AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT. by W. O. E. Oesterley, D.D., Litt.D.,& T. H. Robinson, D.D., Litt.D. Hon. D.D. (Aberdeen), Hon. D.Th. (Halle Wittenberg). © W O E Oesterley & T H Robinson 1934. First published SPCK. 1934. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.

THE WISDOM LITERATURE

HOME | Pre‑Literary Wisdom | The Hebrew Wisdom Books (Uncanonical) | The Wisdom of Ben‑Sira (Ecclesiasticus) | The Wisdom of Solomon | Pirke Aboth | The Book of Baruch (iii.9‑iv.4) | Maccabees | The Hebrew Conception of Wisdom | The Hakamim and their Work | The Cosmopolitan Character of Wisdom Literature

I. PRE-LITERARY WISDOM

Long before the subject of Wisdom assumed a literary form among the Hebrews it was current in oral proverbial sayings; that is common to all peoples when a certain stage of culture has been reached. Short, pithy sayings become popular when they express something that the experience of life shows to be true; and, being employed when the appropriate occasions arise, their frequent utterance makes them generally familiar and therefore common property. Among a people like the Hebrews, in who the religious instinct was strongly developed, such popular sayings often took a religious form. In the Old Testament, therefore, a number of sayings occur of both types, secular and religious, which were current long before the Wisdom literature came into being.

A few examples are the following:

Therefore it became a proverb, 'Is Saul also among the Prophets?'  (i Sam.x.12); They shall surely ask (counsel) at Abel and Dan (ii Sam.xx.18); [Emended text.] Out of the wicked cometh forth wickedness (i Sam.xxiv.13);

Let not him that girdeth on (his armour) boast himself as he that putteth it off (i Kgs.xx.11; in Hebrew this is expressed in four words); They sow the wind and shall reap the whirlwind (Hos.viii.7); Do they plough the sea with oxen? (Am.vi.12 emended text);

In Ezek.xviii an ancient proverb is quoted:

The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.

Sometimes the origin of a proverb is indicated, such as one just quoted,

Is Saul among the prophets? and Saul hath slain his thousands and David his ten thousand (i Sam.xviii.7),

and there are many others.

Many have been incorporated in the book of Proverbs; they are always simple in form, and, in early times, usually straightforward in regard to meaning. A developed form of Wisdom, though doubtless of an early type, occurs in such things as riddles (Judg.xiv.14), or fables, for example that of Jotham (Judg.ix.8-15, and cp.ii Kgs.xiv.9).

The Hebrew term applied to these popular sayings is mashal, the root meaning of which is "to be like", i.e. the word contains the idea of comparison; but in the majority of cases these proverbs are not comparisons, nor do they express likeness with anything else.

"The solution of this difficulty probably is that the use of the term mashal has gone through several stages. While its original form and connotation was a short popular saying which contained a comparison, the history of the term entered a second stage when it came to be employed of any short popular saying which contained a truth gained from general experience." [Oesterley, Book of Proverbs, p.lxxv (1929).)

When, however, the term came to be used in literature it acquired an extended sense; the oracular utterances of Balaam are so called (Num.xi.7, 18, etc.), also a prophecy of woe (Isa.xiv.4-6), a lamentation (Mic.ii.4), and an allegory (Ezek.xvii.2, and elsewhere). But in the first instance it is applied to the simple popular sayings to which reference has been made.

These, then, constitute the earliest forms of Hebrew wisdom.

By degrees the short sayings were collected. And the various collectors, it may well be believed, added to them by composing proverbs of their own. These were then written down, and thus their literary form began. When once this literary form had been reached, then the Wisdom writers, the Hakamim, "Wise men", developed the Wisdom literature.
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II. THE HEBREW WISDOM BOOKS (UNCANONICAL)

In dealing with the Hebrew Wisdom literature it is demanded that the whole body of it, so far as it has come down to us, should be taken into consideration, and not merely those books that have been admitted into the Canon. For the distinction between canonical and uncanonical Wisdom books is quite arbitrary. They all treat of the same general subject, though one book may emphasize, or even concentrate exclusively upon, some special aspect of it more than others. The canonical Wisdom books will be individually dealt with below. [They are Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and some of the Psalms, or portions of psalms. Regarding these latter, Fichtner, with whom probably most commentators will agree, distinguishes between the earlier and the later Wisdom psalms; the earlier are xxxiv.11-22 (12-13 in Hebr), xx.8-11, xxxvii, xlix, lxi, c, cxxviii, cxx; the latter, dating from about 33BC, are I, xix.7-13 (8-15), xciv.8-23, cxi, c, cxix.]

