The Wisdom Literature as an Apologetic: Part One

I’ve mentioned my theory on the wisdom literature a couple of times, in passing. I’ve decided researching and writing just for my lecturer is pretty boring. So I’m going to post my thinking (in the form of my essay) here for you to critique. It’s long. So I’ll do it in parts. Here’s the intro:

Where wisdom fits

The wisdom literature has been described as the “embarrassing step-child of Old Testament theology,”[1] because of both the clear influence of other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) wisdom, and because there was no obvious synergy with “redemptive history” frameworks.[2] Some consider the wisdom corpus as natural theology due to an absence of direct redemptive action from God, rather than direct revelation.[3]

Difficult waters were muddied further by suggestions that Job and Ecclesiastes were so theologically divergent from the Old Testament, they must be considered “protest literature,”[4] produced to directly refute the so called “acts-consequences nexus” supposedly identified in Proverbs.[5] This system of retribution was a common ANE belief,[6] and it has been demonstrated that elements of Israel’s community had adopted such a position.[7] Such a reading of Job and Ecclesiastes is possible. But I suggest such retributive theology was a syncretism with foreign beliefs, that Proverbs itself sought to redress, and more broadly that biblical wisdom is partly a theological corrective of ANE wisdom, which was inherently religious.[8]

The pursuit of wisdom, and the production of wisdom literature, was an important intellectual and theological pursuit in the ANE,[9] it crossed international borders.[10] Examinations of the relationship between the biblical wisdom corpus and the wisdom of surrounding nations have arrived at varying conclusions, though all acknowledge cross-pollination of wisdom ideas. Many have rightly rejected the notion that Israel imported ideas from surrounding nations to develop their own cult,[11] but few have suggested that Israel deliberately interacted with these foreign ideas in order to push people towards a life appropriately geared to the Fear of Yahweh.

The foreign influence in the wisdom literature is apparent on the surface, Proverbs lists two foreign kings as authors, and none of the characters in Job are presented as Hebrew,[12] below the surface the wisdom corpus reveals a deep familiarity with contemporary ANE wisdom.[13]

This piece synergises the international influence, and the theological “protest” undergirding the text, by adopting an interpretive rubric that places the wisdom literature within Israel’s redemptive narrative. The wisdom corpus provides a Yahweh-centric approach to the same eternal questions as ANE wisdom, with the “fear of the Lord” offered as a theological corrective.[14]

Scholarly consensus is that wisdom literature describes Yahweh as the “guarantor of order that makes life in the world possible,[15] most ANE wisdom concerned itself with understanding that order,[16] Egyptian wisdom placed the order in the hands of the king, who controlled Ma’at, while Israel’s king sought to place the control rightly in the hands of Yahweh.[17]


[1] Brueggemann, W, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, (Fortress Press: Mieapolis), 1997, p 334, or “errant child” Clement, R. E, ‘Wisdom and Old Testament Theology,’ Wisdom in Ancient Israel, ed Day, J, Gordon, R.P & Williamson, H.G.M, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 1995, p 271

[2] Brueggemann, W, Theology of the Old Testament, p 334, a summary of the “redemptive history” understanding and its synchronisation with the wisdom literature can be found in Hubbard, D.A, ‘The Wisdom Movement and Israel’s Covenant Faith,’ Tyndale Bulletin 17 (1966) pp 3-33, on wisdom’s international origins and lack of covenantal features being interpretively problematic see Clements, R.E, Wisdom in Theology, (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992), 2002 Edition, pp 20-22

[3] Burdett, D, ‘Wisdom Literature and the Promise Doctrine,’ Trinity Journal 3 (Spring 1974) p 2

[4] Dell, K.J, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1991), Morrow, W.S, Protest Against God: The Eclipse of a Biblical Tradition, (Sheffield: Phoenix Press, 2007), pp 129-146

[5] Essentially the idea that righteousness automatically produced material reward, and wickedness produced punishment, for a discussion regarding how appropriate it is to find such a nexus in Proverbs see Waltke, B, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ Andrews University Seminary Studies, Autumn 1996, Vol. 34, No.2, pp 333-334 and Lucas, E, Proverbs: The Act-Consequence Nexus, forthcoming

[6] Beaulieu, P-A, ‘The Social and Intellectual Setting of Babylonian Wisdom Literature,’ Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel, ed Clifford, R.J, Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series No 36, SBL: Atlanta, 2006, p 7 suggests that “every important Mesopotamian text” presupposes that individual misfortune flows from failure to meet the prescribed actions of the gods, Whybray, N, ‘Two Jewish Theologies: Job and Ecclesiastes.’ Wisdom: The Collected Works of Norman Whybray, ed. Whybray, R.N, Dell, K.J, Barker, M, () p 180 – suggests the Old Testament shares the “naïve assumption that virtue brings its own reward” with the ANE world. Fox, M.V, ‘World Order and Ma’at: a crooked parallel,’ JANES 23, 1995 pp 37-48 urges caution with applying the Egyptian concept of Ma’at to this notion or a retributive order.

