The honest faith in the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament

This is the third post on Christopher Wright’s insights into the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament (in his The Mission of God [Nottingham: IVP, 2006]). Here we will find that the Wisdom literature contains an “honest faith.”

The most challenging difference between Wisdom and the rest of the Old Testament tradition arises when some voices within the former express doubts about or question the universal applicability of some of the mainline affirmations in other parts of the Old Testament. And yet this may be precisely part of the purpose of the presence of this material in the canon of Scripture—to compel us towards an honest faith that is willing to acknowledge the existence of doubts we cannot entirely dismiss and questions we cannot satisfactorily answer within the limits of our experience or even the limits of the revelation God has chosen to give us. (p. 450)

The fact is that the world poses some very hard questions for those who, in line with the whole Bible testimony, believe in one, good, personal, sovereign God. Wisdom provides a license to think, to wrestle, to struggle, to protest and to argue. All it asks is that we do so with the undergirding faith and humble commitment encapsulated in its own core testimony that “the fear of the LORD—that is wisdom,/ and to shun evil is understanding” (Job 28:28). (p, 452)

(The previous two posts mentioned above can be found here and here.)

The Wisdom literature in the Old Testament and Israel’s convictions about creation

In my last post we read some quotes from Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God (Nottingham: IVP, 2006).

We looked at the international character of the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament. Here we will take a look at how that character is based on Israel’s convictions about creation. This is in fact quite obviously, but I guess it is easy to miss if we don’t pay attention.

There are, according to Proverbs, general principles that lead to a good and successful life. But it does not always turn out according to these principles. The realities that stem from Genesis 3 are the stark background for the wrestlings of Job and Ecclesiastes: satanic malice, suffering, frustration, meaningless toil, unpredictable consequences, uncertain futures, the twistedness of life and the final mockery of death. Wisdom by itself cannot answer these questions, but it provides the clue that points to where the answer maybe found—in the fear of the Lord God himself. (p. 447)

But the most marked difference between the law and the prophets on the one hand and wisdom on the other lies in the motivational appeal that is characteristic of each. The former appeal predominantly to Israel’s redemptive history, whereas the latter appeals predominantly to Israel’s convictions about creation. (p. 449)

The emphasis here [in Proverbs 14:31; 17:5; 19:17; 22:2; 29:7, 13; Job 31:13–15] is entirely on our common humanity, common because we all share the one Maker, God. So rich or poor, slave or free, oppressed or oppressor, we are all alike the work of God’s hands. What we do to a fellow human being, therefore, we do to his or her Maker, a profound ethical principle that Jesus reconfigured in relation to himself. (p. 449)

Nevertheless it is a striking fact that while the law and the prophets are so solidly founded on the core history of Israel, the Wisdom literature draws its theology and ethics from a more universal, creation-based moral order. (pp. 449–550)

This too has its missiological implications. In approaching people of other cultures, faiths and worldviews, we nevertheless share a common humanity and (whether they acknowledge the fact or not) a common Creator God.” (p. 550)

The biblical wisdom tradition shows us that there is a certain universality about biblical ethics simply because we live among people made in the image of God, we inhabit the earth of God’s creation and however distorted these truths become in fallen human cultures they will yet find an echo in human hearts. (p. 550)


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)