Here the uncanonical ones must be briefly considered.
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(i) The Wisdom of Ben-Sira (Ecclesiasticus)

This book was written approximately between 200-182BC in Hebrew.

It was translated into Greek in 132BC, according to the Prologue to the Greek translation, which was made by the author's grandson. The writer bases a good deal of his work on the earlier Wisdom books, especially Proverbs, but he adds very materially to this and shows much independent thought. In a number of instances he develops some well-known proverbial saying into a miniature essay, thus exhibiting his individuality. The book contains a mass of information on the thought, life, and customs of the Jews in his day, which greatly enhances its value. Like the writers of Proverbs, Ben-Sira addresses himself primarily to the younger generation, though his admonitions very frequently apply to old as well as young, and his intention clearly was to offer a kind of textbook for guidance of life to all. This he does with the object of setting before his people the superiority of Judaism over Hellenism.

In a sense, Ecclesiasticus

"may be regarded as an apologetic work, inasmuch as it aims at combating the rising influence of Greek thought and culture among the Jews. Hellenism had already begun to affect the Jewish people, in Palestine as well as in the Dispersion, and here and there in the book one can observe that the writer himself, in spite of his conservatism, was not wholly unaffected by it. ... Such traces of Greek influence, however, as there are in the book are to be found in general conception rather than in definite form." [Oesterley, Ecclesiasticus, p.xxiv f. (Cambridge Bible, 1912).]

In Ecclesiasticus the religious note is more prominently and more frequently expressed than in Proverbs.
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(ii) The Wisdom of Solomon.

There are two clearly marked parts in this book, chs.i-ix and x-xix, of which the latter is much inferior to the earlier both in thought and diction. Authorities differ both as to the unity of the book and its date. The most probable conclusion, however, is that the two parts are not from the same author, and that chs.i-ix belong approximately to the middle of the last pre-Christian century, and x-xix to the middle of the first century AD, at the latest.

Toy has well summarized the difference in style between the two parts: the earlier is

"relatively simple and direct, with constant regard to the Hebrew principle of parallelism, whilst in the second part it is ambitious, grandiloquent, or turgid, complicated and artificial, often without parallelism." [In Encycl.Bibl., iv.5338.]

The book is a product of the Judaism of the Dispersion, and is full of the Hellenic spirit. This is seen in the treatment of the doctrines of the pre-existence of the soul, of immortality, of the body as evil, and of the creation of the world out of formless matter. The influence of Stoic philosophy appears in the ideas of the Anima Mundi, and of the metabolism of the elements, as well as in the classification of the four cardinal virtues for which the Stoics were indebted to Plato.
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(iii) Pirke Aboth ("The Sections of the Fathers").

This is better known as the "Sayings of the Fathers", and partakes largely of the character of Wisdom literature, being often reminiscent of the book of Proverbs and of the Wisdom of Ben-Sira. It is, in part, the oldest collection, in post Biblical times, of sayings of Jewish Sages; those who are quoted lived within the period between about 200 BC to the third century AD.
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(iv) Baruch (iii.9-iv.4.)

In addition to the books mentioned, there is a Wisdom section belonging to the book of Baruch (iii.9-iv.4), probably written soon after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70; and
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(v) The Fourth Book of Maccabees

which was written with the object of illustrating and proving the power of "inspired reason" (εὐσεβὴς λογισμός); but its character is very different from that of the other Wisdom books. The date is uncertain, but it may not improbably have been written about the middle of the first century AD.

These books, then, together with the canonical books to be dealt with later, constitute the Hebrew Wisdom literature, so far as it has come down to us. Now, in order to realize the changes of thought and the doctrinal developments which are to be observed in this literature it is necessary to distinguish between its earlier and its later parts. Speaking generally, though probably there are some exceptions, the earlier literature is represented by the canonical Wisdom books and the earlier Wisdom psalms; the later, in the main, by those of the Apocrypha and the other Wisdom psalms.

