Wisdom, One: Spring Friends Meeting, North Carolina — 05-06-2018
In the early 1830s, a young man from Boston went to sea, hoping to make his fortune. A Presbyterian by birth, he read his Bible each night in his shipboard hammock, and he was haunted by a verse in the fourth chapter of the Book of Proverbs:
“Wisdom is the principal thing: Therefore, get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get wisdom” Wealth, the youth piously decided, was nothing without this seasoning of wisdom. But where was such a combination to be found?
Presently his ship sailed into the harbor of Nantucket Island. Nantucket was then a wealthy and vibrant community, built and largely populated by Quakers.
As he walked the bustling, cobbled streets of Nantucket town, observing the fine grey shingled houses and the plain but prosperous inhabitants, another verse from the Book of Proverbs came to him. It was something about “I am Wisdom, and in my right hand is riches and honor.”
The more he saw of Nantucketers, the more he felt sure that here was a group that genuinely understood and knew how to successfully apply this kind of Wisdom.
When he turned down one street, which was known then as “Petticoat Row,” he saw a succession of neat, prosperous-looking shops and stores. Almost all were operated by Quaker businesswomen, whose husbands were away at sea.
The sailor was so impressed with this commercial tableau that he impulsively entered one of the shops, a kind of grocery store. He walked up to the counter and said to the plain-dressed woman behind it, “Madam, I want to know why you Nantucket Quakers seem so wise and successful in the ways of the world.”
The Quaker woman said to him, naturally very humbly, “Well, of course, Friend, it’s mainly because we follow the Inward Light. But,” she added, “it’s also because we eat a special kind of fish, the Wisdom Fish.”
“Wisdom Fish?” the sailor exclaimed. “What’s that? Where could I get some?”
“Friend,” the Quaker shopkeeper said, “thee is in luck. I just happen to have one here, which I can sell thee for only twenty dollars.”
Twenty dollars was a lot of money in those days, but the sailor didn’t hesitate. He pulled out his purse, handed over the money, and she gave him a carefully wrapped parcel, which he carried out of the shop with an excited smile on his face.
He returned a few minutes later, however, looking puzzled and a bit disturbed. “Excuse me, madam,” he said, laying the half-opened package on the counter. “This is nothing but a piece of ordinary dried codfish.”
Under her modest white bonnet, the Quaker shopkeeper raised one eyebrow.
“Friend,” she said quietly, “thee is getting wiser already.”
I want to talk about Wisdom. Especially wisdom in the Bible.
The Bible is a collection of books, containing many different kinds of texts: letters; histories; prophecies; laws. Some poetry, and in Psalms, a hymnbook. A wide range of texts.
It doesn’t matter for this study whether you “believe” in the Bible. Apart from that, it’s become part of our everyday speech in English. It’s the source of many familiar images & saying. Here are just a few–
A drop in the bucket
Isaiah 40:15: “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing.”
A Fly in the ointment.
Ecclesiastes 10:1 says: “Dead flies cause the ointment to stink . . .’
A Labor of love
Thessalonians 1:2, 1:3: “We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labor of love . . .”
The Bible has also generated many familiar types: If I call someone “A Good Samaritan,” a “Jezebel,” a “scapegoat,” or the “apple of my eye,” most of us will know what I mean, even if they don’t know they all came from the Bible.
So again, whether you believe it or not, biblical materials are woven into our culture.
There’s another kind of text in it besides those I mentioned, which is what I want to talk about: texts of wisdom. They have their own section in the Hebrew Scriptures (aka the Old Testament). Jewish scholars call it “The Writings.”
The most clearly marked of these texts is the book of Proverbs – a proverb is a short pithy saying, often metaphorical, that is thought to express a general truth about practical, virtuous & successful living.
Scholars argue over the origins of these texts. Collections of proverbs have been found in numerous cultures of the Bible world, many of which are similar to some in the Book of Proverbs. And because literacy was then so scarce, the scribes who could write, not only collected & copied the proverbs, they often ended up as advisors to the powerful, tribal chiefs and early kings.
In the Book of Proverbs there are several collections. And some repeated themes. One we have already seen in the anecdote at the beginning: Wisdom is the way to riches and honor. And those riches are for now, this life, this world, not some pie in the sky heaven by and bye. Here’s one passage that summarizes many, in a modern easy-ro-read version:
Proverbs 6:12– Some people are just troublemakers. They are always thinking up some crooked plan and telling lies. 13 They use secret signals to cheat people; they wink their eyes, shuffle their feet, and point a finger. 14 They are always planning to do something bad. 15 But they will be punished. Disaster will strike, and they will be destroyed. There will be no one to help them.
