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.

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