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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Questioning the Wisdom Tradition

The book of Job famously airs one of the major issues of the wisdom genre: the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked. What happens if this equation is found not to work as a result of that mainstay of the wisdom tradition itself—human experience? Job is a kind of test case—here is a man who kept himself on the path of wisdom and never strayed from it, who certainly had not sinned and who deserved only good things from God, and he is struck down by calamity, loses his family, his goods, his social status, his health, and his self-esteem. How can the exponents of traditional wisdom explain this? The main section of the book consists of a debate between friends who visit Job, who maintain traditional views about the punishment of the wicked because of deeds committed, and Job, who maintains his innocence throughout. The climax is an appearance by God in a whirlwind, ostensibly to sort the situation out and provide some answers. However, in a great display of his creative power, God does no more than raise more questions and increase the human sense of being unable to understand and control the world. This then poses a radical challenge to the wisdom world-view of finding orders and patterns in human experience of the world that provide certainty. The book of Ecclesiastes also challenges the idea of certainty in the world. Rather than crying out to God in anger and distress, as Job does, the author of this book is resigned to the uncertainty of the quest for definite answers. He espouses wisdom maxims, but sees them in relation to personal experience that often contradicts well-established principles. Death is the great leveller that makes human striving meaningless, although there are glimpses of hope for humans who have the capacity for enjoyment and happiness in between moments of despair (stressed by Whybray 1982) and recognition of the vanity of life. God again stands behind the scenes of the wisdom quest—elusive, yet worthy of praise—and ultimately the advice of the epilogue to the book states that fearing God is the only answer: ‘The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone’ (Eccles. 12: 13).

Some have questioned whether in undermining the wisdom quest these books can really be included in the wisdom genre (see discussion in Dell 1991). Both books are probably rather later than Proverbs, coming from the fourth and third century BCE respectively. They appear to spring from the same mainspring of ideas as the wisdom quest, but it is true that they are very much wisdom plus self-critique. Job in particular contains few proverbial sayings, and can be seen to draw from a wide variety of genres, particularly those familiar to us from psalmic lament, which may suggest that this is not a narrow wisdom production, but has links with wider genres of Old Testament literature, whilst Ecclesiastes combines the citation of traditional sayings with his own commentary.

There are parallels to the kind of theological questioning that we find in both Job and Ecclesiastes in Mesopotamian literature such as the Babylonian Dialogue between a Man and his God, in which a sufferer is innocent of his crime and so cannot comprehend the reason for his suffering, and two texts—I will Praise the Lord of Wisdom and The Babylonian Theodicy—which radically question the theory of just retribution in a similar manner to the dialogue of Job, both giving a test case of a pious sufferer unrewarded and seemingly unjustly treated. The Dialogue of Pessimism is closer in sentiment to Ecclesiastes in its description of the futility of life, but it goes a step further than the biblical counterpart in deciding that suicide is the only good.

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