Old Testament Life and Literature (1968)

Gerald A. Larue

 

Chapter 28 - Wisdom Writings

EARLIER we discussed possible relationships of Hebrew wisdom to the court of Solomon and to wisdom writing in the ancient Near East. We also considered some characteristics of wisdom literature, but we have not examined the words of the wise as inspired utterances. To what degree the insights of the wise men were believed to be of divine origin is not known. Jer. 18:18 groups prophets, priests and wise men as recipients of divine instruction (cf. Jer. 8:8 ff.), but no clue is given as to how the insight was given. In the section of Proverbs believed to be the last addition to the entire work (chs. 1-9), wisdom is depicted as an hypostasis of Yahweh.1 It is possible that Hebrew wisdom was not believed to be the result of intellectual speculation alone, but was related to, and perhaps derived from, divine Wisdom and was thus automatically linked to that which in the beginning gave order to primeval chaos and was the agent by which God created (cf. 3:19 f.; 8:22 ff.). If Wisdom was the ordering principle of the cosmos, then to receive insight from Wisdom was to acquire guidelines for living an ordered life in harmony with the cosmos. Some wisdom literature, in particular the first nine chapters of Proverbs, fits this interpretation, but it is impossible to read it back into earlier materials. Nor should wisdom be considered purely secular because it does not emphasize such central themes of prophecy or priestly teachings as the covenant, election, the cult, the role of Yahweh in history, Jerusalem, etc. Wisdom literature appears to rest in an acceptance of, and a profound respect for, a divine order which sustains the cosmos, but the writers do not presume to comment upon that order theologically.

The precepts of wisdom tended to be those verifiable by observation and were concerned with teaching man how to live.2 The Hebrew word for wisdom ( hokmah) is related to a root meaning "skill" or "care" and came to imply "skill in living." The wise man ( hakam) was one who possessed knowledge about how a man might live skillfully or well-knowledge that could be imparted to others. The means of communication was sometimes a riddle but more often a proverb (Heb: mashal), which could be a poem of two balanced lines or a more extended writing akin to a parable. The concerns were largely those related to everyday life and the teachings, particularly in Proverbs, tend to be didactic and mundane. Whether or not the wisdom movement had any ties with the cult cannot be ascertained, but in the post-Exilic period wisdom writings show an increasing tendency to accord with accepted Jewish religious beliefs.

Wise men formed schools of instruction. Their words, spoken as a father (teacher) to a son (disciple), were copied and learned so that their followers would have precepts to guide and instruct in any situation in life.3 Broadly speaking, wisdom teachings are practical as opposed to theoretical, individualistic rather than nationalistic, humanistic rather than theological. Religion is not neglected (cf. 1:7; 20:27), it simply isn't stressed. We will discuss some of these wisdom writings now, but will consider "The Wisdom of Solomon" later.

 

PROVERBS

The opening verse of Proverbs appears to attribute the entire book to Solomon, in accordance with the custom of attributing anonymous writings to ancient worthies, but it is clear from the contents that, like so many other books of the Bible, Proverbs is a composite work. Some words are assigned to Agur, son of Jakeh of the Ishamaelite tribe of Massa (Prov. 30:1, cf. Gen. 25:14), others to the mother of Lemuel, king of Massa (Prov. 31:1). Within the book, eight different collections can be identified, and within these larger units, smaller groupings have been found:

  1. Chapters 1-9 are attributed to Solomon but appear to be the latest contribution to the book of Proverbs.
  2. Chapters 10:1-22:16, also attributed to Solomon, appear to be the oldest collection of maxims and the original nucleus of the book.
  3. Chapters 22:17-24:22, introduced in the LXX as "the words of the wise," are saying borrowed and adapted in part from the Wisdom of Amen-em-ope of Egypt.
  4. Chapter 24:23-34 is a sub-collection titled "These also are the sayings of the wise."
  5. Chapters 25-29 are labeled "The Proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah, king of Judah, copied."
  6. Chapter 30 consists of "The words of Agur, son of Jakeh of Massa."
  7. Chapter 31:1-9 is labeled "The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, which his mother taught him."
  8. Chapter 31:10-31 is an alphabetic acrostic on the ideal wife.