When these two sets of books are carefully examined it will be seen that in a variety of ways there are notable differences between them.

Thus, in the earlier literature the Sage is a Wise man, irrespective of nationality, while in the later books the Sage is an Israelite, and the writers glory in the fact that only among their own people are the true Wise men to be found. Similarly, in the older literature it is taught that Wisdom is to be obtained, by all and sundry who seek her; it is never suggested that this is the exclusive privilege of the Israelite.

The attitude taken up by the writers of the later Wisdom books is quite different. Here we find that no more is Wisdom a treasure, the possession of which is the reward of any man who faithfully seeks it, but that this is reserved for Israelites only; the national God vouchsafes it to His own people, not to the world in general. Furthermore, it is now taught that Wisdom is identical with the Law. One result of this was that inasmuch as the Law contained not only ethical precepts, but also directions concerning worship, stress came to be laid on the connexion between Wisdom and cult.

Again, though here the difference is discernible in emphasis and tendency rather than in direct precept, in the older literature the Wise man does what is right because of the consequent reward, while in the later literature stress is laid more on the need of doing good because it is the will of God. And it comes to the same thing when obedience to the Law is inculcated, for the Law is the expression of the Divine will.

A further notable difference is that in the earlier literature Scripture is hardly ever appealed to, whereas the later Wisdom writers make constant reference to the Biblical books.

Finally, what is perhaps the most important difference is the doctrine of divine retribution. In the older literature the conception of God centres primarily on the fact of His righteousness and justice, therefore He rewards the righteous man for his well doing, but a just retribution for his evil deeds falls on the wicked. And this retribution always takes place on this side of the grave. This doctrine held sway in spite of its obvious contradiction offered by the facts of daily life. In the later literature, however, while there is the full recognition of the justice of God, great stress is laid on divine grace and mercy lavished upon Israel, the people of God. In illustration of this the later Wisdom writers frequently point to the past history of Israel to show how God's favours were accorded to His people. It was to them, and to none others, that God revealed Himself. Thus it is that in the later literature the doctrine of divine retribution is much modified in its severity, as compared with the earlier literature, through the exercise of divine mercy.

A further important point in this connexion is that while, according to the earlier literature, retribution always takes place in this life, the later Wisdom writers, with the exception of Ben-Sira, teach that the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the righteous take place in the life to come. [For full references to the respective literatures in justification of what has been said, see Fichtner, op. cit., passim.)

It will thus be seen that in some important particulars the outlook and teaching of the writers of the earlier and later Wisdom literature respectively show a marked difference.
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III. THE HEBREW CONCEPTION OF WISDOM

The Hebrew word for Wisdom, Hokmah, is never used in the sense of pure knowledge, nor, in its earlier usage has it ever a religious connotation. It is used of wisdom in the administration of affairs (Gen.xli.33; Deut.i.13; ii Sam.xiv.20; Isa.xxix.14, etc.); Of skill in various kinds of work, making garments (Exod.xxviii.3), fashioning idols (Isa.xl.20), constructing furniture for the Tabernacle (Exod.xxxi.6, 7), of spinning (Exod.xxxv.25), and of mourning (Jer.ix.17); It is used also of shrewdness (ii Sam.i.3), of cunning (Job v.13), and craftiness (ii Sam.xx.16ff.). Thus, it connotes in general the faculty of being able to distinguish between what is advantageous and what is detrimental; and this both in its earlier and later usage; but in the latter, side by side with this meaning, more stress is laid upon its religious content. Thus, Wisdom was at first purely utilitarian, and developed in course of time into a quality which was ethical and religious, while it still continued to be used in its original sense as well. Ultimately it came to be identical with the Law. It is in these senses that Wisdom is used in this literature.

But of the various conceptions of Wisdom found in the Wisdom books, that which is of far-reaching importance is its personification. As a general rule, Wisdom is spoken of as something abstract, but in some striking passages it is personified. According to Fairweather, it was conceived of as a

"projection out of the Divine mind, as something more than an attribute, but as something less than a hypostasis." (Fairweather, The Background of the Gospels, p.84 (1908).]

