Review of S. Weeks, An Introduction to the Study of Wisdom Literature

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Weeks, Stuart, An Introduction to the Study of Wisdom Literature (T&T Clark Approaches to Biblical Studies; London and New York: T&T Clark, 2010). Pp. ix + 165. Paperback. $24.95. ISBN 978-0-567-18443-6.

As Weeks states in the Preface, his Introduction is not just about providing answers but examining evidence (p. ix). It is this approach which makes it valuable not only to the novice, but to the seasoned scholar as well. At every turn, Weeks reexamines long-standing theories and questions basic assumptions in light of available evidence. Though the book is short, it is clearly the result of years of study and reflection, and virtually every paragraph summarizes decades of discussion on Israel's wisdom literature. In the course of this review, I aim to clarify Weeks' contribution to these discussions by fleshing out what he presents in an admirably clear but concise fashion.

In the Introduction, Weeks suggests that wisdom is essentially skill or know-how, a quality that may be applied either to material crafts or to living life. It reaches beyond what moderns might call innate intelligence, stressing an apprenticeship in moral education. Wisdom is primarily focused in the individual over the group and the present over the past or future, and its claims to authority are of two sorts: (1) social authority (e.g., popular proverbs), and (2) the authority of an individual who passes wisdom on to others (e.g., Qohelet). Finally, the wisdom books address issues that affect all humans, and not just Israel. They speak broadly of the world and God's relationship to the world, not just narrowly about covenant, election, or law.

Chapter 1 treats Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Aramaic counterparts to Israelite wisdom. Weeks suggests that Sumerian proverb collections may have been gathered together as a reservoir from which the educated could draw in order to ornament their speech. Furthermore, he notes that these sayings often seem to have been intentionally arranged as “a genuine literary endeavor” (p. 11). Egyptian instructions likewise show an interest in elevated literary style. Weeks then goes on to question the dated, but still widely held, assumptions associated especially with H. H. Schmid and H. Gese that (1) Israelite instruction evolved from more basic forms to more complex ones and (2) earlier instruction was more optimistic, while later wisdom literature became more skeptical. As he notes, the cognate literature does not support such an evolution, for different styles of sayings are not confined to one type of literature. Furthermore, seemingly skeptical works were transmitted alongside more conventional advice literature. Finally, Israelite wisdom literature should not be treated as something that arose in a distinct wisdom circle, which consciously defined itself over against more historically- oriented literature. Weeks rightly points out that different concerns do not necessarily reflect different ideologies, and that it is very likely that the same group produced both kinds of literature, anyway.

Weeks begins his investigation of the Israelite literature in chapter 2 by examining the book of Proverbs. Here he outlines the typical characteristics of the instruction literature (chs. 1–9) and the sentence literature (chs. 10:1–22:16; 25–29). Though there are noticeable stylistic differences between the two, he says that they should not be considered separate traditions. In connection with the sentence literature, Weeks speaks of an apparent “compositional effort” and “a strong interest in words and sounds, as well as in the meaning of sayings” (p. 28). This observation seems to mesh well with his statements about the arrangement of Sumerian proverbs as “a genuine literary endeavor” (p. 9), but he does not go on to suggest that the sentence literature reflects similar intentional structuring (at least in any thoroughgoing way), as some scholars have recently argued. He concludes, rather, that the sayings were more likely for dipping in, much like almanacs or joke books. The everyday subject matter of these sayings, furthermore, does not reflect a folk background but was simply chosen for its general applicability. Behind the figure of the “foreign woman” in the instruction literature, Weeks sees the threat of apostasy through intermarriage that is a common theme of Torah-piety (e.g., Deuteronomy, Ezra-Nehemiah). While Prov 1–9 is not explicit about this background, he points out that these chapters were read in this fashion from a very early period. He offers that Woman Wisdom in Prov 1–9 is a sort of literary response to the “foreign woman.” That is, the figure of the foreign woman came first, and Woman Wisdom was created as her counterpart. Proverbs 31:10–31 extends this focus on Woman Wisdom with the similarly styled Valiant Wife, and this hymn was likely influenced by the figure of Woman Wisdom in the earlier instruction literature.

In Chapter 3, Weeks suggests that the book of Job was Jewish in origin, but was set in patriarchal-period Edom in order to explore the book's themes without reference to Israel. Though it is disassociated from Israel, the book of Job is not designed to answer general human questions about the nature of suffering. In fact, it goes out of its way to present Job as a special case, not an “Everyman.” While the book does canvass big issues, it does not mean that it is meant to solve them. Perhaps like the Egyptian Dialogue Between a Man and His Ba, the book simply reflects the main character's physical and psychological state. Weeks also cautions against interpreting the conversation between God and the Satan about Job's character as a searching inquiry about the motivation of human piety. As he says, “…for all we know God and the Satan have had similar conversations about others many times before” (p. 53). Though Weeks tends to interpret the Book of Job holistically, he believes that some reassignment of speeches is necessary in the third cycle. To Weeks, however, the particulars of such reassignment probably do not matter overmuch “because the material gives no reason to suppose that any of the characters involved are introducing anything new and unexpected” (p. 61). He is similarly non-committal about the nature of the Elihu speeches. Though he believes they are secondary and could be left out without missing much, he also states that they add something new to the book if they are included. Weeks suggests that Job's “confession” in 42:6 may reflect a restoration of Job's self-esteem after seeing God and that God's statement in 42:7 is best translated as “you have not told me it is settled (נכונה), as has my servant Job” (p. 67). He concludes that Job is not a theodicy and that it probably does not have a central message at all. The most one can say is that it points to the limits of human categories. God is not held to a notion of divine justice, and “whatever rules we might think he works by, the reality is that no rules constrain him” (p. 70).

