Old Testament Life and Literature (1968)
Chapter 28 - Wisdom Writings
EARLIER we discussed possible relationships of Hebrew wisdom to the court of Solomon and to wisdom writing in the ancient Near East. We also considered some characteristics of wisdom literature, but we have not examined the words of the wise as inspired utterances. To what degree the insights of the wise men were believed to be of divine origin is not known. Jer. 18:18 groups prophets, priests and wise men as recipients of divine instruction (cf. Jer. 8:8 ff.), but no clue is given as to how the insight was given. In the section of Proverbs believed to be the last addition to the entire work (chs. 1-9), wisdom is depicted as an hypostasis of Yahweh.1 It is possible that Hebrew wisdom was not believed to be the result of intellectual speculation alone, but was related to, and perhaps derived from, divine Wisdom and was thus automatically linked to that which in the beginning gave order to primeval chaos and was the agent by which God created (cf. 3:19 f.; 8:22 ff.). If Wisdom was the ordering principle of the cosmos, then to receive insight from Wisdom was to acquire guidelines for living an ordered life in harmony with the cosmos. Some wisdom literature, in particular the first nine chapters of Proverbs, fits this interpretation, but it is impossible to read it back into earlier materials. Nor should wisdom be considered purely secular because it does not emphasize such central themes of prophecy or priestly teachings as the covenant, election, the cult, the role of Yahweh in history, Jerusalem, etc. Wisdom literature appears to rest in an acceptance of, and a profound respect for, a divine order which sustains the cosmos, but the writers do not presume to comment upon that order theologically.
The precepts of wisdom tended to be those verifiable by observation and were concerned with teaching man how to live.2 The Hebrew word for wisdom ( hokmah) is related to a root meaning "skill" or "care" and came to imply "skill in living." The wise man ( hakam) was one who possessed knowledge about how a man might live skillfully or well-knowledge that could be imparted to others. The means of communication was sometimes a riddle but more often a proverb (Heb: mashal), which could be a poem of two balanced lines or a more extended writing akin to a parable. The concerns were largely those related to everyday life and the teachings, particularly in Proverbs, tend to be didactic and mundane. Whether or not the wisdom movement had any ties with the cult cannot be ascertained, but in the post-Exilic period wisdom writings show an increasing tendency to accord with accepted Jewish religious beliefs.
Wise men formed schools of instruction. Their words, spoken as a father (teacher) to a son (disciple), were copied and learned so that their followers would have precepts to guide and instruct in any situation in life.3 Broadly speaking, wisdom teachings are practical as opposed to theoretical, individualistic rather than nationalistic, humanistic rather than theological. Religion is not neglected (cf. 1:7; 20:27), it simply isn't stressed. We will discuss some of these wisdom writings now, but will consider "The Wisdom of Solomon" later.
The opening verse of Proverbs appears to attribute the entire book to Solomon, in accordance with the custom of attributing anonymous writings to ancient worthies, but it is clear from the contents that, like so many other books of the Bible, Proverbs is a composite work. Some words are assigned to Agur, son of Jakeh of the Ishamaelite tribe of Massa (Prov. 30:1, cf. Gen. 25:14), others to the mother of Lemuel, king of Massa (Prov. 31:1). Within the book, eight different collections can be identified, and within these larger units, smaller groupings have been found:
Read Ch. 1-1:6
Read Chs. 1:7-9:18
Read Chs. 10:1-22:16
Read Chs. 22:17-24:22
Read Chs. 24:23-34
Read Ch. 30
Read Ch. 31:1-9
Read Ch. 31:10-31
Ecclesiastes, like Proverbs, is a product of the wisdom school, but is of a different temperament and outlook. Proverbs affirmed the accepted values of Jewish society; Ecclesiastes questions these same ambitions and goals. The author pretends to be Solomon (1:12 ff.), a claim accepted by the editor (1:1), but some passages indicate that the writer is a subject rather than a ruler (3:16; 4:1; 10:4-5). Although Solomon was only the second Hebrew monarch to rule from Jerusalem, the author speaks of the numerous Jerusalemite kings who preceded him (1:16; 2:9). The reference could be said to include Jebusite rulers but these are unknown in Hebrew-Jewish traditions. The language of the book is Hebrew with numerous Aramaisms suggesting the post-Exilic era. The author's spirit of individualism fits well into the early Greek period. Efforts to discover historical allusions within the text have not been particularly convincing. A reflection of the disturbed political conditions at the beginning of the Hellenistic period is found in 4:3 by some scholars, and others suggest that Ptolemy V is referred to in 10:16. The fragments of Ecclesiastes found at Qumran indicate that the book was known in the second century and, since there is no hint of the dramatic Jewish struggle for independence, a date prior to the second century is preferred. Therefore, the author was not Solomon, but a Jew of Jerusalem (although Alexandria is also a possibility) living in the closing years of the fourth or the early decades of the third century.
