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Walton and Hill Ask, What Is Wisdom? — An Excerpt from “Old Testament Today (2nd Edition)”

Categories Old Testament Book Excerpts

9780310498209John Walton and Andrew Hill admit it isn't easy to define wisdom.

In their foundational Old Testament textbook Old Testament Today, they explain the category covers such things as scientific knowledge, philosophy, politics, and law. While the Bible declares that the foundation of "wisdom" is the "fear of the Lord,” they ask, "Does this suggest that none of those disciplines could be successfully engaged without fear of the Lord?" (324)

As they explain in the excerpt below, the key to “wisdom” is worldview integration.

In the ancient world, order was a prime value, and wisdom was seen as the path toward understanding and preserving that order. “The people of the day wanted their worldview to fit together like a puzzle...They saw the fear of the Lord as the keystone to this integration process.” (326)

How insightful!

Read the rest of the excerpt for a helpful introduction into OT wisdom literature.

-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)


What Is Wisdom?

When we look at the vast number of topics covered under the heading of “wisdom,” it is easy to despair of finding common ground, for the heading covers artisan skills, scientific knowledge, etiquette, philosophy, psychology, politics, sociology, and jurisprudence just to name a few. Furthermore, the text insists on more than one occasion that the fear of the Lord is the beginning or foundation of wisdom. Does this suggest that none of those disciplines could be successfully engaged without fear of the Lord? 

Perhaps we can best capture the biblical way of understanding all of this by thinking in terms of worldview integration. In the ancient world, including Israel, order was an important value. Creation brought order to the cosmos; law brought order to society; etiquette brought order to human relationships; politics brought order to governance and authority. Ancient wisdom can then be understood as the pursuit of understanding and preserving order in the world. Wisdom is present when order is perceived, pursued, and preserved. The people of the day wanted their worldview to fit together like a puzzle — fully integrated with each piece placed in proper relation to the others. They saw the fear of the Lord as the keystone to this integration process. “Fearing the Lord” means that we take his person and role seriously. Order in the cosmos could only be understood through acknowledgment of the one who brought order. Order could only be preserved in society and in life by understanding God’s requirements and expectations. In this way, wisdom can be seen to transcend the basic knowledge or skill related to particular disciplines.

Literary Perspective

The Righteous Sufferer in Ancient Literature

In the ancient world, people were much more convinced that the divine realm actively controlled the fate of humanity. Consequently, everything had a reason (rather than just a cause). The theme of the pious sufferer was repeatedly taken up in their philosophical quests for understanding. As early as 2000 BC, scenarios were developed in wisdom literature to consider the plight of a man who in his own mind, and in the estimation of all of those around him, was above reproach yet had come to experience a tragic sequence of events.

If people were uncertain about what the gods considered righteous behavior, it would be easy for them to have misconceptions about whether they or anyone else were truly righteous. If offenses could be committed without a person’s knowledge, it would be easy to fall under condemnation unwittingly. These were options that existed for considering the gods to be inscrutable — beyond the ability of human perception and not offering any clear revelation of themselves. Alternatively, the gods could be considered unscrupulous — guilty of running an inconsistent system that did not make any claims to justice. The ancients may have felt this at times in their hearts, but they generally believed that the gods were interested in doing justice after their own fashion.

As Israel’s wisdom literature considered the question of the righteous sufferer, particularly the book of Job, it could move beyond the typical ancient Near Eastern options because God had revealed himself. There should therefore be no misconceptions about what he considered righteous, and there would be less chance of unwitting sins (although see Ps. 19:12). Moreover, although absolute righteousness may have been considered impossible, the book of Job leaves no possibility for thinking that Job is lacking in righteousness.

All the Wisdom of the East: Proverbial and Didactic Literature

First Kings 4:29 – 34 offers a description of Solomon’s wisdom and judges it “greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt” (v. 30). This shows that the biblical author is aware of the great wisdom traditions of the ancient Near East. When the text states that Solomon “spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five” (v. 32), it is not necessarily suggesting that he composed all of those.  Alternatively he could be seen as both a composer and a collector. Wisdom is gained by being encountered and absorbed in keeping with the respect of tradition that noted there is nothing new under the sun.

When we explore the long-honored traditions of wisdom in the ancient world, we are not surprised then to find many similarities to Israelite wisdom literature. Egyptian literature favors the “Instruction” form in which advice is given from the elder (usually king) to the younger (usually son). Over a dozen pieces are known, with the earliest predating Abraham by many centuries and the latest extending beyond the Israelite exile and the last of the prophets. Mesopotamian wisdom literature includes fables (rare in the Bible) but also preserved collections of short proverbs, sometimes referred to as “aphorisms” (Sumerian as well as Babylonian). These memorable digests of wisdom often use simile, metaphor, analogy, contrast, or cause and effect to make their point. The Old Testament uses many of the same forms and occasionally shows striking similarity in content as well. This would be expected because of the universality of human experience.

The Meaning of Life: Philosophical Literature in the Ancient World

The book of Ecclesiastes is sometimes referred to as pessimistic or speculative literature. Literary expressions of despair can be found in the ancient Near East in works such as the Egyptian Harper Songs and in the Mesopotamian Dialogue of Pessimism. But this assessment only picks up one aspect of Ecclesiastes, which, on the whole, is more dialectic. That is, it weighs the pessimistic conclusions about life under the sun against the more hopeful prospects connected with God-centered living. Leland Ryken has identified the book as “quest literature.” As such it would have some similarity to the famous Gilgamesh Epic in which Gilgamesh goes on a quest for immortality and in the process explores the meaning of life. Despite this common theme, however, Gilgamesh is a narrative while Ecclesiastes is reflective philosophical discourse.

Love Songs in the Ancient World

Examples of love poetry are known as early as the Sumerian mythological literature (third millennium) concerning the god Dumuzi, but much closer parallels are found in a group of Egyptian love songs from the period of the judges (Egypt’s Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 1300 – 1150 BC). These love songs were typically performed at festivals and share many of the features found in Song of Songs.

Old Testament Today, 2nd Edition

Old Testament Today, 2nd Edition

By John H. Walton and Andrew E. Hill

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