Old Testament

Episode 89: Wisdom Literature with Dan Belnap

In this episode of the LDS Perspectives podcast, Laura Harris Hales interviews Dan Belnap about wisdom literature in the Bible and the ancient Near East.

Belnap explains that the books of the Bible are of various genres. Some, like the books of Kings, share historical narratives, while Isaiah is theological in nature. Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Job are categorized as wisdom literature.

We do not engage with wisdom literature the same way we do with historical or theological texts, so they are often placed on a lower level by readers, compared to other biblical writings. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth studying. They actually give sound, practical advice for living a good life.

We don’t know who the individuals are within Israelite wisdom tales. There’s a father. There’s a son. There’s a mother. There are these individuals. They’re just anonymous Israelite figures, literary figures. The literary figures have a different relationship with deity than you see among Egyptian literary wisdom figures. Deity may show up in Egyptian wisdom literature, but they don’t play a particular role the same way. In fact, much of Egyptian literature is going to be practical advice: how to get along in court, how to get along with your fellow man, and how to move up in court.

One of the interesting aspects of wisdom literature found across the ancient Near East is that it was a genre where people could make claims that you wouldn’t make in any other context. It was what we would call a literary safe space. For whatever reason, these types of tales allowed writers to talk about typically taboo topics, and in many cases, pessimistic things.

Ecclesiastes is one of these books. It’s interesting in that what it does is it outlines the limitations that mankind has. You’ve got limitations elsewhere, but this is where it explores what man can do and what he can’t do.

In Mesopotamia this is actually done through epics as well. For example, the Epic of Gilgamesh. is a pretty pessimistic story. There is a king who wants to become immortal, and by the end of this epic, he doesn’t even get rejuvenation. He fails on that. He gets back from his long journey having failed in everything, having not accomplished what he wanted to do. But he looks at the walls of his city, and he says, “This is a marvelous city. Look at what it is, and I’m lucky to be a king of it.” And then the epilogue to this thing says, “And these are your limitations. Don’t go beyond a man. Find joy in your limitations.”

Tune in as Dr. Dan Belnap lays a framework for studying biblical wisdom literature situated in an ancient Near Eastern context.

About Our Guest: Dan Belnap is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU. He received his BA in international relations from BYU, an MA in ancient Near Eastern studies from BYU, and an MA and a PhD in Northwest Semitics from the University of Chicago. Since coming to BYU, he has taught courses in the Book of Mormon, Old Testament, New Testament, Pearl of Great Price, and teachings of the living prophets, but his specialty is in the Hebrew Bible, Ugaritic studies, and ritual studies. He has focused his research on cultural and sociological influences in the Book of Mormon, the use of ritual in ancient and contemporary contexts, doctrines of ascension and theosis in ancient Near East and Late Antiquity, and comparative cosmologies.

The Transcript: Download PDF.

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LDS Perspectives Podcast

Episode 89: Wisdom Literature with Dan Belnap

(Released July 25, 2018)

This is not a verbatim transcript.

Some grammar and wording has been modified for clarity, and timestamps are approximate.

