Wisdom Literature

Wisdom literature is a genre of literature common in the Ancient Near East. This genre is characterized by sayings of wisdom intended to teach about divinity and about virtue. The key principle of wisdom literature is that while techniques of traditional story-telling are used, books also presume to offer insight and wisdom about nature and reality.

The most famous examples of wisdom literature are found in the Bible.[1] The following Biblical books are classified as wisdom literature:

  • Book of Job [2]
  • Psalms[3]
  • Proverbs[2]
  • Ecclesiastes[2]
  • Song of Songs [3]
  • Wisdom (also known as Wisdom of Solomon) [2]
  • Sirach (also known as Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus) [2]

(Wisdom and Sirach are deuterocanonical books, placed in the Apocrypha by Protestant Bible translations.) [4] The genre of mirror-of-princes writings, which has a long history in Islamic and Western Renaissance literature, represents a secular cognate of biblical wisdom literature. Within Classical Antiquity, the advice poetry of Hesiod, particularly his Works and Days has been seen as a like-genre to Near Eastern wisdom literature.

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Ancient Egyptian literature

In Ancient Egyptian literature, wisdom literature belonged to the sebayt (i.e. ‘teaching’) genre which flowered during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt and became canonical during the New Kingdom. Notable works of this genre include the Instructions of Kagemni, The Maxims of Ptahhotep, the Instructions of Amenemhat, and the Loyalist Teaching.

Biblical wisdom literature

Wisdom literature includes several books of the Old Testament, including two books of the Deuterocanon (Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach) that are classified as Apocryphal writings by Protestants but canonical by Catholics and Orthodox. The philosophy apparent in these texts combines a more semitic emphasis on practical wisdom with a Hellenic/Platonic concept of transcendent wisdom. The Hebrew wisdom evident in these works is a departure from early Hebraic texts that tell of the decrees of God through prophets and kings to acknowledgment of the plethora of human emotions in daily life and recommendations on how humans can maintain a relationship with God.

While connections of good behavior and good individuals maintain a special relationship to God, wisdom books introduce opportunities in Lamentations, Psalms, and other books to use one’s faith to express displeasure, pain, fear, and dispassion to God in productive ways. Rather than mere discouragement of such emotions, wisdom texts particularly seek to rationalize these human reactions to life and emphasize that they are not excuses to avoid contact with God, but just like joy are to be expressed and lived with.

The extant writings of the Jewish sages are contained in the books of Job, Proverbs, Psalms, Ben-Sira, Tobit, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, 4th Maccabees, to which may be added the first chapter of Pirke Aboth (a Talmudic tract giving, probably, pre-Christian material). Of these Job, Psalms 49, 73, 92 . 6-8 (5-7), Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, are discussions of the moral government of the world; Proverbs, Psalms 37, 119, Ben-Sira, Tobit 4, 12: 7-11, Pirke, are manuals of conduct, and 4th Maccabees treats of the autonomy of reason in the moral life; Psalms 8, 29:3-10, 90: 1-12, 107:17-32, 131, 144: 3f., 147: 8f.) are reflections on man and physical nature (cf. the Yahweh addresses in Job, and Ecclus. 42-3). Sceptical views are expressed in Job, Proverbs 30: 2-4 (Agur), and Ecclesiastes; the rest take the then orthodox positions on faith.

Though the intellectual world of the sages is different from that of the prophetic and legal Hebraism, they do not break with the fundamental Jewish theistic and ethical creeds. Their monotheism remains Semitic–even in their conception of the cosmogonic and illuminating function of Wisdom. The material consistently regards God as standing outside the world of physical nature and man. Nor does man grasp or accept the idea or the identity of the human and the divine, there is thus a sharp distinction between this general theistic position and that of Greek philosophy. The wisdom books do maintain the old high standard of Hebraic morals, and in some instances go beyond it, as in the injunctions to be kind to enemies (Proverbs 25:21 f.) and to do to no man what is hateful to one’s self (Tobit 4:15).

Like the prophetical writings before Ezekiel, the wisdom books, while they recognize the sacrificial ritual as an existing custom, attach less importance to it as an element of religious life (the fullest mention of it is in Ecclus. 35 Phoenix-squares 4 if., I); the difference between prophets and sages is that the former do not regard the ritual as of divine appointment (Jeremiah 7:22) and oppose it as non-moral, while the latter, probably accepting the law as divine, by laying stress on the universal side of religion, it deemphasizes the local and mechanical side. The interest of the material is in the ethical training of the individual, which is pleasing to God, on earth. Nationalistic overtones, state, or even governmental recommendations are not emphasized in favor of instructing the average man and woman.

