Wisdom Literature: Ben Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon
Jewish Literature of the Greco-Roman Period
Wisdom literature is a genre that has roots deep in ancient Near Eastern culture. There are exemplars of wisdom literature from Egypt of the 2nd millennium B.C.E., and from not too much later written in Mesopotamia. It’s also a type of literature popular in ancient Israel from the time prior to the exile; examples of Israelite wisdom are found especially in the book of Proverbs. But it is, furthermore, a type of literature that continues throughout the Hellenistic period. In fact, we already explored an example of this type of literature when we looked at Qoheleth. At that point, however, we looked at that work for what it indicated about how thoroughly Hellenistic forms of thought had penetrated Jewish thinking, as early as the third century B.C.E. Today we want to take a look at this type of writing as a literary genre in its own right during the Hellenistic era.
First, though, I wish to define briefly what wisdom literature is. The most succinct definition with which I am familiar is that wisdom literature is “a way of looking at life based on experience.” This distinguishes it from other forms of biblical literature, especially the prophets, whose method of gaining information is reflected in their recurrent phrase, “Thus says the LORD.” They did not gain their messages by reflecting on life or experience, but by direct communication from the deity. Wisdom writers, on the other hand, present observations accessible to anyone. They catalog life and organize the common experience of many generations into basic codes for how to live successfully. In fact, if there is one modification I would make to Dell’s definition, it is the notion that wisdom literature is “a way of looking at life” or even a quest for meaning in life. While that is sometimes present, it is even more characteristically a quest for what works in life.
In keeping with that, wisdom literature is addressed especially to the individual rather than to the whole of society in attempt to arouse change in an entire social order. Wisdom literature offers advice to individuals who wish to get along in life, by telling them what works and what doesn’t. And that’s why its religious component – even though it is present – does not come to the fore in the way it does in other parts of the Bible. Wisdom literature assumes that the knowledge of how to get along in life is nothing hidden and mysterious; all it takes is listening to the accumulated observations of those who have taken time to think about the way life works.
Because Israel’s “wisdom” tradition wanted to discover the paths that led to success and prosperity, it was interested in defining what specific acts one could do that would take one further along that path. E.g. Prov 10:19 says “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech.” I.e. the more you talk, the more trouble you get into, so button it. Watching how much you talk and what you say is a way to get ahead in life. A similar proverb was popular during WWII: “Loose lips sink ships.” I.e. watch what you say so that you don’t slip.
Another example is Prov. 11.15: “To guarantee loans for a stranger brings trouble, but there is safety in refusing to do so.” I.e. making loans to strangers is risky business, so avoid it. Cf. our proverb “neither a borrower nor a lender be.”
Each of these proverbs takes common experience as its starting point: people who talk alot tend to get into trouble, so don’t talk much; loans to strangers tend to be risky, so avoid them. Once again this is advice based on common human experience.
The fact that wisdom writers relied on observation and reflection rather than experiences of revelation of the prophetic sort does not mean that Israel’s wisdom literature was purely secular. While it is true that wisdom literature is supremely concerned with questions of how the individual can live successfully in society, attention is nevertheless given to the question of God’s role in the world, even in the pursuit of wisdom. For Qoheleth and Job God’s role is a vexing problem, and part of what they struggle with. But in Proverbs there are numerous statements about leaving room for God as the one who knows all, and to whom all human attempts at knowledge must yield.
One of the classic statements of this is in Proverbs 3, v. 5: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.”
It’s important to note here that the Hebrew word for “heart” does not mean the center of the emotions, as it does in English, but the “mind.” Moreover, the translation “insight” here represents the Hebrew term binah, which is often used as a synonym for chochmah, the Hebrew word for “wisdom.” So the advice here is to place ultimate reliance on the Lord rather than on one’s powers of observation and deduction, more so than wisdom itself. That clearly invokes a religious notion, checking any exuberance wisdom thinkers might have over the ability of humans to find answers by collective observation.
The same theme arises in Job 28, which is a hymn about wisdom that begins by recounting human abilities to dig deep into the earth to mine minerals. But after exulting in humans’ ability to dig into the earth for what is hidden, it denies them the same access to wisdom: “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Mortals do not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living.”
Succeeding verses then reveal who does know the place of wisdom: ” God understands the way to it, and he knows its place. For he looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens.”