SPINNING WHORLS. Cloth making, which included the spinning of wool, goat hair, cotton or flax into yarn and the weaving of yarn or thread into cloth, was an important home industry in ancient Palestine. The last chapter of Proverbs includes spinning among the responsibilities of the busy housewife. The two objects pictured are spinning whorls: the larger is made of bone and the smaller of stone. A spindle, a shaft of wood or reed or ivory was thrust through the whorl, and when the spindle and whorl were spun the fibers fed to this combination were twisted into yarn or thread.
Ecclesiastes appears to be a literary unity. A few passages, expressing beliefs that appear to be contrary to the major thrust of the book, have been labeled interpolations by some scholars and accepted as genuine by others (2:26; 3:17; 7:26b; 8:12 f.; 11:9b). The uniformity of language would caution against removal of these passages. This writer, like Job, believed in God and divine righteousness, but did not pretend to understand God's ways. The book concludes at 12:8 on the same note with which it opens; 12:9-10 is an appendix expressing appreciation for the author, written, perhaps, by a disciple; and 12:11-14 is an added ending, warning against taking Ecclesiastes too seriously and providing a succinct alternative as a guide for living.
The title of the book in Hebrew is koheleth, which appears to be related to the Hebrew word for an assembly or congregation ( qahal), so that Koheleth is one who assembles people, perhaps the speaker. The term "Ecclesiastes" is from the LXX and refers to one who participates in an assembly. The English translation "Preacher" is unfortunate for it conveys the wrong image. Koheleth was a teacher, probably in a wisdom school. The book is a compendium of his teachings, not recorded in orderly literary fashion so that one idea leads logically to the next, but rather as a compilation of the teacher's speculations on the emptiness of life.
Ecclesiastes is intellectually linked to Job. Job demonstrated the futility of asking "Why?" of God. Koheleth accepts this. The intellectual struggle with orthodox theology was, for him, over. The question now was, "How does one live without theological or ultimate answers?"
In the face of Koheleth's experience and analysis of the futility of human ambitions, how should man live? Koheleth affirmed that wisdom was better than folly (2:13), friendship better than loneliness (4:9 ff.), keeping vows to God wiser than violating them (5:1 ff.), accepting one's lot and enjoying life to be preferred to constantly striving to better it (5:11 ff.). His response to the problem of theodicy is that one must enjoy pleasurable things when they are available, and when evil days come, accept these too (7:14). His advice was to press out of each moment of life as much enjoyment as possible (8:15-9:17), particularly in youth (11:9-12:1), because old age limits one's possibilities (12:1-8).
Koheleth has been called pessimistic, but his message comes through marked with realistic enjoyment of life (11:7). There is no bitterness in his denial of the validity of what he deems to be fruitless theological speculation (8:16 ff.) nor over-concern for that which cannot be changed (7:13). Like the writers in Proverbs, he frowns on laziness (10:18) and in the next breath extols the joys of bread, wine and money. He suggests a certain recklessness with possessions (11:1-2, 6) on the chance that good results will come of it. Like Job, he rejects the doctrine that the good are rewarded and the wicked punished and recognizes that sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. Koheleth finds no ultimate meaning in life, only the meaning that each man gives to it in his commitment to full enjoyment of the brief span of years that are individually his.
SONG OF SONGS
Perhaps the most unusual book among the sacred literature of ancient Israel is this collection of poems which expresses so forthrightly in sensuous language the theme of passionate love. The title "The Song of Songs of Solomon," which means "the best of Solomon's Songs", cannot be accepted as guaranteeing the work as one of King Solomon's compositions (cf. I Kings 4:32). The presence of Aramaisms and Persian and Greek loan words places the time of writing in the post-Exilic Hellenistic era, probably in the third century, although parts of the poems may be much earlier. We have appended the poems to the section on wisdom literature because it has been theorized that they were arranged and preserved by the wise men, thus explaining how the entire work was attributed to Solomon, the patron of Hebrew wisdom.
The poetry has been extolled for its beauty and elaborate imagery. Its symbols are sensuous. Its form is that of a collection of monologues and its point of view is secular. Numerous interpretations of the Song of Songs have been proposed:7
It is best, perhaps, to accept this last hypothesis concerning the Song, for it explains how this literature with what appear to be secular erotic overtones came to be included in Jewish sacred literature: the Song originated in the sacred literature of Canaan. Therefore Rabbi Akiba was not wrong in stressing its cultic and religious significance even though by his interpretation he gave the Song a new meaning in Judaism, just as Christians were to give it still another meaning in Christianity. Nor were the young men wrong, for the amatory themes were not part of Jewish theology, but were prominent in secular life.
