Wisdom Literature

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Wisdom Literature

Wisdom, the timeless, intellectual, and reflective tradition of antiquity, the forerunner of ancient Greek and modern philosophy, is the quest of the ancients to understand the most common and fundamental truths of the nature and limits of the human condition. As a tradition, wisdom sought coherency in places where traditional religion failed to provide answers. Deriving from ancient and diverse sources, this wisdom tradition and the literature it produced originated and flourished in royal courts of the great river valleys of the ancient world—the Nile in North Africa and the Tigris-Euphrates in Mesopotamia. In Egypt, "wisdom" was most often associated with the goddess Ma'at and was associated with such concepts and principles as "truth," "justice," and "order." Wisdom thought in both of these ancient cultures most often took the literary form of instructions, the more practical form of wisdom, or of laments, a more reflective or skeptical form of wisdom.

Generally, instruction texts, like the Egyptian Instruction of Prince Hardjedef (ca. 2450 b.c.e.) or the Mesopotamian Instructions of Suruppak (ca. 2400 b.c.e.), were educational tools that socialized young persons by giving pragmatic counsel. This advice covered a wide range of matters from how to find inner peace, to how to behave in the royal courts, to how to manage one's money, one's emotions, and even one's love affairs. While the instruction texts generally supported the status quo, other wisdom literature was far more pessimistic in nature and clearly disdained and even challenged traditional modes of thinking. This was the more reflective dimension of wisdom. The Eloquent Peasant, a dialogue between a peasant and an official of the royal court that recounts the injustices experienced by the peasant, and The Dispute Between a Man and His Ba are examples of this more skeptical wisdom.

In ancient societies, a class of sages produced and canonized wisdom thought. These were often officials sanctioned by the ruling authorities. State scribes kept records, counseled kings, trained future bureaucrats, and produced a type of "cosmopolitan training literature." Since they were the educated elite, they wielded a great deal of influence on the shaping of the politics, theology, and ideology of their societies. Although wisdom as it has been preserved is a highly stylized literature stemming from an urban, royal courtly setting, many of the themes typical of this official scribal production probably originated generations earlier as the folk sayings and anecdotes of clans in rural villages.

Wisdom thought also had an international-universal character and circulated far beyond its countries of origin. Because it was not tied to the views of a particular group, community, national history, or religion, it quickly adapted to other parts of the Near East.

Wisdom in the Bible

The proverbs, laments, instructions, and dialogues, the four literary forms in which wisdom thinking was passed down in ancient Israel, are a late heir to this long literary and intellectual tradition. Israel's intellectual literature, like that of its Egyptian and Mesopotamian predecessors, has an international aura. Israelite wisdom transcends the preoccupations of national religion such as ritualistic purity, worship, sacrifice, and covenants. Other than King Solomon, there is no mention of Israel's national heroes as personifying what it means to be wise. No appeal is made to Israel's deity. Also noticeably absent is any mention of the Israelites' chosen status. Confined mainly to the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, Israel's wisdom literature is concerned with apprehending the social, natural, and moral order.

Where traditional Israelite religion focused on groups and emphasized Yahweh's revelation in a shared national history, Israelite wisdom sought the revelation of God in nature and in individual reflection. The sages were interested in the person as a human being and in those qualities, struggles, and concerns essential to the universal human condition. There is no emphasis on the notion of God intervening in history to move a particular people to a telos, or ultimate end (heilsgeschichte). Israelite wisdom literature is synchronic; it is less concerned with nonrepeatable saving events and more concerned with the common thread underlying recurring human experiences.

From the age of the monarchy (ca. 1000 b.c.e.) to the Persian period (539–333 b.c.e.), when canonization of the literature took place, Israelite wisdom survived and even thrived as an alternative to the prevailing religious traditions. Legends attribute much of the wisdom material to King Solomon, who reputedly uttered three thousand proverbs and one thousand and five songs (I Kings 4:32). However, wisdom as an alternative tradition comes in a variety of forms in the Old Testament. In addition to those mentioned above, one finds scattered patches throughout the canon—e.g., riddles ( Judges 14:14), fables ( Judges 9:8–15), and stories about diviners (Numbers 22–24).

