The so-called ‘wisdom’ literature of the Hebrew Bible (Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes) is eclectically diverse in content and form, making the notion of wisdom difficult to define. Nevertheless, certain salient features can be identified in this corpus, including the pervasive theme of creation. In the place of national history and worship, as one finds elsewhere in the Old Testament, including the Psalms, creation and common human experience constitute the sages’ primary foci. Three texts in particular profile creation in remarkably divergent ways, one from each wisdom book. We begin with Proverbs.
2.4.1 Proverbs 8:22–31: Wisdom at play in creation
One of the most exquisitely crafted creation poems in all of scripture is found in Prov 8:22–31, a creation account unlike any other. The poem lingers over Yhwh at work in the methodical construction of the cosmos. But this account is punctuated repeatedly by an ‘I’-witness who turns this cosmic litany into an intensely personal testimony. That ‘I’-witness is Wisdom herself. As for its genre, scholars liken Wisdom’s poem to an ‘aretalogy’, a form of self-praise often associated with the goddess Isis (Schipper 2019: 292–294). But it is through her self-praise that Wisdom bears witness to Yhwh’s praiseworthy creation.
The poem opens with Wisdom placing herself at the beginning of Yhwh’s creative acts (vv. 22–23). Wisdom is ‘created’ or ‘acquired’ (the Hebrew verb q-n-h is ambiguous – cf. Exod 15:16 and Gen 14:19–22) by Yhwh prior to the creation of the world, she testifies, thus asserting her preeminent status vis-à-vis creation. Wisdom describes her own genesis and development: she is conceived in v. 22, gestated in v. 23, birthed in vv. 24–25, present during creation in v. 27, and ‘playing’ in vv. 30–31. Her self-identity in v. 30a remains enigmatic in the history of interpretation, all dependent on the translation of one word: ’āmôn, whose various meanings proposed by the ancient witnesses and scholarly proposals alike range from ‘master craftsman’ to ‘child’ to the adverbial translation ‘continually’ (for discussion, see Schipper 2019: 312–314). Regardless of translation, the verbal language of vv. 30–31 describes Wisdom as a playing child. While her origin is sharply distinguished from the origins of the cosmos, Wisdom nevertheless shares an intimate bond with the ‘inhabited world’ (v. 31).
Wisdom recounts Yhwh at work in carving, anchoring, stabilizing, establishing, circumscribing, and securing creation. Unlike in Genesis 1, no divine ‘word’ or command is spoken. Instead, Yhwh is all action. Yhwh sets boundaries to limit the sea from overwhelming the land. Yhwh draws a ‘circle’ upon ‘the face of the deep’ and lays the ‘foundations of the earth’ with exacting measurements. Yhwh ‘sinks’ the mountains to serve as weight-bearing pillars to hold up the heavens so as to prevent cosmic collapse. Yhwh constructs a universe that is safe and secure, setting the cosmic infrastructures and boundaries firmly in place, all to maintain the world’s order and stability.
Except for a glancing reference in the final verse, absent is any specific reference to the creation of life, human or otherwise, in Wisdom’s grand soliloquy. In relation to Wisdom, Yhwh is not just the architect of the cosmos; the Deity of design is also a doting, playful (not to mention single) parent. To put it pointedly, Wisdom presents herself as God’s only begotten daughter. No wonder this passage, particularly v. 22, was fought over in the Arian christological controversy of the early church (see Ticciati 2019: 179–190). Conceiving Wisdom as a child, in any case, highlights a profoundly sapiential paradox: Wisdom grows in wisdom, and she requires a world to do so. All the world was made for her delight and edification. As a complement to God’s cosmic temple in Genesis 1, creation serves as Wisdom’s playhouse in Proverbs 8.
2.4.2 Job 38–41: God’s wild kingdom
Job features one of the most evocative and detailed portrayals of creation in all of scripture, surprisingly so for a book that focuses almost exclusively on a single person’s suffering. In two fell swoops, a man of unassailable moral rectitude and great wealth, the ‘greatest of all the people of the east’ (1:1, 3), is stripped of all security, prosperity, and health; all the while his character is attacked with increasing vehemence by his friends in the guise of ‘comfort’ (2:11). With Job’s own world turned upside down, socially, economically, and existentially, Yhwh responds by presenting to Job a world, indeed a cosmos, that extends far beyond his own imagination (chs. 38–41).
