Wisdom Literature

proverbs

psalms

Wisdom literature is a genre of literature common to the Ancient Near East characterized by sayings of wisdom intended to teach about divinity and about virtue. While techniques of traditional storytelling are used, books also presume to offer insight and wisdom about nature and reality.

The genre of ‘mirrors for princes’ (textbooks which directly instruct monarchs on certain aspects of rule and behavior), which has a long history in Islamic and Western Renaissance literature, represents a secular cognate of biblical wisdom literature. In Classical Antiquity, the advice poetry of Hesiod, particularly his ‘Works and Days’ (ca. 700 BCE, a farmer’s almanac in which Hesiod instructs his brother Perses in the agricultural arts) has been seen as a like-genre to Near Eastern wisdom literature.

In Ancient Egyptian literature, wisdom literature belonged to the ‘sebayt’ (i.e. ‘teaching’) genre which flowered during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt and became canonical during the New Kingdom. Written as a pragmatic guidebook of advice for the son of a vizier, the ‘Instructions of Kagemni’ is similar to that of ‘The Maxims of Ptahhotep.’ It differs from later teaching texts such as the ‘Instruction of Amenemope,’ which emphasizes piety, and the ‘Instructions of Amenemhat,’ which William Simpson (a professor emeritus of Egyptology at Yale University) described as a ‘political piece cast in instruction form.’ ‘Kagemni’ advises that one should follow a path of modesty and moderation, which is contrasted with things to avoid: pride and gluttony. In ‘Kagemni,’ the ‘silent man’ who is modest, calm, and practices self-control is seen as the most virtuous; this type of person is later contrasted with his polar opposite, the ‘heated man,’ in ‘Amenemope.’ According to Israeli translator of ancient Egyptian text Miriam Lichtheim, the virtuous ‘silent man’ first described in ‘Kagemni’ ‘was destined for a major role in Egyptian morality.’

The most famous examples of wisdom literature are found in the Bible such as the ‘Book of Job,’ ‘Psalms,’ the ‘Book of Proverbs,’ ‘Ecclesiastes,’ ‘Song of Songs,’ the ‘Book of Wisdom’ (also known as ‘Wisdom of Solomon’), and ‘Sirach’ (also known as ‘Ben Sira’ or ‘Ecclesiasticus’). ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Sirach’ are deuterocanonical books (books of the Christian Old Testament that are not part of the Hebrew Bible), placed in the ‘Apocrypha’ (non-canonical writings, that are sometimes omitted in Christian Bibles) by Protestant Bible translations. The philosophy apparent in these texts combines a more semitic emphasis on practical wisdom with a Hellenic/Platonic concept of transcendent wisdom. The Hebrew wisdom evident in these works is a departure from early Hebraic texts that tell of the decrees of God through prophets and kings to acknowledgment of the plethora of human emotions in daily life and recommendations on how humans can maintain a relationship with God.

While connections of good behavior and good individuals maintain a special relationship to God, wisdom books introduce opportunities in ‘Lamentations,’ ‘Psalms,’ and other books to use one’s faith to express displeasure, pain, fear, and dispassion to God in productive ways. Rather than mere discouragement of such emotions, wisdom texts particularly seek to rationalize these human reactions to life and emphasize that they are not excuses to avoid contact with God, but just like joy are to be expressed and lived with.

The extant writings of the Jewish sages are contained in the books of ‘Job,’ ‘Proverbs,’ ‘Psalms,’ ‘Ben-Sira,’ ‘Tobit,’ ‘Ecclesiastes,’ ‘Wisdom of Solomon,’ and ‘4th Maccabees,’ to which may be added the first chapter of ‘Pirke Aboth’ (a Talmudic tract giving, probably, pre-Christian material). They are discussions of the moral government of the world, manuals of conduct; meditations on the autonomy of reason in the moral life, and reflections on man and physical nature. Skeptical views are expressed in ‘Job,’ ‘Proverbs,’ and ‘Ecclesiastes’; the others take the then orthodox positions on faith.

Though the intellectual world of the sages is different from that of the prophetic and legal Hebraism, they do not break with the fundamental Jewish theistic and ethical creeds. The material consistently regards God as standing outside the world of physical nature and man. Nor does man grasp or accept the idea or the identity of the human and the divine, there is thus a sharp distinction between this general theistic position and that of Greek philosophy. The wisdom books do maintain the old high standard of Hebraic morals, and in some instances go beyond it, as in the injunctions to be kind to enemies (‘Proverbs’) and to do to no man what is hateful to one’s self (‘Tobit’).

