to theologizing wisdom is that promoted by Brueggemann and Goldingay – Brueggemann suggests a dialectic approach, with twin poles of creation and redemption sitting at the heart of Old Testament theology, the wisdom literature then naturally explores God’s creation, and what it means to live within it. Goldingay proposes four pillars for approaching these poles – realizing that we live in a world that God created, realizing that the world God created needs redemption, understanding that we are called to live redeemed lives in the creation, and understanding that our hope is in redemption, or new creation – these four points provide a framework that can easily include the law, the prophets, and the wisdom movement.

There is no reason that both approaches will not find rich interactions between the wisdom movement and the rest of the Old Testament – where the Fear of the Lord and a Solomonic fulfillment of the promises of Genesis 12 help tie the Wisdom Literature to the people of the covenant, while the attempts of the books to help us understand the created order go some way to instructing God’s people in how to best live redeemed lives in his creation.

Old Testament 102: Just what is the go with Daniel?

Talk to anybody from the more “loony fringe” side of Christianity and if their favourite book of the Bible isn’t Revelation, it’ll be Daniel. Daniel has all the hallmarks crazy people look for – cool stories, cool symbolism that can be taken literally, and figurative descriptions of political entities that can be interpreted, or reinterpreted, in order to negatively describe just about any political institution that has developed in the last 2,000 – 3,000 years.

Daniel’s dating is a pretty hot topic amongst scholars, most, if not all, have now settled on a date somewhere in the second century B.C, which makes Daniel the last book (chronologically speaking) of the Old Testament, and gives us some picture of the kind of thinking happening in Israel 100-200 years pre-Jesus.

The M Div/Grad Dip question in the exam is likely to focus on the question of meaning in Daniel – and my lovely wife wrote a most excellent essay on Daniel’s genre, which overlapped substantially with the question of meaning. So this post is largely dependent on that work.

She settled on a definition of Daniel’s genre as satire in the first half, with a healthy dash of apocalyptic style in the second half – this means Daniel functions largely as a rebuke of foreign rulers, those who are oppressing Israel, and an affirmation of God’s rightful place with regards to those rulers.

Robyn’s essay says:

“Daniel is God’s assertion of his authority over foreign kingdoms and all who reject him.”

Daniel’s genre has huge ramifications on its meaning – and the genre is notoriously different to nail down. A guy named Valeta suggests 32 different genres have been identified for Daniel. Almost everybody thinks chapters 7-12 are apocalyptic. A satirical reading, as advocated by Valeta, requires a 6th century narrative setting, with a second century composition. Part of the argument for a second century dating is an assumption that Biblical prophecy is not as predictive as chapters 7-12 appear to be (which is an interesting assumption). There are, however, a few historical inaccuracies in the account of Israel’s history in 1-6 which make a satirical reading seem plausible.

Historical inaccuracies include the silence of 2 Kings concerning the siege of Jerusalem in the third year of Jehoiakim (Daniel 1:1),14 the lack of evidence for the historicity of King Belshazzar, Darius the Mede, or Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity. Second-century apologists also cite literary evidence such as the use of the term “Chaldeans,” and a bunch of Persian and Greek loan words as evidence for a later date of composition than the 6th century.

Here are some thoughts from Robyn’s essay about the dating and predictive prophecy:

On the issue of predictive versus descriptive interpretation, particularly in light of Daniel 8:23-25 and 11:3-45, evangelical second-century supporters ask not “could God prophecy?” rather “would God do it?” and “did God do it?” To which Collins (1993) replies “there is no apparent reason… why a prophet of the sixth century should focus minute attention on the events of the second century.” Goldingay (1989) adds that such specificity is inconsistent with God elsewhere in scripture for, “he does not give signs and reveal dates. His statements about the future are calls to decision now; he is not the God of prognosticators. He calls his people to naked faith and hope in him in the present, and does not generally bolster their faith with the kind of revelations that we are thinking of here.”

