FULLER THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
THE INNOCENT SUFFERER IN THE BOOK OF PROVERBS
A Dissertation submitted to
Faculty of the
Fuller Theological Seminary
in partial fulfillment of
the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
DANIEL P. BRICKER
Copyright 1998 by Daniel P. Bricker
All Rights Reserved
Cited with permission by Ted Hildebrandt
Report any errors to firstname.lastname@example.org
Center for Advanced Theological Studies
Dissertation Approval Sheet
This dissertation entitled
The Innocent Sufferer in the Book of Proverbs
Daniel P. Bricker
and submitted in partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
has been awarded by the Faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary
upon the recommendation of the following readers:
Frederic William Bush
It is difficult for me to thank everyone who deserves credit. My
friends and family members deserve recognition for the role they
played in offering unswerving support.
First on the list are my parents, Paul and Therese Bricker of
and I can never repay them for all they have done for me, both in
relation to this program and in almost every other area of my life as
well. Then I would like to thank all my friends who are far too
numerous to mention by name. I would not have made it without
their prayers and encouragement.
I must make special mention of the late Dr. David Allan
Hubbard, my first mentor in the program, who provided me with the
guidance and encouragement that I sorely needed. I was admitted to
the program with a nine-year gap between my master's degree and
the start of doctoral work, and I had a lot of catching up to do. I
regret very deeply that I was unable to present him with a finished
copy of this dissertation before he passed away June 6, 1996.
I would also like to thank my primary mentor, Dr. Ronald F.
Youngblood, whose advice was helpful in many ways. Dr. Young-
blood was kind enough to take over about halfway through the
program when Dr. Hubbard retired in 1993. I appreciate his patience
due to the length of time it took me to complete the program because
of financial restraints and a whole host of computer and word
processing problems. My secondary mentor, Dr. Fred Bush, also
offered some extremely helpful advice and I wish I had been able to
incorporate some of his thoughts and insights into this study a little
earlier in the process. My external reader, Dr. Duane Garrett also
deserves recognition. This study interacts with Dr. Garrett's
commentary at many points and I feel honored that he was willing to
read and evaluate my dissertation.
And special thanks go to Dr. Francis I. and Dr. Lois C. Ander-
sen, who treated me like family, offering advice and practical help in
many ways that I could not have done without as I drew near to the
end of this project.
I would like to dedicate this dissertation to the memory of my
close friend, Zane A. Mills, who died tragically on March 3, 1996. He
was like family to me for nearly twenty years and no one could have
asked for a better friend. He knew more about innocent suffering
from personal experience than anyone I have ever known.
It is my sincere desire that this dissertation not be left on the
academic shelf, but that someday it will contribute toward the min-
istry of the Church. If this dissertation adds to the knowledge of Pro-
verbs and makes a contribution to that ministry, whether mine or
anyone else's, it will have been worth it.
Outline and Table of Contents
Outline and Table of Contents vi
List of Abbreviations xiv
Chapter 1: An Examination of the Issues 1
I. The Issue of Theodicy 3
A. Definition 3
B. OT Books Related to Theodicy 6
1. Job 7
a. The Prologue 7
b. The Dialogue 9
c. The Divine Speeches 10
d. The Epilogue 17
2. Qoheleth 18
a. 3:16-17 19
b. 4:1-3 20
c. 6:1-9 22
d. 7:15-18 24
e. 8:9-9:12 26
II. Suffering in the Literature of the Ancient Near East 28
A. Mesopotamian Literature 29
1. Sumerian Literature 35
a "Man and His God" 36
b. Letter-Prayers 38
2. Akkadian Literature 42
a. The Pious Sufferer 42
b. Ludlul Bel Nemeqi 44
c. R.S. 25.460 49
d. Babylonian Theodicy 50
e. The Poem of Erra 54
B. Egyptian Literature 58
1. The Absence of Theodicy in
2. Suffering Is Due to Perversion of Ma’at 65
a. Admonitions of Ipuwer 66
b. Dispute of a Man with His Ba 67
c. Tale of the Eloquent Peasant 70
d. Teaching of Amenemhet 73
3. Inequality or Injustice was Often Rectified in the
C. Conclusion 75
1. A Clear Sense of Right and Wrong 77
2. Significant Individual Worth 79
3. Conflict Between Deities 82
4. Judgment in the Afterlife 83
Chapter 2: The Lack of Discussion Related to Innocent
Suffering in the Book of Proverbs 86
I. Past Assumptions 86
A. Proverbs is Conventional Wisdom 87
1. Reflection of a "Divine" Order 87
2. Doctrine of Retribution 96
a. Forensic Retribution 100
(1) Proverbs 3:32-35 101
(2) Proverbs 5:21-23 103
b. Dynamistic Retribution 105
(1) Proverbs 11:31 106
(2) Proverbs 24:15-16 110
B. Job and Qoheleth React Against the Dogmatism
of Proverbs 111
II. A Current Proposal 116
A. Many Proverbs Refer to and/or Assume
Innocent Suffering 116
1. Parental Suffering 116
2. Emotional Suffering 117
3. Suffering Due to the Words/Deeds of Others 117
B. Job and Qoheleth are Not Necessarily in Opposition
to Proverbs 118
C. Correctly Understanding the Proverb Genre Negates
D. Conclusion 124
Chapter Three: Parental Suffering in Proverbs 126
I. Parents in the OT 126
A. Social Structure and Duties 127
1. Structure of Kin Groups 127
a. Tribe Fb,we, hF.,ma 128
b. Clan hHAPAw;mi 128
c. Family bxA-tyBe 130
2. Roles of Individuals 132
a. Father 132
b. Mother 133
c. Children 136
B. The Family as a Setting for Wisdom 137
1. The Origin of Family Wisdom 138
a. Parents as Teachers 145
b. "My Son(s)"--Literal or Figurative? 147
2. The Purpose of Family Wisdom 149
a. Proverbs Directed Toward Children 150
b. Proverbs Directed Toward Parents 151
II. Analysis of Individual Proverbs 154
A. Parents of Fools 154
1. 10:1 (lysiK;) 156
2. 15:5 (lyvix< ) 159
3. 15:20 (lysiK;) 160
4. 17:21 (lysiK;, lbAnA), 17:25 (lysiK;) 162
5. 19:13 (lysiK;) 165
B. Parents and Public Shame, Mocking, Disgrace, etc 167
1. Shame (wybime) and Disgrace (MlaKA) 167
a. 10:5 (wybime NB,) 167
b. 19:26 (wybime NB,//ryPiH;ma) 171
c. 29:15 (wybime) 174
d. 28:7 (MlaKA) 176
2. Cursing (llaqA) 182
a. 20:20 183
b. 30:11 184
3. Mocking (gfalA) and Scorning (zUB) 30:17 186
4. Robbery (lzaGA) 28:24 189
C. Conclusion 191
Chapter 4: Emotional Suffering in the Book of Proverbs 193
I. The Somatic Expression of Ancient Hebrew Psychology 193
A. Pre-Scientific Terminology and Broad Meanings 193
1. Heart (ble/bbAle) 193
a. ble as the Anatomical Organ 194
b. ble as the Center of Inner Life 195
c. ble as the
Religious Life 195
d. ble as Representative of the Whole 196
e. ble as a
2. Spirit (HaUr) 196
3. Soul (wp,n,) 197
B. Similar Uses in Egyptian, Akkadian and Ugaritic 198
1. Egyptian 198
a. Heart (ib and ha.ty) 198
b. Spirit (ba and ka) 199
(1) ba 199
(2) ka 199
2. Akkadian and Ugaritic 200
a. Akkadian 200
(1) libbu 200
(2) napistu 200
b. Ugaritic 201
(1) lb 201
(2) rwh 201
(3) nps 201
II. Analysis of Specific Proverbs Related to Emotional Suffering 202
A. Heart (ble) 202
1. 12:25 202
2. 13:12 206
3. 14:10, 13 213
4. 15:13 217
5. 25:20 219
B. Spirit (HaUr) 225
1. 15:4 225
2. 15:13 226
3. 17:22 227
4. 18:14 229
C. Soul (wp,n,) 230
1. 14:10 231
2. 28:17 231
3. 29.10 232
D. Conclusion 236
Chapter 5: Innocent Suffering Due to the Words or Deeds
of Others 238
I. The Legal System 238
A. Judicial Process in the Ancient Near East 239
B. Judicial Process in Ancient
C. The Legal Process at Work 245
D. Proverbs and Legal Action 246
1. False Witness/False Accusation 246
2. Reversal of Justice 247
3. Value of the Legal Process 248
4. Royal Justice 249
5. The Legal Process and Everyday Life 251
6. How Can Justice Be Understood? 254
E. Analysis of Individual Proverbs Regarding Innocent
Suffering and the Legal System 255
1. 3:30 255
2. 13:23 257
3. 17:15 259
4. 17:26 260
II. Damaging Words 11:9, 11 263
III. Harmful Actions 265
A. 1:8-19 266
B. 3:27-35 268
C. 6:16-19 272
D. 16:29 274
E. 17:13 278
IV. Conclusion 279
Chapter 6: Final Summary 281
List of Abbreviations
This is a list of abbreviations commonly used in this
dissertation. They are the standard abbreviations found in most
scholarly publications, but are listed here for the reader's
convenience. For full documention see the bibliography.
Abbreviations for books of the Bible are standard.
AB Anchor Bible
ABD David N. Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible
Dictionary, 6 vols.
AEL Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian
Literature, 3 vols.
AfO Archiv fur Orientforschung
ANE Ancient Near East(ern)
ANET James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near.
Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament,
3rd ed. with supplement
AnSt Anatolian Studies
AOAT Alten Orient and Altes Testament
BA Biblical Archaeologist
BASOR Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental
BDB Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A.
Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the
BHS Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia
BibSac Bibliotheca Sacra
BKAT Biblischer Kommentar, Alten Testament
BWL W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom
BZAW Beihefte zur Zeitschrift fur die
the Oriental Institute of the University of
CBQ Catholic Biblical Quarterly
CTA Andrea Herdner, Corpus des Tablettes en
Cuneiformes Alphabetiques Decouvertes a
Ras Shamra-Ugarit, 2 vols.
FOTL Forms of Old Testament Literature
HAL Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner,
Hebraisches and Aramaisches Lexikon
zum Alten Testament. Dritte Auflage; 4 Bande
HS Hebrew Studies
IDB G. A. Buttrick, ed., Interpreter's Dictionary
of the Bible, 3 vols.
IDBSup K. Crim, ed., Interpreter's Dictionary of the
Bible, Supplementary Volume
ICC International Critical Commentary
ISBE Geoffrey Bromiley, ed., International
Standard Bible Encyclopedia, rev. ed., 4 vols.
JANES Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Studies of
JAOS Journal of the American Oriental Society
JBL Journal of Biblical Literature
JETS Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
JNES Journal of Near Eastern Studies
JNSL Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages
JSOT Journal for the Study of the Old Testament
JSOTSS JSOT Supplement Series
JSS Journal of Semitic Studies
JTS Journal of Theological Studies
KAT Kommentar zum Alten Testament
KJV Holy Bible, King James Version
LA W. Helck and E. Otto, Hrsg., Lexikon der
Agyptologie, 7 Bande
LAE William K. Simpson, ed., Literature of
MDOG Mitteilungen der deutschen Orient-
NAC New American Commentary
NCBC New Century Bible Commentary
NIDNTT Colin Brown, ed., New International
Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 4 vols.
NICOT New International Commentary on the Old Testament
NIV Holy Bible, New International Version
NASV Holy Bible, New American Standard Version
NKJV Holy Bible, New King James Version
NRSV Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version
OBO Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis
OT Old Testament
OTL Old Testament Library
RB Revue Biblique
RQ Restoration Quarterly
RSV Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version
RTP Revue de theologie et de philosophie
SBLDS Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation
SBLSBS Society of Biblical Literature Sources for
SJT Scottish Journal of Theology
TDNT G. Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the
New Testament, 10 vols.
TDOT G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren, ed.,
Theological Dictionary of the Old
Testament, 8 vols.
ThZ Theologische Zeitschrift
TLZ Theologische Literaturzeitung
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
TQ Theologische Quartalschrift
TWAT G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren, Hrsg.,
Theologisches Worterbuch zum Ahem
Testament, 8 Bande
TWOT R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, and B. K.
Waltke, ed., Theological Wordbook of the
Old Testament, 2 vols.
TynBul Tyndale Bulletin
UT Cyrus H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook, 3 vols.
VT Vetus Testamentum
VTSup Vetus Testamentum, Supplements
WBC Word Biblical Commentary
WMANT Wissenschaftliche Monographien zu:m
Alten and Neuen Testament
ZAW Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche
ZTK Zeitschrift fur Theologie and Kirche
AN EXAMINATION OF THE ISSUES
The main issue of this dissertation is the topic of the innocent
sufferer/suffering as it appears in the book of Proverbs. It will be my
purpose to identify the various proverbs that refer to or imply this issue and
categorize them in their collections according to subject matter and literary
To the best of my knowledge, a study of this topic has never been
undertaken at this level.1 Analyses of the innocent sufferer or righteous
suffering have frequently focused on other portions of the OT such as Job,
Qoheleth, Jeremiah or Habakkuk, and that is appropriate. However, there
are certain assumptions held by scholarship that exclude the book of Pro-
verbs from this discussion. Part of this dissertation will examine these
assumptions and show why Proverbs should be given its proper place in the
Biblical treatment of this subject.
In order to begin the discussion of these assumptions the first issue
to address is that of theodicy. We will briefly define the term and discuss
how the matter is expressed in Job and Qoheleth, in keeping with the
classification of these two books as wisdom literature. This discussion may
1 There are studies which are similar; note J. A. Gladson, "Retribu-
tive Paradoxes in Proverbs 10-29" (Ph.D. diss., Vanderbilt University, 1978),
and K. T. Kleinknecht, Der leidende Gerechtfertigte (
Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1984). The former author takes a different approach to
the topic than I do, while the latter hardly mentions Proverbs at all.
seem to cover ground that is already very familiar but it is important for
this study in relation to the topic of the dissertation.
The second major section of the first chapter will analyze innocent
suffering in the
literature of Mesopotamia and
tention that the documents recovered to date do not show a willingness to
place the blame for suffering on anyone but the individual involved, and the
reason for the suffering is almost always sin.
At the end of chapter 1 there will be comparisons and contrasts of
Mesopotamian and Egyptian culture as expressed by the pertinent primary
literature on suffering. These will serve as a basis of comparison in chap-
ter 2 with
the literature of
the topic of suffering.
Chapter 2 will examine the assumptions of scholarship to discern
why the book of Proverbs has been left out of studies of innocent suffering. I
will argue that the exclusion of Proverbs from these studies is due pri-
marily to the classification of Proverbs as conventional wisdom, with Job
and Qoheleth reacting against the perceived superficial positions of con-
The practice of placing Job and Qoheleth in opposition to Proverbs
arises partly as a result of some inadequate views of order and retribution.
Until recently it was virtually a given among scholars to equate the world
view in Proverbs with the Egyptian concept of ma'at. This is now in
question and, in my opinion, inaccurate. It was also thought that Proverbs
expressed a world view that held a doctrine of retribution tied to an "act-
consequence" relationship. This is also in need of revision, as the study will
After these discussions, I will set forth suggestions for viewing the
innocent sufferer/suffering in Proverbs. The first thesis is that there are
many proverbs that show an awareness of an innocent sufferer/suffering.
This should come as no great surprise, but the fact is that it has never been
explored in any depth. The second thesis is that the assertion that Job and
Qoheleth stand in opposition or contrast to the wisdom of Proverbs needs
I. The Issue of Theodicy
The discussion here will focus on defining theodicy and exploring
some of the issues this term implies. The definition of Max Weber will be
evaluated and shown why it is not an acceptable working definition for this
study. Then I will examine the four elements of theodicy suggested by
Wolfram von Soden which show the conditions that must be present for
theodicy to occur. The last part of this section will be a very brief look at the
OT books which contain wisdom literature.
Theodicy is a term popularized in Essais de theodicee (1710) by
the German philosopher G. W. Leibniz.2 It is an attempt to defend divine
ed. P. Wiener, 4 vols. (New York: Scribner, 1973), 4.378-379. The term "theo-
dicy" was known before this in Leibniz’ earlier work but it gained more
widespread exposure through this essay.
justice in the face of aberrant phenomena that appear to indicate the deity's
indifference or hostility toward virtuous people.3 The problems of evil and
suffering may be solved philosophically for any theological system if a
theodicy is successful, since it will show that the existence of suffering is
not incompatible with the belief that a moral deity created the world and
has sovereignty over it. In other words, a theodicy seeks to reconcile con-
tradictions within a theological system by explaining why things happen as
Another approach to the discussion of this issue is to redefine
theodicy. This is the approach of German sociologist Max Weber, who
referred to any situation of inexplicable or unmerited suffering as a
theodicy problem, and said theodicy itself was any rationale for explaining
suffering.5 While this broader definition may have some value in allow-
ing for a comparison across a wider range of religious experiences,6 in
my opinion it will not serve in the present study. The reason is that it
"beheads" the word theodicy by removing God (or a god) from the equation.
While this might be acceptable for some modern philosophical systems it is
3 James L. Crenshaw, "Theodicy," ABD, 6.444.
4 John S. Feinberg, "Theodicy," in Evangelical Dictionary of Theo-
logy, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 1083; in more detail
idem, The Many Faces of Evil (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994); and in
general from the perspective of several different cultures, David Parkin,
ed., The Anthropology of Evil (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984).
5 Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon, 1963), 112-
6 Gerald L. Mattingly,
"The Pious Sufferer:
tional Theodicy and Job's Counselors," in The Bible in the Light of Cunei-
form Literature, ed. W. W. Hallo, B. W. Jones, and G. L. Mattingly
(Lewiston, New York: Mellen, 1990), 313.
clearly inappropriate for any discussion of the cultures and religions of the
ANE, since religion was an extremely important part of society.7 The
result of this, as I intend to show, is that a true theodicy is not found in
either Egyptian or Sumero-Babylonian literature. It is only in the literature
The next question to be dealt with is that of the conditions required for
the question of theodicy to be raised. Wolfram von Soden has listed four
basic elements that must be present:
1. a clear sense of right and wrong, so that a sufferer could
reasonably claim to be suffering undeservedly;
2. significant individual worth, so that personal suffering must be
3. minimal competition within the godhead or pantheon, so that
suffering cannot be blamed on one deity due to human loyalty to
4. a limited view of judgment in the afterlife.9
7 R. E. Clements, "
The World of Ancient
University Press, 1989), 9; James K. Hoffmeier, "Egyptians," in Peoples of
the Old Testament World, ed. A. J. Hoerth, G. L. Mattingly, and E. M.
Yamauchi (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 283, who cites Herodotus' words
regarding the Egyptians being the most religious people on earth; and
Gladson, "Retributive Paradoxes," 100, who calls attention to the "pervasive
religiosity" in Mesopotamian thought.
8 See Isaiah 40:27, where the question is implicitly posed.
9 Adapted from W. von Soden, "Das Fragen Nach der Gerechtigkeit
Gottes im Alten Orient," MDOG 96 (1965): 41-59.
If any of these four elements is lacking, the tension which generally leads
to a theodicy can be relieved. This is because the absence of any one of these
components can negate or qualify the principle of equitable or just retri-
bution. The presence of these four factors in any given situation may not
answer the question of suffering but it allows the deity to be absolved of
responsibility and therefore accusations of divine injustice are no longer
B. OT Books Related to Theodicy
Not surprisingly, the book which most often comes to mind in
discussions of innocent suffering in the OT is the book of Job. A vast
amount of literature exists on this topic, far too much to summarize here.
Other books which refer to this theme are Ecclesiastes (or Qoheleth),
certain psalms (especially 37, 49, 73), Isaiah, Jeremiah and Habakkuk.11
While there are quite a few other scattered references to pain, suffering,
sickness, etc. in the OT, I will limit the study to those passages in the
Wisdom books which contribute to the current topic.
In relation to the topic of theodicy one of the most common ways to
view the wisdom corpus of the OT is to see Job and Qoheleth reacting
against the strict dogmatism of Proverbs regarding the doctrine of retri-
bution. This will be taken up in some detail in chapter two, but I mention it
now in order to form a backdrop to the later discussion on the literature of
10 John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Con-
text, rev. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 180.
11 See James L. Crenshaw, ed., Theodicy in the Old Testament
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), for discussion of many of these texts. Also
idem, "Theodicy," ABD, 6.445-446.
the ANE. The following discussion of Job and Qoheleth will be specifically
focused on how they deal with the issue of theodicy.
