Understanding Biblical Genres: Wisdom Literature

Today in this survey of biblical genres we turn to a group of related genres, known collectively as ‘Wisdom Literature’, before discussing its constituent genres in the the next week or so. Now, to talk about Wisdom Literature in the context of the Bible may sound a bit funny because, of course the Bible is full of wisdom. And yes, in this broadest sense, the whole Bible could be considered to be Wisdom Literature. But when we are using this term in the context of the Bible, we’re talking about the parts of the Old Testament that participate in a common Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literary tradition that thought about what it meant to live a good life. In other words, we’re dealing with ANE philosophy.

It’s generally believed that Wisdom Literature originated in educational materials for young nobles and scribes. Over time it developed into a wide-ranging field, including anything from proverbs and folk tales to formal philosophical treatises and poetry. The tie that binds is a focus on practical wisdom for how to live well. Generally speaking, when we’re talking about the Wisdom Literature of the Bible, we’re talking about the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Esther, Song of Songs, and many of the Psalms. Much of the section of the Hebrew Bible called ‘the Writings’ is Wisdom material. Additionally, many of the deuterocanonical books (i.e., what Protestants call ‘the Apocrypha’) fit under this umbrella. Because there is a general temporal progression in the Hebrew Bible (i.e., later compositions are towards the end and had less consensus around their authority), these are generally later texts, mostly if not entirely post-exilic. Ecclesiastes provides a great example of this; despite the framing device that ascribes it to King Solomon (roughly 10th C BCE), the text contains Persian loanwords and Aramaicisms that preclude a pre-Exilic origin and suggest a date several hundred years after Solomon’s reign.

Despite its clear participation in broader ANE philosophical and ethical traditions, biblical Wisdom Literature is set apart from its ANE neighbours by its insistence that a truly wise life is grounded in faithfulness to God and God’s Law.

I’d like to spend the rest of today’s post with a quick overview of Ecclesiastes as an exemplar of Wisdom Literature, both because it’s the ‘purest’ example in the Bible and because most of the other books will be covered in later posts that address specific genres of Wisdom Literature. Ecclesiastes begins:

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
anity of vanities!
All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?

The Teacher (note the educational context assumed here) begins by making a claim: that everything is worthless (’vanity’ in the traditional translation). He then proceeds to ask, What, then, is the point of life? The book starts in a very “Life sucks, then you die,” sort of place. After this initial poem about how everything is pointless and repeats itself (1.2-11), the Teacher begins an investigation to find the meaning of life. First, he wonders if the point of it all be to gain knowledge and wisdom. He ends up concluding that, while knowledge and wisdom are good, “in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow” (1.18). (This is nothing other than the flip side of the English proverb, “Ignorance is bliss.”) He then looks at self-indulgence as an option, concluding that while eating and drinking are probably the best we can do, and are themselves God-given, this path too is meaningless (Chapter 2). Chapter 3 starts with the famous poem about how everything is good in its appropriate season. This is a classic Wisdom idea: that nothing is good or bad in and of itself, but its goodness is determined contextually. This in turn leads him to reflect on mortality as a fact of life. Chapter 4 turns to the topics of oppression and social isolation, but also the value of friendship. Chapter 5 addresses how to approach worship and religious instruction. It ends with a general summary of his findings: “This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot” (5.18). But then Chapter 6 begins with a warning that even these can be dangerous, since the people who have the most seem to enjoy what they have the least. The rest of the book continues in much the same way: it’s the author reflecting on what it means to live a good life in a world that is complex, heart-breaking, and often seems pointless. Enjoy what you can while you can and don’t take the rest too seriously, he seems to say. The book ends with its famous summary:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12.13-14).

This places all of these philosophical reflections into the context of the received traditions of the Hebrew faith. Investigating everything rationally, he is able to come to some conclusions about life, but it is all still pretty empty. The best life has to offer seems to be a full stomach and good friends. And even this is deeply unsatisfying in the end. The answer — the one thing that is not ‘vanity’ — is to honour God in all that one does, to eat and drink to God, to have fun with one’s friends to God, and to do one’s work to God.

All of this is Wisdom Literature par excellence. Ecclesiastes uses the framework of personal investigation and incorporates poetry and proverbs to reflect on the meaning of life. In the next few posts we’ll see how similar themes can be found in the books of Psalms, Proverbs, and in biblical folk takes.

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