Proverbial material can be found throughout the Hebrew Bible. Jeremiah and Ezekiel, for example, quote the proverb “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:29b; Ezekiel 18:2b), in order to refute it. Eating sour grapes coats the teeth with a dry, bitter substance. The proverb’s statement that the bitter taste can be passed on through the generations suggests that children suffer for the actions of their parents. Jeremiah and Ezekiel want to argue against this, to assert that everyone has a chance in life and a child cannot be blamed for the actions of his or her parents. Clearly the presence of a few proverbs in any book is not enough to characterize it as Wisdom literature. Prophetic books such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel belong to a separate “prophetic” genre. It is only where we find proverbial material and Wisdom concerns in large measure that we can truly speak of Wisdom literature. So, while we find many Wisdom concerns in psalmic laments and may speak of some “Wisdom psalms,” we would not classify the entire Book of Psalms as Wisdom literature.


On the question of the definition of Wisdom and the discussion of Job as a Wisdom text, see Katharine J. Dell, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 197 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1991).


Robert B.Y. Scott, The Way of Wisdom in the Old Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1971). Job and Ecclesiastes are characterized by Scott as “Wisdom in revolt.”


Notably Eric W. Heaton, Solomon’s New Men (New York: Pica Press, 1974).


Many of the instructions of Proverbs 1–9 contain admonitions from father or mother to son, suggesting a family context, but those of the school persuasion thought that father and son probably referred to teacher and pupil in the school context.


See Stuart Weeks, Early Israelite Wisdom (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994): “The biblical and epigraphic evidence adduced for schools seems very weak indeed and can certainly not support any hypothesis of an integrated school system” (p. 153).


R. Norman Whybray, “The Structure and Composition of Proverbs 22:17–24:22, ” in Crossing the Boundaries: Essays in Biblical Interpretation in Honor of Michael D. Goulder, ed. S.E. Porter, P. Joyce and D.E. Orton (Leiden: Brill, 1994).


A suggestion made by Ronald E. Clements in Wisdom in Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992).


Some interesting contextual parallels to the kind of family wisdom I have been describing have recently come to light from the totally unrelated culture of Africa. Friedemann W. Golka has written a fascinating book, The Leopard’s Spots (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993), in which he makes a case for a clan or family context for many proverbs. He draws parallels, for example, with the proverbs about the king, and shows how, in quite primitive cultures, concern is expressed for the king or chief and the societal order is seen to depend on his well-being. The instinct to compose proverbs and to muse about the meaning of life is known to be a basic human trait; we find proverbs in all folk cultures from around the world. Therefore, it may be that we have more work to do in finding parallels from, say, Chinese folk wisdom that could shed important light on our biblical texts.


William McKane, Proverbs (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970).


See Dell, The Book of Job, for the suggestion that Job may have been produced by a group of “skeptics” on the edge of the Wisdom enterprise.


Creation has generally been regarded as a late development in Israelite thought, coming into full union with the salvation history only at the time of Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40–66), as the Exile was reaching its close, about 550–539 B.C. However, the perception of God as creator can be found in the earliest Wisdom literature, suggesting that creation faith may have been a more formative influence from early times.


Dell, Shaking a Fist at God: Understanding Suffering Through the Book of Job (New York: [Harper Collins] Fount paperbacks, 1995).