While it’s possible that some of these points rest on assumptions that may or may not be provable, it comes down to a question of balancing the pros and cons of both datings – and the application of the book if it is a late composition (God is more powerful than oppressive foreign rulers) is possibly or greater worth than the application of an early dating (be like Daniel). While this isn’t a great rubric for deciding between two options, none of the assumptions in the paragraph above are any less plausible than those put forward by sixth century advocates. And a satirical reading actually does away with a bunch of the objections (the book seems to be quite conciliatory to foreign rulers at face value).

Longman pushes a sixth century dating, as almost the lone scholarly horse in that race (though he may even be shifting – but I haven’t read his alleged shift yet).

Longman’s (1999) historical reading of Daniel finds the first six chapters as “deceptively simple stories of faith under pressure,” in which Daniel is a clear and encouraging figure to emulate. Longman recognizes the second half of the book as the prophetic visions of Daniel, the message of which are “in spite of present appearance, God is in control.”

Goldingay suggests the court tales narratives of Daniel 1-6 “portray a God who rules in heaven who is also sovereign over the realm of death, who is active in the past and trustworthy for the future.”

Valeta defines the function of satire within this court tale setting as:

“Satire is more than “linguistic and rhetorical cleverness,” it bears “a serious side that can be used to indicate judgments against individuals and institutions and to highlight reversals of status and importance.”

He argues that Daniel fits the criteria for Menippean satire, a serio-comedic precursor to the novel that was studied and defined by Bakhtin. Bakhtin characterises
Menippean satire with fourteen characteristics, all of which are present in Daniel.

Elements of satire include, “comic elements; a freedom of plot an philosophical inventiveness; a use of extraordinary, fantastic situations or wild parodic displays of learning to test the truth; some combination of both crude and lofty imagery, settings, and themes; a concern for ultimate questions; scenes and dialogue from the earthly, heavenly, and netherworldly realms; observation of behavior from an unusual vantage point; characters who experience unusual, abnormal moral and psychic states; characters who participate in scandals, eccentric behavior, and/or inappropriate speech; sharp contrasts and oxymoronic combinations;
elements of social utopia; a variety of inserted genres within the work; a multi-styled, multi-toned, or multi-voiced work that is dialogic based on inserted genres, voices and languages; and a concern with current and topical issues.”

The purpose of the book, employing a satirical reading, is the deconstruction of “kingly authority and power in favor of God’s authority and power” and in this way acts as resistance literature to the regime of Antiochus IV, and as such, the book is a cohesive work, characterized by “a consistent and persistent message of judgment.”

Chapter 1 is vital for establishing the genre of the book…

Here, a narrative reading would identify verse 8 as the lynchpin, honoring Daniel’s faithfulness and Jewish distinctiveness. Satire, however, may suggest verse 17, identifying God as the source of Daniel’s wisdom. Furthermore, irony is at work, undermining of the king’s power and dominance; firstly that his victory and looting occurs only because God allows it (Daniel 1:2); secondly, his unsuccessful and superficial attempt to limit God’s power through the changing of the captive’s names (Daniel 1:6, 17-20);45 and, finally, the negotiation and approval of Daniel’s request for vegetables and water proving favorable (Daniel 1:8-16). Additionally, the food episode is hyperbolic because of the profundity of the change in a short period of time.

What Menippean Satire looks like:

“Menippean satire is frequently characterised by fantastic, or otherworldly aspects. Such displacements from reality are frequent in Daniel51 and “shift the viewpoint from normal everyday reality to the unexpected and the divine.” It is used to mock its target and confront political and social norms. In Daniel, “these stories are humorous, ultimate expressions of the crowning and decrowning of authority that is so characteristic of the carnival and menippea. The stories of Daniel 1-6 reinforce again and again the critique of the accepted norm of relationship between the powerful and the powerless, representing the realities of the true authority that comes not from earthly power but by divine fiat.”

There is plenty of irony present in the narrative.

