Wisdom Literature, and the Issue of "Borrowing"...
One issue that typically arises in a study of the writing and transmission of the OT 'core' material, is that of 'borrowing'. This issue concerns to what extent the OT writers 'borrowed' ideas, theology, laws, religious practices from their 'pagan' neighbors, maybe even to the point of being dependent on those pagan ideas. There are those who claim that Judeo-Christianity is a 'copycat' religion, being created by massive plagiarism of the other (perhaps more basic and 'truer') religions of the world.
[See especially the detailed series on
"Good question--is Genesis merely a rip-off of other ANE lit?"]
Since many of the alleged 'borrowings' occurred in the Wisdom Books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, I thought it would be good to survey these allegations, as well as to sketch out the nature and extent of Israel's borrowings from her neighbors in the ANE (Ancient Near East).
- Overview of Job, Eccl, Proverbs (drawn heavily from Kidner's well-crafted intro in The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job, & Ecclesiastes, IVP: 1985)
- Proverbs is a collection of generally short, pithy statements (framed by a general 'pay attention' introduction) that represents the observations of 'the wise'. These statements are generally maxims and often are 'inductive generalizations'--the wise one looks out on experience and draws conclusions therefrom. As such, these pattern-statements apply to 80% of our experience. This majority of our lives IS predictable, and the principle that 'what you reap, you sow' and the logically-fallacious 'implication'--'what you reap, you MUST have sown' GENERALLY holds up. Proverbs articulates many of these 'prediction' sayings. (The word 'proverb' in Hebrew generally has a basal notion of 'to be like'--perception of a likeness or similarity within a pattern of data. Kidner: 28 and RHK: 1010-11).
- But what about the other 20%? What happens when you reap something you DIDN'T sow--like Job? This books confronts us with 'unjust suffering', that goes AGAINST the grain of the generalities of Proverbs. In this story, Job is an unaware victim of the Adversary's attacks and his 3 friends attempt to 'attack him' with the generalities of Proverbs! (They are essentially correct in their statement of maxims--indeed Eliphaz is quoted approvingly TWICE in the NT, in I Cor 3.19 and Heb 12.5--but INCORRECT in the universality of their application of those truths.)
- Well, if 80% makes sense and 20% DOESN'T make sense (from our limited vantage point), then THE WHOLE THING is non-sensical (Since a conclusion you might draw from experience might be in the 80% or in the 20%--and you couldn't know which!). So this makes life--taken as a whole--inscrutable and therefore a 'vexation of spirit'...enter "Ecclesiastes". This strange book is apparently a teaching device on the necessity of an infinite 'horizon'. The book essentially takes a secular 'life-ends-at-death' position, and shows how pointless the position is. Sprinkled throughout are bits of "our" perspective (that charge OUR lives with meaning!)--that each event, each moment, each life CARRIES eternal consequences and implications (cf. 8.11-13; 3.17).
- The Historical Context of the Wisdom Literature
- In the ANE
- The ANE had a widespread literary effort in the areas covered by biblical wisdom lit., and in ALL nations. Examples include:
- Ptah-Hotep (Egypt, c.2450) - Instruction [PANE1: 234f]
- Amenemope (Egypt, late 2nd mill ) - Instruction [PANE1: 237f]
- King Merikare (Egypt, c. 2100 BC) - Instruction [ANET: 415]
- Councils of Wisdom (Babylonia, early 2nd mill.) - maxims [PANE2: 145f]
- Instruction of Ani (Egypt, late 2nd mill) - maxims [ANET: 420]
- Ahikar (Aramaic, early 1st mill) - maxims and precepts [PANE1: 245f]
- Man and His God (Sumerian) - reflections on suffering [PANE2: 136f]
- Ludlul Bel Nemeqi ('I will praise the Lord of wisdom'; Akkadian) - reflections on suffering [PANE2: 136]
- The Babylonian Theodicy (Akkadian) - acrostic reflections on suffering [PANE2: 160f]
- sections of the Epic of Gilgamesh (Babylonian) - esp. Siduri's advice to Gilgamesh (ANET: 90)
- There were common questions approached: the problem of sufferings, successful living.
