Christian Living

Wisdom in the Bible and the ANE

Old Testament scholars have noted an interesting overlap in ANE wisdom literature. On the one hand you have a book like Proverbs, which is divinely inspired and a special part of the Canon. But on the other hand you have sources like Amenemope, an Egyptian collection of wisdom sayings, which is polytheistic. Perhaps shockingly some of the statements in the Egyptian wisdom parallel what we would find in Proverbs. Note the following examples.

Wealth is Not Everything

Better is poverty in the hand of the god, than wealth in the storehouse;
Better is bread with a happy heart, than wealth with vexation (Amenemope 9.5-9).

Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity
than a rich man who is crooked in his ways (Prov 28:6).

Integrity and Fairness in Transactions

Do not remove the scales nor alter the weights Nor diminish the fractions of the measure; Do not desire a measure of the fields, Nor neglect those of the treasury (Amenemope 17.18-21).

A false balance is an abomination to the Lord,
but a just weight is his delight (Prov 11:1).

Caution in Persuing the Temporality of Wealth

Do not strain to seek excess when your possessions are secure. If riches are brought to you by robbery, they will not stay the night in your possession. When the day dawns they are no longer in your house. Their place can be seen but they are no longer there. The earth opened its mouth to crush and swallow them and plunged them in dust. They make themselves a great hole, as large as they are. And sink themselves in the underworld. They make themselves wings like geese, and fly to heaven (Amenemope 9.14-10.5).

Do not toil to acquire wealth;
be discerning enough to desist.
When your eyes light on it, it is gone,
for suddenly it sprouts wings,
flying like an eagle toward heaven (Prov 23:4-5).

A simple comparison like this demonstrates that Egyptian wisdom has some valuable insights on life. In fact, in praising Solomon’s wisdom, the Bible declares his wisdom as superior to that of the Egyptians (1 Kings 4:29-30). That would not be much of a compliment if Egypt’s wisdom was considered meager.

Although some scholars use these kinds of comparisons to try and demonstrate that Israel borrowed their wisdom traditions from Egypt, that is not necessarily the case. It is just as likely that you can have independent observation of God’s created world and glean insight into how best to live in light of God’s created order. God has designed the world in such a way that wisdom can be gleaned simply by looking at creation and observing patterns (cf. Prov 6:6-8, “Consider the ant”).

The above principle is why you can see non-Christians who live life wisely. For example, “A penny saved is a penny earned” is sound advice and leads to a life which typically has less anxiety. But, it was a non-believer, Ben Franklin, who said that. But he was able to observe the causes and effects of life, and state a wise, pithy statement which emphasizes an important rule for life.

Although wisdom can be found with non-believers, an important reminder is that natural, observable wisdom can be corrupted. I may observe, but I can draw the wrong conclusion. I may see something, but my bias prevents me from learning what I need to. That is why the only non-fallible means of wisdom is God’s Word, because it alone is divine and direct insight from the Creator Himself. So, even though we can benefit from many different ways of gleaning wisdom, there is only one means of wisdom which has the certainty of making us understand more “than all our teachers” (Ps 119:99)—God’s Word.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.

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