LAURA HALES 00:00 This is Laura Harris Hales, and I’m here today with Daniel L. Belnap, to talk about wisdom literature in the ancient Near East. Daniel Belnap is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU. He received a PhD in Northwest Semitics from the University of Chicago. Since coming to BYU, he has taught courses in the Book of Mormon, Old Testament, New Testament, Pearl of Great Price, and Teachings of the Living Prophets, but his specialty is in the Hebrew Bible, Ugaritic texts, and ritual studies. He’s focused his research on cultural and sociological influences in the Book of Mormon, the use of ritual in ancient and contemporary contexts, doctrines of ascension, and theosis in ancient Near East and late antiquity and comparative cosmologies.
LAURA HALES 00:51 I feel like today’s topic is a little bit light for you, Dan.
DAN BELNAP 00:57 Well, I don’t know about that. This is an area of the Bible that I don’t necessarily do most of my work in.
LAURA HALES 01:03 Dan, what is wisdom literature?
DAN BELNAP 01:05 Wisdom literature is a term that is used to describe a number of texts that are often understood as advice. They’re not prophetic works. They’re not like Isaiah. They’re not like Ezekiel. They’re not that type of advice. They’re not prose texts, the same way you would think in first and second Kings, so they don’t have historical value in the same way. They are religious texts that I like to think provide insight into the daily living aspect of religious life. Or what were the morals and ethics of these individuals, and what did they think was important in terms of their interactions with one another?
DAN BELNAP 01:38 Wisdom literature isn’t on par with other scripture, so we don’t engage with it the same way. We tend to treat it lower than maybe the prophetic works and the historical works of the Bible.
LAURA HALES 01:48 The Bible is a library. Wisdom literature is part of that library, or part of the apocryphal works, or part of other collections. Is there a time when wisdom literature was generally written, or was it written during the whole 1000-year timespan of books of the Bible?
DAN BELNAP 02:07 As you probably know, and has already been said by others on different podcasts, the compilation of the Bible is a bit tricky. We have some texts that are clearly older than others, but we know they’re all being put together eventually, even if you wanted to say the Septuagint is the first real collection of the Bible. It’s probably not. They are probably older collections elsewhere. In fact, the Book of Mormon suggests there was a collection, the Brass Plates, which contained prophetic material with historical stuff.
DAN BELNAP 02:35 We know there were probably other collections of biblical texts. But with that said, you’ve got a number of different pieces from different time periods being collated, being edited over time, and then finally being put together into an entire body of work.
DAN BELNAP 02:47 Older scholarship would have probably said, “Oh, it’s more recent. This is more recent evidence or a more recent type of text. It had language in it that’s newer language. It’s newer Hebrew or Aramaic. Some of the texts could’ve been Aramaic.” And then they compare them to other ancient Near Eastern texts that are around there—for instance, some of the wisdom literature from Egypt and Mesopotamia, and those tended to be later, too.
DAN BELNAP 03:14 Traditionally, the scholarship has been that it was older, but as ancient Near Eastern studies have progressed and moved on, I think we’re beginning to see that wisdom literature actually is a pretty early form of literature.
LAURA HALES 03:27 Especially in the case of Job. That story you see in ancient Near Eastern culture for a long time, before it’s actually written down.

Who wrote wisdom literature?

