Wisdom; Wisdom Literature
WISDOM; WISDOM LITERATURE
Connotation of Wisdom
Wisdom (Heb. ḥokhmah) has a wide range of meanings in different contexts, as illustrated in stories about Solomon, the traditional paragon of wisdom: cunning (i Kings 2:6, 9), moral discernment (3:9, 12), understanding of justice (3:28), encyclopedic knowledge (5:9, 14 [4:29, 34]), literary skill (5:12, [4:32]), and ability as ruler (5:21 [5:7]). In Job 39:16–17 and Ecclesiastes 2:3 it means simply intelligence. Its primary meaning is superior mental ability or special skill, without a necessary moral connotation (Ex. 35:31–33; ii Sam. 14:1ff.). The ḥakham was the knowledgeable man, hence a counselor, teacher (Ex. 35:34; Prov. 12:15). Skills were acquired through training, musar (Prov. 1:2–6); life situations called for counsel, ʿeẓah (i Kings 12:8; Prov. 1:30). The highest skill was that of living successfully, with divine and human approval. The idea of wisdom as a fundamentally ethical and religious quality of life is developed in Job, Proverbs 1–9, the Wisdom Psalms, and Daniel, and later in Ben Sira, Wisdom of Solomon, and Tobit. Special senses of ḥokhmah are understanding of dreams and omens (Gen. 41:15, 39; Dan. 1:17); knowledge properly belonging to God alone (Gen. 3:22; Ezek. 28:2–3); and righteousness, in eschatological times (Dan. 11:33; 12:10; the term here is maskilim).
As a historical phenomenon, biblical wisdom designates a distinctive cultural tradition and scholarly activity in the history of ancient Israel, continuing in early Judaism and Christianity. It was a way of thinking and an attitude to life that emphasized experience, reasoning, morality, and general human concerns not restricted to Israelites. Its interest was in individuals and their social relationships rather than in the distinctive national religion and its cult. A generalized religious element was present from the first in wisdom's recognition of the rightness of a certain order of life; only in its later stages – as in Ben Sira – were the wisdom and the national-religious traditions joined together. In keeping with this striving for order and equilibrium, the wisdom teachers sought to provide rules and examples of personal morals and, on a theoretical level, meanings and values through reflection, speculation, and debate.
History of the Wisdom Tradition
The history of the wisdom tradition in Israel can be sketched only in broad strokes because the evidence is slight and often ambiguous. Wisdom was a tradition as old as the society itself, a constant factor in its daily life rather than a self-conscious movement. The folk wisdom rooted in the mores of family and tribe has left traces in popular proverbs (Gen. 10:9; i Sam. 24:14; i Kings 20:11) and in references to local sages (ii Sam. 14:2; 20:16). With the advent of the monarchy, royal counselors became influential (ii Sam. 16:20ff.; i Kings 12:6ff.), and in effect, some were cabinet ministers (i Kings 4:1ff.; Isa. 36:3). Professional scribes and a literate elite court were probably mainly responsible for the production of wisdom and other literature later attributed by tradition to King *Solomon himself (i Kings 5:9–14 [4:29–34]; cf. Prov. 25:1). Temple scribes would be engaged in the composition of psalmody.
In the eighth century Hezekiah's men engaged in collecting Solomonic proverbs (Prov. 25:1) and probably also in assembling the religious and other writings of Judah and Northern Israel. That Isaiah had been a teacher of youth is implied by his opponents' mockery (Isa. 28:9–10; cf. 19:11–12). Both Isaiah and Jeremiah found themselves in conflict with royal counselors who thought themselves wise, i.e., politically expert (Isa. 29:14ff.; Jer. 9:22 ; 38:1ff.). Jeremiah clashed with the temple scribes as well (8:8). In *Baruch we see a professional scribe at work (Jer. 32:9ff.; 36:4). When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, the exiled scribes undoubtedly carried with them scrolls around which literary activities were centered in their new community.