Job's claim to innocent suffering went against the con-
ventions of virtually every religious system in the ANE. The response of the
three friends and Elihu to Job's assertions of innocence shows their
disagreement and disapproval of Job in his protestations of unmerited
In the discussion which follows I will refrain from matters of dating,
structure, and the like. For these background issues the commentaries of
Hartley,12 Clines,13 Rowley14 and Habel15 will be sufficient.
The issue of theodicy as expressed in the book of Job is very complex,
with a huge amount of secondary literature that can only be summarized
here. The topic will be analyzed in Job by literary division.
a. The Prologue
In the first two chapters the narrator goes to great
lengths to portray Job as a man of integrity, one completely undeserving of
all the woes that befall him, bringing Job's experience into conflict with the
doctrine of retribution, which is assumed to lie behind the book. It is
surprising that two of Job's statements in the prose introduction go counter
12 John E. Hartley, The Book of Job, NICOT (
13 David J. A. Clines, Job 1-20, WBC vol. 17 (Dallas: Word, 1989).
14 H. H. Rowley, Job, NCBC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).
15 Norman C. Habel, The Book of Job, OTL (
to the reward/retribution theologoumenon that those who fear God are
guaranteed divine blessing and protection from misfortune and tragedy.16
First, in 1:21 Job states that Yahweh gives blessings to the righteous and
may take them away; second, in 2:10 he says that wellbeing (bOF) may
attend the life of those who fear God or they may suffer misfortune (frA).
The latter statement comes in reaction to his wife's charge to "curse God
and die" (2:9). In this she apparently believes that the righteous will pros-
per and the wicked will suffer.17 Since Yahweh has allowed the righteous
Job to suffer, Yahweh is no longer worthy of the adoration and worship
which Job gives. She places the blame for Job's misfortunes directly on
God. One might have expected a theodicy, a justification of God here, but
Job does not attempt to acquit God of the responsibility for his tragedies.
Job's reaction is to affirm his loyalty to Yahweh.18
Job's declaration can be viewed at two levels. When viewed "from
above," it vindicates God's confidence in Job against the Satan's accusa-
tions (1:9-11; 2:4-5). However, when it is viewed "from below," i. e., from a
standpoint which has no knowledge of the conversations which took place
in the heavenly court, it is a stunning admission of the fact of innocent
suffering, since not even the righteous are guaranteed safety from life's
misfortunes and tragedies.19
16 E. W. Nicholson, "The Limits of Theodicy as a Theme of the Book of
Job," in Wisdom in Ancient
Williamson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 72.
17 Clines, Job 1-20, 51.
18 Nicholson, “Limits,” 72; Hartley, Job, 84.
19 Nicholson, "Limits," 72.
b. The Dialogue
According to Nicholson the declaration at the cli-
max of the prologue in 2:10 sets the agenda for the rest of the book.20 In the
discussion of the problem of suffering in the poetical dialogue issues of
divine justice would be shown to give meaning to life in the midst of
suffering. As will be argued below, those in surrounding cultures believed
that suffering was almost invariably due to the sin of the sufferer, not the
fault of some deity. This is essentially what Job's three friends are
claiming, especially Eliphaz (chs. 4-5), who offers three explanations for
Job's predicament. These three theodicies are expounded by Eliphaz and
the other human speakers but never added to. Thus Nicholson sees
Eliphaz' first speech as more or less "programmatic"21 for the rest of the
following dialogue between Job and the three counsellors:
1. No innocent person has ever perished (4:7-8).
This pronouncement is intended to encourage Job, in the sense that
he needs to have patience and endurance. This axiom is based on a con-
ditional assumption, viz., if he is innocent then he will not die. It is an
affirmation of the doctrine of retribution but does not explain Job's suffer-
ing, since Job's integrity is not being questioned yet,
2. All human beings are sinners (4:18-19).
Since God charges his angels with error how can Job believe that
mankind is without fault? If Job is not without fault, then he should not
20 "Limits," 73.
21 "Limits," 74.
expect to be exempt from punishment. This view is met very clearly in
Sumero-Babylonian literature, e. g. "Man and His God," addressed below
3. God chastens people with the intent to correct shortcomings (5:17-
This aspect of the theodicy is not taken up again until the speeches of
Elihu (33:19-28; 34:31-37; 36:7-13, 15-16), but the previous two elements are
frequently discussed with increasing fervor and intensity.22
Without a doubt, the principles of retribution and reward are
affirmed time and again in other places in the OT, just as the three friends
do, but their primary mistake was in the misapplication of these principles
to Job's particular situation.23
c. The Divine Speeches
The logical place in the book of Job to seek answers
to the problem of innocent suffering is in the divine speeches. There is no
shortage of material from which to draw opinions, so the discussions here
must be limited to some of the more meaningful suggestions.
Unfortunately, there is no unanimous opinion on how the speeches of
Yahweh are to be viewed in relation to the issue of theodicy. At one extreme
of the spectrum are those who claim the speeches ignore Job's complaints
of injustice and show Yahweh to be a "blustering deity" who humiliates Job
22 Nicholson, "Limits," 74. Discussing this in detail takes us too far
from the primary topic; for a brief treatment see Nicholson, "Limits," 74-79.
23 Michael L.
van, 1995), 173. One of the lessons Job learned is that serving God cannot
always be reduced to a mathematical formula, as if trouble and tragedy
could never happen in the life of a God-fearer (cf. 1:2).
into submission.24 At the opposite extreme are those who attempt to solve
the problem of innocent suffering by dissolving it. According to this view,
the world is not founded on the retribution principle whereby righteousness
is rewarded and wickedness is punished. This view portrays the world as
"amoral" and thus it is absurd to expect a fate which morally corresponds to
Both of these views are unsatisfactory. The first view portrays God as
an incompetent deity who is incapable of answering Job's accusations of
misgoverning the world. Because Yahweh has been called into account
and found wanting, Job is bullied into submission. The author therefore is
declaring Job's case unanswerable, and Yahweh stands guilty as charged.
The main problem with this view, in my opinion, is that it shows God to be
immoral, petty and abusive.26 Job's righteousness is of no value to God,
who uses and manipulates Job to prove a point. Then in the concluding
prose passage this same God restores Job to wellbeing once the point has
been made.27 This seems hardly credible or likely.
The second view suffers from the problem of Job's previous rejection
24 E. g., J. L. Crenshaw, "The Shift from Theodicy to Anthropodicy,"
in the Old Testament, ed. J. L. Crenshaw (
Fortress, 1983), 9; and D. Robertson, The Old Testament and the Literary
Critic (Philadelphiaa,;Fortress, 1977), 48-50.
25 Matitiahu Tsevat, "The Meaning of the Book of Job," HUCA 37
(1966): 73-106; and more recently Habel, Job, 65, 534-535.
26 Cf. Nicholson, "Limits," 80.
27 See Habel, Job, 533, and Nicholson, "Limits," 80, for a critique of
this position, which arises from a naive identification with Job on the part
of the commentators.
of the dogmatization of the reward/retribution doctrine. It seems unneces-
sary for Yahweh to simply endorse what Job has already maintained all
along, especially since the divine speeches censure Job.28 However,
according to some, Yahweh's speeches are not intended to humiliate but to
educate.29 Job is enlightened and comes away with knowledge that he had
not previously possessed as a result of the divine speeches.30
Nicholson's view of theodicy in relation to Yahweh's speeches is
based on the ANE Chaoskampf also reflected in Psalms and Isaiah,31
where God's primeval victory over chaos is referred to or invoked in
contexts in which chaos seems to persist.32 His premise is that chaos,
represented by Leviathan, the Sea, or Rahab, etc. has been confined but not
eliminated.33 This, for Nicholson, raises the possibility that the enemy's
defeat may be reversed and it revives all the anxiety that goes with this idea.
The claim is that these texts acknowledge the "jarring disjunction between
present experience and belief in God's absolute sovereignty."34 It is only
due to God's intervention and vigilance that disaster is prevented. Creation
28 Nicholson, "Limits," 79.
29 E. g., F. I. Andersen, Job: An Introduction and Commentary,
TOTC (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1976), 269.
30 Note the emphasis on the use of the root fdy in Job's confession in
42:1-6, and the comments of Habel, Job, 578-580.
31 Pss 74:12-17; 89:10-13[9-12]; Isa 51:9-11; cf. Job 38:8-11; 40:25-
32 Nicholson, "Limits," 80; building on the studies of Jon D. Leven-
and the Persistence of Evil (
and John Day, God's Conflict with the
Dragon and the Sea (
33 Nicholson, "Limits," 81.
34 Levenson, Creation, 24.
endures because God has pledged it so (the Noahic covenant), and com-
pelled obeisance toward the great adversary (Leviathan, the Sea, Rahab,
To react briefly to Nicholson's position, it must be pointed out that the
passages cited do not always contain a reference to a "confined" or "per-
sistent" chaos other than people (as opposed to primordial forces or
creatures). In other words, the breakdown of society enumerated in Ps 74,
for example, is not due to the continued existence and activity of Leviathan,
who was crushed and its body parts fed to the desert creatures (Ps 74:13-14),
making it difficult to see how it could continue to cause chaos. The enemy
(74:18) is identified as "foolish people," and those who do violence to the
oppressed, the poor and needy (74:20-21). Animal symbols are prominent in
74:19, with Yahweh's enemy symbolized by wild beasts and the covenant
people symbolized by a dove. This is hardly the same thing as Job, or
another human being, feeling anxiety over threats from primordial
creatures. The symbolic language of Ps 74 serves to express realities of life
in the language of human imagination in the form of mythical images.36
A similar observation can be made regarding Ps 89:10-13[9-12] where Rahab
is crushed. The use of the Canaanite myth is to emphasize Yahweh's vic-
tory over Rahab in the past, and forms a basis on which to call on Yahweh
to assert control over present circumstances.37 It is also important to note
35 Nicholson, "Limits." 81; Levenson, Creation, 17.
36 Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, WBC vol. 20 (Dallas: Word, 1990),
37 J. Day, God's Conflict, 26.
"chaos" brought upon
45]), even though it is possible that this is an instance of double agency, with
Yahweh allowing the forces of chaos to have temporary domination.38
This may be the case, but this
psalm places the responsibility for
"chaos" solely on Yahweh. A similar observation may be made regarding
the Satan and Job's tragedies. Yahweh never blames the Satan in his
speeches, accepting full responsibility for the governance of the world, and
Job's misfortunes along with it.
This sense of agency is the main problem with Nicholson's view, in
my opinion. One of the emphases in Yahweh's speeches is divine control
over nature. In Job 38:8-11 Yahweh has the Sea firmly under control with
fixed limits and boundaries, and Job can no more control the Sea than he
could bind Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion (38:31). Leviathan, a
frighteningly powerful creature compared to Job, is simply one of Yah-
weh's pets (40:29[41:5]) and numbered among several other phenomena
from the natural world seen as part of Yahweh's creation.39
Thus I cannot agree with Nicholson and Levenson that the presence
of chaos in the world indicates a failure on the part of God,40 especially
when the divine speeches show these natural forces and amazing creatures
to be directly under Yahweh's control. Yahweh's defense of the design of
38 Cf. Day, God's Conflict, 26, n. 70.
39 See Ps 104:25-26, where the vast sea is the playground for Levia-
than, which Levenson (Creation, 24) humorously refers to as God's "rubber
40 Nicholson, "Limits," 81; Levenson, Creation, 24.
the cosmos takes, place in a legal setting,41 keeping continuity with the
judicial setting of the dialogue.42 Many studies have shown the impor-
tance of the legal metaphor for understanding the theology of the book,43
and in my opinion it is the best way to understand the unfolding argument
of the dialogue and the resultant divine speeches, as well as the theology
behind the speeches. Job had appealed to God to answer him in a lawsuit
and the two divine speeches do just that. The details of this are too complex
to enter into the discussion here and Scholnick has done this already.44
Scholnick's study places the entire book in the legal genre but it is not
necessary to limit this book to a single literary form. It is probably more
accurate to see several different literary forms within the book, and
recognize it as a masterful blending of genres.45 The book of Job is better
41Sylvia H. Scholnick, "Poetry in the Courtroom: Job 38-41," in Direc-
tions in Hebrew Poetry, ed. E. Follis (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987), 186.
42 See B. Gemser, "The Rib- or Controversy-Pattern in Hebrew Men-
tality," in Wisdom in Israel and in the Ancient Near East, ed. M. Noth and
D. W. Thomas, VTSup 3 (Leiden: Brill, 1969), 134-135; J. Limburg, "The
of God in the Eighth Century Prophets" (Th.D. thesis,
ed. (Garden City:; Doubleday & Co., 1973), lxxi; H. Richter, Studien zu Hiob
(Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1959); and C. Westermann, Der
Aufbau des Buches Hiob (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1956).
43 E. g., Richter, Studien zu Hiob, and more recently S. H. Scholnick,
Drama in the Book of Job" (Ph.D. diss.,
1975); G. Many, "Der Rechtsstreit mit Gott (Rib) im Hiobbuch" (Diss. Kath.-
theol. Fakultat der Ludwig-Maximilian Universitat,
Dick, "Job 31: A Form-critical Study" (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins Uni-
versity, 1977); and J. J. M. Roberts, "Job's Summons to Yahweh: The
Exploitation of a Legal Metaphor," RQ 16 (1973): 159-165.
44 Scholnick, "Poetry in the Courtroom," 185-204.
45 See Hartley, Job, 37-43.
classified sui generis.46
More to the point, the Yahweh speeches do not deny innocent suffer-
ing. In the divine speeches Job is assumed to be innocent but unin-
formed.47 He has doubted both the plan48 (38:2) and justice49 (40:8) of
Yahweh's universe. In seeing a legal background as the setting for the
divine speeches in which Yahweh is shown to be both Owner and King of
the world, I believe we come closer to their true intent. Job is informed of
Yahweh's right of ownership due to his role as Creator, and administra-
tion of the world is Yahweh's right by reason of his role as King.
In the divine speeches Job is shown the paradoxes of the cosmic
creation which operate under Yahweh's control and by his design.50
46 James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction
(Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), 120; and Pope, Job, xxxi.
47 The reverse is usually true in Sumero-Babylonian literature, with
sufferers assumed to be ignorant of their offenses but not innocent. This
will be shown in more detail below in the discussion of that literature.
48 "Plan" here is hcAfe also "design." Yahweh's first speech answers
the charge of a disorderly world, see S. Scholnick, "Poetry in the Court-
room," 185-186. This Hebrew word is used in the creation poetry of Isa 40:13
to speak of God's design for the universe. It is used to refer to the divine
plan for mankind in Isa 5:19; 46:10; Jer 32:19; 49:20; 50:45; Mic 4:12; Ps
33:11; 73:24; 106:13; 107:11; Prov 19:21. For a chart of Job's doubts and
Yahweh's responses see Habel, Job, 530-532.
49 "Justice" FPAw;mi is an important term in the book, which is replete
with legal terminology, see S. Scholnick, "The Meaning of Mispat in the
Book of Job," JBL 101 (1982): 521-529; and in more detail her Lawsuit Dra-
ma. Job had accused God of misgoverning the world and turning justice
upside down. Thus Yahweh challenged Job to match his ability to control
evil in 40:9-14.
50 See Habel, Job, 534-535. In my opinion Habel's discussion of the
Yahweh speeches is an excellent treatment, see 526-535; cf. also Hartley,
There is no failure on the part of God, but an assertion that Yahweh
governs the cosmos by means which include the law of reward and
retribution but also by standards which go beyond its mechanical
application.51 Job must recognize his creaturely limitations, and realize
that he is not in a position to doubt Yahweh's orderly design of the world,
nor his just governance of it.52 In my opinion the speeches of Yahweh
demonstrate just the opposite of Nicholson's view--viz., rather than show-
ing Yahweh to be a failure at controlling the forces of nature, he is in
sovereign control over all.
d. The Epilogue
The epilogue of this book has no direct bearing on
the issue of theodicy but it is extremely problematic in relation to this topic
except for those who view it as a reaffirmation of the doctrine of reward and
retribution. Job is restored to health and prosperity, seemingly as a
validation of the dogma that teaches that the righteous will be rewarded.53
This is all the more surprising when it seems that the retribution dogma
had been marginalized, or as was shown above, to be only one of many
factors in God's governance of the world.
In 42:12a (cf. 8:7) we are told that Yahweh blessed the latter part
(tyriHExa) of Job's life more than the first (tywixre). Yet this does not neces-
sarily mean that this was a reward for his perseverance, as Hartley says:
51 Cf. Habel, Job, 535.
52 For a discussion on the difference in perspectives and perceptions
in the book see Stuart Lasine, "Bird's-Eye and Worm's-Eye Views of Justice
in the Book of Job," JSOT 42 (1988): 29-53.
53 Clines, Job 1-20, xlvii.
the doubling of Job's estate does not mean that he received a bountiful
reward for the endurance of undeserved affliction, but rather that
Yahweh freely and abundantly blessed him. The blessing proves that
Yahweh is a life-giving God, not a capricious deity who takes
pleasure in the suffering of those who fear him. In his sovereign
design he may permit a faithful servant to suffer ill-fortune for a
season, but in due time he will bring total healing.54
The retraction55 of the lawsuit by Job (42:6) and his intercession for the
three friends (42:8, 10) led to the doubling of his former wealth by Yahweh,
and abundant blessings are poured out on him. Had Yahweh been com-
mitted to a strict dogma of retribution the wealth given to Job would have
equaled the amounts listed in 1:2-3 rather than doubled.
There may be less agreement regarding the interpreta-
tion, message and meaning of this book than any other in the Hebrew
Bible.56 Though higher-critical issues may influence the interpretation of
the various passages under consideration, the discussion will be limited to
the issue of theodicy.57 This issue has been ably dealt with in Michael V.
54 Hartley, Job, 540.
55 The translation of sxm is complicated by the lack of an object. If
the legal framework of the book is accepted there may be a clue to the object
of the verb in 31:13, where Job claims that he did not "dismiss/reject the
case (FPAw;mi)" of a slave. The implied object of sxm in 42:6 would be Job's
case against God, which he "dismisses/retracts," cf. Scholnick, Lawsuit
56 In the view of R.
Gordis, Poets. Prophets and Sages (
Song of Solomon (Dallas: Word, 1991), 19, 23.
57 For those interested in these background issues see, e. g., R. E.
Murphy, Ecclesiastes, WBC vol. 23a (Dallas: Word, 1992), and his biblio-
graphies; also G. S. Ogden, Qoheleth (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987); and J.
Fox's work on Qoheleth58 and to some extent I follow his lead. However,
the approach taken here will be to analyze specific passages, in contrast to
Fox, who treats the issue topically.
The passages in Qoheleth which specifically make reference to
injustices going uncorrected are 3:16-17; 4:1-3; 6:1-9; 7:15-18; and 8:9-9:12.59
These verses are set within a pericope which
extends through 3:22.60 The main topic is the miscarriage of justice in
society, a situation which does not evoke a demand for fair treatment in the
courts, or to have dishonest judges removed. This generalized observation
of one human's injustice to another will be rectified somehow at an
unspecified time and place,61 apparently saying that God has, as it were,
L. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, OTL (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987), al-
though his personal skepticism (53) must be taken into account in assess-
ing his interpretation of the text.
58 Michael V. Fox, Qohelet and His Contradictions, JSOTSS 71 (Shef-
field: Almond, 1989), 121-150, though not without reservations. Fox is overly
influenced by A. Camus in his understanding of the book. See the brief
assessment, both positive and negative, by Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs,
Ecclesiastes. Song of Songs, NAC vol. 14 (Nashville: Broadman, 1993), 275-
59 Another passage which might be treated in this connection is 10:5-
14, but see Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 102-103, and Fox, Qohelet, 124-125; both of
whom assert that this passage teaches that the consequences of the deeds
listed are a danger but not a certainty. The results are portrayed as unex-
pected, not as absolute causal linkages.
60 Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 31; R. N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes, NCBC
(London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1989), 76-81; J. A. Loader, Ecclesias-
tes: A Practical Commentary, tr. J. Vriend (
61 Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 36.
