Discuss and illustrate the various literary genres of wisdom writing in Israel, from pre-exilic times to the start of the common era. To what extent is the changing role of wisdom in Israel reflected in the history of these genres?


To discuss and evaluate the “various literary genres of wisdom writing in Israel,” it becomes important to define a number of terms in this phrase. One has to define what constitutes a “genre” as well as how this relates to a definition of “wisdom” as well as what entity we are considering to be “Israel.”

Genre and WisdomEdit

Earlier discussions of genre within biblical studies understood genres to be static categories that needed to be uncovered and classified, it was an exercise in taxonomy similar to botany or zoology. This kind of approach is exemplified by scholars like Hermann Gunkel and James Crenshaw. Gunkel, in his form critical methodology, assumed that a genre was the product of a particular setting and social group, thus form and content were intrinsically connected. Crenshaw in his classifications of wisdom literature was strongly opposed to mixing of “true” wisdom with other genres, since he believed that wisdom literature was the product of a distinct social group that only produced wisdom. Thus, the idea of a wisdom psalm was unallowable for Crenshaw.

However, more modern approaches to genre use a nominal approach, which argue that genres are arbitrary categories and exist in the minds of people in order to facilitate effective communication. Genres take on meaning by what they are not as much as what they are, so it is important to put genres into its contextual web of communication in order to understand it. Genre theorists (i.e. Alastair Fowler) make a distinction between modes and genres. Modes are usually adjectival additions that describe the tone of a genre, such as heroic epic, comic play, etc. A mode may begin as a genre but becomes more general as it become detached from defined structures. It has been argued by Mark Sneed that “wisdom literature” itself is a mode rather than a genre. Genres used in wisdom literature might include proverbs, riddles, hymns, dialogues, autobiographical narratives, catalogs or noun lists and didactic narratives. Often we want to define entire books around generic categories despite the fact that they are large assemblages of genres. This type of macro-classification is helpful and possible when a book can be placed among other similar books that share specific commonalities. Thus, true to the idea of the nominal approach any categorization that is helpful for understanding communication is possible and beneficial. This is difficult if one looks at the Hebrew Bible itself, but categorization of entire books becomes more possible when comparative data from the ancient Near East is included.

Wisdom BooksEdit

In answering this question I define wisdom literature as texts that seek to find the best in life through proper conduct and reaction to suffering. This may be communicated by any number of genres or collections of genres, but the generic groups that I will examine are the biblical books (Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha). This identification of wisdom and genre also defines “Israel” in this sense as the writers and readers of these biblical books, even though this may refer a variety of social groups in different geographic locations throughout centuries.

The books themselves may be thought of representatives of larger genres. For example, Job may be a representative of the Righteous Sufferer genre (in comparison the Mesopotamian texts), Proverbs is part of Instruction literature, and Qohelet is a royal autobiography. Later books become difficult to find a single genre to define the entire work, but Ben Sira is essentially a collection of proverbs but also contains hymns, prayers, and a catalog of biblical characters. Wisdom of Solomon includes historiography and midrash among its genres that it uses.

Aside from Ben Sira there is no precise dates for the compositions of any of the wisdom books, which makes it difficult to evaluate in historical order and against their historical contexts. This is especially apparent for the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible. However, enough can be known to make some broad observations especially between the books of the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha. Job is often considered a 6th century book, Ecclesiastes perhaps 3rd/4th century, and Proverbs is difficult to date but its final edition is probably around a similar time period to Job and Ecclesiastes. Ben Sira can be dated by internal clues to the first part of the 2nd century BCE and Wisdom of Solomon is most likely composed in the 1st century CE/BCE.

Hebrew BibleEdit

Job, Qohelet, and Proverbs share a number of features that put them in opposition with the later books of Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon. These books rarely cross-reference prophetic or historical literature, nor do they include some of the important aspects of “salvation history” in which Yahweh is supposed to have intervened in history for his people. These books are said to focus on creation theology as a fundamental idea within their compositions. Also, these works tend to reflect wisdom traditions from the ANE that are quite old, both from Mesopotamia and Egypt. Proverbs is a superb example of the instruction genre, and mirrors its relegation of matters of piety and worship to merely important elements of a good life. The story of the righteous sufferer found in Job finds generic antecedents in Mesopotamia with strong parallels in the questions and answers found in the texts. Qohelet draws on the genre of royal autobiography in order to convey its message, a message that is deeply rooted in themes of Sumerian and Akkadian wisdom literature that might be called the vanity theme. In the face of inescapable death, Qohelet, like Gilgameš and other Mesopotamian compositions, advocates enjoying life’s blessings, like family and prosperity, while one has it, carpe diem.

