Covenant faith

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Tyndale Bulletin 17 (1966) 3-33.



Among the great gains in biblical scholarship in recent years

has been the rediscovery of the importance of holy history.

We have become increasingly aware that God's revelation

centres in the record of His redemptive acts and in the inspired

interpretation of them by prophets and apostles. Other

approaches, like the study of Israel's faith as an expression of

man's search for ethical order or as a chapter in the history of

world religions, have given way to an emphasis on the unique-

ness of Israel's role among the ancient peoples. Her election

and the covenant which God made with her, her attitude

towards her calling, her preoccupation with history more than

nature, her non-mythological faith, her cultus whose moral

demands took priority to ritual—these and many similar ideas

have captured the attention of European and American

scholars in the past three decades.

Redemptive history has rightly become the mainline of Old

Testament interpretation. Recent approaches to hermeneutics

contentrate on the historical connection between the Testa-

ments, rather than on the similarities in ethical instruction or

spiritual values. Typology, the study of the orderly patterns

which God has followed in steering the course of holy history,

has become a dominant theme. Time and again we meet the

phrase ‘promise and fulfilment’ in biblical studies.1 The Exodus

and its preparation in the patriarchal period, the Monarchy

and its previews in the days of the Judges, the Exile and return

* Delivered in Cambridge on 10th July, 1965.

1. See for instance, Claus Westermann, ed., Essays on Old Testament

Hermeneutics, John Knox Press, Richmond (1963).
with their intimations of judgment and grace—these have been

the focal points of Old Testament investigations.

An unhappy by-product of this concentration on covenant,

kingship, and cult has been a neglect of other aspects of Old

Testament thought, notably the wisdom literature. Of the

Old Testament theologies with which our generation has been

so abundantly blessed, only von Rad's has sought to do any

thing like justice to the wisdom movement, which is responsible

for the presence of three or four books in the Canon (depending

on the classification of the Song of Songs) and has bequeathed

a rich legacy of literary form and language to the psalmists and

prophets.2 The two great works on the culture of Israel—

Pedersen's and de Vaux's—stress the royal, priestly, and pro-

phetic offices and give only fleeting attention to the role of the

wise men in Old Testament times.

Not that the wisdom literature per se has been neglected.

During the past forty years a great deal of attention has been

given to the interpretation of the individual books, and we are

well equipped with commentaries and topical studies, especially

on Job and Proverbs. A spate of articles and monographs has

appeared on the relationship between Israel's wisdom and that

of her Egyptian and Mesopotamian neighbours. But with all

of this, there has been insufficient wrestling with the precise

connections between wisdom and prophecy, between wisdom

and the cult, between wisdom and the covenantal aspects of

Israel's faith.3

Of course, many scholars have pointed out the fact that

biblical wisdom literature was stamped by Israel's peculiar,

religious convictions. Eichrodt, for instance, observes that the

sapiential writings are brought under the shadow of the cove-

nant as their 'cosmopolitan and religiously neutral worldly

2. H. Wheeler Robinson's Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament,

Clarendon Press, Oxford (1946), also contains a substantial section on

wisdom literature.

3. W. Zimmerli's article, 'Oft und Grenze der Weisheit im Rahmen der

alttestamentlichen Theologie', Gottes Offenbarung, Chr. Kaiser Verlag,

München (1963), English translation in SJT 17 (1964) 146-158, is

one of the welcome exceptions to this statement. See also L. E.

Toombs, 'Old Testament Theology and the Wisdom Literature',

Journal of Bible and Religion 23 (1955) 193-196.
wisdom . . . changes into a means of obedience to the un-

questionable divine command, teaching that true wisdom lies

in the fear of God'.4 H. Wheeler Robinson goes so far as to

define the wisdom movement as 'the discipline whereby was taught

the application of prophetic truth to the individual life in the light of

experience'.5 From these statements and Robinson's general

treatment of wisdom we can see illustrations of the traditional

approaches to wisdom which view it as originally a secular

movement within Israel which gradually came under the influ-

ence of the prophets and attained its present form with its strong

religious orientation fairly late—perhaps in post-exilic times.