Yhwh’s answer consists of two speeches (Job 38:1–40:2 and 40:6–41:34), each of which is introduced with the challenge for Job to ‘gird’ himself. The first challenge addresses Yhwh’s cosmic ‘design’ (Hebrew ‘ēṣâ, 38:1); the second deals with Yhwh’s ‘justice’ or governance (Hebrew mišpāṭ, 40:8). The overall movement of Yhwh’s twofold answer is telling: it begins with detailing the cosmic expanses and moves toward recounting various phenomena, meteorological and biological, concluding with a detailed ‘study’ of one creature, Leviathan. As creation’s purview zooms from the cosmic to the particular, Yhwh’s poetic account runs counter to the narrative logic of the ancient mythos of creation, which typically begins with chaos, proceeds to conquest, and concludes with creation. In Enuma elish, Tiamat’s defeat sets the stage for creation, which concludes with the gods’ adulation of the conquering creator Marduk. In Genesis 1, God begins creation amid the benign ‘chaos’ of dark waters (Gen 1:2) to fashion a cosmic temple.
Yhwh’s speeches in Job, however, move in the opposite direction. Yhwh appears to Job in the whirlwind, as a storm god. And yet, like Ba‘al in Ugaritic myth, such a terror-provoking manifestation of the divine has its salutary side: a whirlwind in the wilderness delivers rain to the parched desert (see Job 38:25–27). Divine terror proves to be a fertile terror, and it sets the tone for all that follows. From Job’s perspective, Yhwh’s discourse teaches even as it terrorizes, and it begins with the construction of a well-established earth, whose founding prompts celestial rejoicing.
Where were you when I founded the earth?
Say so, if you have understanding!
Who determined its measurements? Surely you know!
Or who extended a measuring line upon it?
On what were its footings sunk?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars rejoiced together,
and all the divine beings shouted for joy?
The first act of creation begins with an admiring look at the earth’s foundations: measurements are determined, lines are drawn, bases are sunk, and a capstone is laid. The celestial joy that erupts from the cosmic choir suggests that the earth is the foundation of no ordinary edifice but of a cosmic temple (cf. Ezra 3:10–13). Yhwh begins in Job where God in Genesis 1 ends, proceeding from the astronomical to the meteorological and finally to the zoological, concluding with the monstrous Leviathan of the watery abyss. The Joban account of creation, in other words, proceeds in the opposite direction of most creation counts: from creation to chaos! Lacking, moreover, is any human created in the ‘image of God’ to rule the earth.
With the temple’s foundation laid, next are the sea’s confinement (Job 38:8–11) and the unleashing of light (vv. 12–15). The sea is depicted as a tempestuous newborn whose birth is facilitated by Yhwh in the role of midwife (cf. Prov 30:4). Yhwh swaddles the sea and sets firm boundaries against its ‘proud waves’. Light, however, does what it is told: it shakes out the wicked from the earth’s ‘skirts’ (v. 13). Next come creation’s depths and breadth, including the places of light and darkness (vv. 16–21). More detail is disclosed about the meteorological realm. Snow and hail are stored for ‘the day of battle’ (v. 23). Such precipitous violence has its salutary side: torrents are channelled ‘to satisfy the waste and desolate land’ (v. 25–27). Creation even at its most seemingly desolate bears life and beauty, Yhwh points out to Job. Yhwh challenges Job to bind and guide the constellations (vv. 30–33) and command the weather (vv. 34–37). Job remains silent.