Though the wisdom writers regard the miracles of the ancient times (referred to particularly in Wisdom 16-19) as historical facts, they say nothing about a miraculous element in the lives of their own time. Angels occur only in Job and Tobit, and therein noteworthy characters: in Job they are beings whom God charges with folly (4: 18), or they are mediators between God and man (5:1, 33:23), and are consequently more humanized. This is to be contrasted with the angels appearing in Genesis and other earlier canonical works. In the prologue, the figure of Satan accounts for Job’s calamities; in Tobit the “affable” angel Raphael is a clever man of the world. Except in Wisdom 2:24 (where the serpent of Genesis 3 is called ” Diabolos “), there is mention of one demon only (Asmodeus, in Tobit 3:8, 17), and that a Persian figure. Job alone introduces the Leviathan (3:8, 7:12, 9:13, 26:12) that occurs in late prophetical writings (Amos 9:3; Isaiah 27)

Woman Wisdom

There are instances in the book of Proverbs where Wisdom is personified as a female. Female imagery begins the book of Proverbs in Chapters 1-9 and also ends the book in chapter 31. In Proverbs 9:1-6 she is depicted as a figure with a home inviting those in need of wisdom to enter.[5] She says “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” [6] In Proverbs 8:15-21, she not only identifies herself as the divine companion, but also as the source of order in society and success in life.[5] In chapter 31:10 she is personified as the ideal woman for an Israelite man in a section titled Ode to a Capable Wife.[7] There is debate about the status and place of Woman Wisdom in relation to the divine. Some have interpreted her as a companion to the divine, an abstraction, an extension to the divine, or a Goddess. Further information about the nature of Wisdom is found in Proverbs 8:22-30. In these verses “wisdom speaks of herself as having been created before anything else and as Yahweh’s companion and even assistant at the creation of the ordered world.” [5] It has also been argued that personifying Wisdom as a woman adds a mythical nature to proverbs. This would line up with the ancient Near Eastern view that every male deity had a female counterpart.

It may be easier to understand the personification of wisdom as a woman if she is placed in comparison to the other female mentioned in Proverbs 7. In contrast to Woman Wisdom, she is portrayed as a prostitute, adulteress, and a woman with much seductive speech. She is given the designation of being a “foreign” or “strange” woman. The victim she claims are among the simple ones, young men without sense. The young man of Proverbs 6:7 is repeatedly warned to avoid such a woman. Michael Coogan suggests that “aside from being good advice, this may reflect the biblical insistence on marriage within the community.” Furthermore, interspersed in the passages are admonitions for the young man “to rather seek after Woman Wisdom instead.” In this way, the “foreign woman is a counterpart to Wisdom and can be interpreted symbolically as her alternate designation, “foolish woman” found in Proverbs 9.13-14.” The Woman Wisdom becomes that which one comes home to and the Strange Woman that which you run from.[8] An important distinction in this context is the “foreign or strange woman” is a non-Israelite woman such that during this period of history there is a “biblical insistence on marriage within the community”.[9]

Additional Biblical References to Woman Wisdom

  • Proverbs 1-9
  • Job 28
  • Wisdom of Solomon 7-9 (Apocrypha)
  • Sirach 24

Contrast with Greek thought

Hebraic wisdom literature downplays the philosophical discussion on the basis of the moral life that was common in the Greek world at that time. The standard of good and the reason for good conduct is existing law, custom, and individual eudaemonistics in the Hebrew wisdom literature. This is in contrast to social philosophies co-developing in Greece that encourage good behavior for the health of the state, families, or from fear of reprisal. While the wisdom books, particularly Ecclesiastes, note that punishment may follow from poor choices, it is because the laws of goodness and rightness are God’s and are ordained good by God that they should be followed. Wisdom is represented as the result of human reflection, and thus as the guide in all the affairs of life but predetermination of good remains God’s prerogative (in Wisd. of Sol. and in parts of Prov. and Ecclus., but not in Eccles.). The wisdom texts emphasize human powers as bestowed directly by God; it is identified with the fear of God (Job 28:28; Prov. 1:7; Ecclus. 15:I ff.), an extension of which is obedience to the Jewish law (Ecclus. 24:23).


  1. Crenshaw, James L. “The Wisdom Literature”, in Knight, Douglas A. and Tucker, Gene M. (eds), The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters (1985).
  2. Comay, Joan; Ronald Brownrigg (1993) (in English). Who’s Who in the Bible:The Old Testament and the Apocrypha, The New Testament. New York: Wing Books. pp. Old Testament, 355. ISBN 0-517-32170-X.
  3. ‘The Wisdom Books’. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, New American Bible. Washington DC: 2002. http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/wisdom.htm
  4. Comay, Joan; Ronald Brownrigg (1993) (in English). Who’s Who in the Bible:The Old Testament and the Apocrypha, The New Testament. New York: Wing Books. pp. Old Testament, 355-356. ISBN 0-517-32170-X.
  5. Michael D. Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament (New York: Oxford, 2009), 377.
  6. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (New York: Oxford, 2007) NRSV
  7. The Harper Collins Study Bible:New Revised Standard Version (San Francisco, Calif.:HarperSanFrancisco, 2006) NRSV
  8. Michael D. Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament (New York: Oxford, 2009), 370.
  9. Michael D. Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament (New York: Oxford, 2009), 377

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