The passages, however, in which Wisdom is personified suggest that it was conceived of as an intermediate being between God and the world; a personality existing alongside of God, but in quite a definite sense, distinct from Him. Thus, in Prov.viii.22-31 Wisdom is represented as saying:

"Yahweh possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths I was brought forth... When he established the heavens I was there, when he set a circle upon the face of the deep; When he made firm the skies above.  Then was I by him, as a master workman; And I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; Rejoicing in his habitable earth; and my delight was with the sons of men."

In the Wisdom of Solomon vii.22ff, the nature of Wisdom is thus portrayed:

"For there is in her a spirit of understanding, [Another reading is: "for she is a spirit."] holy, sole-born, manifold, subtle, mobile, lucid, unpolluted ... All-powerful, all-surveying, and penetrating through all spirits. ..." (Cp. also ix.9 and Ecclus.xxiv).

[In Job xxviii.12-28 there is also a personification of Wisdom.]

The special importance of this personification of Wisdom lies not only in the fact that it forms the link between the Palestinian and Hellenistic development of Judaism, but also that

"it represents the contribution made by the Wisdom literature to the Christology of the Old Testament, and has greatly influenced Christian theology." [Fairweather, op. cit., p.84.]


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IV. THE HAKAMIM AND THEIR WORK

There is evidence to show that the Hakamim, or "Wise Men", traced their origin back to the learned class of the Scribes, from whose ranks men were chosen to occupy important positions as State officials. In ii Sam.viii.17, among David's high officers, is mentioned Seraiah the Sopher or "Scribe", a kind of secretary of State; in another list of these (ii Sam.xx.25) a similar office is held by Sheva; see also i Kgs.iv.3; ii Kgs.xix.2; ii Kgs.x.3-7; Jer.xxxvi.20, 21. Indications of the existence of institutions for the training of these Scribes occur in Josh.xv.15, where mention is made of Kiriath-sepher, "the city of the book", or as the Septuagint reads, Kiriath-sopher, "the Scribe city". In Josh.xv.49 this city is called Kiriath-sannah, "the city of the palm-leaf", i.e. it preserved the name of the material, or one of the materials, on which the Scribes wrote. (Fries, in the Zeitschrift des Deutdchen Palastina Vereins, x.125.]

The first time the Hakamim are mentioned is in Isa.xxix.14, where the name occurs as a technical term and must, therefore, have been long in existence. In Jer.xviii. 18 the Hakam is spoken of as belonging to an order, like the priest and the prophet:

" ... the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the Hakam, nor the word from the prophet";

and in Jer.viii.8, 9, Scribes and Hakamim are seen to be identical. This identity is more fully borne out by Ben-Sira, who speaks of himself as a Hakam and a Sopher (Ecclus.xxxviii.24-xxxix.1-11). (See further, Baumgartner, "Die israelitische Weisheitsliteratur," in Theologische Rundschau, 1933, pp.269 f.]

In pre-exilic times it is likely enough that both prophets and priests looked upon the Wise men with disfavour. The whole mental outlook and ideals of each of these latter were so utterly different from those of the former. They must have regarded the Wise men, with their lack of zeal for God (from the prophetical point of view, cp. Isa.x.15-19), and their coldness towards The Wise men, on the other hand, with what they would regard as their superior wisdom, may well have thought the prophets arbitrary and hard, the priests as narrow-minded and self-centred. In later days, however, all this changed. Prophetism in the higher sense had ceased, and a friendly co-operation seems to have existed between priests and Wise men. Ezra was both priest and scribe; and later, in such a passage, e.g., as Ecclus.vii.29-31, l.1ff, it is evident that the Wise men were in full sympathy with the priesthood.

For the rest, the writers of the Wisdom literature were above all things, practical in their teaching. With their knowledge of human nature, their ability to give counsel of real help for every-day life, and of expressing this in clear and forceful language, they were an immense power for good in guiding men in the ways of religion and ethics, and in teaching them to lead sensible lives. In speaking of the way in which the Sages supplemented the work of the prophets,

Ranston truly remarks:

"It is customary, and with justification, to regard the prophets as the most illustrious exponents of the Hebrew religious spirit. But it may be doubted if the influence of these spiritual experts would have been so permanent and far-reaching apart from the work of the Wise men in popularizing their ideals and creating among the ordinary people a spirit sympathetic with them." (The Old Testament Wisdom Books and their Teaching, p.19 (1930).]