- There were common needs: the instruction of the young, of administrators.
- There was enough 'common ground' between the various nations that comparisons could be made:
Solomon's wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than any other man, including Ethan the Ezrahite -- wiser than Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. (I Kgs 4:30-31)
- History of 'wisdom' in Israel
- Early Monarchy
- There were people known as 'wise':
So Joab sent someone to Tekoa and had a wise woman brought from there. (2 Sam 14.2)
While they were battering the wall to bring it down, a wise woman called from the city, "Listen! Listen! Tell Joab to come here so I can speak to him." (2 Sam 20.15)
- One whole town (Abel) was known for its wisdom (2 Sam 20:18):
She continued, "Long ago they used to say, `Get your answer at Abel,' and that settled it.
- Proverb-like sayings occur often and early in Israel (e.g. I Sam 24:13):
As the old saying goes, `From evildoers come evil deeds,' so my hand will not touch you.
- Wise men seemed to constitute an almost-official status of 'counselor', like that of court officials, perhaps even early in the Monarchy (cf. 2 Sam 15:31f; 16:20)
- Solomonic times
- Solomon starts literary initiatives--writes down 3,000 proverbs (I Kgs 4:30ff):
32 He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five.
- He was famous for it--people came from the nations around to 'test him with hard questions' (I Kgs 4:32f)
- This period saw a tremendous amount of interchange with the surrounding nations--witness the 3,000 'political' wives of Solomon, the trade with Tyre (and gift of the Ten Cities!), and the idol temples built.
- This burst of literary activity is still drawn on by the time of the king Hezekiah (cf. Proverbs 25.1):
These are more proverbs of Solomon, copied by the men of Hezekiah king of Judah:
- Late Monarchy
- By the late monarchy, you still have access to these (cf. Hezekiah passage above)
- "The wise" show up as a semi-official group, of similar stature and importance with priests and prophets in the time of Jeremiah (cf. Jer 18.18):
They said, "Come, let's make plans against Jeremiah; for the teaching of the law by the priest will not be lost, nor will counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophets."
- Indeed, in Isaiah 19.11-12, the association between state 'counselors' and 'the wise' seems quite tight:
The officials of Zoan are nothing but fools; the wise counselors of Pharaoh give senseless advice. How can you say to Pharaoh, "I am one of the wise men, a disciple of the ancient kings"? Where are your wise men now?
- What are the points of contact (e.g. similarities, shared features) between Jewish and other ANE wisdom literature?
- We have some shared, general morals and laws (but of a kind you would expect in most complex cultures):
- Merikare was reminded that the god cares more for a good man's character than for a bad man's sacrificial ox (ANET:417)--cf. Prov 15.8: The LORD detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him.
- From Amenemope, on personal enemies (cf. Pr 24:17, 29; 25:21):
...we shall not act like him--
Lift him up, give him thy hand;
Leave him (in) the arms of the god;
Fill his belly with bread of thine,
So that he may be sated and may be ashamed...
- Amenemope (cf. Prov 22:24: Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared.):
Do not associate with the heated man,
Nor visit him for conversation.
- We have a number of literary and legal forms shared:
- Hittite treaty form
- Atrahasis Epic format
- Legal case-law formats (e.g. Hamy's code)
- Instruction formats to youth/court administrators (cf. Kidner: 32):
Like chapters 1-9, and 31:1-9, these 'words of wise men' (i.e. 22.17-24.34) are nearer to the style of teaching-manuals than to nuggets of folk wisdom; and in 22:20 we have what now seems to be a deliberate reference to their particular prototype, in the words, 'Have I not written for you thirty sayings...?' If 'thirty sayings' is the right translation, it almost certainly invites comparison with the currently well-known Instruction of Amenemope, which not only has many themes in common with this set of sayings, but also addresses the reader with 'See thou these thirty chapters...'. In other words, here (it seems) is an Israelite counterpart to that Egyptian classic, in much the same way that Psalm 104 rewrites and transcends Ikhnaten's Hymn to the Sun, or that Psalm 92.9 claims for the true God what an Ugaritic poem had claimed for Baal.
