Tag: Wisdom and Biblical Theology

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: How wisdom might fit into existing Biblical Theologies

Brueggemann and Goldingay’s approaches to wisdom identified a worthwhile second peg in Biblical Theology theology that is often ignored in favour of focusing on salvation or redemptive history, bringing the issue of creation – what we are created to be/how we are created to live – into the mix. This approach puts the wisdom literature largely into the category of how we should live as people in God’s creation – but I’d suggest that the wisdom literature has a role to play in redemptive history. Because, as I’ve posted previously, I think the wisdom literature was part of an international wisdom dialogue, and that it put forward wisdom grounded in YHWH as true wisdom. Israel had a covenantal obligation (see Gen 12) to bless the nations. I think Solomon’s wisdom, as described in 1 Kings 4-10, is where we see that blessing most fulfilled in the Old Testament, and the linking of the wisdom corpus to Solomon’s reign provides a handy interpretive key with regards to its purpose. This doesn’t do away with the two poled creation/redemption approach. It’s not an either/or thing. To suggest that the Wisdom Literature only had one function or purpose and only has one way of being integrated with understanding the big picture is to create an unjustifiably false dichotomy.

Two of the problems that have caused the wisdom literature to be seen, as Brueggemann calls it, as the embarrassing step-child of the Old Testament, are its similarities to other Ancient Near Eastern wisdom, and the apparent presentation, in Proverbs, of a retributive “you reap what you sow” theology. Some scholars have suggested that Proverbs is so different in outlook to Job and Ecclesiastes that they can only be considered to have arisen in protest to this retributive idea. It’s very possible that this protest question is going to come up in the exam for the B Th people… so I’ll post my essay answer to that question again shortly.

I think that rather than being a problem for figuring out the Wisdom Literature, its similarities with other writings from the time and place are part of the answer. To touch on my current “big idea” – we’re used to the idea that part of the Genesis account is written directly to address other ANE creation accounts (the Gilgamesh Epic and Enuma Elish), and as I mentioned in my post on the Old Testament law and women last week, the laws in Leviticus are very similar to laws governing the same legal issues in contemporary cultures (just nicer, and designed to help Israel be “set apart” from their neighbours). So why do we get to the wisdom literature and go “oh no, it’s similar to the other nations” and then see this as a problem. Perhaps the Biblical wisdom literature seeks to address the influence of wisdom literature from other cultures on the people of Israel. Perhaps, in the light of the account of Solomon’s rule, it also seeks to participate in an international wisdom dialogue, and maybe it’s even presenting a philosophical apologetic for subscribing to Israel’s religious system to her neighbours… Norman Whybray, Bruce Waltke, and Christopher Wright have suggested there was an international wisdom conversation going on around the time the wisdom literature was emerging in Israel, Proverbs contains, by its own admission, wisdom from foreign kings, collected by Solomon (and others), and the account of Solomon’s reign in 1 Kings includes him giving his better wisdom to surrounding nations (as fulfillment of Genesis 12 – which is the intention of the 1 Kings narrative (Goldsworthy).

Most scholars are quick to dismiss the idea that Israel stole wisdom from other countries willy-nilly as it sought to develop its own social identity, but few explain the presence or influence of foreign wisdom in the Bible. Other than to suggest that all wisdom is developed out of observations of the same world. All agree that Hebrew wisdom deliberately creates a monotheistic distinction from conventional ANE thought. This deliberate distinction, not the similarities, should provide the most fruit for understanding the relationship between similar works.

Wright suggests Israel’s wisdom thinkers and writers took part in an international dialogue “with an openness to discern the wisdom of God in cultures other than their own,” and that such comparisons lead to the conclusion that there was “a lot of contact between Israel’s wisdom thinkers and writers and those of surrounding nations.”

Tying the wisdom literature to Solomon’s reign – the guy who built the temple, and reached the nations – seems to be a pretty good way to bring it alongside redemptive history, as primary documents from the time when Israel was at its peak… and its not doing an injustice to the text – because Proverbs and Ecclesiastes both present themselves as linked to Solomon, and most scholars acknowledge that the wisdom movement flourished under his reign.

Wright (2006) suggests “any wisdom that is associated with Solomon must be connected with the Solomonic tradition that God should bless the nations in their interaction with Israel.”

Here’s where I think that leads (from my essay):

Solomon participates in an international wisdom dialogue with foreign leaders, judges justly, and blesses the ANE world in fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise (Genesis 12:3), in the manner envisaged by the Psalm 72. His international focus is evident in his prayer dedicating the temple contains an international injunction (1 Kings 8:41-43). It is also feasible to assume that the description of Solomon’s collection of wisdom crossed national boundaries.