Weeks treats Ecclesiastes in ch. 4, noting that “there is famously little consensus about its purpose and meaning” (p. 72). His treatment here, however, is perhaps the most penetrating analysis in the book. Qohelet's royal memoir in ch. 1 and the epilogue in ch. 12 both point to the fact that experience is the root of his advice, even if that experience is bitter. Weeks suggests that Qohelet's apparent bitterness is due to his recognition of limited perspectives. Time, it seems, is highlighted in the opening cosmological theme in ch. 1. Weeks states:

In a world that is permanent, nothing really ends and nothing really starts, but everything is part of a continuing process. Humans are temporary residents in this world: with limited lifespans and limited memories, they can only see, in effect, a snapshot. This can mislead them into thinking that something has just started or finished when it is merely a phase in a process… (pp. 74-75)

And so Weeks believes that, for Qohelet, “The issue is not that the world is irrational or disorderly, but that human perception of the world is limited and short-sighted” (p. 82). Qohelet, then, is not exactly a “skeptic.”[1] Qohelet has grasped the basic insight that the ways of the world and the ways of God are greater than humans can understand, but he is frustrated about it, since this restriction in scope means that humans cannot fully understand their role in the bigger picture. His answer, however, is that humans must learn to take pleasure in what they can perceive. Life, however brief, must be lived on a smaller scale. This theology is also evident in Weeks' treatment of the term הבל, which, as he notes, is a metaphor central to the book, but one that carries multiple associations. If there is an over-arching way of speaking of the term's meaning, Weeks suggests the ideas of deception or illusion. That is, it points to the fact that humans expect one sort of thing (e.g., to understand the world at a cosmological level) but are constantly disappointed (e.g., they can only grasp the whole momentarily, or they can only grasp a small portion of it). The most naturalistic expression of this deception is found in the meaning of הבל as “vapor” (see C.-L. Seow and D. B. Miller), while the result of this deception is the somewhat more logical judgment of “absurdity” (see M. V. Fox et al.).

Chapter 5 treats “Other Jewish Wisdom Literature,” a title which reflects the difficulty of definition. Weeks tends to treat wisdom literature as those corpora that share a mode of thought and discourse rather than those which bear a family resemblance in form. It is worth noting that this way of talking about ancient Near Eastern “wisdom” finds a close analogue in the Mesopotamian material, in which “wisdom” concepts and expressions are in no way limited to instructions or dialogue literature. The practical result, however, is that a discussion of “wisdom” in Israelite literature may become quite broad and encompass a great number of things beyond those traditionally designated as “wisdom books” by modern scholars. Weeks is quite conservative in what he includes in chapter 5, however, as he treats wisdom Psalms, Ben Sira, Baruch 3:9–4:4, Wisdom of Solomon, and wisdom at Qumran. In the discussion of wisdom Psalms, Weeks points out that different psalms draw on themes associated with advice literature to different degrees. But one link that is fairly constant is between wisdom, personal piety, and law (p. 88). The same conceptual framework may be seen in Ben Sira, Baruch 3:9–4:4, and some of the wisdom material at Qumran. In Wisdom of Solomon, wisdom is still more universal and philosophical—something from which all rulers of the earth could learn. Much of the wisdom literature at Qumran evidences themes reminiscent of Proverbs, though some texts engage in the discourse of righteousness and wickedness with a still more eschatological, even apocalyptic, flavor. Due to the fragmentary nature and diverse characteristics of much of this literature, Weeks rightly warns that the existence of a “wisdom corpus” from Qumran is far from clear.