There’s plenty more like this, but shorter:
Proverbs 11:8: “The righteous are protected from trouble; it comes to the wicked instead.”
And 11:31: “Those who are good are rewarded here on earth, so you can be sure that wicked and sinful people will be punished.”
In Pr. 4:23, for instance we have, at least in some versions, 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.”
You get the idea.
So crime doesn’t pay, and virtue is reliably rewarded. But there’s also Wisdom here which could be 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.
You think I’m exaggerating? Read Pr. 20:14 in a modern version: “The customer always complains that the price is too high, but then he goes off and brags about the bargain he got.”
And if that sailor in Nantucket gets overly upset about the $20 codfish, Proverbs also has advice for the shrewd shopkeeper as well: [Pr 20:14] “If someone is angry with you, a gift (bribe) given secretly will calm him down.” (For instance, $130,000 for someone to forget about an um, inconvenient indiscretion.)
I’ve called this theme “Hebrew Dress for Success.” And there’s no doubt that there’s much valuable advice here. Work hard. Avoid debt. Stay out of trouble. But one aspect of this I’d like to highlight: The Bible, to many, is a record of God’s revelation. And when we hear this we often think of remarkable experiences: Moses at a burning bush that talks. Prophets having visions; stone tablets bearing words written by God’s finger. And so forth.
But Proverbs is free of such marvels. It refers to the religious law, but you won’t find its counsel coming as: “Thus Saith the Lord, don’t drink too much.”
Nope. Instead, Proverbs finds its wisdom in observation and reflection, from human experience and insight. And it finds this insight in ordinary daily experience, involving in just one chapter ants, badgers, grasshoppers, and lizards. There is not an angel, a burning bush, or a miracle cure anywhere in sight.
And yet, this book is part of a volume that’s supposed to contain God’s revelation to people. What I found intriguing about this, and reassuring too, is that it indicates such “revelation” can come not only through supernatural events, which are sometimes hard to accept, but also from and through everyday life, using our human minds and imagination. And I’m also free to disagree with it, like the part in Proverbs 23 about beating my children.
That freedom is important to me, because I’m not at all sure I’ve ever had an angel appear to me; but I have seen and experienced lots to think about in everyday life, to reflect on, and I’ve learned valuable truths from that.
So the Book of Proverbs and the other Wisdom texts are not just about good advice; but they embody a mode of “revelation” not reserved only to prophets or priests or ancient texts, but potentially available right now to anyone who is ready to observe keenly and reflect deeply.
Now, while my own observation & reflection has confirmed much of what I find in Proverbs, I have also seen much that doesn’t fit with its model of guaranteed riches & honor for the righteous. In fact I’m sorry to say that I’ve often seen the exact opposite happening.
So if I could talk to the editors of Proverbs, I’d want to ask – what about these people, righteous enough, innocent enough, who didn’t get rich and live happily ever after? Are they in your Wisdom texts somewhere?
Well yes, they are. Not so much in the Book of Proverbs, but very much in the Wisdom texts. And we’ll explore that next time.
Wisdom at Spring, Two: 05-13-2018
Last week I spoke about the Bible traditionally being considered a record of God’s revelation, and that revelation is usually associated with extraordinary and dramatic events: the parting of the Red Sea; a heavenly voice speaking to Saul on the road to Damascus; phenomenal cures, prophetic visions, talking to angels.
But the Wisdom books mostly convey their message without any such marvels. Here by and large we find texts dealing with the most mundane and common of experiences: marriage and family life; farming, business, bureaucracy and government; wealth and poverty, even insects. And instead of miracles, or thunderous divine commandments, here we see a process of experience being reflected upon and the results expressed concisely and tellingly. There is not an angel, a burning bush, or a miracle cure anywhere in sight.
Also last week I looked at the book of Proverbs, which repeatedly assures us that being good will reliably lead us to riches and success in this life, and bad people will assuredly be punished soon. Proverbs 11:31 sums it up: “Those who are good are rewarded here on earth, so you can be sure that wicked and sinful people will be punished.”
But that’s not what the book right next to it, called Ecclesiastes, says.
The speaker in Ecclesiastes is someone called the Preacher, the Teacher, or even the Philosopher. Sometimes he sounds like King Solomon, who was supposed to be the wisest man ever. In any case, he has seen what many of us have also seen, which is the exact opposite of what Proverbs predicts often happens: the good person loses; the bad guys win. And what’s worse, innocent people suffer, even children.