“Furthermore, the cry ‘O king, live forever!’ which resonates throughout is heard when the king is at his weakest. In the midst of the confusing dream of a grotesque tree (Daniel 2:4), at the dedication of the absurd state (Daniel 3:9), when being manipulated by his officials (Daniel 6:6), when kneeling beside the lion pit (Daniel 6:21) and, perhaps most amusingly, it is uttered by the queen when the king was ‘weak-kneed’, or had lost his bowels, before his dinner guests (Daniel 5:10). When read through a satirical lens, such a refrain, which has a facade of positive assertion for the king, is used for ridicule and mockery. To similar effect are hyperbolic multiple-synonyms lists of government officials, citizens, and musical instruments (Daniel 2:2, 6, 10, 27, 37, 40, 46; 3:7, 10, 15; 6:7, etc.) and outlandish actions (Daniel 2:12, 3:19).”

The presence of two languages in the manuscripts –  Aramaic, and Hebrew, suggests a satirical reading.

“The ‘official’ language of the royal court, is used in some very ‘unofficial’ ways’ such as paronomasia, repetition and consonance.” Aramaic itself is used to ridicule the king.”

Some concluding thoughts:

“Satire asserts the theme as condemnation for all who reject God’s rule; it enthrones God as supreme ruler and gives prominence Daniel’s prayer as a right response to God’s kingship.”

“God’s judgment is clearly evident in the apocalyptic chapters, particularly in the vision of the Ancient of Days and Son of Man (Daniel 7:1-13). It clearly attests to the destruction of earthly kingdoms and the inauguration of the eternal kingdom (Daniel 7:23-28).”

“The case for a satirical reading of Daniel is compelling. It negates the need for historical accuracy, a stumbling block for advocates of a historical and prophetic-apocalyptical reading. It gives meaning to the countless absurdities, ironies, wordplays and comedic elements that other readings brush over. Daniel conforms to the linguistic stipulations of Menippean satire, making sense of the interplay of voices, mixing of style, language and elements to create a piece that is both comic and serious, episodic and unified.”

Old Testament 102: Meaningful “meaningless” – An exploration of הבל in Ecclesiastes

The Hebrew word “Hebel” has a pretty broad semantic range – meaning that translating it as “meaningless” is just one of many potential meanings. Literally it means “breath” – but its use in Ecclesiastes is metaphoric.

Scholars are divided on how best to translate it – Fox, in a 1986 article in the Journal of Biblical Literature, settled on “absurd,” Waltke in his Old Testament Theology settled on “nonsense,” Provan, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes chose a “fleeting breath,” while Kidner, in his commentary chose “airy nothingness.”

Provan recognises a bit of circular reasoning involved in the process – Hebel is not used this way in the rest of the Bible, and to understand the way it is used we must understand Ecclesiastes, but to understand Ecclesiastes we need to understand the function of Hebel.

Fox, comments on the difficulty the word presents:

No one English word corresponds exactly to the semantic shape of hebel as Qohelet uses it, but it is possible to render the word by an equivalent that comes close to representing its range of meaning and that bears similar connotations. The best translation equivalent for hebel in Qohelet’s usage is “absurd, absurdity… The essence of the absurd is a disparity between two terms that are supposed to be joined by a link of harmony or causality but are, in fact, disjunct. The absurd is an affront to reason, in the broad sense of the human faculty that looks for order in the world about us.

Barry Webb’s Five Festal Garments follows the NIV’s “meaningless” translation, but agrees with Eugene Peterson that the notion of trying to pin down an exact translation of the word is futile. Peterson says “various meanings glance of its surface as the context shifts.”

Webb and Peterson suggest the word serves to demonstrate Qoheleth’s role as a debunker:

“He will not tolerate pretension or allow anything to appear more solid or satisfying than it really is. In a delightful image coined by Peterson, he uses hebel like a broom to sweep away all our illusions.”

Webb comments on the structure of the book, demonstrating a unity within the “frame” – “The body of the book is framed by a superscription, a thematic statement, and an opening poem at the beginning, and three corresponding elements in reverse order at the end: closing poem, same thematic statement, epilogue.”

He sees the internal structure of the book as a series of observations and instructions – hebel occurs 23 times in these observations (out of 38 times in the book). In the observations it is almost always used in a stereotyped conclusion: “This too is hebel.”

Hebel appears as a negative refrain, a “chasing after the wind” eight times. The observations made are to back up the introductory thesis that everything is meaningless.