The consequence of this is stated in the concluding verse of the chapter: ” And he said to humankind, “Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.”
Because God is the only one who knows where wisdom is, and thus how to find it, the essential definition of wisdom is that it is the “fear of the Lord.” In fact, this theme that the quest for wisdom has its starting point in the “fear of the Lord” permeates wisdom literature. 3x the book of Proverbs makes statements to the effect that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” In fact, some of the 11 other times the phrase “the fear of the Lord” occurs in Proverbs use that phrase as a synonym of wisdom, so that to have fear for the Lord produces the same effects as searching for wisdom and knowledge.
The underlying assumption in this is that while the search for wisdom involves looking for recurring patterns that help the perceptive learner to find his/her course in life, one can do so because God has structured the world in an orderly way so that those patterns exist, and thus God knows better than anyone else how the world is structured.
In fact, the religious convictions of the wise are so prominent that we often find, in Proverbs, an intermingling of what we might label religious and secular pronouncements – a distinction that would have sounded quite strange to an Israelite. Note, for example, the intermingling in this string of pronouncements in Proverbs 16:7-12: “When the ways of people please the LORD, he causes even their enemies to be at peace with them. Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice. The human mind plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps. Inspired decisions are on the lips of a king; his mouth does not sin in judgment. Honest balances and scales are the LORD’s; all the weights in the bag are his work. It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness.”
That sort of intermingling of explicitly religious and seemingly mundane advice is an indication that the wisdom movement (for lack of a better term) did not see itself as some sort of “secular” movement as opposed to a “religious” movement. Even though wisdom literature places a high premium on human observation, it makes room for God as the only one who really knows wisdom and its source, and whose ways must be followed; indeed, the best wisdom has to offer is simply the discovery of God’s ways. Nevertheless, the notion that humans can quest for knowledge and discover it, rather than it being “revealed” to them, per se, is quite a different starting point for faith than what is assumed by the Torah and the prophets.
With this background in wisdom literature, let’s turn to the way this wisdom tradition is remolded in the Hellenistic period.
Early in the term we explored one of the most prominent Jewish Hellenistic wisdom works, Ben Sirach. At the time, however, I used it to demonstrate how early Greek forms of thought had insinuated themselves into a Judean mind, especially a conservative one like Ben Sirach, who decries assimilation of Judaism to other modes of thought. It’s time that we took at least a brief look at his writing as a product of Hellenistic Jewish wisdom thought.
In Ben Sirach we certainly find the standard fare we expect from wisdom literature, as in this discussion of friendship: ” Pleasant speech multiplies friends, and a gracious tongue multiplies courtesies. Let those who are friendly with you be many, but let your advisers be one in a thousand. When you gain friends, gain them through testing, and do not trust them hastily. For there are friends who are such when it suits them, but they will not stand by you in time of trouble. And there are friends who change into enemies, and tell of the quarrel to your disgrace. And there are friends who sit at your table, but they will not stand by you in time of trouble. When you are prosperous, they become your second self, and lord it over your servants; but if you are brought low, they turn against you, and hide themselves from you.” This is simply advice on how to gain friends and observations about the vicissitudes of friendships.
But whereas in, say, the book of Proverbs such a discussion of friendship might well stand on its own, without some sort of religious validation, Ben Sirach often supplies just that, as in his concluding two lines on this subject: ” Faithful friends are life-saving medicine; and those who fear the Lord will find them. Those who fear the Lord direct their friendship aright, for as they are, so are their neighbors also.” Ben Sirach issues the guarantee that those who “fear the Lord” will find faithful friends and that, moreover, they will correctly nourish their relationships. Much of what Ben Sirach says is laced with a religious tones or offers a motivation having to do with the Lord’s reward.
In fact, quite striking is Sirach’s advice to those desirous of wisdom: ” Stand in the company of the elders. Who is wise? Attach yourself to such a one. Be ready to listen to every godly discourse, and let no wise proverbs escape you. If you see an intelligent person, rise early to visit him; let your foot wear out his doorstep. Reflect on the statutes of the Lord, and meditate at all times on his commandments. It is he who will give insight to your mind, and your desire for wisdom will be granted.” Notice how Sirach slips easily from urging attention to proverbs and wise discourse to meditating on the statutes and commandments of the Lord as the one who will grant insight. The idea that meditation on the precepts of the Torah is a component of being wise is a novel idea that changes the notion of wisdom from what it was throughout the ANE and in the great bulk of Israel’s literature.