And even for prosperous, successful people, many find themselves one day questioning all the things that signify their success. I saw this happen in 1992, after working as a congressional staffer, when a large number of members of Congress, all certified as successful in their profession, asked “So What?” but couldn’t find an answer, and rushed for the exits. (Writing in Spring 2018, I see the same thing happening again.)
An older version of that one phrase is one that should be familiar to many of us. And in the early 90s it became urgent for me in an almost spooky way, as if some stranger kept tiptoeing up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, and then whispered loudly in my ear:
“‘Vanity of vanities,’ saith the Preacher, ‘all is vanity and a striving after wind.’” That’s an old, very stately translation. More recent ones are harsher: Useless. Pointless. Meaningless. A Waste of Breath and Time.
For me, as perhaps for some others, a day comes when, hearing or recalling that verse, from the opening of the first short chapter of the brief biblical Wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, is like having something reach out and grab you by the throat. And it doesn’t let go;
I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
15 What is crooked cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted.
16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.
18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief.”
And then, he began to reconsider this so-called wisdom:
12 Then I decided to think about what it means to be wise or to be foolish . . . . . .I saw that wisdom is better than foolishness in the same way that light is better than darkness. 14 Wise people use their minds like eyes to see where they are going. But for fools, it is as if they are walking in the dark.
[But] I also saw that fools and wise people both end the same way. 15 I thought to myself, “The same thing that happens to a fool will also happen to me. So why have I tried so hard to become wise?” [So] I said to myself, “Being wise is also useless.” 16 Whether people are wise or foolish, they will still die, and no one will remember either one of them forever. In the future, people will forget everything both of them did. So the two are really the same.
17 This made me hate life. It was depressing to think that everything in this life is useless, like trying to catch the wind.
These reflections don’t fit with the Book of Proverbs. Which is to say, whatever kind of wisdom it dispenses leaves a lot of life uncovered. That is, its “revelation” has a big hole in it. Actually numerous holes.
The starting point of this Teacher’s observations is summed up in Ecclesiastes 9:11, one of those verses which the King James expresses the best:
“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is 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 a more modern version frankly puts it, “Bad luck happens to everyone.”
But bad luck was not the worst of what Koheleth saw “under the sun.” Consider 8:11-14, which modern versions render most tellingly. Here’s one:
“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 (or vanity; meaningless; chasing after wind, a waste of time).”
This is an extraordinary passage, and here I think this modern translation serves us far better than most older translations, because it highlights the confrontational character of Ecclesiastes. He is not, in my view, simply offering some friendly constructive criticism to his brother editors who compiled Proverbs, pointing up some loose ends in its Dress for Success self-assurance. No, the Teacher wants to fight, and he’s going for the jugular; he even takes on Hebrew theology, and the sages who expounded it, a few verses further on. Again the modern versions do the most justice to his radicalism:
“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)
It was amazing to me to find, right there in the Bible, an all-out wrestling match about wisdom. Nor is it a polite debate; as the modern renderings show, it’s 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.”
And what is the outcome of this brawl? Well, there are different views. To me, after engaging in this struggle, Wisdom emerges as a much more modest figure, one for whom the good practical advice of Proverbs only goes so far, and the gaps it doesn’t cover are not small, and can even be like these bg sinkholes we read about, which can suddenly appear and swallow up roads and cars and houses and even unlucky people.
Besides which the best advice from this Preacher, or Teacher, or Philosopher is brief, and can seem almost trivial, but consistent with what he sees “under the sun.” He says:
“8:14 There is something else that happens on earth that does not seem fair. Bad things should happen to bad people, and good things should happen to good people. But sometimes bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. This is not fair. 15 So I decided it was more important to enjoy life because the best thing people can do in this life is to eat, drink, and enjoy life. At least that will help people put up with the hard work God gave them to do during their life on earth.”
And if this sounds too ordinary, that does not bother the Preacher. In fact, he repeats it in the next chapter:
9:1 “I thought about all this very carefully. I saw that God controls what happens to the good and wise people and what they do. People don’t know if they will be loved or hated, and they don’t know what will happen in the future.
2 But, there is one thing that happens to everyone—we all die! Death comes to good people and bad people. Death comes to those who are pure and to those who are not pure. Death comes to those who give sacrifices and to those who don’t give sacrifices. Good people will die just as sinners do. Those who make promises to God will die just as those who are afraid to make those promises.
