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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Wisdom

There is perhaps no category of ancient writings more consciously composed and collected as literature than the didactic texts of Egypt and Mesopotamia. For their intense interests in the practical knowledge about the universe and their reflection on the nature of human life, these writings are sometimes described as “scientific” and “philosophical.” On account of their affinities to the portions of the Bible that focus on the place of wisdom, they are together called “wisdom literature.”

Subsumed under this category are the anthologies of pithy maxims that served to instruct people on the proper conduct of life. These collections, corresponding in many ways to modern manuals on etiquette, represent the collective wisdom of the communities based on their experience and observation of life. Whether the individual maxims first originated in the family, clan, or courts, it is certain that the large anthologies were made for instruction in formal settings. This was certainly the case in Egypt, where the sebayit (“instruction”) was made for the training of potential rulers and bureaucrats. Not surprisingly, therefore, the collections were often gathered in the name of famous kings and other leaders from hoary antiquity. Some are presented in the form of “royal testaments,” the legacy of departing kings for their successors, as is the Instruction for Merikare and the Instruction of Amenemhet I. The content and style of such instructional literature have led to comparison with the biblical Book of Proverbs, traditionally attributed to King Solomon. So suggestive in fact are some of the parallels that scholars sometimes speak of a dependence of portions of the Book of Proverbs on Egyptian didactic literature, such as the theory that Prov. 22.17–24.22 may have been translated directly from the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope.

Similar types of collections are not widely attested in Mesopotamia, but there are anthologies of Sumerian and Akkadian proverbs. One may cite here the Instructions of Shuruppak and the Counsels of Wisdom, or even the Aramaic proverbs of Ahiqar from a story set in the time of Sennacherib of Assyria.

Besides the collections of maxims, there are a number of wisdom texts that reflect on the problem of human suffering. From Mesopotamia comes the text called Ludlul Bel Nemeqi, “I will Praise the Lord of Wisdom.” This is the story of a righteous and pious noble who had been forsaken by the gods and afflicted with diseases, but was eventually restored to health by his god. The poem makes the point that the divine will is ultimately incomprehensible to mortals, for what mortals think is good may be an offense to the gods and what human beings regard as despicable may in fact be proper to the gods. The outline of the story is commonly recognized as corresponding to the story-line of the prose prologue and epilogue in the Book of Job.

Another text reminiscent of biblical Job is the so-called “Babylonian Theodicy.” The text is an acrostic poem in the form of a dialogue between a sufferer who exposes the evils of injustice and a friend who tries to reconcile these facts with conventional views on divine justice.

The concern with the prevalence of evil and the lack of justice is also reflected in several Egyptian texts, including the Admonitions of Ipu-wer and the “Tale of the Eloquent Peasant.”

Related to these texts are pieces of pessimistic literature. The Akkadian dialogical Counsels of a Pessimist, for instance, laments the transitory nature of human existence. The poet advises that one should accept things as they are and continue one's religious duties and daily chores. A similar satirical piece in the form of a dialogue between a master and his slave explores all the arguments regarding the meaningfulness of life, or the lack thereof. This literary device of a dialogue to present alternative views is also evident in the Egyptian text about a man's conversation with his soul, as well as the Complaint of Khakeperre-Sonb.

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