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The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 17: The Wisdom Literature"


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It has been traditional to speak of seven books as wisdom books: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth), Song of Songs, Wisdom, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). Actually, the character of these is rather diverse. We have just commented on the Psalms. We will hold the Song of Songs to the last place, since it is quite different from the usual wisdom books.

We begin with Proverbs, Sirach, Wisdom and Ecclesiastes since they have strong similarities. The first three of these have deep roots in other civilizations of the ancient Near East, especially Egypt. The ancient Near Eastern court circles seem to have been the source of much wisdom literature. One of the oldest works is The Instructions of Ptahotep, a vizier, c. 2400 B.C. The Instructions of Amenemopet, dating from around 1200 B.C. is significant for the remarkably close similarity to the Book of Proverbs, especially to 22:17 - 24:22: compare Amenemopet III, 9-12; XI, 13f; XXVII, 16f.

Ptahotep advises that when one meets a speaker who is better at argument, one should cut down on bad talk by not opposing him. On meeting an equal, one should show his superiority by silence, so that the attending official may be impressed. An inferior opponent should be treated with indulgent disregard, so as to "smite him with the punishment of the [truly] great." At the table of a superior, one should keep a sedate countenance, take only what is offered, laugh only when the host laughs. An official should listen patiently to pleas of clients because "a petitioner wants attention to what he says even more than the accomplishing of that for which he came. "

So, even though the Egyptian wisdom urges conformity to the virtue of ma'at - which seems to be a complex of social justice virtues, though the sense is unclear - yet practical advice on how to get along is the most prominent feature.

Some of Hebrew wisdom is also merely practical advice, though the religious element does enter often enough. Especially there is praise of Wisdom which is often personified - cf. e.g., Proverbs 1, 8, 9; Sirach 24; Wisdom 7-9. She, Wisdom, existed before creation, with God, and after traveling through earth and sky, has taken up her abode with Jacob (Sirach 24:8-10). Wisdom is also identified with the Law: Sirach 24:22-23 (cf. our remarks on Dt. 4:6-8 in chapter 11 above) She is also a communication of God, an effusion of divine glory : Wisdom 7:25-26. So it is an easy step from there to speak of Christ as the wisdom of the Father: 1 Cor 1:24.

Proverbs: This book is not really unified. Instead it is a collection of short sayings, with a long poetic introduction (chapters 1-9), and a conclusion consisting of longer sayings and short poems (30-31).

The date is difficult to determine. Some think many of the sayings go back to monarchic times, although the collection was made later.

The book opens: "The proverbs of Solomon". But we know that in that culture as pen names, the name of a famous man would often be used, and Solomon, famous for his wisdom, was a natural choice. There are within it two special Solomonic collections: 10:1- 24:22, and 25:1 - 29:27.

Much of the wisdom is largely practical and aimed at success in this life. Yet there is a religious color especially in personified Wisdom, particularly in chapters 1, 8, and 9. And "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord" (9:10). A specially beautiful passage, 8:22-31 is an optional reading for the Common of the Blessed Virgin, the Seat of Wisdom ever most closely joined to her Son, who is the Wisdom of the Father (1 Cor 1:24). Vatican II, in chapter 8 of LG, beautifully develops this union, which began in eternity, embraced every one of the mysteries of His life and death, and will continue beyond the end of time forever.

Chapters 30 and 31 include wisdom of other nations, that of Agur, and that of Lemuel.

The whole book closes with a beautifully ideal picture of the perfect wife.

Sirach/Ecclesiasticus: It is remarkable that we know the name of the author of this book, Yeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira. Sirach is the Greek form of the name. His grandson wrote a preface to the Greek translation of this book. Ben Sira was a Jerusalem sage who passed on his reflections in a school he conducted. In time he wrote down these teachings, probably c 190-180. The grandson brought the book to Egypt and there translated it sometime after 132 B.C. Though the Hebrew original was long lost, starting in 1896 documents have been found, which give us about two-thirds of the Hebrew original.

Unfortunately, not all versions use the same numbering system. The NAB and older RSV have a system that matches neither the Greek nor the Latin numbers. The newer RSV is better.

It is almost impossible to outline the book, because of its lack of systematic arrangement. However, materials are often grouped according to content - a feature lacking in Proverbs.

Ben Sira like Proverbs personifies wisdom. She is God's creature and His gift to us, but to attain wisdom requires much discipline. She dwells especially in the temple of Jerusalem, and is identified with the Law.