In the light of the current tendencies to view the religious

insights of the sages as legacies from the prophets and to slight

wisdom's contribution to the revelation, we shall pursue three

main purposes in this paper. First, we shall try to point out

some of the possible links between the wisdom movement and

Israel's covenant faith. Second, we shall attempt to show that

these links need not be as late as is frequently suggested nor

need they be the product of a purely evolutionary development

within the circles of the sages. Finally, we shall underscore

some of the implications that flow from an enhanced under-

standing of the contributions that wisdom literature makes

to our understanding of the Scriptures and the faith of the




It may be that one of the reasons for the uncertainty as to the

place of wisdom in the Old Testament is the difficulty of defi-

nition. What is wisdom literature? Do we define it in terms

of its literary techniques—riddles, parables, proverbs, analogies

from nature, numerical patterns, acrostics, etc.—or in terms of

its content—practical advice expressed in brief maxims or short

exhortations? Or is it a combination of both? If we define it

in terms of content, what is the relationship between the opti-

4. Man in the Old Testament, SCM, London (1951) 23.

5. Op. cit. 241.


mistic, straightforward, simple observations about the nature

of sin and righteousness with their rewards, and the specula-

tions, questioning, sometimes doubting, of Job and Ecclesiastes?

Proverbs seems to say, 'Here are the rules for life; try them and

find that they will work.' Job and Ecclesiates say, 'We did, and

they don't.'

Furthermore, the problem is compounded by a lack of

information about the part played by wise men in Israel's

culture and the changing nature of their role throughout

Israel's history. We find traces of their work in the riddles,

fables, and proverbs which antedate Solomon. Then with the

opening of the channels of political, social, and commercial

intercourse between Israel and, her neighbours, particularly

Egypt, some sages at least seem to have come under court

patronage as the wise king sought to compose, collect, and edit

the prudential sayings which were one source of his fame (1 Ki.

4:29-34). The precise relationships between sage and prophet

or sage and priest in the Monarchy and Exile can only be

guessed at. The tit-bits of information are so tantalizing and

yet so meagre that they tend to whet our appetites and not to

sate them.

In The New Bible Dictionary I have tried to describe the style

and contents of wisdom, which I take to be a combination of

the literary techniques mentioned above and the age-honoured

themes of the wise men—maxims of blessing and success and

deliberations on the knotty questions of human existence. The

Song of Solomon should probably be included in the wisdom

corpus, because of its literary style, especially its metaphors

drawn from nature, and because the Israelites lumped proverbs

and songs together as kindred literary types (1 Ki. 4:32).6

The links between wisdom literature and Israel's covenant

faith are many and varied. Because there are so many un-

known or uncertain factors in a study like this, a good bit of the

argument must rest on circumstantial evidence. But perhaps

6. Recent discussions of the nature and scope of wisdom literature:

R. B. Y. Scott, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes' 'Anchor Bible', 18, Doubleday,

New York (1965) xv—liii; R. E. Murphy, 'The Concept of Wisdom

Literature', The Bible in Current Catholic Thought, ed. J. L. McKenzie,

Herder & Herder, New York (1962) 46-54.
as the various arguments is are weighed together they will have a

certain corroborative affect, as they suggest how the way of the

sages and the ways of the priests and prophets have paralleled

and criss-crossed each other.

The first link is to be found in the relationship between the establish-

ing of the monarchy and the rise of a wisdom movement in Israel.

Wisdom had been present in the folk-life of Israel from the

beginning. Jotham's fable (Jdg. 9:7-15), Samson's riddle

(Jdg. 14:14), the popular proverb about Saul (1 Sa. 19:24),

and David's wise woman from Tekoa (2 Sa. 14:2ff.) are all so

well known as to make comment superfluous. But at the time

of David, who leaned heavily on the counsel of Ahithophel

(2 Sa. 16:23), and especially at the time of Solomon, wisdom

began to fulfil an official function in the life of Israel. From

this time, through the period of Hezekiah and Jeremiah

(Je. 18:18), the wise men played a key role and did so under

royal patronage.

We have ample evidence that Israel's covenant faith put its

unique stamp on the monarchy from the beginning, since it

was Samuel who first aid down the rules for kingship (1 Sa.

10:25). The Israelite ideal of kingship, though superficially

resembling the royal ideologies of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and

Canaan, stands in all crucial respects in marked contrast to

them. Nathan's encounter with David and David's complete

capitulation to the authority of the covenant as spelled out by

the prophet are reminders that early in the history of the

kingdom all of life—including the life of the king—was sub-

ject to the demands of the covenant faith.7

There is no hint in the Old Testament that the monarchy

began as a secular institution and was gradually shaped to

conform with the covenant tradition. The close association of

Samuel and Saul, as well as Nathan and David, suggests that

from the start the kingship was informed by the covenant

traditions. Israel's king was the complete leader—military

7. The royal psalms (e.g 2, 18, 20, 45, 72, 89, 110, 132) when studied

together give an excellent portrait of the ideal king—a servant of God,

obedient to the covenant while enforcing its demands among the


hero, civil judge, defender of the faith. He was the pivot on

which the common life of the people in all its phases turned,

the glue that gave coherence to the social, political, military

and religious components of the nation. And he was patron

of their wisdom—the personal embodiment of its highest ideals.

