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.”