A specially important section is the praise of the ancestors (44:12 - 50:24) from Enoch to the high priest Simon II.

The charge is often made that Sirach denies an afterlife or retribution in the afterlife. The chief line is 14:16-17: "Give and take and enjoy yourself, for it is not possible in Sheol to seek luxury. All flesh grows old as a garment. For the decree of ages is: You must surely die."

We need to work with care and precision here. The commentators commonly forget that before the death of Christ, heaven was closed (cf. DS 780, 1000) even to those who were just and fully prepared. So what was existence like in Sheol? There was no praise of God. Psalm 6:6 asks: "Who in Sheol can give you praise?" Sirach 17:27-28 has the same thought. Again, Isaiah 38:18-19 says: "Death cannot praise you. Those who go down into the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness." M. Dahood (Anchor Bible, Psalms 16, p. 38) comments that the writer of Psalm 6 does not suffer from an inability to remember God in Sheol, but from not being able to share in the grand liturgical praise of God as in the public worship, which the people of Israel sincerely loved. (They loved the externals so much that God complained in Is 29:13: "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me"). We could add that the very Hebrew words used in Isaiah 38:18-19 for praise or thanks of God also appear in 1 Chron 16:4 and 2 Chron 5:13 and 31:2 for the liturgical praise of God.

Is 38 says they cannot hope for God's faithfulness: it is because the covenant does not extend to Sheol - the word used is regular for God's faithfulness to the covenant. But this does not mean that God does not watch over Sheol: Job 26:6 says: "Sheol is naked before God." Cf. Prov. 15:11.

Qoheleth 9:10 says: "There is no work or reason, or knowledge, or wisdom in Sheol." Of course the dead in Sheol do not work. Nor have they any natural means of knowing what goes on on earth - they get this only if God chooses to reveal something to them. Cf. Job 14:21.

We do not see in Sirach any positive indication of retribution in Sheol. But that does not mean the dead were non-existent (these are two separate questions: survival, and retribution in the future life). Jesus Himself answered the Sadducees on this point (Mt. 22:29-33) by citing from the Pentateuch - perhaps the only part of the OT they accepted - from Ex 3:6, the words of God to Moses: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob" and Jesus added: "He is not the God of the dead but of the living." The Sadducees were silenced, they could not answer His reasoning. Further, it was necessary to give repeated commands in the OT against necromancy, consulting the dead, which indicates it was being done, and done persistently: e.g., Lv 19:31; 20:6, 27; Dt. 18:11 and many more texts. Saul himself had a medium bring up the spirit of Samuel in 1 Sam 28:8-19. Even if we say the mediums were fakes, it remains true that there was persistent belief that the dead did exist. (We will consider some added problem texts in Job and Qoheleth in treating each book).

Let us recall also the Psalm lines on the future life we saw at the end of the chapter on Psalms.

Really, it would seem strange after some centuries in Egypt, where the concept of an afterlife was so strong and clear, if the Hebrews had no concept of survival at all.

Many today assert the Hebrew had a unitary concept of man: a body with breath. Then there could be no survival. But we already saw the widespread belief of survival in the attachment to necromancy. And we saw the answer of Jesus to the Sadducees. Some confusion comes from the Hebrew word nefesh, which has many meanings including soul, but those who hold for the unitary concept refuse to accept that. meaning of soul. Really, we think the Hebrews were acting according to proper theological method, without realizing that technically of course. In divine matters we may meet with two truths, which seem to clash. Even after rechecking our study they are still there. Then we must hold both, hoping sometime to find how to reconcile them. They saw two things: 1)Man seems to be a unit; 2)They knew, as we saw, that there was some survival after death (with or without retribution there). How to fit these together they did not know, but they held both. Then in the second century B.C. when they reached the concept of man as made of body and soul (under stimulus of Greek thought and the horrible deaths of the martyrs under Antiochus IV), they finally knew how to do it. Not all Jews accepted that, but many did, especially the Pharisees. And St. Paul was a Pharisee.

Job: Job consists of a prose introduction and conclusion - which may have existed separately from the rest, and of a large poetic core. Satan - who seems not to be the same as the devil, merely an opponent - tells God that Job would not obey if he were afflicted. God gives permission to afflict Job greatly. So Job's suffering is permitted as a test - an idea that is a bit new, for usually suffering had been considered as a divine punishment for sin (and it could be that).

