Robert Alter, “The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes”

I have an (also favorable) post on this author’s translation of the Psalms, the relevant part of which post reads:

The secondary title is “A Translation with Commentary,” and that’s what it is:  You read the translated psalm, and then the author’s footnotes explicate the psalm and also explain some of his translation decisions.  The commentary is succinct and incisive, neither philosophical nor roaming.

The author is quite an accomplished scholar, and he takes the text seriously (he’s Jewish, and I recall that a friend of mine said that he serves as a rabbi near Berkeley), though he freely admits the textual and historical problems that are sometimes present.

All that’s true here, too; I’ve also learned that the author was an editor at Commentary for many years.  While the notes here are fairly limited — they tend to be historical and an explanation of translation choices —  he prefaces each of the three translated Wisdom books with a short essay.  He’s no cheerleader, but he’s no debunker either:  He likes Scripture.  Other notes:

  • It’s interesting that God has Job pray for his friends.
  • Alter characterizes Ecclesiastes’s author as “conservative” (338; see also 368 n.12).
  • He likes the King James Version of Ecclesiastes (339).
  • “Much of the wisdom of Proverbs … is oriented pragmatically toward the world of commerce or labor” (240 n.1).
  • “We are unlikely ever to have a confident explanation of why [Ecclesiastes] — or, for that matter, Job or Esther or the Song of Songs — entered the canon, but its inclusion suggests that the canon may not have been determined solely on grounds of ideological and theological conformity” (343).
  • He explains how Eccl. 4:12 (“the triple cord will not quickly be snapped”) is related to Gilgamesh (360 n.12).
  • Eccl. 9:15 is translated, “… that person saved his town through his wisdom, but no one recalled that poor man” (379).

I also photocopied three longer passages; I was able to cut and paste them below, thanks to this website [link: ].

Here’s the first (xvi):

   Proverbs is the only one of the three canonical Wisdom books that might conceivably reflect the activities of some sort of academy. Composed in verse from beginning to end, it often seems to utilize the mnemonic function of poetry to inscribe in memory principles of right and wrong, and one can plausibly imagine a teacher imparting instruction of this sort to his disciples. The poetry in Proverbs, however, is by no means restricted to serving as an aid to memory, and we shall have occasion to observe a variety of arresting and at times surprising purposes to which poetry is put in this book. Job, apart from the prose frame-story of the first two chapters and the last one, is composed entirely as poetry, and it often proves to be poetry of a highly innovative and sometimes deliberately disturbing kind. Qohelet [i.e., Ecclesiastes]  uses strongly cadenced, evocative prose, perhaps qualifying as prose-poetry, which in two extended passages moves into formal verse. All three books, then, deploy manifestly literary means to shape their visions of human life.

   Wisdom literature is as close as the ancient Near East came to Greek philosophy, which was nearly contemporaneous with the latest Wisdom texts of the Hebrew Bible. It shares with Greek philosophy an inquiry into values and a disposition to reflect on the human condition, but it lacks both the purely theoretical and the systematic impulses of the Greek thinkers. Ethical issues are raised, but there is no real ontology, epistemology, anthropology, or metaphysics, and much of the thrust of Near Eastern Wisdom is pragmatic and even explicitly didactic. Job, for all its profundity, is a theological rather than a philosophic text. Its author is God-obsessed and never wonders or speculates about God’s existence but rather expresses his outrage at the spectacular injustice of a world governed by a purportedly just God. Qohelet, concerned as it is with the structure of reality and how ephemeral human life is locked into that structure, is close to a genuinely philosophic work, though it articulates its philosophy through incantatory language and haunting imagery rather than through systematic thought.

Here’s the second (230, discussing Proverbs 8:22-24):

22 The Lord created me at the outset of His way,
the very first of His works of old.
23 In remote eons I was shaped,
at the start of the first things of earth.
24 When there were no deeps I was spawned,
when there were no wellsprings, water-sources.

22. The Lord created me at the outset of His way. Although Lady Wisdom is still speaking, the section from here through verse 31 looks like a new poem or, at the very least, a distinct new segment of the same poem. The speech from verse 1 through verse 21 is a celebration by Wisdom of her powers—her gift of plain and accessible discourse, the preciousness of her words, her indispensability as a guide to all who govern, the material benefits she conveys to her followers. It must be said that much of the poetry of this section deploys boilerplate language, echoing quite similar formulations—or even formulas—that one encounters elsewhere in Proverbs. The poem that begins with verse 22 has a cosmic framework rather than a pragmatic one: Lady Wisdom’s self-celebration goes back to the role she played as God’s intimate before He launched on the work of creation. This cosmic and cosmogonic prominence of Wisdom may well have provided a generative clue for the prose-poem about the Logos (“In the beginning was the word…”) in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. In rabbinic tradition, it was a trigger for the idea that God made the world by following the blueprint of the Torah, which pre-existed creation; and later the Kabbalah would elaborate this notion with a theosophic apparatus. This cosmic vision, moreover, is articulated in soaring poetry that seems quite unlike the poetry of the preceding section.
   the very first of His works of old. Or “before His works of old.” It is not entirely clear whether the poet intends this as a literal account of the order of creation, which is how this line was understood by later Jewish and Christian tradition, or whether this whole idea of the primordial presence of Wisdom is a kind of mythic hyperbole to express Wisdom’s crucial importance in the order of things.

And here’s the third (368, discussing Ecclesiastes 6:12; I noted, “Hayekian”):

12 what is the advantage for man? For who knows what is good for man in life, in his days of mere breath, for he spends them like a shadow? Who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?

12. For who knows what is good for man. This question follows on “there are many words that increase mere breath.” Qohelet is a Wisdom writer who constantly questions the value of wisdom. He knows that a human life is likely to be bleak, that it is intrinsically unpredictable, may end badly, and will surely be blotted out by death. His “wisdom” is to register this perception, but, apart from his occasional exhortations to enjoy, he does not presume to know what is good for man, unlike the purveyors of mainline Wisdom.