Studies of the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes have revealed two extremes to Israelite wisdom thinking: the skeptical (e.g., Ecclesiastes and Job), which takes nothing at face value, and the pragmatic (e.g., Proverbs), which is pedagogical. Everyday instructional, practical knowledge concerning wealth and poverty, love, and behavior proper to one's social position is the focus of the book of Proverbs. It advocates industriousness, frugality, and temperance as the core of what it means to be wise. At the same time, sloth and overindulgence are equated with folly in Proverbs. Ecclesiastes and Job, on the other hand, question these values, arguing that just rewards do not always accrue either to good or to immoral people. The literature in these two books, more skeptical and reflective in tone, explores the limits of practical counsel and questions the validity of conventional thinking about divine retribution. Ultimately, the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible represents the intellectual tradition of ancient Israel. It is the record of a civilization's attempt to reflect upon, to philosophize about, and to appreciate the joys, sorrows, fears, and struggles of daily life and of the human experience. Israelite wisdom, then, in its international character and reflective quality is ageless, admonishing subsequent generations about the universal nature of all human life. As the sage of the book of Deuteronomy puts it, "The secrets belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever . . ." (Deuteronomy 29:29).

Wisdom in the United States

While ancient wisdom emerged out of civilizations that no longer exist and was transmitted from generation to generation in ways for which we cannot always fully account, many of the insights about human existence captured by ancient sages continue to resonate in our contemporary society. Human beings still seek practical knowledge in order to negotiate the ethical, spiritual, economic, and environmental realities of their lives. Wisdom literature concerns itself with instruction and reflection on the basic orderliness of the world and how to cope when that order fails or seems to fail. The abiding interest of Americans in practical knowledge is nowhere better attested to than by the glut of books published over the past thirty years focusing on recovering deeply integral elements of our humanity that people think have been lost. The feeling among some is that the industrialization initiated during previous centuries and technology in this century have robbed societies of some basic values and insights. Questions like "What does it mean to be human?" or "Why is there evil?" or "What is my relationship to the environment?" or (more personally) "Who am I?" have been examined from both theistic and nontheistic points of view and have spawned best-selling books. A yearning for practical wisdom in particular is evident in the number of self-help books and the enormous proliferation of "little instruction" books containing proverbial aphorisms that have cropped up in recent times.

Not surprisingly, books about ancient mythology have been at the top of best-seller lists for some time. Authors have tried cataloguing the ancient teachings on life, death, love, and faith found in these myths. Whether such books have been written to reacquaint readers with the mythopoetic dimension of human existence, reminding them of the genius of stories in transmitting ancient wisdom, or reasserting values shared allegedly by all human beings, the popularity of books like Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth, Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, or Clarissa P. Estes's Women Who Run with the Wolves are indicative of the continuing spiritually and intellectually restive nature of North Americans.

The United States is a nation of seekers, and for as long as that description remains accurate, a yearning for wisdom as timeless knowledge about human existence will be with us. The questions, precepts, dilemmas, and skepticism embodied in wisdom teachings reflect the enduring and recurrent nature of the human predicament. As the writer of Ecclesiastes asserts, "There is nothing new under the sun."

See alsoBible; Campbell, Joseph; Eliade, Mircea; Myth.


Bergant, Dianne. Israel's Wisdom Literature: A Liberation-Critical Reading of the Old Testament. 1997.

Brown, William E. Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approachto the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. 1996.

Crenshaw, James L. Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. 1981.

Morgan, Donn F. "Searching for Biblical Wisdom: Recent Studies and Their Pertinence for Contemporary Ministry." Sewanee Theological Review (1994).

Herbert MarburyRenita Weems

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Wisdom Literature

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