DAN BELNAP 03:38 Who wrote wisdom literature? That’s a great question. The texts will tell you that, “This is the wisdom of Solomon,” for instance, in the Bible. The Proverbs were written by the wisdom of Solomon. Ecclesiastes is written by the Preacher, which is often associated with Solomon. They’re clearly ascribing authorship to well-known individuals.
DAN BELNAP 03:55 Why Solomon? Probably because we have that famous story of him asking for wisdom. Most are familiar with the well-known biblical tale of Solomon, who is given the opportunity to receive a gift from God. He says, “I want wisdom,” and then we have a series of stories in the Bible that deal with that. The two women that bring the child to him, and he says, “Well, you’re both claiming motherhood. Let’s cut the baby in half,” right? This is one of those wisdom tales. And then you have some apocryphal stories of Solomon’s wisdom.
DAN BELNAP 04:25 It’s not a surprise that these collections of sayings or moral and ethical teachings about how to live a good life are being ascribed to Solomon in the Old Testament. With that said, is he the author of them? Who can say. Probably not, but then again, the text is ascribing him the authorship of these things.
DAN BELNAP 04:44 This is probably a collection of different sayings across a number of ages, in different times by different authors. And that’s what you’re seeing in terms of at least Proverbs.
LAURA HALES 04:56 Some people have said that sages perhaps wrote these—just generic sages in the court. What do you feel about that?
DAN BELNAP 05:05 What we’re ultimately looking at are a group of scribes. This is across the ancient Near East. We’ve got Egyptian and Mesopotamian scribes, Hittite scribes, though the Hittites aren’t really around anymore by the biblical period, or at least the monarchical biblical period. But these scribes, what they did, is they used a number of these texts as scribal exercises. We have copies of these texts that we are realizing aren’t the final copies or the final versions of the texts.
DAN BELNAP 05:32 These are scribes writing this stuff down, and when you look at some of the Mesopotamian texts, in particular, that talk about the scribal tradition, they describe what it’s like to be a scribe, and the learning process of what it means to be a scribe. In a lot of those cases, it’s very possible that some of this literature is arising from scribal exercise and scribal tradition. Most of the Proverbs, for instance, in the Bible are short. They’re pithy, right? Which means they’re easy to write. They could use big vocabulary, but it’s also repetitive stuff, and that repetition would’ve helped a scribe memorize language and know how to work within a language.
DAN BELNAP 06:09 We tend to think of a scribe as one who simply copies down stuff, but when you look at the texts from the ancient Near East, it becomes quite clear that scribes are actually expected to compose and take a concept or an idea and then write that idea down in another fashion, oftentimes in another language. So, learning how to write and think in a particular language becomes extremely important.
DAN BELNAP 06:31 I know this isn’t necessarily a wisdom literature text, but one of the letters that we have in Ugarit is clearly a scribal exercise. When you look at the letter, the individual goes through the entire epistolary formula, or the way in which you write a letter. We do this when we write a letter now in a formal setting. Well, they did that back then, too. What’s fascinating is that in the message that he writes the scribe wrote down every variant of the verb. He used it as a volition, and he used it as a command. He used it here, here, and here. Clearly, he’s practicing how to write these verbal forms within a letter formula.
DAN BELNAP 07:06 If we see that same thing going on in wisdom literature, it’s possible that some of this material is just being handed down from scribe to scribe to scribe. In many cases, the advice that’s given is considered to be father to son—as a good father, this is what I’m going to suggest to you. As a good son, this is what you’re going to do. And in many cases, it has to do with a profession. It’s practical advice.
DAN BELNAP 07:30 The Egyptian wisdom literature, in particular, demonstrates this. This is advice to help you if you’re going to have a mid-level court position, perhaps move up to a higher court position. What happens if, for some reason, you get moved to a lower court position. These have practical advice. If you were a fisherman in Egypt, this isn’t as important to you as it would be to a scribe, who has to interact with these different social hierarchies.
LAURA HALES 07:57 What would you consider wisdom literature in the Old Testament?
