Radical Wisdom vs Conventional Wisdom
A Weekend Bible Study: Proverbs & Ecclesiastes
The origins of the Hebrew Wisdom books, like most of the Jewish scriptures, are obscure, and there are various theories.
Some scholars think materials such as the sayings in Proverbs are all conscious, intentional acts of creativity–that is, somebody sat down and wrote them, as a form of aphoristic poetry, a kind of Hebrew haiku. Many such scholars believe they were produced in large part for use in teaching apprentice scribes. They’re primers of a sort, both for learning to write, and as part of a scribe’s preparation for his role as adviser to the powerful.
Other scholars doubt this Wisdom school idea. They point out that collections of Wisdom sayings were found in many other cultures besides Israel. They suggest that the creation of proverbs was by no means confined to a cultured elite. After all, the material in Proverbs runs the social gamut from the king’s palace to the village marketplace to everyday family matters. In this view, the scribes functioned more as collectors and editors rather than as authors.
There are other theories about the sources of Hebrew Wisdom writings, but we’re not going to dwell on them here. What’s important about these books, for me, is that whatever their origins, they are offered to us as a part of the deposit of “revelation,” without explanation or apology.
And after reading and reflecting on them, I became persuaded that part of the message of their inclusion in the canon was this: revelation can occur, not only through extraordinary and supernatural events, like visions, miracles and such, but also–and perhaps most often, even typically — through the ordinary and familiar, if we but understand how to see it.
That is to say, the everyday is an arena in and through which the divine discloses itself. And in the Bible this kind of revelation takes some characteristic forms, the most familiar of which is the proverb.
To illustrate, let’s take one of the sayings that for some reason I have always liked, from Proverbs Chapter Six, verses 6 through 11. Let me quote it from two translations:
King James: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise. Which having no guide, overseer or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard?…Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: So shall thy poverty come….”
The contrast with the Today’s English Version is striking; here is a sample: “Lazy people should learn a lesson from the way ants live….How long is that lazy man going to lie around? When is he ever going to get up?”
(Proverbs, incidentally, is an excellent book for showing the difference that various translations make: At one end of the spectrum there is the stately, formal eloquence of the King James (KJV), and at the other is the pungent vernacular directness of the Today’s English (TEV). There’s no one best translation; but for Proverbs, the TEV’s bluntness often seems to closer to the spirit of many of the texts; still, I love the cadence of the KJV in this particular passage.)
Now, what seems to be the message here? At first sight, it appears simple enough: laziness leads to poverty. Ants understand this, and work hard to store up food for the winter. But another part of the message seems to be a call to reflection: If ants can figure out the relationship between diligence and prosperity, humans should also be able to do so.
Or take Chapter 23:29-35, verses which deal with a hazard that is as real now as it was then. Here the contrast between KJV and TEV is particularly striking:
KJV: “Who hath woe? Who hath sorrow? …Who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine….They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not: when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again.”
TEV: “Show me someone who drinks too much, who has to try out fancy drinks, and I will show you someone miserable and sorry for himself, always causing trouble and always complaining….’I must have been hit,’ you will say; ‘I must have been beaten up, but I don’t remember it. Why can’t I wake up? I need another drink.’”
I’m less interested here in the content than the form of these passages: in a few memorable phrases they compress and illuminate a large body of experience.
That’s what I think a proverb is: a brief, memorable statement which sums up and illuminates a large body of experience and reflection. Another way to say this is that they disclose something of the shape and meaning of a series of experiences.
Reflecting on these books, I realized something else that attracted me to them. As a form of revelation, proverbs are something I have some familiarity with. That is, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a miracle performed, though there have been a couple of ambiguously mysterious experiences I could talk about some other time. And while I’ve had what Quakers call leadings, I’ve never had a vision, really, or heard a supernatural voice.
I’m not a skeptic about such paranormal events; but they are essentially outside my experience. On the other hand, I have had statements come to me which were essentially proverbs in this biblical mode. Here are two:
“A journalist’s job is to get the facts;
“But a journalist’s vocation is to get the truth.” And second,
“Money comes and goes; but time only goes.”
Maybe this pair isn’t of biblical caliber, but that’s not the claim here. They do sum up and illuminate much experience, for me at least. And I mention these simply to underscore that such insight (or “revelation”) is not reserved for a divinely-chosen few.
So part of the message of the Wisdom books is that such revelation through the everyday is intended for everyone.