Read Ch. 1-1:6
The first six verses of the first section form a one-sentence editorial introduction to the entire book of Proverbs. The opening verse, attributing the sayings to Solomon, cannot be taken seriously because of the composite nature of Proverbs, although some maxims may go back to Solomon's time. The subsequent verses designate the purpose of the collected wisdom sayings and the merits of possessing wisdom.

Read Chs. 1:7-9:18
The first verse of the next section (1:7), which is repeated in 9:10, stipulates that the basic premise of wisdom is reverence for Yahweh, which would include healthy respect for all expressions of Yahweh's will-moral, ethical and cultic. Here the writer sets forth a model of the ideal man. He is one who avoids evil company (1:10ff.), complacency (1:32), contention (3:28 ff.), the adulteress (5:1 ff.; 6:23 ff.; 7:6 ff.; 9:13 ff.), debt (6:1 ff.), laziness (6:6 ff.), arrogance (8:13). On the positive side, the ideal is a careful individual, secure in time of calamity (1:26 ff.; 3:25 f.) because he is upright in his ways (2:6 ff.; 4:10 ff., 25 f.), discreet (2:11), reliable (6:1 ff.) and diligent (6:6 ff.). The recognition of the material rewards that come from adhering to the way of wisdom suggests that the writer was a comfortable, wealthy, respected citizen, who was somewhat out of sympathy with the wayward youth of his day (1:33; 3:9 f., 25 f.; 8:18, 20).

Read Chs. 10:1-22:16
The second unit is composed of short, pithy couplets almost all of which are set in antithetical parallelism. Each unit is complete and independent, although at times it appears that an editor made some effort to group sayings dealing with similar themes, such as the king (16:10, 12-15) or the fool (12:15-16; 18:6-7). Because of the simplicity of the poetic form, it is commonly agreed that this collection is the oldest in the book of Proverbs. The themes are diverse and include praise of integrity, discipline, diligence and condemnation of their opposites. Some sayings gain clarity from startling exaggerations (10:26; 11:22; 12:4; 15:7; 17:12; 18:9); others show acceptance of theological teaching similar to that of the Deuteronomists (10:3; 11:11; 12:7; 14:9; 16:3).

Read Chs. 22:17-24:22
The next precepts, drawn in part from the Wisdom of Amen-em-ope of Egypt ( ca. 1000-600), are not attributed to Solomon and bear the simple title "Words of the wise." The literary structure is more complex than that found in the preceding collection, but it is possible that these sayings also belong to the pre-Exilic period. Only 22:17-23:11 are based on Amen-em-ope's instructions for court officials4 and what the biblical writer borrowed was given a distinctive character by adaption to the Hebrew milieu.

Read Chs. 24:23-34
The few verses forming an appendage to the collection are concerned with justice and sloth. The passages in the next unit are in couplet form, like those of Chs. 10:1-22:16. (Read Chs. 25-29) They are said to have been copied by King Hezekiah's men, and it is quite possible that they are pre-Exilic, as the numerous references to the monarchy would suggest. Some passages employ striking imagery (25:20, 21; 26:11, 17; 27:1516).

Read Ch. 30
The opening verses (1-4) of Chapter 30 are reminiscent of Yahweh's challenge to Job (Job 38:2-5). Perhaps a dialogue is represented here. A question is put to Ithiel and Ucal about the possibility of man knowing God (vss. lb-4). These men respond that the fact that God's word is fulfilled, and that those who trust in him are protected, is knowledge enough (vss. 5-6). The last section (vss. 10-33) includes sayings using the familiar literary pattern of numeric progression, some of which are striking (vss. 18-19, 21-23), and two single-line proverbs (15a and 20).

Read Ch. 31:1-9
The words in the collection purporting to be the advice of a queen mother to an otherwise unknown King Lemuel deal with proper behavior for rulers.