It is not likely that wisdom would have been left outside the

canopy of the covenant, when the king, who was its sponsor,

had brought all of life under its shelter.

The second link between wisdom literature and Israel's

covenant faith is to be seen in the fact that the prophets and

wise men seem to have had considerable influence on each other.

Nathan used a parable, not an oracle, to catch the conscience

of his king. The pages of Amos are flecked with literary pat-

terns, images, and concepts from the wisdom movement. The

three-four numerical pattern (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13, etc.), the cause-

and-effect sequence carefully designed to capture his hearers'

consent to his argument for the non-voluntary nature of his

prophetic ministry (3:3-8),8 the rhetorical questions based on

observations from nature (6:12), the stylized questions and

answers with which two of the visions are introduced (7:7-8;

8:1-2) and which serve to create a feeling of suspense as the

answer is delayed,9 and the 'woe' oracles (5:18, 6:1, 6:4),10

are among the rhetorical weapons borrowed from the arsenal

of the sages.

H. W. Wolff has argued forcefully that the earliest of the

writing prophets, Amos, drew far more heavily on Israel's

popular or clan wisdom (Sippenweisheit) than he did on the

cultus. In addition to the literary devices mentioned above he

calls attention to such characteristic themes of Amos as the

8. These and other examples are discussed by Samuel Terrien in his

essay on the contributions of wisdom literature to Amos in the

Muilenberg Festschrift, Israel's Prophetic Heritage, ed. by B. Anderson

and W. Harrelson, Harper, New York, SCM, London (1962).

9. J. Lindblom, 'Wisdom in the Old Testament Prophets', Wisdom in

Israel and in the Ancient Near East, ed. M. Noth and D. Winton Thomas,

E. J. Brill, Leiden (1955) 202.

10. E. Gerstenberger, 'The Woe-Oracles of the Prophets', Journal of

Biblical Literature 81 (1962) 249-263, considers the woe-oracle to be

the negative literary counterpart to the 'ashrey (blessed/happy) formula

which is used so frequently in Psalms and wisdom writings.

relationship of Israel to the nations, the use of words like right

(נכחח), justice (משׁפט), and righteousness (צדקה), the use of

antithetical pairs of words, a concern for the poor and lowly,

and a contempt for profligate living. It is worth noting that

Wolff's index of passages contains at least three times as

many references to Proverbs as to any other Old Testament


Isaiah strikingly combines the use of wisdom techniques

(e.g. the allegory of the vine in ch. 5 and the parable of the

farmer in 28:23-29) with a scathing attack on the empty

wisdom of Israel's political pundits (e.g. 29:14). Though we

may not go along with Fichtner's interpretation of this evidence

as indicating that Isaiah had originally been a wise man, we

can readily admit his indebtedness to the wisdom movement.12

Jeremiah, too, shows his acquaintance with the tools and

techniques of wisdom. Lindblom calls attention to his frequent

use of לקח מוסר (to take correction: 2:30, 5:3, 7:28, 17:23,

32:33, 35:13), an idiom which occurs several times in Proverbs,

where the noun מוסר is found some thirty times. It occurs

about fifteen times in the rest of the Old Testament. Though

Lindblom attributes the passage in Jeremiah 17:5-11 to

redactors of a wisdom school, he goes on to say that 'the

fact that reminiscences of wisdom are spread over the whole

book suggests that Jeremiah himself as well as his disciples had

special connections with the wisdom school'.13

Of the many themes which the wise men and prophets share,

only one will be mentioned here—an emphasis on rewards or

punishments granted or meted by God to individuals.14

Although Jeremiah and Ezekiel are the first prophets to bring

the doctrine of individual retribution into bold relief ( Je.

31:29-30; Ezk. 18:1ff.), the idea was present in the religious

11. H. W. Wolff, Amos' geistige Heimat, Neukirchener Verlag (1964).

12. J. Fichtner, ‘Jesaja unter den Weisen’, Th. L. 74 (1949) cols 75ff.

One could argue on similar grounds that Isaiah had been a priest,

because of his keen interest in and criticism of the cultus.

