Quick Review of three Books of the Old Testament

History 015A: Literary and Historical Study of the Old Testament
Profs. Buck and Luotto
Copyright © 1993, 2000 B. Collie Collier
This was written for an examination hacksheet, which accounts for its choppiness. However, since I got a pleased commendation on the examination as to the lucidity of my commentary, I decided to include this. I highly recommend reading all three of these books -- they're all lovely poetry, and the Book of Ecclesiastes in particular is mesmerising when read aloud. Enjoy! ;-)

Three examples of the wisdom literature of the Jews can be seen in the Books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. These books range widely, both in literary skill, human insight, and theological sophistication. All three of these books develop very different themes, yet they are all concerned with one common, over-arching problem. This problem faces anyone who is trying to decide how to live their life: how does one live morally?

This common theme is why they are all classified as wisdom literature. In Job, the question of why bad things happen to good people is explored. In Proverbs, there is simply straightforward advice on how to live. And in Ecclesiastes, the question of why one should bother to strive is addressed. Yet in all three of these books, the overriding question remains: how does one keep faith with god amidst the trials of life? How does one live a good life?

Proverbs is the distillation of centuries of accumulated "wisdom", and includes non-Judaic traditions, such as Egyptian. It is believed most likely to be pre-exilic, and often is surprisingly secular. It simply ignores major religious themes, such as the covenant, or Exodus. In spite of that very secularity, however, there is a strong Deuteronomic theme: good will be rewarded (according to Proverbs) and evil will be punished. Proverbs represents the results of a search for a divinely sustained cosmic order in the lessons derived from human experience. It was included in the bible for one simple reason. Since insight is deemed a gift of god, Proverbs was thought of as revealed wisdom, and thus became Scriptures. Its writing style, while polished, is a simple collection of straightforward literary parallelism. There are examples of all three kinds, but the two most common are "synonymous" and "antithetical." The comparisons of "Wisdom" and "Folly", for example, are antithetical. However, when they are being individually described, the parallelism is synonymous.

Job, on the other hand, is no-where as optimistic as Proverbs. True, it does end with a very Deuteronomic, happy-ever-after feel, but there is strong evidence that the ending was tacked on later to make the Book more acceptable. It seems almost blasphemous in places: ascribing a sort of forgetfulness of consequence to god; having the speakers who put forth the Deuteronomic viewpoint (all three of whom are considered 'good' men) be both wrong and berated by god; and having Job wish that he could get god in court are some good examples. This questioning of god and his ineffable plans was very radical for the times. To believe that god just might not care if you were suffering, regardless of your virtue, leads one to the brink of theological confusion and secular misery. Why bother, if it all doesn't matter? True, there is lip service paid to the fact that none can understand god, but the fact remains that Job is not happy about the situation in which he finds himself -- and so he questions god. It is noteworthy that god never answers his questions, but rather cows him into silence. It is this very reaction which probably saves Job -- he decides god is greater than he can possibly understand. It is this conclusion which is the only answer he gets to all his (admittedly rather justifiable) questions. The book is, on the whole, a beautiful piece of poetry. The beginning and ending, ascribed to both a later date and a more religiously conservative person, are simple prose. However, the poetry of the inner story, at least to me, has a beauty of expression which transcends both the sadness and fruitlessness of questioning an apparently uninterested deity.

Ecclesiastes must be the most radical and unorthodox book of wisdom literature in the bible. No where else can one find such a philosophy of depression and despair. The author describes receiving all the rewards one should get for an upright life, and comes to the conclusion that it just doesn't matter -- like the evil and the foolish, he will still die, and all that he has accomplished will be forgotten. This is taking the Book of Job one step further. Job, at least, had a reason within his life to despair -- he was blameless and still being harmed. The author of Ecclesiastes has received all the Deuteronomically promised rewards of virtue. However, he has gone one theological step further. He knows he cannot take his rewards with him, that he will go into oblivion. He realizes that it will all come to nothing in the end, for him as for everyone. It is interesting to note that, while the author feels that it is ultimately all futile, he still feels the need to try to live an upright life. He may not believe wisdom is worth anything, but he still puts it forth as a goal. It is also worth noting that Ecclesiastes too has received editing to make it more palatable, religiously speaking. There is the odd touch of Deuteronomic attitude. These additions are referred to as the 'glosses'. The overall literary style of the book is prose. It is not as beautiful as the poetry of Job, but it certainly makes more awe-inspiring reading aloud. Since the Torah was supposed to be read aloud to the people, this is a factor which should be duly noted. Read aloud, Job questions; Ecclesiastes exhorts.


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