The Wisdom of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible

Last Updated: 17 May 2023
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As if this were the beginning of a funny joke; what does a man who loses everything and two wisdom literature books have in common? A lot! In fact the commonalities and writing styles are so apparently close among Job, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs that Jewish Scholars have paired them together (along with Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon) as the 3 (or 5) wisdom literatures of the Bible. "In their search for the one idea that unites the whole Bible, some suggested "covenant," others "law and grace"--but whichever one they chose, the Wisdom books did not fit" (bibleodyssey.org).

But the first question the reader must ask is simple. What is wisdom literature? According to David Penchansky the books are, "A category of biblical literature that typically deals with the nature of God and the moral and practical aspects of human experience" (bibleodyssey.org). Over the course of this paper I will compare and contrast the three key books, find central questions and themes that are raised, show what distinctive wisdom each offer, then possibly show how one of these texts speaks to me and how I can connect the Hebrew Bible to myself as a modern reader.

Thought to be written by sages the three wisdom books were all produced and edited over the course of around a thousand years. In the timeline of the Bible it is believed all of Job is written before 2100 BC. In comparison you can fast forward to around 950 BC when Ecclesiastes and Proverbs were written. For such a large gap of around 1150 years there had to have been many key differences between not only the style but also the complexity of writing. Although Mosaic writing seems to dominate the writing style of the old testament; the style of Job really isn't Mosaic. Some scholars tend to think the writing of Job is pre-Mosaic, or even patriarchal from the second Millennium BC (bible.org). Another evidence proving to the early dating of Job is of Egyptian Execration texts written circa 2000 BC, these texts had Job and parts of his life written on them.

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Some of the key themes raised when reading Job are a direct reflection to God and his sheer fascination. The main themes I have inherited are; the demonstration that God is worthy of love even apart from the blessing He provides, to explain that God might allow suffering as a means to strengthen a person in godliness, and emphasize that man cannot understand or view life from God's perspective. Each theme has a different viewpoint that settles why Job goes through the trials of his life. In Job chapter 1 verse 21-22 he already lost everything he owned and in response he says, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (NRSV Study Bible, Job. 1.21). "In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing" (NRSV Study Bible, Job. 1.22).

We see that despite the possible anger, sadness, and emotions Job was able to contain himself when it would have been easy to and ends up praising God instead. The phrase "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" can somewhat be applied to Job's situation. When God allowed conflict in Job's life God knew Job would endure. And from the end of the book we know Job had all that he lost doubled. But the Jews still cry bloody murder and ask to think about the children. The trial does raise many moral questions but in the end one must endure and keep reading, but that is just mainly how I interpret the coping factor. The last theme is apparent from chapter 38-42 when Job talks back and is silenced by the mightiness and power of God. People cannot even begin to grasp the first fraction of understanding when it comes to God and his choices.

When Job gets humbled he finally responds with, "Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know" (NRSV Study Bible, Job. 42.3b). The last thing we can't forget about is the actual writing style, sages adapted a prose prologue and an epilogue narrative framing. The book changes from According to Chalice Introduction to the Old Testament the sages who compiled the wisdom literatures were also among the final editors of the Hebrew Bible that Jews use today (Steussy 210).

The next focus is based on the two other wisdom literatures. Taken from a substantially different viewpoint; Ecclesiastes and Proverbs are not based upon not one character but the fundamentals of all human life. Proverbs raises questions of values, moral behavior, the meaning of human life, and righteous conduct. Ecclesiastes is 12 chapters of teaching, Steussy wrote, " In the first verse an anonymous man refers to himself as "the teacher" son of David, king in Jerusalem.

From this scholars infer that Solomon might have possibly been the author. The term "teacher" is a feminine participle of the word qahal, meaning "to gather, or assemble" from that the Jews translate Greek ecclesiastes meaning "assemblyman" (217), essentially gathering people together to teach a lesson. Even Job and Ecclesiastes have differences between style. From Ecclesiastes there is imaginary instruction from a long-deceased king in a form of many parallels in the Bible. That instruction gives a distinctive wisdom to the two other wisdom books. Ecclesiastes isn't just anecdotal collections of sayings but rather a first-person narrative that depicts a teacher instructing an audience. Themes raised in Ecclesiastes are "vanities of vanities" which refers to how everything in life is vain in the grand scheme of things. What we accomplish in life soon disappears and is lost to human memory (Steussy 219).

