Biblical Wisdom and the Ancient Near Eastern Writings

Learning about Ancient Near Eastern writings

Back in Week 3, I struggled to understand and articulate what I had learned using the books of Wisdom so here is my second attempt. To have a better understanding of how to interpret the biblical writings of Wisdom: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, first we need to learn about the writings which influenced them.

Christopher Stanley reminds that people observe and predict patterns in nature so then those who are religious thinkers try and apply this to determining consequences based on human actions and choices. Today these thinkers continue to attempt to answer moral questions. He further discusses how both Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures had traditions of wisdom which the writers of the Hebrew Bible would have been impacted by. The writers of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job were very highly educated and yet they were written in ways and dealing with topics which would have resonated with people across the classes. (pg. 494-496)

Starting with Proverbs 

Barry Banstra talks about them some instructional literature from ancient Egypt called the “Maxims of Ptahhotpe” and “The Teaching for Merikare” which are written as instructions from a father to a son. Proverbs is also written to a son how to be a good public servant. Another Egyptian writing which influences Proverbs is “The Instruction of Amenemope” especially Proverbs 22:17-24:22.

As historians study Sumerian proverbs they can note the similarities to the book of Proverbs those found on the hundreds of clay tablets discovered in places like Nippur, Susa, and Ur. They can directly be paralleled to Proverbs 10:1-22:16 and 25:1-29:27. (Waltke)

Looking at Ecclesiastes

According to Bandstra Ecclesiastes is comparative to “The Dialogue of Pessimism” a Babylonian writing is also known as the Babylonian Ecclesiastes. He also shares the style of writing including the language, choice of words, and the themes can be compared to Greek philosophy which scholars feel means it may be one of the last books of the Hebrew Bible to have been written.

In an article by Claude Mariottini he shares how humans have questioned life through both wisdom and pessimism writings as they try to understand why do good people suffer and what is the meaning of life. Often people are confused or uncomfortable with Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible since it is one of the most pessimistic writings and misunderstood from the original context in which it was written. He lists them taken collectively out of a book by James B. Prichard “Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament”, 3rd. ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978)

And Job

Job is paralleled with some Mesopotamian writings “A Man and his God” the Sumerian composition informs an individual to pray to God and humbles oneself during sickness and suffering. The writing called “Ludlul Bel Nemeqi” deals with a suffering man who blames a higher power and finds deliverance. Another writing based on the story of Ahiqar is about a scribe who deals with misfortunes but at the end of the story prevails. (Bandstra)

Miriam Lichtheim has translated an ancient Egyptian writing called “The Dispute between a man and his Ba” (The Debate Between a Man and his Soul) which has qualities of lyric poetry, prose, and a symmetrically structured speech discussing a man struggling with life feeling like his soul wants to leave him. The soul speaks on the sadness of death and because it doesn’t want the man separated from humanity decides to stay with the man. (Wikipedia) When I read this description I felt it sounded very similar to parts of Job’s story. Although Job’s friends try to blame Job’s suffering on him, there is still a poetic dialog trying to understand suffering.

Scratching the Surface

As I pull this information together I am overwhelmed just in the sources supplied as class readings at how many ancient writings there are that actually can be attributed to the Hebrew Bible writings. The Bruce Waltke article shares list upon list and he is not the only scholar studying in this area. Please feel free to research even more and share your findings with the rest of us as a comment on this post. It would be exciting to see what others have discovered and learned.

The Bible Project story videos

For your learning enjoyment, I am including a series of videos from the Bible Project each which are under 10 minutes and describe the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. These three videos go together and they are designed for learners of all ages and levels of comprehension.

The Book of Proverbs-The Bible Project

The Book of Ecclesiastes-The Bible Project

The Book of Job-The Bible Project

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Bandstra, Barry http://barrybandstra.com/rtot4/rtot4-19-ch14.html

Mariottini, Claude https://claudemariottini.com/2012/03/05/the-pessimistic-literature-of-the-ancient-near-east/

Stanley, Christopher “The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach”

Waltke, Bruce http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/20-proverbs/text/articles/waltke_proverbsane_bsac.pdf

Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dispute_between_a_man_and_his_Ba