3 Of all the things that happen in this life, the worst thing is that all people end life the same way.. . ..
5 The living know that they will die, but the dead don’t know anything. They have no more reward. People will soon forget them. 6 After people are dead, their love, hate, and jealousy are all gone. And they will never again share in what happens on earth.
So the Teacher’s practical conclusions fit this much more modest outlook:
7 So go and eat your food now and enjoy it. Drink your wine and be happy. It is all right with God if you do these things. 8 Wear nice clothes and make yourself look good. 9 Enjoy life with the wife you love. Enjoy every day of your short life. God has given you this short life on earth—and it is all you have. So enjoy the work you have to do in this life. 10 Every time you find work to do, do it the best you can.
He even advises moderation to the earnest do-gooders:
“Be not righteous overmuch,” he shrugs; “why should you destroy yourself? (7:16) “The same fate comes to the righteous and the wicked…to those who are religious and those who are not, to those who offer sacrifices and those who do not….” (9:2)
In the grave there is no work. There is no thinking, no knowledge, and there is no wisdom. And we are all going to the place of death.”
The Teacher here has no patience for dreams of “pie in the sky bye and bye . . . .” Yet this passage doesn’t turn out to be as gloomy as I expected. It commends a life without illusions, and centered on what we might call simple, ordinary pleasures and satisfactions. (After all, even these are not guaranteed, so cherish them when you can.)
I really like Ecclesiastes; its advice has held up for me, when the promises of Proverbs have fallen short.
Still, these two are not the end or the sum of wisdom. There’s one more book to grapple with, which many consider the crown of the Hebrew Scriptures and perhaps the whole Bible. And that’s the Book of Job. Spelled like “jahb,” but sounds like “robe.”
Job is not a collection of proverbs; it’s a story, with three characters: one is a man named Job, the second is God, and the third, is our old friend – Wisdom.
Maybe you know the story: Job, we’re told, has always led a spotless life, and sure enough, when we meet him he is rich and righteous. But Satan, who is actually a buddy of God, speaks skeptically about Job to God and in fact talks God into making a bet on whether Job’s steadfastness would continue if he was subjected to pointless and unjust suffering.
And so – well, now I’m getting ahead of my story. That tale of Job, his all-out confrontation with God, and the fate of wisdom – all that, is for next time.
Wisdom at Spring, Three – 05-20-2018
I got interested in Wisdom largely as a result of a series of shocks of recognition that came upon me in the early1990s.
One set of shocks had to do with parenthood: I had young children then, and they clearly saw me as part of the Establishment. As an unrepentant former 1960s radical, that was not how I had viewed myself; but now there was no denying it: I was part of the Establishment – not only part of it, the very FACE of the Establishment. I mean, what else are parents?
This is hardly an original insight, although it was new to me. And what I also began to realize is that the attitude of children toward this parental Establishment is double-edged.
On the one hand, there is youthful rebellion against it. It was ever thus. How far such rebellion was going to go in the Nineties, whether my children’s generation was going to match mine for pure cussedness, remained to be seen. (Looking back, it wasn’t as bad as I feared.)
And on the other hand, I also began to notice that the parental Establishment is not only what young people rebel against. We also have a positive function: we’re the ones they seek, however equivocally, to learn from.
By “learning,” I don’t mean instruction, in such skills as reading or writing or how to catch a baseball, valuable as these are. Instead, I’m referring to forming a view of life & the world, a sense of its shape, its meaning, and direction. I finally saw that parents provide much of the basic sense of shape, meaning and direction for their children’s world. It is this world-shaping function that I’m going to call “learning” here.
Children get much of this larger or deeper learning from parents, that’s just a fact, whether the parents want them to or not, and whether they feel competent or ready to provide it. The pedagogical role simply comes with the parental territory.
And it’s this part, I’ve concluded, that particularly makes parents the Establishment, no matter what their political views are, or whatever their place in the outside world’s social structures. We parents establish, in large measure, how our children see and feel the world and life.
Much of this learning process goes on unintentionally, even unconsciously. But there are also times when parents are supposed to articulate this role, to put it into words and thereby pass it on intentionally. At such times, children not only learn; parents are also called upon to teach.
For me, this conscious teaching role was often at its most challenging when it was unexpected–as for instance, when a child asks, in all innocence, something like, “Mom (or Dad), why do we have to go to Meeting (or church)?”
Now, when such a question means only, “Why can’t we stay home on Sunday mornings so I can watch cartoons (or these days, play with my Xbox)?” It is easy enough, and entirely proper, to answer simply, “Because I’m the Dad, (or Mom) and I say so.” I gave that answer frequently myself.
