July 13, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The Old Testament’s seven Wisdom books

John F. Fink(Thirteenth in a series of columns)

The seven Wisdom books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Song, Wisdom and Sirach) follow the historical books in the Christian Bible.

These writings reflect the belief of the Jews that God created some kind of order in nature and, if they could discern how this order operated and harmonize their lives with it, they would be successful and at peace. Wisdom is the ability to perceive this order and to live in accord with it.

The Book of Job explores at great length the age-old question of why bad things sometimes happen to good people. The question is not answered. By the end of the book, all Job knows is that the innocent can indeed be afflicted for no apparent reason.

The Book of Psalms is considered the most valuable Old Testament book for the New Testament. Unfortunately, many Catholics have never been taught to appreciate the psalms. That’s too bad because these ancient Jewish prayers, composed from the time of David until after the exile to Babylon, were the prayers that Jesus prayed.

Most of the psalms were composed for liturgical worship, although they are both personal and communal. Praise of God is the most common theme. Indeed, the psalms were collected into five books of the Psalter, which means “Praises.” But there are many other forms of prayer, too: lament, contrition, petition, thanksgiving. Some, too, reflect Jewish history and theology.

The Book of Proverbs is composed of eight collections of wise maxims and moralistic poetry directed mainly to the young to teach them wisdom. It ends with the description of what the Jews considered the ideal wife. The book is known for the parallelism of its verses. For example, “Hatred stirs up disputes, but love covers all offenses” (Prv 10:12).

Ecclesiastes is known for such lines as “You can’t take it with you”

(Eccl 2:18) or “There’s nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9). It says that it is written by “David’s son, Qoheleth,” who seems to be a cynic since he declares that “all is vanity” and life itself is “a chase after the wind.”

The Song of Songs is a collection of sensuous love poems that has fascinated interpreters for 2,000 years. Who are these lovers? It depends on which of four ways you interpret the poems—literal, allegorical, cultic or dramatic. Usually, though, it is interpreted as the love of God and his people.

The Book of Wisdom, which was written in Greek and thus is not part of the Jewish canon, acclaims the glories of wisdom. The third part of the book extols the special providence of God during the Exodus.

Finally, Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus) resembles the Book of Proverbs. It, too, is not part of the Jewish canon, but the reason why is not clear since it was written in Hebrew. The author, Jesus Ben Sira, tried to show the Jews of the first century before Christ that wisdom was found in the traditions of Israel rather than in the philosophy of his day. †

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