The "Wisdom Books" of the Bible include: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, and Sirach. (Note: some branches of Protestantism removed the latter two [among other books] during the Reformation; they were part of the Bible since before Christ and confirmed at Council of Hippo in 390 A.D.).
Despite the occasional claim otherwise, Solomon was not the author of the Wisdom literature. While he no doubt has a great reputation for wisdom, the timing is completely impossible for him to be the author. In addition, much of the material- in theme if not exact words- is part of a larger tradition of wisdom literature. The Catholic Study Bible notes: "Israel's wisdom tradition did not develop in a vacuum. It was part of a much boarder movements within the ancient Near East world...There is a remarkable similarity between the biblical wisdom material and some Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Canaanite texts...Despite these similarities, Israel's wisdom tradition is clearly in accord with its Yahwistic faith" (RG 232).
Now knowing what the Wisdom books are and the basics of the origins surrounding them, we come to the question of: Why read them?
To gain an understanding of life. To learn what practices develop good character. To study instruction on the proper ways of living. And finally: to see what mistakes we humans tend to.
"Although the wise women and men believed that there was a right way of behaving, they did not insist on a rigid standard that would fit every circumstance. Each case the different. The wise person was the one who had a store of wisdom gained from experience and who knew which way of the behaving was appropriate to each situation" (Catholic Study Bible, RG 232).
"Experiential wisdom is human response to environment, an attempt to understand and cope with it. Successful insights are captured in pithy saying...Compared to the commandments of the Torah, their teaching deals with the grey area of life which has to do with formation of character" (The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p.448)
Finally, one should consider the "how" of reading the Wisdom books. The how may seem obvious (open the book and read), but isn't. Many Christians are unfamiliar with the genre of wisdom literature and believe you can pick one verse out and that it will always stand alone and be correct. This method of reading the wisdom books has led to people not gaining wisdom, but rather confusion and/or negative ways of living. The various sections of Wisdom literature must be read in context of the verses around them. And with an understanding of various types of literature (parable, couplet designed to follow parallelism, etc.) Much of Job most definitely needs to be read in context; some of Job's "friends" various rebuttals along with Job's comments are outrageous if reading only a single verse and not understanding the larger story.
Another example is Proverbs 31 (right/ideal conduct of women/wives), which is often taken out of context or without an understanding of the genre. While much of it is good advice or something to strive for, understanding what the examples are for is also important. An example of picking a single verse out of context? Not many of us still do the following: "She seeks out wool and flax and weaves with skillful hands." Is a women failing if she doesn't fulfill 31:13 then? No.
Another author summed up the problem with Proverbs 31 perfectly: "Because trying to mold your personality and life by one proverb of the Bible causes you to miss the whole point of the rest of it – your value isn’t in your works, but in Christ." Please see Emily Timbol's article at: http://www.emilytimbol.com/2014/03/the-20-most-misunderstood-verses-in-the-bible/ for a further explanation.
For a further, exhaustive study of Wisdom literature, it's extents, characteristics, origins, settings, forms, theological aspects, etc., I would suggest The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 447-452.
Jennifer Becker Landsberger
Who am I? Freelance writer (magazines, websites, & copywriting), Catholic, military wife, and Mensan. Double Bachelor's in History & Psychology.
Witnessing by charity and love are above all. Studying the Bible and beyond helps me on this quest. Feel free to join my walk into the Bible.
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~~~Prayer before Writing-
Oh creator of the universe, who has set the stars in the heavens and causes the sun to rise and set, shed the light of your wisdom into the darkness of my mind. Fill my thoughts with a loving knowledge of you, that I may bring you like to others. Just as you can make even babies speak your truth, instruct my tongue and guide my pen to convey the wonderful glory of the Gospel. Make my intellect sharp, my memory clear, and my words eloquent, so that I may faithfully interpret the mysteries what you have revealed.
To my readers & fellow writers,
1. I will pray that God's grace helps illuminate all of our interactions- both those of simple reading and more active conversations.
2. I will communicate with you respectfully and civilly. These are (rightly) issues which we feel passionate about. But even in disagreements, I will respect you fellow "seekers of truth."
3. I will not fall into negative behavior or words, such as insinuations, exaggerations, blames, or personal attacks. I respectfully ask you to do the same.
4. I will pray we will all find the truth and strive to fulfill the two greatest commandments: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:30-31)
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Sites I Recommend
Biblical Evidence for Catholicism by Dave Armstrong