Bible 101: A Brief Introduction to Wisdom Literature
The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament is an eclectic collection of proverbs, moral lessons, riddles, warnings, extended meditations, and philosophical inquiry and debate. It also includes hymns and even love poetry in the Song of Songs. The human authors of the Bible took an interest in more than just religious subjects, as anyone who reads the Bible can attest. The Wisdom literature is a prime example of that broad outlook.
The reason for this length and breadth of interest is that wisdom comes to us in many forms. There is, of course, the wisdom that we learn from God himself through revelation. There is also wisdom to be gained from human experience and reflection. For example, the question “What is it to be just?” or “What does the just man do?” can be answered from a religious perspective or from a more secular bent. The answers may be different, but they are not contradictory.
The Wisdom literature exposes us to both types of reflection, especially in the books of Proverbs and Sirach. Some of the proverbs or sayings could be considered truisms, but they do contain ageless, sage advice, along with a lot of common sense. For example, “Where words are many, sin is not wanting; but those who restrain their lips do well.” (Prv 10:19), or: “Unjust anger can never be justified; anger pulls a person to utter ruin.” (Sir 1:22).
Book of Job
Besides given sound advice, the biblical authors were not afraid to ask hard questions. In fact, they challenged inadequate understandings of wisdom and insufficient answers to questions about the meaning of suffering, diminishment and death. This, for example, is clearly the case in the book of Job. The question behind the book of Job is the enigma of the just man who suffers.
The answers given by Job’s friends, namely, that he is being punished for his sins or that there is some hidden thing he has done to displease God, are proved inadequate again and again as Job verbally spars with his interlocutors. The poetry of this book is powerful; according to some authors, it is by far the most skillful and elevated poetry in the Bible.
The final chapters are quite surprising because God answers Job, in a certain sense, but does not allow Job’s human intelligence to have dominance over the mystery of suffering. The poetry of God’s speech is breathtaking; his descriptions of the crocodile (Leviathan) and the hippopotamus (Behemoth) are fascinating. His descent into the conversation takes the form of a whirlwind, and that is what the poetry feels like.
The book of Qoheleth, or Ecclesiastes, also does not shy away from critiquing canned answers to difficult questions. In this book, the “preacher” informs the readers that he has examined the world and “All things are vanity!” He proclaims in the first chapter: “What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun!” (Eccl 1:9).
This sounds rather nihilistic. At times the author seems quite despondent, yet he also writes things like this: “Just as you do not know how the life breath enters the human frame in the mother’s womb, So you do not know the work of God, who is working in everything. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hand be idle: For you do not know which of the two will be successful, or whether both alike will turn out well” (Eccl 11:5-6). There is a certain humility requisite for the wise man. It is not in our power to know all things, but we do have to decide what to do with the time we have.
Prayer book of ancient Israel
The book of Psalms is sometimes called the prayer book of ancient Israel. It is also the prayer book of Jews and Christians today. The psalms are written in poetry, and, like other books, the poems often have a parallel structure. This means that the verses are written in two or three lines, and the second and third lines are in relation to the first by interacting with its meaning. This can be through synonym, antithesis, the completion of an idea, etc. The lines within the poem can play together in lots of different ways. It can be fun to try and find the parallel meanings as one reads the psalm.
The book of Wisdom, though not included in the Hebrew Bible, also belongs to the Wisdom literature and is an extended meditation on wisdom, law and the just man. At the center of the book is a prayer for wisdom, which expresses the deep longing of each human heart for God, a longing that never goes away.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM, is director of Christian formation in the Diocese of Knoxville. Read more from the Bible 101 series here .
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9 Commentaries on Wisdom Literature (& Why It Matters)
Sometimes Wisdom Literature can be confusing or wrongly understood through the lens of modern-day culture and context. Yet there is much we can glean from the wisdom of generations of God’s people when those books of the Bible are rightly studied.
First, let’s consider the basics.
What is wisdom literature?
Wisdom Literature, according to the Lexham Bible Dictionary , is “a genre of ancient literature characterized by an emphasis on teaching its audience the things necessary to attain to virtue and obtain divine favor.” The books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes are considered biblical Wisdom Literature, making up a large portion of the Hebrew Bible. 1 Through these books chock-full of pithy sayings, parables, and deep ponderings about life that are relevant even today, believers can glean wisdom for living life in a way that honors God.
These books differ from other biblical material in several ways:
- They focus on the individual versus nations
- They rarely mention things like the temple, sacrificial system, or the law
- They rarely mention Old Testament historical events, like the exodus, the monarchy, and the division and fall of the northern and southern kingdoms
- There is little interest in politics, history, acts of God, miracles, sin, forgiveness, and the like
Characteristics of wisdom literature
In ancient Israel, these “books” were delivered orally. They often focus on interpersonal relationships and address the human condition from the perspective of human needs and concerns. And although their authority is not grounded in God’s spoken commands, it is rooted in the Israelites’ commitment to him and the belief that he is superior to and creator of all things—and true wisdom begins with this conviction.
In Reading the Bible for All Its Worth , Gordon Fee offers guidance on reading this genre:
How to study wisdom literature
Reading and studying Wisdom Literature is a bit tricky—because in it we often read things that aren’t true of our own lives. Statements can be confusing: Is money really the answer to everything like Ecclesiastes 10:19 says? What does it mean to “live on a corner of the roof” in Proverbs 21:9? Why would anyone “carry fire next to [their] chest”? (Prov 6:27).
If we’re not careful, it’s easy to misunderstand and even misapply verses that don’t make sense to our twenty-first-century minds.
Fee offers three tips to tuck in your back pocket when reading Wisdom Literature:
- Read for the overall message. Taking bits and pieces out of context can result in misapplication.
- Consider the terms and categories of Hebrew wisdom, as well as its styles and literary modes.
