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Citation for Introduction

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"Introduction." In The Catholic Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Oct 25, 2021. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195282801/obso-9780195282801-div1-58>.


"Introduction." In The Catholic Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195282801/obso-9780195282801-div1-58 (accessed Oct 25, 2021).


The corpus of books that we know as wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom of Solomon) stands apart from the other literature of the Old Testament. It asks the question, what kind of role does God play in everyday life? The answers to that question did not contribute to the national story that we have come to know as “salvation history.” Instead, these books form a kind of guide for successful living. Since every person in every culture must struggle with the questions of life, there is a universal character to this literature. This might explain why, even today, people of other religious cultures often can more readily identify with the teaching of the wisdom books than with the uniquely Israelite or Christian theology found in other sections of the Bible.

The Israelites came to believe that their God was the great Creator‐God, the one responsible for the world and everything in it. Observing the regularity in creation, they concluded that there was some kind of order inherent in nature itself. They believed that, if they could discern how this order operated and then harmonize their lives with it, they would be successful and at peace. The ability to perceive this order and to live in accord with it was known as wisdom.

The primary interest of the wisdom tradition is instruction in the proper ways of living. The writers made use of various teaching techniques such as storytelling, exhortation, warning, and questioning. In addition to the standard proverb, they used riddles, parables, and metaphors to instruct, advise, and persuade. There are usually very definite lessons that they wanted to teach, and so we should not be surprised when we come across what appears to be “the moral of the story.”

The sages were humanists; they were concerned with the study of human beings and attentive to human welfare, values, and dignity. They taught that whatever benefited humanity was a good to be pursued, and whatever was harmful should be avoided and condemned. Training of any kind, whether within the family, the court, or in preparation for a profession, ought to impart the skills needed to succeed in the relevant setting. The criterion for judging the value of any venture was the degree of success or happiness that it brought. The sages regarded well‐being and happiness as evidence that life was in accord with the order of creation. They did not advocate the pursuit of happiness for its own sake, but as a by‐product of the right kind of life. Success and happiness were also considered concrete evidence of the wisdom of the successful person. The judgment of right or wrong, and the laws that supported this judgment, grew out of just such a critical reflection on the experience of life.

Although Israel's wise women and men believed that there was a right way of behaving, they did not insist on a rigid standard that would fit every circumstance. Each case was different. The wise person was the one who had a store of wisdom gained from experience and who knew which way of behaving was appropriate to each situation. There is a great deal of pragmatism in such a way of viewing life. If an approach did not accomplish the desired goal, it was discarded for one that would. This is not a case of the end justifying the means. Rather, the Israelites believed that goodness was a force that determined life. They were convinced that goodness became evident in whatever built up, sustained, or enriched life. From this point of view, the consequences of an action or the quality of the end were seen as evidence of the goodness of the means. Such an understanding of life presumed that conformity to the inherent governing principles of the world would result in a life filled with success and prosperity. On the other hand, adversity was attributed to failure to observe these authoritative directives. On occasion, this tradition does acknowledge the limitations of this point of view (Job and Ecclesiastes are prime examples). Nonetheless, the theory of retribution (the good shall be rewarded; the evil shall be punished) undergirds most of the wisdom literature.

Israel's wisdom tradition did not develop in a vacuum. It was part of a much broader movement within the ancient Near Eastern world. Reference to the sages of foreign nations can be found throughout the biblical text itself, usually within passages that depict an Israelite outstripping a non‐Israelite in wisdom. For example, Joseph succeeded in interpreting Pharaoh's dream when the magicians and sages of Egypt failed (see Gn 41 ), and Job had a reputation that surpassed those of all the sages of the East (Jb 1, 3 ).

There is remarkable similarity between the biblical wisdom material and some Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Canaanite texts. There is common subject matter, the literary forms are similar, and the worldview corresponds. Critical examination shows that the non‐Israelite texts are significantly older than comparable biblical material. Israel probably borrowed from a common pool of traditions and then adapted and reinterpreted material when necessary. Despite these similarities, Israel's wisdom tradition is clearly in accord with its Yahwistic faith. It may not focus on specifics of religion, but it is highly ethical and fundamentally monotheistic, and, at times it equates wisdom with fidelity to the law of Israel.

Further Reading General Introductions to Wisdom Literature:

Bergant, Dianne. Israel's Wisdom Literature: A Liberation‐Critical Reading. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.

Crenshaw, James L. Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. Rev. ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998.

Davis, Ellen E. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000.

Murphy, Roland. The Tree of Life. An Exploration of the Biblical Wisdom Literature. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

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