At a time when Prophetism in the true sense of the word had almost died out it was the Hakamim who took the place of the prophets, and it is likely enough that their methods of teaching were more effective among ordinary mortals than their greater predecessors.

It is one of the striking things about the Wisdom writers that among the various classes of people to whom they addressed themselves, the greatest attention was accorded to different types of "fools". The Hebrew language has a number of words to describe the varieties of this type of humanity. It is evident that, according to the Wisdom writers, these types constituted the majority of mankind. Nevertheless, they realized the great potentialities for good in every type of "fool", with one exception (see Prov.xvi.22, xxvii.22). And the very fact that there is so much guidance and instruction for "fools" of the less virulent type, is sufficient evidence that the Hakamim were not pessimists in their estimation of their fellow-creatures.

Stress must, however, be laid on the fact that the Hakamim were earnestly concerned to show that foolishness is wickedness. Every kind of Wisdom, from the lowest to the highest, is the gift of God. To permit folly, therefore, to assert its sway is to commit a wicked act, and this not only in the case of the wanton, aggressive "fools" who glory in wrongdoing, but also in that of the careless and thoughtless who flounder in the mire of their folly without realizing it:

The way of the wicked is like darkness, they know not wherein they stumble (Prov.iv.19).

But the Hakamim were far from contenting themselves with indicating to "fools" normal rules of conduct regarding every-day life, important as these are; they would not have been exponents of the teaching of the prophets had they not been zealous in inculcating more directly religious precepts.

It is true, the earlier literature has exceedingly little to say about worship and sacrifices, and the subject of prayer is rarely mentioned, though in the later literature all these find frequent expression (e.g, Ecclus.xx.6f, xxxvi.10-12, xlv.15ff., l.1ff.; Wisd.ix.4, xviii.9, 2 1, etc.); but the intimate connexion between ethics and religion is altogether characteristic of the Wisdom literature as a whole. The Hakamim of every age are insistent on Wisdom being, in its essence, the fear of Yahweh (e.g. Prov.xiv.2, xv.9, xvi.6, iii.7, xxviii.5; Ecclus.xv.1, xix.20, Wisd.xiv.24ff.), on man's relationship to God, and on the need of trust in Him (e.g. Prov.x.4, xviii.10, xx.22, xxx.5, ix.10; Ecclus.ii.8, xiv.12, 22ff; Wisd.vii.15, ix.17). While in the later literature the religious element is more pronounced it would be an injustice to say that it does not receive attention in the earlier. Since the Sages regarded every form of Wisdom as a divine gift, it is evident that the religious element lay at the base of all their teaching, whether expressed or not.

On the two very important subjects, the problem of suffering, and the doctrine of retribution, which figure prominently in this literature, we do not speak here, as they are dealt with elsewhere. [See p.165, p.175 ff.]

Speaking generally, then, it may be said that the main object of these exponents of Hokmah, "Wisdom", was to teach men how to live happy lives as long as they were on this earth. This leads them to deal with the relationship between a man and his God, between parents and children, man and wife, friend and foe, rich and poor, high and low. They teach what is right behaviour in every phase and occupation of life, how to accept adverse fortune, and the fitting attitude of him who enjoys wealth; in a word, how to live to the best advantage, to do right because it brings its own reward, to avoid wrongdoing because it entails disadvantages. Yet, stress must again be laid on the fact, sometimes insufficiently recognized in reading what appears to be predominantly of a secular character, that underlying this utilitarian view of life there is a religious foundation.

It is often insisted upon that wisdom is the gift of God (e.g. Prov.ii.6; Ecclus.i.1-10, and elsewhere). Good fortune as the result of right living, and misfortune as the result of wrongdoing, is not merely a process of cause and effect, but a matter of divine intervention in the affairs of men (e.g. Prov.x.22). It is pointed out that true wisdom and piety are really the same thing (e.g. Ecclus.i.14-20, 25-30). The origin and essence and highest form of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, so that it is incumbent on all men to observe the commandments of God (e.g. Prov.xxviii.4, 7).

