The Wisdom of the Sages: Preservation and Challenge Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon with an Introduction to Wisdom Literature

This chapter provides an introduction to wisdom literature and examines several texts that provide very different viewpoints from the rest of the Bible. The book of Proverbs exemplifies the dominant biblical view of theodicy.  The books of Job and Ecclesiastes demonstrate the range of voices contained in the Bible as they disagree with the overarching theme found in the Deuteronomistic Historians and the prophets that Israel’s fate was based on divine judgment.  The Song of Solomon, a series of love poems attributed to Solomon, is also discussed.

Wisdom Literature

The phenomenon of wisdom literature is well attested in the ancient Near East. Wisdom literature is analogous to Greek philosophy although it is not so abstract. Rather, wisdom literature consists of proverbs, fables, instructions, and dialogues that demonstrate some sort of knowledge. The proverb itself is a short saying that provides insight into a situation or experience. Proverbs were common in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, although borrowing is difficult to identify. Although the Bible contains many examples of the wisdom tradition, most appear in the Writings. Works including Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs focus on everyday experiences and contain little explicit reference to historical events or figures.

Proverbs 

            Like Psalms, Proverbs is an anthology with no clear principle of arrangement. The individual proverbs are difficult to date, although some of them may have developed as early as the monarchic period. Overall, the final compilation and editing were probably completed in the fifth or fourth century BCE. In general, Proverbs may be divided into two categories: proverbs that provide insight into everyday life and those that are religious in content, although there is overlap between these categories.

            For the ancient Israelites, wisdom included a reverence for or “fear” of Yahweh. Fearing God did not mean that one would be blessed in the afterlife; instead, the goal was an earthly reward. Moreover, following the instructions of the divine was just as important as obeying parents and rulers. This is why many of the proverbs have a folkloric character to them, with the family acting as the primary setting. Some of the proverbs also demonstrate a connection to agrarian society, suggesting that many may have originated in smaller towns and villages. The book of Proverbs also emphasizes the ideals of Israelite law and shows a concern for social justice, much like that found in many of the prophets.

Job

Although Job is traditionally praised for his patience, the troubles that befall him in the book soon result in anger and frustration over his fate. Job’s protestation of his innocence suggests not only that Job was decidedly impatient but also that God was unjust and capricious in his treatment of Job. The famed description of Job’s patience indicates that the book of Job is only one aspect of Job’s story. Apparently Job was a well-known ancient figure who was understood as a paradigm of goodness. The author of the biblical book of Job borrowed from this tradition in order to discuss the issue of the suffering of the innocent.

            The structure of Job is relatively simple although it does show some internal disruption. The text itself consists of a prologue, followed by a series of dialogues between Job and his friends, and then a dialogue between Job and God, concluding with an epilogue. Many believe that the text shows some signs of “dislocation” or perhaps editing beginning in chapter 25. This is evidenced by the inclusion of many repetitions and the apparent addition of Elihu at a later date. The text itself is anonymous, and since there are no specific historical references, it is difficult to date. Scholars have suggested dates ranging from the tenth to the third century BCE, although for many an exilic date is most reasonable.

            The book of Job draws on a wide range of genres, including hymn, lament, and proverb. Moreover, the text has many parallels from ancient Near Eastern literature. These texts use similar genres to the book of Job, including the dialogue, and they discuss the problem of divine justice and the suffering of the innocent. Despite these similarities, there have been no direct connections made linking the book of Job to any of these texts.

Interpretation of Job

The interpretation of the book of Job begins with the Septuagint, which is one-sixth shorter than the Hebrew version. There is also an Aramaic version of Job found among the Dead Sea Scrolls whose ending is shorter than the traditional version. Many possible reasons have been offered for these differences, including the theological concerns over the portrayal of God as unjust, leading to the weakening or omission of certain incriminating verses.

            Even with the changes in the variant texts, the central problem with the book of Job remains: He is a good person who suffers at the hands of Yahweh. Therefore, unlike the Deuteronomistic historians and the prophets who contend that the trials of Israel were a direct result of Israel’s sins that were then punished by God, the book of Job asks why the innocent suffer. Not only does the text demonstrate that Job is impatient, but it even shows Job questioning why God is so interested in mortals and tests them so frequently. Although Job’s friends insist that he must be guilty of sin, Job rejects this, insisting on an explanation from God himself. While it is significant that God does answer Job, his response does not explain or resolve the issue. Although God’s response is less than satisfactory, Job returns to his previous humility and is apparently content. Presumably this was because he recognized that he was insignificant in the grand scheme of things and that humans cannot comprehend the reasoning of God.

Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes is traditionally attributed to Solomon, although it is clear that he did not write it. Like other examples of wisdom literature, Ecclesiastes does not provide us with any historical details, making dating difficult. The existence of Aramaisms and Persian loan words suggests a rather late date. Commonly it is accepted that the text was written in the fourth or third century BCE, although some suggest that a date of the fifth century is possible.

            The text is a discussion of how the author went on a quest for the meaning of life. It maintains no discernible structure and is essentially a collection of thoughts. The text also contains contradictions that may be explained as editorial adaptations or deliberate inconsistencies illustrating the unpredictability of life. The most widely held suggestion is that these contradictions exist as a way of refuting traditional views. Although it is difficult to ascertain the overarching theme or structure of the text, it is clear that the author believes in God and is of the opinion that humans could not comprehend God’s plan. Thus, the essential point of view of the author is that human effort on any plane is insignificant and transitory. In sum, there is no pattern of life, and goodness is not always rewarded nor is evil always punished.

The Song of Solomon

Solomon was traditionally cited as the author of the Song of Solomon (also called “the Song of Songs”); however, he was not the original author. Rather, many scholars have suggested that the text was given its current form in the postexilic period. The text itself contains a series of poetic speeches mainly between two lovers. The genre is not clear, but it does have some similarities to Egyptian love poems from the late second millennium. Both the Song of Solomon and these poems contain similar language, imagery, and motifs. Also like the Egyptian poems, the Song of Solomon was probably an anthology of love poems that may have functioned as wedding songs.

Implications for Our Study

The book of Proverbs has a perspective that is essentially the same as that of the Deuteronomists, whereas both Job and Ecclesiastes leave the troubling issue of theodicy unresolved.  God’s speech to Job fails to address the problem of the innocent Job’s suffering, and Ecclesiastes expresses a kind of agnosticism.  It is a measure of the complexity and strength of biblical tradition that these books are included in the Bible, where the dominant view emphatically trusts in the notion of divine justice. The Song of Solomon is a graphically erotic and decidedly secular text that contains no references to God at all.  In sum, these wisdom texts illustrate the range of wisdom literature produced by Jews in this period and the many hands that contributed to it.