Not that all of us will write proverbs–though I think we could if we set our minds to it–but that, to the extent that we attain Wisdom, we will be able to recognize it when we hear it expressed. We can learn it, and teach it when the time comes.
The Eighth chapter of Proverbs makes this wide-open approach explicit. (Both also picture Wisdom as a woman, a feature we’ll talk about more later.) Here are their opening verses:
TEV: “Listen! Wisdom is calling out. Reason is making herself heard on the hilltops near the road and at the crossroads she stands. At the entrance to the city, beside the gates, she calls: ‘I appeal to you, mankind: I call to everyone on earth . . . whoever looks for me can find me.’” (8:1-4, 17)
So, Wisdom is not starting a private club. For that matter, Lady Wisdom is not even well-bred; in Proverbs 1:20-23 she is seen calling out insistently in the street to all and sundry. This was highly assertive, even shocking behavior for a female figure in that culture, or in much of ours for that matter.
There are three additional aspects of this biblical Wisdom which I want to discuss: what I call the Hebrew Dress for Success; Wisdom’s radical challenge to orthodoxy; and revelation as dialectic. Let’s take them in order.
Much proverbial Wisdom here can be summed up in the proposition that being righteous, prudent and even shrewd (all of which are synonyms for Wisdom here) will pay off, will produce concrete, favorable results. It is very unusual to find any talk about last judgements, afterlives, or things working out in heaven here. There’s no pie in the sky bye and bye.
Instead, Proverbs promises that the wise will have their pie on their table and will eat it too, in this life. Happiness, wealth, justice, family preservation, along with–and as signs of–God’s blessing, all can be attained in this life, never mind what happens after death.
This is the Hebrew version of Dress for Success. And on the flip side of the coin, we are also assured and admonished that the foolish and wicked will get theirs, not in some hellish hereafter, but in this life. Further, their comeuppance will be visible and painful.
The number of such declarations is almost endless. Let’s look at only a few:
Proverbs 22:4 (KJV): “By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honor, and life.” 3:13,6: “Happy is the man that findeth wisdom….Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honor.”
The advice gets more practical than that: In Pr. 4:23, for instance we have, at least in the TEV’s rendering, a statement about Positive Mental Attitude: “Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts.”
In three places, Proverbs warns us very explicitly to avoid getting involved with the debts of others: Pr. 6:1-5; 17:18; and most pointedly of all in 20:16 (TEV):
“Anyone stupid enough to promise to be responsible for a stranger’s debts ought to have his own property held to guarantee payment.”
There’s no denying that this is good advice–Americans should have paid attention to it in the 1980s, when Congress and the White House let the savings and loans crooks play their multi-megabillion-dollar crap games, and then charged the losses to the taxpayers.
In the book of Ecclesiasticus, or Sirach, the advice gets still more concrete. It tells us, for instance, how to conduct a power lunch: Ecc. 31:12-22 (TEV); 32:1-3; in chapter 41:16 & 19, it even reminds us to keep our elbows off the table. (I often wonder whether that section was ghostwritten by my mother.)
On the other hand, it is just as confidently affirmed that the foolish and wicked will be swiftly and surely punished. For instance, Proverbs 11:8 (TEV): “The righteous are protected from trouble; it comes to the wicked instead.”
And 11:31(TEV): “Those who are good are rewarded here on earth, so you can be sure that wicked and sinful people will be punished.”
You get the idea.
So crime doesn’t pay, and virtue is reliably rewarded. This is Wisdom construed as wising up, a word to the wise, street-wise, for wise guys and gals. This is the Wisdom, even, of the Nantucket Quaker shopkeeper and her fish, the story in an earlier post.
You think I’m kidding? Read Pr. 20:14 in TEV: “The customer always complains that the price is too high, but then he goes off and brags about the bargain he got.”
But if the buyer gets too upset, Proverbs has advice for the shrewd shopkeeper as well: “If someone is angry with you, a gift given secretly will calm him down.” (Pr. 20:14) Here, though, the TEV’s writers shrank from the actual meaning of “gift”; the New American Standard (NAS) version calls it what it the Hebrew says it really is: a “bribe.”
The second striking feature of Wisdom, though, is the flip side of the confidence of Proverbs. In fact, it is a radical challenge to it, a very early example of literary deconstruction, centered in the book placed right next to it in the Christian version of the canon. This challenge came about evidently because over the course of time, some of those who pursued the formulas in Proverbs for attaining Wisdom and its benefits, began to notice some major discrepancies between these texts and their real lives.