After having suggested in ch. 5 that common concepts, not common literary forms, may help us identify wisdom literature, Weeks goes on in ch. 6 to review those concepts set forth by previous scholars: (1) underlying secularism, (2) antipathy to ideas of history and nation, and (3) concepts of creation and world order. More than forty years ago, William McKane suggested that wisdom was originally secular in nature. Contrary to McKane and others, Weeks stresses that Jewish wisdom literature was always religious. Furthermore, the famous silence of the wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible about covenant and national history does not mean that the wisdom literature avoided such things as a matter of principle (note especially Wisdom of Solomon). Rather, the focus of the wisdom literature in the Hebrew canon is on the individual more than the community or nation. Furthermore, Prov 1–9 and Qohelet are hardly cut off from the discourse of reward and punishment and eschatological judgment. Wisdom theology is also commonly tied to creation theology, but Weeks points out that the theme of creation in the wisdom literature is not so much about creation as such, but about the world order that results from creation. Many have suggested that this world order is a closed system in which certain deeds lead inexorably to certain consequences. Weeks rightly points out that this so-called “act-consequence nexus,” as classically formulated by Klaus Koch, is much too reductionistic, and it discounts dynamic divine activity for an abstract principle of causation. While the sages, moreover, draw on their personal observation of creation, Weeks is cautious about calling them “empiricists,” since it runs the risk of secularizing “wisdom thought” and imposing a foreign dichotomy between “natural theology” and “revelation” on this literature. Weeks concludes that, while we may say that there is a creation theology which may be teased out of the wisdom literature, this does not mean that the sages were consciously preoccupied with a developed theology of creation. According to Weeks, some of what scholars have identified as “creation theology” in wisdom literature may, in fact, be the result of its universal perspective. The wisdom literature portrays the Israelite God as god of the world, and thus, as creator. In the end, Weeks believes, wisdom literature is held together by its common presentation of God, and he suggests that we should perhaps look at these texts not so much as the products of a particular tradition of thought as much as the products of a similar mode of discourse.

The final chapter treats the origin and place of the wisdom literature. Wisdom literature, as Weeks notes, “is essentially a literary phenomenon” (p. 128), and for that reason it has been linked closely with royal counsellors, a scribal class, and with schools.[2] Weeks, however, questions the degree to which speaking of a “scribal class” in ancient Israel is helpful, for a scribal class does not seem to have been as clearly demarcated as in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia—at least in light of the Israelite evidence available. On the whole, Weeks regards the attempts to connect the wisdom literature with royal administration or with schools as unproven, and he stresses once again that wisdom terminology is not the sole currency of an elite band of “the wise.” Weeks is right to point to the “broad interconnectedness of biblical literature” (p. 140), and this interconnectedness commends caution when attempting to determine how one tradition colors another. Contrary to the impulses of previous scholars, he warns that these traditions are, in fact, not as distinct as formerly believed. So one should not assume that various literate classes separated themselves by the kinds of literature they wrote or the kinds of questions they asked.[3] The ability of wisdom to provide a familiar structure, and the fact that wisdom literature, like other ancient Israelite literature, arose from scribal culture, suggests that we need not speak so much of “wisdom influence” on law, apocalyptic, etc., but of basic, overlapping interests. So both wisdom and law offer moral exhortation; and apocalyptic, like wisdom, focuses on God as universal, supreme, and at work in the world in ways that only the wise can perceive. As a mode of discourse within an interconnected web of literary culture, it would be natural for other types of writing to draw on themes typically associated with wisdom, while not themselves being wisdom literature (see p. 143). This seems to fit well with Gerald Sheppard's proposal which Weeks reviews positively. For Sheppard, the nascent biblical canon reflects the fact that wisdom has become more than a corpus of literature, developing into a hermeneutical construct for the interpretation of traditions well beyond that corpus. So while the wisdom books themselves have “shared interests and … distinct approach” (p. 137), the idea of wisdom as discourse or even as a hermeneutic can—and should be expected to—reach far beyond that limited corpus.

This book is the best available introduction to the wisdom literature. Though it is not theologically oriented, Weeks' discussion clearly has important implications for those who are more theologically inclined. Weeks is learned, judicious, and fair, and his judgments are characterized by common sense in the very best possible way. It is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the wisdom literature.

Scott C. Jones, Covenant College

[1] In this connection, note Weeks' forthcoming monograph, Ecclesiastes and Skepticism (LHBOTS, 541; London: T&T Clark, 2011). reference

[2] Karel van der Toorn's recent suggestion that Israelite literature was the product of temple scribes should perhaps be added to this list (Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007]). reference

[3] Note here the interdisciplinary nature of Mesopotamian scribal education and the cooperation among specialists in different branches of learning (S. Parpola, “Mesopotamian Astrology and Astronomy as Domains of Mesopotamian ‘Wisdom,’” H. D. Galter[ed.], Die Rolle der Astronomie in den Kulturen Mesopotamiens. Beitr├Ąge zum 3. Grazer Morgenländischen Symposion (23.–27. September 1991) [Grazer Morgenländische Studien 3; Graz: RM Druck und Verlagsgesellschaft, 1993], 47–59). Parpola states, “In my opinion it is essential to consider these disciplines not in isolation but as integral parts of this larger whole, and to realize that as parts of an integrated system of thought, the different subdisciplines of … ‘wisdom’ were in constant contact and interaction with each other” (p. 52). By analogy, biblicists should be wary of distinguishing a separate class of Israelite sages. Furthermore, we might view Israelite wisdom literature as reflecting the discourse of one “wisdom” discipline among many others—albeit one which reflects self-consciously on the nature of wisdom and how to acquire it. reference

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