DAN BELNAP 08:01 Books that you have in terms of wisdom literature would be Proverbs, obviously, Ecclesiastes, Job is considered that. Once you get out of those three, then you can end up in almost more quasi-type of characteristics, or there’s a lot more overlap with some of the others. Song of Solomon occupies that kind of weird area of, “What exactly are we going to qualify that as? It’s not prophetic. It’s not historical. It’s not really wisdom advice, either.” Wisdom literature sometimes becomes the eclectic everything that doesn’t fit the historical/prophetic material. Now, that’s not exactly true in its fullest context, but when we think of the Bible, we tend to think of it that way.
LAURA HALES 08:43 Where would Psalms fit in there?
DAN BELNAP 08:45 Psalms are often treated as their own type of literature, at least in biblical studies. In the Bible, they treat it differently, too. The Psalms are different. These have to do with temple worship and the worship experience overall. They can be very personal. They can describe the emotions of an individual who’s in distress or suffering in some fashion. They denote the relationship that one has with God. They denote the way in which they think God’s going to be able to interact with them. They denote, as I already said, the role and value of worship and the nature of worship for ancient Israel.
DAN BELNAP 09:19 When we think about worship, we rarely often go to the Psalms to find, “What was their worship practice like,” right? We go to Leviticus, which describes the sacrificial process, and we go, “Oh, that’s what they did. Christ comes. We don’t do that anymore.” Or, we talk about Isaiah and some of these others. If you really want a good sense of what ancient Israel’s worship was like, what they experienced when they worshiped, what they thought the relationship with God was, then the Psalms are pretty good for that.
DAN BELNAP 09:45 They’re not exactly wisdom literature in that same format. It’s not advice in the same way. But with that said, there are wisdom themes that you can find in Psalms, no question.
LAURA HALES 09:55 It’s the one place in the Old Testament where you know you can find devotional material. Those of us who are used to reading the Book of Mormon and the New Testament think, “Oh, the Old Testament was read for devotional reasons,” which isn’t entirely accurate.
DAN BELNAP 10:09 Sure. It’s funny you say that. President Benson once said that the Psalms are a particular balm for the soul, and I like that. As a scholar, I also like exploring it to find out what Israel’s worship was like. We don’t think about it much, but read the Psalms, and there’s a lot of singing. There’s a lot of praising. There’s a lot of joy that’s involved in this.
DAN BELNAP 10:27 And again, primarily from a Christian perspective—and Latter- day Saints fit within that—we tend to think of the Law of Moses and the practice of the Law of Moses as, as my students would say, “Letter of the Law.” But when you read the Psalms, they didn’t see it that way. This was an expression of joy, of fulfillment, of even revelation. If you look in the Psalms, there are many of them that say they expect a revelatory experience at the temple, and that’s not something radically different than what we expect.
LAURA HALES 10:56 Wonderful. What major themes and concepts can we find in wisdom literature?
DAN BELNAP 11:01 You can divide wisdom literature into a couple categories, and, of course, you’re asking primarily about biblical literature. One would be practical, just practical advice. That’s particularly true when you look across ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature. As I mentioned earlier, wisdom literature was being written by these scribes who engaged in the politics and the court, and the culture of these different civilizations.
DAN BELNAP 11:24 And when they would do that, that advice showed that. For instance, some of the Egyptian practical literature was simply things like, “Keep your mouth shut. Don’t speak up as much. Don’t always speak your opinion. Listen to everybody else, and then do it.” That’s just practical advice. It’s not bad advice, either. But it’s good practical advice. There’s no theological meaning behind that. You’ve got practical advice, and the Psalms do that, too, right? “A prudent man” does the following things. “A fool” does the following things.
DAN BELNAP 11:53 You have just good practical advice about how to get along with other people. It’s not exactly the same. It’s not wisdom literature per se. The closest thing you might have in the New Testament is, for instance, James. James includes a lot of practical advice about how Christians should get along with other people, including other Christians. You’ve got practical advice that you can find in Proverbs and elsewhere.