Webb believes that ultimately hebel refers to the universality of death – it doesn’t matter what we achieve, we’re going to die. He says that’s part of the purpose of representing Solomon’s works and achievements as meaningless – it’s not his apostasy, as the prophets suggest, but his mortality, that makes his great wisdom altogether hebel.

Webb suggests that the writer of Ecclesiastes has Genesis 1-11 in mind as he writes, and that Hebel is not a simple fact, but a reference to the judgment God has placed on the world, a manifestation of the fall.

“The special contribution of Ecclesiastes is to insist on the presence of Hebel as a universal datum of human experience which must be acknowledged, and to rule out of court any kind of wisdom that refuses to do this – even if its practitioners claim to be disciples of Solomon. It guards wisdom against unreality.”

Kidner, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes, suggests the “mere breath” of Ecclesiastes is a desperate and ominous description of that which is slight and passing. He thinks the doubling effect common in references “vanity of vanities” is a parody of “holy of holiness” – and thus utter emptiness stands in contrast with utter holiness.

Kidner both suggest the phrase “under the sun” is the key for defining the scope of the “hebel” statement – it’s not life under God, but life without him.

It is a phrase almost as common as “meaningless” – occurring nearly thirty times in the book. Others have suggested a temporal notion that goes with the phrase – that it means this lifetime, in this place.

Webb suggests that the “under the sun” is not exclusively used to exclude God from the picture.

“What is significant, however, is that the verdict of hebel is consistently maintained, whether God’s involvement with the world is on view at a particular point or not. Belief in God does not relieve the observed and experienced fact of hebel.”

Kidner believes that theologically, we need to read Ecclesiastes in the light of the epilogue to appreciate its place in the canon, and the nature of the discussion.

Webb suggests that the epilogue reintroduces the frame narrator, who seeks to put Qohelet’s thoughts into perspective. He suggests that the epilogue points to the one thing that remains when the searching of wisdom ends in frustration – the Fear of the Lord, which consists of keeping his commandments.

Andrew Shead makes an argument from the text itself, studying the form, and grammar to make a case for unity in style between the epilogue and the rest of the book, suggesting a single author, and a single voice. At this point, Tremper Longman’s objections that Ecclesiastes is a pagan book with no real redeeming features except the opening and closing statements fails to take into account Qoheleth’s purpose as identified by Kidner and others.

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.

Old Testament 102: Waltke on Protest and the Acts-Consequences Nexus

I mentioned previously that the question of protest in Job and Ecclesiastes, against the retributive “acts-consequences nexus” possibly put forward by Proverbs, might crop up in the exam for the B Th people. I took a pretty round about approach to suggesting I don’t think protest against Proverbs is what’s going on in those books, but I do think they are written to protest against a purely “retributive” view of the world (especially such a view that ignores God, and his faithfulness to his promises).

The Problem with the proverbial Acts-Consequences Nexus

Waltke (1996) rejects what he perceives as three common aspects of the internal protest theory:

1.      Solomon was a dullard who failed to understand reality

2.      Proverbs contains promises that are not true

3.      The aphorisms within Proverbs present “probabilities not promises.[1]

Treating the book as a cohesive unit, rather than treating its aphorisms as axioms, radically countermands all three of these positions. This approach produces a balanced view of the world without an absolute law of cause and effect.[2] It is possible that Proverbs dealt with the “ends of life” rather than the means, and further that it dealt with the eternal consequences of temporal decisions (Proverbs 12:28).[3]

There are several proverbs (Proverbs 15:16-17; 16:8, 19; 17:1; 19:22b; 22:1; 28:6) that explicitly link righteous acts with poverty, and criminal acts with wealth, and others focus on failures of justice (Proverbs 10:2; 11:16; 13:23; 14:31; 15:25; 18:23; 21:6, 7,13; 19:10; 22:8, 22; 23:17; 28:15-16, 27).[4] These fly in the face of this acts-consequences concept,[5] most importantly, is the notion in Proverbs 15:16, that the “Fear of the Lord” can be coupled with having little, and that this is better than wealth.