The other central theme raised is "Carpe Diem" or seize the day. Nothing accomplished by human beings endures beyond death, therefore we should enjoy life and take it for what it is (Steussy 221). That is distinctive to the other wisdom literature because Job displays human suffering to strengthen, whereas Ecclesiastes is the modern day "YOLO" or (You Only Live Once). The wisdom at first seems to contradict but then reinforces each other instead. While you are suffering, roll with the punches because as long as you are alive you should do your very best to enjoy life.

Perhaps the most interesting of the three main wisdom literatures to me is Proverbs. Proverbs not only speaks to the reader but also challenges them to change for the better. The style focuses on Mashal, which consists of two parallel lines. The second line may develop the thought and language of the first (synonymous parallelism), and usually is contrast with the first in language or thought (antithetical parallelism), or even extend the language of thought of the verse prior (synthetic parallelism) (Steussy 211).

A good example of synonymous parallelism would be Proverbs 21:12, "The Righteous One observes the house of the wicked; he casts the wicked down to ruin" (NRSV Study Bible). We see the verse part B builds upon what is written in part A. Antithetical parallelism can be found in Proverbs 10:4, "A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich" (NRSV Study Bible). Lastly we can see an example of synthetic parallelism in Proverbs 15:3, "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good." This verse works because the verse prior writes about the tongue first then about the eyes.

In relation to me I find Proverbs to be the most revealing and insightful towards my life and the experiences I have gone through. I can write this because I never have lost it all like Job has or millions of Jews during WWII, I am just a cushioned Christian that has never had to go through true hardship. Ecclesiastes is relatively relatable to my life but I always find myself reading more Proverbs than any other book of the Bible. But really growing up I was raised my whole life going to church, and the feeling almost became mechanical.

Apparently it is so ingrained in my mind I still find myself going to church every Sunday even when I am in college. God and religion is just a big part of who I am. However being independent from my family I am given a choice. The choice to stay a part of a church was strongly built upon my relation with the Bible, namely Proverbs. Proverbs offers so many life lessons and instructions in wisdom that no matter how many times a person reads it over you can get something new and applicable each time. As a modern reader the Hebrew Bible connects to me by questioning my very actions.

How do I take in all this information and what will I do with it? If I just read the books and don't tell others it would dampen the reach of the Hebrew Bible. In relation to the many exiles and sufferings Jews look back to those events continually. As a modern reader I try to understand the lifestyle of Jews but as a Christian I am stumped as to why these people do what they do. But from that you have to ask yourself why you do what you do as well. Then both Jews and Christians can draw the attention towards the fundamentals of Ecclesiastes. "Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever" (NRSV Study Bible Ecc. 1:2-4).

Wisdom is powerful only to the people who use it. These three wisdom literatures in the Hebrew Bible unlock a different way to view the world and how everyday life is performed. Each book compares and contrasts, and shows what is distinctive about the wisdom they offer. The questions and themes raised are sometimes unethical or disturbing (Job). The themes can also be good at revealing to people how insignificant or purposeful you make yourself (Ecc.). Then in relation to my own life experiences I am able to engage questions that connect the Hebrew Bible to me as a modern reader.

References

  1. (Chalice Introduction to the Old Testament, Marti Steussy, editor; St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press,2003)
  2. David Penchansky, "What Is Wisdom Literature?", n.p. [cited 4 Dec 2015].
  3. Online:http://www.bibleodyssey.org/passages/related-articles/what-is-wisdom-literature Malick, David. "An Introduction to the Book of Job." Bible.org. 14 June 2004. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
  4. (NRSV Student Edition Study Bible, Harold Attridge, editor; New York: HarperCollins, 2006) Valkanet, Rich. "Bible Timeline." Bible Timeline. Discovery Bible, 13 Jan. 2010. Web. 2 Dec.2015.

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The Wisdom of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible. (2023, May 17). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/the-wisdom-of-proverbs-in-the-hebrew-bible/

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