DAN BELNAP 12:15 I would then add that you have another set of literature that describes practical advice for a relationship with God, and this can be intermingled within the same chapter of, for example, Proverbs. For ancient Israel, that would be practical advice. “What did he do? A true man, a prudent man, fears the Lord. He understands the law. He keeps the commandments.” That type of thing. That’s good, practical, theological advice as well.
DAN BELNAP 12:40 You can have that type of practical advice. Not only just how to get along in terms of the world around you but also how to get along with God, and that’s pretty good advice. Outside of that, then you deal with other themes, and one would be the importance of wisdom. Now, this is pretty specific to Proverbs. In chapters 1–9 of Proverbs, for instance, you’re introduced to Wisdom, or what biblical scholars call Lady Wisdom, because she’s personified, and she’s treated as an individual.
DAN BELNAP 13:07 The contrast there is between a fool versus Lady Wisdom, and Lady Wisdom is very hospitable. She’s very caring. Her worth is greater than rubies and diamonds. She’s existed before the world was. You’ve got a passage in those chapters that describes Wisdom as involved in the creation of the Earth with God: “And He existed before the mountains and that Wisdom was there.” Part of that might simply reflect that wisdom literature is often thought of as a later form of literature but uses some very early themes. By virtue of that, it could very well be much earlier. Like there was an earlier set of texts out there that became the wisdom literature that we have now.
DAN BELNAP 13:51 For that reason, the creation story is a big one. Again, creation is where God takes unorganized stuff and organizes it into the cosmos, for lack of a better term. And that’s true. But there’s always been what’s known as this—and here’s a vocab for the day—sapiential approach to this, or a thinking, that there’s a mental process that’s involved in these things. Our creation story has that, in the sense that God spoke, and these things came into being. He’s not manipulating with his hands. He’s manipulating it through a thinking process. It’s already got a sapiential theme to it. In wisdom literature, this is developed even further.
DAN BELNAP 14:33 The creation story became a way to demonstrate organization and structure, which is as useful for the social environment as much as it is the physical environment. It’s no surprise to see creation themes showing up within here too.
LAURA HALES 14:46 The themes in the wisdom literature that you find in the Bible are themes that you find in the ancient Near East, in general, aren’t they?
DAN BELNAP 14:56 They can be. We don’t know who the individuals are within Israelite wisdom literature. There’s a father. There’s a son. There’s a mother. There are these individuals. They’re just anonymous Israelite figures, literary figures. Let’s put it that way. The literary figures have a different relationship with deity than you see Egyptian literary wisdom figures. Deity may show up in Egyptian wisdom literature, but they don’t play a particular role the same way. In fact, much of Egyptian literature is going to be practical advice: how to get along in court, how to get along with your fellow man, and how to move up in court.
DAN BELNAP 15:34 Israelite wisdom literature is different in that the relationship with deity is different. Same thing in Mesopotamia. The Israelite relationship is different with their deity. Now, it’s possible that you’ve got a different relationship with deity in Ammon and Moab, and some of these other smaller states around Israel, too. Most of these have a recognition of multiple Gods, but they have one particular God that they work with, right?
DAN BELNAP 15:58 Getting to Egypt and Mesopotamia, both of these other cultures have polytheism, and are truly polytheistic, meaning there are multiple Gods that are equal in significance. In Moab and Ammon, these smaller states around Israel, you might believe in multiple Gods, but there’s really only one God that you interact with. And that’s certainly the case in ancient Israel, where the only God you interact with is Jehovah. These individuals seem to have a different relationship. It’s possible, if we did find Moabite or Ammonite wisdom literature, it would look very similar to Israelite wisdom literature.
DAN BELNAP 16:30 But we don’t. All we have is Israelite wisdom literature for this region. You certainly see that Israelites have a different relationship, a closer relationship, a relationship where they expect certain things from the divine beings in a way that you’re not seeing in these other, larger cultures.
LAURA HALES 16:51 Using the example of Job, he had certain expectations of how God would interact in his life. But also, major themes that are present in other Old Testament books are missing from wisdom literature, such as redemption history, the Torah, or election, which has caused some people to say, “Maybe these are secular and have been passed around.” What do you think about that?