Read Ch. 31:10-31
The closing section is an alphabetic acrostic since the initial letter of each of the twenty-two couplets begins with the successive of the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet. The rather burdensome responsibilities of the wife of a successful businessman are enumerated.5

 

ECCLESIASTES

Ecclesiastes, like Proverbs, is a product of the wisdom school, but is of a different temperament and outlook. Proverbs affirmed the accepted values of Jewish society; Ecclesiastes questions these same ambitions and goals. The author pretends to be Solomon (1:12 ff.), a claim accepted by the editor (1:1), but some passages indicate that the writer is a subject rather than a ruler (3:16; 4:1; 10:4-5). Although Solomon was only the second Hebrew monarch to rule from Jerusalem, the author speaks of the numerous Jerusalemite kings who preceded him (1:16; 2:9). The reference could be said to include Jebusite rulers but these are unknown in Hebrew-Jewish traditions. The language of the book is Hebrew with numerous Aramaisms suggesting the post-Exilic era. The author's spirit of individualism fits well into the early Greek period. Efforts to discover historical allusions within the text have not been particularly convincing. A reflection of the disturbed political conditions at the beginning of the Hellenistic period is found in 4:3 by some scholars, and others suggest that Ptolemy V is referred to in 10:16. The fragments of Ecclesiastes found at Qumran indicate that the book was known in the second century and, since there is no hint of the dramatic Jewish struggle for independence, a date prior to the second century is preferred. Therefore, the author was not Solomon, but a Jew of Jerusalem (although Alexandria is also a possibility) living in the closing years of the fourth or the early decades of the third century.

ImageSPINNING WHORLS. Cloth making, which included the spinning of wool, goat hair, cotton or flax into yarn and the weaving of yarn or thread into cloth, was an important home industry in ancient Palestine. The last chapter of Proverbs includes spinning among the responsibilities of the busy housewife. The two objects pictured are spinning whorls: the larger is made of bone and the smaller of stone. A spindle, a shaft of wood or reed or ivory was thrust through the whorl, and when the spindle and whorl were spun the fibers fed to this combination were twisted into yarn or thread.

Ecclesiastes appears to be a literary unity. A few passages, expressing beliefs that appear to be contrary to the major thrust of the book, have been labeled interpolations by some scholars and accepted as genuine by others (2:26; 3:17; 7:26b; 8:12 f.; 11:9b). The uniformity of language would caution against removal of these passages. This writer, like Job, believed in God and divine righteousness, but did not pretend to understand God's ways. The book concludes at 12:8 on the same note with which it opens; 12:9-10 is an appendix expressing appreciation for the author, written, perhaps, by a disciple; and 12:11-14 is an added ending, warning against taking Ecclesiastes too seriously and providing a succinct alternative as a guide for living.

The title of the book in Hebrew is koheleth, which appears to be related to the Hebrew word for an assembly or congregation ( qahal), so that Koheleth is one who assembles people, perhaps the speaker. The term "Ecclesiastes" is from the LXX and refers to one who participates in an assembly. The English translation "Preacher" is unfortunate for it conveys the wrong image. Koheleth was a teacher, probably in a wisdom school. The book is a compendium of his teachings, not recorded in orderly literary fashion so that one idea leads logically to the next, but rather as a compilation of the teacher's speculations on the emptiness of life.

Ecclesiastes is intellectually linked to Job. Job demonstrated the futility of asking "Why?" of God. Koheleth accepts this. The intellectual struggle with orthodox theology was, for him, over. The question now was, "How does one live without theological or ultimate answers?"

Read Ecclesiastes
No summary or analysis of contents can be substituted for reading Koheleth. His basic premise is that life is meaningless.6 Man's struggle to achieve a name, reputation, fame, fortune, pleasures, and even to acquire wisdom, is meaningless, ultimately counting for nothing. Nature is cyclic, season follows season and pattern follows pattern. There is no meaning to the cycle. Man can do nothing to change it; man can only conform to it. To make his point, Koheleth posed as Solomon, who, as king, was in a position to explore in depth the various ways by which man sought to give meaning to his life. The search for wisdom produced frustration (1:16 ff.); indulgence in pleasures and the acquisition of possessions were hollow. Koheleth learned, as Job had before him, that man is powerless before the cosmic order. There are predetermined times for everything and to these man can but yield. Ultimately, all creatures, great and small, wise and foolish, animal and human, share a common end and are made equal in the grave. What happens at death cannot be known (3:19 ff.).

