The Wisdom Literature

Author: Fr. William Most

The Wisdom Literature (Copyright (c), 1995,by Wm. G. Most)

The Hebrew division of the Bible has three parts: the Law, the Prophets, the Writings. Within the writings are seven books which are commonly called wisdom books: ,Proverbs, Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes (Qoholeth), Song of Songs, Wisdom, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus).

Actually they are quite varied, but it is convenient to consider them together.

First,the notion of the word wisdom is quite varied. In Genesis 41.39 Joseph, because of the knowledge he was given by God to interpret the dreams of the Pharao, was considered as among the wisest of all men in Egypt. In Exodus 35.30 -37.29 we find various kinds of craftsmen called wise: Bezalel had divinely given knowledge of every craft in embroidery, in making objects of gold, silver or bronze, in cutting precious stones, in carving wood. Oholiab had similar abilities, and they were also given the ability to teach others. So they made the Dwelling with its ten sheets and also a tent to go over the Dwelling, and likewise made the veil. Bezalel made the ark of the covenant.

The Greek Socrates in Plato's Apology used the word wise in similar senses, of skilled craftsmen. However Aristotle in his Metaphysics 1.2 said that wisdom is a special kind of knowledge which knows all things by way of the first principles that control and underlie all. So wisdom knows difficult things, knows them exactly. Wisdom knows the universal truths which are difficult and exact. It is the highest kind of knowledge.Then he identifies wisdom with Metaphysics.

The OT concept of wisdom as we see can includes a wide range. But the chief feature of it is the knowledge that leads one to live rightly in relation to God, and in relation to neighbor. Moses in Deuteronomy 4.6-8 told the people that their divinely given laws were really wisdom,such that other nations,on hearing of them,would admire the wisdom of that people. For God in giving commandments is not seeking anything for himself-- He cannot gain anything.And "glory" is useless to Him. Yet He does want us to obey, for two reasons:1)His Holiness in loving all that is good in itself wants this obedience, since Holiness says creatures should obey their Creator. 2)He wants intensely to do good to us.But it is in vain for Him to give if we are not open to receive what He wants to give. His commandments are simply rules on how to be open to His gifts. And at the same time, they steer us away from the evils that lurk in the very nature of things. So when Vatican I defined (DS 3025) that God created for His glory,it meant merely that as a matter of fact, glory does come to Him from the fact that He give so generously to Him. But He does not seek glory,for it does Him no good. It merely pleases His goodness to give (cf.the report of the theological commission of Vatican I on this point, cited in Wm.Most, New Answers to Old Questions, #27).

St.Paul in 1 Cor 6.12 pointed out that violations of the law of God were not good for us. Much later,St.Augustine wrote in his Confessions (1.12): "You [Lord] have ordered it and it is so,that every disordered soul is its own punishment." This is obvious when a man has a hangover after getting drunk. It also often happens that a marriage is loveless after much premarital sex - for such sex is not driven by real love,but only by a chemistry that mimics love. Similarly, the Book of Wisdom 11.16:" By what things a man sins, by those things is he punished." The great Roman historian Tacitus, an astute observer of human nature, wrote in Annals 6.6 about Tiberius,who indulged his evil whims when holed up in the island of Capri: "His crimes and wickedness rebounded to torment him. How correctly did the wisest of men say that the souls of despots, if we could see them, would show wounds and lash-marks on a body." [He was referring to the words of Socrates in Gorgias 479-80.Cf.also Plato,Theatetus 176-77].

On the opposite side, the early Romans believed in living in frugality: it would bring happiness .They lived this ideal until about the end of the third century. Then they gradually departed from it in practice, though for long after continued to recognize it as an ideal.

Was Moses thinking of the rules that would give them eternal life? Not very likely.The oldest promises of God given to Abraham, and at Sinai, originally referred to the land,and to added favors in this life. Yet around the end of the Old Testament period,these things were reinterpreted to stand for salvation in the next life, as we see in Galatians 3.15ff.

But we will return to the matter of future retribution later on to ask how much the Jews knew how early. The picture is complex. For now we are to look at the content of those books usually called wisdom books.

At the start it is good to notice a development in the Old Testament thought about wisdom. In Job 28.12-27 and in Baruch 3.9 - 4.4 Wisdom is a divine attribute by which God creates and rules all things. Man cannot get it by his own efforts, but God gave it to man in giving the law (cf.above on Dt. 4.6-8). Another step of the development appears in Proverbs 1.20-33; 8.1-21 and 9.1-6 in which Wisdom is personified - for the Hebrew word for Wisdom hokmah is grammatically feminine ( So is Greek sophia). Hence wisdom is often spoken of as a woman, But this is only a personification, following on the fact that the noun, as we said is grammatically feminine. Grammatical gender has nothing whatsoever to do with real sex. That has not prevented utterly foolish people today from saying there is a separately divine person, who is female. But as we said,this is a personification, and it no more stands for a physical person than does Lady Folly, also found in Proverbs 9.13-18, who lures men to their death. But Lady Wisdom stands on the corners and invites people to listen to her words and follow them.

