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

The Theology in Wisdom

Several theological themes dominate the wisdom teaching. While these themes are found within other biblical traditions as well (e.g., in the legal or prophetic writings), they are of fundamental importance to the wisdom tradition. Chief among these are: retribution, the theory that good will be rewarded and evil will be punished; concern for origins (creation) and ends (death); and the issue of the incomprehensible in life. Since these are fundamental questions, there is a universal and perennial dimension to them, which helps account for the similarity of so much of Israel's wisdom to the wisdom of other societies both ancient and contemporary. Despite the similarities, however, a dimension of this tradition is uniquely Israelite. This uniqueness resides in the distinctive way Israel understood these basic issues and dealt with them.

RETRIBUTION. The principle that discreet or virtuous behavior will yield happiness and well-being, while reckless or immoral conduct will beget adversity and grief, is derived from our reflective observation of occurrences in life. People learn from experience. They perceive certain patterns as working to their benefit and others as detrimental to their welfare. Often they preserve such insights in the form of proverbs. Such proverbs, which are really descriptions of circumstances in life, can also teach specific behaviors which will produce desired consequences. Eventually, such descriptive and didactic insights may well become the source of customs and even of regulations. The wisdom tradition, we should remember, is primarily interested in achieving peace and prosperity; the legal tradition, which is closely related to wisdom, governs the behavior that will ensure this peace and prosperity.

A careful examination of the literature of this tradition reveals several different yet related ways that wisdom is understood. First, the technical skill or dexterity of performance with which experts ply their trades or utilize their abilities is called wisdom. These people are able to perform with such expertise only because they have studied the rules governing their respective professions or crafts and have become accomplished in them (cf. 1 Kgs. 7.13–14; Ezek. 27.8–9 ). Although this meaning does not appear frequently, the focus on preparation in relation to accomplishment carries over to other meanings of wisdom.

A second arena wherein one can develop wisdom is the field of human interaction. There one learns to be tactful, shrewd, or sagacious. The wisdom books contain much instruction of this kind. In fact some interpreters maintain that such teaching originated from and was used within professional schools established to train official diplomats or scribal leaders of the court (cf. Prov. 25.1 ). Other commentators hold that this is too narrow an interpretation. They insist that the wisdom teaching is really a kind of training for life that is necessary for all. This training often takes place in the home, provided by both the father and the mother (cf. Prov. 1.8 ).

While both of these kinds of wisdom require the development of keen powers of observation in order to discover the inner workings of some aspect of life, the second wisdom seems to be more highly valued than the first. Human behavior is less predictable than the raw materials used by an artisan, and those who are able to steer themselves through the depths and shoals of human relations truly deserve to be called wise.

There is a way in which even those people who are bent on deception and wickedness might be considered wise. When they have insight into human limitation and frailty they often prey upon this weakness, take advantage of the unsuspecting, and benefit from their exploitation. Their wisdom might more accurately be termed cunning. The Book of Proverbs contains a recurrent warning to naive youth against such cunning (cf. 7.1–27 as well as the description of the serpent in Gen. 3.1 ).

Still another kind of wisdom is that attributed to those who demonstrate encyclopedic knowledge. Solomon is credited with a scope of knowledge and understanding unmatched in the world (cf. 1 Kgs. 4.29–34; Ecclus. 47.12–16; Wisd. 7.7–22 ).

Finally, it is in reverent obedience to the Lord that real wisdom is attained. “The first step to wisdom is the fear of the LORD” (Prov. 9.10 ). Such fear, based on the recognition of the holiness of God, is not merely an attitude of mind; it is the motivation of all conduct, launching every venture, sustaining it, and bringing it to conclusion. This religious motivation transforms the entire search for wisdom into a religious enterprise. The fruit of fear of the Lord is a wisdom that opens the person to deeper reverence and, therefore, to broader wisdom. It is no wonder that well-being and prosperity were regarded as rewards for fidelity to God. Such thinking led the sages to the corollary conclusion that misfortune and adversity were punishments for behavior that not only disregarded the natural order established by God, but disdained fear of the Lord itself.

Most of the instruction found in Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom and the Wisdom Psalms is based on this theory of reward and punishment. The teaching is quite practical and traditional. What in the past has worked for the welfare of the individual and the community will work in the present. Experience has proven the merit of this particular way of life; wisdom dictates that it be followed. Adherence to the teaching assures the individual of acceptance in the group. It also supports established practices and strengthens the status quo, consequences that work to the benefit of those in power.

