Does Job Contradict Wisdom Literature?

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The challenge of the wisdom writings is that they seemingly express doubts about the validity of the affirmations of the other wisom literatre within the bible. However this is the exact theological purpose of the material, they acknowledge the presence of doubts we cannot dismiss as well as questions we cannot necessarily answer.

The Hebrew Bible contains three books known collectively as the Wisdom Literature, Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom Literature features vastly different themes than those characteristic of the Deuteronomistic writers and the prophets. There is no reference to the covenant, the promises to the ancestors of Israel or of the promised Kingdom of David. Instead these books pertain to normal daily life in order to instruct how to live well and discern the acts of God. They rely on “general revelation” to do this, knowledge that can be perceived about God by observing the world he created and ordered (Tate, Ballard and Tucker, 2000). The book of Job is a theodicy, it seeks to answer the question of why God permits evil to exist or why bad things happen to good people. It has no clear historical background but takes place in Uz, a land far away from Israel. This setting is intentional as the author requires our attention to be directed at the questions raised by Job’s suffering. The previously referenced absence of allusion to the Israelites means there is a lack of scholarly consensus on the dating of the wisdom writings. However thematic and textual consistencies indicate that Job took inspiration from both a Mesopotamian poem called Ludlul bel nemeqi (c1700 BCE) and an earlier Sumerian work “Man and his God” (2000 BCE).

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The Book of Job has been branded a “fireball which destroys the neat arrangement devised by some adherents to the religion of Israel to reject painful questions” (Duquoc and Floristan, 1983,7). I personally consider this view to be a theological misconception. An outright theological attack on traditional wisdom would seem uncharacteristic of someone God himself describes as “my servant Job” a man who there is “no one on earth like” (1:8). This essay will seek to demonstrate that not only does Job not contradict Proverbs and Ecclesiastes but that the three must be considered in coalition with each other. When read together they offer a sophisticated account of human experience which imparts on the reader the collective wisdom of Gods people.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the view that Job is critical or contradictory of traditional wisdom literature is because of his seeming dismissal of it (Job 26:3). However, his sarcastic response to his “miserable comforters” (16:2) in 12:1 does not reflect his actual perspective on wisdom but rather his indignance because he knows himself to be a righteous man. We the reader also recognize this quality in him as the prologue describes him as “blameless and upright”, a man who “feared God and shunned evil” (1:1). Therefore, I propose that Job does not seek to contradict Proverbs and Ecclesiastes but acts instead as wisdom in tension with these other books. Wisdom is not always universal and advice which would prove excellent in certain situations is not suitable to other scenarios. We are all familiar with the adage “slow and steady wins the race” and understand its underlying message. However, while a worthy sentiment it would be useless to a sprinter prior to competing in the 100-meter final at the Olympics. This oversimplified example illustrates that Job is not contradictory but is hugely contextual, its message is most useful to those who are suffering. Penchansky regards the book as “a profound and complex attempt by the Israelites to address the problem of undeserved evil” (2012,35). Proverbs seems to exhibit contradictory statements about gambling (13:11, 16:33), alcohol (20:1, 31:6) and poignantly regarding the consideration of Job the issue of whether good people suffer (12:21,19:23). Yet rarely is Proverbs challenged for such inconsistencies, mainly because the proverbs found within the book are accepted for what they are, pithy statements bestowing general truths which are nevertheless circumstantial. For a non-biblical analogy, “actions speak louder than words” yet “the pen is mightier than the sword”. While both statements are conflicting in their message and subjective, which is more appropriate to a given situation is entirely context dependent. The same is true of scriptural expression. When considering discrepancies between the Wisdom literature it is worthy of note that similar “contradictions” exist between Ecclesiastes and Proverbs despite both books being canonically ascribed to Solomon (Proverbs 1:1, Ecclesiastes 1:1). The pseudonymous crediting of Ecclesiastes to the Solomonic tradition provided ascendancy and authority to the scripture (Meade,1986,58). They even disagree on the nature of wisdom itself and whether it is the path of peace (Proverbs 3:17) or grief and pain (Ecclesiastes 1:18).

It has been suggested that Proverbs focuses on the general rule of life while Job and Ecclesiastes offer us a glimpse of the exceptions. Proverbs asserts that if you are wise and fear God you will lead a happy existence, we are told that the light of the righteous rejoices while the lamp of the wicked goes out (13:9). Yet the suffering of Job challenges this principle, he even comes to ask, “How often is the lamp of the wicked put out?” (21:17). Job takes no glee in being an exception to the statement that Proverbs put forth, he is simply observing the reality that he experiences and importantly is accepting of it (2:10). The messages of the three books do not simply disagree in parts, they are specifically required to be held in tension to serve their scriptural and theological purpose. The implications of the texts as we read them teach us that a life of wisdom is pleasant (Proverbs 2:10) and will originate from relationship with God (1:7). However, it is still possible that righteous people will suffer, and God controls this, they may even suffer because of their virtuousness (Job 1:8). Finally, we confront brutal realties that ultimately, we all will die whether we are godly or sinful (Ecclesiastes 9:2). The wisdom literature shows us what God showed Job, that life is infinitely more complex than we could ever truly understand, yet through both suffering and joy the correct response is to maintain faith in God (Sumney,2014,178).

