Biblical Wisdom Literature
One remarkable fact is evident from study of these works, as well as from specific statements in other parts of the Old Testament: that Israelite Wisdom was similar to that of neighboring peoples like the Edomites, and had antecedents and counterparts in the much older cultures of Phoenicia, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. It was in fact part of an international, intercultural, and interreligious school of thought whose beginnings can be traced to early times in Sumer and Egypt, and which was to make its impress eventually on the New Testament and the Talmud.
The Two Types of Wisdom Literature
In the neighboring cultures, and also in Israel, the Wisdom literature was of two main types that apparently represented divergent tendencies among the sages. The first is represented in the Bible by the Book of Proverbs (except for 8:22‑31 and 30:1‑4), the second by Job and Ecclesiastes (Kohelet). The spirit of the former is conservative, practical, didactic, optimistic, and worldly wise. The latter type is critical, even radical, in its attitude to conventional beliefs; it is speculative, individualistic, and (broadly speaking) pessimistic. The former expresses itself characteristically in brief rhythmic adages and maxims suited to instruction, as well as in longer admonitions; the latter, chiefly in soliloquy and dialogue.
The Hebrew Wisdom movement (as noted above) had its antecedents in more ancient cultures and its counterparts among neighboring peoples. Three roots of this international Wisdom movement can be distinguished: (a) the universal practice of instruction by parents and teachers in the knowledge and skills as well as in the moral standards that have proved advantageous for success in living; (b) the giving of counsel by those men (or women) who have gained a reputation for unusual intelligence, knowledge, and good judgment; and (c) the special skills and intellectual powers associated with literacy in a generally illiterate society.
The most extensive non‑Israelite Wisdom literatures have come down to its from Mesopotamia and Egypt. It is curious that Mesopotamian Wisdom is not mentioned as one of the standards for comparison with Solomon's; possibly this is because of its later identification with illicit practices like astrology and divination.
In Egyptian Wisdom writings, the conservative and didactic type predominates. The most characteristic form it takes is that of the "instructions" of a king or important official to his son and potential successor. This form appears as early as the Pyramid Age (2600‑ 2175 B.C.), and persists for more than two millennia. About a dozen such texts have come to light. The surviving literature of Egyptian Wisdom thus has certain similarities and points of contact with Hebrew Wisdom as represented in the Old Testament. The father‑to‑son form of moral instruction, the high value placed on the profession of the scribe as a learned man, the idea of wisdom as recognition of a divinely established cosmic order, the grounding of ethics in religion, and in more radical terms--the exploring of problems of the value of life and the meaning of justice show a common concern.
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