On the other hand, both Job and Ecclesiastes question the universal applicability of the theory of retribution. The unexplained tribulations of the former and the discontent of the latter show that the righteous do not always experience in this life the fulfillment that the theory of reward and punishment promises, nor do the wicked always suffer misfortune. While both books raise serious questions related to the issue of theodicy (the vindication of divine justice in the face of innocent suffering), neither of them is able to offer answers to the dilemmas they describe. It was apparently in the first century B.C.E. that the wisdom stream began to develop a concept of retribution after death. The Wisdom of Solomon, which shows the influence of Greek anthropology (e.g., an immaterial soul that can survive death), speaks of immortality and the rewards that the righteous will enjoy after this life.

CREATION AND DEATH. In awe of the wonders of nature, the Israelites came to believe that their God was the great Creator-God, who was responsible for the world, its organization, and everything within it. They perceived this Creator not only as the primeval architect of the universe but also as the provident sustainer of reality and the demanding judge safeguarding the established order. They recognized that the splendor of creation could have come only from One who was both powerful and wise. Elements of wisdom thinking pervade Israel's accounts of creation (e.g., the order described in Genesis 1 ).

The wisdom books themselves contain traces of creation accounts (Prov. 8.22–31; Ecclus. 24.1–12 ). What sets these passages apart from other creation texts is the mysterious figure of Wisdom, personified as a woman, found in this tradition. Although she herself does come from God, this primeval woman clearly has an important role to play in the creation. Some consider her simply the personification of a divine attribute; others regard her as an hypostatization. A “personification” is an imaginative stylistic technique. An “hypostatization” treats what is normally merely a personal trait as a person with a distinct existence. In either case, one must ask: Why, if the Creator is usually characterized as male, is the personification or hypostatization female?

The Wisdom figure has been interpreted as an ancient deity. It is possible that the ancestors of Israel initially claimed to have many gods before they worshiped the Lord alone (cf. Gen. 31.25–30 ). They could have believed in a goddess of Wisdom on whom this figure is modelled. However, though primordial in origin and cosmic in influence, in Israelite literature this Wisdom figure is clearly a creature of God, which may tell against its derivation from a goddess. The representation does suggest that the wisdom human beings seek is somehow related not only to God but to the very first moments of creation.

Another description of creation is found in God's reply to Job (Job 38–41 ). These speeches are considered some of the most beautiful nature poetry of the ancient Near East. Here Job is closely questioned about the primeval events and the marvels of the natural world. His ability to exercise dominion over wild beasts or fathom some of the unique characteristics of the animal realm is contested. He can only stand in awe of the magnificent governing structure within the universe, one which far exceeds human comprehension or control. He is brought to acknowledge the wisdom and the power of the creator. Here creation, as primordial event and natural order, becomes the means for bringing Job to new insight. (The use of nature as a technique of instruction is a well established practice in folkloric traditions, e.g., Aesop's tales; cf. Prov. 6.6–11 ).

This same style of teaching is found in Ecclesiastes. Both the natural world ( 1.2–8 ) and the events in a person's life ( 3.1–8 ) follow a mysterious, yet evident, predetermined order. The regularity of nature in the first instance and the appropriate timing in life in the second are under the control of God, and God alone. As with Job, Ecclesiastes can only observe creation or life as it comes to him from the hand of the creator, try to discover the laws that are operative there, and live in harmony with them.

Both Job and Ecclesiastes see death as the end of all of life's possibilities. At the time of their composition Israel had no clear teaching about life after death. Hence the sages believed that this world and human history were the only stage on which the drama of life would unfold. If the curtain of death was lowered at a time and in a manner that prevented one from playing a role to the final scene, the conventional teaching of retribution would question the righteousness of that person. We have already seen how, each in its own way, these two books challenge this point of view.

It should be noted that, in the midst of his physical affliction and his anguish of mind and heart, Job longed for death only as a release from his torment—not as an opportunity for justification in an afterlife. That is, even when he did consider death as an option, it was only as a last resort and then only for a fleeting moment. He really did not despair of life. How could he if he clung to the hope that God would eventually vindicate him? With no doctrine of an afterlife, any vindication that he could enjoy would have to take place during his lifetime.

