The Sapiential Texts, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.


We next look at a set of wisdom texts that had a somewhat different history. Known only through the Qumran collection, these texts seem to have been more closely related to the sectarian texts and to have had an influence upon their vocabulary and ideas.

In the cache of texts that became available only a few years ago after full release of the scrolls, perhaps the biggest surprise was a collection of texts, termed in the catalogs Sapiential Works, constituting previously unknown wisdom literature. Although the study of these texts is still in its infancy, with only preliminary publications available, they already have opened up a new window on the development of wisdom literature and thought. And even though we must be somewhat tentative in what we can say about them at this point, they are too important to ignore while we await the results of further study.

Fourteen manuscripts have at one time or another been given the title Sapiential Work. By the time these texts are formally published, some of them will no doubt be renamed, but for the moment we shall use the names given them by the original editorial team. These works cover a wide variety of topics, only a few of which we will touch on here.

Because the texts are often quite fragmentary, they are difficult to follow. Like the Mysteries material, to be taken up also in this chapter, these texts call upon their reader to “investigate” things-

… and I will teach you wisdom. And investigate the ways of mankind and the actions of peop[le…. For when] God [created] man, He gave him a great inheritance of His true knowledge. And to the extent that he despises it, all evil [… in the h]earing of his ears or the sight of his eyes, it will not be. And now … and investigate the years of ge[neration] after generation, as God revealed… (SAPIENTIAL WORK [413], 1 1–4)

This text cites the need to investigate the past in order to understand human actions and their consequences. The ability to understand such things is part of God’s gift of knowledge to us, a concept we likewise found in the Thanksgiving Hymns, which indeed have many points in common with this wisdom literature. Those who detest evil, the text declares, will avoid it as much as possible. To bolster one’s efforts to do so, one must develop a strong antipathy to evil deeds by acquiring wisdom.

The secrets of which the texts speak are engraved in heaven and may be seen as the representation of the divine will-

And then you will know the [eternal] glory [wi]th His wondrous secrets and His mighty deeds. And you will understand the beginning of your actions in the remembrance of the ti[me, for] in it the law is engraved and the entire command is incised. For it is engraved (and) incised for God … and the book of remembrance is written before Him, for those who observe His command. (SAPIENTIAL WORK Ic 2 I 13–16)

This wisdom, then, is built into the order of creation and engraved on heavenly tablets. The “book of remembrance” alludes to Malachi 3-16, which speaks of “a book of remembrance for those who fear the Lord and esteem His name.” According to our text, one can understand one’s early actions when they are filtered through a later perspective, “the remembrance of time.”

The author tells us that God is master of the world, controlling nature and judging humankind-

[… and He will judge] all of them in truth and punish fathers and sons of the [nation]s with all their countrymen … visiting the seasons of the summer and harvesting their cro[ps at the correct time … (SAPIENTIAL WORK V 5 5–6)

The seasons and the times of harvest are in God’s hands. God alone judges the nations.
These texts assert that all, rich and poor, should seek the hidden wisdom-
… If you are poor, do not say I am destitute, and therefore I will no[t] seek knowledge. To every teaching put your shoulder, and in every [lesson] join your heart, and (then) your thoughts will be with much understanding. (SAPIENTIAL WORK Ib 2 III 12–14)

Such wisdom will lead one to separate oneself from evil, since those whom God has endowed with His knowledge should perceive the evils of sinfulness-

He has separated you from the spirit of mankind, so you should separate from everything which He despises and abstain from all abominations of the soul. [Fo]r He made everything and He apportioned them, each to his inheritance, and He is your portion and your share among people, and He has made you to rule over His inheritance. And you, honor Him in this, by sanctifying yourself to Him as He has made you the holiest of the holies.

Those who have become adepts at wisdom have an obligation to reciprocate God’s largesse. Because God has chosen them, placing them in the lot of the wise—here again we find the sectarian notion of predestination—they reciprocate by abstaining from evil and sanctifying themselves. The text then alludes to the special inheritance of the tribe of Levi, to which God has allotted no territory in the Land of Israel, because “I am your portion and your share among the Israelites” (Numbers 18-20). Levi’s singular holiness is its portion. The wise, too, have a special holiness- they are the holy of holies.

Like Proverbs and Ben Sira, much of the advice in the sapiential scrolls is simply good common sense gained by studying wisdom-

Investigate the mystery that is coming to be and study all the ways of truth and look carefully at all the roots of iniquity. Then you will know what is more bitter for a person and what is sweet for a man. The glory of your father should be upon your head, and of your mother in your steps. For his father is like a teacher to a man, and his mother is like a master. For they are the crucible of your birth … and as He (God) has opened your ear to the mystery that is coming to be, honor them for the sake of your own honor … for the sake of your life and the length of your days. (SAPIENTIAL WORK Ib 2 III 14–19)

Honoring one’s parents is presented here as more than just good advice; it is part of the “mystery that is coming to be.” This mystery, never fully explained in any of the wisdom or Mysteries texts, is the hidden wisdom vouchsafed by God. The promise of long life as a reward for honoring one’s parents is based upon the Fifth Commandment (Exodus 20-12, Deuteronomy 5-16). Throughout, these texts assume a society based on marriage and family life, as is evident in this passage. They cannot have emerged from a celibate community.
Pithy sayings abound in these texts-

[A person who is] hard of hearing do not send to seek judgment, for he will not be able to judge fairly the dispute between people. For like one who winnows in the wind [grain] which is not purified, so is one who speaks in an ear that does not hear, or speaks to one who is slumbering deeply under the spirit of [sleep]. (SAPIENTIAL WORK II 33–35)

Strings of aphorisms like this hark back to the ancient wisdom tradition. In ancient wisdom schools, such epigrammatic style was the norm.

The text also advises against vowing, which is discouraged not only in the Qumran texts but also in the New Testament and rabbinic literature-

Do not add a vow or free wil[l offering] …. And any binding oath to vow a vow, you should cancel at the time it comes forth from your mouth, and according to your free will cancel [it]. (SAPIENTIAL WORK Ib 2 IV 7–9)

The author no doubt would have advised that a man should follow the same practice when it comes to canceling his wife’s or daughter’s vows. Because failing to discharge vows properly constitutes a major transgression against God, vows should always be canceled to avoid the risk of violating them.

Another halakhic passage reminds readers of their obligation, twice stated in the Torah (Leviticus 19-19, Deuteronomy 22-9–10), to keep separate different types of seeds, to avoid wearing a mixture of linen and wool, and to refrain from plowing with mismatched animals (Sapiential Work Ia 103 II 7–9). These texts stress that following the ritual requirements of Judaism is a prerequisite to gaining wisdom.

In many ways, this literature points toward ideas found in the sectarian texts. It teaches that knowledge comes from God, and it casts wisdom in a profoundly religious light as God’s revelation to humankind. The Mysteries texts, which we consider next, went one step further. These texts include terms typically used by the sectarians to describe their particular religious ideas. Many of those special terms and the ideas they represent are also found in the Thanksgiving Hymns, which share much in common with the Sapiential Works.

Pages 203-206

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