Wisdom Literature

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In this volume, Richard J. Clifford seeks to make the biblical wisdom literature intelligible to modern readers. It is easy to quote the occasional proverb, say a few things about "the problem of evil" in Job, or quote "vanity of vanities, " but far more rewarding to read the whole book with an appreciative and informed eye.

Opening chapters of The Wisdom Literature comment on the striking similarities between ancient and modern "wisdom literature" and on the comparable literature from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan. Thereafter, a chapter is devoted to each biblical wisdom book (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Sirach, and Wisdom of Solomon), studying not only its content but also its rhetoric -- how it engages the reader.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780687008469
  • Publisher: Abingdon Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/1998
  • Series: Interpreting Biblical Texts Series
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 489,799
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 9.16 (h) x 0.53 (d)

Meet the Author

2008: Boston College School of Theololgy and Ministry

2007: RICHARD J CLIFFORD is Professor of Old Testament, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambrdige, MA

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The Wisdom Literature

By Richard J. Clifford

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 1998 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-00846-9


Our Quest and the Bible's Wisdom

The term "wisdom literature" refers to the books of Proverbs, Job, Qoheleth, and sometimes the Song of Songs. Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon are among the Apocrypha, the Protestant term for honored but noncanonical books. They are accepted as canonical by Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. Some authors want to include some psalms, such as 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112, and 128, under the same umbrella because "wisdom themes" appear in them. The wisdom books are traditionally grouped together because of their association with Solomon (Prov 1:1; 10:1; 25:1; Qoh 1:1; Cant 1:1) and because of their common themes and style. It is in fact useful to read them together, for one can more clearly see their common themes and subtle differences.


A first-time serious reading of the wisdom books brings many reactions. You will probably experience a mix of interest, confusion, boredom, and aversion. Your interest will be piqued by the occasional familiar or witty proverb, "One's folly subverts one's way, but one's anger rages against the Lord." Some of Job's eloquent tirades and his touching surrender may have the same effect.

I have heard of you by the hearing of the ears,
but now my eye sees you.
Therefore, I retract
and give up my dust and ashes. (42:5-6 my translation)

Qoheleth's meditation on "times" in a person's life is equally memorable.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh. (3:1-4a)

Not everything is so immediately gripping. The reader will likely be confused by Wisdom's speeches in Proverbs (why are they so vague?), the precise point of Yahweh's thunderous speeches to Job (Job 38–41), and the philosophical critique of pagan worship in Wisdom of Solomon 13–15. Many readers are put off by the seeming banality of many of Proverbs' sayings, the portrait of a testing God in Job, and the misogyny of Ben Sira.

Not only the content but the style of much of wisdom literature attracts and repels. The opening and closing lines of Qoheleth, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity" seem timeless and right; God's speeches in Job are grand even in translation; the description of wisdom in Wisdom of Solomon 7:22b–8:1 is magnificent. On the other hand, the endless sayings in Proverbs and the seemingly heavy moral essays in Sirach can be very unappealing.

Though the wisdom literature can seem strange to us, it is important to realize that its concerns are modern; in fact they are our concerns. The best route to that realization is reading each book on its own terms. The rest of this chapter will be taken up with the first task—recognizing that the concerns of wisdom literature are modern, in fact our own. The second task—learning to see each book on its own terms—will be the task of subsequent chapters.


Is there such a thing as modern wisdom literature? The answer is yes, and a broad spectrum of its topics corresponds to biblical concerns. Hundreds of books and magazine articles deal with the topics of succeeding in business, handling relationships (friendships, colleagues at work), managing a family and household, learning to bear with equanimity life's pains and uncertainties, becoming a better person, making wise decisions, and reflections on such questions as God's presence in suffering, determinism and free will. Characteristic of the books and articles is their highly personal perspective. Missing from them are politics, economics, and history as well as national and international affairs, for these are not (for the most part) subject to personal decision and reflection. Wisdom literature is personal and familial.

The literature of the modern quest for wisdom has a variety of genres. One of the most common is biography and autobiography, which tell how one man or woman has been successful in surmounting life's difficulties or attaining a new level of insight. Another genre is advice, whether it be advice for succeeding in business, managing the home, or simply being a better person. Yet another genre is the collection or anthology, whether it be proverbs, quotations, or anecdotes.

These genres are only some of those found in today's "wisdom literature." Corresponding to each is an ancient genre, a reminder of how close the ancient and modern quests can be. For example, autobiography has similarities to Qoheleth, who the reader is supposed to assume is the great king Solomon reflecting on his life. Ben Sira in 51:13-22 ends his teaching with an autobiographical poem, a reminder that the book is not just any collection but one that has been tested by Ben Sira himself. He is, he tells us, "a canal from a river [wisdom]"; and "I have not labored for myself alone, / but for all who seek wisdom" (24:30, 34).

