Ancient Near Eastern wisdom (Proverbs 1)

Image result for ivory board game Megiddo

Illustration: Ivory gaming board, 12th century BC, Megiddo

The ancient Near East has yielded a great deal of what scholars call “wisdom literature” – texts that instruct the reader about life, virtue and social interaction or reflect upon profound issues.

  • The instructive, or didactic, texts, like Proverbs, were typically written with a boy or young man (“my son”) as the implied reader. These straightforward texts, exhorting the reader to right behaviour, concern issues like personal morality, work ethics, career choice or peer respect.
  • The reflective texts, like Job, are addressed to a more mature reader – one who acknowledges that the world is not always as it should be. They lament societal ills and wrestle with complex issues.
  • These categories are not mutually exclusive. Ecclesiastes wrestles with life’s unfairness and perversity but also instructs the reader. We could classify Proverbs as the workbook for a beginner or “undergraduate” course, with Ecclesiastes being an advanced or “graduate school” text.
  • Wisdom texts may address the reader directly, as do Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, or have a narrative structure, like Job.
  • Wisdom texts may be presented as prose (like most of Ecclesiastes) og poetry (like most of Job).
  • Didactic texts often employ simple, two-line maxims and parallelism (as in Proverbs), while reflective texts are typically more complex in structure (as in Job’s more problematical poetic discourses).

Other nations also had wisdom literature. A few examples from ancient Near East:

  • Egypt: The instruction of Vizier Ptah-hotep (Fifth Dynasty, ca. 2500-2350 B.C.):  An aged counsellor instructs his son in how he should conduct his life. The instruction for Merikare (Tenth Dynasty, ca. 2106-2010 B.C.): A pharaoh (apparently Khety III) initiates his son in the principles of proper and effective ruling. This text, reflecting the social turmoil of the First Intermediate period, asserts that Merikare must earn the respect of the nobles through just governance in order to maintain his hold on the throne. The Protests of the Eloquent Peasant (oldest copy dates to the Twelfth Dynasty, ca. 1963-1786): A peasant who has been defrauded of his goods pleads for justice from high officials, eventually winning his case and gaining a high position for himself. The text reflects upon the nature of justice and the importance of eloquent speech. The Instruction of Amenemope (oldest copy dates to between the tenth and sixth centuries B.C.): This text, which is remarkably similar to Proverbs 22:17-24:22, indicates an introduction and 30 sections of teaching on wise behaviour.
  • Mesopotamia: Akkadian Proverbs Texts: These writings contain pithy adages and maxims of the sort found all over the world. For example, one proverb states that an enemy army never departs from a city whose weapons are weak (similar to the Roman proverb “If you want peace, prepare for war”). Counsels of Wisdom:  This Akkadian book of practical advice also addresses the reader as “my son”. Examples of advice include a warning not to marry a prostitute and an admonition that the steward of a ruler’s property should not give in to covetousness. The Babylonian Theodicy (ca. 1100-1000 B.C.): A cynical sufferer enters into a dispute with a man who defends traditional notions of wisdom. The text originally included 27 stanzas, each with 11 lines, but not all remain intact. This writing is often compared to Job; there are in fact both clear similarities and sharp differences between the two. The Book of Ahiqar (found on a fifth century B.C. Aramaic papyrus but set in Assyria and possibly composed originally in Akkadian): This text describes how Ahiqar overcame the adversity of a scheming and ungrateful nephew, avoided execution on false charges and provided himself to be the wisest man of his age. The story was translated into Armenian and Arabic, and the Apocryphal book of Tobit alludes to it. The motif of the wise man who triumphs over adversity appears repeatedly in the Bible as well.

We cannot deny that such similarities exists; the Israelites did not live in cultural isolation. At the same time, it would be a mistake to treat the Biblical texts as just another version of ancient wisdom. In grandeur of scope, internal complexity and theological profundity, the Biblical texts of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are in a class bt themselves.


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