"a time to judge and a time to refrain from judging" (cf. 3:2-8 and 8:10-
13).62 The Hebrew text of 3:17 says:
Myhilox<hA FPow;yi fwArAhA-tx,v; qyDica.ha-tx, yBiliB; ynixE yTir;maxA
:MwA hW,fEm.aha lfav; Cp,He-lkAl; tfe-yKi
This raises the question of the meaning of "there" (MWA). Garrett holds to an
eschatological usage (cf. Ps 14:5a), with "there" being shorthand for the
time and place of eschatological judgment (cf. Zeph 1:14) or referring to
Sheol, in which case the ideas of the grave and judgment have been com-
This deferment of divine judgment till the indefinite future makes it
a foregone conclusion, then, that distortions of justice are a fact of life,64
and mankind's only choice is to simply make the best of it (3:22).65 There is
no encouragement to work for justice or to strive against legal, oppression.
Social abuses are unalterable realities.
Many commentators correctly connect these ver-
ses with the flow of thought begun in chapter 3.66 Human oppression is
62 Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 77-78.
63 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, 302-303. He notes a related usage
in Job 3:17-19 where "there" refers to the grave, an impartial judge that
treats the mighty and the weak alike, see 303, n. 86, and cf. Robert Gordis,
Koheleth--the Man and
His World (
64 Fox, Qohelet, 141.
65 Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 77-78.
66 E. g., Murphy (Ecclesiastes, 28-39) treats 3:1-4:6 as the overall unit,
the subject of these verses, as indicated by the three distinct nuances of the
root qwf: the first as the abstract notion of oppression, the second as the
objects of this villainy ("the oppressed"), and the third as, those who are
involved in carrying out the actions ("oppressors").67 The repetition of the
phrase MHenam; Mh,lA Nyxev; shows how utterly hopeless the lot of the oppressed
is.68 The threefold repetition of the root qwf and the double use of the
statement regarding the lack of comfort produce an effect of emotional
intensity which is rare for Qoheleth.69
The writer is not saying that one is better off dead than alive, but that
death is preferable to a life made miserable by oppression, since it frees
from trouble. A similar thought can be found in Sir 41:2 (NRSV):
O death, how welcome is your sentence
to one who is needy and failing in strength,
worn down by age and anxious about everything;
to one who is contrary, and has lost all patience!70
This view is consistent with the general wisdom teaching concerning
"life," which in the book of Proverbs is not equated with bare existence.
while Crenshaw (Ecclesiastes, 101-107) sees 3:16-4:3 as a unit of thought.
67 A. Lauha, Kohelet, BKAT 19 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener
Verlag, 1978), 81; cf. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, 105, and Whybray, Ecclesias-
68 Loader, Ecclesiastes, 47. See Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 37-38, and
Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, 105, for arguments that the repetition is not a gloss
and should therefore be retained.
69 According to Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 81.
70 Murphy (Ecclesiastes, 38) observes that the thought of Qoh 4:2-3 is
close in spirit to Job 3 and Jer 20:14-18.
Those who were poor (e. g. Prov 14:20; 18:23; 19:4, 7) and those who were
oppressed by the powerful (e. g. Prov 28:15-16) were not regarded as posses-
sing "life" in the sense of the fullness of life, which was the goal and reward
of those who followed the counsels of wisdom.71
Qoheleth laments the frequent occurrence of oppression and unjust
treatment, thus he is aware of innocent suffering. But the similar under-
standing of "life" to that of Proverbs shows that his thought here is not
In Qoheleth's reflections on injustice death is a prominent feature.
In 3:16-17 death appears as the area of hope for the oppressed; it is "there"
that God judges the oppressor. Here death is simply the better alternative to
a life of oppression. It is not surprising that in 3:18-22, which comes
between these two texts, the subject is death itself.72
This part of chapter 6 contains an extended reflec-
tion on the person who is prevented from enjoying all his possessions. The
overall point seems to be that it would be better not to have riches than to
have to give them over to a stranger to enjoy. The thought of this passage is
part of the larger context begun in 5:9 discussing the relative value of
The specific statement regarding innocent suffering very pointedly
71 E. g. Prov 3:2, 22; 4:22; 16:22. See Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 81-82.
72 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, 306.
73 See Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 49, who considers the broad context to
consist of 4:17[5:1]-6:9, and breaks it down as an instruction on conduct
associated with the cult in 4:17-5:6[5:1-7], an instruction on officials in 5:7-
8[8-9] and on possessions in 5:9[5:10]-6:9.
fixing the responsibility on God is found in 6:2.74 Qoheleth's observation
may refer back to a similar idea in 5:12-13[13-14], and enlarge on it some-
what. In these verses riches are shown to be of dubious value because of the
harm possessions might bring to the owner. In the lines which follow,
Qoheleth's meaning is made clear. Wealth lost through some misfortune,
be it natural catastrophe or of human cause (theft, vandalism, etc.) means
that all the time and toil invested to gain the wealth went for nought. All
this was costly to the owner but did not profit him in the end.75 Following
this is a statement echoed in other places in the Hebrew Bible, notably Job
1:21; Ps 139:15; see also Sir 40:1. The idea expressed in the modern dictum
"You can't take it with you" in regard to wealth is similar to a theme
prominent in Ps 49.76
In 6:2 a slightly different situation is pictured. The wealth is not seen
as lost so that a son, a rightful heir is deprived, but that it is taken by a
stranger.77 This would cause distress since the owner is denied not only
the enjoyment of his possessions but also the satisfaction of seeing his
accumulated wealth passed on to his son, thereby keeping it in the family.
This would have touched a raw nerve among some within the wisdom
74 Fox, Qohelet, 219.
75 Loader, Ecclesiastes, 64.
76 Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 52; and note Loader's pointed comment:
"There are no pockets in a shroud," Ecclesiastes, 65.
77 It is probably useless to attempt to identify the stranger beyond that
of an unknown person who is not a family member. The point may be only
that someone is enjoying the wealth who has no legitimate claim to it, cf.
Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 104, and Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, 126.
tradition, according to Ogden.78 Material success and tangible posses-
sions were viewed as evidence of the divine blessing which was the
consequence of living a life pleasing to God (Prov 13:21, 25; cf. Deut 8:10).
Here Qoheleth casts doubt on this belief by suggesting that a wealthy person
may not be allowed to derive any pleasure from material possessions, thus
inferring an anomaly in human experience much like Job's, or that the
fate of a wise man in this situation is little different from that of a fool.
Qoheleth's comment on this is like that on many other sad circumstances:
"This is meaningless, a grievous evil."
The traditional view of the retribution dogma is
contradicted here in Qoheleth's experience. He claims to have seen the
righteous one (qyDica destroyed in his righteousness, while the wicked one
(fwArA) lives long despite his wickedness. The use of the particle wye ("there
is") may express the fact that Qoheleth is aware that the righteous do not
always prosper and the wicked do not always suffer. The exceptions in his
experience show that the doctrine of retribution, one of the most funda-
mental principles of wisdom literature, has its cases where the exact oppo-
site is true.79 The equation of prosperity with righteousness and suffering
with sin is far too simplistic to apply to every circumstance.
Verses 16-18 have been misinterpreted at times to teach that Qoheleth
advocates participation in some kind of sin,80 with the advice not to be
78 Ogden, Qoheleth, 91.
79 Loader, Ecclesiastes, 87.
80 J. A. Loader, Polar Structures in the Book of Qohelet, BZAW 152
(Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1979), 48.
overly righteous or overly evil. Some have asserted that these verses teach a
"golden mean."81 This view, held by Delitzsch,82 Hertzberg,83 Gordis,84
etc. says that Qoheleth was encouraging readers to follow an immoral
doctrine, that is, to practice sin in moderation. However, this is a mis-
understanding, just as it would be wrong to believe that Deut 27:24 ("Cursed
be he who slays his neighbor in secret" RSV) approves of murdering a
neighbor publicly.85 A modern way to say a similar thing would be "Do not
be a fanatic."86 Crenshaw observes that 7:17 does not claim that sin in
moderation is acceptable. The teaching is that sin in an individual's life
may be unavoidable, but those who practice evil as a way of life are
destroyed by it.87 Thus Qoheleth is not dealing with the issue of personal
sins as such, but rather, an attitude of life that seeks the benefits of long
life, prosperity and personal happiness through strict observation of
religious and wisdom principles. The affirmation of fearing God as the
81 According to Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 120. For an interpretation of
these verses which claims the warning here is against being self-righteous
and pretentions to wisdom, see R. N. Whybray, "Qoheleth the Immoralist?
(Qoh 7:16-17)," in Israelite Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Samuel Terrien, ed.
J. G. Gammie et al. (New York: Scholars Press, 1978), 191-204. But against
this see Fox, Qohelet, 233-235.
82 Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesi-
83 Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg, Der Prediger, KAT 17/4 (
Gerd Mohr, 1963), 154.
84 Gordis, Koheleth, 265-266.
85 Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, 141.
86 Garrett, Proverbs. Ecclesiastes, 323.
87 Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, 140. We could also say that it means that
we should not let sin get out of hand. Just because sin is unavoidable does
not necessarily mean it is uncontrollable.
advisable route in life is common to the wisdom literature, and shows the
contact of Qoheleth with the conventional tenets of wisdom thought.
In this larger unit 8:14 is part of Qoheleth's reflec-
tion regarding the reversal of the retribution dogma also seen in 9:11-12.88
The failure to bring criminals to punishment is the general thrust of
8:9-13. Qoheleth comments that the lack of swift justice leads to increased
scheming and evil plans on the part of the wicked, then seems to affirm the
conventional wisdom belief that in the end "it will go better with God-
fearing men" and for those who do not fear God "it will not go well with
them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow." This affirmation of
faith in divine justice seems to go directly against all the evidence Qoheleth
has cited. Living a long life is indicative of happiness and divine blessing in
the wisdom tradition (Prov 3:2, 16) and his admission of evidence to the
contrary combined with the tension seen in 8:14 regarding retribution
shows that it is not always possible to align the fact of suffering with the
simplistic claim that divine justice distinguishes between the righteous and
The conclusion to 9:1-12 affirms the arbitrary nature of life from a
human perspective rather than a divine point of view. Five examples taken
from different areas of life (racing, war, livelihood, wealth, favor) show that
88 Garrett (Proverbs. Ecclesiastes, 328) treats 8:9-9:1 as a section en-
titled "On Theodicy," with 9:11-12 as transitional statements to another
89 Cf. Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 85.
the optimistic view of life presented by the retribution principle (the right-
eous will prosper or succeed) must be moderated against a phony prosperity
piety, since regardless of one's talents events beyond one's control may
determine the outcome of a venture quite to the contrary of one's moral
character.90 Another way to state this in simpler terms is that it is diffi-
cult for one who holds to a belief in a rigid principle of equitable retribution
to make all the facts fit the theory.
To summarize, the treatment of the topic of theodicy in the books of
Job and Qoheleth shows the doctrine of retribution to be less than dogmatic.
The righteous do not always prosper and the wicked do not always suffer.
On top of this is the problem of equitable suffering. The scale of suffering
does not always balance with the degree of the sin, if one was committed.
Both books present cases where exceptions are noted, thus removing the
stigma of divine disfavor from those who were not prospering or enjoying
the blessings of God. In his use of contradictions of conventional wisdom
Qoheleth loosens the rigidity of conventional wisdom to come to terms with
For both Job and Qoheleth, Yahweh is given more respect and credi-
bility than the gods of other ancient societies, which often relegated the
relationship between the god and the worshipper to superficial levels. This
frequently led to supplicants attempting to cajole or manipulate the god or
goddess into blessing them, or, at least, removing the negative situation.
Yahweh, on the other hand, simply could not be manipulated. Good deeds
90 Fox (Qohelet, 260) says the passage does not teach that, e. g., the
swift never win, but that they do not necessarily win.
and worship were not viewed as bargaining chips, and there was no
exchange of material blessing for adoration. This was also asserted in the
Qoheleth acknowledges the justice of God as well as the mystery of God in
how justice is worked out.92
II. Suffering in the Literature of the Ancient Near East
This part of the study will focus on the attitudes or views of suffering
displayed by some of the more prominent documents from certain cultures
number of texts which have been recovered it is possible to examine only a
sample of the documents, which will, by and large, be representative of the
rest. In the analysis of this topic I will discuss the literary works of the
ANE under two broad categories, Mesopotamian literature and Egyptian
There is evidence for wisdom literature in
focus of this part of the study will necessarily be limited to Egyptian and
Mesopotamian sources since only
large amounts of this kind of material. Most of the discussion which
91 See Deut 17:10.
92 Murphy, Ecclesiastes, lxvi.
93 See M. J. Dahood, "Canaanite-Phoenician Influence in Qoheleth,''
Bib 33 (1952): 30-52, 191-211. A more recent study, Gordon D. Young, ed.,
ence to wisdom literature at all in reference to
follows will break no new ground and risks oversimplification. The pur-
pose is to provide a larger context for the specific problem to be addressed in
later chapters, and to show that the texts do not contain discussions that
can be called "theodicy" in the modern sense. Gods and goddesses were
rarely blamed for human suffering. It was almost always the human who
was at fault.
The discussion of Mesopotamian literature will be divided into two
groups: Sumerian and Akkadian. In the conclusion I will examine von
Soden's four elements necessary for theodicy listed above and evaluate the
literature of Mesopotamia and
A. Mesopotamian Literature
A brief discussion of the Mesopotamian viewpoint is necessary
in order to appreciate the documents examined below, and the focus here is
specifically on how individuals related to the gods. Two groups of texts will
be discussed, Sumerian and Akkadian.
To begin with, the Mesopotamians believed in a pantheon of gods.
Some were major deities, others played more minor roles. They were
essentially personifications of various aspects of reality,94 and guided the
world according to their purposes and laws.95 The gods often displayed
characteristics such as spite, lust and rage, and sometimes there was con-
tention between various gods due to competing purposes. They were
94 Giorgio Buccellati, "Wisdom and Not: The Case of
JAOS 101 (1981): 36.
95 Samuel N. Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and
Character (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 113.
members of a "divine assembly"96 which sought to determine a common
course. The interests of the gods ran roughly parallel to that of humanity,
since humans were created for the purpose of serving the gods:
Blood I will mass and cause bones to be.
I will establish a savage, "man" shall be his name.
Verily, savage-man I will create.
He shall be charged with the service of the gods
That they might be at ease!97
This view of mankind was more a reflection of their society than their
theology, according to H. W. F. Saggs:
In the Sumerian city-state,...the characteristic and most significant
organization was the temple-estate, in which thousands of people co-
operated in works of irrigation and agriculture in a politico-economic
system centered on the temple, with all these people thought of as the
servants of the god. The myth of the creation of man, therefore, was
not basically a comment on the nature of man but an explanation of a
particular social system, heavily dependent upon communal
irrigation and agriculture, for which the god's estates were primary
foci of administration.98
The gods needed people to care for them and, provide sustenance through
the sacrifices. From this the ancient Mesopotamians derived personal
96 E. T. Mullen, Jr., "Divine Assembly," ABD, 2.214-217.
97 ANET, 68. The quote is from tablet VI:5-8; cf. also VI:33-34. In
other works this poem is often called Enuma Elish, after the opening line
of the poem. Much the same attitude is taken during the Old Babylonian
period in the Atrahasis Epic; see W. G. Lambert and Alan R. Millard,
Atra-hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969),
98 H. W. F. Saggs, Encounter with the Divine in
dignity and self-worth.99 Dignity and self-esteem for the individual person
were determined by function in that society.
The lot in life for the average person was to be quiet, keep the land in
good order and attend to the needs of the gods, yet the number of requests
for divine intervention show that the purposes and plans of the gods were
not clearly discernible.100 These plans or principles which kept the cosmos
running smoothly were designated by the Sumerian word me, the exact
meaning of which is still uncertain.101 These divinely ordained decrees
covered over one hundred aspects of human life and civilization, though
many are still obscure in meaning due to the fragmentary nature of the
texts where they are listed, translation problems, and the difficulty in-
herent in attempting to understand a culture that has not existed for over
three thousand years.102 Thus there was a concern on the part of the
99 Saggs, Encounter, 170.
100 Karel van der Toorn, Sin and Sanction in Israel and Mesopotamia
(Assen: Van Gorcum, 1985), 4. Atrahasis gives the reason for destroying
mankind in a flood as "noise." The debate over the term rigmu has a bear-
ing over whether the flood was justified by human sin; or whether humans
are merely a nuisance. It has been suggested that the noise which dis-
turbed Enlil was a metaphoric reference to wicked behavior; see Robert
Oden, "Divine Aspirations in Atrahasis and in Genesis 1-11," ZAW 93
(1981): 197-216, thus the need to keep "quiet." Population control is another
possibility suggested by A. D. Kilmer, in "The Mesopotamian Concept of
Overpopulation and Its Solution as Reflected in the Mythology," Or 41 (1972):
101 Kramer, The Sumerians, 115. A list of the discernible portions of
the mes is on 116.
102 For a discussion of me, see Gertrud Farber-Flugge, Der Mythos
"Inanna and Enki" unter besonderer Berucksichtigung der Liste der me
(Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1973). This book lists previous discus-
sions (116, n. 121); and cf. also W. W. Hallo and J. J. A. van Dijk, The
individual to live according to the divine order that regulated virtually all
areas of life.103
For the ordinary human the more prominent deities seemed remote
and unapproachable. Thus the individual's main focus in religion had to
do with personal gods, who were seen as intermediaries and intercessors
between the supplicant and the great gods.104 The personal god was inti-
mately involved with an individual's success or failure, as indicated by the
The destruction is from his own (personal) god;
He knows no savior.105
The personal god was often envisioned or addressed as a parent. Under
this metaphor the god was seen in four ways: (1) the physical aspect (the
father as engenderer of a child or the mother who gave birth), (2) the
provider aspect, (3) the protector and intercessor, and (4) the claim parents
have upon children for honor and obedience.106
Exaltation of Inanna (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), 49-50 for
Hallo's view, which is that a me represents a divine attribute.
103 See John Gray, "The Book of Job in the Context of Near Eastern
Literature," ZAW 82 (1970): 251-252.
104 For a discussion of the personal gods see T. Jacobsen, The Trea-
sures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (
University Press, 1976), 147-164, and H. Vorlander, Mein Gott: die Vorstel-
lungen vom personlich Gott irn Alten Orient and im Alten Testament,
AOAT 23 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1975).
Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (
sity of Pennsylvania Press, 1959), 45, 306.
106 Jacobsen, Treasures of Darkness, 158.
The metaphor of the parent under which the personal god was
viewed made the cosmic powers of the gods more immediate and approach-
able, and this ultimately led to the paradox of the righteous sufferer in
Mesopotamian literature. The personal deities were imaged as parental
figures and portrayed in a positive light. Yet when misfortune came upon
the individual there seemed to be no way to know what had been done to
offend the god other than reading omens or trial-and-error guessing.107
This is very evident in dingir.sa.dib.ba texts:
My god, I did not know how severe your punishment is.
I frivolously took a solemn oath in your name,
I profaned your decrees, I went too far,
I .... your mission in trouble,
I transgressed your way much,
I did not know, much .[...
My iniquities are many: I know not what I did.108
In the last line quoted the supplicant appears to portray both parts of the
theological problem faced by the one who suffers: an assumption of guilt
and an ignorance of the offense.
To these people there was no sharp distinction between the care of the
body and care of the soul, as opposed to modern Western societies in which
religious faith and scientific medical practice are frequently viewed as
mutually exclusive categories.109 For the ancient Mesopotamians the onset
107 Van der Toorn, Sin and Sanction, 94-97; see also Walton, Ancient
Israelite Literature, 153.
108 W G. Lambert, "DINGIR.SA.DIB.BA Incantations," JNES 33
(1974): 275, lines 23-29. The expression dingir.sa.dib.ba has reference to
appeasing an angry god."
of disease, illness and misfortune were often seen to have mysterious
causes. Speaking specifically of the situation of debilitating illness,
Michael Brown says:
If one lost one's health and vigor one became a burden to both family
and society, apparently suffering from divine disfavor as well. Thus
it was crucial that the deity's favor be incurred and his or her help
secured. To the ancient Near Eastern--and biblical!--mind, it was
impossible to countenance a major god /God who did not heal.110
Another factor in the problem of suffering is that of the human
element in healing, i. e., the existence of those who practiced medicine.
They practiced magical arts and divination in order to diagnose the cause of
the disease or malady, and also prescribed appropriate incantations or
other kinds of treatment to alleviate the suffering, or appease the offended
deity who would take away the problem. The two most frequent terms
referring to those who practiced the medical art were the asipu and asu.
