History and Context
Every culture devotes itself in some way to the care and literary cultivation of its “experiential” knowledge. This is an elementary activity of the human mind, with the practical aim of averting harm and impairment of life from others. A person must know his or her way about in the world in order to hold his or her own in it. Thus, among the nations it has been a concern to pass on from generation to generation the gathered knowledge of the community. The classic example is that of a parent passing on to their child the wisdom they have accumulated through a lifetime of experience.
Ancient Israel also took part in the business of cultivating experiential knowledge. However, many of the most elementary experiences appeared quite different to Israel, in comparison to other nations. This is because Israel interpreted its experiences within a specific religious and spiritual context. The wisdom of ancient Israel comes to us with the biblical context.
For the most part, the Bible contains God’s word to us. That is, most texts involve God speaking to us. Some texts, however, reflect human expression. For instance many psalms contain human expressions of praise, lament, or thanksgiving to God. Still other biblical texts contain expressions of human reflection on life in general. Wisdom Literature is human reflection about life and how best to live it. Wisdom Literature in the Scriptures begins with the assumption that life is overseen by God. Thus, biblical wisdom begins with the “fear of the Lord,” and the understanding that the wise are guided by God (Prov 3:5-6; 16:3, 9; 19:21). For biblical wisdom, human experiences are best understood and interpreted in relation to God as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.
Therefore, the Wisdom Literature in the Bible might be called “God’s word written in human experience.” It is a recognition that God’s word is permeated throughout the universe and social order (Rom 1:20). It is a recognition of God’s revelation through nature and human reason! The sages of Ancient Israel sought such divine wisdom, through the examination of and reflection on human experience.
Purpose of Wisdom Literature
Wisdom Literature serves at least two important functions: (1) instruction of the young, and (2) general instruction for life.
The young were instructed in order to achieve well- being and to serve well the social order. General instruction for the old, as well as the young, was given in order to help people get along in life. This included practical concerns such as advice regarding home, family, and social issues. Wisdom Literature deals with the ongoing questions of living.
For example: Job deals with the ever-present question of human suffering; Ecclesiastes addresses the limitations of human life; Song of Solomon deals with the major human issue of love between a man and a woman. Proverbs addresses a number of familiar human concerns: raising children (13:24; 22:6); moral virtues such as self-discipline (10:17) and honesty (15:27; 16:11).
Genres (Forms) of Wisdom Literature
Following is a list of the various forms of Wisdom
1. Sentence, Proverb, or Saying: The basic form of wisdom expression is the sentence, proverb, or saying. Such sayings seek to state a general truth or insight in a succinct, interest-catching, sometimes witty form. Short sentences also occur that can be described as admonitions, exhortations, and prohibitions. Example: Prov 22:1.
2. Numerical Sayings: Numerical sayings bring together lists of events that possess similar characteristics. For example: “Three things are never satisfied; four never say, ‘Enough’” (Prov 30:15b; see also vv. 18, 21, 24, 29). Another example of a numerical saying can be found in Prov 6:16-19.
3. Allegory: At least two allegorical passages appear in wisdom literature: Prov 5:15-23, and Ecc 12:1-6 (an allegory of old age/death).
4. Autobiography: The autobiographical form is used by the sage in order to offer learning drawn from long and varied experience. Part of Ecclesiastes and some passages in Proverbs adopt this form (see also Ps 37:25, 35-36).
5. Dialogue: The dialogue form, popular throughout the Near East, is represented in the Old Testament only by Job.
6. Lists (Onomasticon-naming, list of names): A class of texts known as the list or onomasticon served to catalogue natural phenomenon, places, trades, flora and fauna, minerals, cities, etc. Such texts were found in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Israel. Such lists are seen in Job 38-39.
7. Polished Poetry: Israel’s sages also produced what can only be described as polished literary poems.
For example, the poem on the ideal wife in Prov 31:10-31; and the poem at Ecc 3:1-8. In addition, didactic (teaching) poems can be found in Job and Proverbs (Job 27:13-23).
Dual Approach of Biblical Wisdom
Biblical Wisdom Literature contains at least two approaches to wisdom:
1. Positive Strand of Tradition within Wisdom Literature: This approach represents a confident and trusting attitude toward the human ability to understand and master life. It reflects a positive assessment of the human capacity to comprehend the ways and will of God in the world. This approach affirms God has gifted humans with a mind and the ability to use for understanding the experiences of life. Proverbs reflects this positive approach to wisdom.
2. Negative Strand of Tradition within Wisdom Literature: A strand of skeptical Wisdom Literature developed. This strand questioned traditional assumptions and laid siege to honored religious claims. It gave expression to the anguish of human existence and the torment of living with questions. This approach affirms God and the universe are too great to understand; God and His ways are too far beyond human comprehension. Job and Ecclesiastes reflect this negative approach to human wisdom.
Paradoxically, both of these strands of wisdom exist side by side in the Bible. That is because both are true: God has gifted humans with the capacity to think, reflect, and understand human experience. At the same time, there are limitations to human knowledge. These limitations lead us to the realization that we are finite creatures who must place our trust in and our dependence upon God for daily living!