2014.5.13 | Stuart Weeks. 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. ISBN 9780567184436. Paperback.
Review by JiSeong Kwon, Durham University.
Many thanks to Bloomsbury for providing a review copy.
Stuart Weeks in this book provides a concise and insightful introduction to Israelite Wisdom Literature for beginners to biblical studies. The entire biblical wisdom corpus (including deuterocanonical texts) is reviewed—the book of Proverbs, the book of Job, Ecclesiastes, the wisdom psalms, the Wisdom of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), Baruch 3.9-4.4, and the Wisdom of Solomon—as well as wisdom texts from Qumran. This scholarly work, however, is very distinctive compared with other sorts of introductory books of Wisdom Literature such as those by Roland E. Murphy, James Crenshaw, and Leo Perdue, in that Weeks carefully examines the conventional thoughts in terms of the origin and the cultural setting of ‘Wisdom Literature’.
In particular, he doubts whether it is appropriate to categorize specific books of the Hebrew Bible (Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes) as ‘Wisdom Literature’. The concept of ‘wisdom’ in those books, according to his claim, is so vague and indefinite so that they all would imply different aspects about what ‘wisdom’ says. Thus, although as a loose label, the term ‘wisdom literature’ can be used by some, he argues that ‘wisdom literature’ cannot identify anything about its historical background.
Let us briefly look at the content of each chapter. In chapter one, he identifies foreign counterparts for Israelite wisdom literature from Mesopotamian and Egyptian sources , but he argues that any direct influence on the biblical materials should be rejected in a comparative study. He warns of the danger of simple comparison with non-Israelite sources by saying that ‘it necessarily isolates the texts to some extent from the broader cultures within which they each emerged’ (p. 9) and highlights the significance of the cultural background linkages with other literature and religious backgrounds within its own contemporary situation. The social context of Jewish wisdom literature which he attempts to describe is not that of a distinctive professional group which produced the biblical wisdom corpus, but it is, rather, that of a social class, broadly speaking, who produced biblical materials. He argues that ‘the scribal class in Egypt was the narrative’ class, the ‘lament’ class or even the ‘hymn’ class (p. 22).
From chapter two to chapter five, Jewish wisdom compositions are reviewed. In chapter two, contents, styles, and themes in the book of Proverbs are discussed, and Weeks sees this book as ‘an anthology’ which includes a variety of different literary pieces. Therefore, he does not give any specific date of writing of this book although it is thought to be one of the earliest books, since it definitely went through many revisions and additions. One should avoid the oversimplification of this book as ‘advice’, ‘saying’, ‘parental instruction’, but all the collections and materials, whose arrangement is probably due to the editors, are closely related, hence Weeks’ term ‘anthologization’ (p. 25). Major collections of sayings are divided as ‘the sayings of Solomon’ (Proverbs 10:1-22:16; 25-29) and ‘the words of the wise’ (22:17-24:22; 24:23-34). Then the unit of Proverbs 1-9 and the last two chapters 30-31—‘the words of Agur’, ‘the words of Lemuel’, and ‘the valiant wife’—are described. The meaning and imagery in the personified wisdom (esp. Prov 9 and 31:10-31) are significant in understanding the entire collections, and the instruction of choosing two ways of life and death would be similar with the language of Deuteronomy, which heavily highlights obedience to the Torah.
Chapter 3 deals with the book of Job which has far different theological voices from the book of Proverbs. Most biblical scholars generally date the composition of Job in the Persian period, although its narrative existed in the pre-exilic form and this book is the cumulative work of several centuries. Weeks asks a question at the end of the detailed explanation: ‘Does Job have a message?’ Basically, it is difficult from the traditional view to see Job as a model of a pious person who overcomes all sufferings, since Job’s case is unusual and even extraordinary. The essential message of the book (Job 40:26-30; ET 41:2-6) instead is the nature of God who ‘cannot be tamed’, and whose actions ‘do not fit some set of rules’ (p. 68). Weeks explains its message in relation to ‘covenant’ theology;
‘[T]his is also a potentially powerful critique of any attempt to view the Torah as an agreement that places an obligation upon God, and the identification of “covenant” with servitude is very striking—by setting the book outside Israel, though, the author avoids a head-on confrontation’ (p. 69).