Ecclesiasticus, the most extensive wisdom writing of the Hellenistic period, has been accepted as canonical by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, but not by Jews and Protestants. It is the only wisdom document whose author is known. Jesus son of Sirach, to call him by the Greek form of his name, or Joshua or Jeshua ben Sira according to the Hebrew, was a Jew who conducted a wisdom school in Jerusalem. The Prologue to his work, written by his grandson, informs us that the grandson went to Egypt to translate his grandfather's work into Greek in the year 132, the thirty-eighth year of King Euergetes, who is assumed to be King Ptolemy VII Euergetes II Pliyscon who reigned from 170 to 117. Ben Sira must have been born before the beginning of the second century, and it is assumed that his school flourished during the early years of the second century, particularly at the time when Antiochus III controlled Palestine. His writings give no hint of the social pressures and problems associated with the reign of Antiochus IV, although it must be admitted that Ben Sira makes little reference to specific social and historical events. Chapter 50 refers to Simon, the high priest, in such warm, intimate terms that there can be little doubt that Ben Sira was present at the worship service he describes-probably the Day of Atonement. Josephus mentions two Simons who were high priests. The first, if he ever existed (there is considerable doubt about this), was Simon, son of Onias, or Simon I called Righteous, who would have to have lived about 300 ( Antiquities of the Jews 12:2:5). Simon II, son of Jochanan (Greek: Onias), whose high priesthood is placed between 219 and 199, is believed to be the high priest observed by Ben Sira. Ecclesiasticus is, therefore, best dated about 180.
The title "Ecclesiastictis" is from the Latin translation and means "The Church's book," but the Hebrew title was, apparently "The Proverbs of Ben Sira" and the Greek "The Wisdom of Jesus, son of Sirach."8 The book may be divided into two major parts: Chapters 1 to 23 and Chapters 24 to 50, with Chapter 51 forming an appendix. Like Proverbs, each section opens with a poem in praise of wisdom (1:1-20; 24), and like Proverbs, the entire book ends with an alphabetic acrostic (51:13-30). The bulk of Ecclesiasticus is wisdom sayings or groups of sayings covering a wide variety of subjects. At times Ben Sira expanded his comments into short essays. No particular order of presentation can be discerned and attempts at literary analysis usually end as topical lists. A broad outline of the book is as follows:
II. The First Book, Chapters 1 to 23.
III. The Second Book, Chapters 24 to 50.
Ben Sira's themes, like those of other wisdom writers, tend to be universal rather than parochial. He warns his students against immoral associations with women but recognizes the merits of a good wife and a happy marriage (7:26 f.; 9:1 ff.; 25:16-26:28; 36:21 ff.; 37:11; 40:19; 42:12 f.). He encourages strict discipline in raising children (26:10-12; 30:1-13; 42:11), and inasmuch as no man can foretell the character of his children, his opinion on the size of families (16:1-3) appears to stand in sharp contrast to Psalm 127:3-5.
Some of Ben Sira's counsel was designed to guide students in proper social and political relationships. He instructs them in table manners, the role of the host and the guest (31:12-32:13). His comments on the merchant (26:29-27:3), the physician (38:1-15), and on lending money (29:1-7) are to aid his students in health and business matters, just as his admonitions to keep secrets (27:16) and to avoid slander (28:13 ff.) are guides for broader human relationships.
The lengthy statement in praise of famous men (44:1-50:24) is a concise review of biblical heroes. The darker side of David's life has been ignored and David is exalted for his military prowess and his contributions to Israel's religious heritage. Solomon's reputation as the father of wisdom is recognized, but he is condemned for his many wives. Only two other kings appear on the hero list: Hezekiah and Josiah, both of whom were praised in the Deuteronomic history for their religious reforms.
Ben Sira's attitudes to the religious practices of his day are closer to those of the writers of Proverbs than to Ecclesiastes. The beautiful description of the high priest Simon (50:1-12) reveals Ben Sira's deep appreciation of cultic ritual. He praised the Torah as a supreme gift from God (24:23). The personal religious attitudes and habits which he commended included moral and ethical behavior as well as ritual observances. Like the prophets before him he taught that atonement did not follow automatically upon the presentation of offerings (7:8 ff.; 35:12) but that God accepts the sacrifices of a righteous man (35:6 f.). Efforts to place Ben Sira in the tradition of the Sadducees force his teachings into patterns not yet established in his day,9 despite the fact that he was rather vague about the afterlife, and expressed no belief in the resurrection of the dead (11:26-28; 38:16-23; 41:1-4, 10-11; 46:11-12; 48:5).10
There is ample evidence that the story is much later than its setting, and it fits best into the period between 200 and 180, or just before the period of Tewish independence. For example, in 14:5 Tobit speaks prophetically of events to come, but it is clear that he is describing the post-Exilic temple. He does not know of the beautification of this temple under the auspices of Herod the Great, which occurred in the Roman period (37-4), but idealistically envisions a future temple built by Jews of the dispersion on their return to Jerusalem.12 The author confused the order of Assyrian monarchs, which would be unlikely for one contemporary with the events. Sennacherib was not the son of Shalmaneser as Tobit 1:15 indicates, but of Sargon. Nor were Nebuchadrezzar and Ahasuerus involved in the sacking of Nineveh, as noted in Tobit 14:15, but rather Nabopolassar and Cyaxeres.13 According to II Kings 15:29, the tribe of Naphtali went into captivity in the time of Tiglath Pileser III, not in Shalmaneser's day as stated in Tobit 1:1. The reference to the Greek drachma (5:14) and to the book of Jonah (14:8) point to a Greek provenance, and because there is no hint of persecution of the Jews under Antiochus IV, a date between 200 and 180 is usually given to this story.