After the Return, when Judah became a semi-independent temple state under a Persian governor, religious authority was assumed by priests and scribes as custodians of the national-religious tradition. This tradition had now taken form as the Torah and other sacred books, which implied changes in the status of the learned. Ezra the priest bore the official title "secretary of the Law of the God of heaven" (Ezra 7:12). The Torah was both code and creed; it was also the summation of Israel's distinctive religious wisdom (Deut. 4:6). Temple scribes and wisdom teachers turned their attention to Torah study, with two results: the two streams of wisdom tradition and covenant theology coalesced, and a new kind of wisdom piety developed (cf. Ps. 1, 119). At the same time the folk wisdom of home and marketplace continued, but with a more positive ethical and religious orientation as in Proverbs 1–9 and Ben Sira. Independent thinkers like *Koheleth and the author of the Wisdom of Solomon in the Hellenistic period began to write in more philosophic language, and found a following among their compatriots.
International Background and Setting
The international background and setting of Hebrew wisdom are acknowledged in the Bible itself and have become fully evident with increasing knowledge of the literary remains of ancient Near Eastern peoples. Solomon's wisdom is said to have surpassed that of Egypt and the *Kedemites (i Kings 5:10–11 [4:30–31]). The wise men of Egypt are referred to again in Genesis 41:8 and Isaiah 19:11–12; those of Edom in Jeremiah 49:7 and Obadiah 8; those of Phoenicia in Ezekiel 27:8–9; 28:3–5; and those of Persia in Esther 1:13. Although in Babylonia "'wisdom' refers to skill in cult and magic lore… [there is] a group of texts which correspond in subject matter with the Hebrew Wisdom books" (W.G. Lambert; cf. Dan. 1:20).
In Egyptian thought the cosmic order and the moral order were one, to be realized in thought, speech, and behavior. Characteristic documents are the "Instructions" by a king or high official to his son, such as those of Ptah-hotep, Merika-Re, Ani, and Amen-em-opet (cf. Pritchard, Texts, 412ff.). Amen-em-opet bears remarkable similarities to Proverbs 22:17–24:12. Other Egyptian wisdom works are The Divine Attributes of Pharaoh, The Song of the Harper, The Eloquent Peasant, and The Dispute over Suicide (Pritchard, Texts, 405–10, 431–34). The last two, like Job, touch on an innocent sufferer's cry for justice and the dubious value of a sufferer's life. Another type of Egyptian wisdom is found in the onomastica or "noun lists" with their comprehensive outline of knowledge; these may have influenced Genesis 1; Psalms 148; Job 38–39; etc.
Mesopotamian wisdom writing originated with the Sumerians. They too produced noun lists of phenomena, and introduced evaluations of them in dispute fables, e.g., between summer and winter, cattle and grain (Pritchard, Texts3, 592–3). Human experiences and character were portrayed in adages, parables, and anecdotes (Pritchard, Texts3, 593–4). Corresponding to the "Instruction" form are the Counsels of Wisdom, Counsels of a Pessimist, Advice to a Prince, Teachings of *Ahikar (the last of Assyrian origin but preserved in Aram; Pritchard, Texts3, 595–6). In the "problem" writings, the main issues are death and the suffering of the righteous. In the Gilgamesh Epic, the hero goes in search of the secret of immortality and learns that only gods are deathless. In the Dialogue of Pessimism, death is seen as the great equalizer. In a Sumerian poem "Man and his God" an upright man who suffers has no recourse but to pray for deliverance. Two works from the Kassite period in Babylonia deal with the same theme: in "Let me praise the Lord of Wisdom" a sufferer reflects that trouble comes without apparent reason, because humans cannot know the will of the gods; in "The Babylonian Theodicy" the issue is debated by a sufferer and his friend, their views corresponding broadly to those of Job and his friends (Pritchard, Texts3, 589–91, 596–604). The Sumerian gods represented forces with which humans must come to terms, whereas the Babylonian gods were more thought of as subject to moral standards, like human beings. To the Egyptians ma'at ("truth, right, justice") was a cosmic reality to which even the gods were subject. The Egyptians looked for judgment and compensation in the afterlife. In Babylonia (as in Israel until a late period, cf. Dan. 12:2) appropriate rewards or punishments were expected in the present life, and divine justice was often called in question.