- Understand what the book at hand is all about so that you can follow the line of argument.
Knowing this information, however, takes a bit of digging, and reading respected commentaries as you study can help you comb through the details to see what the biblical authors emphasize. They are one of the best companions to have by your side when studying any book of the Bible, and this is especially true when sifting through Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.
Here are nine of the best commentaries to jumpstart your study of Wisdom Literature:
Best commentaries on the book of Job
Job (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries | TOTC)
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The Book of Job (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament | NICOT)
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The New American Commentary: Job (NAC)
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Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries | Job: An Introduction and Commentary
Tyndale Old and New Testament Commentaries have long been a trusted resource for Bible studies, offering clear, reliable, and relevant expositions. This volume on Job by Francis I. Andersen , a biblical scholar who helped to expand Hebrew studies, is designed to help readers understand (1) what the text says and (2) what it means, with a concise introduction and a thorough treatment of its authorship, date, original setting, and purpose.
The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NIC): The Book of Job
Southwestern Journal of Theology calls this commentary on the book of Job “One of the most readable serious commentaries on Job to be written in recent years.” NIC commentaries provide up-to-date evangelical commentary based on thorough scholarship—and this volume on Job written by John E. Hartley deals carefully with its language, text, and theology, which are among the most difficult to grasp in the Old Testament.
The New American Commentary (NAC): Job
The New American Commentary focuses on communicating the theological structure and content of each biblical book, concentrating on theological exegesis while providing practical, applicable exposition—and this commentary on Job is no different. Robert L. Alden seeks to illuminate both the historical meaning and contemporary significance of the book while emphasizing how each section of Job is unified theologically and connects with Scripture as a whole.
Here’s where you can find more commentaries and other helpful resources on Job.
Best commentaries on the book of Proverbs
The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1–15 (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament | NICOT)
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Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms | BCOTWP)
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Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary (TOTC)
The new international commentary on the old testament (nicot): the book of proverbs, chapters 1–15 and chapters 15–31.
Written by eminent Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke , this two-volume commentary is considered by many to be the most comprehensive work on Proverbs available. Written for scholars, pastors, and serious Bible students alike, the NIC casts fresh light on ancient yet familiar biblical texts. The NICOT on Proverbs opens by exploring the background, authorship, date, purpose, structure, and theology of the book, and verse-by-verse comments balance in-depth discussions of technical matters.
Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms: Proverbs
This commentary by Tremper Longman III is tailored to the distinctness of poetry and Wisdom Literature, emphasizing the message of Proverbs and paying special attention to poetic structure and literary devices. Rigorous exegesis incorporates linguistic, historical, and canonical insights while closing reflections explore the text’s theological dimensions.
Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary
Derek Kidner has not only provided a running commentary on the whole of Proverbs but has also included two helpful study aids: a set of subject guides that bring together teaching scattered throughout the book and a short concordance that helps locate lost sayings. In short, this volume is a wise person’s guide to wisdom.
Find even more wisdom (see what we did there?) for studying Proverbs.
Best commentaries on the book of Ecclesiastes
The Book of Ecclesiastes (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament | NICOT)
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Ecclesiastes (Anchor Yale Bible Commentary | AYB)
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Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NIV Application Commentary | NIVAC)
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The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT): The Book of Ecclesiastes
In the NICOT commentary on Ecclesiastes, Tremper Longman III addresses the question, “How does the pessimistic perspective [of Ecclesiastes] fit into the rest of biblical revelation?” He takes a canonical-Christocentric approach to the meaning of Ecclesiastes to find answers. Longman provides an extensive introduction to the book, and in the verse-by-verse commentary that follows, helps clarify the confusing, sometimes contradictory message of Ecclesiastes.
The Anchor Yale Bible: Ecclesiastes
Bible scholar Choon-Leong Seow creatively translates and carefully interprets Ecclesiastes in this commentary, with insights about the meaning of the original text and its relevance for today.
NIV Application Commentary: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs
The award-winning NIV Application Commentary Series helps readers understand the authorial meaning of the biblical text in its original context using all the elements of traditional exegesis. Plus, it bridges the gap between the world of the Bible and the world of today. In Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, author Iain Provan reveals the links between Scripture and our own times and shows how these two books speak to us today with relevance and conviction.
Find more resources to help you study Ecclesiastes here.
- God Is Wise, and His Wisdom Reveals That He Lives Well
- Who Wrote the Book of Proverbs? Why It’s Debated
- LBD, “Wisdom Literature” Song of Solomon is sometimes included in the list because of it’s affinity with Wisdom Literature themes, as are several psalms.
- John D. Barry, Lexham Bible Dictionary (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA), 2016.
- “My son” can also mean “disciple” as in Prov 1:8 , 10 , 15 ; 2:1 ; 3:1 , 11 , 21 ; 4:10 , 20 ; 5:1 , 20 ; 6:1 , 3 , 20 ; 7:1 ; 19:27 ; 23:19 , 26 ; 24:13 , 21 ; 27:11 . Lexham Bible Dictionary , “Life Setting of Wisdom Literature,” (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA) 2016.
- Gordon Fee, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 1993), 234–235.
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Karen Engle is a copy editor for Faithlife. She has a master's in biblical studies and theology from Western Seminary and frequently takes groups to Israel.
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I. THE GENRE
A. Common Literary type in the Ancient Near East (R. J. Williams, Wisdom in the Ancient Near East , Interpreter Dictionary of the Bible , Supplement)
1. Mesopotamia (1 Kgs. 4:30-31; Isa. 47:10; Dan. 1:20; 2:2)
a. Sumeria had a developed wisdom tradition both proverbial and epic (texts from Nippur).
b. Babylon's proverbial wisdom was connected with the priest/magician. It was not morally focused (W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature ). It was not a developed genre as it was in Israel.
c. Assyria also had a wisdom tradition; one example would be the teachings of Ahiqar. He was an advisor to Sennacherib (704-681 b.c.).