Suggestions of an acts-consequences nexus may result from an under-realised eschatology. Proverbs suggests the consequences of righteous or wicked decisions may not come until the end of life (Proverbs 11:4,7, 18, 21, 23, 28; 12:7, 12; 14:32; 15:25; 17:5; 19:17; 20:2, 21; 21:6-7, 22:8-9, 16; 23:17-18; 24:20). The eschatological view point of Proverbs is best articulated in 24:14-16,[6] and 12:28, which Waltke suggests contains a promise of immortality.[7] The absence of such an undertone in Ecclesiastes and Job is a result of their more temporal concerns.[8]

This eschatological concern is uncommon in the Old Testament.[9] But securing a place in the afterlife was a primary concern of Egyptian wisdom. Egypt’s wisdom schools were called “Schools of Life,” for this reason.[10] Egyptian wisdom presented the gods of Egypt as subjects to the established order,[11] and the afterlife as tied to living life in accordance with ma’at.[12] Proverbs holds that Yahweh created, and controls this order,[13] and man’s hope is found in fearing him.[14]

The evidence for “protest” against conventional wisdom is strong in Job and Ecclesiastes,[15] but it is plausible to suggest Proverbs was not the target.[16] A simple reductionism of the works into a battle between optimism and pessimism will no longer suffice.[17]

Here’s my favourite sentence from my essay (because I got to use the word zeitgeist which is a cool word)…

The people of Israel had a predilection for harnessing themselves to the international theological zeitgeist, a propensity typified by their well-documented struggle with idolatry, and their geographical position as a political football between Assyria and Egypt meant they experienced a socio-political identity crisis, so it is likely that the primary function of any critique of foreign theology was internal.


[1] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?, pp 322-325

[2] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom: A reappraisal of the historical and canonical function of Ecclesiastes, (Eisenbrauns, 2006), p 15

[3] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ pp 323-327, Lucas, E, Proverbs: The Act-Consequence Nexus, forthcoming, p 4

[4] Van Leeuwen, R.C, “Wealth and Poverty: System and Contradiction in Proverbs,” Hebrew Studies 33 (1992): p 29, Lucas, E, Proverbs: The Act-Consequence Nexus, forthcoming, p 7 suggests these “better than” Proverbs

[5] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 326

[6] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 326

[7] A position adopted by the NIV but not the ESV, Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much,’ pp 329-330

[8] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?’, p 327,  notes “they are concerned with events under the sun and focus on the righteous man flattened on the mat for the count of ten; they do not focus on his rising, though they do not rule that out.”

[9] So much so that questions are raised as to whether Israel had any concept of an afterlife. It is fair to say that the notion of a resurrection had developed by the time Paul used it to split the Pharisees and Sadducees – so it is not an idea completely foreign to Old Testament theology. A case could, perhaps, be made for Job’s apparent change of heart regarding “retribution” (Job 27) to be attributed to an eternal view of the world and judgment coming at death.

[10] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?’, p 328 citing Crosser, W “The Meaning of ‘Life’ (Hayyim) in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes,” Glasgow University Oriental Society Transactions, 15 (1955), pp 51-52

[11] Wright, G.E, The Old Testament Against Its Environment, Studies in Biblical Theology, (London: SCM Press, 1950), p 44

[12] Sinnott, A, ‘The Personification of Wisdom,’ p 41 – Ma’at is important for personal immorality and the “entire basis for the Egyptian understanding of the world”, however, Fox, M.V, ‘World Order and Ma’at: a crooked parallel,’ suggests Ma’at is not a cut and dried “retributive” system

[13] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 333

[14] Zimmerli, ‘Expressions of Hope in Proverbs and The Book of Job,’ p 24

[15] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom, p 35 suggests that the “apparent distinctive thoughts of Qoheleth” have common ground with Ancient Near East wisdom well before the exile.

[16] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom, p 16 suggests the wisdom movement is Job’s target, and that the story of Job demonstrates that God is not subject to the retributive system that had been “established by the sage.”

[17] Waltke, B, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 323, Nonevangelical academics, tend to pit the optimism of the so-called older wisdom represented in the Book of Proverbs against the pessimism of the so-called younger, reflective wisdom represented in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.”

