Elitist Wisdom Literature

Source: M. Gilbert, “Wisdom Literature,” Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 283.

“Solomon played a still more important part in the development of wisdom in Israel. As organizer of the new state, he had to have capable administrators around him, and it is possible that schools or academies were set up for this purpose, to train the flower of the youth adequately, since they were called to take on responsibilities in the city or state.”

I’m not sure what biblical scholars say about the authorship of Proverbs, but M. Gilbert treats wisdom literature as an elitist exercise. And I’ve heard this from other sources as well. For example, Proverbs and Ben Sira say that people shouldn’t provide surety for someone else’s debt, since the indebted one may not be able to pay his debtor back. A TA at Harvard said such a perspective reflects the elitist, conservative worldview of wisdom literature. And it wasn’t always too generous (though it does have a lot supporting almsgiving)!

I think an elitist mileau may play a role in how wisdom literature addresses evil. Proverbs assumes that the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded. And Ecclesiastes seems to think it strange that life has problems and unfairness, when that would be pretty obvious to your average Israelite.

At the same time, Ben Sira writes as someone who sees social mobility: the poor can easily become rich, and the rich can easily become poor. For him, it all depends on God’s favor to a person. Would Ben Sira write this, if he could take his comfortable position for granted? And Ben Sira also prays for deliverance from his enemies. How comfortable was he, socially speaking?

I’m not sure what role wisdom literature played when Ben Sira wrote. At that time, Israel did not have a monarchy, and I assume she was ruled by a foreign power, since the Hasmoneans had not yet declared Israel’s independence. But maybe he was still part of an elite that trained people for power, for some Judeans had to run the show, even though ultimate power laid overseas.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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