2. Egypt (1 Kgs. 4:30; Gen. 41:8; Isa. 19:11-12)
a. The Teaching for Vizier Ptah-hotep , written about 2450 b.c. His teachings were in paragraph, not proverbial, form. They were structured as a father to his son, so too, The Teachings for King Meri-ka-re , about 2200 b.c. (LaSor, Hubbard, Bush, Old Testament Survey , p. 533).
b. The Wisdom of Amen-em-opet , written about 1200 b.c. , is very similar to Pro. 22:17-24:12.
3. Phoenicia (Ezek. 27:8-9; 28:3-5)
a. The discoveries at Ugarit has shown the close connection between Phoenician and Hebrew wisdom, especially the meter. Many of the unusual forms and rare words in biblical Wisdom Literature are now understandable from the archaeological discoveries at Ras Shamra (Ugarit).
b. Song of Songs is very much like Phoenician wedding songs called wasps written about 600 b.c.
4. Canaan (i.e., Edom, cf. Jer. 49:7; Obadiah 8) – Albright has revealed the similarity between Hebrew and Canaanite wisdom literature especially the Ras Shamra texts from Ugarit, written about the 15th century b.c.
a. often the same words appear as pairs
b. presence of chiasmus
c. have superscriptions
d. have musical notations
5. Biblical Wisdom Literature includes the writings of several non-Israelites:
a. Job from Edom
b. Agur from Massa (an Israelite kingdom in Saudi Arabia, cf. Genesis 25:14 and 1 Chronicles 1:30)
c. Lemuel from Massa
6. There are two Jewish non-canonical books that share this genre form.
a. Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Ben Sirach)
b. Wisdom of Solomon (wisdom)
B. Literary Characteristics
1. Primarily two distinct types
a. proverbial guidelines for a happy, successful life (originally oral, cf. Pro. 1:8; 4:1)
(2) easily understood culturally (common experience)
(3) thought provoking – arresting statements of truth
(4) usually uses contrast
(5) generally true but not always specifically applicable
b. longer developed special topic, literary works (usually written) like Job, Ecclesiastes, and Jonah.
(4) they deal with life's major questions and mysteries
(5) the sages were willing to challenge the theological status quo!
c. personification of wisdom (always female). The term wisdom was feminine.
(1) often in Proverbs wisdom is described as a woman (cf. 1:8-9:18)
(2) in Proverbs 8:22-31 wisdom is personified as the first born of creation by which God created all else (3:19-20; Ps. 104:24; Jer. 10:12). This may be the background of John's use of Logos in John 1:1 to refer to Jesus the Messiah.
(3) this can also be seen in Ecclesiasticus 24.
2. This literature is unique from the Law and the Prophets (cf. Jer. 18:18) in that it addresses the individual, not the nation. There are no historical or cultic allusions. It primarily focuses on daily, successful, joyful, moral living.
3. Biblical Wisdom Literature is similar to that of its surrounding neighbors in its structure but not content. The One true God is the foundation on which all biblical wisdom is based (e.g., Gen. 41:38-39; Job 12:13; 28:28; Pro. 1:7; 9:10; Ps.111:10). In Babylon it was Apsu, Ea , or Marduk . In Egypt it was Thoth .
4. Hebrew wisdom was very practical. It was based on experience, not special revelation. It focused on an individual being successful in life (all of life: sacred and secular). It is divine "horse-sense."
5. Because Wisdom Literature used human reason, experience and observation it was international, transcultural. It was the monotheistic religious worldview which is often not stated, that made Israel's wisdom revelatory.
II. POSSIBLE ORIGINS
A. Wisdom Literature developed in Israel as alternative or balance to the other forms of revelation. (Jer. 18:18; Ezek. 7:26)
1. priest - law – form (corporate)
2. prophet - oracle – motive (corporate)
3. sage - wisdom – practical, successful daily life (individual)
4. As there were female prophets in Israel (Miriam, Huldah), so too, there were female sages (cf. 2 Sam. 14:1-21; 20:14-22).
B. This type of literature seemed to have developed:
1. as folk stories around camp fires
2. as family traditions passed on to the male children
3. written and supported by the Royal Palace:
a. David is connected to the Psalms
b. Solomon is connected to Proverbs (1 Kgs. 4:29-34; Ps. 72, 127; Pro. 1:1; 10:1; 25:1)
c. Hezekiah is connected to editing Wisdom Literature (Pro. 25:1)
A. It is basically a "how to" focus on happiness and success. It is primarily individual in its focus. It is based on:
1. the experience of previous generations
2. cause and effect relationships in life
3. trusting in God has rewards (cf. Deuteronomy 27-29)
B. It was society's way to pass on truth and train the next generation of leaders and citizens.
C. OT wisdom, though not always expressing it, sees the Covenant God behind all of life. For the Hebrew there was no sharp division between the sacred and secular. All of life was sacred.
D. It was a way to challenge and balance traditional theology. The sages were free thinkers not bound by textbook truths. They dared to ask, "Why," "How," "What if?"
IV. KEYS TO INTERPRETATION
A. Short proverbial statements
1. look for common elements of life used to express the truth
2. express the central truth in a simple declarative sentence
3. since context will not help look for parallel passages on the same subject
B. Longer literary pieces
1. be sure to express the central truth of the whole
2. do not take verses out of context
3. check the historical occasion or reason of the writing
C. Some common misinterpretations (Fee & Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth , p. 207)
1. People do not read the whole Wisdom book (like Job and Ecclesiastes) and look for its central truth, but pull parts of the book out of its context and apply it literally to modern life.
2. People do not understand the uniqueness of the literary genre. This is a highly compact and figurative Ancient Near Eastern literature.
3. Proverbs are statements of general truth. They are broad sweeps of the pen not specifically true, in every case-every time, statements of truth.