And this isn’t an isolated example. Repeatedly Ben Sirach links the pursuit of wisdom with the Torah. E.g. in chapter 10 Sirach has this carefully balanced instruction: “Whose offspring are worthy of honor? Human offspring. Whose offspring are worthy of honor? Those who fear the Lord. Whose offspring are unworthy of honor? Human offspring. Whose offspring are unworthy of honor? Those who break the commandments.” Notice that Ben Sirach first narrows down the human offspring worthy of honor to “those who fear the Lord,” a stock phrase in wisdom literature. However, his specification of which human offspring are unworthy of honor fingers “those who break the commandments,” viz. the commandments of the Torah. By implication, “those who fear the Lord” are those who keep the commandments.
Not surprisingly, then, to Sirach’s mind, the pursuit of wisdom is not simply observation of what works, but obedience to the Torah. Thus in chapter 15, on the heels of urging his readers to seek diligently for wisdom, Sirach writes, “Whoever fears the Lord will do this, and whoever holds to the law will obtain wisdom.” Note his alignment of those who fear the Lord with those who pursue wisdom and, more strikingly, his characterization of keeping the Torah as the means to obtaining wisdom.
Just as striking is 19.20: “The whole of wisdom is fear of the Lord, and in all wisdom there is the fulfillment of the law.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Sirach winds up identifying wisdom with the Torah. Before looking at how he does so, however, let’s recall how Job 28 described wisdom. Above all, only God knows the location of; humans do not. Wisdom, portrayed as an entity separate from God, is something God has well in hand. And when Job 28 talks about human association with wisdom, it is equated with “fear of the Lord,” defined as “departing from evil.”
With this rather chaste description of wisdom as a valuable entity God controls let’s compare Ben Sirach’s statement about wisdom in chapter 24, where he portrays wisdom as a woman extolling herself: I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss. Over waves of the sea, over all the earth, and over every people and nation I have held sway. Among all these I sought a resting place; in whose territory should I abide? Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.’ Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me, and for all ages I shall not cease to be. In the holy tent I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion. Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting place, and in Jerusalem was my domain. I took root in an honored people, in the portion of the Lord, his heritage. . . . Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits. For the memory of me is sweeter than honey, and the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb. Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more. Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame, and those who work with me will not sin.”
Let’s begin by noticing the much loftier language for wisdom than in Job. She describes herself initially as having come “forth from the mouth of the Most High, and cover[ing] the earth like a mist.” Most likely this is an allusion to the statement of Genesis 1.3 that prior to creation, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Also in view is the statement of Genesis 2.6 that before God created humans, “a mist would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground.” Wisdom here identifies herself as that mist that proceeded from the mouth of God, no less. This certainly envisions a more intimate relationship between wisdom and God than did Job 28.
The next claim Wisdom stakes out is that she “dwelt in the highest heavens, and [her] throne was in a pillar of cloud.” Again this is an allusion to a passage in the Torah, this time from the narrative of the escape from Egypt in the book of Exodus, which reports, “The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.” In Sirach 24, Wisdom claims to have had her own throne in that very cloud of God’s presence.
Even more sweeping are the claims she makes for herself in the next two verses: ” Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss. Over waves of the sea, over all the earth, and over every people and nation I have held sway.” Here she leaves off the theme of her association with Israel’s God and speaks of herself as having some sort of independent authority by which she rules over the waves, the sea, and al peoples of the earth.
In spite of her more exalted role than in Job, however, wisdom is under the LORD’s command, and depends on him to assign her a place to dwell. And, of course, that place is Israel, where she came to serve the Lord in his holy tent and, ultimately, Jerusalem itself became her home. So wisdom, the fundamental force that orchestrates order in the world, is assigned Israel for its lodging place. But Ben Sirach gets even more specific about where wisdom dwells. At the conclusion of Wisdom’s soliloquy, Ben Sirach tells us, ” All this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us as an inheritance for the congregations of Jacob.” Wisdom is nothing less than the Torah itself.