Continuing the cosmic tour, Yhwh showcases five pairs of animals: lion and raven, mountain goat and deer, onager and auroch, ostrich and warhorse, hawk and vulture. With the exception of the raven and the warhorse, all of the animals listed constituted wild game for Egyptian and Mesopotamian kings. The royal hunts were not conducted for entertainment purposes, thrilling as they may have been. They were staging grounds for the king’s prowess on the battlefield, a symbolic exertion of royal power over the world. By slaying wild animals, the king was ‘fulfilling his coronation requirement to extend the kingdom beyond the city to include the wilderness’ (Dick 2006: 255). In the lion hunt specifically, the king identified himself as both the hunter and the lion; hence, the leonine carcass was never mutilated (Dick 2006: 244–245).
In Job, Yhwh presents these denizens of the wild not for Job to kill and thereby prove his physical prowess, as if he himself were a king (cf. 29:25). To the contrary, these animals are deemed free and untamable. In a remarkably ironic turn, Yhwh begins with the lion, the quintessential predator of the wild and the most prized wild game of kings, itself a symbol of royalty, and asks, ‘Can you hunt prey for the lion?’ (v. 38:39). Job is not to gird up his loins to kill lions; he does so to provide for them.
Nor are these animals to be named or defined in any way by Job, as in the ādām’s case in the garden (Gen 2:19–20). Far from it: Job is driven through the power of divine poetry into the wilderness to encounter the beasts on their own turf, in situ. Yet he discovers the wild to be full of alien life filled with inalienable value, denizens endowed with strength, dignity, and freedom. The mountain goat kids ‘go forth and do not return’ (39:4); the onager roams freely beyond human reach (v. 5); the auroch resists domestication (vv. 9–12); the ostrich fearlessly flaps its pinions before the hunter (vv. 16–18); the warhorse exults in its thunderous strength (v. 22); and the raptors soar, spying out their prey and cleaning up the battlefield (vv. 26–30).
All these animals live and move and have their being as Yhwh intended, who serves as their provider, hunting the lion’s prey (38:39), responding to the raven’s cry (v. 41), and directing the raptor’s flight (39:26). Yhwh admires each in loving detail, and with such detail Job is afforded a perspective that lies far beyond himself, a perspective that is Yhwh’s, but one that the animals also share. Job is invited to see the looming battle through the eyes of the warhorse, to spy out corpses through the eyes of the vulture, to roar for prey as the lion, to cry for food like the raven’s brood, to roam free on the vast plains, to laugh at fear, and to play in the mountains. Job’s journey so far is no descent but an ascent to Nature (Wilson 2006: 13, 163).
In Yhwh’s second speech, Job’s journey does make a deep descent. Yhwh profiles two magnificent animals that loom mythically large: Behemoth and Leviathan, perhaps drawn in part from the water buffalo (or hippopotamus) and the crocodile, both formidable creatures in their own right. (For an artistic rendering, see William Blake’s famous watercolour depiction of these two creatures from Illustrations to the Book of Job at The William Blake Archive). Whatever they are, these larger-than-life beasts are the quintessential embodiments of chaos, yet they are highly esteemed by Yhwh. Nothing is said of Yhwh’s intent to subjugate either Behemoth or Leviathan; freedom reigns for both these fearsome creatures. Behemoth is claimed as the ‘first (or chief) of God’s works’ (40:19), taking on the preeminent status of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and cosmic light in Genesis 1.
Behold Behemoth, which I made with you!
It eats grass like an ox.
Behold its potency in its loins,
and its power in the muscles of its belly.
It stiffens its tail like a cedar;
the sinews of its thighs are intertwined.
Its bones are tubes of bronze;
its limbs are like a rod of iron.
It is the first of God’s works;
[Only] the one who made it can approach it with sword.
Nowhere in Yhwh’s answer is mention made of humanity, let alone humanity’s dominion. This is no anthropocentric world that is profiled by Yhwh. The world, rather, is a glorious hodgepodge of life in all its awe-filled and fierce variety, a wondrous plurality devoid of a centre or summit. But here in Yhwh’s presentation of Behemoth, Job receives a clue to his place in Yhwh’s wild creation. ‘Behold Behemoth, which I made with you (‘immāk)’. Job shares a connection ‘with’ the monstrous Behemoth, likely connoting a fraternal connection such as the one that Job complains about regarding the jackals and ostriches in 30:29. In any case, Behemoth and Job are deemed fellow creatures, and by extension all the creatures of the wild. For all the alien otherness of creation, Job finds his place in the company of such creatures, a stranger among strangers. This single preposition invites reflection on what Job shares with these creatures of the wild, beginning with Behemoth: alien identity, resistance to control, fierceness. In Yhwh’s creation, Job not only discovers himself sharing common creaturehood with the wild; he also sees something of himself in each of these creatures, all sharing in the irrepressible exercise of life. In his bewilderment Job is ‘be-wilded’.