In the face of Koheleth's experience and analysis of the futility of human ambitions, how should man live? Koheleth affirmed that wisdom was better than folly (2:13), friendship better than loneliness (4:9 ff.), keeping vows to God wiser than violating them (5:1 ff.), accepting one's lot and enjoying life to be preferred to constantly striving to better it (5:11 ff.). His response to the problem of theodicy is that one must enjoy pleasurable things when they are available, and when evil days come, accept these too (7:14). His advice was to press out of each moment of life as much enjoyment as possible (8:15-9:17), particularly in youth (11:9-12:1), because old age limits one's possibilities (12:1-8).

Koheleth has been called pessimistic, but his message comes through marked with realistic enjoyment of life (11:7). There is no bitterness in his denial of the validity of what he deems to be fruitless theological speculation (8:16 ff.) nor over-concern for that which cannot be changed (7:13). Like the writers in Proverbs, he frowns on laziness (10:18) and in the next breath extols the joys of bread, wine and money. He suggests a certain recklessness with possessions (11:1-2, 6) on the chance that good results will come of it. Like Job, he rejects the doctrine that the good are rewarded and the wicked punished and recognizes that sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. Koheleth finds no ultimate meaning in life, only the meaning that each man gives to it in his commitment to full enjoyment of the brief span of years that are individually his.

 

SONG OF SONGS

Perhaps the most unusual book among the sacred literature of ancient Israel is this collection of poems which expresses so forthrightly in sensuous language the theme of passionate love. The title "The Song of Songs of Solomon," which means "the best of Solomon's Songs", cannot be accepted as guaranteeing the work as one of King Solomon's compositions (cf. I Kings 4:32). The presence of Aramaisms and Persian and Greek loan words places the time of writing in the post-Exilic Hellenistic era, probably in the third century, although parts of the poems may be much earlier. We have appended the poems to the section on wisdom literature because it has been theorized that they were arranged and preserved by the wise men, thus explaining how the entire work was attributed to Solomon, the patron of Hebrew wisdom.

The poetry has been extolled for its beauty and elaborate imagery. Its symbols are sensuous. Its form is that of a collection of monologues and its point of view is secular. Numerous interpretations of the Song of Songs have been proposed:7

  1. It has been labeled an allegory. Rabbi Akiba interpreted it as an allegory of God's love for his people, Israel. Later, Christians explained it as an expression of Christ's love for his Church.
  2. Even as Akiba was giving his interpretation, young men of his day recognized the secular nature of the Song and sang it in the local wine shops.
  3. It has been analyzed as a drama with two characters: Solomon and his bride; or with three characters: Solomon, the bride, and her shepherd lover to whom she remains faithful. The lack of proper divisions into acts and scenes tends to make any reconstruction along these lines appear forced or artificial to the western mind.
  4. Comparison with Syrian wedding songs (called wasf) which are sung during a seven-day celebration in which the bride and groom are honored as king and queen and their beauty is extolled has led to the identification of the Song of Songs as an epithalamion. It has been pointed out in partial answer, that in the biblical song the bride is not called a queen.
  5. Some scholars have found evidence of fertility cult ritual within the poems. (For example, 1:5 ff. is said to signify the death of fertility; 2:10 ff., rebirth; 3:1 ff. and 5:6 ff., the search for Tammuz.) It is quite possible that the Song originated in the fertility cult of Canaan, but because Yahwism rejected the idea of a hierarchy of gods with love affairs and divine marriages, the Song became secularized and was retained as a wasf. There are, obviously, antiphonal relationships between parts of the poem and these may hark back to a primitive cultic setting, but so far, any attempts to set these in a specific pattern or to explain the relationship between parts of the Song have been less than convincing.