DAN BELNAP 17:18 To that argument, I can understand it. But anyone who reads Job or reads Proverbs, for instance, will notice there is a lot of instruction in there that I would call theological. It’s not exactly the same. It’s not the redemption history. It doesn’t have that same relationship, but I think one of the reasons is that wisdom literature is very personal. Now, I get that it’s practical advice that anyone can use, but what it deals with is one-on-one relationships. It doesn’t describe group relationships.
DAN BELNAP 17:44 When you’re talking about the redemption of a people, that’s just not going to simply be a part of wisdom literature. It isn’t a part of any culture. You could say the same thing about Egypt or Mesopotamia. And I’ve already made the case that they’re already more secular, but I think one of the reasons is it’s a one-on-one relationship that’s being described socially within those texts. With that said, Israel includes God in almost all of that.
DAN BELNAP 18:07 When you go through the Proverbs, you will find places that say, “The prudent man is the one who fears the Lord. The prudent man is the one who knows the secrets of the Lord. The wise man is the one who knows the Law.” And at that point, I’m like, “How is that not, then, being theological?” It’s being done on an individual level.
LAURA HALES 18:23 Excellent insight. Let’s go on to the individual books. Let’s start with Ecclesiastes because I think it’s a really fun book. If nothing else, for that wonderful quote, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”
DAN BELNAP 18:37 Sure. One of the interesting parts of wisdom literature, at least for me—and again, I’m speaking across the ancient Near East—is that wisdom literature was a genre where people could make claims that I don’t think you would make a claim to in any other context.
LAURA HALES 18:55 It was a safe space.
DAN BELNAP 18:57 For whatever reason, this type of literature was a place where you could talk about things and in many cases, pessimistic things. Ecclesiastes is one of these books. This is an interesting book in that what it does is it outlines the limitations that mankind has. You’ve got limitations elsewhere, I understand that, but this is where it explores what man can do and what he can’t do.
DAN BELNAP 19:20 It’s interesting because in Mesopotamia, that is actually done through epics, as well, which are larger, narrative structures. Think Epic of Gilgamesh. That story is a pretty pessimistic story when you look at the overall arch of it. You have an individual who is a king. He wants to become immortal, and by the end of this, he doesn’t even get rejuvenation. He fails on that. He gets back from his long journey having failed in everything, having not accomplished what he wanted to do. But he looks at the walls of his city, and he says, “This is a marvelous city. Look at what it is, and I’m lucky to be a king of it.” And then the epilogue to this thing says, “And these are your limitations. Don’t go beyond a man. Find joy in your limitations.”
DAN BELNAP 19:59 Well, that’s very much an Ecclesiastes message—this idea that there are limits. You are going to die; suffering is just a part of life. With that said, appreciate what you’ve got. The famous Ecclesiastes quote is, “There’s a time to die. There’s a time to live. There’s a time to weep. There’s a time to sing.” All of that stuff is to show there are limits to mortality, and the human existence is one that has limits.
DAN BELNAP 20:23 What it shows to me, more than anything else, is a complexity and a recognition that the ancient world was as nuanced as ours is today. We don’t think that. We tend to think the ancient world is less cultured, less sophisticated, just “less” because they don’t have all the same modern stuff that we do.
DAN BELNAP 20:41 But the concerns that they had were exactly the same, and they certainly recognize the limits of their mortality, probably even better than we do. Life expectations were much shorter. Lifespans were shorter. Health—you didn’t have a doctor the same way that you do here. They were much closer to mortality and recognizing mortality in daily life than we ever are, and that shows up in this literature, at least in these places. They see it, and they know it.
LAURA HALES 21:05 Did the Israelites articulate an existence past death?
DAN BELNAP 21:10 Yes and no. You can find it, but it’s rare. We don’t see the LDS doctrine and the idea of the spirit world show up in the same format. We’ve got a number of narratives that suggest there is life after death, but these are spotty verses, scattered through different books such as the story of Samuel, Saul, and the witch. That’s one that suggests that they know about an afterlife.