Yhwh’s answer to Job concludes with Job 41, the only chapter in the Bible devoted entirely to a single (albeit mythic) animal. With Leviathan, Job takes the plunge into the depths of chaos. This monstrous figure marks the culmination of creation in Job with these final words:
On the earth there is nothing like it,
a creature made without fear.
It surveys all who are lofty;
it is king over all the sons of pride.
(Job 41:33–34 [Heb. 25–26])
In Yhwh’s world, this monster of the deep not only thrives but also assumes unrivalled royal status (41:26; cf. 40:11–12). It is Leviathan, not Job, who bears such status. So much for Job’s self-fancy as king (29:25).
What kind of world does Yhwh present to Job? A world that is terrifyingly and wondrously vast and alien, teeming with life characterized by fierce strength, inalienable freedom, and wild beauty (see O’Connor 2004: 48–56). Limits, to be sure, are set in place: the earth rests on stable foundations, the tempestuous sea is contained like a swaddled infant, and the dawn renews the earth with some semblance of order (38:4–15). Nevertheless, the world is not an object of divine micromanagement or control (Fretheim 2005: 235, 239). Land, sea, and sky are host to myriad life-forms, all alien to the human eye and untamable to the human hand, but all affirmed and sustained by Yhwh. Yhwh’s world is filled with scavengers and predators, even monsters (cf. Gen 1:21), all co-existing and thriving. This world is God’s wild kingdom. It pulses with ‘pizzazz’ (Davis 2001: 139).
Job and Genesis offer contrasting portrayals of creation. Whereas creation in Genesis 1 is conceived as a cosmic temple, creation in Job is more of a cosmic tempest, bursting with vitality and freedom. In Genesis 1, creation proceeds methodically from benign ‘chaos’ to cosmic order. In Job, the order of presentation moves from foundational order to royal chaos (Leviathan). In Genesis 2, the animals are presented to the ’ādām in the garden for their naming. Job, on the other hand, experiences something of the native habitats and habits of these animals, from which Job learns their names. In Genesis 1, creation is deemed ‘good’. While some sense of goodness is presupposed in the Joban account of creation, added to this goodness is the value of alterity: creation is filled with strange and alien creatures endowed with inalienable worth by God. In Genesis 1, as well as in Psalm 8, creation is hierarchically defined with humanity receiving the ‘blessing’ of dominion. In Job, humanity assumes no such role; indeed, humanity as a class or species is absent in Yhwh’s presentation. If one wants to find a royal figure in creation, Leviathan, the quintessential creature of chaos, is the only candidate that qualifies in Job. Likewise, ‘image of God’ language applied to humanity is nowhere evident in Job, perhaps because the Joban poet considers all creation made in God’s image in so far that creation reflects in varying degrees God’s wisdom and might. Often noted is the theophanic imagery associated particularly in the figures of Leviathan and the warhorse (see Newsom 2003: 243, 251, 261; Habel 1985: 547). In any case, Job offers a radical revision of Irenaeus’s often quoted line, ‘The glory of God is a living human being’ (Gloria Dei est vivens homo [Adversus Haereses, 4.20]). In Job the glory of God is a fully living creation.
2.4.3 Ecclesiastes 1: creation without cause, pause, and effect
Featuring the musings of the sage Qoheleth (‘Teacher’ in most translations), the book of Ecclesiastes contains the most unconventional perspective on creation in the Bible. In fact, the entire book, except for its epilogue, is so unorthodox that it has been often called the ‘strangest book in the Bible’ (Scott 1965: 191). Ecclesiastes opens not with a creation account per se but with what could be called a dynamic ‘snapshot’ of the cosmos (1:4–11). Moreover, the book concludes with further cosmological reflections in 12:2–7. Creation, thus, frames Qoheleth’s reflections on the purpose and meaning of life, so also the sage’s assessment that everything is ‘vanity’ (hevel), or better translated ‘futility’ (1:2; 12:8).