The increasing stress laid on the religious element observable among the later Sages is further seen in that a more vital difference is recognized between piety and godlessness than between wisdom and folly. [Baumgartner, Israelitische und altorientalische Weisheit, p.5 (1933), brings this out.]

And it is significant that Ben-Sira estimates a godly man of limited understanding more highly than one of greater wisdom who transgresses the Law (Ecclus.xix.24)
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V. THE COSMOPOLITAN CHARACTER OF WISDOM LITERATURE

The fact that Wisdom was not the exclusive possession of Israel is already fully recognized in the Old Testament. Thus, in order to show how great Solomon's wisdom was it is said that it

"excelled the wisdom of the children of the cast, and all the wisdom of Egypt" (i Kgs.iv.30 [Hebr.v.I 0]).

By the "children of the east" are meant Arabians (cp. Bar.iii.23) and Edomites, as the context shows, and doubtless also Babylonians. The "sons of Mahol" (ver. 31) were Edomites. Their wisdom is referred to in Jer.xlix.7 and in Obad.8. And the wise men of Egypt are spoken of in Gen.xli.8; cp. also Isa.xix.11-15. Further,

"in Job ii.11 the names of job's friends show that they were non-Israelite. Teman was in Edom, Shuah in Assyria, and though Naamah was in south-west Judah, it is most probable that Zophar was thought of as an Edomite because the clan which settled in Naamah, viz. the Calebites (see i Chron.iv.15, where Naam is the same as Naamah), was of Edomite extraction." (Oesterley, The Book of Proverbs, p.xxxiv (1929); see also Pfeiffer, "Edomite Wisdom," in the ZATW for 1926, pp.13 ff.]

The existence of this extra-Israelite wisdom to which the Old Testament witnesses has been abundantly verified in recent years by the discovery of a number of Egyptian and Babylonian Wisdom books. [Some details will be found, e.g., in Baumgartner, op. cit., pp.20 ff.]

The study of these Wisdom books and a comparison between them and those of the Hebrews shows that there existed from the Nile to the Tigris an extensive Wisdom literature essentially identical in its main characteristics; and that this literature was in the nature of common property among the peoples of the ancient east.

It is interesting too, to find that the Wisdom writers of both Egypt and Babylonia belonged to the class of Scribes and occupied important posts in the State just as we have seen was the case among the Israelites.

The translation of all these Egyptian and Babylonian Wisdom books has made it possible for non-experts in these languages to compare their contents with those of the Hebrews. And the comparison raises some questions of interest and importance to the Biblical student:

  1. Were the Hebrew Sages indebted to those of other countries? And if so, in how far?
  2. Was there any reciprocal indebtedness?
  3. Does the Hebrew Wisdom literature differ from that of the other nations, and if so, in what respects?

A brief attempt must be made to reply to these questions.

The familiarity of the Hebrews with the wisdom of other countries is evident from the passages referred to above. And the older and higher culture of Egypt and Babylon would naturally impress the Hebrew. Moreover, the fact that the Wisdom literature of both Egypt and Babylon was demonstrably older than that of the Hebrews offers an a priori probability that the Hebrew Sages were indebted to extraneous sources for much of their Wisdom thought. It must also be recognized that there are certain characteristics in the earlier books of Hebrew Wisdom which are strikingly non-Israelite.

These have already been mentioned, viz. the cosmopolitan outlook, the comparatively cold outward religious expression, and the reticence regarding things which receive much emphasis in other parts of the Old Testament-worship, sacrifices, the election of Israel, etc.; this also points to extraneous influence.

But the evidence of this becomes overwhelming when a detailed comparison between the Hebrew Wisdom books and those of Egypt and Babylon is undertaken.

This cannot be done here, but the large number of passages, which contain identity of thought and word, makes it impossible to deny borrowing, and it must obviously be the later writers who borrowed from the earlier. Our first question must, therefore, be answered by an emphatic affirmative. [See Oesterley, Proverbs, pp.xxxiv-lv. The most striking instance is Prov.x.17-xi.14, which seems to have been taken more or less bodily from the Egyptian Wisdom book The Teaching of Amen-em-ope.]