The asipu viewed the onset of disease as a chain of events initiated under
the influence of "supernatural" powers or forces, which proceeded on a
predetermined course to an outcome that could be predicted by the skillful
reading of "signs."111 The asu viewed disease as the complex of presenting
symptoms and findings; by his "practical grasp" (intuition plus accumu-
"The Healing Christ," in Healing and Christianity, ed. M. Kelsey (New
110 Brown, Israel's Divine Healer, 53 (emphasis in original).
111 E. K. Ritter, "Magical-expert (=asipu) and Physician (=asu).
Notes on Two Complementary Professions in Babylonian Medicine," in
Studies in Honor of Benno Landsberger on his 75th Birthday, ed. H. Guter-
bock and T. Jacobsen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 301.
lated experience) of the immediate situation he prescribed treatment.112
Treatment most often included herbs, plants, animal parts, etc., mixed
with carriers such as beer, vinegar, honey, or tallow, and introduced into
the patient's body by means of ingestion, enema or suppository. Other
treatments were topical lotions or salves used directly on the body.113
Mesopotamian medicine shows a highly developed internal system
which integrated folk-belief, cultic ritual, and prescribed treatment.114
However it shows change over time, with the asu falling out of use in favor
of the asipu, so one should not expect to see both offices featured
prominently in all Mesopotamian medical texts.115
1. Sumerian Literature
Although the Sumerians are never referred to in the
Bible116 their language, culture and religion had a profound effect on the
Assyrians and, later, the Babylonians, both of which had considerable
influence militarily, politically, culturally and religiously on
112 Ritter, "Magical-expert," 302. For more discussion of these two
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 288-305.
113 Oppenheim, Ancient
114 See Brown, Israel's Divine Healer, 42-43, and the accompanying
115 For a brief sketch of the history of Mesopotamian medicine see
Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia, 288-305; and J. V. Kinnier
"Medicine in the Land and Times of the Old Testament," in Studies in the
Period of David and Solomon and Other Essays, ed. T. Ishida (
116 Walter R. Bodine, "Sumerians," in Peoples of the Old Testament
World, ed. A. J. Hoerth, G. L. Mattingly, and E. M. Yamauchi (Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1994), 19-20, especially n. 1.
a. "Man and His God"
This poem, which is dated c. 1700 B. C. or
earlier,117 can be divided into five sections: (1) lines 1-9, introduction; (2)
lines 10-20+, description of an individual's sickness and misfortune; (3)
lines 26-116, the main body of the poem, a description of poor treatment by
his contemporaries (26-55), a lament (56-95) and confession of guilt, sin and
an appeal for deliverance (96-116); (4) lines 117-129, the response of the god;
and (5) lines 130-140 praise to the god, followed by a one-line colophon.118
Since, in the Sumerian world view, humanity was created to serve
the gods119 and blessings and prosperity gained thereby, the penitent
sufferer in the poem confesses his sin and guilt in the hope that his present
misfortune will be reversed. However, there is no mention of a specific
transgression and the sin is never explicitly stated.
In general, offense to the gods, or sin, was more often seen in terms
117 S. N. Kramer, "‘Man and His God': A Sumerian Variation on the
Job Motif," in Wisdom in
and D. W. Thomas, VTSup 3 (Leiden: Brill, 1955), 170, suggests it may go
back as far as the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2000 B. C. This dating has gained
general acceptance. But for a list of some dissenting scholars see
Mattingly, "The Pious Sufferer," 308-309.
118 Kramer, "Man and His God," 171; cf. ANET, 590. Because of
numerous lacunae in the text and the obscurity of a number of crucial
passages the suggested section division is not quite certain, according to
119 See Enuma Elish VI:5-8; also Kramer, The Sumerians, 123; and
Thorkild Jacobsen, "
Ancient Man, ed. H. Frankfort et al. (
of the cult and the rituals associated with it.120 Moral evil does not seem to
have been experienced in any way other than when it was reduced to the
"pain of suffering" by the victims.121 In "Man and His God" this seems to be
the case, since the confession of guilt never goes beyond generalization.
The only proper recourse the supplicant had "was not to argue and
complain in the face of seemingly unjustifiable misfortune, but to plead and
wail, lament and confess, his inevitable sins and failings."122 A pointed
statement in this regard is found in lines 102-103 of the poem:
Never has a sinless child been born to its mother,
.... a sinless workman(?) has not existed from of old.
This belief in original sin123 provided a solution to the problem of suffering
without challenging the justice of the gods, thus removing this poem from
the ranks of theodicy.124 W. G. Lambert has recently stated that in his view
"Man and His God" should not be considered part of the wisdom literature
120 Some see the Mesopotamian idea of sin tied very strongly to ritual
offenses, see G. R. Driver, "The Psalms in Light of Babylonian Research,"
in The Psalmists, ed. D. C. Simpson (
1926), 136; while more recently, others have pointed out the exceptions to
this, e. g. Saggs, Encounter, 117.
121 Jean Bottero, "The Problem of Evil in Mesopotamian Mythology
and Theology," in Mythologies, ed. Y. Bonnefoy, rev. W. Doniger, 2 vols.
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 1.162.
122 Kramer, The Sumerians, 125-126.
123 Saggs, Encounter, 115.
124 Von Soden, "Das Fragen," 46. Mattingly, "The Pious Sufferer,"
312-313, seeks to retain this document as a theodicy by arguing for a
limitation of power on the part of a god and a new definition of theodicy,
which is related to an explanation of suffering, apparently with or without
reference to a divine being.
genre because the Sumerian sufferer confessed sins while asking for
release from his sufferings, apparently in the belief that this was more a
confession than a struggle over philosophical questions regarding evil and
the innocent, since it never questions divine justice.125 To put it bluntly,
since there are none without guilt there is no such thing as an innocent
sufferer, only an ignorant one.
Apparently belief in mankind's inherent sinfulness was justification
enough to account for the misfortunes and sickness the penitent in this
poem begged to have relieved. The belief in allgemeine menschliche Sund-
haftigkeit negated any objections a human might raise.126 The attitude of
the ancient Mesopotamians of "guilty as charged" had the disadvantage of
not knowing what the charge was. Supplicants were forced to throw them-
selves on the mercy of the gods hoping to gain a positive hearing, since the
will of the gods was often inscrutable.127
This type of letter had been previously referred to
as "letters of petition" by F. Ali or “Gottesbrief” by A. Falkenstein.129 Hallo
125 W G. Lambert, "Some New Babylonian Wisdom Literature," in
Wisdom in Ancient
son (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 30-31.
126 Hans-Peter Muller., "Keilschriftliche Parallelen zum Biblischer
Hiobbuch: Moglichkeit und Grenze des Vergleichs," Or 47 (1978): 369.
127 This is a brief statement of a more complex situation, see Kramer,
The Sumerians, 126; and in more detail, Mattingly, "The Pious Sufferer,"
128 This genre of literature was so named by W. W. Hallo, "Individual
Prayer in Sumerian: The Continuity of a Tradition," JAOS 88 (1968): 76.
129 See Hallo, "Individual Prayer in Sumerian," 76, n. 32.
suggested letter-prayers for this genre since the term seemed "preferable"
to Ali's suggestion and Falkenstein's was "difficult to translate."130 He also
points out that the letters are not always addressed to a god, but might also
be addressed to the king, one of the king's servants, or a deified king who
was deceased but addressed as "my god." Two letter-prayers are addressed
to private individuals, or at most to officials.131
In the view of the Mesopotamians, if a personal god was angry with
an individual, a sacrifice and the appropriate ritual was necessary to
appease the divine anger. Sacrifices were carried out in the various tem-
ples dedicated to the gods. But what if, as Jacobsen asks, the god is not
present when the supplicant presents a sacrifice to appease the god's
anger? Or what if the person is too sick to travel to the temple to present
prayers and sacrifices?132 The answer was to send a letter to the god which
was placed near the statue of the deity, relieving the supplicant of the need
to appear personally before the god.133
Many of these letters have been recovered and they essentially follow
a similar pattern. They begin with a salutation to the divine addressee
followed by the message and a conclusion. The body of the letter has no
recognizable structural divisions but most of the contents express com-
plaints, protests, prayers and formal reinforcements of the appeal, though
130 Hallo, "Individual Prayer in Sumerian," 76-77.
131 Hallo, "Individual Prayer in Sumerian," 77.
132 Jacobsen, "
133 These prayers were originally inscribed on a valuable object
belonging to the worshipper, but economic factors eventually led to the
development of this literary genre, and letters were deposited, rather than
inscribed objects, according to Hallo, "Individual Prayer in Sumerian," 75.
not always in this order.134
One of the longest of these letters is one addressed to Enki, the
personal god of a scribe by the name of Sin-gamubi, son of Ur-Nim.135 He
complains of attacks by a hostile deity (line 15) despite his loyalty and proper
observance of the offerings at the festivals "to which I go regularly" (lines
11-12). Although there is no question of his guilt (line 17), no omen has
revealed the specific nature of his offense (line 14). Following a long list of
complaints regarding his physical condition and treatment by contempo-
raries he promises to dwell in the "gate of Guilt-Absolved," sing praises and
proclaim the god's exaltation (lines 46-56) when the sin is cleansed.
As in the poem "Man and His God," there is no specific sin referred
to, only a conviction on the part of the penitent worshipper that he was
guilty. At worst, the blame is placed on a hostile deity for the illness and
the supplicant pleads for his personal god to intervene.
One might also enlist the aid of a more powerful god:
To the god my father speak; thus says Apil-Adad, your servant:
"Why have you neglected me (so)?
Who is going to give you one who can take my place?
Write to the god Marduk, who is fond of you,
That he may break my bondage;
Then I shall see your face and kiss your feet!
Consider also my family, grownups and little ones;
Have mercy on me for their sakes, and let your help reach me."136
134 Hallo, "Individual Prayer in Sumerian," 76-77.
135 Hallo, "Individual Prayer in Sumerian," 85, lines 1, 8.
136 Marten Stol, Altbabvlonische Briefe im Umschrift und Uber-
setzung, Heft 9 (Leiden: Brill, 1981), 141; Jacobsen, "
Apil-Adad calls on his personal god to act on his behalf since mankind
exists to serve the gods. The logic is impeccable. If the personal god allows
Apil-Adad to remain indisposed for an extended period, or to die, then there
will be one less person to serve the needs of the personal god. Along with
this there is also the pleading for the personal god to consider the needs of
the worshipper as well. He points out all the other members of his family
who depend on him. The case is argued that a failure on the part of the
gods to restore this man to health will have dire consequences not only on
the man's family but on the gods themselves. This "spiritual arm-twisting"
is a typical example of the manipulations attempted in Mesopotamian
literature to cajole or convince a god to act on behalf of a person.
To sum up, in the traditional definitions of theodicy137 one seeks to
justify the ways of God (or a god) when faced with suffering that is seem-
ingly undeserved. It is an attempt to remove the contradictions in a theo-
logical system that holds to a doctrine of a benevolent deity and acknow-
ledges the possibility of undeserved suffering. In my view the claim of
Mattingly that "Man and His God" should retain the classification of theo-
dicy fails to convince, since the Mesopotamian gods were not seen as "holy"
in the same way
by Mesopotamians when faced with misfortunes and/or sickness. The very
opposite almost always holds true. Guilt is assumed, and the prayers are
characterized by the confession of sin and guilt in a "shotgun blast"
approach. This method seeks to cover all aspects or possibilities by making
137 See Mattingly's discussion in "The Pious Sufferer," 311-312.
the confessions in the most generalized terms, since humans are seen as
inherently sinful. This is validated by the world view held by the Mesopota-
mians which was strongly tied to the act-consequence relationship.
2. Akkadian Literature
The main point of the study here is to get an idea of the
content of four representative literary pieces, so the analysis may not delve
as deep into all the issues as one might like.
a. The Pious Sufferer
This text is stored in the Louvre, where it is desig-
nated AO 4462.138 It was published by Jean Nougayrol in 1952 and dates
from the seventeenth or sixteenth century.139
After the introduction (lines 1-11) the suffering one speaks, addres-
sing his master, saying that his affliction is due to no known sin:
Maitre, j'ai bien reflechi en moi-meme:
... de faute voluntaire,
Et de faute involuntaire commise par lui, je n'(en) connais pas!140
The speaker in this text is obviously questioning the traditional position of
the Mesopotamians, that of a strict doctrine of retribution for sin. At this
point there is doubt expressed over the justice of the way the supplicant is
being treated by the god. However, as Lambert points out, this could be an
admission of sin, not a denial of it.141 If Lambert's view is correct the
138 Mattingly, "The Pious Sufferer," 319.
139 Jean Nougayrol, "Une version du ‘Juste Souffrant,'" RB 59 (1952):
140 Nougayrol, "Une version," 243, lines 12-13.
141 BWL, 11, n. 1. He suggests reading line 14: u! - [ka-ab-bi-i]s!
petitioner here may be ignorant but not innocent, since the second strophe
goes on to say:
Mais, moi, j'accepte ton courroux,
(Sa) suite funeste, je la prend a mon compte.
The difference between an innocent sufferer and an ignorant one is subtle
but important in the Mesopotamian view of the subject. At the end of the
document the petitioner is directed to do charitable deeds, which could be
interpreted as a penance (lines 62-65).
In stanza 8 the response of the god to the sufferer is found:
Thy demarche is worthy of a man. Thy heart is innocent.
The years are fulfilled, the days have redeemed thy suffering.
Hadst thou not been called to life, how wouldst thou have come to the
end of this serious illness?
Thou hast known anguish, fear in its full extent.
Until the end hast thou borne thy heavy load.
The way was blocked; it is open to thee.
The road is levelled; grace is granted to thee.
In the future forget not thy god,
Thy creator when thou hast received thy health.142
Seeing that the god apparently declared the suffering one innocent as
well as giving a warning to pay more careful attention to the god, it appears
there was confusion over the doctrine of retribution, or as Mattingly says,
"the traditional theodicy is not without its flaws."143
an-zi-il-la-ka a-na[ku i]k-ki-ba-am li-im-na-ma am-x [x] x x x x ("I have
trespassed against you, I have . . . . a wicked abomination").
142 Gray, "Book of Job," 259. Cf. Nougayrol, "Une version," 247.
143 "The Pious Sufferer," 320.
Questions may also arise over the translation of the first line in the
previous quote. Gray has translated the Akkadian li-ib-bu-uk la i-li-im-
mi-in "Thy heart is innocent." But lemenu means "to fall into misfortune,
to come upon bad times, to turn into evil," and with libbu as subject, "to
become angry."144 If this is correct I would suggest translating this phrase
"your heart should/must not become angry," making this an admonition
against anger rather than a verdict of innocence.
The author has expressed ignorance of his offense, yet counted on the
good will of the god to relieve his suffering. In spite of being left in the dark
regarding his sins, the author continues to hold to the doctrine of retribu-
tion, essentially seeing piety (probably understood as ritual observance) as
the best way to counteract or prevent calamities.
b. Ludlul Bel Nemeqi
This poem's title comes from its opening line
which is usually translated "I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom," the lord of
wisdom being Marduk.145 It has also been called the "Poem of the Right-
eous Sufferer" and "The Babylonian Job"146 although any comparison with
the book of Job fails to appreciate the depth of the problem of suffering in
Job, where no definite answer is given.147
144 CAD, vol. 9 (1973), 117.
145 Lambert, BWL, 21-28; ANET, 434-437, 596-600.
146 Mattingly, "The Pious Sufferer," 321.
147 R. E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom
Literature (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 156, criticizing the position taken
by H. Gese, Lehre und Wirklichkeit in der alten Weisheit (
B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1958), 63. M. Weinfeld claims "Man and His God"
and Ludlul Bel Nemeqi have more in common with thanksgiving psalms
than with Job, see his "Job and its Mesopotamian Parallels--a Typological
There is also a difference between the Akkadian nemequ and the
Hebrew hmAk;HA. The Akkadian word denotes possession of skill for the
performance of an occupation, as does the Hebrew. However, nemequ is
associated frequently with magic rites, incantations, and spells, and rarely
used with reference to morals.148 In Hebrew, hmAk;HA is seen as skill in an
occupation (e. g., Bezalel, Exod 31:1-3), just as the Babylonian ummanu
refers to manual skills and intellectual talent.149 The Hebrew term is
unique in that duties to God in a moral or ethical sense are emphasized
over the observance of ritual, cult magic, incantations or spells, as is the
case for nemequ. Lambert calls hmAk;HA a "philosophy of life" and cites only a
single passage where nemequ is used with this connotation.150
The poem consists of a long monologue written on four tablets over
400 lines in length, dating from the Kassite period (c. 1500-1100 B. C.).151 In
this monologue a man of affluence and authority named Subsi-megre-
Sakkan (which means "O-god-Sakkan-provide-me-with-abundance"152)
Analysis" in Text and Context: Old Testament and Semitic Studies for F. C.
Fensham, JSOTSS 48, ed. W. Claasen (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1988), 217.
148 Thus Lambert, BWL, 1; and "Some New Babylonian Wisdom Liter-
ature," 32; cf. L. Kalugila, The Wise King (Uppsala: CWK, 1980), who dis-
cusses the vocabulary of Sumerian and Akkadian expressions for wisdom
(38-39) and cites passages from Enuma Elish showing Marduk's tie to
incantations, spells, and cult magic (43-45).
149 Lambert, "Some New Babylonian Wisdom Literature," 30.
150 "Some New Babylonian Wisdom Literature," 31. The passage
occurs in the incantation series Surpu II:173: "Siduri...goddess of wisdom"
(distar(15) ni-me-qi), see Erica Reiner, Surpu: A Collection of Sumerian
and Akkadian Incantations AfO 11 (1958): 18.
151 Lambert, BWL, 15; Mattingly, "The Pious Sufferer," 321.
152 Bottero, "Problem of Evil," 1.167, although he transliterates Sakkan
relates how he suffered numerous afflictions and was eventually restored to
health and prosperity by Marduk.153
An outline of the poem is as follows: (1) introduction, (2) desertion by
the gods, (3) forsaken by friends and acquaintances, (4) failure of all
attempts to appease the gods; suffering only increases, (5) the promise of
deliverance through three dreams, and (6) restoration to health and
Frustration over unresponsive deities and the inability of diviners
and priests to determine the cause of the problem was the lot of this
I called to my god, but he did not show his face,
I prayed to my goddess, but she did not raise her head.
The diviner with his inspection has not got to the root of the matter,
Nor has the dream priest with his libation elucidated my case.
I sought the favour of the zaqiqu-spirit, but he did not enlighten me;
And the incantation priest with his ritual did not appease the divine
wrath against me.155
The afflicted sufferer complains that his misfortunes have struck
even though he has not been lax in cultic responsibilities:
with only one "k."
153 Lambert, BWL, 21.
154 Cf. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature, 171; and Lambert, BWL,
21. A text published by D. J. Wiseman has been identified as the first tablet
of the poem, see "A New Text of the Babylonian Poem of the Righteous
Sufferer," AnSt 30 (1980): 101-107; see also W. L. Moran, "Notes on the
Hymn to Marduk in Ludlul Bel Nemeqi," JAOS 101 (1983): 255-260.
155 See BWL, 39, tablet II:4-9; cf. also II:108-113.
For myself, I gave attention to supplication and prayer;
To me prayer was discretion, sacrifice my rule.
The day for reverencing the god was a joy to my heart;
The day of the goddess's procession was profit and gain to me.
The king's prayer--that was my joy.
And the accompanying music became a delight for me.
I instructed my land to keep the god's rites,
And provoked my people to value the goddess's name.156
Subsi-mesre-Sakkan's confusion led him to conclude in II:33-38 that
human values and divine values seem inverted, and that the ways of the
gods are beyond human ability to determine:
I wish I knew that these things would be pleasing to one's god!
What is good for oneself may be offensive to one's god.
What in one's own heart seems despicable may be proper to one's
Who can know the will of the gods in heaven? Who can understand
the plans of the underworld gods?
Where have humans learned the way of a god?157
This apparently innocent sufferer had found no comfort in his reli-
gion, and may be covertly blaming Marduk for his suffering, though he
approaches this with great delicacy and avoids any open accusations.158
The gods were unresponsive, the diviners and priests were unable to
determine the cause of his calamities and he had no assurance that
observing the cult actually led to reward and prosperity from the gods. This
complaint is followed by a series of statements on the very uncertain nature
156 See BWL, 39, 41, tablet II:23-30.
157 ANET, 597.
158 Lambert expresses this view in "Some New Babylonian Wisdom
of human existence (II:39-47) and the speaker confesses ignorance of the
meaning of it all:
I am appalled at these things; I do not understand their
The problem is seemingly relieved in a series of three dreams,
following which the illness is taken away and the misfortunes are reversed.