Like the prophetical writings before Ezekiel, the wisdom books, while they recognize the sacrificial ritual as an existing custom, attach less importance to it as an element of religious life (the fullest mention of it is in ‘Ecclus’); the difference between prophets and sages is that the former do not regard the ritual as of divine appointment (‘Jeremiah’) and oppose it as non-moral, while the latter, probably accepting the law as divine, by laying stress on the universal side of religion, it deemphasizes the local and mechanical side. The interest of the material is in the ethical training of the individual, which is pleasing to God, on earth. Nationalistic overtones, state, or even governmental recommendations are not emphasized in favor of instructing the average man and woman.

Though the wisdom writers regard the miracles of the ancient times as historical facts, they say nothing about a miraculous element in the lives of their own time. Angels occur only in ‘Job’ and ‘Tobit,’ and therein noteworthy characters: in ‘Job’ they are beings whom God charges with folly, or they are mediators between God and man, and are consequently more humanized. This is to be contrasted with the angels appearing in ‘Genesis’ and other earlier canonical works. In the prologue, the figure of Satan accounts for Job’s calamities; in Tobit the ‘affable’ angel Raphael is a clever man of the world. Except in ‘Wisdom’ (where the serpent of Eden is called ‘Diabolos’), there is mention of one demon only (Asmodeus, in ‘Tobit’), and that a Persian figure. ‘Job’ alone introduces the Leviathan (whale) that occurs in late prophetical writings (‘Amos,’ ‘Isaiah’).

There are instances in the book of ‘Proverbs’ where Wisdom is personified as a female. She is depicted as a figure with a home inviting those in need of wisdom to enter. She says ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.’ She not only identifies herself as the divine companion, but also as the source of order in society and success in life. She is also personified as the ideal woman for an Israelite man in a section titled ‘Ode to a Capable Wife.’ There is debate about the status and place of ‘Woman Wisdom’ in relation to the divine. Some have interpreted her as a companion to the divine, an abstraction, an extension to the divine, or a Goddess. In ‘Proverbs’ ‘wisdom speaks of herself as having been created before anything else and as Yahweh’s companion and even assistant at the creation of the ordered world.’ It has also been argued that personifying Wisdom as a woman adds a mythical nature to proverbs. This would line up with the ancient Near Eastern view that every male deity had a female counterpart.

It may be easier to understand the personification of wisdom as a woman if she is placed in comparison to the other female mentioned in ‘Proverbs,’ who is portrayed as a prostitute, adulteress, and a woman with much seductive speech. She is given the designation of being a ‘foreign’ or ‘strange’ woman. The victims she claims are among the simple ones, young men without sense. The young man of ‘Proverbs 6:7’ is repeatedly warned to avoid such a woman. Old Testament scholar Michael Coogan suggests that ‘aside from being good advice, this may reflect the biblical insistence on marriage within the community.’ Furthermore, interspersed in the passages are admonitions for the young man ‘to rather seek after Woman Wisdom instead.’ In this way, the ‘foreign woman is a counterpart to Wisdom and can be interpreted symbolically as her alternate designation, ‘foolish woman.” The Woman Wisdom becomes that which one comes home to and the Strange Woman that which you run from. An important distinction in this context is the ‘foreign or strange woman’ is a non-Israelite woman such that during this period of history there is a ‘biblical insistence on marriage within the community.’

Hebraic wisdom literature downplays the philosophical discussion on the basis of the moral life that was common in the Greek world at that time. In Hebrew wisdom literature, the standard of good and the reason for good conduct is existing law, custom, and individual eudaemonistics (a system of ethics that evaluates actions in terms of their capacity to produce happiness). Social philosophies developing concurrently in Greece, by contrast, encourage good behavior for the health of the state, families, or from fear of reprisal. While the wisdom books, particularly ‘Ecclesiastes,’ note that punishment may follow from poor choices, the laws of goodness and rightness are God’s and should be followed because they are ordained good by God. Wisdom is represented as the result of human reflection, and thus as the guide in all the affairs of life but predetermination of good remains God’s prerogative. The wisdom texts emphasize human powers as bestowed directly by God; it is identified with the fear of God, an extension of which is obedience to the Jewish law.

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