The place of writing has been the subject of much discussion and scholars have proposed Mesopotamia,14 Egypt,15 Judaea16 and Antioch in Syria.17 The Mesopotamian setting may be rejected on the grounds of the author's confusion of geographical details, such as the implications that Nineveh was a day's journey from the Tigris (6:1),18 or that the trip from Ecbatana to Rages (or Rhagae) could be made in a single day.19 The argument against Egypt is based on the fact that in Egypt sheep and camels were neither common nor in the possession of the ordinary citizen, as is implied in Tobit 9:2 and 10:10.20 The choice of locale lies between Antioch and Jerusalem, with either city being a likely candidate.
Certain motifs in Tobit may have been borrowed from earlier writings. Tobit shows affinities with The Tale of the Grateful Dead, which relates how the hero of the story gave up his possessions to pay the debts of a dead man whose creditor refused to permit burial of the debtor's body. The story of Ahikar is known to the writer. He is familiar with the Story of the Dangerous Bride, in which a bride continues to lose bridegrooms to a monster on the wedding night until rescued by a hero.21
The author's purpose in telling the story, beyond the recounting of an interesting tale, is probably to encourage almsgiving and proper care for the dead and to teach that God sustains the righteous.22 These may appear to be rather limited reasons, but in view of the development of Hellenized Judaism, a story designed to encourage adherence to traditional Jewish ways is of particular significance..
Tobit represents a Jew loyal to Jewish religious beliefs and practices even when banished and persecuted (1:3, 6-12; 2:8; etc.). No other writing of this period provides a more intimate expression of the warm bonds existing between husband and wife and parents and child in a Jewish household (2:11-3:6; 4:3-4). No other account demonstrates better that strict adherence to the tenets of Jewish religious legalism brought into human relationships principles of concern and compassion (1:17-20; 2:2-5). When Tobit enjoyed good fortune, he sought to share it. He lent money in simple trust. His precepts were uncluttered (4:7, 14; 12:7) and included the "Golden Rule" in its negative form (4:15).
The religious beliefs expressed throughout the story reveal the writer's reverence for the Torah and his strong faith in divine providence and the efficacy of prayer. Prayers did not go directly to the deity but, as the angel Raphael explained, were delivered to God by seven holy angels (12:15). The introduction of angelic intermediaries and the appellations used for God, depicting his majesty and glory (1:4; 12:12, 15; 13:6-7, 10-11, 15), acknowledge the transcendence of the deity and reveal how far Jewish theology had moved from the views of the J writer. References to the presence of God avoid any hint of anthropomorphism, and only the divine glory is mentioned (3:16; 12:15).
Angels have appeared from time to time in Hebrew-Jewish literature (Gen. 22:11; 31:11; Exod. 3:3; Josh. 5:13-14; Judg. 13:3-5; I Kings 19:5; II Kings 19:35). Sometimes they are messengers of the deity; at other times they give protection (Ps. 91:11), support (Ps. 35:5-6) or succor (I Kings 19:5). In Tobit, angels are recognized as intercessors, and a specific angel, Raphael,23 was assigned to a special task. Persian influence may lie behind the seven angels of Tobit (12:15), for Ahura Mazda was said to be attended by six archangels, forces for good. The demon Asmodeus may be the Iranian demon of anger or lust, "Aeshma daeva." It has also been suggested that his name is derived from a Hebrew root shmd meaning "to destroy, hence he would be "The Destroyer." The banishing of Asmodeus and the healing of Tobit's blindness with the heart, liver and gall of a fish involve magic. Magicians have been referred to earlier in biblical writings (Isa. 3:2-3; Ezek. 13:18-20; II Chron. 33:6), and magic is prohibited in the Torah (Exod. 22:18; Lev. 19:26, 31; 20:6, 27). There is no condemnation of magic in Tobit, and the rites of expulsion and healing were taught and approved by the angel Raphael.
Old Testament Life and Literature is copyright © 1968, 1997 by Gerald A. Larue. All rights reserved.
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