No wisdom writings survive from Edom or Phoenicia. Ugaritic literature includes maxims in the father-to-son form, and presumably a more extensive Canaanite wisdom literature existed.
The Wisdom Books of the Hebrew Bible
These wisdom books are *Proverbs, *Job, and *Ecclesiastes, with which *Psalms and Song of Songs are associated in Roman Catholic tradition. Significantly, all these are among the Hagiographa (Ketuvim), the part of the Hebrew Bible most remote from the interests of the Torah, and the last part to be approved as scripture. Most of the other works in the Hagiographa have some connection with wisdom in form, in content, or historically. In addition, though not accepted as canonical in Jewish tradition, two major wisdom books and some shorter works from pre-Christian Judaism were included in the Greek and Latin Bibles: the Wisdom of *Ben Sira, a latter-day Book of Proverbs; the Wisdom of *Solomon, a treatise on Hebrew wisdom addressed both to Jews and to non-Jews; *Tobit, a morality tale incorporating two short collections of precepts; the poem in Baruch 3:9ff. calling on Israel to return to the ways of wisdom; an account of a wisdom contest inserted in i Esdras at 3:1–4:41; and three highly colored parabolic tales added to the Greek version of Daniel.
The great variety comprised within the category of wisdom literature is evident. These writings have in common the theme and practice of wisdom as a distinct way of life and thought, and employ certain favorite literary forms and a characteristic vocabulary. The theme is developed with different emphases: on the one hand traditionally conservative, didactic, and worldly-wise, on the other hand radically critical and theologically innovative. The first is carried out by various methods of authoritative instruction; the second – on a more sophisticated level – by challenging accepted ideas and stimulating original thought. It will be noticed that the religious component of wisdom teaching becomes more explicit as time goes on.
Wisdom was not seen as a natural endowment, though the capacity to attain it might be considered a natural endowment. Wisdom had to be learned, and could be taught. Even so, it remained a divine gift rewarding those who desired it enough to submit to its discipline (Prov. 2). The two principle methods of teaching were musar (instruction, training) and ʿeẓah (counsel, persuasion), according to whether the teacher's authority was imposed or freely sought. A parent's instruction was mandatory and entailed correction of the disobedient (Prov. 23:13). To the extent that the teacher in a school assumed the parental role (Prov. 1:8) his words had the same dogmatic tone. In the main, however, the teacher's musar was an appeal to reason and conscience, and to the pupil's own desire for knowledge and understanding. This is evident in the variety of literary forms found in the wisdom writings, whose primary objective was to teach: the sentence saying or proverb; the rhetorical question; the admonitory precept or maxim and their expansion into longer discourses; soliloquy and debate; descriptive, metaphorical, and meditative poetry; parable and allegory; the imaginative tale and the illustrative anecdote.
Precepts express the imperatives of social order or religious belief; with the teacher they take the form of exhortation to which is added a statement of motive or result (cf. Prov. 19:20; 25:17). Often the imperative is implied rather than expressed (Prov. 25:27a). In Proverbs 1–9 precepts are expanded into ten longer discourses beginning "My son(s)!" In the two poems in 1:20–33 and chapter 8 wisdom itself is personified as a female; in the former she berates fools for their refusal to listen, and in the latter appeals for a hearing on grounds of her priceless worth and her prime role in the creation of the world. Behind this personification lies the reality that there is regular reference to wise women in the Bible (Judg. 4:29; ii Sam. 14:2; 20:16) and that a mother might teach her son (Prov. 6:20). Some scholars view Wisdom as an ancient Hebrew goddess. Precepts predominate in 22:17ff., the section closely resembling the Instructions of Amen-em-opet.