[7] Some argue that Israel developed a calcified reading of Proverbs and a notion of Deuteronomic blessings and curses being applied to the individual. Many have suggested that this is the underlying philosophy of Job’s three friends as they seek to explain his suffering. Their assumption that he is suffering as the result of this retributive theology leads them to place the blame for his circumstances wrongly on his head see 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, Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom: A reappraisal of the historical and canonical function of Ecclesiastes, (Eisenbrauns, 2006), p 15

[8] Beaulieu, P-A, ‘The Social and Intellectual Setting of Babylonian Wisdom Literature,’ pp 6-7 a survey of Mesopotamian wisdom literature summarised the concerns of the “traditionally defined” wisdom books as “the rejection of hubris, the acceptance of human mortality, and ultimately on the submission to fate and to the order created by the gods.”

[9] Clements, R.E, Wisdom in Theology, (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992), 2002 Edition, p 17, Ruffle, op. cit, p 36, Clifford, R.J, The Wisdom Literature, (Nashville, Abington Press), 1998, p 40 “Biblical wisdom literature is thus truly international, being found in the great empires that dominated Israel’s world as well as in the geographically closer cities of the Levant.”

[10] See, for example, Whybray, N, Wisdom In Proverbs: The Concept of Wisdom in Proverbs 1-9, (London: SCM Press, 1965), pp 15-16 on the international conversation taking place between scribes and sages across international borders.

[11] For example, Fox, M.V, ‘World Order and Ma’at,’ p 48

[12] On the link this implies with ANE wisdom see Day, J, ‘Foreign Semitic Influence on the wisdom of Israel and its appropriation in the book of Proverbs, Wisdom in Ancient Israel, ed Day, J, Gordon, R.P & Williamson, H.G.M, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 1995, pp 55-56, Day suggests this international flavour means Israel’s “wise men” were more internationally minded than others within Israel.

[13] Wisdom that Von Rad points out is under the subject of divine judgment (Wisdom that is the subject of divine judgment (Isaiah 19:11; 44:25; Ezekiel 28:12ff; and Obadiah 1:8), Von Rad, G, Wisdom in Israel, p 319

[14] Williams, J.G, Those Who Ponder Proverbs (Sheffield: Almond, 1981), p 53, as an analogous point – scholars have long considered the Genesis account of creation as a corrective of creation narratives from surrounding cultures including the Enuma Elish a view that has reached broad acceptance with varying nuance. Enns, P, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the problem of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), pp 26-27 notes the comparisons with the Enuma Elish and suggests the contrast in theology was a deliberate contrast with the reigning Babylonian authority.

[15] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p 336

[16] This search for order has oft been conflated with the Egyptian concept of Ma’at, which has been traditionally understood as the personification of the truth or order underpinning creation – even the gods were subject to this order. Many have commented on its link with the presuppositions of Biblical wisdom – see 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, p 15, however Fox, M.V, ‘World Order and Ma’at: a crooked parallel,’ JANES 23, 1995 pp 37-48, at p 38 suggests the scholarly depiction of Ma’at as relating to order is wrong and that it almost exclusively means “truth and justice,” he suggests that the concept of a fundamental order of creation was foreign to both Israel and Egypt (p 41) and that Ma’at, like Yahweh, was understood as the “creator of order.” Clements, R.E, Wisdom in Theology, pp 45-46 suggest wisdom attempted to grasp the natural order of society, creation and the realm of human conduct.

[17] Fox, ‘World Order and Ma’at,’ p 41

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.

One thought on “The Wisdom Literature as an Apologetic: Part One”

  1. I should point out that while I’ve handed this in already – the version I’ve posted was my final draft version – I added the final polish on a college computer. The footnotes have a few typos, and there’s one rogue sentence where I mashed a bunch of ideas together but didn’t rewrite it in proper english that may appear in the next few days. This is a six parter. So stay tuned.

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