Old Testament 102: Wisdom and biblical theology

Following up on yesterday’s summary of approaches to integrating wisdom and Biblical Theology, Wilson discusses integrating Wisdom Literature with Biblical Theology following Bruegemann and Goldingay.

Brueggemann proposes a dialectic approach to Biblical theology – using the poles of creation and redemption. Goldingay develops this idea, suggesting that while Salvation History is a prominent strand in Biblical revelation we can focus on it at the expense of baby and bathwater, neglecting stuff like how God interacts with nature, how he interacts in day to day life, and wisdom. He makes four statements that summarise the relationship between the two poles.

1. The world God redeems is the world of God’s creation.
2. The world that God created is a world that needed to be redeemed.
3. Humans are redeemed to live again their life created before God.
4. The redeemed humanity still looks for a final act of redemption, or new creation.

Four good points. And the question “what does this passage contribute to our understanding of God’s creation and our place in it as his people” is a useful one to ask in exegesis, perhaps not quite as useful as “how does this passage demonstrate God’s plans to redeem the world through Jesus, and how do you fit in that” – but splitting them is creating a bit of an unhelpful dichotomy. They’re the same coin.

Here’s Wilson:

“The first two [points] establish the connection between creation and salvation history (or covenant), and ensure that both voices are heard. God’s pusposes are wider than the covenant people. Yet they are also focused on Israel, and effected through them.”

I like the idea that ancient wisdom movements are analogous to the later philosophies that Augustine and others before him (like Justin Martyr) suggested God’s people should pillage like gold from Egypt – truth is truth wherever it is found. How’s that for integrating different disciplines from college (actually, I like that idea a lot, and I’ll post something on it post exams – I’m working up a pretty big idea that needs to be blogged in order for me to stop dwelling on it – that’s how I roll).

“The last [point] enables us to see the incompleteness and forward looking nature of the Old Testament. The expressions of future hope that we find mainly in the prophetic and apocalyptic materials are rightly seen as part of the Old Testament core. When we read these together we appreciate some of the flow of Old Testament theology. We see the movement from creation, through God’s redeeming acts in different generations, to the future hopes variously described as redemption or new creation. This is the big picture, the broad canvas of the Old Testament.

But there’s also a smaller picture, which Goldingay recognises in point three (but which I reckon is part of the bigger picture too, because Christians living that created life before God is part of bringing people into the grander narrative)…

Wilson on Goldingay’s third point:

“Here he again recognises that both creation and redemption have a part to play – people are redeemed to live their created life before God. Daily living is not just the concern of the wisdom materials. The Torah has extensive legislation that affects everyday life. The prophets call Israel back to right living within the covenant. Yet, the Wisdom themes have a great input here, particularly in the area of attitudes and the formation of character.

Kidner’s commentary on Proverbs says that wisdom focuses on “details of character small enough to escape the mesh of the law and the broadsides of the prophets.”

Wilson likes this twin pole idea championed by Brueggemann and followed by Goldingay. But he raises two concerns with regards to the Wisdom literature..

1. This point three needs clarification – wisdom isn’t framed as a response to God’s redemptive acts but rather to creation itself [though as Goldsworthy points out the “Fear of the Lord” suggests that wisdom might be based in the knowledge of God’s position as redeemer]. Scobie is the guy who suggests that wisdom is a response to the world and the human experience. Wilson says “perhaps what is needed is a broadening of our understanding of the human response so that it includes responding to God’s redemptive acts (the law and the prophets) and to God’s order in creation (especially in the wisdom materials).

2. The connection between creation and redemption needs to be explored further – which is more fundamental? He breaks it down to the questions:

“Is the focus in the salvation-history materials on “what requirements should be imposed on the covenant community?” While that of wisdom is rather “what values should I adopt or strive for?”

A nice summary of the functions of wisdom and the law that Robyn and I worked up yesterday is that the law provides the ethical low base for how God’s people are to live, while wisdom and the laws regarding loving God, and loving your neighbour, are the high bar. It’s the way God’s people are meant to live. Ideally.