By the way, Sirach is not alone in this identification. The book of Baruch, also written in the 2nd century B.C.E., makes a statement about wisdom’s identity in a poem about her that is based on Job 28, as is especially evident in its motif of God locating wisdom: ” This is our God; no other can be compared to him. He found the whole way to knowledge, and gave her to his servant Jacob and to Israel, whom he loved. Afterward she appeared on earth and lived with humankind. She is the book of the commandments of God, the law that endures forever. All who hold her fast will live, and those who forsake her will die.” Again, this is a poem about wisdom, rather than wisdom extolling herself, as in Ben Sirach 24, and she lacks the sort of regal role she claims for herself in Ben Sirach. And yet, this evidences an equation of wisdom to the Torah similar to what we have seen in Ben Sirach.
So with Ben Sirach, then, we see wisdom literature used as a vehicle to dispense advice about the most profitable way to live. And yet, this commonplace theme of the wisdom tradition is given a much more pronounced religious spin by the author’s frequent association of wisdom with obedience to the Torah’s commands and by the equation of wisdom with the Torah itself.
One other thing noteworthy about the grandiose role wisdom stakes out for herself in Ben Sirach 24, with her talk of ruling over the world and its peoples, is how similar these epithets are to language used of the Hellenistic mother goddess, Isis, in poems in which she, similarly, sings her own praise. Here is one such aretology (or doxology), found in Asia Minor: “I am Isis the ruler of every land. I was brought up by Hermes, and with Hermes I invented writing, hieroglyphic and common, so that everything need not be written in the same way. I established laws for mankind and set up ordinances which no one can transgress. . . . I separated earth from heaven. I showed the stars their path. I established the track of the sun and the moon. I discovered the works of the sea. I made justice strong. . . . I am the mistress of rivers, of winds, of the sea. No one wins glory without my consent. I am the ruler of warfare. I am the mistress of the lightning. I calm and arouse the sea. I am present in the beams of the sun, and I stand in the paths of the sun. Whatsoever I wish must come to pass, to me must everything give way.” Like wisdom in Ben Sirach 24, Isis claims to be ruler over the world, establishing laws for humankind, as well as being “mistress of rivers, of winds, and of the sea.” In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Ben Sirach’s poem of wisdom praising herself is modeled after such Isis aretologies, so that wisdom becomes the Jewish counterpart to the overwhelmingly popular mother goddess of the Hellenistic world, Isis.
This attempt to provide a counterpart to Isis for adherents to Judaism becomes even more evident in the other piece of Jewish Hellenistic wisdom literature I want us to survey, the Wisdom of Solomon. As Nickelsburg reports, this work was likely composed in Egypt during the middle decades of the first century C.E.
Chapter 7 of this work contains a lengthy statement, ostensibly by king Solomon, extolling wisdom. After summarizing her inestimable value and recounting the aid she has given him, “Solomon” waxes eloquent on wisdom’s attributes: ” I learned both what is secret and what is manifest, for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me. There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail. She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.
Here wisdom’s pedigree has become even more lofty than in Ben Sirach, including highly philosophical designations of her as “manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible.” And while the author does not equate her with the Torah, as does Ben Sirach, he ascribes her an even more distinctive role in relationship to deity by saying that she is “a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty” and “a reflection of eternal light.” In effect, she has become a stand-in for God. If in Ben Sirach the Torah is the incarnation of wisdom, in Wisdom of Solomon the image of wisdom is tantamount to an incarnation of God himself.
Let’s compare to this another Isis aretology, this one from the 2nd century C.E., penned by the Roman satirist Apuleius, who has Isis address the protagonist of his novel, Metamorphoses, in these words: “I am with you, Lucius, I who am the mother of the universe, the mistress of all the elements, the first offspring of time, the highest of deities, the queen of the dead, foremost of heavenly beings, the single form that fuses all gods and goddesses; I who order by my will the starry heights of heaven, the health-giving breezes of the sea, and the awful silences of those in the underworld: my single godhead is adored by the whole world in varied forms, in differing rites and with many diverse names.” Even though these are not precisely the words used by Wisdom of Solomon, the two descriptions of these female beings share a similar ethereal quality, suggesting that the description “Solomon” gives of wisdom is intended as a counterpart to the goddess Isis.
