What “The Wisdom of Solomon” teaches

 

Most people do not realize that along with other kinds of ancient books that were felt to be religious, some of which were included in the canonized Hebrew Bible, there were books known as “wisdom literature.” Three biblical books are recognized as wisdom literature: Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Job. Two other early books that were not included in the Jewish canon, the Tenakh, are The Wisdom of Ben Sira and The Wisdom of Solomon.

The Wisdom of Solomon was a book written in Greek by a learned Hellenized Jew of Alexandria, Egypt. David Winston, offers us an excellent translation of The Wisdom of Solomon, in the Anchor Bible series of Bible commentaries. It contains a comprehensive 93-page introduction, a smaller introduction before each section of the book’s nineteen chapters, extensive clarifying notes on each section of the chapters, and 27 pages of several indexes. He pinpoints the date of the book’s composition as being during the reign of the Roman ruler Caligula, 37-41 CE. This was around the time of the famous Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, also of Alexandria, whose many works were not wisdom literature, but interpretations of the Bible in accordance with mystical Middle Platonism.

The book strongly urges its readers to engage in wisdom. It is composed in three parts: (1) Stating that wisdom’s gift is immortality. (2) The nature of wisdom and Solomon’s search for her (wisdom is seen as feminine). (3) A comparison between the Israelites in Egyptian slavery who were engaged in wisdom and the Egyptians. Much of what is in this book is not in the Bible.

In the first part, among much else, the author expresses his view that humans will have immorality, but can lose it by abandoning wisdom. He says that the suffering that just people experience on earth is just a brief trial in the immortal destiny of righteous souls which will bring them peace and future glorification after death. In the second part, he describes Solomon recognizing that humans are unable to gain wisdom by their own efforts and that he could not gain wisdom unless God graciously bestowed her on him. The author continues by giving examples of how wisdom saved people in history from Adam though the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt. In the third part, he argues that Israel benefited by acts similar to the plagues by which Egypt was punished. For example, the Nile water turned to blood, but Israel obtained water from a desert rock. In this third part, in 11:17, the Wisdom author, like Aristotle in his Physics, Plato in Timaeus, and Philo in Spec. 1.328-329, and possibly Maimonides in his Guide 2:13, contends, contrary to the current view of most Jews, that God did not create the world out of nothing, but “out of formless matter.”

The author of this book did not invent the female figure wisdom. She appears in Proverbs and 1:20ff and 8:22ff, and Job 28:12ff. In Proverb 8:30 God is said to have created her at the beginning of creation.

A basic question is: should we take the statements about wisdom literally, that she is a being separate from God. This, as the contention that the Shekhinah, a being that is not mentioned in the Bible, is a separate being that is held by many Jews, is problematical. It assumes a divine being other than God, and seems to be a polytheistic notion. Winston tells us that the term “wisdom” is a “hypostasis,” meaning one of the aspects of God, one of the ways we describe how God interacts with humans, that God granted humans wisdom. I think this is correct. But I would add that at times the term denotes the wisdom of the laws of nature that God created. This why Proverbs 8 (and Ben Sira 1:4 and 24:9) states that wisdom was created at the beginning of creation, meaning the laws of nature were placed in the world from the very beginning. Humans can only be successful if they understand the laws of nature, how the world functions, and act according to this wisdom; not by prayer.

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