Coming up next – I’ll try to summarise the approach I landed on in my essay (which provides a function for the wisdom literature that focuses on a purpose for the wisdom literature that fits under this model, and a method of integrating the different books that doesn’t put them in opposition to one another), and I’ll, as a bonus, put forward my dad’s solution. Which I also haven’t read anywhere else.

Old Testament 102: Goldsworthy on the “Fear of the Lord”

The dedication of the Temple was a high point in Israel’s history, with it came a mood change in Israel.

“When Israel recognises the significance of the temple as the place where reconciliation and restoration to God can occur, it will be a people that fears God and enjoys the blessings of the covenant (1 Kings 8:38-40). This great benefit ill become known among the nations. Strangers will come to the temple and acknowledge God. Solomon prays that God will hear them from heaven and answer graciously so that all the nations of the earth may know his name and fear him (1 Kings 8:41-43). The coming of Sheba was the first sign of this prayer being answered.

The Fear of the Lord is not terror (it uses a different Hebrew word), it has a note of reverent awe.

In the period from Exodus to Solomon the “fear of the Lord” emphasises faithfulness to the covenant. Some examples include Exodus 14:31, and Deuteronomy 4:10.

“This fear of the Lord was to be expressed in their diligence to observe the laws of God in faithful response to his saving acts (Deuteronomy 6:2, 10:12, 10:20-21).

The “fear of the Lord” appears many times in Proverbs, and throughout the wisdom literature. But is it covenantal?

These were Israelites and although salvation history is not a theme of their writings, they were not unbelieving philosophers professing a humanistic alternative to the covenant faith. They were men of God who reached out beyond the specific content of God’s revelation and engaged in the search for knowledge and understanding of the world in the light of revelation.”

Goldsworthy suggests the phrase is a central idea to the book of Proverbs – it sums up the prologue (1:7), and is scattered throughout the book.

“The evidence, in my opinion, is that the absolute necessity of God’s revelation for right understanding of the world was constantly recognised.”

Two different Hebrew words for “beginning” are used in Proverbs 9:10, and Psalm 111:10. The one used in the Psalm can also mean “chief goal”… if this translation is adopted:

… it means that the fear of the Lord is both the presupposition of foundation, and the goal of wisdom.”

“We conclude that both the wisdom use of the ‘fear of the Lord’ and traditions concerning Solomon as temple builder and sage, point to an important connection between the Israelite concept of wisdom and the covenant of faith. This accounts for the truly distinct features of Israel’s wisdom which, while it shared many of the characteristics of the wisdom of the ancient middle eastern world, never lost sight of the revelation of the one true God…”

Old Testament 102: Wisdom and Biblical Theology (part one)

I’m wildly speculating that one of the questions on wisdom literature in next Tuesday’s exam will be on how to fit wisdom literature into Biblical Theology. One of the “main men” of biblical theology is Australia’s very own Graeme Goldsworthy. His “Gospel and…” series has laid the foundations for the Australian approach to the issue more than any other unifying ideas. His “God’s people living in God’s place, under God’s rule” maxim is a useful way to quickly come to terms with where any particular piece of the Bible fits into the broader narrative, both in the past, and in terms of eschatology.

Gospel and Wisdom is his attempt to integrate the wisdom literature (and more broadly, the wisdom movement) into the narrative of the Bible. The wisdom literature doesn’t fit easily into such characterisation because it almost completely excludes reference to Israel’s covenant obligations (I think there’s an alternative way to do it, which I’ve outlined in my six part posting of my Wisdom Literature essay. Which I’ll summarise in a later post. But you can read it starting from here.

Summarising Gospel and Wisdom is going to take a few posts. But here’s the reconstruction Goldsworthy offers for the development (and place) of wisdom literature in Israel’s history. In 17 points. There are a lot of points in here that I think sit nicely with my idea that the wisdom literature was used as part of Israel’s covenant obligation to bless the nations… but we’ll get to that.

1.     Popular folk wisdom would have emerged at various levels of society as the expression of what people learned through their life’s experiences. It is not certain what form the earliest wisdom sayings took, but the evidence does not support the idea that longer sayings developed from the one line proverb.

2.     In the period before Israel went into Egypt, education in family groups would most likely have led to the formation of sayings used in the training of children.

