The “international” character of the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament

I found some really good stuff in Dr Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God (Nottingham: IVP, 2006). It is about the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament.

What caught my attention was this statement.

The Wisdom literature is undoubtedly the most overtly international of all the materials in the Bible. (p. 443)

In this post I will cite the following in Wright’s book to show how the Wisdom literature recognises the wisdom of other nations but at the same time it bears marks of ancient Israel’s faith.

[I]t is remarkably clear that Israel was quite prepared to make use of wisdom materials from those other nations, to evaluate and where necessary edit and purge them in the light of Israel’s own faith and then calmly incorporate them into their own sacred Scriptures. (p. 443)

[T]he Israelite sages did not simply plagiarize the traditions of other nations. The distinctive faith of Israel, especially in those areas we have explored early in this book (their monotheistic assertion of the uniqueness of YHWH as God, and their covenant affirmation of Israel’s relationship with him) came into conflict with many of the underlying worldview assumptions to be found in the wisdom texts of other nations… Most obviously absent are the many gods and goddesses of the polytheistic worldview of surrounding nations. (p. 444)

Along with this absence of other gods, the very common assumption of the validity of all kinds of magical, divinatory and occult practices is also completely missing in the wisdom of Israel. Things forbidden in Israel’s law were not advocated by Israel’s sages. Among the side effects of a polytheistic worldview are a potential cynicism about morality (it doesn’t really matter what you do, some god will get you in the end) and fatalism about life in general (there’s really not much you can do but resign yourself to the fact that some circumstances will always be beyond our control). (p. 444)

Both of these attitudes are aired in Ecclesiastes, but without abandoning a strong controlling monotheism (“the fear of the LORD”), on the one hand, and the conviction that however puzzlingly absurd life can get, the values of wisdom, uprightness and godly faith are still axiomatic, on the other. It is this strong monotheistic ethic that is most positively distinctive about Old Testament Wisdom. Its motto, “the fear of YHWH is the beginning of knowledge/wisdom” (Prov 1:7) is the key. (p. 444)

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One thought on “The “international” character of the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament

  1. Pingback: The honest faith in the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament | Imagine with Scripture

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