V. BIBLICAL EXAMPLES
A. Old Testament
2. Psalm 1, 19, 32, 34, 37 (acrostic), 49, 78, 104, 107, 110, 112-119 (acrostic), 127-128, 133, 147, 148
5. Song of Songs
6. Lamentations (acrostic)
B. Extra canonical
2. Wisdom of Ben Sirah (Ecclesiasticus)
3. Wisdom of Solomon (Book of Wisdom)
4. IV Maccabees
C. New Testament
1. The proverbs and parables of Jesus
2. The book of James
Copyright © 2012 Bible Lessons International
- My Preferences
- My Reading List
- Old Testament of the Bible
- Literature Notes
- The Wisdom Literature: Overview
- About the Old Testament of the Bible
- Summary and Analysis
- The Prophetic Books: Amos
- Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk
- The Post-Exilic Prophets
- The Historical Writings: Overview
- The Pentateuch
- Joshua, Judges, and 1 and 2 Samuel
- 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah
- Miscellaneous Writings: Overview
- Jonah, Ruth, and Esther
- Lamentations and Song of Songs
- The Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha: Overview
- The Apocrypha
- The Pseudepigrapha
- Cite this Literature Note
Summary and Analysis The Wisdom Literature: Overview
The Book of Jeremiah makes reference to three distinct groups of people: priests, prophets, and sages. Of these three, the prophets are responsible for the largest portion of Old Testament writings. They produced not only the books that bear their names but the historical writings that include a record of the specific laws and requirements that pertained to the priests' work. Three books in the Old Testament represent the work of Israel's teachers, the sages or so-called wise men: Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs. In contrast with the prophetic writings, the writers of these three books do not preface their remarks with a "thus says the Lord" but instead appeal to reason and common sense to support what they say. Their writings are characterized by a broad and universal appeal that avoids the nationalistic spirit so prevalent in many of the prophetic writings. Because the sages address themselves to the problems that arise in everyday living, their counsel and advice are applicable to non-Jews just as much as to the people of Israel. They speak to individuals rather than to the nation, and they consider problems that have nothing to do with race or nationality. If the religion of the Old Testament can be said to have reached its greatest heights in the teachings of the prophets, then in the sages' work it reached its greatest breadth.
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THE WISDOM BOOKS
“Wisdom” is a convenient umbrella term to designate the Books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth), Wisdom, and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). Two other books are often associated with them: Psalms, a collection of mostly devotional lyrics, and the Song of Songs, a collection of love poems. All are marked by a skillful use of parallelism, or verses of balanced and symmetrical phrases. These works have been classified as wisdom or didactic literature, so called because their general purpose is instruction.
A striking feature of the wisdom books is the absence of references to the promises made to the patriarchs or to Moses, or to Sinai or typical items in Israelite tradition; Sirach (chaps. 44 – 50 ) and Wisdom (chaps. 10 – 19 ) are the exception. Biblical wisdom literature concentrates on daily human experience: how is life to be lived? In this respect it is comparable to other ancient Near Eastern compositions from Mesopotamia and Egypt that also reflect on the problems of everyday life. The literary style is wide-ranging: aphorisms, numerical sayings, paradoxes, instructions, alphabetical and acrostic poems, lively speeches, and so forth. Wisdom itself is an art: how to deal with various situations and achieve a good life. And it is also a teaching: the lessons garnered from experience were transmitted at various levels, from education in the home all the way to training in the court. Belief in the Lord and acceptance of the prevailing codes of conduct were presupposed; they fed into the training of youths. The task of wisdom is character formation: what is the wise path to follow? The lessons are conveyed by observations that challenge as well as by admonitions that warn. Although the need of discipline is underlined, the general approach is persuasion. The pursuit of wisdom demands more than human industry. Paradoxically, it remains also the gift of God ( Prv 2:6 ). Its religious character is indicated by the steady identification of wisdom and virtue (e.g., Prv 10 – 15 ).
But wisdom is far more than a practical guide. The strongest personification in the Bible is Woman Wisdom, and she speaks somewhat mysteriously in divine accents about her origins and identity. Her appeal to humanity is sounded in several books: Prv 8 ; Sir 24 ; Wis 7 – 9 ; Bar 3:9 – 4:4 . She offers “life” to her followers ( Prv 8:35 , “whoever finds me finds life”). This image of personified Wisdom is reflected in the Logos poem of Jn 1:1 – 18 and in Paul’s reference to Jesus as “the wisdom of God” ( 1 Cor 1:24 , 30 ). The bearing of wisdom literature on the New Testament is also exemplified in the sayings and parables of Jesus and in the practical admonitions in the Letter of James.
Each book has a distinctive character. Proverbs consists of long poems dealing with moral conduct (chaps. 1 – 9 ), which introduce collections of aphorisms (chaps. 10 – 29 ) reflecting on the experiences of life. The Book of Job is a literary presentation of the problem of the suffering of the innocent and god-fearing Job. Psalms, the book of prayer par excellence, derives from varied origins, especially liturgical celebrations; it contains personal cries of agony as well as of praise and thanksgiving. Some betray a wisdom influence (e.g., Ps 37 ), and the very first Psalm serves as an invitation to learn about the ways of the just and wicked in the rest of the psalter. Ecclesiastes examines the hard questions of life, and has become famous for the expressive phrase “vanity of vanities.” The Song of Songs is a collection of poems that give meaning to human and divine love ( Sg 8:6 ; Prv 30:18 – 19 ). Ben Sira is the only author who identifies himself ( Sir 50:27 ), and circa 200 B.C. he writes a compendium of Jewish wisdom and creation theology. The Wisdom of Solomon was written in Greek against a Hellenistic background, affirming human immortality in terms of a continuing relationship with God. Except for Psalms (of which almost half are attributed to David), Job, and Sirach, the books are attributed to Solomon, but he is not the author. The Solomonic claim is doubtless due to his fame as a wise man, according to 1 Kgs 5:9 – 14 ; 10:1 – 10 . Who were the sages? Some were found in ordinary families (father, mother, Prv 1:8 ; 10:1 ); others were scribes at court. All contributed, both men (the counselors of Absalom, 2 Sm 16 – 17 ; the men of King Hezekiah, Prv 25:1 ) and also women (the “wise woman” of Abel Beth-maacah, 2 Sm 20:16 ). The wisdom literature is predominantly a postexilic composition, but the dating is only approximate.