Because human piety cannot possibly force God to serve humans, the God of Israel would have no responsibility to satisfy human commitment.
Chapter 4 describes the book of Ecclesiastes (or Qohelet). Traditionally, the Solomonic authorship of this book has been claimed, although Qohelet did not mention this (‘son of David, king in Jerusalem’, Ecclesiastes 1:1). This has been established, however, on the false assumption of early commentators. This composition is dated into the Hellenistic period and plays an important role as a representative of skeptical literature in the Hebrew Bible. It deals with fatalism over the brevity of life and with the human powerlessness in the face of coming divine judgment. Weeks claims that ‘there is little in Ecclesiastes which is really specific to Judaism’ and that the rejection of the ideas of the afterlife and the posthumous judgment belongs to the Sadducees, rather than the Pharisees (p. 83).
Chapter 6 describes other Jewish wisdom literature including compositions in the late Hellenistic period. Interestingly, it is the book of Proverbs (especially Proverbs 1-9) that has left the most obvious impressions on the late texts (i.e. in their talk about obedience to the Torah which is found in the traditional Judaism) although Job and Ecclesiastes also are likely to have influenced them (p. 105).
The last two chapters provide the most intriguing points in this book. Here, Weeks rejects any over-generalized subject-matters and ideologies to capture the message of wisdom literature in one coherent tradition or value-system: ‘we should be wary of presuming that any such common ground exists: shared themes or forms do not always reflect shared ideas’ (p. 107). This is the point which the ‘literature’ emphasises. For instance, he picks up two ideas of ‘creation theology’ and ‘world-order’ and denies scholarly claims that wisdom texts are engaging with ‘creation’ or the order of the world. God is presented as a God who is not restrained to any idea of ‘election’ or ‘covenant’ and is the Creator of the world. However, this idea is easily found in other texts, and is no more than a starting point to describe each wisdom composition (p. 122). This is the distinguishing point of Weeks’ claim over against other modern scholars: ‘we should be thinking of our texts not as the reflections of a particular tradition of thought, but as the products of a particular mode of discourse’ (p. 126). In chapter 7, Weeks attempts to explain ‘the origins and place of wisdom literature’ in the Hebrew Bible and to evaluate probable links with other biblical texts and the influence of wisdom literature on the Hebrew Bible. His purpose is to challenge all the misleading assumptions in which wisdom texts have in some ways been associated with the context of law or apocalyptic literature like Enoch or Daniel. What he argues is that, with the linguistic similarities or thematic connections which form criticism uses, we cannot know the social location of wisdom literature. He maintains that members of a ‘scribal class’ were the genuine writers of Jewish literature just as Egyptian and Mesopotamian scribes were.
The author describes the commonality with ancient Near Eastern works just as most introductory books do. However, the most prominent benefit of this book is how he explains those similarities between the Jewish corpus and other extra-biblical materials. It is probable that biblical materials did not come from a vacuum, since ancient Israel emerged from the Palestine region which was located between the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian empires and where other civilizations had already produced a variety of ancient literatures for more than a thousand years. One will inevitably see broad resemblances with other non-Israelite resources. However, in general, what Weeks argues is that direct literary connections between biblical sources and non-biblical sources are overestimated in many cases (p. 9). He thinks that the comparative study must consider the cultural context in which those texts arise. Then, he proposes, one should use more specific labels for those texts, like ‘saying collections in Mesopotamia’, ‘instructions in Egypt’, ‘Ahiqar and the demotic instructions’, ‘advice literature’ in Israel, ‘the sceptical’ literature’.
Those who expect a conservative understanding of ‘Wisdom Literature’ will be disappointed in this book, but this book remarkably provides valuable opinions and far-reaching arguments in terms of the nature of ‘wisdom’ texts in the Hebrew Bible and deserves more attention than any other book published on the same theme in recent years.
Jiseong.kwon [ at ] durham.ac.uk