Vednesdays with Westermann, Veek II.

In the Introduction of Roots of Wisdom: The Oldest Proverbs of Israel and Other Peoples, Westermann lays out his basic assumptions as well as the trajectory of the book.

Basic Assumptions from Part I of the Introduction1:

“Wisdom is a capacity that is inherent in human beings as persons. It is a human trait, an element of our createdness. Although people are not wise by virtue of being created, they are created with the potential of thinking, speaking, and acting wisely. This capacity cannot be denied anyone; in fact, it was once even said that animals could behave wisely (Prov. 30:24-28)”2⁠.

“That wisdom, as a secular concept, should become a component of both Testaments of the Bible is due to the fact that it is inherent in creation – more specifically, human creation. The Creator bestowed on the human being the capability of finding his own way through life and of understanding himself (thus W. Zimmerli) of distinguishing between that which is good or evil, beneficial or destructive. Because this capacity is bestowed on all, it is part of the universal narrative about human beings found in Genesis 1-11 primeval history, taken as a whole, but appears also in the Psalms, the book of Job, Deutero-Isaiah, and many other passages that deal with the human journey from birth to death”3⁠⁠.

I personally agree with most of the first paragraph; however, I disagree with the later. I don’t think wisdom was considered a secular concept, in Egypt, Babylon or Israel. Wisdom seems to be grounded in a worldview that was thoroughly religious. In regards to the general worldview of the Mesopotamians as it relates to the wisdom tradition, Richard Clifford has correctly stated that, “Wisdom belongs to the gods and there must be a process so that it can be given to others. In the chain of transmission in Mesopotamia, scribes are in a line going back to Ea. Wisdom comes to human beings mediated by authorities in the community, such as a kings, teachers, and parents”.4

Essentially Westermann believes that the earliest sapiential literature began in a preliterate form (spoken form). Preliterate wisdom, by its nature, would have to be terse (one to two lines of material), clever, and memorable. This criteria is then used to judge whether or not such literature had an earlier beginning.

The problem, in my view, with this thesis is that new material, mimicking an older style, could be added to older material without a discernible difference. I don’t think that Westermann’s criteria is a good control for determining the general dating of material blocks. However, his basic concept of earlier material consisting of “an apt linguistic expression that was accepted by those listening to him5⁠” does make sense, but it does not account for later proverbs being written in the style of earlier pithy sayings.

Introduction Part II.

Westermann is kind enough to show us who his dialog partners are in his research by providing the reader with a brief History of research. What follows is a great entry point to pick up where Westermann’s own study leaves off.

1Indented material represent the general thoughts provided by Westermann. Non-indented material is my interaction with Westermann’s ideas.

2Claus Westermann, Roots of Wisdom: The Oldest Proverbs of Israel and Other Peoples (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 1


4Richard J. Clifford, The Wisdom Literature (Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press, 1998), 26

5Westermann, Roots of Wisdom, 2

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