In Jewish tradition, Megillot (Scrolls) came to be the accepted term for the five books of Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther. In the Protestant tradition, Sirach and Wisdom are classified as apocrypha and not printed as a part of Scripture. The Orthodox tradition does accept them, along with other works, such as 3–4 Maccabees and the Prayer of Manasseh.
What is wisdom literature?
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What Is Wisdom Literature?
For at least a century and a half, the Wisdom books of the Bible have perplexed biblical scholars. 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. Then, in the early 1960s, some scholars suggested that the Wisdom Literature of the Bible had its own unique voice and theology.
The Wisdom books in the Bible, in their probable order of writing, are Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes (also called Qohelet), Ben Sira (also called Sirach or Ecclesiasticus), and the Wisdom of Solomon. The first three are included in Jewish and Protestant Bibles. The Septuagint and the Bibles of the Eastern Churches and the Roman Catholic Church include all five books.
These books were probably written by sages, what we might call “the Israelite intelligentsia.” Scholars debate whether there was a group of sages, as distinct from (for instance) prophets or priests, or a general intellectual movement among the Israelite elite but no distinct group. The sages also served as diplomats, palace bureaucrats, counselors, advisors to the king, educators, and scientists. The sages wrote and edited the Wisdom books over the course of almost a thousand years.
Scholars identify three different types of wisdom that run through all five Wisdom books:
• Village wisdom/folk wisdom characterized by short, pithy statements, with examples drawn from nature and framed as instruction from parents to their children, as in Prov 20:4 .
• Royal wisdom from one of the Israelite capitals, instructing junior bureaucrats on the intricacies and treachery of palace politics, as in Prov 23:1-3 .
• Theological wisdom of deep reflection on the most controversial of theological topics, such as: Is there a God? If there is a God, why do such awful things happen? ( Eccl 3:19-21 )
The sages had two sources of information about life: the natural world and their Wisdom tradition. Unlike prophets and priests, the sages believed that God wove important principles into the fabric of the universe, which careful observation could discern. For example, many sages believed in a balanced universe in which the good are rewarded for their goodness and the evil are punished. These two sources were in tension at times; human experience showed that sometimes good people suffer and evil people sleep peacefully. The sages agonized over the contradictions in their system and took different sides in their debates.
In the book of Proverbs, we can see a great Wisdom debate about whether God could be trusted in the governance of the world and whether God was predictable or unpredictable. Most of the authors of Proverbs said that yes, God could be trusted. But the sages understood this confidence differently. Some argued that a careful practice of Wisdom principles (honest speech, hard work, marital faithfulness) would lead to a happy, prosperous life. Others argued that although God’s governance of the world is flawless, humans can never be sure of God’s action: even if you followed the right path, bad things could still happen to you ( Prov 16:9 ).
The sages believed that things happen for reasons and that humans are able to figure out the workings of the universe. The prophets, in contrast, believed that God gives divine knowledge to select humans thorough dreams, visions, ecstasy, and divine appearance. Yet some of the sages felt outrage because their expectation was that the universe should make sense, but in their experience it did not. So these sages challenged the rationality of their universe and even the justice of God.
- Mercer Dictionary of the Bible
- Understanding Wisdom Literature: Conflict and Dissonance in the Hebrew Text
- The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature
- Introduction to Wisdom
- Robert Alter interview about Wisdom Books
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There are two deuterocanonical works of the genre known as wisdom literature, one Hebrew and one Greek. The Hebrew work is called Ecclesiasticus, in the Latin Bible and in Greek manuscripts Sophia Iēsou huiou Sirach (the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach); the original Hebrew title was probably Ḥokhmat Yeshuaʿ Ben-Sira, the Wisdom of Ben-Sira. Written in Hebrew about 180–175 bce , it was translated into Greek by the author’s grandson in Egypt. A Syriac translation also was made. Portions (about three-fifths) of the Hebrew text were found in medieval copies in a synagogue of Cairo and a part of the book in a fragment of a scroll from Massada in Palestine (written c. 75 bce ). Small Hebrew fragments also were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls; one of them, the Psalms scroll, contains a large part of a poem about wisdom that is a part of the appendix (chapter 51) and that was not written by the author. The Proverbs of Ben-Sira are often quoted in rabbinic literature.
The book is written in the poetical style of the wisdom books of the Old Testament ( e.g., Proverbs, Job) and deals with the themes of practical and theoretical morality . The religious and moral position of the author is conservative—he does not believe in the afterlife, but he reflects the contemporary religious positions. He identifies wisdom, the origin of which is divine, with “the Law which Moses commanded,” an idea that became important for later Judaism. He also reflects contemporary debates about freedom of will and determinism, and, though realistic in his basic opinions, he sometimes expresses eschatological hopes of salvation for his people. His piety is ethical , though lacking in asceticism; and he invites his readers to enjoy life, which is short (in this point some Greek influence is palpable , but it is not very deep). At the end of the book the author praises, in chronological order, “the fathers of old,” from the beginning of history to his contemporary, the high priest Simon , whose appearance in the Temple is poetically described. After some verses comes the colophon with the author’s name—the last chapter being an appendix not composed by the author.