13. J. Lindblom, Prophecy in Ancient Israel, Blackwell, Oxford (1962) 238.

14. For themes which both Prophets and wise men deal with, see H.

Ranston, The Old Testanent Wisdom Books, Epworth Press, London

(1930) 18ff.


life of Israel from the beginning.15 The stories of Cain and

Abel and the patriarchal wanderings turn on it, especially the

Joseph story. [This is considered by von Rad and others as a

wisdom story. In it von Rad finds the distilled essence of

wisdom teaching, both in the devout and wise conduct of

Joseph and especially in the implicit affirmation that all of life

is under the sovereign sway of God.16]

When we see the doctrine of individual retribution present

in the early stories, we are not surprised, to find it in the wisdom

literature. It is not peculiar to wisdom, though it bulks large

in the thinking of the sages. This retribution is not the result

of an impersonal mechanistic fate but that of a personal God,

a judge of all the earth who does right. A characteristic of

certain of the proverbs, as von Rad reminds us, is that they

‘speak very directly of the displeasure (or pleasure) which God

has in certain practices or ways of human behaviour’.17 There

is a conflict of opinion as to whether the idea of retribu-

tion was present in wisdom literature from the beginning or was

added later. Rankin holds that ‘. . . from the very outset in

Israel's wisdom-writings the religious sanction of right conduct,

the motive supplied by the idea of God's blessing and curse,

was present',18 while von Rad attributes the idea originally to

secular teaching about orders and natural laws.19 Perhaps it is

safe to say that wherever a specific agent of judgment is men-

tioned it is not fate or natural law but Yahweh who passes sen-

tence (e.g. Pr. 16:5). We should pause to observe that the frequent

use of the divine name Yahweh in Proverbs, especially in what

seem to be the oldest strata, cannot be overlooked in a study of

the contribution that wisdom and the covenant faith have

made to each other. Though in Proverbs the name may not

always ring with its redemptive significance, it is surely going

15. O. S. Rankin, Israel's Wisdom Literature, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh

(1936) 69.

16. G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology, E. Tr. Harper, New York (1962)

I, 440.

17. Op. cit. 437. He cites as examples 11:1, 20; 15:8, 9, 26; 16:5, 7

17:15; 20:10, 23; 21:3; 22:11.

18. Loc. cit.

19. Op. cit. 436.


too far to say, as Rylaarsdam does, that for the sages 'it simply

means "deity" in a general sense'.20

When the great eighth-century prophets began to sound

their indictments against the injustices of their day and when

Jeremiah and Ezekiel made it clear that individuals were to be

punished personally for their disloyalty to the covenant terms,

they were not heralding new standards but calling the people

back to old ones.21 In other words, they were drawing on one

of the rich traditions of Israel's faith—a tradition present in

wisdom literature but not exclusively so. Gerstenberger's

summation is noteworthy: 'The (prophets') process of taking

over the old ethical rule and applying them to the new situa-

tion—in the name of Yahweh!—proves that the prophets

believed that this very order of society, of which the wise men

were the guardians, was he order sanctioned by Yahweh which

had to be maintained.'22

We should not overlook the similarities between Proverbs,

especially chapters 1-9, and Deuteronomy when we discuss

possible links between wisdom literature and the covenant

faith of Israel. Rylaarsdam cites the admonitions of Proverbs

that parental instruction should be fastened to the neck or

fingers (Pr. 6:21-22; 7:3; cf. Dt. 6:4-9), and the promise that

20. J. Rylaarsdam, Revelation in Jewish Wisdom Literature, University of

Chicago. Press (1957) 21, following Fichtner. It seems rather inconsis-

tent to say, as Rylaarsdam does, that the writers of the early sections

of Proverbs used `Yahweh' without intending its particularistic sense,

while maintaining (as Rylaarsdam does) that the sage who gave us

Job shied away from using 'Yahweh' because it was 'still too strongly

coloured by tribal and national hues to permit its safe use in discussions

which had a universal interest' (op. cit. 22).

21. The 'wild grapes' proverb like all proverbs, must be considered an

overstatement of the corporate nature of Israel's life. It does not rule

out an equally important, equally ancient emphasis on individualism.

22. Gerstenberger, op. cit. 62. He goes on to make the point that both

the descriptions of the social situation in the eighth century and the

prophetic denunciation of them may not have been historically unique

but may have been based on pre-formed patterns or standardized

reproaches of social wrongs. His conclusion is pertinent to our dis-

cussion of the possible interrelationship between sage and prophet:

‘The myth that it was the prophets who invented the ethical maxims

behind their charges must be discarded in the light of the evidence’


the upright will inherit the land, as Deuteronomic touches

(Pr. 2:21; 10:30; cf. Dt. 4:21; 15:4; 19:10; etc.).23 Quite

recently Jean Malfroy has pointed out some marked similarities

in vocabulary, style, and content between Deuteronomy and

wisdom literature and has tried to show the impact of sapiential

techniques and motifs on the presentation of the law.24

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