We have considered some of the tensions that may be considered contradictory between Job and the other two wisdoms. Yet there are also a unique set of theologies which unify them. All three books agree about the significance and importance of righteousness. This is apparent from the vehement way in which Job defends his innocence (31:6) and refuses to compromise his integrity (27:5). While the wisdom literatures demonstrate the value of righteousness, they also show that it will not ultimately keep suffering out of a person's life. The narrative means we are aware that God is testing Job (1:12) while Job never discovers why he suffers. From Job’s perspective he has been the perpetrator of no sins and yet he experiences what must feel and seem like divine punishment (1:15,1:19,2:7), yet throughout he blesses the name of the lord (1:21). Proverbs 10:25 explains that “when the tempest passes the wicked are no more, but the righteous are established forever”. This potentially addresses the theodicy issue and implies that both good and bad people will experience the same storm, but God will ensure only the righteous survive their struggles, as Job does. Ecclesiastes acknowledges the difficult truth Job puts forth, that some righteous people suffer and die despite their good nature while some wicked people who live long despite their “evildoing” (Ecclesiastes 7:15). However, it still asserts that things will never be well for the truly wicked who do not “stand in fear before God” (Ecclesiastes 8:13). The phrase '“fear of God” or “fear of the Lord” reoccurs throughout the wisdom literature. The term is used ten times in the book of Job, indicating his unblemished character (2:3) and is equated to wisdom in Job’s hymn (28:28). It appears five times within Ecclesiastes, including the closing statement which informs that fearing God and keeping his commandments is “the whole duty of everyone” (12:13). Proverbs also features the term on eighteen separate occasions (2:5, 9:10 etc).

All three wisdom writings of the Hebrew bible clearly demonstrate that wisdom comes from God and that divine omnipotence is the ultimate determinant of a person's situation and experience. Job asserts of wisdom that, “God understands the way to it, and he knows its place” (28:23). Likewise, Ecclesiastes 2:26 states “to the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness”, while Proverbs 2:6-8 agrees that “all wisdom comes from the Lord”. Job affirms this belief perhaps even more so than the other two books, emphasizing God’s total power, “he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases’ (23:13)”. This is clear by God’s actions throughout the book, his sovereignty is demonstrated by his decision to afflict Job yet insist his life be spared (2:6) and his immense power shown when he speaks to Job out of a storm (38:1). His grace evidenced by the way he returns twice as much to Job as he had before (42:10). Ecclesiastes exhibits Gods divine authority and power by explaining that not only does he give peoples wealth and possessions to them but it it is he who enables them to enjoy them- the gift of God (Ecclesiastes 5:19). Similarly, Proverbs explains that God's blessing brings wealth rather than human endeavor (10:22) and it is “the Lords purpose that prevails” (19:21).

While the achievement of wisdom may be outside of human control, even once someone is “blessed” with it (Proverbs 3:13) their knowledge is not unerring. The wiser we become the more foolish we understand ourselves to be (Ecclesiastes 7:23-25, Proverbs 26:12). It is even suggested that the wisdom and knowledge required to understand life's deepest complexities is beyond human comprehension (Job 38:18). This is especially true in matters of faith and understanding the divine, Job teaches that God is great “beyond our understanding” (36:26). Despite this even Job is guilty of questioning the justness of the Lord until he is humbled and admits he spoke without true understanding (42:1-3) of the vast complexity of that which God presides over (38). Though the pursuit of wisdom is noble it does not make one infallible (Ecclesiastes 8:7). Demonstrated by Eliphaz, Bildad and Zohar's inability to truly understand the situation of Job. In Job 42:7 God condemns the advice they offer because they “have not spoken of me what is right” (Von Rad and Martin, 1997).

There are clearly disparate themes and messages between Job and the other wisdom writings, yet they are not separate dogmatic works insistent that they individually hold the teachings of a good life. Instead they are nuanced, subtle creations deliberately addressing vastly different situations and should be considered as in a dialogical relationship with one another. This essay has demonstrated that fundamental theological similarities exist which unify the three texts. It has also explained the nature of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, such that it should now be evident that the texts when read in accordance with each other offer a sophisticated account of human experience. Derek Kidner suggests that by reading the three books together we witness “aspects of existence which no-one can afford to overlook: the demands of practical good management; the enigma of calamities that are beyond control or explanation; and the tantalizing hollowness and brevity of human life” (2015,116). Thus, to conclude that Job is contradictory towards conventional wisdom literature would be a scriptural misconception. It should not be considered in isolation but thought of collectively with the other wisdom books, when it is it provides guidance for a person's life whether they are experiencing a time of great happiness or sorrow. The purpose of wisdom is to navigate us through and teach us to appreciate both.

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Does Job Contradict Wisdom Literature? (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/does-job-contradict-wisdom-literature/
“Does Job Contradict Wisdom Literature?” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/does-job-contradict-wisdom-literature/
Does Job Contradict Wisdom Literature? [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/does-job-contradict-wisdom-literature/> [Accessed 21 Jun. 2024].
Does Job Contradict Wisdom Literature? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2024 Jun 21]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/does-job-contradict-wisdom-literature/
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