- Literary images: cf Amenemope:
If riches are brought to thee by robbery,
with Proverbs 23:4-5:
They will not spend the night with thee...
They have made themselves wings like geese
And are flown away to the heavens.
Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.
- Acrostics - Each verse starting with the next consecutive letter of the alphabet (The Babylonian Theodicy and Proverbs 31: 10-31.)
- Literary forms (cf. Proverbs 30:15b--"There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, 'Enough!':") with the Ugaritic Baal Epic (PANE1: 100):
For two kinds of banquets Baal hates,
Three the Rider of the Clouds:
- Poetic images (see discussion by RKH: 369) - e.g. the monster Leviathan, Rahab the dragon (present in Ras Shamra and Job/Psalms/Prophets)
- The ANE obviously had priests, the wise, and prophets as well.
- What are the points of discontinuity/disagreement?
- The view of God: Israel's writings are STRICTLY monotheistic; the ANE is STRICTLY polytheistic. (cf. Kidner, 42: "for polytheism has a natural bent towards turning the attributes of a high god into secondary gods or goddesses".)
- Values--we have already noted that other ANE law codes placed much more importance on property than on human life.
- Values-we have already noted that other ANE creation stories (e.g. Atrahasis epics) placed an anti-value on human life and procreation.
- Views of man--cf. Eccles 7.29: "This only have I found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes", which says that our original state was that of 'uprightness'--with The Babylonian Theodicy (with A much lower view of our original 'condition'!):
Narru, king of the gods, who created mankind,
And majestic Zulummar, who pinched off the clay for them,
And goddess Mami, the queen who fashioned them,
Gave twisted speech to the human race.
With lies, and not truth, they endowed them forever.
- Answer to the question of undeserved suffering:
- Job doesn't really answer the question--it merely places it in a larger context of God's eminence.
- "A Man and his God"--removes the problem by having the main character 'confessing sin'! (it is no longer, 'undeserved')
- "Ludlul"--same as above: the main character turned out to be guilty anyway.
- "Babylonian Theodicy"--has the main character succumb to the ordeal: "I will ignore my god's religion and trample on his rites"
- View of overall meaningfulness of life--The secularist's acceptance of limited objectives in Ecc 9:7-9 is the same advice the ale-wife gave to Gilgamesh in the Epic (PANE1: 64). The biblical writers argue for a radically different perspective--that of 'remembering thy Creator'.
- How then would we assess the extent, seriousness, and limits of Israel's 'borrowing' from her neighbors?
- Forms could be used, but content of those forms had to be replaced with true worldview perspectives.
- Forms could be used, esp. for opposite contrasts! (e.g. Atrahasis)
- Certain ritual positions were ALLOWED (e.g. priests), but others were FORBIDDEN (e.g. shrine prostitutes, cf. Dt 23.16--No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine prostitute.).
- Certain ritual forms were NOT ALLOWED--even if stripped of 'content--cf Lev 19:27-28.
"Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.
Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.
- Israel was commanded to NOT BE like the nations around her--this would have placed a significant damper on any types of 'theological assimilation' of Canaanite concepts into the OT writings (we know it made it into the general culture--from the prior studies in this series--but the point here is that it didn't make it into the writings. cf. Lev 20.23: You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. (see also Ex 23:24; Dt 18.9; 2 Kgs 16:3; 17.8; I Ch 5.25)
Summary: Israel's borrowing from her neighbors, in areas of religion and theology, DOES NOT include "CONTENT". Some linguistic and literary forms were okay (esp. in a 'spoof' or 'emphatic contrast' situation), but 'core' beliefs of Israel--monotheism, faith vs. magic/omens, God's surpassing wisdom, and the value of humanity--were NOT compromised in the literature.
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