As I’ve already noted, nowhere does Wisdom of Solomon identify the figure of wisdom with the Torah in the way Ben Sirach does. And, accordingly, it assigns her a strikingly different function than does Ben Sirach. As you’ll recall, Ben Sirach closely links pursuit of wisdom with pursuit of the Torah’s commandments, so that “The whole of wisdom is fear of the Lord, and in all wisdom there is the fulfillment of the law.” Pursuit of wisdom is effectively direct pursuit of the Torah.
Wisdom of Solomon, on the other hand, links pursuit of wisdom with the attainment of character traits widely revered in the Hellenistic world: “And if anyone loves righteousness, her (viz. Wisdom’s) labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for mortals than these.”
“Self-control and prudence, justice and courage” are the four cardinal virtues commonly lauded in Hellenistic circles, above all in Stoic and Platonic philosophical circles. So the upshot of the pursuit of wisdom, for Wisdom of Solomon, is not conformity to the commands of the Torah, per se, but to the ideal virtues of the Hellenistic world.
Wisdom’s gifts go beyond achievement of the cardinal virtues, however. “Solomon” makes a point of asserting that following wisdom bestows immortality: ” The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her, and love of her is the keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality.” Again, in chapter 8, Solomon exclaims, “Because of her I shall have immortality, and leave an everlasting remembrance to those who come after me.” While a common motif of wisdom literature is that following wisdom leads one into the paths of life, the type of life she bestows is simply long earthly existence. E.g. here’s what Proverbs 3 advises: ” Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.” Wisdom bestows life on those who follow her, but it is very much a this-worldly sort of life. For Wisdom of Solomon, on the other hand, wisdom bestows immortality, which is a supremely Greek concept.
In fact, the author goes so far as to forecast for the righteous this sort of future: ” But the righteous live forever, and their reward is with the Lord; the Most High takes care of them, therefore they will receive a glorious crown and a beautiful diadem from the hand of the Lord, because with his right hand he will cover them, and with his arm he will shield them.”
By contrast, of course, the fate of the wicked will be the opposite: “After this they will become dishonored corpses, and an outrage among the dead forever; because he will dash them speechless to the ground, and shake them from the foundations; they will be left utterly dry and barren, and they will suffer anguish, and the memory of them will perish.”
Just as the deeds of the righteous are connected with the cardinal virtues rather than specifically to the commandments of the Torah, the wrongdoings of the wicked are also characterized in largely Greek categories, especially as “flawed reason.” E.g. here is how the initial verses of chapter 2 characterize the behavior of the wicked: ” For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, “Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end, and no one has been known to return from Hades.… Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth. Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass us by. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither. Let none of us fail to share in our revelry; everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot. Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow or regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.” Impious behavior includes reveling but, more specifically, oppressing the “righteous poor man.” Notice that this misbehavior all takes root not in disobedience to a divine law, but in “reasoning unsoundly.”
Indeed, at the conclusion of this chapter, after detailing the misguided behavior of the wicked, the author comments, ” Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hoped for the wages of holiness, nor discerned the prize for blameless souls; for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it. But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.”
Notice that the fault of the wicked is attributed not only to misguided reasoning, but also to lack of knowledge of God’s “secret purposes.” Accordingly, “in the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died.” The assumption that they actually died is based on lack of correct information about God’s purposes, especially the fact that, in the author’s words, “God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity.” The Greek word translated “the foolish” means “those without sense.” Their problem is that allegiance with the devil, and thus their own wickedness, has blinded them from what should have been apparent to them. (Recall the Testament of Job.)
Thus, the author concludes, a few verses later, ” But the ungodly will be punished as their reasoning deserves, those who disregarded the righteous and rebelled against the Lord; for those who despise wisdom and instruction are miserable.” In earlier wisdom literature, “wisdom and instruction” are simply what has been observed about the world. In this case, however, the “wisdom and instruction” despised has very specific content, a divinely mandated behavior – not simply behavior that promotes success and enjoyment.
