Biblical Wisdom Literature

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Many of the same virtues and vices are dealt with in both literatures (Egyptian and Hebrew Wisdom writings), and are judged by much the same moral standards. The differences are chiefly theological, and are particularly obvious in Hebrew ideas of reward and punishment in this life, in contrast to the Egyptian orientation toward judgment in the hereafter. Furthermore, there is no real counterpart in Egyptian Wisdom to the profound probing of the problems of justice and religion in the Book of Job, or to the rationalism and agnosticism of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet).

Mesopotamian Wisdom

The Wisdom movement in Mesopotamia had its origins in the oldest culture of that region, that of the Sumerians, who bequeathed much of it to their successors the Babylonians and Assyrians. Large numbers of Sumerian proverbs and popular sayings, many arranged in standard collections, have come to light. The collections were made, and in part composed, at the scribal academies, and were used for instruction in the art of writing as well as in teaching cultural values. They include adages and maxims and, in addition, thumbnail fables and illustrative anecdotes. Some have the complaining or sarcastic note of popular sayings; others express a more mature wisdom about life.

Sumerian literature also explored profounder problems. The epic myth Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living tells how the hero sought to become immortal through some outstanding achievement, but learned that "when the gods created mankind they assigned death to men," and man must accept the prospect and be happy while he can. This recalls Ecclesiastes (Kohelet). In one form of the Sumerian story of the Deluge, the Sumerian Noah, Ziusudra, after his survival, is instructed in the right conduct which will guard against a new destruction,

Biblical Wisdom in Its International Context

From what has been said above and from the quotations given, it will be evident that the Wisdom movement in Israel was indeed part of a much wider and older context in neighboring cultures. The resemblances are in both form and substance. At the same time it seems clear that the Wisdom of ancient Israel, as represented in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, compares most favorably as literature with the Wisdom writings of other ancient peoples. Moreover, it strikes its own distinctive note. In intellectual penetration, ethical awareness, and religious spirit it is approached by these other literatures only here and there. Taken as a whole, it is unmatched in the surviving records of the wisdom literature.

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Robert Balgarnie Young Scott (1899-1987) was one of Canada's most renowned Bible scholars. He taught at universities in both Canada and in the U.S.; his last appointment was as the William H. Danforth Professor of Religion at Princeton University. He was the author of numerous articles and commentaries.