The fact that we have funerary practices where you take care of the dead suggests that they see value in recognizing that they’ve moved on, and they’re just in a different state. They’re not just lumps of matter now. They still are family in some fashion. This also suggests that they do have an understanding of the afterlife, but they recognize it is different as well.

DAN BELNAP 21:49 And that can show up, certainly, by the New Testament time period, when you have the Sadducees questioning Christ about marriage after death and that whole thing during the last week of his life. So, this woman, who was married, she married a man. He didn’t have children, so she marries the next son, so on and so forth. They ask the question, “Whose is she?” in the resurrection. Christ answers that question, but then he goes further and says, “You didn’t get this right, anyway. You don’t happen to believe in a resurrection.” The Sadducees don’t, and the reason they don’t believe in it is because there is no mention of an afterlife or a resurrection in the five books of Moses.
LAURA HALES 22:22 If we talk reception history, then, without that vision of an afterlife, the message of Ecclesiastes probably was more powerful.
DAN BELNAP 22:32 Well, again, what it emphasizes, as almost all wisdom literature does, is the mortal experience. To those, again, who make the case that this is secular literature, what I would say to that is, “I get that because the whole focus is on your mortal experience. It’s not talking about salvation. It’s not talking about eternal life. That’s not a part of it. The concern is how do you get through mortality right now. That’s the function of wisdom literature, more than anything else. How do you get through mortality? If it’s practical advice, how do you move through the social structure of daily life? If it’s theology, it’s the theology that gets you through day-to-day. If it’s Ecclesiastes, what are the limits to mortality that you and I need to be aware of and concern ourselves with, and by virtue of that, know how to live a good, happy life for mortality? It’s not literature that’s concerned with these larger, theological issues of salvation. Now, if that’s why people say it’s not theological, then there you go. With that said, I think figuring out how to live a good day-to-day life is absolutely essential to a living theology.
LAURA HALES 23:36 That’s a great point to make. Let’s talk about Job now. We learned from a prior podcast that we did with Michael Austin that there is a Job past the first two chapters—a whole bunch of experiences that we don’t usually attribute to the Book of Job when we’re just going through it quickly, maybe in our Gospel Doctrine class. Walk us through Job, briefly.
DAN BELNAP 23:59 Job would fit, what I call, a sub-genre of wisdom literature. If we said Ecclesiastes is a more pessimistic piece of literature, then Job fits the most pessimistic piece of literature. And again, it’s all back to this daily stuff, right? If you’re thinking wisdom literature deals with, “How do you deal with a day-to-day experience?” then one of the biggest issues the ancient world is dealing with is, “Why do bad things keep happening?” That type of literature is known as a theodicy. Really any time you ask that question, “Where does evil come from? What is evil? Why do bad things keep happening to really, really good people?” these are theodicies. You can find theodicies across the ancient Near East. The most pessimistic are, by far, Mesopotamian theodicies.
DAN BELNAP 24:46 There’s a famous text in there of a man who is complaining to his friend. It’s Job, right? It’s the same basic story, and the man is talking about how, “I’ve done everything.” His friend says, “Well, you ought to pray to God and trust in the Gods.” He’s like, “I have. What I find is that the Gods, themselves, somehow seem to treat the thief with greater wealth than those who bring their offering to the temple all the time.” They do this back-and-forth, back-and-forth, just like you have in Job. Well, then the big difference is that by the end of the piece, though, the man has clearly convinced his friend that the Gods aren’t to be trusted. This whole exchange, it’s like, “What can you do? The Gods are inscrutable. They’re unknowable. You don’t know why they do what they do. It’s better to stay under the radar then and just not engage with them because who knows why they’re going to do what they do? You just don’t know.”
DAN BELNAP 25:38 In that aspect of wisdom literature of theodicy, they’re clearly trying to explain misfortune. Misfortune arises from these scenarios of which they don’t have an explanation for. They’re just a part of mortality. You’d like to say the Gods are going to be able to judge that and treat things fairly, but, as the Mesopotamians are aware, that’s not reality. The wicked seem to be treated just fine, and mortality seems to go okay for them.
LAURA HALES 26:08 I see Job as a reaction to that timeless comment, “God wouldn’t give you anything you can’t handle.” And Job says, “Oh, yeah? You think so? Look at this.”
DAN BELNAP 26:19 Here’s the difference with Job. To that set-up, what I just said, and when I do teach this, this is what I point out with Job: Job is unlike all those other theodicies. In the other theodicies that we have—and granted, maybe there’s a whole bunch out there that are even more like Job, but we don’t have them—is that the story starts without Job. The story starts in the divine realm where there is God interacting with these other beings. The reason why that’s a big deal is what you’re told in the chapter why Job is going to go through what he goes through. That reason why is a big difference between Job theodicy versus other ancient Near Eastern theodicies. In the others, as I just said, we don’t know why these things happen. They just happen, and the Gods must do it, but we don’t know why. Chapter 1 of Job changes that. You actually do know why. The reader can disagree, and the reader can say, “That’s maybe unfair.” But now, at least, you know why God does what he does.