The aspects of his reign that I would suggest have bearing on our interpretation of biblical wisdom are as follows:

1. An interaction with the ideas of the nations and their rulers and wisdom, and thus with the religious beliefs of the nations (1 Kings 4:29-34, 1 Kings 10:23-24)
2. A theological focus, and corrective of international wisdom, based on the “fear of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:43).
3. A desire to see the nations come before Yahweh, recognising his rightful position as creator of the world and the basis of wisdom and righteousness (1 Kings 8:41-43, 59-61, 1 Kings 10:9, Psalm 72).

The reference to Solomon’s wisdom “surpassing that of Egypt and the wisdom of all the men of the east “ (1 Kings 4:30) invites us to compare Israel’s wisdom with the nations, and it is therefore feasible to expect similar interactions between wisdom literature linked to Solomon and the wisdom literature of the ANE.

The biggest difference between the Biblical wisdom literature and that of the surrounding nations is the centrality (at least in the final form of the texts, but I’d argue also in their fundamental purpose) of the concept of the “fear of the Lord” – it’s an important theme in Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as in Proverbs. And it’s indelibly linked to salvation history.

The “fear of Yahweh” is a touch point of Jewish orthodoxy synonymous with faithful obedience (Deuteronomy 4:10; 5:29; 6:2, 13, 24; 10:12, 20).

The phrase occurs throughout Proverbs (Proverbs 1:7, 2:5, 9:10, 10:27, 14:27, 15:16, 15:33, 16:6, 19:23; 22:4; 23:17, 31:30, and an injunction to “fear the Lord” occurs in Proverbs 1:29; 3:7; 8:13; and 24:21), it occurs almost exclusively in the passages tied to Solomon (Chapters 1-24), and does not appear in those collected under Hezekiah.

The passages linked most strongly to other ANE wisdom writings fall in passages attributed to Solomon. Those passages are either directly proceeded by, or followed by, a reference to fearing Yahweh (Proverbs 22:4, Proverbs 24:21, and Proverbs 23:17).

The phrase is also used to contrast with the teaching of wise (Proverbs 13:14) and the fear of Yahweh (Proverbs 14:27), with both considered as the “fountain of life.”

Retributive theology was a big concept throughout the Ancient Near East. And you can read Proverbs as advocating such a position, if you remove any notion of God (and some scholars go so far as to suggest that the Fear of the Lord is an addition by a pious sage wanting Proverbs to be more Godly – Von Rad is one of them). But Waltke suggests that any Proverbs that lend themselves to this interpretation should be considered in the broader scheme of the book, and are likely to be eschatological.

The idea that Job and Ecclesiastes stand in conflict with Proverbs is popular modern wisdom scholarship, and some have tried to identify retributive theology in the ethics of the prophets, suggesting it played an important role in Jewish theology. Any concept of retributive theology legitimately found in the Old Testament is carefully grounded in the will of Yahweh, and is usually the fruit of a promise. I would suggest this view actually describes the purposes of the wisdom authors in addressing ANE conceptions of reality.

Here’s the bonus bit – from a comment from my dad in response to one of yesterday’s posts:

“Can I suggest that there’s lots of Deuteronomic content in Proverbs, particularly relating to the blessings of living under covenant in the land? It’s often observed that Proverbs is overly idealised, and ‘over promises.’ But I’d suggest, no moreso than the blessings of Deuteronomy would lead you to expect. In fact, if you allow for an allegorical reading of the “son” material as referring to Israel, who is not to prostitute himself to other gods, Proverbs is (arguably) just saying that ‘all the Deuteronomic blessings will be yours if you remain faithful.’ Conversely, there are clear exile warnings in the early chapters of Proverbs, which also fit it neatly into the Deuteronomic schema. From there, it’s a simple step to building it into the metanarrative of a Biblical Theology. (Theory Part B – It’s all integrated by Hosea, who was one of Hezekiah’s men, as specified in Proverbs as those who ‘gathered and Solomon’s teaching.’) Hence, there are heaps of proverbial statements in Hosea, and echoes of Hosea’s “Israel as son” theology in Proverbs.)”

So there’s another response to the idea of protest that seems plausible, and also ties the wisdom literature to redemptive history… Here’s what I reckon is going on, from the conclusion of my essay:

“I propose that the wisdom literature adopted and critiqued the wisdom conventions of surrounding nations in the same way that Israel’s historians adopted and critiqued stories of creation and the flood from the ANE and contrasted them with an account grounded in the actions of Yahweh. A true understanding of wisdom, like a true understanding of history, is grounded in understanding Yahweh’s involvement in the world, not in its ANE equivalents. If the wisdom literature is an apologetic for Yahweh as the author of life, in a deliberate comparison with other ANE gods, and if this apologetic occurs in the context of an international wisdom conversation, then it was both didactic for the people of Yahweh, and a declaration to the nations. “

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.