Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Hebrew Wisdom Literature

We have so far been studying a little of the Greek wisdom tradition and now we're going to turn our attention to the Hebrew wisdom tradition, which in some ways is much older than the Greek tradition. These two traditions have been two of the major tributaries that have contributed significantly to the formation of the way we think in the West.

The Hebrew tradition is much different than the Greek in certain ways. It is monotheistic, for example, where the Greeks were polytheistic. Further, the God of the Hebrew tradition is a very different kind of being than the gods of the Greeks. The Hebrew God is seen as the creator of all that is, the originating cause of all being. The Greek gods were of course more powerful than humans, but they were still very limited beings. Further, the God of the Hebrews is said to love his people, to feel genuine affection and tenderness for them, and to wish the best for them in all circumstances. The Greek gods sometimes felt affection for, and sometimes felt destructive toward, human mortals. (These overbroad characterizations of the Greek and Hebrew theologies are, of course, only very generally true. They are the result of painting with a very broad brush.)

The differences between these two traditions can be seen even in the form and tone of the two different languages. Greek is a rather conceptual language, comfortable with talking in terms of concepts, ideas, essences (the essence of goodness, truth and beauty, for example) and pure being. Hebrew language, on the other hand, is more likely to be very earthy and grounded and physical. The notion that humans are made of earth is perfectly natural for the Hebrews.

Even the notions and images of where true wisdom is to be found differ in the two traditions. In Plato's cave story, for example, true wisdom is not to be found down under the earth, but is instead to be found by heading upward, out into the light, and from there up to the top of the mountain. You'll see in the Book of Job, on the other hand, an image which suggests that wisdom is to be found down deep in the earth, mined from the earth as are jewels and precious metals. Wisdom is more likely to be found in the deep and substantial for the Hebrews, rather than high up in some place less connected to the earth.

Though I'm painting these differences very broadly and with almost unfair generalizations, still there is some truth in them.

The Wisdom Literature

The Hebrew scriptures (what Christians usually refer to as the Old Testament) are conventionally divided into three broad categories:

    1. The Torah
    2. The prophets
    3. The Writings

1. The Torah is comprised of the first five books of the scriptures, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. (These names, by the way, are actually the Greek names for those books; the Hebrew name for the first book of The Torah, for example, is Bereshith, which literally means "In the beginning.") These are in some sense the most sacred books, the most serious books, in the Hebrew scriptures. It could almost be said that God speaks most directly to humans through these five books. There is something absolutely special and central about The Torah. The word "Torah" itself is usually translated as "Law," but it also has connotations of "The Way." It describes how things are, how God is, and how we are to be. (We will not be reading anything directly from The Torah this quarter.)

2. The Prophets are those writers, such as Jeremiah, Isaiah, Obadiah, Jonah and the others, both major and minor, who speak the word of the Lord -- "Thus saith the Lord" is one of their most frequently spoken phrases -- and call human beings to task, reminding us of how we ought to be.

3. The Writings are pretty much everything else. This includes histories, psalms/songs, proverbs and various miscellaneous writings. In this category is a group of books known as "the wisdom literature," and we will be reading three of these books: Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, in that order. They do not usually appear in that order in the collection, but some evidence indicates that they may have historically developed in this order.

The Book of Proverbs

This book, as you will see, is primarily a collection of wise sayings -- proverbs -- from all around the then known world. Legend has it that Solomon, the wisest of the Hebrew kings, commanded his lieutenants, during their travels, to collect these nuggets of folk wisdom from everywhere they went in the world. This book, then, is the compilation of many of those wisdom sayings from all over the world (or at least what they understood to be the world at that time). The collection is preceded by 9 chapters that might best be termed "an exhortation to wisdom." This exhortation is put in the mouth of parents who deeply love their children and who want their children's lives to be as happy as possible and who want things to go well for them. They hope their children will not do the kind of stupid things that will just mess up their lives. They hope that their children will act and live wisely rather than foolishly so that they will be happy, prosperous, healthy and much beloved by others.