DAN BELNAP 27:23 One great biblical scholar—I want to say it’s Hackett, Joanne Hackett, if I’m remembering right—wrote about Job. She points out, what’s interesting about that story, is recognizing that the Satan figure, ha satan, that’s the Hebrew, “The Satan.” When you throw that ha in there, that’s the definite article “the” in Hebrew, and when you do that, now it’s changing from an actual individual to a position. That figure is pointing out a problem. When God is saying, “The world is all in order. Everything’s working great and using Job as the example,” the figure says, “Wait a minute, though. You’ve blessed Job, and therefore everything’s great for Job. How do you know everything’s actually working the way it should when you’re blessing it and no one is experiencing that hardship?”
DAN BELNAP 28:06 In that scenario, it’s not Satan as you and I would know him, as the adversary who was kicked out of Heaven, but this divine figure who’s pointing out, “We don’t actually know whether the world is working right, because what we’re doing is we’ve blessed this individual, and he’s righteous, sure. But is his righteousness true without the blessing? If it is, then the world is working the way it should. Let’s take away the blessings and see if he’s still righteous.”
LAURA HALES 28:31 It seems to me that it’s responding to other Job stories out there, like so much of the Old Testament. It’s their response. In all these other myths, we don’t know why, but, in our culture, in our religion, we know.
DAN BELNAP 28:48 Maybe.
LAURA HALES 28:51 Historical forces …
DAN BELNAP 28:54 The reason I say that is there’s nothing that—and I could be wrong—I’ll admit that I’m not necessarily the world’s expert at this. But from what I read in Job, I don’t see it engaging directly with any of these other traditions, beyond the one that I just pointed out. There’s clearly a divine explanation as to why he’s doing what he does, which we don’t find in other theodicies of the ancient Near East. Does the author know that? I can’t say. It’s there. That’s what I can say. There’s a difference between the Job in theodicy versus these other theodicies. Did the author know those differences? I don’t know.
LAURA HALES 29:30 Fair enough. We’ve already talked about the Proverbs a little bit. We’ve touched on them—short, pithy statements, with the majority from father to son. Give us an overview of Proverbs.
DAN BELNAP 29:42 Proverbs is a collection of saying and teachings that can be divided in, really, two sections, though they’re not equal. I really would look at the personification of Wisdom, that’s Chapters 1 and 9, as its own separate collection. It’s got pithy sayings in there, too, but they’re all being coordinated into a larger narrative structure of Wisdom, of your interaction with Woman Wisdom, with Lady Wisdom. She is treated as a—not female counterpart of God, because she’s not equal with God—but certainly a female envoy of God, and there’s power to that.
DAN BELNAP 30:15 She’s not a divine being, and you don’t worship Wisdom, but she is a divine being that you can interact with and get a sense of, “What is the divine thinking that lies behind things?” Wisdom is an important figure for the Israelites to get to know. It’s more scribal. It’s a little bit abstract. That’s not daily advice the way you see it elsewhere.
DAN BELNAP 30:35 Then, you get the collection after that, and that’s pretty much made up of a series of sayings, of phrases, of maybe one-liners that just give good, basic sound advice—how to be a good parent and how to be a good child are two of the biggest ones right there. I’m not saying it’s a parenting “how-to-do” manual. But, these are the interactions that Israel is maybe concerned with most. So, how to be a good person in Israelite society is what makes up the rest of them.
LAURA HALES 31:02 Excellent. You’ve given us some great things to think about. You teach wisdom literature in your ancient Near Eastern studies classes. What would you say wisdom literature contributes to our body of canon?
DAN BELNAP 31:16 The first thing I’d say is that there isn’t a lot of it. When the compilers put it together, they didn’t put in probably as much as they could have. But, without harping on something that I’ve been saying throughout, these books are great for understanding how to be a good, decent person. You can say, “Well, Isaiah does that too.” Yes, but they use these larger, theological themes that deal with salvation, that deal with pre-mortality, that deal with this. Wisdom literature is practical, great advice for day-to-day living.
LAURA HALES 31:45 It’s like religion on the ground.
DAN BELNAP 31:47 It is, and I used an example earlier: James does that, right? James asks, “What is true religion?” It’s taking care of these individuals. It’s not talking about why you do it for a special kingdom. It’s not talking about how this is redemption. It’s good, practical advice. Notice that in James 2, he’s talking about, “Bridle your tongue. Learn to control that thing,” right? The wisdom literature in Proverbs says the exact same thing. And when you look at Egyptian wisdom literature, its practical advice is, “Learn to control your tongue.” This is just good, basic, practical advice.
LAURA HALES 32:22 Thanks, Dan, I really appreciated visiting with you today.
DAN BELNAP 32:25 My pleasure.

Disclaimer:     LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and LDS Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of LDS Church leaders, policies, or practices.

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