Three friends of Job come, but do not really console him: they say he must have sinned or the affliction would not have come. Job insists on his innocence. The fact that God could afflict an innocent man disturbs Job, he almost becomes angry with God at some points. Finally he asks the Almighty to answer him. God does speak from a storm: Would Job condemn God so he, Job could seem just? Job confesses he has not reacted well, he has tried to deal with things above him, he repents in dust and ashes. God directs Job's friends to ask Job to pray for them, so their fault may be pardoned. In the prose conclusion Job gets back much more than what he had lost.

Job basically wrestles with the question: Why do the just sometimes suffer in this life. The answer is: We cannot know all of God's ways - that is, this is the answer of the poetic core of the book. The prose conclusion says: God repaid Job richly before the end of his life. This is not a contradiction, but simply fails to repeat the gain.

Did Job, as some say, deny a future life in 14:13 ff? Not at all. Here is an outline of what Job really said in chapter 14: In verses 10-12: Even though a tree may put forth shoots again, a man who dies does not come back, i. e, not to this life. In verse 13: Job indulges in a poetic fancy - he knows it is only a fancy: He wishes God would hide him in Sheol until His anger would pass, and then remember Job again. This is a fancy for certain, but we must remember Job is high poetry, and such poetry can indulge in fanciful things. Marvin Pope, In Anchor Bible, Job does take this view of verse 13, and Pope points out that Is 26:20 indulges a similar fancy: let the people of Judah hide in their chambers till God's wrath passes. Amos 9:2 ff. pictures the wicked as trying in vain to hide in Sheol, in Heaven, on Mt. Carmel or on the bottom of the sea. Verses 14-17 continue the fancy of verse 13: "If a man dies, will he live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my change would come. You [God] would call, and would answer and you would want the work of your hands. Then You would number my steps, and not keep watch over my sin. My transgression would be sealed up in a bag, and you would sew up my iniquity. Verses 18-22 return to reality: just as a mountain may lose strength and a rock be moved from its place, just as waters wear away even rock, so, in the end, God prevails, and destroys man's hope of this life. God sends him away. In verses 21-22: Man goes to Sheol, and does not know whether his sons fare well or not, "His flesh on him has pain, and his soul mourns over him." To sum up: Job for a moment indulges fancy, then returns to reality: No one can win against God, he must go to Sheol. There he will not know what goes on on earth - as we saw earlier, even the souls of the just there, not having the vision of God before the death of Christ, have no normal means of knowing things on earth, unless God gives a special revelation. But Job adds that his flesh has pain and his soul mourns over him. This at least seems to imply some awareness after death.

We must add: Job may have seen even more about the future life. For the much debated verses 19:25-27 read, in the NAB: "I know that my Vindicator lives, and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust; whom I myself shall see: my own eyes, not another's shall behold him, and from my flesh I shall see God." Now this could not mean a rescue in this life, for in 7:6-7 Job said: "My days have passed more swiftly than the web is cut by the weaver, and are consumed without any hope." So he had no hope for this life - the hope must have been for the future life. The NRSV is similar. So this rendering is at least not impossible. (Let us recall our comments above on Sirach 14:16-17).

Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes: The author is unknown, he seems to have been a rather late sage, probably about 3rd century BC. A copy of the book was in circulation at least by 150 BC, fragments have been found at Qumran.

Today it is often said that the author did not believe in an afterlife - but we have already commented on such claims in general earlier, in connection with Psalms Sirach and Job. Some time ago many believed there must be two authors for the book, for what they considered contrasting or incompatible statements. However, if we recall proper theological method, we can gain some light. In divine matters, it is not unusual to find two conclusions which remain even after rechecking our work, but which seem to clash. Then we need to resist any temptation to force the meaning of either. Rather, we should accept both, and remain that way until someone finds a solution. It is likely that Qoheleth did precisely this.

The first set of texts do seem not to know an afterlife, though they do not deny it:

2:14: "The eyes of a wise man are in his head; the fool walks in darkness. I myself perceived: the same thing comes to all of them." That is, all die and turn to dust.

3:19: "For what happens to man is the same as happens to beasts. As one dies, the other dies".

3:20: "All are from dust and will return to dust. "

3:21: "Who knows whether the spirit of the sons of man goes up and the spirit of the beasts goes down?" Of course the sense is debated. The word we have rendered spirit is Hebrew ruach. Its sense is similar to that of nefesh - which is also much debated. Both surely have a wide range of meanings. However, we notice here that the author considers if the ruach of humans goes up, but that of animals goes down. At least a hint of a difference.