Other genres have ancient precedents. Our modern moral tales, lists of do's and don'ts, and inventories of the habits of successful people can all be found in various guises in the Bible and beyond. And that most pervasive wisdom genre, the proverb or aphorism, is found in virtually all cultures in every age. Even in third-millennium Sumer twenty-four books of proverbs are attested.

A river of wisdom has flowed from the earliest records of the human race to the present. People have always sought to understand, to go beyond their first and often mistaken impressions to a more profound level of truth. They have sought to learn how to respond to reality, to act in a wise way, to do what brings them and others happiness and success. The Bible is the inspired attempt to become wise at the deepest level.


The book of Proverbs is an anthology of older collections of instructions and aphorisms and a number of short additions and poems. The instructions of chapters 1–9 inculcate trust in one's teachers and parents and recommend the energetic search for wisdom itself. In Proverbs, the search for and orientation toward wisdom is more important than learning specific things or doing a wise thing. From chapter 10 forward, the book consists largely of two-line aphorisms—exhortations, observations, paradoxes—designed, it seems, to aid the quest for wisdom. That search brings prosperity and happiness, because it puts one in touch with God and reveals the real structure of the world.

Job is the story of a legendary righteous man whose life suddenly goes awry when God (unbeknownst to Job) makes him a pawn in a wager with a mysterious heavenly figure. Job is systematically stripped of possessions and of family, after which we (and God) watch this paragon of virtue reacting to the counsel that his friends propose to him. He angrily refutes their wisdom and demands to meet God. God's thunderous response stops Job in his tracks, but, to everybody's surprise, God declares Job righteous, restoring his lost goods and providing him a new family.

Job in one sense is a biography—how one man faced disintegration with dignity and came back from the brink. The book resembles today's stories of struggle and triumph that inspire us, yet it is obviously far more than a biography. More than anything it is an inquiry into the nature of God, human beings, and the created world.

Qoheleth contains the reflections of a great king in his maturity, reflecting on what he has learned about life. His sense of the uncertainties of life (especially in commerce) and the inevitability of death have taught him flexibility toward tradition and the advisability of enjoying the present moment. He is a skeptic ("vanity" is a favorite word) but not a nihilist. For him, traditional wisdom is insufficient unless its application to the ever-shifting and unknowable present can be identified.

The book of Sirach is a great collection of essays in poetic form. Ben Sira in the early second century is self-consciously a sage and heir to what had become in his lifetime a considerable body of wisdom teaching. His teaching ranges from proper household management in the face of newfangled ideas to discussing controversial issues such as the ultimate origin of evil (from God or human beings?) and how wisdom has appeared in the history of Israel. He has a mastery of the entire tradition and attempts to synthesize it in a persuasive manner.

Ben Sira, avoiding the dissenting voices of Job and Qoheleth, weaves the old aphorisms into moral essays, leaving behind the old elliptical and paradoxical style to create a more logical and discursive literature. His book is a library in which one can wander and discover the old tradition in new dress.

The book of Wisdom was not written on Palestinian soil and uses Greek rather than Hebrew modes of expression. The Jewish community in Egypt was in trouble, pressed by its Egyptian neighbors. The book attempts to give the community the confidence it had lost. Our Jewish wisdom, says the author, is a manifestation of the hidden power that rules the world. Wisdom picks agents or witnesses in every age (Solomon being the great exemplar), enters such people, and enables them to understand that the real, abiding world is hidden, yet will be triumphant. This world appears especially when the innocent righteous are killed and exalted. The old story of Israel in Egypt offers a way of understanding how the holy community is to live now.

These are the wisdom books, collected or written by human beings like ourselves. In one sense, the authors are highly conservative, for they revere the tradition, which they have studied carefully. In another sense, however, they are highly innovative and even on occasion rebellious, for they also revere their own experience and honestly record their impressions. The books look alike in many respects, but each is unique. And the genius of each becomes clearer the more each book is studied.


Wisdom Literature in the Ancient Near East

Israel, on the evidence of the Bible itself, was a small nation in the Levant of the late-second and first millennia B.C.E. It was surrounded by small nations and peoples, some of them closely related in culture and language. To the north during the tenth to the eighth centuries were Aramaean city states. And there were the great empires that loomed over Israel: Egypt during almost its entire history, Neo-Assyria (eighth and seventh centuries), Neo-Babylon (late-seventh and early sixth centuries), Persia (539–333 B.C.E.), the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires (333–164 B.C.E.). These nations had their own literatures and customs. They also had a relationship to Israel through trade, diplomacy, or military occupation. It is not surprising, therefore, that biblical writings show the influence of other literatures.