Ben SiraEdit

Ben Sira preserves the traditional biblical beliefs about death and afterlife but also reflects an important change in how wisdom genres integrated other parts of the Hebrew canon. Ben Sira draws on earlier biblical description of personified wisdom and follows other writers of his period (like Baruch) by explicitly identifying Lady Wisdom with the Torah. In a similar way to God establishing his name in Jerusalem, Wisdom is said to be established in Zion and rooted in Israel. Ben Sira’s attitude is less skeptical than Job and Ecclesiastes in regards to unjust suffering and does not see theodicy as a problem, similar to Proverbs. Ben Sira also integrates biblical characters more fully into his composition in his praise of great men, including with special emphasis both Aaron and Simon the high priest. The praise of priests as well as the mention of specific types of offerings show that the cult is also integrated more explicitly in wisdom writings. Ben Sira also bears more traces of Hellenistic influence than did previous wisdom literature. Ben Sira uses a simile practically straight out of the Illiad in 14:16-18, in which he compares the changing of the leaves to the changing of generations.

Wisdom of SolomonEdit

Wisdom of Solomon demonstrates represents a more drastic cultural shift toward the Greek world as well as shows wisdom to be more tightly integrated with other aspects of Jewish canonical writing. The author’s choice to write in Greek is evidence of the heavy influence of Greek thought and literature on Wisdom of Solomon. The older beliefs that were less developed about the state of the dead have been reinterpreted and a good afterlife is believed to await the righteous, while it is the wicked who descend to Hades/Sheol. This does not extend to resurrection, but the reward that awaits the suffering righteous provides a much easier answer for Wisdom of Solomon than Job and Ecclesiastes were able to find. The Wisdom of Solomon continues to elaborate on the attributes of Lady Wisdom, as its other wisdom predecessors, and in more explicit ways models her after a goddess. Wisdom is said to be the partner and lover of God, similar to a female counterpart that existed for most deities of the ancient world. Not only was wisdom praised like a goddess but she is said to have intervened in the history of Israel. The last part of the Wisdom of Solomon involves a midrashic interpretation of the Exodus. Wisdom of Solomon is couched in the style and rhetoric of the Hellenistic world and is often thought to have been written for other Jews who may have been in danger of forsaking the faith.


The themes and motifs of wisdom continued to be important throughout the post-exilic period to the beginning of the common era. In the books that have been reviewed it can be seen that other important parts of an Israelite or Jewish worldview were linked and incorporated into distinctly wisdom genres. Wisdom went from a universalism where it could be found everyone, to being inextricably linked to the law of Moses. This connection with the founding elements of Jewish identity allowed wisdom literature to become a part of the pious Jewish life. Similar developments in wisdom can be seen in the documents of Qumran. Developments in beliefs about the dead neutralized sticky questions that had vexed earlier wisdom genres. Rather than demonstrate a merging of worldviews that were originally held by distinct classes of people, this may reflect a sharper change in scribal culture, the curriculum to train new scribes, and the changing cultures and genres that these scribes were influenced by. Rather than Crenshaw’s belief that wisdom provided an earlier alternative to Yahwism, I think that the elements of wisdom and Yahwism (if this is a monolithic category) were already integrated in their individual practitioners but remained encapsulated in different literary genres. As time went on for various reasons, the merging of these genres reflects the rhetorical needs of authors and audiences of different time periods rather than a complete change in social groups or merging of worldviews.


Coogan, Michael David. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Crenshaw, James L. Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2010. Frow, John. Genre. London; New York: Routledge, 2006. Sneed, Mark. “Is the ‘Wisdom Tradition’ a Tradition?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73 (2011): 50–71.

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