On the other hand, Ecclesiastes seems preoccupied with death. Since his life has not been difficult, death is not viewed as deliverance. Instead, it is almost seen as the final “futility.” This wisdom teacher maintains that all of our striving for happiness and prosperity is in vain, for the same death comes to the successful and to the one who fails, to the wise and to the foolish. Death is truly the great leveler. Some have called this unjust; others have called it absurd. Ecclesiastes acknowledges it as a fact and teaches trust in God, for ultimately all things are in God's hands.

It was probably the untimely death of the righteous that prompted the author of the Wisdom of Solomon to look anew at the question of retribution. This book comes from a Jewish community that has been Hellenized (influenced by Greek culture) to a considerable degree. The philosophy and language of Greek civilization had profoundly challenged the ancient religious traditions. However, encounter with this prestigious culture had not been solely detrimental. Greek thinking provided new avenues for understanding traditional teaching and for broadening that teaching in new directions. The belief that each person has an immaterial soul that survives death was pivotal in the continuing development of the teaching regarding retribution (cf. Wisd. 3.1–9 ).

THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE IN LIFE. All of the theological themes already treated leave us standing before mystery. Both the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel and our own experience persuade us that there is much in life that we cannot comprehend. The sages taught that certain natural laws can be perceived and followed. They never taught that people would ever be in complete control of the world or of their lives in the world.

Despite the assurance about consequences presumed by a strict theory of reward and punishment such as is found in Proverbs, the sages acknowledged that the coveted prize of wisdom is often unattainable. In fact, that dimension of wisdom most desired, the wisdom that explains the universe and the inner workings of human life, is beyond human reach and resides with God alone. Most probably the mysterious figure of Wisdom, present and active at creation, represents the inaccessible dimension of wisdom that is always calling to us but ever eluding us.

Ecclesiastes also admits that often the answers to the questions that most plague us are beyond our comprehension ( 3.11 ). His advice in the face of such human limitation is to be satisfied with and to enjoy fully whatever happiness we may have received from the hand of God ( 2.24–25; 3.12–13; 5.18–20; 8.15; 9.7–9 ).

It is probably in Job that we find the most gripping realization of the immensity of life's incomprehensibility. Grounded in the theology of retributive justice and convinced of his own righteousness, Job issued the demand that God explain why he, Job, had become the victim of such calamity and why God had done nothing to remedy this situation. In one of his speeches to Job, Zophar reminded the tormented man of the immeasurable scope of the mystery of God ( 11.7–9 ), but neither Job nor his interlocutors seemed to give this point serious consideration. It was only after the speeches of God that Job returned to this thought.

Job had called for a court trial where God would be forced to account for Job's predicament ( 9.1–3; 16–18 ). Instead, his own knowledge and experience were put to the test. Question after question was put to him, each one challenging his understanding of some aspect of the universe or his control over it. All of the questions confronted Job with the limits of his own creaturehood. He was indeed rebuked by God but it was for the narrowness of his vision, not, as his interlocutors had warned, for any lack of integrity on his part. The scope of Job's experiential knowledge was challenged, not the uprightness of the man.

Job's ability to comprehend life had become the standard by which he measured the providence of God. By means of the pedagogical technique of the analogy of nature, he was brought to new insights as to the limits of human nature. If he could not even begin to imagine the many and diverse ways that God continues to sustain creation, how could he possibly fathom God's mysterious care in his own life? Through questions about nature, God led Job to concede that, just as there are mysteries here that are far beyond his comprehension, so there are mysteries in life that he will never be able to grasp.

Acknowledgment of the incomprehensible in life brought Job to a new realization of the mystery of God. The upheaval of his own life and his firm conviction of his own innocence had called into question the way he had perceived divine governance in his life in the days before misfortune engulfed him. Formerly, he had known of God through the testimony of the ancients as well as through the teaching of the sages (cf. 8.8; 15.18 ). Now, his unexpected, breathtaking encounter with the God of creation gave him experiential knowledge of his own, knowledge that assured him that God is indeed in charge even though he, Job, cannot comprehend how God governs.

Although Job had never intended to usurp any divine privilege or status, he expected, even demanded, an insight into reality far beyond what he as a human creature had a right to expect. God's questioning sought to correct this by pointing out time and again: God is God and Job is not. The splendor of creation transcended Job's comprehension and he could only stand in awe and wonder. The purpose of the theophany was not to silence him, but to reassure him of divine control over the universe and to inspire him to confidence in this wondrous yet incomprehensible God. Job's questions may not have been answered as they had been asked, but his fears were dissipated and his trust in this mysterious God was restored.

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