3.     With the development of the organized state of Israel came the recognition of men who would give wise counsel in the matter of running the country.

4.     The sages or wise men emerged as a recognizable group. It is not clear whether these were recognised as officials of government, religion or education. It has been suggested that the scribes later came to be the guardians of wisdom.

5.     Wisdom may not have been a “single phenomenon” but rather a search for knowledge and understanding pursued in various ways.

6.     Solomon was probably a patron of Israel’s wisdom movement during its heyday.

7.     Egypt and Babylon’s wisdom no doubt influenced Israel’s – but how much is a matter of some discussion.

8.     The movement to a monarchy began form a sinful desire to be like the nations (contrasted to the Judge’s efforts to bring the nation back to YHWH, sometimes spectacularly). But was eventually demonstrated to be an appropriate pointer to the coming Messiah.

9.     David is also influential in the development of wisdom, a wise woman encourages him to act wisely with regard to Absalom, she flatters David as one who has the wisdom of an angel, the same as the ability to discern good and evil (2 Samuel 14).

10. Wise men were emerging under David (good and bad counsel from counselors seems a bit of a theme in 2 Samuel). Egypt had had people performing the same functions in the time of Moses.

11. Deuteronomy 4 has already established a relationship between wisdom and the law. “Observe them carefully for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations” – who will hear about all these decrees and say “surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people”

12. The law did not cover every contingency in life – it provided a framework within which Israel had to show its responsibility before God. Had the law covered every contingency it would have showed a very different view of man.

13. Keeping the law was wisdom, but the law was not exhaustive. Israel was given guidelines in the law by which to understand and maintain relationships with God, man, and the world. But the law was never a substitute for the pursuit of wisdom. The humanness of God’s people meant much more than doing those things specifically stated in the law. The law did not tell Israel how to develop the arts, but it did put a limit on artistic endeavour (Exodus 20:4).

14. Between Abraham and David God revealed the meaning of the covenant through redemption and law – what was begun in the Exodus was finally established under David.

15. Under David and Solomon the stage is set for the flowering of wisdom – “the tutelage of the law loses its absolute status because the kingdom means the freedom to live wisely and responsibly.”

16. Wisdom grew from Israel’s beginnings, but during the formative period of salvation history it was not prominent in the life of Israel.

17. “God wants his people to live not  by a lot of rules and regulations, but responsibly and in a manner which harmonises with his kingly rule.”

Gold from Goldy: On atheism and wisdom

I’m reading Gospel and Wisdom, which I really should have read when I was writing my wisdom essay in the middle of semester, but I forgot. I really did. It was on my bookshelf. And then I ran out of words. He has this to say about atheism. I like it (I’ll be posting a lengthy interaction with the book for the benefit of my Old Testament comrades shortly). He nicely articulates a few of the arguments I like to use against atheism, and makes a few arguments that a few other Christians (Answers in Genesis) fail to take into account on questions of atheistic morality.

“What modern technological man does in a highly complex fashion is at heart no different from what man has always done. He has observed his world and tried to classify his experience as a way of getting to the underlying order of things.”

“Atheistic humanity is thus capable of using the faculties given by an unacknowledged creator, and of continuing to exercise the cultural mandate, albeit in a corrupted way. Society establishes ethical frameworks in order to limit threats to social well-being that come from within.”

“The Christian rejects this assumption of a universe which is shut up against the God of the Bible. He accepts rather, that God is self-sufficient, personal, and in complete control. While the atheist system is a closed system of cause and effect, the Christian view is a universe in which cause and effect are established by God and open to his sovereign intervention.”

“By putting man at the centre, the humanist claims to give him his proper dignity. But this assumption of the pre-eminence of man is a radically dehumanising one since he is not perceived as imaging God. The humanist sees man’s leadership in the world as the result of evolutionary accident. The Bible describes it as God-given dominion over the rest of creation.

“While the Christian accepts his responsibility to search for knowledge he knows that human effort, discovery and reasoning cannot provide a comprehensive understanding of the universe. Empirical knowledge, that which is gained by investigating the world with our senses, cannot include God or the meaning which he gives to the created order.”