Unfortunately the tablet is broken at the very point at which the sufferer's
infractions were revealed (III:55-60). In Lambert's translation160 only line
60 is still intact:
He made the wind bear away my offenses.
However, line 58 has been reconstructed to read:
It has become patent to me, my punishment, my crime, (to wit) that I
did not revere her (the goddess's) fame.161
This reconstructed line shows that the speaker did not consider himself an
innocent sufferer, only a previously ignorant one. He cites his failure to
give proper respect to a goddess as one of the reasons for his calamities. If
the surrounding text could be reconstructed it would become clear just
what caused the god and goddess to send the misfortunes upon Subsi-
mesre-Sakkan. Presuming that line 58 would be in synonymous parallel-
ism with line 57 one can posit another similar statement of wrongdoing
159 BWL, 41, II:48. See also the discussion in Lambert, BWL, 22.
160 BWL, 51.
161 CAD, vol. 4 (1958), 170: i-pi-a-an-ni in-nin-ti(!) ar-ni la aduru
cited as further cause for the misfortunes.162
c. R.S. 25.460
This relatively short (46 lines) Akkadian text was
discovered at Ras Shamra and published in 1968.163 It dates from c. 1300
but its archaisms push it back as early as the Old Babylonian or early
Kassite periods, in terms of original composition.164 The author of this text
does not grapple with the reasons behind the suffering.165 In fact, the
opening lines (1-8) indicate that no method of inquiry had been able to
produce an answer.166 With support from family and friends, the sufferer
was encouraged to depend on the mercy of Marduk, since this situation was
known to have occurred before (lines 9-24). In the closing lines the sufferer
launched into praises for Marduk (lines 25-46).
The similarities to Ludlul Bel Nimeqi and the appearance of an
Akkadian text at
162 Synonymous parallelism is displayed in III:50-51, the closest
complete lines in the surviving texts and throughout the poem. This is in
no way a conclusive argument but it certainly leaves open the possibility,
even the likelihood, of a parallel statement.
163 J. Nougayrol, "(Juste) Souffrant (R.S. 25.460)," Ug 5 (1968): 265-273.
164 "Le texte d'Ugarit date de ca.1300, mais sa graphie, ses archais-
mes, son style depouille, sa concision meme (en face de Ludlul), lui
assignent vraisemblablement une date de composition paleobabylonienne
ou de plus haute epoque ‘cassite,'" "(Juste) Souffrant," 267. See also H.-P.
Muller, Das Hiobproblem:
und im Alten Testament (
1978), 56; and Mattingly, "The Pious Sufferer," 324.
165 W von Soden, "Bemerkungen zu Einigen Literarischen Texten in
Akkadischen Sprache aus
166 The text refers to oracles (line 2), haruspicy (3), omens (5), and
oneiromancy (6), see Nougayrol, "(Juste) Souffrant," 268.
Levant.167 Here, as in other literary pieces, the innocent sufferer seeks a
resolution to his problems from within the religious system, rather than
questioning its validity or seeking answers elsewhere.
d. Babylonian Theodicy
This work is structured as an elaborate acrostic of
27 stanzas, eleven lines each.168 It is one of the most developed and
skeptical cuneiform texts concerned with divine justice and human suffer-
ing.169 Lambert says this poem was probably written about 1000 B. C.,
although von Soden gives a date of about two centuries later.170
The author of the poem is identified by the acrostic which translates,
"I Saggil-kinam-ubbib, the incantation priest, am adorant of the god and
the king."171 The work consists of a dialogue between an unnamed skeptic
and a more pious friend.
As the acrostic unfolds the skeptic recites all the injustices and diffi-
culties he has experienced, beginning with being orphaned at a young age
(lines 9-11), resulting in poor health and destitute conditions (lines 27-33).
167 Gray, "Book of Job," 262. Nougayrol, "(Juste) Souffrant," 267,
speaks of the possibility of a common source behind Ludlul and R.S. 25.460:
"Dann 1'etat actuel de nos connaissances, mieux vaut nous en tenir a
1'hypothese d'une source ancienne commune a 25.460 et a Ludlul, et
renfermant deja tous les elements dont nous avons souligne la presence
dans ces deux textes a la fois."
168 Lambert, BWL, 63. For the text see BWL, 70-91; ANET, 601-604.
169 Mattingly, "The Pious Sufferer," 325.
170 Lambert, BWL, 63; W. von Soden, "Das Fragen," 51-52. For a quick
overview of the entire poem, see Lambert, BWL, 64-65.
171 Lambert, BWL, 63: a-na-ku sa-ag-gi-il-ki-[i-na-am-u]b-bi-ib ma-
as-ma-su ka-ri-bu sa i-li u sar-ri.
The pious friend recites what appears to be a proverb of conventional
n[a]-til pa-an ilim-ma ra-si la-mas-[sal
n[a]-ak-di pa-li-ih distar(15) u-kam-mar tuh-[da].
He who waits on his god has a protecting angel,
The humble man who fears his goddess accumulates wealth.172
The sufferer then points out examples which call into question the
supposed connection between piety and divine reward (lines 48-53), and
claims he has not failed to observe the required rituals, which should, by
implication, ward off all the calamities he has endured (lines 54-55). The
friend responds with his dogma that can be summed up as "piety pays."173
The examples cited by the sufferer--the wild ass who tramples the grain,
the lion who attacks livestock and the human profiteer--will all pay the
penalty for their crimes in due time (lines 59-64).174 Holding his ground,
the sufferer stubbornly says:
Those who neglect the god go the way of prosperity,
While those who pray to the goddess are impoverished and
In my youth I sought the will of the god;
With prostration and prayer I followed my goddess.
172 BWL, 70, lines 21-22. Line 21 may be translated "he who waits on
his god has good fortune," a parallel statement to line 22. See Jacobsen,
Treasures of Darkness, 155-156; and Oppenheim, Ancient
198-206, for general discussions of the relationship between individuals and
protective spirits, including the terms ilu, istaru, lamassu, and se'du,
even though the latter term does not occur here.
173 Lambert, "Some New Babylonian Wisdom Literature," 35-36.
174 Cf. Saggs, Encounter, 119.
But I was bearing a profitless corvee as a yoke.
My god decreed instead of wealth destitution.175
The element of prosperity coming to the wicked is an item that has
not been mentioned in any work we have examined previously,176 but seems
to be one of the most irritating issues to the sufferer in the Babylonian
Theodicy.177 It seems that the prosperity of the wicked, more than the
suffering of the (apparently) righteous, made the problem so acute. While
no one could be sure that an outwardly good person had not secretly or
unknowingly offended a god, one could hardly doubt that an obviously bad
person deserved punishment.178
The friend responded with the pious-sounding observation that the
ways of the gods are unknowable:
The plans of the gods are as [inscrutable(?)] as the midst of the
The utterance of the god or goddess is not comprehended.179
The divine mind is remote like the inmost of the heavens,
Knowledge of it is arduous, people are uninformed).180
The frustration of the sufferer must have been aggravated by the fact
that he was an incantation priest, i. e., a religious professional. If anyone
175 Lines 70-75, BWL, 76-77.
176 R. J. Williams, "Theodicy in the Ancient Near East," in Theodicy
in the Old Testament, ed. J. L. Crenshaw (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 46.
177 Saggs, Encounter, 119.
178 Saggs, Encounter, 119-120. Similar issues confronted the writers
of Pss 37, 49 and 73 as well as the book of Job.
179 Williams, "Theodicy," 46; cf. lines 82-83, BWL, 76-77.
180 Jacobsen, Treasures of Darkness, 162; cf. lines 256-257, BWL, 86-
should have had an idea of how to reverse suffering, calamities and diffi-
cult circumstances it should have been him, or his associates.
The conclusion reached by the friend is that the evil experienced by
humankind is not directly due to the injustice of the gods, but to the sin of
each individual. When the gods created humanity they
Gave perverse speech to the human race.
With lies, and not truth, they endowed them for ever.181
In other words, whatever evil is done by individuals is done because
the gods made them that way. Both sufferer and friend began by assuming
that the gods were responsible for maintaining justice among humans.
They ended up by admitting that these very gods made people prone to
The poem ends with the sufferer thanking his friend for his sym-
pathy and with a plea to the personal god and goddess to give help and to
show mercy, as well as a call for Shamash to guide him.183 The problem is
never solved--at least, not in this text. Whether the deities this man called
on ever responded is not known.
The speakers in this poem had to content themselves with the
181 Lines 279-280, BWL, 88-89; cf. Saggs, Encounter, 120.
182 Lambert, BWL, 65. This quote contains an idea very similar to the
statement found in the Sumerian "Man and His God" quoted above: "Never
has a sinless child been born to its mother, .... a sinless workman(?) has
not existed from of old." See Kramer, "Man and His God," lines 102-103.
183 Lines 295-297, BWL, 88-89. Shamash is called a shepherd, show-
ing a positive view of the god, or it may be an ingratiating statement
designed to coax the god into helping him.
conclusion that the righteous person simply did not exist. The justice of the
gods was not at issue, since the ways of the gods were unknowable, thus it
was useless to question them. For this reason I question the appropriate-
ness of the commonly used title of the poem. The issue of theodicy does not
arise in the so-called Babylonian Theodicy.
e. The Poem of Erra
This little-known poem has received only slight
attention from the scholarly world because of its relatively recent recovery
and collation of many of its text fragments.184 However, Erra was
apparently very popular in
large geographical area during the first millennium.185
The basic story-line is that humans had offended several gods, in-
cluding Erra, Marduk, the Sebetti 186 and the Anunnaki.187 The offenses
184 L. Cagni, Das Erra-Epos: Kleinschrifttext (
cal Institute, 1970); idem, The Poem of Erra (Malibu, CA: Undena, 1977).
Previous texts were either incomplete or incompetently handled, see Daniel
Bodi, The Book of Ezekiel and the Poem of Erra, OBO 104 (
denhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991), 13, n. 11.
185 Jacobsen, Treasures of Darkness, 227; Bodi, Ezekiel and Erra, 52.
For issues of introduction see Bodi's discussion on pp. 54-62.
186 The Sebetti were seven wicked gods without individual names.
They acted as a unit, even to the point of being treated grammatically in the
singular. Their cult was widespread in the latter half of the first millen-
nium. In the Erra poem they are exclusively evil, as opposed to Erra and
Ishum who reconstruct the country in the last tablet of the story, see Cagni,
Poem of Erra, 18-19.
187 Anunnaki is a Sumerian loanword meaning "the princely seed,"
see Bodi, Ezekiel and Erra, 65, n. 57. For a list of Sumerian evidence for
these gods see A. Falkenstein, "Die Anunna in der sumerische Uber-
lieferung," in Studies in Honor of Benno Landsberger on his 75th Birthday,
ed. H. Guterbock and T. Jacobsen (
included contempt (I.120-121), disrespect (I.122), and cultic offenses such as
neglecting the proper care of Marduk's statue (I.127-128). Even animals
were holding gods in contempt (I.77) and trampling and destroying the
pastureland which sustained the country (I.83-86). The Anunnaki were
deprived of sleep (I.81-82) because of the noise made by mankind, which
may be an echo of a similar motif in the Atrahasis epic (see above). In the
underworld there is a taboo of silence. Breaking the silence makes it im-
possible for a mortal to return to the earth unless another person or a god
Apparently the gods believed that the increase in the number of
humans and the resultant noise posed a direct threat to the gods, that they
would be overwhelmed (I.79). Erra mentioned the "former sin" committed
by humans (V.6), no doubt referring to the contempt humans showed Erra
Stirring up rebellion and war, society was devastated but an assis-
tant, Ishum, interceded on behalf of humanity and was able to calm Erra
down before all of humanity was killed. Ishum then confronted Erra with
his indiscriminate killing of both the guilty and innocent:
quradu dErra kinamma tustamit
la kinamma tustamit
1965), 127-140. for evidence in Akkadian literature see in the same volume
B. Kienast, "Igigu and Anunnaki nach den akkadischen Quellen," 141-158.
188 Note Gilgamesh XII.23, 28; and cf. S. N. Kramer, "Death and the
Nether World According to the Sumerian Literary Texts,"
189 Bodi, Ezekiel and Erra, 66.
sa ihtukama tustamit
sa la ihtukama tustamit
Hero Erra, you killed the righteous one.
You killed the unrighteous one.
You killed the one who had sinned against you.
You killed the one who did not sin against you.190
Thus humans were punished because of sin (hitu) against Erra. The
expression "to sin against (a deity)" is similar to the numerous examples in
Akkadian literature where in legal contexts it refers to an offense against
the suzerain, breaking a treaty or covenant, or failing to keep an obliga-
tion.191 Humans were punished for offending the gods, thus the "din" or
"noise" made by humans is also a crime deserving of punishment.192 After
Ishum confronted Erra with killing the innocent, Erra decreed that
19), and commissioned to rebuild and restore the city (V.20-38), and blessing
was promised to those who honored the poem (V.39-61).
One of the unique features of the Poem of Erra is that innocent deaths
and the suffering of the righteous are tied directly to one of the gods. To the
best of my knowledge this is the only admission by Mesopotamian writers
that the concept of an innocent or righteous sufferer existed in relation to
the gods. The social implications of this are far-reaching. The brutaliza-
tion of life in the first millennium led to the portrayal of gods as bloodthirsty
190 IV 104-107; see Bodi, Ezekiel and Erra, 68; Cagni, Poem of Erra,
191 Bodi, Ezekiel and Erra, 68.
192 Cf. A. Kilmer, "Mesopotamian Concept of Overpopulation"; and
Both, Ezekiel and Erra, 131-155.
killers, with the gods now being made in the image of man in a warlike
society.193 The evolution of the gods from warrior kings in the third millen-
nium with the image of a protector and ruler to the parental figures of the
second millennium which allowed worshippers to express a personal rela-
tionship to the divine to the violence and brutality of the gods in the Erra
poem is one of a slow deterioration of Mesopotamian culture into the
warrior societies of the Assyrians and Babylonians.194
To summarize this section, each of the texts examined from Meso-
potamia has the prevailing attitude that the sufferer can never assume
innocence, only ignorance. Part of the reason for this is that evil was built
into human nature and therefore suffering was to be expected.195 It was
simply part of the normal world order, thus there was no need to question
and complain. The best course of action for the ancient Mesopotamians
was to submit and suffer, and hope that the offended god or goddess would
eventually change the course of events. Since the ways of the deities were
beyond human comprehension, one could never be certain what actions
would bring about divine wrath, but it was virtually always certain that the
fault lay with the human sufferer, not the deity. Simply stated, the result of
this is that all suffering is deserved, and there is no recourse but to admit
one's guilt, praise one's god and plead for mercy.196
193 Jacobsen, Treasures of Darkness, 227: "[Iit is the divine that con-
forms down to the image rather than the image that rises up to approach
194 Jacobsen, Treasures of Darkness, 231-232.
195 Bottero, "Problem of Evil," 166.
196 Pope, Job, 60.
Even worse, there could be no confidence that one could determine
the specific offense in any given situation. Even if someone kept within the
guidelines of the Surpu incantation list there was no assurance of avoiding
sin, and thereby avoiding the wrath of the gods. Everyone merited punish-
ment. Therefore divine punishment of an apparently good person did not
call into question the justice of the gods.197
A suffering individual did not disturb the community since national
religion and personal religion were thought to operate in separate spheres.
The individual distress of a person who was enduring illness or misfortune
could be accounted for by those around him on the assumption that this was
a private matter between the individual and the personal god.198
As it relates to the book of Proverbs, according to many scholars, the
Mesopotamian view of life was shared by the sages who were part of
However, as I intend to demonstrate, this is not exactly true for Proverbs.
Rather than accepting a foreign Weltordnung, which has often been the
assumption of past scholarship, the book of Proverbs is grounded in a
distinctive Israelite monotheistic world view and shows an awareness of
the possibility of, and the actual existence of, an innocent sufferer.
B. Egyptian Literature
197 Saggs, Encounter, 117.
198 Van der Toorn, Sin and Sanction, 114.
199 According to Mattingly, "The Pious Sufferer," 329ff.
ting force.200 The focal point of Egyptian religion was the pharaoh, who
was viewed as divine and associated with Horus.201 He functioned as the
ultimate high priest, who built temples and saw to their maintenance.202
Because Egyptian beliefs were never consolidated or systematized
there is no single "Egyptian religion." Beliefs remained fluid, even during
the historical period, and they had no one "sacred book," which makes it
difficult for us to say what was believed by whom.203 It is likely that the
existing texts relate to a small group of the social elite showing little direct
evidence for the beliefs and attitudes of the rest of the people.204 Baines
points out that
Since in theory the gods provided for all of humanity, and humanity
responded with gratitude and praise, the cult could be seen as having
universal implications. In practice, however, the god's benefits were
unequally divided. The privileged received the rewards of divine
beneficence and returned gratitude, while the rest suffered
misfortune in greater measure and had no official channel for
interacting with deities.205
The average person came into contact with the deities only when
periodic festivals were observed. The gods were purified, fed, clothed and
200 Hoffineier, "Egyptians," 283.
Chicago Press, 1948; repr.
202 Hoffmeier, "Egyptians," 283.
203 David P. Silverman, "Divinity and Deities in Ancient
Religion in Ancient
Press, 1991), 12; see also in the same volume John Baines, "Society, Morali-
ty, and Religious Practice," 123.
204 Baines, "Society," 124.
205 Baines, "Society," 127.
praised on a daily basis but this was done by the privileged and by those
attached to the temple cult, not the ordinary individual.206
The king also served as an example of or metaphor for the way others
were to conduct their lives. The king was "on earth for ever and ever,
judging humanity and propitiating the gods, and setting order in place of
disorder. He gives offerings to the gods and mortuary offerings to the
spirits (the blessed dead)."207
In addition to the king, ma'at was also a very important concept in
Egyptian religion. The meaning of the word incorporates ideas such as
truth, harmony and justice.208 It is the "right" or correct behavior in any
"speaking ma'at," in contrast with the opposites "wrong" and "falsehood,"
giving the clear conclusion that ma'at had the meanings "right" and
"truth" from very ancient times.210 In a quote from an
206 Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient
the Many, tr. John Baines (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 135-136;
Baines; "Society," 126.
207 See Jan Assmann, Der Konig als Sonnenpriester: Ein kosmo-
graphischer Begleittext zur kultischen Sonnenhymnik (Gluckstadt:
Augustin, 1970), 17-22; and Baines, "Society," 128. In this quote "order" is
ma'at, a fundamental religious and social concept. "Disorder" is isft, the
opposite of ma'at, which is associated with the world outside creation.
208 J. D. Ray, "Egyptian Wisdom Literature," in Wisdom in Ancient
Gerechtigkeit and Unsterblichkeit im alten Agvpten (
1990) for a recent detailed study.
209 G. L. Archer and W. S. La Sor, "Religions of the Biblical World:
210 Miriam Lichtheim, Maat in Egyptian Autobiographies and
(before 2200 B. C.), ma'at is shown to be equated with a universal standard:
Justice (ma'at) is great, and its appropriateness is lasting; it has not
been disturbed since the time of him who made it, (whereas) there is
punishment for him who passes over its laws. It is the (right) path
before him who knows nothing. Wrongdoing (isft) has never
brought its undertaking into port.211
Miriam Lichtheim says:
[M]an did Maat because it was "good" and because "the god desires
it." It was the principle of right order by which the gods live, and
which man recognized as needful on earth and incumbent upon
This principle of cosmic dimensions regulated the functioning of nature,
society, and an individual's life. But it was not a mechanical, impersonal
principle. Ma'at essentially meant veracity or fair dealing.213 Ma'at was
personified as the daughter of the sun god and worshipped as a goddess,
having both temple and cult dedicated to her honor.214
Due to the multiple systems of theology in
provide a basic background to the discussion as I did for the previous sec-
tion. There were three main systerns215 which presented different cosmo-
Related Studies, OBO 120 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992), 18.
The literature on ma'at is enormous, see
(1980), 1110-1119; and A. Volten, "Der Begriff der Maat in den agyptischen
Weisheitstexten," in Les Sagesses du Proche-Orient ancien, no ed. (
Presses Universitaires de France, 1963), 73-101.
211 Lines 85ff., ANET, 412.
212 Lichtheim, Maat, 19.
213 Lichtheim, Maat, 37.
214 Edward F. Wente, "Egyptian Religion," ABD 2.410; Hornung, Con-
ceptions of God, 75.
