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Introduction to Wisdom Literature


A. Common Literary type in the Ancient Near East (R. J. Williams, Wisdom in the Ancient Near East, Interpreter Dictionary of the Bible, Supplement)

1. Mesopotamia (1 Kgs. 4:30-31; Isa. 47:10; Dan. 1:20; 2:2)

a. Sumeria had a developed wisdom tradition both proverbial and epic (texts from Nippur).

b. Babylon's proverbial wisdom was connected with the priest/magician.  It was not morally focused (W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature). It was not a developed genre as it was in Israel. 

c. Assyria also had a wisdom tradition; one example would be the teachings of Ahiqar. He was an advisor to Sennacherib (704-681 b.c.).

2. Egypt (1 Kgs. 4:30; Gen. 41:8; Isa. 19:11-12)

a. The Teaching for Vizier Ptah-hotep, written about 2450 b.c. His teachings were in paragraph, not proverbial, form.  They were structured as a father to his son, so too, The Teachings for King Meri-ka-re, about 2200 b.c. (LaSor, Hubbard, Bush, Old Testament Survey, p. 533).

b. The Wisdom of Amen-em-opet, written about 1200 b.c., is very similar to Pro. 22:17-24:12.

3. Phoenicia (Ezek. 27:8-9; 28:3-5)

a. The discoveries at Ugarit has shown the close connection between Phoenician and Hebrew wisdom, especially the meter.  Many of the unusual forms and rare words in biblical Wisdom Literature are now understandable from the archaeological discoveries at Ras Shamra (Ugarit).

b. Song of Songs is very much like Phoenician wedding songs called wasps written about 600 b.c.

4. Canaan (i.e., Edom, cf. Jer. 49:7; Obadiah 8) – Albright has revealed the similarity between Hebrew and Canaanite wisdom literature especially the Ras Shamra texts from Ugarit, written about the 15th century b.c.

a. often the same words appear as pairs

b. presence of chiasmus

c. have superscriptions

d. have musical notations

5. Biblical Wisdom Literature includes the writings of several non-Israelites:

a. Job from Edom

b. Agur from Massa (an Israelite kingdom in Saudi Arabia, cf. Genesis 25:14 and 1 Chronicles 1:30)

c. Lemuel from Massa

6. There are two Jewish non-canonical books that share this genre form.

a. Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Ben Sirach)

b. Wisdom of Solomon (wisdom)

B. Literary Characteristics

1. Primarily two distinct types

a. proverbial guidelines for a happy, successful life (originally oral, cf. Pro. 1:8; 4:1)

(1) short

(2) easily understood culturally (common experience)

(3) thought provoking – arresting statements of truth

(4) usually uses contrast

(5) generally true but not always specifically applicable

b. longer developed special topic, literary works (usually written) like Job, Ecclesiastes, and Jonah.

(1) monologues

(2) dialogues 

(3) essays

(4) they deal with life's major questions and mysteries

(5) the sages were willing to challenge the theological status quo!

c. personification of wisdom (always female). The term wisdom was feminine.

(1) often in Proverbs wisdom is described as a woman (cf. 1:8-9:18)

(a) positively:

i.  1:20-33

ii.  4:6-9

iii. 8:1-36

iv. 9:1-6

(b) negatively:

i.  7:1-27

ii. 9:13-18

(2) in Proverbs 8:22-31 wisdom is personified as the first born of creation by which God created all else (3:19-20; Ps. 104:24; Jer. 10:12). This may be the background of John's use of Logos in John 1:1 to refer to Jesus the Messiah.

(3) this can also be seen in Ecclesiasticus 24.

2. This literature is unique from the Law and the Prophets (cf. Jer. 18:18) in that it addresses the individual, not the nation.  There are no historical or cultic allusions.  It primarily focuses on daily, successful, joyful, moral living.

3. Biblical Wisdom Literature is similar to that of its surrounding neighbors in its structure but not content.  The One true God is the foundation on which all biblical wisdom is based (e.g., Gen. 41:38-39; Job 12:13; 28:28; Pro. 1:7; 9:10; Ps.111:10).  In Babylon it was Apsu, Ea, or Marduk.  In Egypt it was Thoth.

4. Hebrew wisdom was very practical.  It was based on experience, not special revelation.  It focused on an individual being successful in life (all of life: sacred and secular).  It is divine "horse-sense."

5. Because Wisdom Literature used human reason, experience and observation it was international, transcultural.  It was the monotheistic religious worldview which is often not stated, that made Israel's wisdom revelatory.


A. Wisdom Literature developed in Israel as alternative or balance to the other forms of revelation. (Jer. 18:18; Ezek. 7:26)

1. priest - law – form (corporate)

2. prophet - oracle – motive (corporate)

3. sage - wisdom – practical, successful daily life (individual)

4. As there were female prophets in Israel (Miriam, Huldah), so too, there were female sages (cf. 2 Sam. 14:1-21; 20:14-22).

B. This type of literature seemed to have developed:

1. as folk stories around camp fires

2. as family traditions passed on to the male children

3. written and supported by the Royal Palace:

a. David is connected to the Psalms 

b. Solomon is connected to Proverbs (1 Kgs. 4:29-34; Ps. 72, 127; Pro. 1:1; 10:1; 25:1)

c. Hezekiah is connected to editing Wisdom Literature (Pro. 25:1)


A. It is basically a "how to" focus on happiness and success.  It is primarily individual in its focus.  It is based on:

1. the experience of previous generations

2. cause and effect relationships in life

3. trusting in God has rewards (cf. Deuteronomy 27-29)

B. It was society's way to pass on truth and train the next generation of leaders and citizens.

C. OT wisdom, though not always expressing it, sees the Covenant God behind all of life.  For the Hebrew there was no sharp division between the sacred and secular.  All of life was sacred.

D. It was a way to challenge and balance traditional theology.  The sages were free thinkers not bound by textbook truths.  They dared to ask, "Why," "How," "What if?"


A. Short proverbial statements

1. look for common elements of life used to express the truth

2. express the central truth in a simple declarative sentence

3. since context will not help look for parallel passages on the same subject

B. Longer literary pieces

1. be sure to express the central truth of the whole

2. do not take verses out of context

3. check the historical occasion or reason of the writing

C. Some common misinterpretations (Fee & Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, p. 207)

1. People do not read the whole Wisdom book (like Job and Ecclesiastes) and look for its central truth, but pull parts of the book out of its context and apply it literally to modern life.

2. People do not understand the uniqueness of the literary genre.  This is a highly compact and figurative Ancient Near Eastern literature.

3. Proverbs are statements of general truth.  They are broad sweeps of the pen not specifically true, in every case-every time, statements of truth.


A. Old Testament

1. Job

2. Psalm 1, 19, 32, 34, 37 (acrostic), 49, 78, 104, 107, 110, 112-119 (acrostic), 127-128, 133, 147, 148

3. Proverbs

4. Ecclesiastes

5. Song of Songs

6. Lamentations (acrostic) 

7. Jonah

B. Extra canonical

1. Tobit

2. Wisdom of Ben Sirah (Ecclesiasticus)

3. Wisdom of Solomon (Book of Wisdom)

4. IV Maccabees

C. New Testament

1. The proverbs and parables of Jesus

2. The book of James


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