The other deuterocanonical wisdom book, the Wisdom of Solomon, was written in Greek, though it purports to have been written by King Solomon himself. The hypothesis that the first half of the book was translated from Hebrew seems to be without foundation and probably came into existence because, in this section, the author imitated in Greek the Old Testament poetical style. The Wisdom of Solomon was probably written in Alexandria (Egypt) in the 1st century bce .
The book has three parts. The first (chapters 1–5) concerns the contrast between pious and righteous Jews and the wicked, sinful, and mundane Jews who persecute the righteous; the lot of the righteous is preferable to the sorrows and final condemnation of the sinners. In the second part (chapters 6–9) Solomon speaks about the essence of wisdom and how he attained it. In the third part (chapters 10–19) the author proves the value of wisdom by telling—not in an exact chronological order—how, in the history of Israel from the beginning until the conquest of Palestine, God exalted Israel and punished the heathens, the Egyptians, and the Canaanites. He also describes the folly of heathenism and its origins in human aberrations .
The author fuses Judaism and Hellenism both in style and in thought. Though he imitates biblical style, he is also influenced by Greek rhetoric . He also freely uses Greek philosophical and other terms and is influenced by Jewish apocalyptic literature . Some close parallels to the Dead Sea sect (at Qumrān), both in eschatology and in anthropology (doctrines about man), can be found in the Wisdom of Solomon.
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- Wisdom Literature
Wisdom, the timeless, intellectual, and reflective tradition of antiquity, the forerunner of ancient Greek and modern philosophy, is the quest of the ancients to understand the most common and fundamental truths of the nature and limits of the human condition. As a tradition, wisdom sought coherency in places where traditional religion failed to provide answers. Deriving from ancient and diverse sources, this wisdom tradition and the literature it produced originated and flourished in royal courts of the great river valleys of the ancient world—the Nile in North Africa and the Tigris-Euphrates in Mesopotamia. In Egypt, "wisdom" was most often associated with the goddess Ma'at and was associated with such concepts and principles as "truth," "justice," and "order." Wisdom thought in both of these ancient cultures most often took the literary form of instructions, the more practical form of wisdom, or of laments, a more reflective or skeptical form of wisdom.
Generally, instruction texts, like the Egyptian Instruction of Prince Hardjedef (ca. 2450 b.c.e.) or the Mesopotamian Instructions of Suruppak (ca. 2400 b.c.e.), were educational tools that socialized young persons by giving pragmatic counsel. This advice covered a wide range of matters from how to find inner peace, to how to behave in the royal courts, to how to manage one's money, one's emotions, and even one's love affairs. While the instruction texts generally supported the status quo, other wisdom literature was far more pessimistic in nature and clearly disdained and even challenged traditional modes of thinking. This was the more reflective dimension of wisdom. The Eloquent Peasant, a dialogue between a peasant and an official of the royal court that recounts the injustices experienced by the peasant, and The Dispute Between a Man and His Ba are examples of this more skeptical wisdom.
In ancient societies, a class of sages produced and canonized wisdom thought. These were often officials sanctioned by the ruling authorities. State scribes kept records, counseled kings, trained future bureaucrats, and produced a type of "cosmopolitan training literature." Since they were the educated elite, they wielded a great deal of influence on the shaping of the politics, theology, and ideology of their societies. Although wisdom as it has been preserved is a highly stylized literature stemming from an urban, royal courtly setting, many of the themes typical of this official scribal production probably originated generations earlier as the folk sayings and anecdotes of clans in rural villages.
Wisdom thought also had an international-universal character and circulated far beyond its countries of origin. Because it was not tied to the views of a particular group, community, national history, or religion, it quickly adapted to other parts of the Near East.
Wisdom in the Bible
The proverbs, laments, instructions, and dialogues, the four literary forms in which wisdom thinking was passed down in ancient Israel, are a late heir to this long literary and intellectual tradition. Israel's intellectual literature, like that of its Egyptian and Mesopotamian predecessors, has an international aura. Israelite wisdom transcends the preoccupations of national religion such as ritualistic purity, worship, sacrifice, and covenants. Other than King Solomon, there is no mention of Israel's national heroes as personifying what it means to be wise. No appeal is made to Israel's deity. Also noticeably absent is any mention of the Israelites' chosen status. Confined mainly to the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, Israel's wisdom literature is concerned with apprehending the social, natural, and moral order.
Where traditional Israelite religion focused on groups and emphasized Yahweh's revelation in a shared national history, Israelite wisdom sought the revelation of God in nature and in individual reflection. The sages were interested in the person as a human being and in those qualities, struggles, and concerns essential to the universal human condition. There is no emphasis on the notion of God intervening in history to move a particular people to a telos, or ultimate end ( heilsgeschichte ). Israelite wisdom literature is synchronic; it is less concerned with nonrepeatable saving events and more concerned with the common thread underlying recurring human experiences.
From the age of the monarchy (ca. 1000 b.c.e.) to the Persian period (539–333 b.c.e.), when canonization of the literature took place, Israelite wisdom survived and even thrived as an alternative to the prevailing religious traditions. Legends attribute much of the wisdom material to King Solomon, who reputedly uttered three thousand proverbs and one thousand and five songs (I Kings 4:32). However, wisdom as an alternative tradition comes in a variety of forms in the Old Testament . In addition to those mentioned above, one finds scattered patches throughout the canon—e.g., riddles ( Judges 14:14), fables ( Judges 9:8–15), and stories about diviners (Numbers 22–24).