215 The centers for these theological systems were based in
gonies and explanations for creation. Each was characterized by a main
creator deity who generated associated gods and goddesses.216 The enor-
mous time span over which Egyptian literature emerges causes it to show
some variety and change over the centuries. But unlike Hebrew wisdom
literature, Egyptian wisdom writings were never considered sacred.217
Thus we should not expect to see consistency throughout the literature of
Egyptian deities were portrayed in a large number of forms, ranging
from animal to human, to a combination of both.219 The gods often exhibi-
ted human emotions and engaged in human activity. They thought, spoke,
dined, traveled by boat, had a sense of humor, and some even drank to
excess.220 The gods were created beings, hence not eternal. The Egyptian
calendar contained days set aside to mark birthdays of many of their
a very ancient center for Egyptian religion;
1786) and the
Finegan, Myth and Mystery: An Introduction to the Pagan Religions of the
Biblical World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 39, 51.
216 Silverman, "Divinity and Deities," 30. See also in the same volume
Leonard H. Lesko, "Ancient Egyptian Cosmogonies and Cosmology," 88-115,
for a more detailed discussion.
217 Wente, "Egyptian Religion," 410.
218 See the comments of Gladson, "Retributive Paradoxes," 80, in this
regard. Despite the different theological systems there was very little
fluctuation in the way ma'at was viewed, see Lichtheim, Maat, 97.
219 Silverman, "Divinity and Deities," 19-23; see also Finegan, Myth
and Mystery, 43-44.
220 Silverman, "Divinity and Deities," 15-16.
gods.221 The gods were also subject to death and rebirth, though not always
in the mortal sense.222 Some texts mention a limited and fixed lifespan for
deities, and the story of "The Blinding of Truth by Falsehood" refers to "the
god's tomb."223 The resurrection of Osiris is mentioned frequently in the
Coffin Texts,224 and Re, the king of the gods, was said to die symbolically
every sunset and to be reborn at dawn the next day.225
Since the gods participated in the afterlife it was only natural to see
this as a precedent for human existence as well.226 At first, only the king
and society's elite were mummified but after the
was extended to others.227 It is this preoccupation with life or existence
after death that provides the most insight into the Egyptian view of suffer-
ing, as we will see below.
221 Peter Kaplony, "Geburtstage (Gotter)," LA, vol. 2 (1977), 477-479.
222 Silverman, "Divinity and Deities," 29; cf. Wente, "Egyptian Reli-
223 Siegfried Morenz, Egyptian Religion, tr. A. Keep (
University Press, 1973), 24-25; Hornung, Conceptions of God, 151-165.
224 Hornung, Conceptions of God, 152-153; e. g., Coffin Text spells 16,
17 and 148 in Adriaan de Buck, The Egyptian Coffin Texts, 7 vols. (
225 Silverman, "Divinity and Deities," 29; Finegan, Myth and Mystery,
226 Wente, "Egyptian Religion," 411.
227 See R. B. Finnestad, "The Pharaoh and the ‘Democratization' of
Post-mortem Life," in The Religion of the Ancient Egyptians: Cognitive
Structures and Popular Expressions, ed. G. Englund (
versitatis Upsaliensis, 1989), 89-93; and in the same volume, J. P. Sorensen,
"Divine Access: The So-called Democratization of Egyptian Funerary
Literature as a Socio-cultural Process," 109-123.
As for the practice of the medical arts in ancient
ample evidence of physicians who based their practice on empirico-
scientific principles as far back as the Old Kingdom.228 They show an
advanced level of knowledge regarding human anatomy, and in some cases
are surprisingly devoid of magic or religious jargon.229 This is in contrast
to Mesopotamian medicine, which seems to have been based more on
superstition than science.230
1. The Absence of Theodicy in
The gods are rarely blamed or questioned for the up-
heavals in human society.231 In
great extent with that of disorder.232 This served to promote a "don't-rock-
the-boat" attitude, and kept the ruling group in power.
In a Middle Kingdom text there is an apologia of the creator god, who
distances himself from human wrongdoing, saying:
228 See Brown, Israel's Divine Healer, 41-42, and his attending biblio-
magical rites were practiced, see J. F. Borghouts, Ancient Egyptian Magi-
cal Texts (Leiden: Brill, 1978); and R. K. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient
Egyptian Magical Practice (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1992).
230 According to Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia, 224, who ob-
served that prescribed medical treatment occurs rarely and is not medical
but magical. The names of diseases are not medical but usually point to the
deity or demon that caused them.
231 Williams, "Theodicy," 47.
232 Baines, "Society," 163; and Reinhard Grieshammer, "Gott and das
Negative nach Quellen der agyptischen spatzeit," in Aspekte der spat-
ag Dischen Religion, ed. W. Westdorf (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1979) 79-
I made every man like his fellow.
I did not ordain that they do wrong (isft, "disorder").
It was their desires that damaged what I had said.233
The last line speaks of the damage to the created world (brought into
existence by the creative word of the god?) caused by the desires of
humanity. As Baines succinctly says:
The creator is not responsible for the origin of evil. He cares so much
for people's well-being that "he has built himself a shrine around
them; when they weep he hears" (l. 135). This image of tears relates
to the origin of human beings. A wordplay found in the creator's
apologia and in other sources says that people arose from the
creator's tears--an indirect statement that they are born to suffer.234
This is quite similar to the Mesopotamian view in that there was a
divine order that regulated society and individual lives (
tice, or attributed evil to the gods. Any suggestion of injustice done by a
deity was done so only with the greatest caution and circumspection.
2. Suffering is Due to Perversion of Ma'at
Where did evil arise in the Egyptian world view? Part of
the answer has already been referred to--the presence of isft, "disorder."
But there is also a more direct source, that of humans themselves. Some of
the texts quoted above have hinted at this. In virtually all of the, wisdom or
reflective texts human suffering is viewed as a result of the perversion of
233 De Buck, Coffin Texts, vol. 7 (1961), 464a-b. Cf. R. B. Parkinson,
Voices From Ancient
32-34; and M. Lichtheim, AEL, vol. 1 (1973), 131-133.
234 Baines, "Society," 163-164; see de Buck, Coffin Texts, vol. 7 (1961),
465a, and Hornung, Conceptions of God, 149-150.
ma'at by humans.235
In this part of the study four documents will be examined with
reference to these issues. Though the study will not be detailed, it is
intended to show that the source of evil and suffering almost always lay
with humanity's failure to live up to the standards of ma'at, thus placing
the blame on mankind and removing it from the gods.
a. Admonitions of Ipuwer
This work is usually placed in the category of
instruction (Egyptian, sbayt236), although Williams discusses it under the
category of speculative works.237 The beginning of this work is lost, and
with it, the setting.
In its present form, which is no earlier than the late Thirteenth
Dynasty, the text is in two parts. The main body was probably produced
between 2180-2130 B. C.238 The second part is a dialogue between Ipuwer, a
sage, and the creator god.239
Though the situation presented in this text is not considered histori-
235 Williams, "Theodicy," 47.
236 Ray, "Egyptian Wisdom Literature," 18, says the root meaning of
the word is closer to "enlightenment."
237 Ronald J. Williams,, "Egyptian Literature (Wisdom)," ABD, 2.397,
as does Nili Shupak, "The ‘Sitz im Leben' of the Book of Proverbs in the
Light of a Comparison of Biblical and Egyptian Wisdom Literature," RB 94
(1987): 99-100, n. 2. She says sbayt refers primarily to written rather than
oral instruction, 108, n. 19.
238 Gerhard Fecht, Der Vorwurf an Gott in den "Mahnworten des
Ipu-wer" (Heidelberg: Carl Winters Universitatsverlag, 1972).
239 Williams, "Egyptian Literature (Wisdom)," 397-398.
ca1240 it is unusual in that the sage criticizes the god for deplorable condi-
tions existing in the land. The king responds to the criticism at the end of
the document, and from what remains of the speech it seems that the king
places the blame for the adverse conditions on the people themselves.241
Even in a text where a god was reproached for allowing people to suffer and
conditions to deteriorate, the conventional orthodox view is still present,
that these conditions are due to actions of people, and the gods are not
b. Dispute of a Man with His Ba
Dating from the Twelfth Dynasty, this poem is
preserved in a single manuscript, of which the first part is missing.242 It is
also known as the "Dispute over Suicide."243 There are many ways of
interpreting this difficult work but the basic facts are communicated as a
discussion between "a man" and his ba, or "soul."244 Although this is
frequently the translation seen for ba it has no Semitic equivalent, and
"soul" fails to properly communicate its salient meaning. It also introduces
a dualistic distinction between body and soul proper to some other philo-
sophical systems but contrary to the concept of human beings held by the
Egyptians.245 It could be called the personification of the vital force that
240 Lichtheim, AEL, vol. 1 (1973), 149-150.
241 Lichtheim, AEL, vol. 1 (1973), 161-162, n. 29.
242 Lichtheim, AEL, vol.. 1 (1973), 163.
243 ANET, 405-407.
244 R. Murphy, Tree of Life, 170.
245 Louis V. Zabkar, "Ba," LA, vol. 1 (1975), 588-589. The ba is the
"moral essence of a person's motivation and movement, which also enables
him or her to be free in the next world," according to Baines, "Society," 145.
animates the kha (body).246 There were several stages of development for
the idea of the ba in post-mortem existence, and Zabkar notes three facts:
First, the Ba indicates the fullness of being, not a part of it. Second,
the Ba is not a spiritual part of man, but the totality of his physical
and psychical attributes and functions. The third fact which
logically follows from the second is that the idea of man in ancient
spiritual or material and immaterial elements, but that of a monistic
unit comprising all of man's qualities; in each and all of the several
modes of existence (Ba, Ka, Ach, etc.) man continues to live and act
as a full individual.247
A brief look at the contents of the work shows a suffering man ex-
pressing his longing for death. Angered over this, his ba threatens to
leave him. This causes horror to the man, since abandonment by the ba
would mean total annihilation instead of the resurrection and eternal bliss
which he imagined, and he entreats his ba to stay with him and not oppose
him in his longing for a natural death, rather than a suicide. The ba then
tells the man that death is a sad business, and that those who have nice
tombs are no better off than those who have none. The ba urges the man to
246 H. Seebass, "wp,n,," TWAT, vol. 5 (1986), 533. It was often pictured
in Egyptian artwork as a migratory stork, or a human-headed bird which
flutters or hovers over the mummy or near the tomb and may be benefitted
by offerings, water or shade, see G. L. Archer and W. S. La Sor, "Religions:
in Cecil M. Robeck, "Soul," ISBE, vol. 4 (1988), 587.
247 Zabkar, "Ba," LA, vol. 1 (1975), 590. For a more detailed treatment
see L. Zabkar, A Study of the BA Concept in Ancient Egyptian Texts
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968); and Hans Goedicke, The
Report About the Dispute of a Man with His BA (
University Press, 1970), 20-37, who stresses the duplexity of the meaning
against the uniform character of the term in Zabkar's study.
stop complaining and enjoy life. The man seems unconvinced, since he
closes by deploring the miseries he has to endure, and exalts death and
resurrection. In a concluding speech the ba decides to remain with the
On the subject of the source of evil, the Dispute is silent. The poem
acknowledges the existence of evil, citing many examples; but nowhere is
the question of origin asked with regard to evil. The role of the gods men-
tioned in the text is judicial,249 and the idea that misery in life will be
rewarded in a hereafter appears in line 22.250 The "second poem of the
man" (lines 103-130) cites instances of wrongdoing, greed, criminal activity
and alienation, for the current state of misery the man is enduring. In
lines 122-123 he says:
To whom shall I speak today?
None are righteous (ma'tyw),
The land is left to evildoers (irw isft).
The word translated "righteous" is based on the root ma'at, and means
someone who pursues "the good," or "one attached to ma'at."251 The
opposite of ma'tyw "righteous one" is irw isft "the wrongdoer," and has a
248 Lichtheim, AEL, vol. 1 (1973), 163; Murphy, Tree of Life, 170; and
in greater detail, Goedicke, Report, 38-59. Williams, "Egyptian Literature
(Wisdom)," 398 sees it as an attack on the traditional costly material
provision for the afterlife, but Goedicke (Report, 58) disagrees.
249 Goedicke, Report, 84-85, 102-109. The passage is in lines 23-31, see
AEL, vol. 1 (1973), 164-165.
250 According to Goedicke (Report, 103).
251 Goedicke, Report, 169.
strong moral connotation.252
The conclusion is that in the Dispute the problems of an innocent
sufferer are brought on by others who do not observe ma'at.
c. Tale of the Eloquent Peasant
This story dates from the Middle Kingdom and
was apparently intended as a literary essay in what the Egyptians con-
sidered fine writing.253 The text consists of a series of nine poetic speeches
framed by narrative.254 The basic story line is that a humble oasis dweller
(not a "peasant"255) named Khun-Anup has his goods taken from him by a
tenant farmer. When the complaint is brought before the high steward,
Rensi son of Meru, he is so impressed with Khun-Anup's eloquence that he
delays the repayment of the lost goods until after nine speeches are made.
Though it is evident in the poetry and literary devices256 that this was
an essay showing fine writing, the main emphasis is on the rights of the
common individual.257 There is no outcry against the gods over the injus-
tices done to Khun-Anup, only a criticism of those who fail to do ma'at, as
he tells Rensi:
Do Justice (ma'at) for the Lord of Justice (ma'at),
who is the wise perfection of his Justice (ma'at).
Reed pen, papyrus, and palette of Thoth all dread to write injustice:
252 Goedicke, Report, 169. See also de Buck, Coffin Texts, 4.63a.
253 William K. Simpson, ed., The Literature of Ancient
254 Lichtheim, AEL, vol. 1 (1973), 169.
255 Williams, "Egyptian Literature (Wisdom)," 398.
256 See Simpson, LAE, 35, n. 11; 37, n. 23; 41, n. 48; etc.
257 Williams, "Egyptian Literature (Wisdom)," 398.
when good is truly good, that good is priceless--
But Justice (ma'at) is forever,
and down to the very grave it goes with him who does it.
His burial conceals that man within the ground,
yet his good name shall never perish from the earth.258
The eternality of ma'at as the standard of right order is shown here,
and injustice results when people, especially those in power, do not abide by
its standards. Khun-Anup calls in frustration to the high steward, who
has remained silent during the entire ordeal:
Do not answer with the answer of silence!
do not attack one who does not attack you.
You have no pity, you are not troubled,
You are not disturbed!
You do not repay my good speech which comes from the mouth of Re
Speak justice (ma'at), do justice (ma'at),
For it is mighty;
It is great, it endures,
Its worth is tried,
It leads to reveredness.259
As the story ends, the high steward Rensi eventually forces the
robber to repay Khun-Anup for his losses. Rather than criticize the gods,
one of the last things said by Khun-Anup prompting Rensi into action is the
threat by the sufferer to plead his case to the god Anubis if Rensi continues
258 Lines 304-307; this translation is that of John L. Foster, Echoes of
Egyptian Voices (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 83.
259 AEL, vol. 1 (1973), 181. Foster's translation (Echoes, 84) differs
slightly but meanings are essentially the same.
Here I have been pleading with you, and you have not listened to it.
I shall go and plead about you to Anubis!260
For Khun-Anap the problems he experienced were external and
social. For the man in the Dispute they were internal and personal.
However, both see injustices and suffering resulting from a perversion of
ma'at. As indicated earlier, this concept of cosmic order is similar to the
Sumerian me but with a significant difference. In
are "wielders of the me"261 whereas in
by ma'at.262 Thus ma'at has more extensive ramifications in its relation
to the realm of the divine.263 It was a standard of behavior that both deities
and humans were measured by.264 Speaking and doing ma'at led to
success; failing to do so led to isft, disorder. If ma'at is to be understood in
the sense of harmony, truth and justice, then this has implications for
social relationships. Everyone has rights, and those rights carry with them
a responsibility for those around them. Individuals were seen as care-
worthy creations of the gods and this formed the basis for morality.265 This
260 AEL, vol. 1 (1973), 182, the end of the ninth petition.
261 See ANET, 579-580; and Hallo and van Dijk, Exaltation of Inanna,
263 Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature, 91.
264 It is still a matter of discussion whether the concept of me was as
central to Mesopotamian society as ma'at was to
Wesen and Geschichte der Weisheit, BZAW 101 (Berlin: Topelmann, 1966),
115-118 for a survey of the question.
265 John A.
Man, ed. H. Frankfort et al. (
is a far cry from the Sumero-Babylonian view that humanity was created to
serve the gods, and that justice was a privilege rather than a right.266
d. Teaching of Amenemhet
This purported communication of an assassinated
king to his son and successor has only slight bearing on this study, and it is
mentioned only due to its unique position on the subject. It has no religious
aspect to it, and nothing is said about ma'at.267
The main message of the instructions is "trust no one":268
Trust not a brother, know not a friend,
Make no intimates, it is worthless.
When you lie down, guard your heart yourself,
For no man has adherents on the day of woe.269
Amenemhet then gives evidence why this advice should be taken:
I gave to the beggar, I raised the orphan,
I gave success to the poor as to the wealthy;
But he who ate my food raised opposition,
He whom I gave my trust used it in a plot.270
The speaker claims he did what the kings of
do, yet within his palace a plot was made which eventually led to his
murder. In the concluding two lines of this section of poetry Amenemhet
encourages his son to learn the lessons he has to offer:
266 Jacobsen, "
267 William L. McKane, Proverbs: A New Approach, OTL (Philadel-
268 Murphy, Tree of Life, 165; McKane, Proverbs, 84.
269 AEL, vol. 1 (1973), 136; LAE, 194.
270 AEL, vol. 1 (1973), 136; LAE, 194.
If one fights in the arena forgetful of the past,
Success will elude him who ignores what he should know.
The uniqueness of this work is seen in that it is the only known
specimen of its kind, yet over seventy copies or portions of it have been re-
covered.271 It is a misanthropic work, characterized by cynicism and
bitterness. In both poetical sections Amenemhet asserts that the good he
did for his subjects and the country was repayed with betrayal and ulti-
mately murder. Amenemhet claims to have suffered undeserved violence.
In his advice no blame is ascribed to the gods, only untrustworthy people
are warned against.
The political function of this essay was to validate the succession to
the throne of Sesostris I, the son of Amenemhet.272 It was probably written
by a creative royal scribe in the employ of Sesostris I who showed a great
deal of imagination, but few modern scholars take this work at face value.
This forces any analysis of the work to be careful not to take it as an
historical record, although the attitudes displayed toward royal advisors
and other people are informative.
271 Lichtheim, AEL, vol. 1 (1973), 135, observes that the subject of regi-
cide conflicted too strongly with the dogma of divine kingship for several
works of this sort to be produced, yet Simpson (LAE, 193) says that the large
number of copies or portions recovered indicate its popularity. Note also the
comment of McKane (Proverbs, 83) in this regard.
272 Simpson (LAE, 193) calls it a blatant work of political propaganda
designed to validate the new king.
3. Inequity or Injustice was Often Rectified in the Afterlife273
When rewards and punishments could be projected into
a post-mortem existence the problem of injustice and innocent suffering
becomes a less vital concern.274 A culture which believes that there is a
judgment after death for all individuals plays down the need for retribution
and reward in this life since all scores will be settled in the next life and it is
never too late for righteousness to be rewarded.
Some comparisons of Sumero-Babylonian literature with that
First, we can observe that theodicy, by strict definition, is not an
appropriate category for discussion of Egyptian literature due to the
Egyptian view of a judgment in post-mortem existence. This is in contrast
to Sumero-Babylonian literature, which calls for the rectification of in-
justice and illness in the present life. To be sure, there are protests over
injustices and bad treatment in Egyptian literature but the general tenor of
Egyptian society was more serene,275 and the possibility of all things being
set right in the afterlife made a difference in their outlook.
Secondly, the gods are not viewed in either literature as holding to as
high a moral standard as that of Yahweh of the ancient Israelites. The
273 For a basic discussion of the afterlife in
"Divinity and Deities," 46-49; in more detail, Hermann Kees, Totenglauben
and Jenseitsvorstellungen der alten Agypter (
274 Williams, "Theodicy," 48.
275 Gladson, "Retributive Paradoxes," 85.
and in neither culture are moral standards based on the character of the
doing was more often seen as an offense against society. The claim to
"righteousness" was usually based on ritual observations, especially in
times of suffering when an individual was not able to get the god to reveal
the reason for the divine anger expressed against the person.
someone's suffering are made in the most cautious and circumspect terms.