I am reminded here of a little book by H Jackson Brown titled Life's Little Instruction Book (Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, 1991). This too is a book of wise little proverbial sayings passed on from a father to his beloved son. In the introduction to that book the author tells us that

This book began as a gift to my son, Adam. As he packed his stereo, typewriter, blue blazer, and other necessities for his new life as a college freshman, I retreated to the family room to jot down a few observations and words of counsel I thought he might find useful.

A few days later his mother and I helped him move into his new dorm room. When he was all settled in, I asked him to come with me to the parking lot. It was time for the presentation. I reached under the car seat and, with words to the effect that this was what I knew about living a happy and rewarding life, handed him the bound pages. He hugged me and shook my hand. It was a very special moment.

I suspect that this is also the spirit in which the Book of Proverbs should most fruitfully be read. H Jackson Brown's book includes items like the following:

Complement three people every day
Have a dog
Watch a sunrise at least once a year
Overtip breakfast waitresses
Say 'please' a lot
Learn to play a musical instrument
Buy great books even if you never read them
Be a student in some kind of class
Once in your life own a convertible

These wise little sayings -- proverbs, really -- are passed on from a father to the son whom he dearly loves, in hopes that by following them the son's life will be a happier and better one.

I think this may be some part of the spirit in which the Book of Proverbs is offered to us.

The Book of Job

This book tells the story of a good ("perfect") man who has lived rightly, who is happy, and whose life has gone quite well. Until now, when suddenly all manner of terrible things befall him. The central questions in the book are:

How could this be, that a good person has such outrageously awful things happen to them? How are we to make sense of it When Bad Things Happen to Good People (the title of a very sensible little best seller by Rabbi Harold Kushner several years ago)?

How could an all good and just God allow such bad things to happen to a perfectly just and holy man? (See "The Problem of Evil")

What can we learn from the way that Job behaves in the presence of so much suffering. How does a truly good person endure suffering of that magnitude?

What is so repugnant about the way that Job's "friends" behave toward him, and whatever would move them to behave that way?

The Book of Ecclesiastes

Rabbi Harold Kushner refers to this book as "the most dangerous book in the bible." One question I would like you to consider in your discussions when we talk about this book is: What do you suppose it is about this book that some have seen as so dangerous?

This book is perhaps best understood as a kind of discussion/debate going on within the soul of a single person. One side of the debate argues that life is pointless, useless, meaningless and all in vain. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," say the book's opening lines. The other side of the debate argues that life does have opportunities for happiness and joy and that we should take delight in those joys that are available to us. Legend has it that the book was written by Solomon, the wisest of the Hebrew kings, who, after experiencing all the best that life had to offer, still had serious doubts whether it was all worth it. (Legend is almost certainly wrong in the ascription of authorship; however, whoever the author of the book is, he or she is definitely wondering whether life has any lasting meaning.)

If you are interested in seeing how a modern author, Leo Tolstoy, struggles with these issues of meaning and emptiness in life, see his extremely well-written and short autobiography titled A Confession available either online or in print.

The way in which Tolstoy phrases the question posed by Ecclesiastes is:

My question - that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide - was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder: it was a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: "What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?"

Differently expressed, the question is: "Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?" It can also be expressed thus: "Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?" (A Confession, part V)

It is a question that many people, perhaps most, struggle with at some point in their lives, and the Book of Ecclesiastes is one of the earliest writings to give voice to the question.

Another question for your consideration when discussing this book: Given that this book was considered so dangerous and even so potentially heretical, what reasons do you think the Rabbis might have had for including this book in the canon of holy writ?

A note on translations of the bible:

Many translations of the Hebrew scriptures are very dated and just do not speak accurately to people who are familiar only with contemporary English. There are numerous contemporary translations of the bible, however, and any of those would probably suit your purposes perfectly well. The paperback edition I ordered for you at the bookstore is a perfectly adequate one, but if you have another translation that you would prefer, please feel free to use it.