Wisdom Literature and Biblical Theology

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.

Old Testament 102: Biblical Theology and Wisdom

When it comes to the question of a Biblical Theology of the Old Testament (an idea that underpins it and holds it all together) the wisdom literature is a bit of an elephant in the room. Most Old Testament theologies focus on themes like “covenant” or “promise” and tie the Old Testament to the new by dealing with the unfolding of the story of God’s dealing with his people and his creation, finding some form of fulfillment in Jesus. It’s a noble, and useful aim. Provided you don’t lump for one, at the expense of all the other themes that are also there, and also valid. Why can’t all our Old Testament theologies be friends?

Eichrodt pioneered the “covenant,” and Dumbrell picked that idea up and ran with it. Von Rad (the most awesome name in theology) preferred to focus his sights on “salvation history,” Kaiser proposed “promise,” which doesn’t seem that much different from “covenant” because it isn’t. He sees wisdom as “life under the promise” – but Scobie (who has a few bobs each way on a unifying idea in his “The Ways of Our God“) suggests this connection between wisdom and the rest of the Bible is tenuous…

A useful piece from the Reformed Theological Review by Lindsay Wilson called “The Place of Wisdom in Old Testament Theology” summarises the situation nicely. Here’s an overview of the article.

Kaiser put forward two questions that need to be answered in order for a big idea to be considered valid:

1. Was this idea and purpose in the minds of the Old Testament writers?
2. Can this view be embraced by the whole Old Testament without artificially overloading this point, or ignoring large blocks of material?

Since the 20th century and Von Rad and Eichrodt’s work, scholars have decided that no single idea can describe the Old Testament adequately.

Goldingay suggests there are three ways to approach to the diversity of the Old Testament.

1. Diverse theologies can be explained by various historical contexts (e.g the idea of what it means to be the “people of God” changes based on Israel’s political circumstances).
2. One strand of theology should be used to evaluate and critique the others (Deuteronomic or Deutero-Isaiah should be the dominant view, others should be compared and contrasted).
3. The strands should be brought together, Goldingay calls this a “unifying or contsructing approach” – in a manner that does justice to the theological diversity.

Goldingay describes the different approaches like this:

“One suggests that different viewpoints are appropriate to different contexts, another that they reflect different levels of insight, and a third that they are all expressions of one underlying theology.” – Goldingay, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament, 1987

Wilson analyses these approaches…

The first approach helps to explain some of the diversity of the Old Testament – clearly Adam in Eden requires different commands and hopes to Abraham, and Abraham to David, and David to those in exile.

The second is the most open to objection – it can involve people reading the Old Testament through a lens of their own creation, not something borne out by the Old Testament itself (eg the “history of religions” approach that tries to describe the emergence of Jewish monotheism from ANE polytheism).

The third is both promising and vexing – one must decide what to include in the mix to form a key cluster of ideas held in complex unity.

Wilson now considers how the wisdom literature might be approached in relation to Biblical Theology.

Solomonic Enlightenment
Von Rad championedthe idea that there was a period under Solomon and David that allowed the unfettered development of the wisdom movement. Brueggemann agrees. Because Israel had arrived at its peak – the wise in Israel could turn from questions of faith to questions of how to live.

Brueggemann suggests the “salvation history” approach concentrates on traps man might fall into and God’s subsequent actions to deliver him.

“Scripture has been integrated primarily around the theme of redemption which tends to suggest the gracious, powerful role of God and the despair and helplessness of man… As a result the countertheme of creation has been generally neglected.”

Suggestions for how wisdom fits commonly turn to the idea that it’s about “the order in and goodness of creation,” this works with the idea that different social situations produce different theological approaches, and a different theological focus.

Wilson outlines two approaches for finding integration between wisdom literature and the rest of the Old Testament… finding salvation history elements in the wisdom books, and finding wisdom elements in non-wisdom books. A similar approach to that discussed in Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom.

Finding Salvation-History in the Wisdom Literature

He suggests the “Fear of the Lord” is one such link (as identified by Goldsworthy) but then suggests that the wisdom literature is more diverse than just “the fear of the Lord”…

“While Goldsworthy concedes that wisdom is a complement to, not a sub-set of, salvation history, he comes close to reading wisdom down to life under the covenant. Thus he concludes that “wisdom is a theology of the redeemed man living in the world under God’s rule”.”

Wilson says the second problem here is that such an approach “fails to show how the wisdom literature and salvation history elements are integrated… it establishes a point of contact, but says little about the interplay between the two strands.”

Finding Wisdom in the Rest of the OT

A bunch of scholars have suggested a “wisdom school” might have been influential in the writing or shaping of other texts. This is hotly disputed. James Crenshaw has suggested the methodology used in some of these studies is a bit rubbish. Wilson examines a couple of case studies that Crenshaw has critiqued, and while he agrees with Crenshaw that the stories (Esther and the Joseph Narrative) are not “wisdom” exclusively, he disagrees because he says wisdom may form part of the picture.

