Tag Archives: wisdom

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

Wise or Foolish?

Good advice or not?

Always work hard for it is through your good deeds and providing for yourself and your family that you will obtain the rewards God grants you. Everyone knows that working hard is a sign of doing God’s will because God helps those who help themselves. Yet, you did not create yourself. Instead, God formed you just as God made Jeremiah in his mother’s womb, Jeremiah 1:5 and as reiterated in praise by the psalmist in Psalm 139:13-14. So it is God who should get your praise because without God you would not even exist. Do not toil for the world’s wealth instead labor in love for what God has given you.

Can you spot conventional wisdom?

It is easy to see how the conventional wisdom, “God helps those who help themselves”, sounds Biblical when it is not. In his blog, Erick Sorensen believes we want this saying to be true so that we can feel we are in control of our lives. Relinquishing control to the Universe is scary. An anonymous blogger reminds her readers that Deuteronomy 8:17 states that wealth comes from God even though the world wants us to believe we can be self-reliant. Clearly, we need to remember that God expects us to do good and work hard, but that doesn’t mean to amass financial wealth.

What do the experts have to say about conventional wisdom?

In his lecture videos, Dr. G. Brook Lester explains how Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs make up the Wisdom tradition genre in the Hebrew Bible. He further explains how wisdom texts often use a binary approach in explaining lessons. Binary means comparisons are made up of two variables, like wise and foolish. It is important to note that there are two main types of wisdom in Ecclesiastes, conventional and dissenting. In my illustration, I use both. According to Barry Bandstra, at barrybandstra.com, the writer of Ecclesiastes determined that throughout our lives we humans are probably not capable of figuring out the purpose of why we exist. Instead, we should strive to enjoy God’s creation always mindful that God is in charge. God holds the key to our future so we must live according to God’s teachings for we will still be judged by God. Christopher Stanley in his book The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach discusses how the wisdom writings are skeptical and pessimistic. Yet he believes the writer of Ecclesiastes shares ways we can live in a hurtful world and still find peace. We should take the time to celebrate “the simple pleasures of life” because trying to understand life’s meaning is a waste of time. The other thing he suggests we focus on is to remember the importance of God in our lives because just as Bandstra states we are accountable to God.