Moshe Weinfeld and Deuteronomy’s Wisdom

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You know the drill….


Briefly discuss Weinfeld’s contributions to the discussion of the relationship between Wisdom and the book of Deuteronomy.


Weinfeld, as Breklemans notes (Christensen:125), was not the first scholar to connect wisdom literature and the Book of Deuteronomy, but was, at the time, the most comprehensive. While first published in 1972, Weinfeld’s work, especially in the early of Wisdom and Deuteronomy has become the scholarly standard and does so well. In his various writings on the subject, Weinfeld is conservative in his connections between the last book of the Torah and the other wisdom writings which are in the Jewish canon. Further, he goes on to bring in period pieces, especially from the contemporary Egyptian wisdom literature, more so than post-exilic Babylonian works. I found it interesting, however, that in the essay dealing with this topic, he doesn’t tackle the issue of the personification of Wisdom. We see this explored in several places in Proverbs while in subsequent works personification such as Ben Sira takes a much more incarnational form; however in Weinfeld’s dialogue with these works in which large amounts of connections between the various mentioned works are shown to exist and thus a correlation of thought is drawn out, the discussion of the personification of Wisdom is completely absent.  With that said, however, Weinfeld serves to connect Deuteronomy not just with historical works, but ‘wise men’ community which was emerging at the time.

The wisdom writings of the canonical Jewish scripture portray simplistic material related to daily living and often times, are devoid of the supernatural. Non-canonical Jewish writings, such as Ben Sira and the Book of Wisdom (of Solomon) often personify Wisdom as a divine attribute of YHWH. Deuteronomy, itself devoid of many of the miracles which precede it in the Torah as well as other similar stories in ANE literature, fits somewhere between the two groups. Moshe Weinfeld draws the connection between the two groups, notably Proverbs and Ben Sira, allowing that wisdom in Deuteronomy actually developed from pre-existing traditions found among the more educated scribal classes of the Jerusalem Court. Of the connections which he makes to assert his position is the use of several prohibitions, notably, those dealing with individual responsibly and those sins which would otherwise simply be known to the person.

For example, Weinfeld notes the similarity between Deuteronomy 19. 14 (cf 27.17) as well as 25.13-16 and Proverbs 22.28; 23.10; 11.1 and 20.23 (cf v10). What I particularly find interesting is that like the other sins, the prohibitions may in fact go unnoticed for generations, if discovered at all, and falls back to the notion of Jeremiah’s new covenant in 31.31-37. Along with these nearly undiscoverable, and unknown only to God sins, are those which detail the prevention of abuse of authority, such as Deuteronomy 1.17 (cf 16.19) which Weinfeld compares to Proverbs 24.23 (cf 28.21). Equally of note is wisdom in human affairs, such as Weinfeld’s comparison between Deuteronomy 23.15-16 and Proverbs 30.10, wherein he considers the latter to be the source of the former. In this last example, Weinfeld notes, which is especially interesting considering the treaty-like language of Deuteronomy, that unlike other Near Eastern documents, Deuteronomy expressly forbids the return of an escaped slave to his or her owner? Here, Weinfeld brings more to the front the humanistic tendencies of Deuteronomy which seems to be the concern rather than that of the supernatural exploits of the rest of the Torah.  Weinfeld goes on to note the concern for justice and righteousness as the preservation of one’s life, which he labels as ‘an intrinsic idea of Biblical wisdom literature.’ (Weinfeld:272) This fits well into the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy in which the whole of Israel is commended to seek justice as a benefit to all Israel.

While I do not want to go too far into connecting Jeremiah’s new covenant with the expectations found in Deuteronomy ,Weinfeld almost allows for that speculation. In Jeremiah 31.34, YHWH speaks of the new covenant in which the heart will be the center of the covenant and that all will be teachers, requiring no centralizing expositor of knowledge. Weinfeld notes that during this epochal shift in the Near East, the Deuteronomist leaves behind the belief that wisdom is ‘cunning, pragmatic talent, or the possession of extraordinary knowledge’ but now comes to know that wisdom truly is ‘knowledge and understanding of proper behavior and with morality.’ (Weinfeld:255). Unlike the author(s) of Job (Job 42.3) and the Psalmist (139.6) who believe that real wisdom is too transcendent to attain, the Deuteronomist, according to Weinfeld, brings wisdom down to earth and excepts people to not only know the Torah but to do it. (Deuteronomy 30.11-14). Along with knowledge which is now to be attained, this knowledge is to be in the heart (cf Jeremiah 31.33; Deuteronomy 3.9; 30.11-14) (Weinfeld 258).

In both Jeremiah and Deuteronomy, the heart as the center of morality versus the Law for the covenant is a key factor in attaining the fear of God, another key trait which Weinfeld notes is present in Wisdom Literature. Weinfeld notes that in wisdom literature, the phrase ‘ fear of God’ represents real wisdom, then notes that in Deuteronomy, while the basic understanding of it is covenantal loyalty, for the Deuteronomist, they are also joined together (Weinfeld:274). Returning to an earlier depiction of wisdom by Weinfeld, we can begin to see how the scholar saw the covenantal requirements of Deuteronomy. These requirements were not ritualistic in nature, as an outward sign, but required not only knowledge, but pursuing justice while walking humbly enough in realizing that it was their duty to keep Deuteronomy’s words in their hearts.

As mentioned previously, with all of the talk of the connections between the Book of Deuteronomy and the Wisdom Literature being developed at the time, there is nothing mentioned by Weinfeld of the personification of Wisdom which is prevalent in Ben Sira and mentioned at least twice in Proverbs. Further, Weinfeld is able to make the connection of the new position which Wisdom holds, as something to be grasped and dealt with in a humanistic fashion, but he doesn’t mention anything this section about Jeremiah’s futuristic covenant wherein the covenant will rest in the heart and promulgated by constant teaching. His work must give exegetes and scholars a pause, not only in dating Deuteronomy and other books, but in understanding the richness of Israelite culture during this time. If, as many scholars believe, Deuteronomy is written as a treaty, I have to wonder what part the refusal to extradite slaves back to their foreign masters (such as the Egyptians or the Assyrians, or even the Babylonians) might have played in external politics.

I would add to this list Wisdom of Solomon and Baruch

See Weinfeld’s theory regarding Solomon’s dream as being redacted by the Deuteronomist to focus more on receiving wisdom than some supernatural revelation, Weinfeld:253-254

Admittedly, Proverbs, in several places, personifies Wisdom as a feminine attribute of God, but such examples are fewer than what we see in both Sirach and Wisdom.

I am using three sources for this brief discussion: Freedman, David Noel (1992). The Anchor Bible dictionary. Anchor Bible; Christensen, edited by Duane L. (1993). A Song of power and the power of song. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns; Weinfeld, Moshe (1972, reprinted 1992). Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic School, Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns.

I note that Baruch, Sirach and Wisdom both claim the ability to attain knowledge in such a way that it can be seen as predating later theological development which producing the doctrine(s) of the Holy Spirit.

Albeit, a treaty with God.

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