It is best, perhaps, to accept this last hypothesis concerning the Song, for it explains how this literature with what appear to be secular erotic overtones came to be included in Jewish sacred literature: the Song originated in the sacred literature of Canaan. Therefore Rabbi Akiba was not wrong in stressing its cultic and religious significance even though by his interpretation he gave the Song a new meaning in Judaism, just as Christians were to give it still another meaning in Christianity. Nor were the young men wrong, for the amatory themes were not part of Jewish theology, but were prominent in secular life.

 

ECCLESIASTICUS (SIRACH)

Ecclesiasticus, the most extensive wisdom writing of the Hellenistic period, has been accepted as canonical by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, but not by Jews and Protestants. It is the only wisdom document whose author is known. Jesus son of Sirach, to call him by the Greek form of his name, or Joshua or Jeshua ben Sira according to the Hebrew, was a Jew who conducted a wisdom school in Jerusalem. The Prologue to his work, written by his grandson, informs us that the grandson went to Egypt to translate his grandfather's work into Greek in the year 132, the thirty-eighth year of King Euergetes, who is assumed to be King Ptolemy VII Euergetes II Pliyscon who reigned from 170 to 117. Ben Sira must have been born before the beginning of the second century, and it is assumed that his school flourished during the early years of the second century, particularly at the time when Antiochus III controlled Palestine. His writings give no hint of the social pressures and problems associated with the reign of Antiochus IV, although it must be admitted that Ben Sira makes little reference to specific social and historical events. Chapter 50 refers to Simon, the high priest, in such warm, intimate terms that there can be little doubt that Ben Sira was present at the worship service he describes-probably the Day of Atonement. Josephus mentions two Simons who were high priests. The first, if he ever existed (there is considerable doubt about this), was Simon, son of Onias, or Simon I called Righteous, who would have to have lived about 300 ( Antiquities of the Jews 12:2:5). Simon II, son of Jochanan (Greek: Onias), whose high priesthood is placed between 219 and 199, is believed to be the high priest observed by Ben Sira. Ecclesiasticus is, therefore, best dated about 180.

The title "Ecclesiastictis" is from the Latin translation and means "The Church's book," but the Hebrew title was, apparently "The Proverbs of Ben Sira" and the Greek "The Wisdom of Jesus, son of Sirach."8 The book may be divided into two major parts: Chapters 1 to 23 and Chapters 24 to 50, with Chapter 51 forming an appendix. Like Proverbs, each section opens with a poem in praise of wisdom (1:1-20; 24), and like Proverbs, the entire book ends with an alphabetic acrostic (51:13-30). The bulk of Ecclesiasticus is wisdom sayings or groups of sayings covering a wide variety of subjects. At times Ben Sira expanded his comments into short essays. No particular order of presentation can be discerned and attempts at literary analysis usually end as topical lists. A broad outline of the book is as follows:

Read Ecclesiasticus
I. The Prologue, which consists of introductory remarks by Ben Sira's grandson. The Prologue stands outside of the chapter and verse divisions.

II. The First Book, Chapters 1 to 23.

1:1-20, a hymn in praise of wisdom.
1:22-16:23, instruction in wisdom, including a discussion of familial relationships (3:1-16) rules for daily living (4:20-6:4; 7:1-9:18, etc.) and the dangers of riches and greed (13:21-14:19).
16:24-23:27, further instruction in wisdom, commencing with a discussion of the relationship of man to God and man to his environment (16:24-18:26).

III. The Second Book, Chapters 24 to 50.

24:1-24, a poem in praise of wisdom, relating wisdom to the election of Israel.
25:1-35:20, maxims for wise living.
36:1-17, a prayer for the nation.
36:18-38:23, maxims of a wife, friends, counselors and physicians.
38:24-39:11, an essay on the scribe and the wise man.
39:12-42:14, sayings on varied themes.
42:15-43:33, in praise of God's creation.
44:1-50:24, in praise of famous men.
50:25-29, a conclusion, in which Ben Sira expresses dislike for either Idumeans or Nabataeans, Philistines and Samaritans.
51:1-12, an appendix in the form of a thanksgiving hymn.
51:13-20, an appendix in the form of an alphabetic acrostic relating Ben Sira's search for wisdom.