We’ve already noted that the author characterizes the instruction given by wisdom as producing the four cardinal virtues highly esteemed in Hellenistic society. And yet, the kind of knowledge constituting wisdom and how one gains it is specified in greater detail. Towards the end of chapter 8, “Solomon” boasts, ” As a child I was naturally gifted, and a good soul fell to my lot; or rather, being good, I entered an undefiled body.” That, of course, is a very Platonic notion: as a pre-existent soul he entered an undefiled body, meaning that he had an optimum circumstance. In spite of that, he confesses, “I perceived that I would not possess wisdom unless God gave her to me – and it was a mark of insight to know whose gift she was – so I appealed to the Lord” Of course, this is in line with the story of Solomon, who makes a special request to be given wisdom to govern the LORD’s people.
In the course of that prayer (as reported in the Wisdom of Solomon), “Solomon” makes the following and intriguing statement about wisdom: ” With you is wisdom, she who knows your works and was present when you made the world; she understands what is pleasing in your sight and what is right according to your commandments.” Wisdom, which comes only from God, knows what is “right according to your commandments.” Even though this author does not equate wisdom with the Torah, as we saw Ben Sirach do, he does ground wisdom’s ability to instruct one in what is pleasing to God in her knowledge of the Torah’s commandments.
The fact that the author can speak both of wisdom inculcating the four cardinal virtues and leading one into right behavior according to the Torah’s commandments shouldn’t be that surprising. You’ll recall that both Aristobulous and Aristeas argued that the greatest Greek philosophers acquired their best material from the Torah. Moreover, Aristeas portrayed the sages who were to translate the Torah as upholding the four cardinal virtues as principles their religion held dear. So the parallel statements that wisdom knows the commandments and inculcates the four cardinal virtues is a natural one, especially in literature composed in Alexandria.
“Solomon” then continues his request: Send her forth from the holy heavens, and from the throne of your glory send her, that she may labor at my side, and that I may learn what is pleasing to you.” So wisdom is the only means of knowing what God requires, for she alone is conversant in that. In fact, just a few verses later the author affirms that without her, humans are clueless about what God requires: ” For who can learn the counsel of God? Or who can discern what the Lord wills? For the reasoning of mortals is worthless, and our designs are likely to fail; for a perishable body weighs down the soul [a very Greek concept, by the way], and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind. We can hardly guess at what is on earth, and what is at hand we find with labor; but who has traced out what is in the heavens? Who has learned your counsel, unless you have given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus the paths of those on earth were set right, and people were taught what pleases you, and were saved by wisdom.” Notice, by the way, the equation between wisdom and “the holy spirit,” a notion that comes to prominence during the Hellenistic era.
If, however, only wisdom’s knowledge can “save” one, i.e. can instruct one in how to live in a way that pleases God, how can the wicked be faulted for reasoning incorrectly? Isn’t that simply what humans do, when left to their own devices? The author responds by talking about God’s mercy, by which he brings troubles on the wicked to turn them back to the right path: ” You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living. For your immortal spirit is in all things. Therefore you correct little by little those who trespass, and you remind and warn them of the things through which they sin, so that they may be freed from wickedness and put their trust in you, O Lord.” Even if wisdom dwells only in those open to her, God has not left humankind in doubt of what is right.
Moreover, the author speaks of wisdom having been available to all, from Adam on. It was those who rejected wisdom that were ultimately rejected by God. And thus, even when God brought warning judgments upon them, they refused to take heed, but turned away in ignorance. That, in fact, is the author’s explanation of the source of idolatry: ” For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists, nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works; but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world.” If you’re familiar with Paul’s letter to the Romans in the NT, you’ll recognize the argument here as the same one Paul uses in chapter 1: people willfully ignored the evidence available to them and wound up worshipping elements of creation as god.
So the shape of wisdom in the Wisdom of Solomon is similar to that in Ben Sirach, not only in that wisdom is given a somewhat independent and august status, but also in that wisdom is understood to be something of the structural principle of the world. While Ben Sirach specifically identifies wisdom with the Torah – a step Wisdom of Solomon does not take – both see wisdom as having to do with what God requires of the world and its people rather than simply what serves one best in life, as was the bent of earlier Israelite wisdom. The Wisdom of Solomon, however, places this notion on a more generic, Hellenistic plane than Ben Sirach, insofar as following wisdom is characterized as right reasoning, leads to the production of the four cardinal virtues, and results in eternal life, after one leaves behind bodily existence that weighs down the mind and obscures reality. Thus, it is much more explicitly Hellenistic in tone and thought than Ben Sirach.
By Dr. Ronald L. Troxel