When it is claimed in the Admonitions of Ipuwer that the gods might be at
fault the king responds with the conventional teaching that people have
failed to keep ma'at, leading to the disruption of society. In
when a sufferer pleads for a god or goddess to relieve sickness or suffering
there is always an assumption on the part of the petitioner that a sin of
some kind has caused the deity to allow this treatment.
This leads to the fourth observation, that the source of evil in
with isft, "disorder," the opposite of ma'at. Those who did not do or speak
according to the standards of ma'at allowed disorder into their lives. For
the Mesopotamians evil was often seen as a result of demonic activity,
276 Contrast with this the numerous claims of Yahweh's holiness,
Lev 11:44-45; 19:2; 21:8; Josh 24:19; 1 Sam 2:2; etc., and the title "Holy One of
hence a result of living forces or beings. Even a "friendly" personal god may
allow suffering to occur in an individual's life if offended, so the rituals in
Mesopotamian worship often functioned as appeasement so that suffering
was avoided or halted.
How does the previous study relate to von Soden's four elements
required for theodicy?
1. A Clear Sense of Right and Wrong
To do right was to conform to ma'at. No one could ever
exhaust the knowledge of ma'at completely nor conform to ma'at totally,
hence a certain amount of disorder in an individual's life and in society
was expected. For the Egyptians ma'at was seen as "doing good," and
becoming cognizant of ma'at was based on instruction and observation or
perception and insight.277 Although the Egyptians did not have a written
law code (or if they did it has not been discovered yet) the funerary inscrip-
tions show their claims to have done certain things or abstained from other
activities in the attempt to gain a favorable verdict in the judgment.278
Morenz says these inscriptions show us clearly that
...the Egyptians possessed general maxims of conduct, such as the
need to avoid inflicting pain upon one's fellow beings, but did not
attempt to describe exhaustively all the possible wicked actions
whereby this could be done. They may be said to have had an ethic of
an attitude of mind, which obliges men themselves to apply to the
concrete circumstances the general moral maxim that one should
277 Morenz, Egyptian Religion, 123.
278 Morenz, Egyptian Religion, 134.
show consideration for one's fellows. Thus Egyptian ethics are
oriented toward commission and omission, but also toward facts and
toward mental attitudes.279
So the norms of conduct in Egyptian society were (apparently) not codified,
unlike the law codes in Mesopotamia or the Torah in
a glimpse into Egyptian ethics and morals by examining the Negative Con-
fessions (Book of the Dead, chapter 125), where a list of actions or attitudes
was denied in order to achieve a favorable judgment in the afterlife.280
As far as we know at present, Egyptian moral thought was not
formulated as a code of ethics and written down as such. Morals were
conveyed in five types of literary sources: (1) instructions in wisdom; (2)
autobiographies; (3) declarations of innocence in the Book of the Dead,
chapter 125; (4) priestly prohibitions and declarations inscribed on temple
doors; and (5) imaginative tales that conveyed moral lessons.281 Each
individual knew that his or her personal conduct would have to be
accounted for and weighed against ma'at in the judgment.
A sense of right and wrong is present to some extent in
279 Morenz, Egyptian Religion, 134.
280 There are also moral self-laudations in private autobiographies
most often phrased as positive statements of good character and right
action, see Lichtheim, Maat, 105. A thorough discussion of the Negative
Confessions (103-144), and the moral vocabulary found therein (145-150) as
well as the aspects of ma'at (151) and a ranking of virtues and vices (152-
153) are also contained in Lichtheim's discussion.
281 Lichtheim, Maat, 152.
codes282 were in effect at various times but these did not explain why a
person may suffer a run of "bad luck," played out as poor health, financial
setbacks, or the like. The gods frequently left the person in ignorance of the
offense, giving them recourse only to seek the answer through haruspicy,
oneiromancy or other forms of divination,283 or to recite the Surpu incan-
tations, hoping to hit upon the one that had offended the deity.
In the event that the gods did not reveal the nature of the offense the
claim to "righteousness" then became a claim that an individual had done
all that could be done and the gods had not communicated any failings.284
This left a sufferer in ignorance, but there was no assumption of innocence.
2. Significant Individual Worth
Both societies held this view to some degree, though
tians considered themselves divine creations, and in the Middle Kingdom it
was said that the first human (rmt, later rmt) was created from the tear
(rmit) of the creator-god.285 Though this idea was associated with an ex-
282 E. g., Sumerian: Laws of Ur-Nammu, Laws of Lipit-Ishtar; Old
Babylonian: Laws of Eshnunna, Code of Hammurapi. For manuscript
data, publication, and translation information for these and other ancient
law collections see Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature, 69-74.
283 For a brief look at their divination methods see Malcolm J. A.
Horsnell, "Religions: Assyria and
more detail, W. Farber, "Witchcraft, Magic, and Divination in Ancient
vols. (New York: Scribner, 1995), 3.1895-1909.
284 Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature, 180.
285 Morenz, Egyptian Religion, 183; Hornung, Conceptions of God,
150; cf. Lesko, "Cosmogonies," 101-102.
planation of the suffering of mankind it also gives an explanation of their
origin.286 Another text implies that people are small livestock, i. e. merely
cattle, the property of the gods.287 This view is the negative end of the scale
from the title of the pharaoh as shepherd, the shepherd's crook being one of
the earliest insignia of the pharaoh and the origin of one of the words
meaning "to rule."288 This is often a positive image due to its association
with provision and protection.
An "Egyptocentric" view was prominent in the thinking of the inhabi-
tants of that nation which promoted them as the most important people on
earth.289 This was a result of their national religion, which had their peo-
ple being ruled by a divine king. They held the conviction that their nation
was the center of the earth290 and that they were superior to all other peo-
ples.291 Their self-worth seemingly was rooted in their religion and their
belief that they held a position of privilege and status among their gods.
People were created to serve the gods, according to
Sumero-Babylonian belief, and as it was pointed out earlier, self-worth
came as a result of the role or function one played in society. The gods
286 Baines, "Society," 163; cf. also Morenz, Egyptian Religion, 183, and
see 184 where the god Khnum's activity as creator is discussed.
289 Morenz, Egyptian Religion, 42-49. See also
290 Morenz, Egyptian Religion, 42-47. This idea was not limited to the
Egyptians. See the brief discussion of this motif in the OT in L. C. Allen,
Ezekiel 1-19, WBC vol. 28 (Dallas: Word, 1994), 72-73.
291 Morenz, Egyptian Religion, 47-49.
needed people. Saggs observes:
In the last resort, man was lord of all: the proper functioning of the
universe itself depended upon man's maintaining agriculture, sup-
porting the temples, and providing the gods with their sustenance.292
Saggs may be correct in pointing out the importance of human beings in
their roles which supported the temple and its adjoining property, but I can
detect no sense of "lordliness" on the part of the average person, especially
when it has been observed so many times that people were created to do the
work the gods did not want to be bothered with. It is difficult to see how
human beings could hold a lofty view of themselves knowing their role of
servitude before the gods. In contrast to Saggs' claim of lordliness, Bottero
observes the great anxiety in Mesopotamian society evidenced by their
obsession with demonic oppression.293
Ancient Mesopotamian society was structured around temples to
various gods, hence one can assume that those employed in the temple held
higher social status than those who did not, and that there was also very
likely an ascending order of status held among temple employees, depend-
ing on what one did.
The average person in
cance to the great gods to merit individual attention, thus the heightened
importance and emphasis on the personal deities.294 The suffering of an
individual was seen as a matter between the individual and the personal
292 Saggs, Encounter, 170.
293 Bottero, "Problem of Evil," 1.163-167, especially 1.165.
294 Saggs, Encounter, 122-123.
god and did not affect the community as a whole. The two balancing per-
spectives of religious individualism and religious nationalism combined
with the inscrutability of the gods left a suffering individual in an ambig-
uous position.295 The gods were not morally obligated to help and this
resulted in the cajoling and attempted manipulation of the gods seen in the
literature. Since humanity existed to serve the gods and do their work, it
was only logical to keep people alive and healthy, or so the ancient Meso-
potamians reasoned. Justice as favor was originally the concept until the
law codes, especially the Code of Hammurapi, took shape. Before this,
justice could never be claimed; it could only be obtained through personal
connections, favoritism or manipulation.296
3. Conflict Between Deities
Given the size of the pantheons in both
it is amazing that this issue is rarely seen in the literature of either society.
With so many gods it seems there might have been conflict or competition
for the loyalty of worshippers but there is no record of such. Von Soden con-
siders that this fact is due to a virtual monotheism on the practical level of
worship, which he called "monotheotetism."297 While it is true that the
is very rare to find an individual human portrayed as a victim of the conflict
between the gods. One of the exceptions to this would be Atrahasis in the
295 Van der Toorn, Sin and Sanction, 114.
296 Cf. Jacobsen, "
297 Von Soden, "Das Fragen," 46.
298 E. g., Enuma Elish.
epic of the same name, as he was caught in the interplay between Enlil and
4. Judgment in the Afterlife
This, of course, is the main element of religion which
negates the need for theodicy in Egyptian literature. Many of the specifics
have already been covered above and need not be repeated here. Lest
modern readers believe that the Egyptians were assured and comfortable
with their official teachings, Miriam Lichtheim makes the following
But whatever apprehension of the judgment the Egyptian had, it was
as nothing compared to his fear and hatred of death. By right doing
and by ritual means as well, the judgment would be overcome. But
death could not be evaded. With all his faith in the magical
manipulation of the universe, the Egyptian, when not indulging in
hopes and phantasies, was a pragmatist. Death was a massive
reality. The hereafter? Except in imaginative tales, no one had ever
come back to tell of it. These two things remained largely unresolved:
the full-bodied fear of death, and the nagging doubt about the reality
of a life in the beyond. To overcome these two required not self-
assertion but rather a self-restraining sagacity and piety:
The end of the man of god is to be buried on the mountain with
his burial equipment (Papyrus Insinger 18, 12).300
Without a doubt the ancient Mesopotamians believed in
an existence after death. However, the evidence is very thin that a judg-
299 See the discussion in Jacobsen, Treasures of Darkness, 116-121.
300 Lichtheim, Maat, 144.
went would take place.301 There are incantation texts which speak of the
afterlife in reference to a sick person who is in the land of the dead.302 The
"Counsels of Wisdom" speak of the Anunnaki defining the status of the
He who fears the Anunnaki extends [his days].303
These underworld gods are not viewed as carrying out moral judgment on
the deceased. The fate of the dead seems to have depended more on social
status, how they died and the manner in which the funeral rituals were
carried out.304 Thus in
as something carried out in this life.
Mankind's ultimate destiny was death, as Gilgmesh shows.305
301 See Helmer Ringgren, Religions of the Ancient Near East, tr. J.
Sturdy (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973), 46-48, 121-123; and J. Bottero, "La
mythologie de la mort in Mesopotamie ancienne," in Death Mesopota-
mia. XXVIe-Recontre assyriologique internationale, ed. B. Alster, (Copen-
302 Sumeran kur-nu-gi4-a, Akkadian erset la tari; lit. "land of no
return." The OT knows the earth as the "land of the living" (MyyH Crx), Isa
38:11; 53:8; Jer 11:19; Ps 27:13; Job 28:13; etc., as opposed to the netherworld.
Job 10:21 observes that this place is a land of gloom and deep darkness from
which no one returns. For a detailed study see Nicholas J. Tromp,
Primitive Conceptions of Death and the Nether World in the Old Testament
(Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1969).
303 BWL, 105, line 147. For more on the Anunnaki see the discussion
of Erra above.
304 H. W. F. Saggs, "Some Ancient Semitic Concepts of the Afterlife,"
Faith and Thought 90 (1958): 168.
305 See the comments of Murphy, Tree of Life, 155-156.\
Beyond death was the netherworld ruled by Nergal and his consort Eresh-
kigal, and inhabited by the disembodied spirits (etemmu) of the dead. Each
etemmu experienced a shadowy, dismal existence in this dark and dreary
place where clay and dust were eaten for food. The twelfth tablet of the
Gilgamesh epic lists various fates for people but none are pleasant. The
concept of a happy and blissful afterlife did not exist in Mesopotamia.306
The analysis of theodicy and the applicable literature of the cultures
of the ANE have shown that only
innocent sufferer. However, it seems many scholars limit this to OT books
other than Proverbs. Why is this so? This will be discussed in the next
306 Horsnell, "Religions: Assyria and
THE LACK OF DISCUSSION RELATED TO INNOCENT SUFFERING IN
THE BOOK OF PROVERBS
The purpose of this chapter is to explore some of the past assump-
tions of scholarship to establish why the book of Proverbs has been excluded
from discussions of innocent suffering or sufferers. Then I will suggest a
thesis which will allow a detailed discussion of the main topic in the
remainder of this study. My purpose is not to recount the history of wisdom
scholarship or the scholarly trends concerning the book of Proverbs in
general but to examine certain trends and positions which seem to exclude
Proverbs from the discussion of this topic.l
I. Past Assumptions
There are two main points that will be touched on in this part of the
study. The first is the categorization of Proverbs as conventional wisdom,
with the implication that a mechanical or impersonal order and a rigid
expression of retribution are norms. The second is the perception that Job
and Qoheleth, as exceptional, wisdom, react against the dogmatization seen
in the sayings and admonitions of Proverbs.
1 For a brief discussion of wisdom scholarship see R. E. Clements,
One Hundred Years of Old Testament Interpretation (
minster, 1976), 99-117; and more recently R. N. Whybray, The Book of Pro-
verbs: A Survey of Modern Study (Leiden: Brill, 1995).
A. Proverbs is Conventional Wisdom
One of the assumptions of past studies of Proverbs is that the
book reflects the conservative outlook of conventional wisdom.2 R. B. Y.
Scott describes it as "conservative, practical, didactic, optimistic, and
worldly wise."3 Other scholars have suggested two additional beliefs
regarding conventional wisdom as expressed in Proverbs, the first of which
is the assumption that the divine order of the world is similar in function to
the Egyptian idea of ma'at,4 and second, that there is a strict doctrine of
retribution at work in the book which controls reward and punishment.
Both of these issues will be discussed in some detail, since they form an
important part of the interpretational matrix for the book of Proverbs, and
are a part of the reason why scholars, both past and present, fail to discuss
Proverbs in any detailed treatment of the topic of innocent suffering.
1. Reflection of a "Divine" Order
According to some scholars, the primary foundation of
wisdom thinking is the concept of order:
The fundamental premise of wisdom is belief in order. Implicit is a
world view of reality as subject to laws established by a Creator, to
governing principles discernible by use of reason. Wisdom seeks to
understand these rules, to discover the appropriate deed for the
2 R. Gordis, "The Social Background of Wisdom Literature," HUCA
18 (1944): 81-82.
3 R. B. Y. Scott, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, AB vol. 18 (Garden City:
Doubleday & Co., 1965), xvix.
4 For a discussion of ma'at in Egyptian literature see chapter 1.
5 J. L. Crenshaw, "Wisdom in the OT," IDBSup, 954. See also idem,
"Prolegomenon," in Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom, ed. J. Crenshaw
According to Lennart Bostrom6 this concept of order is virtually axiomatic
due to its familiarity and prominence in scholarly works dealing with
wisdom literature.7 These studies often draw heavily on the wisdom
traditions of the ANE and emphasize the permeation of creation by a cosmic
order that integrated the various parts of reality into a harmonious
whole.8 The goal of the sages was to discover order, and once the order of
the cosmos was determined "wisdom could be achieved, lessons made
(New York: KTAV, 1976), 27; R. E. Murphy, The Tree of Life (
Doubleday & Co., 1990), 115; and cf. J. Blenkinsopp, Wisdom and Law in the
Old Testament: The Ordering of Life in
Oxford University Press, 1983), 41-73, for a discussion of how moral order
pervades all Israelite traditions.
6 Lennart Bostrom, The God of the Sages (
Wiksell, 1990), 91; also Murphy, Tree of Life, 115.
7 E. g., W. Zimmerli, "The Place and Limit of Wisdom in the Frame-
work of Old Testament Theology," SJT 17 (1964): 146-158; H. Gese, Lehre
und Wirklichkeit in der alten Weisheit: Studien zu den Spruchen Salomos
und zu dem Buche Hiob (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1958); H.
H. Schmid, Wesen und Geschichte der Weisheit: Eine Untersuchung zur
altorientalischen Weisheitsliteratur, BZAW 101 (Berlin: Topelmann, 1966);
idem, Gerechtigkeit als Weltordnung: Hintergrund und Geschichte des
alttestamentlichen Gerechtigkeitsbegriffes (
Siebeck], 1968); idem, "Schopfung, Gerechtigkeit und Heil: ‘Schopfungs-
theologie' als Gesamthorizont biblischer Theologie," ZTK 70 (1973): 1-19; G.
von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, tr. J. D. Martin (London: SCM, 1972); and H.-J.
Hermisson, "Observations on the Creation Theology in Wisdom," in Isra-
elite Wisdom: Theological and Literary Essays in Honor of Samuel Terrien,
ed. J. G. Gammie et al. (New York: Scholars Press, 1978), 43-57.
8 L. G. Perdue, Wisdom and Creation: The Theology of Wisdom
Literature (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 37. For a discussion of scholar-
ship's trends in these areas see J. A. Gladson, "Retributive Paradoxes in
Proverbs 10-29" (Ph. D. diss., Vanderbilt University, 1978), 8-18, 22-52.
apparent, and laws for conduct established."9
This view is often held as a parallel to the Egyptian concept of
ma'at,10 with an Egyptian mentality virtually transposed onto the wisdom
literature of the Hebrew Bible.11 Ma'at essentially means truth and jus-
tice expressed as a single concept. However, a large number of scholars
have seen order or world order as its meaning. The idea of ma'at as order
was then applied to both Israelite and Egyptian wisdom.12 This order un-
derlies the thought-pattern of the sentence literature. According to Gese:
Vielmehr wird hier in der Weisheit auf Grund der Erkenntnis einer
der Welt innewohnenden Ordnung gesagt, dass der Fleissige durch
sein Tun reich, der Faule arm wird; and ebenso wird Gerechte
Erfolg, der Ungerechte Misserfolg davontragen. Wir konnen fast von
einer naturgesetzlichen Weise sprechen, in der sich die Folge aus
der Tat ergibt.13
H. H. Schmid proposed a common "altorientalische Weltordnungs-
denken"14 observable in
OT this view of world order was designated by the root qdc which "scheint
in ihrem kanaanaischen Hintergrund diesem Vorstellungsbereich einer
9 Murphy, Tree of Life, 115.
10 See R. Anthes, "Die Maat des Echnaton von Amarna," JAOS
Supplement 14 (1952): 1-36;
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973), 113, and H. H. Brunner, "Der freie
Wille Gottes in der agyptischen Weisheit," in Les Sagesses du Proche-Orien
ancien, no ed. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963), 103.
11 See Schmid, Wesen and Geschichte, 47-50, 156-166.
12 Michael V. Fox, "World Order and Ma'at: A Crooked Parallel,"
JANES 23 (1995): 38.
13 Gese, Lehre und Wirklichkeit, 34-35 (emphasis in original).
14 Schmid, Gerechtigkeit als Weltordnung, 14-23, 65.
umfassenden Weltordnung anzugehoren."15
However, this view has been criticized by Jorn Halbe, who has
argued that almost any world view will have elements of a concept of order,
and that the act-consequence is of such a general nature that parallels can
be found in most cultures, which does not necessitate a claim of borrowing,
even if these cultures neighbor one another.16 Also, Schmid's analysis of
qdc can be disputed.17 In Schmid's view the ancient oriental concept of
order had broad application and included the areas of law, wisdom,
nature/fertility, war/victory, cult/sacrifice and kingship, but he was unable
to demonstrate convincingly that qdc held this meaning in Biblical texts
except in the three areas of law, wisdom and especially kingship.18 His
idea that qdc constitutes a term for world order assumes a Canaanite
background for the root, but this is difficult to detect in the OT material.19
Those who attempt to view Israelite wisdom through the concept of
order based on a comparison with Egyptian literature and the function of
ma'at see ma'at as an impersonal principle, according to which every-
thing in the world is ordered. Those who have noted the impersonal formu-
lations of the Biblical sentence literature seize upon this impersonal nature
15 Schmid, Gerechtigkeit als Weltordnung, 66.
16 Jorn Halbe, "'Altorientalisches Weltordnungsdenken' and alttest-
amentliche Theologie: Zur Kritik eines Ideologems am Beispiel des
israelitischen Rechts," ZTK 76 (1979): 385-395.
17 See the criticisms made by Bostrom, God of the Sages, 94; and Diet-
hard Romheld, Wege der Weisheit: Die Lehren Amenemopes and Pro-
verbien 22,17-24,22, BZAW 184 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1989), 121-122.