Ben Sira's themes, like those of other wisdom writers, tend to be universal rather than parochial. He warns his students against immoral associations with women but recognizes the merits of a good wife and a happy marriage (7:26 f.; 9:1 ff.; 25:16-26:28; 36:21 ff.; 37:11; 40:19; 42:12 f.). He encourages strict discipline in raising children (26:10-12; 30:1-13; 42:11), and inasmuch as no man can foretell the character of his children, his opinion on the size of families (16:1-3) appears to stand in sharp contrast to Psalm 127:3-5.

Some of Ben Sira's counsel was designed to guide students in proper social and political relationships. He instructs them in table manners, the role of the host and the guest (31:12-32:13). His comments on the merchant (26:29-27:3), the physician (38:1-15), and on lending money (29:1-7) are to aid his students in health and business matters, just as his admonitions to keep secrets (27:16) and to avoid slander (28:13 ff.) are guides for broader human relationships.

The lengthy statement in praise of famous men (44:1-50:24) is a concise review of biblical heroes. The darker side of David's life has been ignored and David is exalted for his military prowess and his contributions to Israel's religious heritage. Solomon's reputation as the father of wisdom is recognized, but he is condemned for his many wives. Only two other kings appear on the hero list: Hezekiah and Josiah, both of whom were praised in the Deuteronomic history for their religious reforms.

Ben Sira's attitudes to the religious practices of his day are closer to those of the writers of Proverbs than to Ecclesiastes. The beautiful description of the high priest Simon (50:1-12) reveals Ben Sira's deep appreciation of cultic ritual. He praised the Torah as a supreme gift from God (24:23). The personal religious attitudes and habits which he commended included moral and ethical behavior as well as ritual observances. Like the prophets before him he taught that atonement did not follow automatically upon the presentation of offerings (7:8 ff.; 35:12) but that God accepts the sacrifices of a righteous man (35:6 f.). Efforts to place Ben Sira in the tradition of the Sadducees force his teachings into patterns not yet established in his day,9 despite the fact that he was rather vague about the afterlife, and expressed no belief in the resurrection of the dead (11:26-28; 38:16-23; 41:1-4, 10-11; 46:11-12; 48:5).10

 

TOBIT

Read Tobit
One of the most delightful stories to come out of the late Hellenistic period is that of Tobit, which relates how God solved two unhappy human dilemmas with a single angel.11 The writing does not belong to the wisdom school, and the only justification for attaching it to the section on wisdom writing is that Tobit advises his son after the manner of the wisdom teachers. The tale is set in the eighth century in Nineveh and recounts the unfortunate blinding of a pious Jew, Tobit, and the desperate plight of the maiden Sarah whose seven bridegrooms had each been slain on their wedding night by the evil demon Asmodeus.

There is ample evidence that the story is much later than its setting, and it fits best into the period between 200 and 180, or just before the period of Tewish independence. For example, in 14:5 Tobit speaks prophetically of events to come, but it is clear that he is describing the post-Exilic temple. He does not know of the beautification of this temple under the auspices of Herod the Great, which occurred in the Roman period (37-4), but idealistically envisions a future temple built by Jews of the dispersion on their return to Jerusalem.12 The author confused the order of Assyrian monarchs, which would be unlikely for one contemporary with the events. Sennacherib was not the son of Shalmaneser as Tobit 1:15 indicates, but of Sargon. Nor were Nebuchadrezzar and Ahasuerus involved in the sacking of Nineveh, as noted in Tobit 14:15, but rather Nabopolassar and Cyaxeres.13 According to II Kings 15:29, the tribe of Naphtali went into captivity in the time of Tiglath Pileser III, not in Shalmaneser's day as stated in Tobit 1:1. The reference to the Greek drachma (5:14) and to the book of Jonah (14:8) point to a Greek provenance, and because there is no hint of persecution of the Jews under Antiochus IV, a date between 200 and 180 is usually given to this story.