But such a question often means something more. Even when mixed with petulance, it can be more accurately formulated as, “What’s the significance of this thing called meeting (worship) to my life?” Or yet more challengingly, “What is its meaning in your life, Mom (or Dad)?”
With such a question, and there are many others like it, children are looking directly to parents – to us – to teach them something important about the shape and meaning of life in their world.
And how many of us who are parents, especially among those of us who might think of ourselves as somewhat liberal, can really answer such questions?
(When I was a boy being raised a pre-Vatican Two Catholic, definitely not a liberal setting, the answer was straightforward: “You [& we] go to Mass because if you don’t you’ll end up burning in hell forever.” [At the least, this answer gets serious points for clarity]. But once I left behind being Catholic, the straightforward part was left behind too.)
After that point, it became, not a matter of, “Because I say so,” (or even, “Because God said so”) but rather, “Why do I (or God) say so?”
I suspect many parents feel, as I often did, like something of a fraud, an impostor, faced with such queries. As in, “Who, me? Explain why we worship?” (Or explain God? Or pain? Or, say, war?)
Confronted with such questions, parents can run, but take it from this one, they can’t really hide: At such moments they are explicitly being called upon to teach, ready or not. And they teach as much by what they won’t talk about as what they will. Remember that the subject of this teaching is more than information: it has to do with the shape and meaning and direction of the world, and the place of their young lives within it. For me, and for a tradition that goes back more than two millennia, the name for this kind of teaching has been: Wisdom.
The same teaching role is forced upon parents when we and our children face another kind of shock: The shock of loss. My children, for instance, have had to make sense of a world in which marriages and families fall apart. That wasn’t easy. And then bigger losses will come, of that we can be sure. Back in the 90s, one such loss was already on the horizon: my oldest and best friend David, a beloved quasi-uncle to my children, had inoperable cancer. (David was also often a font of wisdom for me. Here’s one of his sayings that has stayed with me. . . .)
David passed in 1995. What, I wondered, was I going to say when my children (or his) asked me, “Why did he have to die?”
For that matter, what was I going to say to myself?
Suffering and loss: Why?
Of course, you don’t have to be a parent to be haunted by such questions.
For many of us, who have had comfortable lives, these questions can long be safely ignored in favor of the more pressing concerns of youth and young adulthood. But when those questions become inescapable for you, like it or not you have begun a quest for Wisdom, whether you use that term or not. And by my age–I’m now past the three-quarter-century mark–the occasions for asking are piling up:
Sickness and suffering, mine and that of those close to me.
Why, why, why?
And the one which is either at the top of this list, or I suspect will be soon enough, is: Why do I have to die? To glimpse our own mortality is one of the surest ways to be pushed willy-nilly into a quest for Wisdom.
And “where,” to quote an earlier biblical seeker, “where is Wisdom to be found?” (Job 28:12)
This challenge to 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.
You know the story: Job is rich, respected and righteous, painted as a paragon, but Satan, who is described here as one of the “sons of God,” talks God into making a bet on whether Job’s steadfastness would hold up if he’s subjected to pointless and unjust suffering or if it would wither.
So Job’s family (except for his wife, who leaves) is killed and he gets very sick & ends up covered with boils and sitting on a manure pile.
Yet with all this, the book says, Job did not sin. And his initial lament is one of the most memorable & dignified Bible passages I know: Job 1:21: “‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’” And again, in 2:10: “‘Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?”
But while Job may be able to cope with his other traumas, he is then subjected to a series of pious sermons from four well-meaning friends, who harangue him endlessly with the Proverbs notion of the good always winning out. So if he’s suffering now, then despite all the visible record, he must be a terrible sinner, and deserves it all. And this harassment by these “friends” sends him over the edge.
In Chapter 13, he denounces, not only these false comforters, but the very “revelation” they are so devotedly, if mindlessly, parroting: “‘Everything you guys say, I have heard before. I understand it all; I know as much of this as you do…. But my dispute is with God, not you….You cover up your ignorance with lies; you are like doctors who can’t heal anyone. Talk a lot of nothing, and someone may think you are wise!’” (13:1,3,4-5) Then in Chapter 21, Job really lays it on the line. He’s believed & behaved as he was taught; he has done no wrong.
