Ancient books full of wisdom

An open bible sitting on a rock.
 on November 1, 2014

The third section of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is called the Ketuvim or “the Writings.” This was the last section to be added to the Jewish canon of scripture and has the most varied collection of genres.  The authorship of these books has been questioned by biblical scholars over the years, with few definitive answers. Some of these writings date from very ancient sources. Some of the Psalms, for example, may date from King David in the 11th century BCE. The Book of Daniel, on the other hand, was written much more recently, probably dating to the second century BCE.

The Writings include three books of the Wisdom genre. Last month, we looked at one of those books, Job. It is to the other two books, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, I would like to turn today. With Job, they form the Wisdom part of the Tanakh. All three books are very different, written from distinctly different worldviews.

The Wisdom tradition was international, with most of the tribes and nations in the Near East possessing their own Wisdom writings. These books usually outlined skills for living well, based on the experiences of the authors. Thousands of proverbs have been discovered in the Ancient Near East, containing guidance for living well and thus prospering.

Wisdom literature had little connection to the other major themes or the great formative historical memories in scripture. There is no mention of covenant, the Promised Land, the temple, the ancient ancestors or the Exodus.

Last month, in looking at the Book of Job, we saw that bad things happen to good people, and punishment is not always the result of living sinfully. God doesn’t seem to have an understandable moral order in life. Finally, we saw God telling Job that, as he was unable to understand the laws of creation or the order of nature, he could not limit God by deciding how God must act in the universe.

Proverbs is almost diametrically opposite to this worldview. The basic premise of this book is that good behaviour will lead to a good life, and if one behaves in a particular way he or she will be rewarded and prosper.

The Book of Proverbs is a series of sayings of a father to his son about the skills necessary in living well. If you expect to succeed in life, you have to act in a certain way. Proverbs is a set of skills for living a good life. Thus good behaviour is rewarded by God, and bad behaviour will lead to suffering.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is a very different response to leading a good life. This book may have originated with Solomon (the son of King David), who was the last king of the united kingdom in Palestine. It would have been written in his old age. After his death, the kingdom of Israel divided into two parts. If this book originated with Solomon, it has undergone much revision and rewriting at the hands of the scribes and redactors, especially in the third and second centuries BCE.

Ecclesiastes appears in a section called the Book of the Five Scrolls, containing five short stories that are read at the five major festivals in the Jewish Year. Ecclesiastes is the fourth book and is read at Sukkot, the festival of the late harvest or in the late autumn.

The message of Ecclesiastes is simple: “There is nothing new under the sun” (1:9) and “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:2 and 12:8). All wisdom is like chasing after the wind. This is mentioned some five or six times in Ecclesiastes. You can’t catch it. It will always evade you. Nor can you understand what it is all about. (Remember, this was written 3,000 years ago!) Thus, for the author of Ecclesiastes, “all is vanity.” Life really has no meaning; it is irrelevant and empty. What we do is useless and of no significance.

But the author of Ecclesiastes ends with the statement, “Fear God and keep His commandments, for that is the duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing whether good or evil” (12:13-14).

Actually, this epilogue may have made it possible for this book to be included in the canon of scripture. It does suggest a dichotomy in Ecclesiastes. Although life is meaningless, nevertheless we need to be obedient to God in all things to live a good life. This is another fascinating read and is only 12 chapters in length. As you read this book, try to consider the people for whom it was written and the reason for its composition, and then how its teachings applies to your life. Enjoy the dialogue.


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