In Proverbs 8.22-31 Wisdom is spoken of as if separate from God - this is just a further development of the personification. She came forth from the mouth of the Most High (24.1), when God created her in the beginning and before all ages (24. She went about heaven and earth and the nether world looking for a resting place (24.4-7), but finally took up her abode in Jerusalem (24.8-12), where she flourished and produced much fruit(14.13-17), which she invites men to partake of (24.18-21). Really this divine wisdom seems the same as the Mosaic Law,which, as we saw above,is true wisdom.

Finally the Book of Wisdom (7.22 - 8.1) pictures divine wisdom as "an aura of the might of God and a pure effusion of the glory of the Almighty (7.25), as an intelligent spirit(7.22) who advised God at creation (8.4).Wisdom can do all things ( 7.27) and knows all things (9.11-- we think of Aristotle's ideal of wisdom), penetrates all things (7.24) and governs all things (8.1).Wisdom is God's beloved companion (8.3) an attendant at His throne (9.4).

It is interesting to compare the concept of number in St.Augustine who says that since wisdom extends from end to end (Wisdom 8.1) but yet cannot come to irrational and lifeless things, yet even these share in wisdom by way of number In this he depends on Wisdom 11.20 which says God has "arranged all things in measure and number". He notes that God,Infinite Beauty is supremely One. But material creatures have parts. However if the parts are arranged harmoniously so as to resemble unity, then they are beautiful. This is,of course, a sort of participation in number. (Cf.Wm.Most in CBQ, July 1951).

Again, St.Paul in 1 Cor 1.24 speaks of Christ as the wisdom of God. He says that the wisdom of God is so lofty--he means the doctrine of the incarnation and the cross -- that compared to it, earthly wisdom is nothing at all,is folly (1 Cor 1.18-25).

Actually the wisdom contained in the wisdom books is a blend of human astuteness and divine wisdom. It is likely that they got some of the ideas from their stay in Egypt.One of the oldest works there is. The Instructions of Ptahotep,a vizier of Egypt c 2400, who gives practical advice to his son on how to succeed in the court of the Pharaoh. A major thrust is to put human beings in harmonious agreement with ma'at, a cluster of virtues (order,truth,justice). Later but very influential are the Instructions of Amenemope, dating probably from around 1200 B.C. This latter work has remarkably close similarities to some things in Proverbs. Especially we could compare 22.17 - 24.22 to Amenemope iii.9-12; xi.13f;and xxvii.16f.

Ptahotep for example gives the good advice that when one meets a speaker who is better at argument, one should cut down on bad talk by not opposing him. On meeting an equal,one should shows his superiority by silence,to impress the attending official. An inferior opponent should be treated with indulgent disregard, so as to "smite him with the punishment of the [really] great." When at table with a superior, one should keep a sedate face, take only what is offered, laugh only when the host laughs. An official should listen patiently to the pleas of clients, since, "a petitioner wants attention to what he says even more than obtaining that for which he came."

There are also wisdom writings in Mesopotamia:Very early is The Instructions of Suruppak, dating from around 2500 BC. Suruppak gives instruction to his son, Ziusudra, the hero of the Sumerian flood story. The Akkadian poem , I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom ( Ludlul bel nemeqi) which deals with the problem of the righteous sufferer,and in this resembles the Book of Job. It considers the relation of the gods to human suffering. - The Dialogue about Human Misery,dating from around 1000 BC. is also in a way is like Job.It is a conversation between one who suffers and a friend. There is last toe book of Akiqar, a narrative collection of fables,riddles and proverbs. It was translated into about a dozen languages.It may be as early as the 7th century BC. It tells the story of how Ahiqar,an upright official under Sennacherib of Assyria was betrayed by Nadin, a relative, but was eventually restored.

As a result of the fact that this pattern of writing,or genre, containing both human astuteness and divine requirements, we need to check each saying to see of which kind it is. Failure to do that has led to some unfortunate mistakes. For example, Clement of Alexandria in The Divine Educator 2.7.58 used Sirach 32.4 without seeing the difference. Sirach there says it is good to put a limit on speech at a banquet. Young men should answer only when asked the second time. Clement thought these were religious rules. They are not. We will see this more fully in our treatment of Sirach.