So why is he suffering so? He shakes his boil-covered fist not simply at his prattling “friends,” but at God. Again it is in the modern versions that its pungency really comes through:
“My quarrel is not with mortal men….Why does God let evil men live, let them grow old and prosper?…God does not bring disaster on their homes; they never have to live in terror….On the day God is angry and punishes, it is the wicked man who is always spared.” (Job 21:4,7,9,30)
So here we find the comforting Wisdom of Proverbs, and the complacent “Eat, drink & be merry” notions of Ecclesiastes, not merely questioned, but fiercely–and I think, very effectively–under attack. And this confrontation is a new feature of the biblical Wisdom material that I want to highlight.
One reason to highlight it 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 Ecclesiastes and Job weren’t in it.
After all the miracles and mythology in other parts of the biblical texts, it’s plain speaking, no rationalizations. 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 everyday, that most often speak to my condition. I may try to expect a miracle, but what I depend on daily is Wisdom –if I can find any.
Yet I am also uplifted–inspired would be a better word–by the process I see at work here. This is the third crucial aspect of these texts that I want to highlight: the fact that in it this dialectic, this “heresy,” this wrestling with the God who was portrayed in Proverbs is also a challenge to traditional understandings of revelation –this process of challenging God–is affirmed by the body of revelation itself.
Again, take Job. At the end of his trials, after he has rejected his friends’ rationalizations and demanded an accounting from God, as to the meaning and justice of what has happened to him, — finally God responds, and speaks to him out of the whirlwind. (It’s more like a tornado that suddenly touches down in front of his dung heap.)
But when God speaks, Job doesn’t get the answers that he seeks; in fact, there are really no answers at all. The explanation of such absurd injustice remains part of the divine mystery. God overwhelms & overawes Job, and Job is overwhelmed by this direct encounter with his Maker.
But then God does something else that to me is very remarkable. God rebukes Job’s friends, those who loyally upheld and tediously repeated the conventional proverbial Wisdom and its theology. Instead God commends Job, the challenger: “‘I am angry with you so-called friends, because you didn’t speak the truth about me, the way my servant Job did.’” (Job 42:7)
That is, God acknowledges that Job was right to struggle against the meaninglessness, denounce it and insistently demand redress, even if human redress was not available. The commendation of Job’s angry truth-speaking is repeated in verse 9.
Then, almost as if the book’s editors saw a need to distract readers from what has just been said, they use the last chapter to distract from all the theological difficulties here by saying that God, who is really a good old fellow, rewarded Job for his troubles: gave him 14,000 sheep, 6000 camels, 2000 oxen, and 1000 female donkeys. Plus ten new children. (All this data adds up to one of the least believable or persuasive “miracle stories” in the whole Bible.)
This is what I see in this entire dialectical process I’ve tried to sketch out in these messages: It starts from the good advice and assurance of success we find in Proverbs. Then it moves to the sharp challenge presented by Ecclesiastes and Job. And this entire struggle, this dialectic, is included in what biblical tradition tells us is a deposit of divine self-disclosure, or revelation. It’s part of that–many scholars say a central part of that, and I agree with them.
One reason I agree is that this tradition thereby legitimizes a condition of inner struggle and ambiguity of understanding that is very familiar in my life, and I think may be familiar to many others today as well. The message I draw from this is that these struggles, the accompanying uncertainty, and the sharp divergence of views they encompass, are 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 that 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 fine too.
But then, even if you haven’t seen any wonders, and even if you are beset by doubt and uncertainty and ambiguity and struggle as you attempt to make sense of life–yes, even this too is not beyond the reach of biblical faith and experience.
One might call these three approaches the Way of Wonders, the Way of Faith, and the Way of Wisdom.
I suggest that the Wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible suggest that reflection on our human experience, and the compression and illumination of this experience in vivid poetic language, is connected somehow to the mysterious and awesome process of divine self-disclosure. Even Proverbs with all its glib self-confidence is not totally oblivious to this: Pr. 2:6 puts it well: “It is the Lord who gives Wisdom.” (In addition to proverbs, or to bring them alive.) Or this familiar verse: Prov. 9:10 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom….”
Some people don’t like that word fear, and the Hebrew root word for “fear” could also and perhaps better be rendered as meaning “reverence for the awesomeness” of unfathomable reality, or more, simply, humility. Though, to be honest, Job reminds us that unbounded power is indeed something to be fearful of.
And the Wisdom thus discovered–even the discovery of how little ultimate understanding we really have–is part of the teaching, the shaping of our understanding of life, the “establishing” that we must do for our children, or for others in our care, and ultimately for ourselves.
NOTE: These messages were adapted from a collection, Wisdom & Your Spiritual Journey, available in print or as an E-book on Amazon.