The place of writing has been the subject of much discussion and scholars have proposed Mesopotamia,14 Egypt,15 Judaea16 and Antioch in Syria.17 The Mesopotamian setting may be rejected on the grounds of the author's confusion of geographical details, such as the implications that Nineveh was a day's journey from the Tigris (6:1),18 or that the trip from Ecbatana to Rages (or Rhagae) could be made in a single day.19 The argument against Egypt is based on the fact that in Egypt sheep and camels were neither common nor in the possession of the ordinary citizen, as is implied in Tobit 9:2 and 10:10.20 The choice of locale lies between Antioch and Jerusalem, with either city being a likely candidate.

Certain motifs in Tobit may have been borrowed from earlier writings. Tobit shows affinities with The Tale of the Grateful Dead, which relates how the hero of the story gave up his possessions to pay the debts of a dead man whose creditor refused to permit burial of the debtor's body. The story of Ahikar is known to the writer. He is familiar with the Story of the Dangerous Bride, in which a bride continues to lose bridegrooms to a monster on the wedding night until rescued by a hero.21

The author's purpose in telling the story, beyond the recounting of an interesting tale, is probably to encourage almsgiving and proper care for the dead and to teach that God sustains the righteous.22 These may appear to be rather limited reasons, but in view of the development of Hellenized Judaism, a story designed to encourage adherence to traditional Jewish ways is of particular significance..

Tobit represents a Jew loyal to Jewish religious beliefs and practices even when banished and persecuted (1:3, 6-12; 2:8; etc.). No other writing of this period provides a more intimate expression of the warm bonds existing between husband and wife and parents and child in a Jewish household (2:11-3:6; 4:3-4). No other account demonstrates better that strict adherence to the tenets of Jewish religious legalism brought into human relationships principles of concern and compassion (1:17-20; 2:2-5). When Tobit enjoyed good fortune, he sought to share it. He lent money in simple trust. His precepts were uncluttered (4:7, 14; 12:7) and included the "Golden Rule" in its negative form (4:15).

The religious beliefs expressed throughout the story reveal the writer's reverence for the Torah and his strong faith in divine providence and the efficacy of prayer. Prayers did not go directly to the deity but, as the angel Raphael explained, were delivered to God by seven holy angels (12:15). The introduction of angelic intermediaries and the appellations used for God, depicting his majesty and glory (1:4; 12:12, 15; 13:6-7, 10-11, 15), acknowledge the transcendence of the deity and reveal how far Jewish theology had moved from the views of the J writer. References to the presence of God avoid any hint of anthropomorphism, and only the divine glory is mentioned (3:16; 12:15).

Angels have appeared from time to time in Hebrew-Jewish literature (Gen. 22:11; 31:11; Exod. 3:3; Josh. 5:13-14; Judg. 13:3-5; I Kings 19:5; II Kings 19:35). Sometimes they are messengers of the deity; at other times they give protection (Ps. 91:11), support (Ps. 35:5-6) or succor (I Kings 19:5). In Tobit, angels are recognized as intercessors, and a specific angel, Raphael,23 was assigned to a special task. Persian influence may lie behind the seven angels of Tobit (12:15), for Ahura Mazda was said to be attended by six archangels, forces for good. The demon Asmodeus may be the Iranian demon of anger or lust, "Aeshma daeva." It has also been suggested that his name is derived from a Hebrew root shmd meaning "to destroy, hence he would be "The Destroyer." The banishing of Asmodeus and the healing of Tobit's blindness with the heart, liver and gall of a fish involve magic. Magicians have been referred to earlier in biblical writings (Isa. 3:2-3; Ezek. 13:18-20; II Chron. 33:6), and magic is prohibited in the Torah (Exod. 22:18; Lev. 19:26, 31; 20:6, 27). There is no condemnation of magic in Tobit, and the rites of expulsion and healing were taught and approved by the angel Raphael.