A proverb is a short pregnant sentence or phrase whose meaning is applicable in many situations and which is made memorable by vivid imagery or witty expression, often marked by alliteration or assonance. It draws attention positively or negatively to an order of life, right values, and proportions. The prosaic folk saying is brief and pointed: "From wicked men comes wickedness" (i Sam. 24:14 ) or "One donning armor should not boast as if he were taking it off" (i Kings 20:11). The proverbs of two (or more) lines in a parallelism, characteristic of Solomonic proverbs in Proverbs 10:1ff. and 25:1ff., have been expanded probably for teaching purposes as cue and response. Examples of folk sayings supplemented in this way are Proverbs 11:2a; 12:11a; and 26:17a. Sayings in the form of a culminating numerical progression like Proverbs 30:18–19 are a kind of riddle, also suitable as a teaching tool.
The art of composing vivid narratives, similes, and metaphors also serves the purposes of the teacher. The word mashal ("likeness") has a wider connotation than "proverb." Its commonest form is the simile: "Like clouds and wind that bring no rain is a man who boasts of giving but does not give" (Prov. 25:14). When a simile is expanded into a short story, it becomes a parable. The best-known parables in the Hebrew Bible come from the prophets Nathan and Isaiah (ii Sam. 12:1ff; Isa. 5:1–7); the only developed wisdom parable also is found in Isaiah, in 28:23–29. Ecclesiastes 9:13–16 is sometimes cited as a parable but strictly this is rather an illustration since in a parable the audience is expected to recognize the analogy and draw its own conclusions. Although the wisdom teachers do not use the parable, they do make effective use of teaching illustrations. In Proverbs 1:11–14 the very words of the thugs who are tempting the unwary youth are quoted, and 6:12–13 is a true-to-life description of the conspirator. In Proverbs 7:6ff. there is a graphic sketch of the prostitute's behavior and in 23:29ff. one of the drunkard's.
An allegory relates to a metaphor as a parable relates to a simile. In Ecclesiastes 12 the approach of death is pictured in terms of the onset of darkness in a village street. The metaphor of wisdom, personified as a woman (Prov. 7:4), is developed in the poems of Proverbs 1:20–33, where she speaks like a prophetess, and in chapter 8 (cf. Ecclus.), where she speaks of yhwh's co-worker in the creation of the world. In Proverbs 9 wisdom and folly are personified as rival hostesses inviting men to different kinds of banquets.
The paradigmatic narrative, which evokes admiration for a hero or heroine evincing moral qualities deserving of imitation, was another tool of the wisdom teachers. The story may be quasi-historical, as in the case of the story of Joseph in Genesis. It may be clearly fictional, as with Ruth, Daniel 1–6, Esther, and Judith. The prose folk tale which introduces the poem of Job serves the same purpose. The wisdom characteristics of the Joseph story have been pointed out by G. von Rad: a man of unusual ability, intelligence, and moral integrity is shown as triumphing over all adversities, and becoming the principal counselor at the court of Pharaoh. The story in Genesis 3 of human disobedience and expulsion from Eden also has certain wisdom features. The wondrous tree and the talking snake belong to the world of the fable, but these are only incidental. The story can be read as a parable of human alienation from God through disobedience, and illustrates graphically the subtle process of temptation. More important, it probes profound problems in the sphere of wisdom: the nature and limitations of human knowledge and the relation of knowledge to morality. Humans claim to decide for themselves what is good and what is evil, in response to desire, but in asserting their independence find themselves exiled from life and good to a world of death and evil.
