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Old Testament Wisdom Literature

A theological introduction

Craig Bartholomew & Ryan P ODowd

ISBN: 9781844745371
330 pages, Hardback
Published: 15/07/2011





1 An Introduction to Old Testament Wisdom

2 The Ancient World of Wisdom

3 The Poetry of Wisdom and the Wisdom of Poetry

4 Proverbs

5 Women, Wisdom and Valor

6 Job

7 Where Can Wisdom Be Found

8 Ecclesiastes

9 For Everything There Is a Season

10 Jesus, the Wisdom of God

11 The Theology of Old Testament Wisdom

12 The Theology of Wisdom Today.

(From the) Preface

Now well into the twenty-first century, we are aware that we need wisdom as much as ever, at the personal, national and international levels. As Job 28 alerts us, the crucial question is where wisdom is to be found. The Bible contains a rich wisdom tradition, which, after a long period of neglect, has found its way back onto biblical and theological agendas. We welcome this recovery, but it is important to note that we have a long way to go to recover a full biblical theology of wisdom.

In this book our focus is on the theological interpretation of Old Testament wisdom. Nowadays books dealing with different aspects of Old Testament wisdom appear on a regular basis but rarely with deep theological engagement. The recent renaissance of theological interpretation in biblical studies has still to mature and certainly still to excavate the riches awaiting us in Old Testament Wisdom literature. Our hope is that this volume will contribute to just such an excavation.

As Proverbs tells us, Lady Wisdom calls out to us amid all the challenges of public and private life. All the while Dame Folly stands as a symbol for our unwillingness to attend to her call. In our view the time is ripe for renewed attention to Lady Wisdom’s voice as we encounter it in Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. If Scripture is indeed God’s Word to us, then much is at stake in attending to his address through these remarkable books. They present the real possibility of finding wisdom amid the great challenges of the twenty-first century.

…. Our hope is that our book will be of use in churches as well as in the academy. Resources for using the book as a text in Old Testament courses can be found on the InterVarsity Press website at .

Wisdom is a journey, and we remain grateful to God, who at different points in our lives brought us to Christ, wisdom incarnate. He is the one through whom and for whom the creation was made, and our prayer is that this volume will lead both readers and authors ever more deeply into him.

Ryan and Craig

Pentecost 2010


Wisdom and the Loss of Wonder

There is group in the United Kingdom called the Cloud Appreciation Society whose aim is . . . to spot clouds! What may sound escapist and strange is also intriguing and, we would argue, necessary for us today. As the book of Job reminds us, counting clouds is a matter of godly wisdom (Job 38:37).

For most of the world’s history, people have lived their lives in close touch with the creation. Some farmers and monks still maintain this discipline of natural wonder, as does much of the developing world. Yet we in the West have lost touch with nature in any kind of meaningful way. Anthropologist and ethno-biologist Wade Davis notes that “one of the intense pleasures of travel is the opportunity to live amongst people who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel their past in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, taste it in the bitter leaves of plants.” For us in the West such experiences are rare. Few of us take time in the day to spot clouds, count stars or watch the sun rise or set.

Few of us change the pace of our day or month as the weather changes. Almost none of us stores up food for winter or goes to bed when the sun goes down. Most of us wake in the morning to radio news and advertising jingles rather than dim light, birds singing and crickets chirping.

This is not to suggest that all cultural development is bad but to highlight the extent to which our modern, Western world has lost touch with the vast and miraculous fact of God’s created reality that surrounds us, sustains us, quite often threatens us and yet is in the process of being renewed to sustain us for all eternity. In sum, we have the lost the capacity to wonder at the power and order of the creation.

For evangelical Christians our culture’s disconnect with creation has not been helped by what Gordon Spykman refers to as “the eclipse of creation” in evangelical theology. He rightly says of much evangelical theology,

In its passionate concern to proclaim Jesus Christ as Savior, it sidelines a fundamental concern with the work of God the Father in creation. It gives the impression of bypassing creation in a hasty move to take a shortcut to the cross. . . . This is a faulty and shortsighted approach. For the full biblical import of our sinful predicament, of the call to conversion and sanctification, and of our future hope comes to its own only against a backdrop of a solidly based commitment to the work of God in creation.

This is because the cross and resurrection do more than save us from sin; they also restore the creation as the place where we will live forever with God. The Wisdom literature of the Bible, which teaches us to orient our experiences to the creation and the Creator, has been prized apart from the doctrine of salvation and nudged off the Christian radar.

In sum, the increasingly insulating power of our large, comfortable, sheltered, and gas-heated homes; electricity; clock radios; luxury automobiles; microwaves; computers; and cell phones have distanced us from the creation, helped along by our narrow theology with its focus on personal salvation. Large swaths of our generation of Christianity have never thought to embrace or develop a theology of wisdom, with its comprehensive focus on creation. The eclipse of creation and the marginalization of the biblical Wisdom literature have left us bereft of sheer wonder at God’s ways with his world.