Wilson says:

“In the light of what we have seen so far, we are able to draw at least two conclusions. Firstly, Wisdom material and influence is a significant part of the Old Testament corpus. Any proposed analysis of Old Testament theology must do justice to Wisdom themes. Secondly, we must be wary of those who see wisdom as alien to the normative theology in the Old Testament.”

Wisdom is woven into the fabric of the Old Testament. We’ll see where Wilson takes his piece in the next post.

Old Testament 102: Goldsworthy on the place and space of Old Testament Wisdom

Wisdom literature gives some advice on guidance and decision making. Goldsworthy argues that wisdom literature can be related to Israel’s covenant faith. And that it points to the coming of Christ. Goldsworthy advocates a presuppositional approach to wisdom about the world. To be truly wise, first one must presuppose God. And because we presume God, we assume the Bible is the basis for true wisdom, then we also need to realise that the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in Jesus, so any consideration of the function of an Old Testament book must begin Christologically.

Wisdom is not intelligence, it belongs to all who believe the gospel. It’s not so much an intellectual approach to life, as it is a way of living life. It differs us from the animals.

We must begin [studying wisdom in the Bible] with Christ because it is through him that we become Christians and are motivated to study the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.

He suggests the question to ask of the Old Testament Wisdom is how it comes to help us understand Christ. And then we need to ask how the Wisdom Literature is fulfilled in Christ.

In Luke 11:31 Jesus makes an explicit comparison between himself and Solomon:

31 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here.”

Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 is another point of contrast – the Old Testament wisdom was very similar to the wisdom of the world, the gospel of Christ crucifed on the other hand, is folly to the wisdom of the world.

Worldly wisdom has a place. We use it every day.  When we approach questions of how to live our lives, we often turn to worldly wisdom without a thought about where it fits with God’s wisdom (appropriately) – we don’t ask if the correct approach to repairing a computer comes from God (nor should we take actions in those areas that contradict Godly wisdom – but you get the point).

“If Christians showed as much talent and shrewdness in the pursuit of the world for Christ as unbelievers show in the pursuit of riches, who could gauge what effect that would have?”

“Every culture collects the wisdom of its people, much of which will be found in the form of concise proverbial sayings.”

The wisdom literature from Babylon and Egypt has close similarities to the Biblical works.”

“At this point we can at least recognise that there is some common ground shared by the wisdom of pagans and that of God’s people”…

Stephen (Acts 7:22) suggests Moses was educated in Egypt’s wisdom.

By the time Moses went to school in Egypt there was already a long history of wisdom.

On Ma’at

“Ma’at represented an order that was to be seen particularly in the stability of the Egyptian state… There is no real parallel in Hebrew wisdom to Ma’at other than similarities to the idea of order. These similarities between Hebrew and Egyptian wisdom suggest that the common factor is the quest for the understanding of the order of the universe. Hebrew wisdom was distinct in that it was shaped by the Israelite experience of covenant and redemption.”

Goldsworthy suggests Biblical accounts of Solomon, and the non-Israelite bits in Proverbs suggest a connection between Israelite and ANE wisdom.

“The evidence available to us of the intellectual achievements of the people in the old civilizations of the Middle East shows us that wisdom was sought after and written down very early in recorded history. There is little doubt that wisdom sayings of some kind would have been part of the emerging culture of Israel’s ancestors.”

“Wisdom’s apparent lack  of concern for Israel’s history, covenant and law is one of its distinctive features. Perhaps we can work back from the wisdom books to look for clues to the origins of wisdom in Israel. The wisdom literature itself is lacking in the kind of historical references which would give such clues. The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes contain only the briefest indications of the traditional patronage of Solomon.1

Four kinds of evidence which contribute to our understanding of wisdom in Israel:

First – the scattered wisdom sayings found in various parts of the narrative literature of the Old Testament (some of these are clues to a pre-literary stage which probably existed before there were any schools of wisdom or written wisdom) – for example sayings about mighty hunters (Genesis 10), and “it became a saying” in 1 Samuel 10. In this case the word “saying” is the Hebrew word later used for Proverb.

Second – the wisdom books themselves.

Third – knowledge of the wisdom literature form the ANE – “the forms and functions of this wisdom suggest parallels to Israelite wisdom, but the differences are more obvious.”

Fourth – the possible wisdom influences on other books of the Old Testament, the idea that other books were compiled by wisdom schools, written by wise men, or influenced by wisdom thoughts.

“If we could be sure of the identification of wisdom influences [on the Old Testament], they would provide some valuable evidence of the place of wisdom in the main stream of Israelite thought. We would see how the wisdom ideas, which in the main wisdom books appear in almost complete isolation from expressions of the covenant faith, have been brought into organic relationship with that covenant faith.”

1 We’ll get to Solomon later, and Goldsworthy’s view (also, see the previous post).

Scroll to Top