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The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Study Bible that provides essential scholarship and guidance for Bible readers.

- Introduction to the Poetical and Wisdom Books

THE POETICAL AND WISDOM BOOKS are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. The creation of a canonical division called the “Poetical Books” is a relatively late development. In Jewish tradition these five books are included in the Writings, the third division of the canon; their order varies in different sources. The earliest evidence for seeing these five books as a unit comes from the second century CE, though it took many centuries for these five books, in the arrangement found here, to be recognized as the third section of the Bible. The order of these books was variable, and some traditions placed them at the end of the Christian Old Testament, while others put them as the second part of that book immediately following the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Its current placement in English Bibles follows some manuscript traditions which most likely sought to organize the first section of the Bible by placing the Torah, the most authoritative section, first, followed by works about the past (the Historical Books), books about the present (the Poetical Books), and books about the future (the Prophetic Books). This arrangement, which places the prophets last, would be especially significant once the Hebrew Bible became the Old Testament and was seen as an introduction to the New Testament. The Prophetic Books would then immediately precede the Gospels as prophecy followed by fulfillment.

The five Poetical Books were written or collected at widely different times and consist of a number of literary types: love poetry (the Song of Solomon), Temple liturgy (Psalms), and wisdom literature (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes). It is also likely that they entered the canon for quite different reasons: Psalms was used for prayers; the Song of Solomon was probably first canonized as an ancient erotic poem used in wedding ceremonies; while Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes may have been placed together in the canon because all three belong to a category of writings known as wisdom literature. These books thus do not form a totally coherent unit, especially when compared to other canonical divisions, such as the Historical Books or the Prophetic Books.

“Wisdom literature” describes works that share, as their focus, reflection on universal human concerns, especially the understanding of individual experiences and the maintenance of ordered relationships that lead both to success on the human plane and to divine approval. Books classified by scholars as “wisdom literature” are thus in some ways a departure from the concerns of other biblical books. They do not focus primarily on the nation of Israel, on its great formative historical memories, such as the Exodus from Egypt, on Jerusalem and the Temple, or on covenant as the central theological notion binding together God, the people of Israel, and the land of Israel. In more recent scholarship, the concept of “wisdom” has been criticized as too elastic and amorphous. Indeed, the three wisdom books in this collection are remarkably different from one another: Proverbs suggests that the righteous are rewarded and do not suffer; the book of Job profoundly challenges this view; while Ecclesiastes, in contrast to both Job and Proverbs, is deeply skeptical of the utility of wisdom. In addition, “wisdom” is a modern category, deriving from the beginning of the twentieth century, and thus Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes were not originally grouped together on generic grounds. They nevertheless share a thematic interdependence. Proverbs is representative of a type of ancient Near Eastern thought that looked for pattern and repetition in nature and in the moral life. In this tradition, the regular recurrence of natural phenomena could provide an analogy to guide human beings in their social interactions:

As charcoal is to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife (Prov 26.21 ).

The inevitability of the natural occurrence is mirrored in the inevitability of the social one. This kind of thinking then was extended to moral behavior, with the argument that good behavior, like good farming practice, will be rewarded:

Anyone who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and anyone who takes care of a master will be honored (Prov 27.18 ).

Job and Ecclesiastes relate to this widespread ancient Near Eastern tradition in different ways. Job denies the inevitability of rewards for living an upright life and decisively refutes the idea that human suffering is always deserved. Ecclesiastes treats the idea of inevitability in a different way: The natural repetitions of seasons, tasks, and occupations become an image of futility, in which people are “like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare” ( 9.12 ), powerless to understand their own destiny. Each, therefore, depends on the reader's acquaintance with the normative tradition. The themes of the wisdom tradition are continued in the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books of the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), both of which combine didactic themes and style familiar especially from the book of Proverbs with retrospective summaries of Israel's history.

Though these five books are loosely described as Poetical Books, they are not all poetry, nor are all biblical poetic works found in this canonical section. Although Ecclesiastes contains some poetical sections, such as the poem of 3.1–8 (“For everything there is season‐…”), or quoted poetic proverbs (e.g., 7.1–6 ), the book is predominantly prose. Additionally, the nature of the poetry in these books is very different, ranging from the highly structured, largely static poetry of Proverbs, to the intensely erotic, more free‐flowing poetry of Song of Solomon.

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