Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel

01.01.08 | Denver Journal, Old Testament, Richard S. Hess | by Richard J. Clifford

    Dr. Richard Hess' review of, "Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel," by Richard J. Clifford.

    Richard J. Clifford, ed.  Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel.  SBL Symposium Series Number 36.  Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.  xiii + 116 pp.  Paperback, $13.00.  ISBN 978-1-58983-219-0.

    The volume consists of some of the papers presented in a Widsom, Mesopotamia, and the Bible section at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in 2004.  It is supplemented by a few additional contributions.  Following Clifford's introduction outlining some of the earlier work publishing and studying Sumerian and Akkadian wisdom literature, Paul-Alain Beaulieu's "The Social and Intellectual Setting of Babylonian Wisdom Literature" (pp. 3-19) observes that the concept of wisdom in the ancient Near East includes practical arts of civilization as well as divination and the more esoteric forms often emphasized.  For Beaulieu the sages gradually gain a role that rivals the king in Mesopotamian society.  He cites the later king list connections between the antediluvian rulers and the sages, with one sage for each king. 

    Karel van der Toorn finds in wisdom (Babylonian nemÄ“qu) the ability to express practical concerns in short sayings, advice, and other forms.  This at least was the original concern of wisdom.  It changed over time.  He illustrates this by comparing the Old Babylonian and much later (first millennium) Standard Babylonian versions of the Gilgamesh epic.  In the older version, the female innkeeper embodies wisdom as she counsels Gilgamesh to accept mortality and live a life of moderation and appreciation for the good things that come his way.  On the other hand, the later version has as its source of wisdom the semi-divine Utnapishtim.  He receives it as a secret from the gods rather than as the fruit of experience.  Why did wisdom change in this manner?  For van der Toorn the shift from oral traditions and the relating of wisdom and story by word of mouth to the written and scribal texts contains the secret.  The colophons on some first millennium B.C. texts qualify them as secret and available only to the initiates or experts.  While Israelite wisdom also became equated with the written Torah in Judaism, it was not regarded as secret, but made available to all.  Van der Toorn does not explore this profound difference but it must raise the question as to whether part of the reason was the greater access to the written text in Israel and thus less possibility to keep it a secret limited to an elite few.

    Victor Avigdor Hurowitz provides two contributions to the present volume.  One forms a brief note in which he argues that the Mesopotamian Dialogue Pessimism borrows some lines from the Hymn to Shamash.   He suggests that this demonstrates that the latter Hymn was not only a liturgical composition, but also one included in the canon of wisdom literature to which reference could be made in other wisdom literature.

    In a second essay Hurowitz studies and provides a translation of The Wisdom of ŠÅ«pê-amÄ“lÄ«.  This wisdom work is unusual insofar as examples of its texts are preserved in the West Semitic archives of the second millennium B.C. at Ugarit and Emar, and also at Hattusas, the capital of the Hittites.  Thus this seems to provide an authentic example of what was regarded as wisdom literature in the world from which Israel and the Bible emerged.  What is of interest is the many parallels in overall structure, specific form, and particular content between the wisdom of this text and that found in Proverbs and also in Ecclesiastes.  The father speaks first, representing the traditional type of wisdom as found in Proverbs; an optimistic attitude that the system of the world works and can be mastered for one's own advantage.  The son replies in a manner that Hurowitz correctly understands as a challenge to the accepted wisdom of the father.  Like Ecclesiastes, this critique challenges accepted wisdom conventions.  Thus there existed a strain of pessimistic wisdom in the West Semitic world a thousand years before the Greek version of it came into Judaism.  These observations make this article a most significant contribution to the volume in terms of the relationship between wisdom written in Akkadian and in Hebrew. 

    Edwar L. Greenstein's "Sages with a Senses of Humor: The Babylonian Dialogue between a Master and His Servant and the Book of Qohelet" is a translation of a study that originally appeared in Beth Mikra.  Although designating it by another name, Greenstein studies the same Dialogue of Pessimism that Hurowitz examined in his first essay.  Here as well parallels with Ecclesiastes are affirmed.  The Dialogue has the master propose one course of action and then the opposite course.  In each case, the servant finds a good reason for both contradictory acts.  The whole text is a satire.  Greenstein reviews some of the contradictory pieces of advice in Ecclesiastes.  He observes how Rabbinical thought resolved these by placing each in a different context.  However, Greenstein rejects this in favor of intentional satire, parallel to the Dialogue of Pessimism.  Nevertheless, the comparison needs further refinement.  Unlike the Dialogue of Pessimism, where the contradictory statements are placed virtually side by side, in Ecclesiastes they are much farther apart.  Thus an intentional satirical purpose is not self-evident. 

    Raymond C. Van Leeuwen's "Cosmos, Temple, House: Building and Wisdom in Mesopotamia and Israel" provides one of the most fascinating discussions in the volume as he relates wisdom to building and construction in the Bible and in ancient Mesopotamia.  This theme goes back to the divine construction of the cosmos at the beginning of time and the manner in which the construction of the temples reflects this.  However, even the construction of palaces and houses uses this wisdom theme.  It thus occurs in the wisdom literature as well as in other texts within the Bible.

    The final essay is by the renowned biblical wisdom scholar, James L. Crenshaw.  He finds consistency in tracing the origin of life back to the divine in wisdom literature.  The ending of life is also in divine "hands."  Crenshaw surveys a variety of biblical and extra-biblical texts for the necessities of life.   He compares Ecclesiastes with the advice of the female innkeeper to Gilgamesh; enjoy life while you can because it is so short.  In this Crenshaw contrasts with van der Toorn's earlier interpretation.  The latter put more of an emphasis on moderation here whereas Crenshaw's interpretation approaches hedonism (or at least Epicureanism).  The author rightly observes the "fear of the Lord" as an "additional" necessity to the physical need of life in the Bible.  However, as Proverbs (1:7) begins with this admonition, it seems more appropriate to recognize this as the first of the necessities; and everything else as "additional." 

    Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
    Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
    Denver Seminary
    January 2008

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