Hearing Ancient Wisdom Today

But this has not, of course, always been so. In his classic book The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis tells us that to understand the medieval view of the world, books will not help us; we need to “go out on a starry night and walk for about half an hour trying to see the sky in terms of the old cosmology.” Lewis presents a contrast between the wonder of the medieval view with the lostness of our modern view of the world: “The ‘space’ of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; [but] the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony.”

Old Testament Israel had this same embrace of the old sense of harmony and wonder. Like her ancient neighbors in Egypt and Mesopotamia, Israel lived in close touch with the creation. Just think of the repetition of the Genesis creation stories in Hebrew homes and the countless psalms that sing of God’s works in the skies, seas, earth, animals and crops. Not only did these cultures live in touch with creation, but their religion was also woven into their view of the world. Israel was unique in that it saw all of the creation as coming from its God, Yahweh, the Creator of heaven and earth. To live in this world that God has made is to live in communion with its maker. To touch the soil and breathe the air and watch a cloud is a religious act because all of creation matters to God. And to hope for salvation meant a renewal of the human race with the world and all of its beauty.

How might we recover such wonder at God’s intricately fashioned world today? What will save us from the eclipse of creation in so much of our theology? Doubtless there are many resources in Scripture that would bring about such healing; however, a—perhaps the—major resource is the Old Testament Wisdom literature.

According to Proverbs it was by wisdom that Yahweh founded the earth (Prov 3:19). The result is that his wisdom is woven into the warp and woof of the very fabric of creation. And it is only as we are deeply in touch with the Lord that our eyes are opened to witness the marvel of his wisdom. Contrary to popular opinion and much modern theory, therefore, wisdom is not the same as “natural law” or “good technique”— as if we only need basic disciplines of getting in touch with ourselves and nature in order to be wise. Israel’s wisdom begins distinctively with “the fear of the Lord” (Job 28:28; Prov 1:7; Ps 111:10). Her wisdom, therefore, does not start with us or even with nature but with the Creator-Redeemer himself. And the starting point makes all the difference.

History demonstrates that every human culture has a tendency to distort and misuse the created world (its water, its creatures, its land and its cultures) for its own interests. Genuine wisdom will be found only when we recover God’s designs for his world.

Because it is “by wisdom” that the Lord fashioned the earth (Prov 3:19; cf. Ps 104:24), it is the gift of wisdom that leads us back to living in harmony with God’s created world. And, as we will find throughout this book, that “harmony” is quite often very different from what we might conclude if left to our own devices. Who would ever think that suffering is important for becoming wise? Or that death on a cross is the way to life and redemption? Or that the last will be first? And yet the Bible points to all of these as God’s wisdom, which stands over against the “wisdom of this world.” Thus we need to pursue God’s wisdom and its natural grounding in wonder.

Our overall aim in this book is to open a dialogue about what it means to embrace and embody a theology of the Old Testament Wisdom literature today. Through engagement with the biblical text and the best of ancient and modern scholarship we articulate our views in every chapter. But at the end of each chapter we also reference the most important sources that raise questions to extend the dialogue beyond the pages here. In this way the book not only presents a theology of wisdom but also serves as a textbook, which points the way to further study.

Our exploration of Old Testament wisdom proceeds as follows. Chapters one through three establish the context for the book. Chapter one introduces wisdom and the Wisdom literature. Chapter two provides an introduction to the world of ancient wisdom. Examining wisdom in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Israel, we seek to show what was common to the thinking of that day and yet also what makes Israel’s wisdom distinct. In chapter three we introduce the genre of poetry. Poetry was the most common way of writing wisdom in the ancient world, and so we examine how ancient people understood this genre and its purposes. We also reflect on why Israel found poetry such a useful genre for conveying wisdom and what this might mean for us today.

The next six chapters (4-9) are the heart of the book, working steadily through Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes—the three major Old Testament wisdom writings—to accomplish the following three goals. First, these chapters provide an overview and theological interpretation of each wisdom book. Here our aim is to orient our scholarship to listen for God’s address in and through these books. Second, these chapters draw out the history of reception—how each book, or even part of a book, has been read and heard throughout the history of the church.

Finally, we provide a close exegetical and theological reading of a piece of poetry from each Old Testament wisdom book. Because of the uniqueness of each book, these three goals are accomplished in different ways.

The last three chapters move toward a full theology of wisdom for today. In chapter ten we examine wisdom in the books of the New Testament; chapter eleven serves as a summary and full statement of an Old Testament theology of wisdom; and chapter twelve leads us to consider how we can embrace a comprehensive Christian theology of wisdom today.

As you will discover in this book, wisdom is nothing if not practical. Before plunging into the first chapter, we have a suggestion. Why not take C. S. Lewis’s advice and go for a walk at night, slow down after your busy day and contemplate the starry sky. Allow yourself to experience the intricacy and wonder of God’s creation.