The last portion of the Old Testament relates to Israel's wisdom literature - Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job. These books were believed to have been written in the post-exile timeframe...between 500BCE to 300 BCE timeframe. There are 2 other wisdom books - Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, which are not in the Hebrew Bible, but are seen as sacred scripture by Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Christians, but not by most Prostestants. It is thought that these were written between the 200BCE and 100BCE timeframe.
In general, the wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible are concerned with the individual as opposed to Israel's sacred story as a people or with criticism and reshaping of the social order. These books also seem to credit experience for their source as opposed to divine revelation. All 3 books are based on observation - "this is what life is like".
The wisdom books identify one of the two major conflicts within the Hebrew Bible. The first, which we have already discussed, is the conflict between the imperial theology of Egypt and exodus theology, between the royal theology of Israel's monarchy and the message of Israel's prophets. The second relates to the conflict between secondhand and firsthand religion, where secondhand religion is religion learned from others (i.e. Proverbs) while firsthand religion is the religion that flows from the firsthand experience of God (i.e. Ecclesiastes and Job).
We'll start with Proverbs (which tends to be fairly unambigous in its writings about life - secondhand religion) and then move onto Ecclesiastes and Job (which tend to hint at randomness and chance - firsthand religion).
- First part is made of up wisdom poems - "in praise of wisdom"; the rest is a collection of individual proverbs (likely an accumulation of sayings of generations of wisdom teachers)
- The wisdom poems often contrast 2 paths: the wise way and the foolish way; the righteous way and wicked way; way of life and way of death
- The first chapters also introduce the personification of "Wisdom" in female form, commonly called Sophia (i.e. the Greek word for wisdom); there is also a personification of folly through "the strange woman" or "the alien woman" - often portrayed as an adulteress and seductress
- The collection of proverbs in the rest of the book cover a variety of topics including elegance/humour, children/family, wealth/poverty, rewards of right living, etc.
- In summary, Proverbs generally affirms "Follow this way, and your life will go well."...essentially a book of conventional wisdom (i.e. cultural wisdom, community wisdom, folk wisdom, "what everybody knows", etc.). Conventional wisdom contains truth - there are ways of living that do lead to dead ends, and some things can make life more pleasant. But there is also a corollary to conventional wisdom - if life fails to work out, you must have done something wrong. This clearly isn't always the case.
- Title likely refers to its author - Qoheleth (Greek word for Ecclesiastes), which means "wisdom teacher".
- While the author writes as King Solomon in the first 2 chapters, it is believed that this is for rhetorical effect as opposed to reflecting actual authorship by Solomon...given that the book is believed to have been written around 300 BCE.
- Some see the book as so pessimistic, they wonder how it got into the Bible. Others admire the book for its honesty and religious vision.
- There are 2 central metaphors in the book: (1) Vanity of vanities: all is vanity (vanity refers to emptiness, meaningless, etc.); and (2) Chasing after (or herding or shepherding) the wind...that is, an image of futility.
- The book starts by claiming that the things of life (e.g. wisdom, power, fame, wealth, etc.) do not satisfy. It then goes on to establish that bad things happen to good people through no fault of their own. It also emphasizes death...its utter inevitability and randomness...and the fact that there is nothing we can do about it.
- And if that is the case, how should we live? "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die" according to the author. Or alternatively, live fully...whatever is happening...be present to what it is (try reading Ecclesiastes 3 with that context!). "Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart...Enjoy life with the wife whom you love...Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might" - Eccesiastes 9:7-10.
- Job continues with a radical questioning of conventional wisdom. It was probably written during teh Babylonian exile (around 600BCE or shortly thereafter).
- The book starts in fairy tale like form..."There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job." It then quickly goes to a meeting in heaven between God and Satan where a wager occurs. In summary, Satan first takes away Job's blessedness on Earth and then goes after Job's own body, but in the end, Job does not turn on God...God has won the wager.
- There are 2 ways to look at the book although is it pretty much always the first that people assume is the question being addressed by the book: (1) The book addresses the question "Why do the righteous suffer?" with the answer apparently being that some things happen "over our heads" - like a heavenly wager. OR (2) The book addresses the question that Satan asks God "Does Job fear God for nothing?"...in other words, is there such a thing as religion unmotivated by self-interest...that is, taking God seriously not as a means but as the ultimate end. Think about that - it is a fascinating idea that this might be what the book is trying to get at.
- In the central part of the book, we see Job's discussions with his friends who try to "comfort" him with conventional wisdom...you must have done something wrong to be facing all this! Job essentially replies that their conventional wisdom is worthless.
- Then, we see Job's discussion with God...which displays God's wonder (through the nonhuman world of creation) and the absolute difference between the creator and the created. This stuns Job into smallness and silence. While this encounter provided Job with no answers or explanations for his suffering, the experience convinced him that God is real in spite of our ability to see fairness in the world - "I have heard of you with the hearing of the ear, but now my eye beholds you."
(The above was heavily extracted from Marcus Borg's "Reading the Bible Again for the First Time"...I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the Bible)