Studies of the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes have revealed two extremes to Israelite wisdom thinking: the skeptical (e.g., Ecclesiastes and Job), which takes nothing at face value, and the pragmatic (e.g., Proverbs), which is pedagogical. Everyday instructional, practical knowledge concerning wealth and poverty, love, and behavior proper to one's social position is the focus of the book of Proverbs. It advocates industriousness, frugality, and temperance as the core of what it means to be wise. At the same time, sloth and overindulgence are equated with folly in Proverbs. Ecclesiastes and Job, on the other hand, question these values, arguing that just rewards do not always accrue either to good or to immoral people. The literature in these two books, more skeptical and reflective in tone, explores the limits of practical counsel and questions the validity of conventional thinking about divine retribution. Ultimately, the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible represents the intellectual tradition of ancient Israel. It is the record of a civilization's attempt to reflect upon, to philosophize about, and to appreciate the joys, sorrows, fears, and struggles of daily life and of the human experience. Israelite wisdom, then, in its international character and reflective quality is ageless, admonishing subsequent generations about the universal nature of all human life. As the sage of the book of Deuteronomy puts it, "The secrets belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever . . ." (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Wisdom in the United States
While ancient wisdom emerged out of civilizations that no longer exist and was transmitted from generation to generation in ways for which we cannot always fully account, many of the insights about human existence captured by ancient sages continue to resonate in our contemporary society. Human beings still seek practical knowledge in order to negotiate the ethical, spiritual, economic, and environmental realities of their lives. Wisdom literature concerns itself with instruction and reflection on the basic orderliness of the world and how to cope when that order fails or seems to fail. The abiding interest of Americans in practical knowledge is nowhere better attested to than by the glut of books published over the past thirty years focusing on recovering deeply integral elements of our humanity that people think have been lost. The feeling among some is that the industrialization initiated during previous centuries and technology in this century have robbed societies of some basic values and insights. Questions like "What does it mean to be human?" or "Why is there evil?" or "What is my relationship to the environment?" or (more personally) "Who am I?" have been examined from both theistic and nontheistic points of view and have spawned best-selling books. A yearning for practical wisdom in particular is evident in the number of self-help books and the enormous proliferation of "little instruction" books containing proverbial aphorisms that have cropped up in recent times.
Not surprisingly, books about ancient mythology have been at the top of best-seller lists for some time. Authors have tried cataloguing the ancient teachings on life, death, love, and faith found in these myths. Whether such books have been written to reacquaint readers with the mythopoetic dimension of human existence, reminding them of the genius of stories in transmitting ancient wisdom, or reasserting values shared allegedly by all human beings, the popularity of books like Joseph Campbell 's The Power of Myth, Mircea Eliade 's The Sacred and the Profane, or Clarissa P. Estes's Women Who Run with the Wolves are indicative of the continuing spiritually and intellectually restive nature of North Americans.
The United States is a nation of seekers, and for as long as that description remains accurate, a yearning for wisdom as timeless knowledge about human existence will be with us. The questions, precepts, dilemmas, and skepticism embodied in wisdom teachings reflect the enduring and recurrent nature of the human predicament. As the writer of Ecclesiastes asserts, "There is nothing new under the sun."
See also Bible ; Campbell, Joseph ; Eliade, Mircea ; Myth .
Bergant, Dianne. Israel's Wisdom Literature: A Liberation-Critical Reading of the Old Testament . 1997.
Brown, William E. Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. 1996.
Crenshaw, James L. Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. 1981.
Morgan, Donn F. "Searching for Biblical Wisdom: Recent Studies and Their Pertinence for Contemporary Ministry." Sewanee Theological Review (1994).
Herbert Marbury Renita Weems
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The pure and penetrating message of the Divine Feminine Wisdom can become a companion for your own spiritual journey
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- Writing-The Sacred Art: Beyond the Page to Spiritual Practice
- Stop Playing God: 12 Steps as Spiritual Practice
- Biblical Wisdom for Post-biblical Times: An Exploration of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job
- The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Cultivating Compassion in Daily Life
- Hasidic Wisdom: An Exploration of Hasidic Storytelling, Theology and Contemplative Practice
- Saints and Sages: Biblical Prophets, Ancient Rabbis and the Building of a Just World
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- > The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Wisdom Literature
- > Theological Themes in the ‘Wisdom Literature’
- The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Wisdom Literature
- Cambridge Companions to Religion
- Copyright page
- Part I The Context of Wisdom Literature
- 1 Introduction
- 2 The Scope of Wisdom Literature
- 3 The Multiple Genres of Wisdom
- 4 The Literary Context(s) and Development of Wisdom Literature in Ancient Israel (with Special Reference to Proverbs)
- 5 The Scribal World
- 6 Theological Themes in the ‘Wisdom Literature’
- 7 The Solomonic Connection
- Part II Wisdom Literature in the Hebrew Bible
- Part III Wisdom Literature beyond the Hebrew Bible
- Part IV Themes in the Wisdom Literature
6 - Theological Themes in the ‘Wisdom Literature’
Proverbs, job and ecclesiastes, from part i - the context of wisdom literature.
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 July 2022
Katharine Dell’s contribution explores the question whether there is a distinctive set of theological ideas for the three key wisdom books – Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. After a brief survey of scholarship on this debate over the last century and a half, key themes that the books have in common are explored, with salient examples – the doctrine of retribution; the fear of the Lord; the figure of Wisdom and the attainment of wisdom; the theme of creation; communication and life and death. Although considerable commonality is found, there is also a discovery of difference and of interlinking with other books in the canon. The themes themselves are not confined to these ‘wisdom’ books, even though they characterize them accompanied by an essential didactic approach.
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- Theological Themes in the ‘Wisdom Literature’
- By Katharine J. Dell
- Edited by Katherine J. Dell , University of Cambridge
- Edited in association with Suzanna R. Millar , University of Edinburgh , Arthur Jan Keefer
- Book: The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Wisdom Literature
- Online publication: 28 July 2022
- Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108673082.007
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Wisdom literature is a genre of literature common in the ancient Near East. It consists of statements by sages and the wise that offer teachings about divinity and virtue. Although this genre uses techniques of traditional oral storytelling, it was disseminated in written form.
