Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period: Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Qumran, Sectarian Writings, Philo, Josephus

By Michael E. Stone | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven
Wisdom Literature

M. Gilbert


Introduction

Wisdom thinking is to be found in all ages and among all peoples. In the complicated experiences of everyday life and all the problems it poses, gifted people who have often remained anonymous, have tried to sift out principles which would lead men to success in existence and to a balanced and harmonious way of life. Further, having found such principles or made such judicious observations, they formulated them in well-turned sayings, easy to memorize and agreeable to hear.

The Bible did not escape this trend. Jer 31:29 and Ezek 18:2, for instance, quoted the popular proverb, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Wisdom thinking was everywhere couched in a variety of forms. Along with proverbs, one finds fables, parables, riddles and so on. The Bible too recounts the parable of Nathan (2 Sam 12:1-4), the fables of Jotham (Judg 9:7-15) and of Jehoash (2 Kgs 14:9), the riddle of Samson, ‘Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet,’ (Judg 14:14). Some people had more ability than others. Joseph was able to interpret dreams, Gen 41, and the woman of Tekoa pleaded successfully with David for the return of Absalom, 2 Sam 14:2ff. There was folk wisdom and family lore, as in Tobit 4:5ff. Wisdom was to be the appanage of princes, and in the Bible it is principally Solomon’s, the paragon of wise men. A large number of sayings are attributed to him, and perhaps also the composition of onomasticons, lists of plants and animals, 1 Kgs 5:12-13. He is said to have solved the riddles put to him by the queen of Sheba, 1 Kgs 10: Iff.

Solomon played a still more important part in the development of wisdom in Israel. As organizer of the new state, he had to have capable administrators around him, and it is possible that schools or academies were set up for this purpose, to train the flower of the youth adequately, since they were called to take on responsibilities in the city or state. The need for international contacts must also, it seems, have led to Israel’s profiting by the wisdom of neighbouring peoples.1

1 Contrast the abuse of court wisdom, see Isa 5:21; 29:14; Jer 8:8-9; 9:22-23.

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