Endnotes

  1. The term "hypostasis" is borrowed from a Greek word which, in philosophy, had to do with "essence" or "identity" or "substance." Here it signifies an activity of Yahweh endowed with a distinct identity. Hypostasis moves beyond literary personification, which may be used for dramatic effect, to the recognition of individual identity. Wisdom is given a distinct personality and existence apart from, but still under, Yahweh. Whether or not Greek influence is involved in Prov. 1:20 ff.; 8; 9, is debatable, although the Greeks did hypostatize logos or "reason" and later sophia or "wisdom." For an excellent discussion, see R. B. Y. Scott, Proverbs. Ecclesiastes, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965), pp. 69 ff.
  2. Cf. G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology, trans. D. M. G. Stalker (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962), I, 418 ff.
  3. The story of Ahikar, a wisdom writing with an Assyrian setting, mentions this method and purpose of instruction (cf. Ahikar 1:15 ff.; 7:26; but see 4:21). Ahikar is the story of a vizier of the Assyrian court who is betrayed by an ungrateful nephew and who finally regains his position through his wisdom. A sixth century Aramaic version is known, but the tale may be much older. For a translation, see R. H. Charles (ed.), The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1913), II, 715-784.
  4. Cf. ANET, p. 421.
  5. Margaret B. Crook, "The Marriageable Maiden of Prov. 30:10-31," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, XIII (1954), 137-140, has identified these verses as a memorandum from a training school for marriageable young women who would shortly be assuming positions of affluence in their communities. She rejects the thesis that the verses reveal actual domestic life.
  6. The Hebrew word hebel is usually translated "vanity" and signified "breath" or "that which is transitory" or "empty." Here it means "empty of meaning."
  7. For a detailed discussion, see T. J. Meek, "The Song of Songs," The Interpreter's Bible, V, 92 ff.
  8. Cf. R. H. Pfeiffer, History of New Testament Times With an Introduction to the Apocrypha (Neiv York: Harper & Brothers, 1949), P. 352; G. H. Box and W. O. E. Oesterley, "The Book of Sirach" in the Apocrypha and Psezidepigrapha of the Old Testament, R. H. Charles, ed., I, 268 f.
  9. The Sadducces came into existence during the period of Jewish independence.
  10. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead; the Pharisees did. Cf. Josephus, Antiquities 13:5:9 and Wars 2:8:14 and in the New Testament, Matthew 22:23, Mark 12:18, Luke 20:27.
  11. Tobit is accepted as canonical by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
  12. It has been argued that chapters 13-14 were written after A.D. 70 and that the Roman destruction of the temple was in the writer's mind. Cf. F. Zimmerman, The Book of Tobit, Jewish Apocryphal Literature (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), pp. 24 ff.
  13. Tobit 14:15 is often treated as an interpolation.
  14. C. C. Torrey, The Apocryphal Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945), p. 85; L. H. Brockington, A Critical Introduction to the Apocrypha (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., Ltd., 1961), pp. 36-39.
  15. D. C. Simpson, "Tobit," The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, I, 180.
  16. R. H. Pfeiffer, History of New Testament Times with an Introduction to the Apocrypha, p. 275.
  17. Zimmerman, op. cit., pp. 15-21.
  18. Nineveh was on the cast bank of the Tigris, and its location was known to Herodotus long after its destruction (Herodotus I:93; II:150).
  19. Pfeiffer notes that the trip takes nearly two weeks by camel (History of New Testament Times, p. 275.)
  20. Zimmerman, op. cit., pp. 16 f.
  21. For a discussion of these and other similar parallels, cf. Pfeiffer, History of New Testament Times, pp. 264-271; Zimmerman, op. cit., pp. 5-12.
  22. Brockington, op. cit., p. 36.
  23. Raphael's role as a healer is reflected in his name, which is derived from a Hebrew root rp' meaning "to heal."

Old Testament Life and Literature is copyright © 1968, 1997 by Gerald A. Larue. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Gerald A. Larue.

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