18 Schmid, Gerechtigkeit als Weltordnung, 171.
19 Bostrom, God of the Sages, 94.
of order to explain the occurrence of consequences. These scholars also
point out the "secular" character of these sayings, noting the lack of
reference to God.
In reacting to this we cannot doubt the Egyptian influence reflected
in Proverbs in both literary forms and motifs,20 since the similarity is too
striking to be considered coincidence.21 However, there has been a shift in
thinking among Egyptologists on the nature of ma'at, who observe that the
concept of ma'at was not static.22 Brunner pointed out that from Dynasty
XVIII onward there was a shift in Egyptian wisdom literature away from
the conventional view of ma'at toward an emphasis on human piety and
the free will of the god. The emphasis in the text of Amenemope is
interesting since it is not ma'at which plays the significant role but
human piety and the god's free will to react toward the pious which are
dominant.23 This makes the assumption of an impersonal concept of
order borrowed from
based on recent archaeological findings the date of Amenemope has been
pushed back to a time well before the monarchy was established in
20 See Schmid, Wesen und Geschichte, 47-50, 156-166; and Christa B.
Kayatz, Studien zu Proverbien 1-9, WMANT 22 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neu-
kirchener Verlag, 1966).
21 Roland E. Murphy, Wisdom Literature, FOTL vol. 13 (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 51.
22 E. g., Brunner, "Der freie Wille Gottes," 103-120; and J. Assmann,
"Weisheit, Loyalismus and Frommigkeit," in Studien zu altagyptischen
Lebenslehren, OBO 28 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979), 12-15.
23 Bostrom, God of the Sages, 96. Examples of personal piety and
divine free will to react toward the pious are also well attested in the Old
and Middle Kingdoms, but not as prominent as in the
Fox, "World Order," 43.
Israel.24 This shows that the later Israelite material would have been
written after the shift regarding ma'at in Egyptian literature had already
been accomplished. During this same time period ma'at acquired per-
sonal characteristics, including her depiction as a goddess and receiving
her own temple and cult.25 These more current views show the flawed
assumptions of past scholarship, since the older view virtually holds to a
kind of deism, in which justice and world order are built into the cosmos as
one of its functioning principles, rendering God's involvement redundant.
More recent studies show ma'at to be distinguished from a mechanistic
world order. It is a standard to live by, not a mechanism for retribution.26
One of the results of seeing ma'at as an impersonal concept and
applying it to the concept of order was to divide proverbs into secular and
religious categories, as well as differentiate between revealed truth (e. g.,
prophetic material which originated from Yahweh) and observational truth
based on experience. An example of this is Norman K. Gottwald's
description of wisdom as
a non-revelatory mode of thought that focuses on individual
24 R. J. Williams, "A People Come Out of
Edinburgh, 1974, VTSup 28 (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 231-252; idem, "The Sages
and J. Ruffle, "The Teaching of Amenemope and its Connection with the
Book of Proverbs," TynBul 28 (1977): 33-34.
25 See Kayatz, Studien, 93-98; W. Helck, "Maat," LA, vol. 3 (1980),
1114-1115; E. Wente, "Egyptian Religion," ABD, 2.410; and chapter 1 above.
26 See Miriam Lichtheim, Maat in Egyptian Autobiographies and
Related Studies, OBO 120 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992), 37;
Fox, "World Order," 43.
consciousness of truth and right conduct, displaying a humanistic
orientation and a didactic drive to pass on its understandings to
However, this separation of thought into secular and religious is a modern
phenomenon28 and there is no reason to believe that anything like
"secular" thinking existed in the Biblical world, since distinctions like
secular versus religious and revelation versus experience were foreign to
the Biblical mind, at least as we understand these terms today.29
Here it must be observed that
behind its wisdom literature. This was put succinctly by Walther Zim-
merli: "Wisdom theology is creation theology."30 According to David A.
Hubbard, order "stems from a view of creation that is assumed but only
rarely expressed."31 An examination of the book shows references to
creation or the Creator only in 3:19-20; 8:22-31; 14:31; 16:4, 11; 17:5; 20:12;
22:2; 29:13.32 However, the comparatively small number of sayings which
make reference to creation show that while creation-of-the-world passages
27 N. K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 567.
28 Von Rad, Wisdom in
29 Bostrom, God of the Sages, 36-37; see also R. E. Clements, "
in its Historical and Cultural Setting," in The World of Ancient
R. E. Clements (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 9.
Adriaan de Buck, "Het religieus Karakter der oudste egyptische Wijsheid,"
Nieuw theoloisch tijdschrift 21 (1932): 322-349, refuted the common idea
that Egyptian wisdom literature was basically nonreligious, thus re-
moving a foreign model as a basis for claiming a secular and religious
distinction for Proverbs.
30 W Zimmerli, "Place and Limit of Wisdom," 316.
31 D. A. Hubbard, "Proverbs, Book of," ISBE, vol. 3 (1986), 1019.
32 For an analysis of the creation theology in Proverbs see Perdue,
Wisdom and Creation, 77-122; and Bostrom, God of the Sages, 48-67.
gain some prominence it is virtually impossible to ascribe any special
importance to the creation of humans in chapters 10-31.33 This would
show that other theological influences were at work in the formulation of
the wisdom materials. The question for the sages was not so much "Where
did we come from?" but rather "How do we live?" Roland E. Murphy34
raises the idea that Israelite sages never asked what wisdom was based on.
For them it was a given that the "fear of Yahweh is the beginning of
wisdom." He points out that to ask the question is to attempt to reconstruct
their mentality. They never asked the question nor consciously attempted
an answer. There is comparatively little interest in human origins per se
but a great deal of emphasis on relationships, and the world as showcase
for divine activity.35
Given the fact of a Creator standing behind world order so that it
functions according to certain laws and principles, the discovery of God's
guidelines for living a successful life could hardly be called "secular,"
irreligious or pragmatic. Proverbs itself tells the reader in its statement of
purpose (1:1-6) that it intends to teach these guidelines, and the theme (1:7)
says the "research" is based on the hvhy txar;yi (cf. also 9:10). So the basis of
order in the world, in society and between individuals is based on the fear of
Yahweh, the Creator.
33 According to Bostrom, God of the Sages, 80.
34 Tree of Life, 116.
35 Tree of Life, 119. See also Murphy's discussion of creation theology
and its influence on wisdom materials in "Wisdom in the OT," ABD, 6.924-
Using the term "order" to designate the world view of the sages is
problematic, due to its connotations.36 This concept is by no means em-
ployed in a consistent way,37 since scholars use it to refer vaguely to a
world view that is orderly rather than chaotic, or to a view of the world in
which everything works strictly according to a metaphysical principle of
order to which God is also subject.38 If the recent studies of Fox, Bostrom,
Halbe and Steiert are correct, the idea of ma'at must not be forced on
Israelite materials. This is especially true in light of Fox's assessment that
ma'at did not and could not exist in Israel.39
As this study will show in the following chapters, Proverbs is aware
of situations in which order is not always validated by experience. Rather
than simply appealing to order, the sages placed their faith in divine justice
that went beyond the observable and predictable.40
Past scholarship has placed too much emphasis on Egyptian con-
cepts in evaluating Israelite materials. While there is no doubt influence,
the criticisms regarding the dialectical relationship of Egyptian influence
36 Bostrom, God of the Sages, 137.
37 See the comments of Fox, "World Order," 40-41; and Bostrom, God
of the Sages, 91.
38 The latter view is defended by H. D. Preuss, "Das Gottesbild der
VTSup 23 (Leiden: Brill, 1972), 120-128. As Fox ("World Order," 38, n. 8)
points out, "[t]he relation between Israelite Wisdom and its foreign
predecessors is dialectical, not imitative." For a detailed critique of Preuss'
view see F.-J. Steiert, Die Weisheit
(Freiburg: Herder, 1990), 28-209.
39 "World Order," 42.
40 Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, "Wealth and Poverty: System and
Contradictions," HS 33 (1992): 25-36. Note also Fox, "World Order," 40, n. 23.
as opposed to incorporation or imitation are well taken.
2. Doctrine of Retribution
A discussion of retribution arises very naturally out of
the preceding examination of order. If there is a created order then it
should stand to reason that some actions will produce a good result, while
others will result in evil. Belief in retribution often brings the justice of God
and the righteous sufferer into tension, since it is thought that a just God
would not allow a righteous or innocent person to endure hardship or
suffering. This issue was discussed at some length in the first chapter in
regard to its portrayal in Mesopotamia and
Proverbs will be addressed, though an exhaustive discussion will not be
The doctrine of retribution is a frequently recurring theme in the
book of Proverbs which seems to indicate that quality of life runs closely
parallel to conduct.41 In the past it has been referred to as the "act-
consequence relationship,"42 although Bostrom prefers the term
"character-consequence relationship" since the texts reflect more referen-
ces to life-style than to individual actions.43
Interlocked with the concept of retribution as seen in Proverbs are the
41 Bostrom, God of the Sages, 90.
42 K. Koch, "Gibt es ein Vergeltungsdogma im Alten Testament?"
ZTK 52 (1955): 1-42; H. Gese, Lehre und Wirklichkeit, 33-45; and G. von Rad,
43 Bostrom, God of the Sages, 90-91; and
8, 72, who finds the term Haltung-Schicksal-Zusammenhang more appro-
priate since specific actions are rarely in view.
ideas of order and creation theology.44 Wisdom theology is founded upon a
presupposed world order, which is inherent in creation, since Yahweh
created the world in wisdom (Prov 8).45
According to Klaus Koch, retribution, to a great extent, functions
apart from any established norm or legal code. Citing Prov 25:19; 26:27, 28;
28:1, 10, 16b, 17, 18, 25b; 29:6, 23, 25, he says:
Sie betonen alle, dass auf eine gemeinschaftstreue Tat Heil, auf eine
sittlich bose Tat aber Verderben fur den Trater folgt,--dass jedoch
Jahwe dieses Verderben herverruft, sagen sie nicht...Die Verse
erwecken zunachst den Eindruck, dass eine bose Tat--der
Notwendigkeit eines Naturgesetzes vergleichbar--unheilvolles
Ergehen zwangslaufig zur Folge hat.46
This view held sway for quite some time among scholars, some claiming
this strong association of act and consequence constituted an early,
primitive-magical view of reality which has left enduring traces in Biblical
material.47 In this view every act has built-in consequences for the one
who performs it. Act and consequence are inseparable and comprehended
as one totality.48
44 As discussed above, see W. Zimmerli, "The Place and Limit of
Wisdom," 146-158; and H.-J. Hermisson, "Observations on the Creation
Theology in Wisdom," 43-57.
45 Hermisson, "Observations on the Creation Theology in Wisdom,"
46 K. Koch, "Vergeltungsdogma," 3 (emphasis in original).
47 H. G. Reventlow, "Sein Blut komme fiber sein Haupt," VT 10
(1960): 311-327; J. G. Gammie, "The Theology of Retribution in the Book of
Deuteronomy," CBQ 32 (1970): 1-12.
48 This view has been designated as synthetische Lebensauffassung,
a term introduced by K. Fahlgren in "Die Gegensatze von sedaqa im Alten
Testament," in Um das Prinzip der Vergeltung in Religion and Recht des
alten Testaments, ed. K. Koch (
However, Koch's view can be questioned on the basis of his limited
range of material, since he examines only Prov 25-29 on the assumption
that these chapters appear to be the oldest section of the book.49
Koch's view of inseparable consequences has been criticized as going
too far.50 His claim is that retribution in the OT excludes the idea that God
from time to time steps into human history and acts as judge. Asserting
that there is no gap between act and consequence into which a wedge of
divine retribution can be inserted is essentially deism. This mechanistic
view of the world probably goes beyond credibility as an attempt to
reconstruct a subconscious world view.51
Many can agree with Koch to a small extent, since there is an
undeniable correspondence between act and consequence for many
everyday activities.52 This is apparent in Prov 6:27-28:
Can a man carry fire in his lap
Without his clothes being burned?
schaft, 1972), 87-129.
49 Koch, "Vergeltungsdogma," 2. But W. L. McKane takes virtually
all of ch. 28 and a large part of 29 as late because it derives from Yahwistic
piety, see his Proverbs: A New Approach, OTL (
1970) 620, 632. The point here is not to solve the problem of dating but to
show that the establishment of Prov 25-29 as the oldest section of the book
has not gone unchallenged.
50 See John Barton, "Natural Law and Poetic Justice in the Old
Testament," JTS 30 (1979): 1-14.
51 Barton, "Natural Law," 11-12. See also the criticism by Bostrom in
God of the Sages, 109-113.
52 This kind of result is classified as "predictable order" according to
Fox's assessment ("World Order," 40).
Can a man walk on coals
Without his feet being scorched?
But we also must admit that part of the ancient Israelite mentality was the
belief in the direct intervention of Yahweh. Roland E. Murphy points out
there has been too much effort made to separate wisdom teaching from the
preaching of the prophets:
...wisdom is interpreted as secular and human, an exercise on the
plane of creation in which one deals with an Urhebergott, and not
the saving God of Israel. It is hard to see how the average Israelite,
to whatever extent he or she recognized the Lord as God (Deut. 6:4),
would have made the academic distinction that is implied by this
view. Wisdom and salvation are not incompatible in human
experience; prosperity and adversity are personal as well as
communal. The teaching of Deuteronomy and Proverbs suggests
that the Yahweh of both books is the same Yahweh who is at work on
every level of experience.53
Bruce K. Waltke also argues for the compatibility of wisdom to law
and prophecy.54 John F. Priest has argued for a common religious
tradition in early
specific emphases without necessarily rejecting the emphases chosen by
other groups.55 According to this view prophet and sage together
53 R. E. Murphy, "Religious Dimensions of Israelite Wisdom," in
Ancient Israelite Religion, ed. P. D. Miller, P. D. Hanson, and S. D. Mc-
Bride (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 450.
54 Bruce K. Waltke, "The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament
Theology," BibSac 136 (1979): 302-317.
55 J. F. Priest, "Where is Wisdom to be Placed?" in Studies in Ancient
Israelite Wisdom, ed. J. L. Crenshaw (New York: KTAV, 1976), 281.
expressed the totality of
Others acknowledge the difference in the views of Deuteronomy and
Proverbs but still regard the views as compatible. Duane A. Garrett57
admits Deuteronomy tends to stress the concept of punishment or reward
being direct acts of God, whereas Proverbs tends to make each action
contain within itself a link to punishment or reward.
A consideration of the forms of proverbial literature is decisive in
solving this problem. Recognizing that the intent of an individual proverb
is limited to one aspect or element of a situation may help explain why
proverbs seem limited to act-consequence interpretations.58
In the book of Proverbs there are two ways of understanding retri-
bution: forensic and dynamistic.59
a. Forensic Retribution
This is the type of retribution in which God plays
an active role and is seen as one who brings about reward or punishment.
While it is impossible to do a comprehensive study of this topic in
Proverbs60 two examples will be cited: Prov 3:32-35 and 5:21-23.
56 Waltke, "Book of Proverbs," 304.
57 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, NAC vol.
14 (Nashville: Broadman, 1993), 54.
58 See the discussion by Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, "Proverbs," in A
Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. L. Ryken and T. Longman III
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 260-262; and my "Doctrine of the `Two
Ways' in the Book of Proverbs," JETS 38 (1995): 501-517.
59 See David A. Hubbard, Proverbs (Dallas: Word, 1989), 149-150, for a
brief explanation of these two terms.
60 See Bostrom, God of the Sages, 90-113, for a more detailed analysis.
(1) Proverbs 3:32-35
:OdOs MyriwAy;-tx,v; zOlnA hvAhy; tbafEOt yKi v.32
:j`rebAy; MyqiyDica hven;U fwArA tybEB; hvAhy; traxem; v.33
:NHe-yt,yi MyyinAfElav; CyliyA-xUh Mycile.la-Mxi v.34
:NOlqA Myrime Myliysik;U UlHAn;yi MymiKAHE dObKA v.35
These verses form the conclusion to a small poem which runs from
3:27 to 3:35, vv. 27-30 being comprised of a series of six prohibitions
exhibiting emphatic negation61 regarding behavior in the community and
personal relationships. Then v. 32 contains a motive clause beginning with
yKi, followed by several reasons for the prohibitions in the previous verses.
There are statements of judgment threatened for the perverse (zOlnA),
the wicked (fwArA), scoffers (Mycile) and fools (MyliysiK;). The perverse will
acquire the status of abomination to Yahweh,62 while the wicked have the
curse of Yahweh upon them in 3:32-33 and 3:34-35.
In 3:32-33 the perverse and the wicked are in parallel construction
and the abomination of Yahweh is a poetic parallel to the curse of Yahweh.
This set of terms would specifically be tied to forensic retribution due to
their close association with the covenant and cult,63 abomination being
61 W G. E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to its Tech-
niques, JSOTSS 26, 2nd ed. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 279.
62 For a discussion of the use of hbAfeOT in Proverbs see R. E. Clements, "The Concept of Abomination in the Book of Proverbs," in Texts,
(Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1996), 211-225, esp. 220.
63 Note Prov 15:8; and cf. Gen 43:32 where hbAfeOT means something
like "foreign, contrary to acceptable usage"; and Deut 14:3 where it takes on
a cultic meaning. It is found in parallel with the root Cqw, which refers to
used to refer to anything which dishonors God or violates the command-
ments. A curse is seen as the most severe way of separating an evildoer
from the community.64 If this is the case, the curse of Yahweh may be
intended to make the wicked or perverse an outcast from society. In the
book of Proverbs, which places such great importance on getting along with
others and living successfully in society, this would be seen as the ultimate
failure. Not only are such persons repugnant to God but the community
has shunned them as well.
A similar poetic structure is found in 3:34-35, with scoffers and fools
portrayed as parallel members,65 and being made objects of mocking and
shame as parallel concepts.66 The concept of shame is a social control
which punished an offender by exclusion from society or loss of status. It
relies predominantly on external pressure from an individual or group.67
In this small poem it is obvious that God is directly involved in
judgment, and there is a close connection between life-style and fate. But it
is also apparent that the community is involved in part of the punishment,
as the shaming (v. 35b) of the fools would lead to ostracism as part of
cultic uncleanness in Deut 17:1. The root rrx is used frequently in Deut
2:15-26; 27:15-26 and 28:15-19, 20-36 in the list of covenant curses. A specific
link between hbAfeOT and rrx occurs in 27:15.
64 J. Scharbert, "rrx," TWAT, vol. 1 (1973), 441-442.
65 Also in 1:22; 19:29.
66 The idea of shame, and its opposite, honor, will be discussed in
more detail in the next chapter.
67 Lyn M. Bechtel, "The Perception of Shame within the Divine-
Human Relationship," in Uncovering Ancient Stones: Essays in Memory of
H. Neil Richardson, ed. L. M. Hopfe (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 80.
Yahweh's curse. In 3:32 the same root (Cyl) is used to describe the scoffers
and the action Yahweh will take against them, giving a case of strict
(2) Proverbs 5:21-23
The proverbs which make reference to God
(or Yahweh) in regard to retribution sometimes speak specifically of God
acting to punish or reward,68 but others simply state or imply a retributive
result, often in impersonal terms or in passive constructions.69 The small
poetic unit of Prov 5:21-23,70 which is part of a longer unit which runs from
5:15 to 5:23, gives an example of Yahweh actively involved in the assess-
ment of human conduct (5:21); then the next two verses state the results of
sin in a way that reflects a character-consequence relationship:
:sl.epam; vytloG;f;ma-lkAv; wyxi-yker;Da hvAhy; yneyfe Hkano yKi v.21
:j`meTAyi OtxF.AHa yleb;Hab;U fwArAhA-tx, OnduK;l;yi vytAOnOvfa v.22
:hG,w;yi OTl;Uaxi brob;U rsAUm NyxeB; tUmyA xUh v.23
The two different ways of expressing the character-consequence
relationship are used side by side, showing that these views were not
mutually exclusive.71 It is obviously Yahweh's activity as a judge which is
68 E. g., 2:5; 3:5-10; 12:2; 15:25; 16:7; 19:3, 17; 22:12; etc.
69 E. g., 2:21-22; 16:5; 28:25; 29:25. See Bostrom, God of the Sages, 101-
70 Note the chiastic structure of verses 21 and 23:
A B B' A'
21 full view paths of a man all his ways he examines
23 he will die lack of discipline great folly gone astray
71 See Bostrom, God of the Sages, 99.