RELATING WHAT is most particular in a religious faith to what is most universal is one of the most pressing and vexing problems facing believers. While the challenges facing the world call for concerted action by members of different religious traditions, the religious basis for such action is not always clear. To water down each faith to a least common denominator threatens to rob every tradition of its distinctive identity and power. Influential forces push toward either an exclusivism that regards its own truth as solely valid or an indifferentism that entertains all religious claims because none is taken seriously. The radical diversity of religious traditions at times seems to threaten the very possibility of communication across confessional boundaries. In this situation, the trajectory of biblical wisdom, with its openness to other traditions and its interweaving of the particular and the universal, calls attention to another option.
The search for wisdom is among the most ancient and widespread of all human pursuits. Virtually every culture since that of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia has passed on proverbs and wise sayings that express the wisdom of previous generations. Perhaps more than any other trajectory of the Bible, the wisdom tradition offersan opening to the religious traditions of the world. Wisdom (chokmah in Hebrew, sophia in Greek) in ancient Israel was part of the broader Near Eastern search for wisdom. The sages of Israel assumed that the wisdom they had found was also available to the wise of other cultures, since the universal order of the cosmos was open to human discovery. The story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba bears witness to the shared horizon of conversation (1 Kings 10:1-13). The conversation was not always one-sided: biblical authors did their share of borrowing from other wisdom traditions, even adapting the Egyptian work "The Instruction of Amenemope" into Proverbs 22:17-24:22. Indeed, in the early 1970s one German Old Testament scholar, H. D. Preuss, went so far as to deny that there is any significant difference between the wisdom traditions of Israel and other ancient Near Eastern cultures.
FOR MANY years biblical scholars and Christian theologians stressed what was particular about Israel's faith and neglected the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel precisely because of its similarities to other cultures. Karl Barth's rejection of analogies between Christian revelation and other religious traditions and his vigorous polemic against any form of natural theology gave little encouragement to explorations of the cosmopolitan wisdom tradition of the ancient Near East.
G. Ernest Wright, leader of the Biblical Theology Movement in the 1950s and '60s, held that the Old Testament served the Christian church as "a bulwark against paganism," reassuring Christians that other religions could not prepare for the messiah. According to Wright, it was crucial for Christians that the faith of ancient Israel from its earliest days be "an utterly unique and radical departure from all contemporary pagan religions." The Biblical Theology Movement insisted that God was not an immanent power in nature discernible through human reflection. The transcendent God had acted in a unique way in the history of Israel, and these unparalleled actions were the heart of divine revelation. Thus biblical theology consisted in a recital of the acts of God, and Christian preachers often focused on themes of salvation history in the Old Testament.
In such a climate the biblical wisdom tradition, with its affinities to Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources, appeared to have little to offer contemporary Christians. The wisdom books were themselves sometimes judged not to be authentically Israelite precisely because they borrowed so heavily from foreign nations. Preuss, after demonstrating the common heritage of Israelite and foreign wisdom, proceeded to deny the value of wisdom for worship and theology. …