That book is named for the powerful voice of these sobering second thoughts: Ecclesiastes, also known as Koheleth, or the Preacher, or in the TEV translation, the Philosopher.
In his experience, life did not always turn out swimmingly for the righteous. In fact, it often turned out badly. As he sums it up in 9:11, which the King James expresses the best:
“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race it not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
Or, as the TEV more frankly puts the conclusion: “Bad luck happens to everyone.”
But bad luck was not the worst of what Koheleth saw “under the sun.” Consider 8:11-14, which the TEV put most tellingly:
“Why do people commit crimes so readily? Because crime is not punished quickly enough. A sinner may commit a hundred crimes and still live. Oh yes, I know what they say: ‘If you obey God, everything will be all right, but it will not go well for the wicked. Their life is like a shadow and they will die young, because they do not obey God.’ But this is nonsense. Look at what happens in the world: sometimes righteous men get the punishment of the wicked, and wicked men get the reward of the righteous. I say it is useless.”
“Nonsense”? Wow. This is an extraordinary passage, and here the TEV puts it far better than most other translations, because it highlights the confrontational character of Ecclesiastes. He is not, in my view, simply offering some friendly constructive criticism, pointing up a few loose ends in Proverbs and its Dress for Success self-assurance.
No, Koheleth is going for the jugular; he even takes on and mocks its theology, and the sages who expounded it, a few verses further on. Again the TEV does his radicalism the most justice:
“Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day and never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. Wise men may claim to know, but they don’t.” (8:16-17; emphasis added)
Astonishingly, in Ecclesiastes we have an all-out, fundamental challenge to the view of life, Wisdom, and even revelation presented in the book immediately preceding it. Nor is it a polite debate; as the TEV’s renderings show, it is more like a brawl. You could sum up much of this book in the words of a vulgar slogan I’ve seen on more than a few bumpers: “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”
This assault on the confidence of Proverbs is deepened by the text that many Bible students consider to be the crown of the Hebrew scriptures, if not the entire Bible, the Book of Job.
The Book of Job deserves its own post. Here I’ll stick with Proverbs ad Ecclesiastes (or rather, one versus the other).
One reason to highlight this siege is that, as gloomy as these parts of the Wisdom writings may seem to some, I find them tremendously refreshing, even uplifting. In fact, I’m not sure I could believe that the Bible was really a special, “revealing” book, if the clash of Proverbs vs. Ecclesiastes weren’t part of it.
After all, while extraordinary or miraculous events may happen now and then, I live most of the time in the ordinary and everyday. And it is these biblical voices, rooted in the quotidian, that most often speak to my condition.
I may try to expect a miracle, but Wisdom is what I depend on day in and day out–if I can find any.
Yet I am also uplifted–inspired would be a better word–by the struggle I see here. This is a crucial aspect of these texts: the fact that in this dialectic, this assault from within on traditional understandings of revelation —this heretical subversion of the original version of Conventional Wisdom–is affirmed by the body of revelation itself.
This entire dialectical process, from the good advice and assurance of Proverbs, to the sharp challenge presented by Ecclesiastes, is part of what biblical tradition insists is a deposit of divine self-disclosure. That is, revelation. It’s part of it–many scholars say a central part of it, and I agree with them.
One reason I agree is that this tradition thereby legitimizes a condition of inner struggle and ambiguity of understanding very familiar in my life. I suspect it’s familiar to many others today too.
The message I draw from this legitimation is that my struggles, the accompanying uncertainty, and the sharp divergence of views they encompass, are all included within the realm of meaning and revelation the biblical Wisdom tradition represents.
Let me try to put this another way. From the biblical perspective:
If you have miracles and signs to make sense of your world for you, fine;
Or if you are able, even without such signs and wonders, to maintain confidence in the understanding of life your conventional Wisdom presents you with, that’s okay too.
But then, even if you haven’t seen any wonders, and if you are beset by doubt and uncertainty and ambiguity and struggle attempting to make sense of life–yes, even this too is not beyond the reach of biblical faith and experience.
Where is Wisdom, or divine disclosure of meaning to be found?
Start where you are. Look around.
And if life and its meaning aren’t immediately clear, or reducible to bromides; take heart; even in your confusion, you may be on the right path.