The answer to the second question as to whether there was reciprocal indebtedness is more difficult. Opinions on the subject differ, though the majority of experts are inclined to doubt Hebrew influence on the Egyptian and Babylonian Sages. But in one respect the possibility, to put it at the lowest, of Hebrew influence on non-Israelite Wisdom writers must be recognized, and this even in regard to those writings which are demonstrably older than any Hebrew books, if one may assume later redactional additions - a not improbable hypothesis. We refer to religious and ethical elements, but especially the former. (Cp., among others, Causse, Sagasse egyptienne et sagasse juive, p.168 (1929).]

It seems arbitrary to suppose that among men of similar bent, be their nationality what it may, influence should have been exercised on one side only. In the close intercourse that must at different periods have existed between Israelites, Egyptians, and Babylonians, it is highly probable that the Hebrew religious genius, which was professedly unique, impressed itself upon the more serious thinkers of other nationalities. And they in their turn would have communicated this to others likeminded with themselves. In this way the Hebrew religious spirit would have spread within certain circles both Egypt and Babylonia, and have been reproduced in some, of the Wisdom writings of these countries. So far as Wisdom itself is concerned, both these countries undoubtedly largely influenced Israel. But where it is a question of religion, Israelite influence is the more likely to have been predominant.

What Blackman, in a different connexion has said with great truth in reference to Egypt, may well apply also to Babylonia:

"Just as, on the one hand, specifically native Egyptian contributions to the world's cultural and religious progress penetrated into Palestine and were absorbed into the main stream of Hebrew religious development, so, on the other hand, certain results of the Semitic genius for religion in their turn penetrated into Egypt and contributed to the formulation of what was highest and best in Egyptian religion." [In The Psalmists, p.i (1926). See further, Kittel, Die hellenische Mysterien-Religion und das Alte Testament, passim (1924).]

In answer to our last question it must be affirmed that the Hebrew Wisdom literature does differ in some important respects from that of both Egypt and Babylonia.

Baumgartner maintains that by simply altering the language and the name of God of sayings from Proverbs and transplanting them into an Egyptian, Assyrian, or Aramaic collection, and vice versa, one would not know that any exchange had been made. [Op. cit., p.23.]

So far as the Egyptian Wisdom books are, concerned this is an over-statement. There is much in these that is entirely un-Hebraic, and if put into Hebrew would at once betray non-Israelite elements.

The first point of difference in the Hebrew Wisdom literature is, naturally enough, its monotheism; Israel had but one God, and His name was Yahweh; in the other Wisdom literatures many gods and goddesses are mentioned, with a variety of names. Secondly, there can be no question about it that the ethical element constitutes one of the main differences between Israelite and other Wisdom books. This is not to say that moral precepts are wanting in the Egyptian and other non-Israelite books, the difference lies in emphasis, but that is a very marked difference, and cannot fail to strike the impartial reader of the respective literatures.

A further not unimportant point here is the difference in motive in ethical behaviour; the Hebrew Sages are often insistent on good behaviour because, as Yahweh is holy, his people too must be holy in their walk in life. It is perfectly true that again and again in the Hebrew Wisdom writings the motive pointed to is not "Be good for good's sake", but for the advantage to be derived from doing what is right. Yet it is none the less true that often the will of Yahweh is pointed to as that which must be the real motive for right living, and as the norm of true Wisdom. That is specifically Israelite, and there is nothing corresponding to it in other ancient Wisdom books. Once more - though this applies only to Egyptian Wisdom - retribution for evil living takes place on this earth only according to Hebrew Sages, while those of Egypt insist also on retribution in the world hereafter. It must strike one as remarkable that the Hebrew Sages with their belief in an omnipotent God were not influenced by Egyptian belief here. As to this, however, the Book of Wisdom offers a notable exception; though there is no reason to suppose that the writer of this book was indebted to Egypt for this. Lastly, and this, too, is matter for surprise, the Hebrew Wisdom writers of the earlier literature, as already pointed out, show little interest in matters of worship, differing herein from the Sages of Egypt and Babylonia.

Summing up, then, it must be noted that the Hebrew Sages were in many particulars strongly influenced by their confreres of other lands. Nevertheless, they had a remarkable faculty of adapting extraneous material and moulding it in accordance with their own ideas. They show a distinct individuality, and when the different bodies of Wisdom literature are compared, it must be admitted that that of the Hebrews shows, all in all, a marked superiority over the others.
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