By questioning the purpose of human toil in 1:3, Qoheleth also questions the purpose of creation in vv. 4–11. Generations come and go, the sun rises and sets, the wind blows hither and yon, and the streams flow perpetually, all the while both earth and sea remain unchanged. Nothing is gained; neither progress nor purpose is discernible. The sage observes the weary sun ‘panting’ to the place of its rising, ever repeating its ‘revolutions’. Sun, wind, and streams are all set in constant motion, all returning to where they began without pause. Activity abounds, but nothing is achieved. Ever in motion but never changing, the cosmos is uniformly indifferent to human living, from birth to death. The perpetual cycles exhibit neither beginning nor ending, much less a ‘new’ beginning. This is a world without pause and effect, a world without discernible history.
The same can also be said of human agency, according to Qoheleth. As the sea is never filled, so human yearning (‘eye’ and ‘ear’) is never satisfied (v. 8b). Despite their efforts, the people of past generations will be forgotten by those who come after (v. 11). Indeed, the same fate applies to every generation. Nothing of significance is left for posterity. Establishing a legacy is a futile venture. Both natural and ‘man-made’ history are doomed to repetition, much like the sun and the wind. The past is the future; ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ (1:9). Any ‘new’ thing is simply a replay or variation of the past. Genuine change is a mirage.
For Qoheleth, the cosmos moves on its own frenetic inertia, with human history mirroring its futile movements (see Eccl 3:1–8). Accompanying the lack of newness or change in cosmic history is the lack of memory in human history (1:11). With the passing of each generation, memory is by and large wiped clean (cf. 9:5). A life that strives to ensure its legacy by pursuing gain pursues only the wind, for the past cannot be remembered any more than the future can be controlled. Likewise, creation itself is pointless: for all the energy expended in creation, nothing is gained and everything is to lose (see 2:22; 3:9; 6:11). Like cosmos, like humanity: death casts its long shadow over both (12:1–7).
Creation according to Qoheleth is emptied of telos and filled with toil, a cosmos without purpose and devoid of its own genesis. Elsewhere in the Bible, genesis and purpose are inseparably wedded. But here there is nothing, properly speaking, creative or purposeful about Qoheleth’s cosmos. Indeed, God appears not even to be involved, at least not directly. Whereas the creation traditions of Genesis, Psalms, Proverbs, and Job all claim the world as created by a beneficent deity, Qoheleth’s cosmology, for all intents and purposes, excludes cosmogony and deems God as inscrutable (3:11). As there is no beginning, there also is no discernible point to creation. Qoheleth’s world is a creation void of creation, and hevel is its name (1:2; 12:8).
The most often used word in Ecclesiastes, hevel is the book’s single-word thesis. Throughout his reflections, Qoheleth presents one example after another of hevel, from the cosmic to the personal. The word itself conjures the image of ‘vapour’, something entirely insubstantial, perhaps even noxious (see Miller 2002). And yet hevel bears a rich and varied function in Qoheleth’s discourse. There are many nuances of hevel conveyed in Ecclesiastes, for the term can be translated in a number of related ways, depending on the context: ‘futility’, ‘transience’, ‘worthlessness’, ‘absurdity’, ‘farce’, ‘mirage’, and even ‘shit’ have all been proposed (see Crüsemann 1984: 57; Fox 1986: 409–427; Brown 2000: 21–22; Sneed 2017: 879–894). But regardless of its specific nuance, it is indubitable for Qoheleth that hevel happens all the time. The incessant cycling of the elements is for him the stellar example of ‘vanity’, a cosmic exercise of futility that eventually proves ephemeral. But as science has demonstrated and documented, the (re)cycling of the elements, from carbon to water, is precisely what sustains creation (Dell 2009: 181–189).