The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament is an eclectic collection of proverbs, moral lessons, riddles, warnings, extended meditations, and philosophical inquiry and debate. It also includes hymns and even love poetry in the Song of Songs.
Wisdom literature was a category of literature in many cultures in the time of the Old Testament. Wisdom literature deals with the way the world "works." It can deal with the big philosophical problems and the smaller things that may be addressed with common sense.
The books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes are considered biblical Wisdom Literature, making up a large portion of the Hebrew Bible. 1 Through these books chock-full of pithy sayings, parables, and deep ponderings about life that are relevant even today, believers can glean wisdom for living life in a way that honors God.
The Purpose of Wisdom Literature | Reformed Bible Studies & Devotionals at Ligonier.org | Reformed Bible Studies & Devotionals at Ligonier.org James 1:5-8 contains the incredible promise that the Lord will give wisdom to all who sincerely ask Him for it in faith. Ultimately, Christ is our wisdom, and H
The Wisdom Literature - Biblica - The International Bible Society Bible Read the Bible Online About the NIV Bible NIV Story NIV Bible Translation Philosophy NIV Bible Translation Process NIV Bible Translators The NIV's Commitment to Accuracy Reading Plans Translating God's Word Resources Online Bible Daily Devotions Verse of the Day Bible in a Year
Opening chapters of The Wisdom Literature comment on the striking similarities between ancient and modern "wisdom literature" and on the comparable literature from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan. Thereafter, a chapter is devoted to each biblical book (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Sirach, and Wisdom of Solomon), studying ...
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Because Wisdom Literature used human reason, experience and observation it was international, transcultural. It was the monotheistic religious worldview which is often not stated, that made Israel's wisdom revelatory. II. POSSIBLE ORIGINS A. Wisdom Literature developed in Israel as alternative or balance to the other forms of revelation.
The Wisdom Literature (Copyright (c), 1995,by Wm. G. Most) The Hebrew division of the Bible has three parts: the Law, the Prophets, the Writings. Within the writings are seven books which are commonly called wisdom books: ,Proverbs, Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes (Qoholeth), Song of Songs, Wisdom, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus).
In biblical literature: Wisdom literature There are two deuterocanonical works of the genre known as wisdom literature, one Hebrew and one Greek. The Hebrew work is called Ecclesiasticus, in the Latin Bible and in Greek manuscripts Sophia Iēsou huiou Sirach (the Wisdom of Jesus the… Read More areas of development Egypt In Amenemope
Summary and Analysis The Wisdom Literature: Overview. The Book of Jeremiah makes reference to three distinct groups of people: priests, prophets, and sages. Of these three, the prophets are responsible for the largest portion of Old Testament writings. They produced not only the books that bear their names but the historical writings that ...
The Wisdom Literature: Interpreting Biblical Texts Series Paperback - August 1, 1998 by Richard J. Clifford (Author) 52 ratings Part of: Interpreting Biblical Texts (11 books) See all formats and editions Kindle $11.99 Read with Our Free App Paperback $25.99 23 Used from $3.06 14 New from $19.03
The wisdom literature is predominantly a postexilic composition, but the dating is only approximate. In Jewish tradition, Megillot (Scrolls) came to be the accepted term for the five books of Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther. In the Protestant tradition, Sirach and Wisdom are classified as apocrypha and not printed as ...
Wisdom literature was produced in several different cultures in the Ancient Near East, but by far the best-known are those that found their way into the Bible canon: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Here are the wisdom books of the Protestant Bible:
Wisdom literature is a genre of literature that consists of statements by sages and wise men that teach about life, virtue, and the nature of God. Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece produced some well-known works such as Instructions of Kagemni, Maxims of Ptahhotep, Works and Days by Hesiod, and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.
The Wisdom books in the Bible, in their probable order of writing, are Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes (also called Qohelet), Ben Sira (also called Sirach or Ecclesiasticus), and the Wisdom of Solomon. The first three are included in Jewish and Protestant Bibles.
The book is written in the poetical style of the wisdom books of the Old Testament ( e.g., Proverbs, Job) and deals with the themes of practical and theoretical morality. The religious and moral position of the author is conservative—he does not believe in the afterlife, but he reflects the contemporary religious positions.
The Wisdom Literature (Message of Biblical Spirituality) Paperback - October 1, 1990 by Kathleen M. O'Connor (Author) 13 ratings See all formats and editions Kindle $20.99 Read with Our Free App Paperback $27.90 31 Used from $2.22 13 New from $23.97
Ultimately, the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible represents the intellectual tradition of ancient Israel. It is the record of a civilization's attempt to reflect upon, to philosophize about, and to appreciate the joys, sorrows, fears, and struggles of daily life and of the human experience.
Wisdom Literature is an appeal to the individual. It may be an entirely different kind of inspiration OT o God Moses Priests People Prophetic o God Prophets People Wisdom Lit o God People Wisdom Lit was not concerned with history but right living and conduct which could be learning through personal experience The appeal to experience also ...
The Wisdom of Solomon on death -- 30. The Wisdom of Solomon on prayer -- 31. The Wisdom of Solomon on Divine Providence -- 32. Interlude: a wisdom psalm on Torah -- 33. Jesus as wisdom teacher -- 34. Jesus and the wisdom stories in the gospels -- 35. Jesus and the sermon on the mount -- 36. Overview of Biblical wisdom literature.
Through the Hebrew books of Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes and Job, and the Wisdom literature books of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, the Divine Feminine speaks to you directly, and Her only desire is to teach you to become wise. Rami Shapiro's contemporary translations and powerful commentaries clarify who Wisdom is, what She ...
After a brief survey of scholarship on this debate over the last century and a half, key themes that the books have in common are explored, with salient examples - the doctrine of retribution; the fear of the Lord; the figure of Wisdom and the attainment of wisdom; the theme of creation; communication and life and death.