9:5-6: "The dead know nothing. They have no more reward... their love and their hate and their envy have perished. Nor do they have any more forever a portion of all that is done under the sun." We spoke of this in commenting on Sirach and Job. Yes, the dead have no normal means of knowing what goes on on the earth. And being in the Limbo of the Fathers, not in heaven until after the death of Christ, their lot is indeed dim. They never will return to ordinary earthly life - we know that after the resurrection life will be much different. Qoheleth would not know what we know, but what he said is not false.

Yet no one of the above really proves a denial of an afterlife.

The second set seem at least to imply a future life:

3:17: "I said in my heart: God shall judge both the just and the wicked." But the author knew well it does not always work out so in this life - hence an implication of a judgment beyond this life.

8:12: "If a sinner does evil a hundred times, and prolongs his life, yet I know surely that it will be well with those who fear God." Again, a possible implication, especially since in 8:14 he adds: "There are just men to who it happens according to the deeds of the wicked; and there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the just. "

12:14: "For God will bring every deed into judgment, every hidden thing, whether good or evil." Again, since it often does not happen in this life, there is an implication of retribution after death.

So Qoheleth at least seems to give us implications of retribution after death. He was groping, but did what he could. The fact that he spoke so dimly of all earthly things, and yet knew God is so good might possibly be considered as raising the question to a higher plane, going above mere earthly reward.

Wisdom: What Qoheleth saw only dimly at best, the author of Wisdom did see very clearly (3:1-5): "The souls of the just are in the hands of God, and surely no torment will touch them. They seemed to the eyes of senseless men to die, and their departure was considered an evil... but they are in peace. And if in the eyes of men they be punished, their hope is full of immortality. And having been tried a little, they will be greatly blessed for God tried them, and found them worthy of himself. "

The author was a Jew, probably at Alexandria, in the first century B.C. He was familiar with Hellenistic philosophy, culture and rhetoric. Pagan wisdom, and especially the pagan claims of Isis, the goddess of wisdom, would be apt to impress the Jews. Science had been flourishing in Alexandria for some time. The writer wants to strengthen fellow Jews against the attractions of these things.

The passage we cited above comes from the section on wisdom and human destiny (which runs to 6:21). The wicked may persecute - probably the memory of the persecution of Antiochus IV of Syria was vivid. But God makes it all right in the life to come. For God had formed man to be imperishable (1:13-14; 2:23). But death entered by the sins of wicked people. Death cannot harm those who are faithful to God, but it will strike those who plotted against the just.

The second section 6:22-11:1 speaks of acquiring wisdom. It is a gift of God, but will be given those who are just and who seek it. Specially impressive are the words of 6:5-6 which say that the lowly may be pardoned by mercy, but there is a stern judgment for the powerful.

In the third section, 11:2-19:22 the author reviews the wonders of God's works for Israel, in the Exodus and beyond. Israel benefited by the very things, the plagues, that struck the Egyptians.

A special gem of wisdom appears in 4:12: " The magic spell of worthless things obscures what is right, and the anxiousness of desire perverts an innocent mind." This anticipates St. Paul's plea for detachment in 1 Cor 7:29-35. It is quite possible, since the author knew Greek culture that he has in mind too the plea of Socrates, often repeated, that the philosopher, to find the truth, should have as little as possible to do with the things of the body (e.g., Phaedo 65, 66, 82-83, 114; Republic 519).

The Song of Songs: It is customary to list this work among the wisdom books, even though it is clearly not such. The title, which is also given as Canticle of Canticles, is merely a Hebrew form of superlative: the greatest song.

Dates of composition have been proposed all the way from the monarchic period to the third century B.C. The attribution to Solomon is only a familiar literary device.

There is much disagreement on its structure: some have seen only seven love songs in it, others as high as fifty.

If taken in the literal sense it would be an erotic composition. In that way it could be a message that God created sexuality as a means of spiritual growth, if used according to His plan and within His laws. Thus Paul VI, in an address to the 13th National Congress of the Italian Feminine Center, on Feb. 12, 1966 (cf. The Pope Speaks 11, 1966, p. 10), said that marriage should be "a long path to sanctification."

But at least by the 2nd century A.D. the allegorical view was. We saw, especially in Hosea, the imagery of God as the husband of Israel. Early Christians tended to make it refer to the relation of Christ and His Church. cf. Eph 5:22-32.

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