The Wisdom Psalms are those with resemblances to the characteristic themes, tone, literary forms, and vocabulary of the wisdom tradition. They appear to be the products of a new type of personal piety which developed after the Exile, when the written Torah replaced prophecy as yhwh's living voice to His people. Scribal experts in the handling and interpretation of scripture had assumed a new position of religious authority, and the wisdom, prophetic, and cultic traditions were mingled. "God" in the generalized sense of older wisdom writings was now definitely identified with yhwh, the covenant God of Israel.
Some Psalms, such as 1 and 37, are unified compositions representing this new wisdom piety. In others the sapiential features are apparent only in certain parts (e.g., 94:8–13). In still others a poem of another type has been labeled as a wisdom poem (Ps. 2:12d; 111:10). The Psalms with the best claims to be classed as Wisdom Psalms are 1, 19b, 32, 34, 37, 49, 78, 112, 119, 127, 128, and 133. Their most significant feature is that they are addressed primarily to a human audience rather than to God, and their tone is didactic or hortatory. The presence of wisdom vocabulary and stylistic forms can be observed. Psalm 37 is an alphabetical acrostic comprising a series of precepts and proverbs commending a life of piety. Psalm 49 identifies itself as a mashal, or wisdom utterance, concerning a riddle (ḥidah). Psalm 127 consists of two expanded proverbs.
The principal themes of the Wisdom Psalms are:
(1) the antithetical ways of life of the righteous and the wicked;
(2) the appropriate rewards and retribution in store for each respectively;
(3) the qualities and behavior of the righteous as evoking admiration;
(4) study of the Torah as the focus of piety and a source of pure delight;
(5) life and vitality as fruits of righteousness, which is true wisdom;
(6) personal trust in yhwh;
(7) the search for light on problems of faith;
(8) encouragement to faith and obedience through reflection on yhwh's mighty acts on behalf of His people (see also *Psalms).
The Concept of Wisdom
The concept of wisdom as developed in the long course of Israel's cultural and religious history is different from and broader than the various meanings and uses of the term ḥokhmah (see above). All these denote elements and aspects of one thing – the activity of mind – introducing order in place of confusion, expanding and structuring knowledge, and purposefully directing the actions of men. The continuity of the wisdom tradition lay in the constant enlargement and enrichment of this faculty of applied intelligence.
At first the noun ḥokhmah denoted simply the state of being wise. It was no more than a linguistic correlative of the adjective ḥakham ("wise") and the verb ḥakham ("to be wise"), the adjectival use being basic. The wise were more capable, knowledgeable, skillful, intelligent, imaginative, and resourceful than their fellows, who consequently would look to them for counsel and leadership. The sharing of knowledge made of the wise man a teacher. Confidence in his counsel imbued him with the potentiality for leadership and ultimately for government. The general orderliness observable in the natural world called for an order of values as well as a structure of power in human society, and for meaning to justify both. Stimulated by access, through literacy, to the ideas of other wise men, the counselor became a thinker, concerned with understanding and moral judgments as well as with knowledge. Worshipping a God whose commands were not arbitrary but ethically conditioned, this counsel passed beyond the defensive morality of the tribe and the prudential morality of the individual to an ethic resting on beliefs held to be sacred.
If men could be wise to some degree in this deeper sense, God axiomatically was all-wise, good, and just, despite any appearances to the contrary. The creative and providential ordering of the world were acts of divine wisdom, which is sovereign, creative, and dynamic. Thus wisdom becomes fully conceptualized when personified pictorially in Proverbs 8 as a personal instrument of God in the planning and implementation of the created order.
W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (1960); B. Gemser, Sprüche Salomos (19632); O. Eissfeldt, The Old Testament, an Introduction (1965); R. Gordis, The Book of God and Man (1965); idem, Koheleth the Man and his World (1968); W. McKane, Proverbs (1970). add. bibliography: R. Harris in: J. Gammie and L. Perdue, The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East (1990), 3–17. See bibliographies to *Ecclesiastes, *Proverbs, and *Job.
[Robert B.Y. Scott]