The Bible is not a collection of private writings but an anthology of literary works that served a role in the political and liturgical life of the Israelite people. It was as much marked by the peculiar history and culture of the people as it was by the individual genius of its authors. Biblical literature was therefore inevitably international. Its genres appear elsewhere in the ancient East. In the last two centuries of the modern era much of the literature of Israel's neighbors has been recovered in excavations and by chance finds. Hundreds of thousands of clay tablets have been dug up in Mesopotamia and Syria; inscribed sherds and monuments have been excavated in Palestine; and papyri and inscribed boards have been recovered in Egypt. Texts long known have been restudied in the light of new knowledge. The texts show beyond a doubt that authors in Israel chose to write in types or genres that were common elsewhere. Chronicles, hymns, laments, stories about ancient heroes, laws, liturgical regulations, prophecies, love songs, proverbs, instructions, theological disputes, skeptical literature—all these genres show up in the Bible. The biblical law codes are a particularly good instance of borrowing and interchange, for example, Exodus 21:1-23; Leviticus 17–26; Deuteronomy 12–26. At one time, Israel's law codes were thought to be unique, but we now have other important collections of cuneiform law for comparison: the Sumerian laws of Ur Nammu and Lipit Ishtar, the Old Babylonian laws of Eshnunna and Hammurabi, the Middle Assyrian laws from Asshur, the Hittite law code, and a small collection of Late Babylonian laws. They represent a common law tradition, which, despite local variations, was essentially shared throughout the region of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. The very act of making collections of laws was part of the common tradition. A specific example of the communality is the law about the goring ox in Exodus 21:28-36: the same problem is also dealt with in the laws of Eshnunna 53-55 and Hammurabi 250-52. Comparing all three instances leads to the conclusion that the Bible does not have a superior evaluation of human life as once was thought, for respect for life was part of the ancient legal tradition. Another example is the creation-flood story in Genesis 2–11, which draws on the Akkadian epics Atrahasis and Gilgamesh. Even the prophets, who have always been reckoned as uniquely Israelite, have forebears.

Comparing literatures is a difficult task. Without discipline or good method, parallels will be found everywhere. In comparing ancient literature with the Bible two principles must be kept in mind. The first is that the purpose of comparison is not to prove the Bible superior to other literature or prove it is "true," but rather to help us understand the biblical passage. The law of the goring ox is a good example. The laws of Eshnunna or Hammurabi enable us to see that the case was enshrined in ancient common law and was not peculiar to Israelite law. One can recognize the beauty and truth in other literatures without lowering one's estimate of the grandeur of the Bible.

The second principle in comparing ancient literature and the Bible is that it is more productive to compare genres and wholes than individual items and odd details. Genre is important in the literature of any age, for knowing beforehand what we are reading gives us a general sense of location, enabling us to see the new and the traditional in a passage. In other words, writers compose and readers read within conventions; otherwise literature could not be understood. Understanding the genre of a particular piece, such as a lyric poem, a liturgical lament, a creation-flood story, enables one to understand the conventions of this lyric poem, lament, and creation-flood story. Biblical wisdom literature contains several genres that occur again and again: instructions of a father or parents to a son, proverbs, riddles, witty sayings. Some genres, such as the disputation on divine justice, are associated with only one book, in this case Job.

Thus, to understand biblical literature, it is helpful to examine the non-Israelite wisdom literature. First, comparable literature in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan is surveyed. Next, a look will be taken at representative samples in translation to show the quality of the works and the process into which they invite the reader.


Before examining the extant wisdom literature, we should note an important assumption about wisdom made by the ancient authors—its hierarchical nature. Since this assumption runs counter to our modern view of wisdom in daily life, a word of explanation is necessary. This consideration is especially helpful for understanding the instructions. Ancient writers assumed that wisdom belonged to the gods. All the gods can occasionally be called "wise," but one in particular, Ea (Enki in the Sumerian language) is so wise as to be the counselor of the gods. He is the one who proposed the creation of the human race to serve the gods and he is concerned with their survival. But other heavenly and even earthly beings shared in divine wisdom. In Mesopotamian mythology the seven sages (apkallu), who mediated knowledge and culture to the human race before the flood, were succeeded in the post-flood era by four sages, according to some ritual texts. The post-flood sages are called ummanu, "scholars," in some texts, and that title will surface again when we discuss Proverbs 8. The four sages are associated in one text with a human king and the last is expressly called a human being. This myth explains how it is that writings—liturgy, science, magic, and belles lettres—are the work of the wise. At the head of gods and heavenly beings ultimately stands the god Enki or Ea; from him the line of wisdom descends through the apkallu and ummanu down to human scholars; the human contribution grows progressively greater as the line descends. At the end of the chain of wisdom is the Babylonian school, which is run by the learned sages. Wisdom belongs to the gods and there must be a process so that it can be given to others. In the chain of transmission in Mesopotamia, scribes are in a line going back to Ea. Wisdom comes to human beings mediated by authorities in the community such as kings, teachers, and parents. To say that God or the gods give wisdom does not mean that it is given unmediated. The important thing is that wisdom is given from on high; how it was mediated was less important. The same process, allowing for local differences, would be true of Canaan.


Excerpted from The Wisdom Literature by Richard J. Clifford. Copyright © 1998 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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