Week 2 Wisdom Literature
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Read this week’s Scripture: Proverbs 1:7–3:18
As you will recall from Week 1, the overarching theme of this Lectio series on the Hebrew Wisdom Literature can be stated — appropriately enough! — in a maxim: “Education aimed at transformation requires conversation.” This maxim is certainly not true of every chapter and verse in this diverse body of writings, nor is it equally applicable to every Wisdom book. And we shall take note of some exceptions to it along the way. But at least it alerts us to three very common features of this literature:
- First, it generally has a didactic setting. We are to imagine a sage instructing a pupil, or a parent admonishing a child.
- Second, it has a formative purpose. The aim of the elder is to help the young person grow morally and spiritually.
- Third, Wisdom Literature typically uses a conversational style. Generally, the sage is talking and the pupil is listening. But the talk of the sage should not be a windy monologue, nor should the listening of the pupil be passive. The sage’s instruction should be attuned to the specific needs and problems of the pupil, and the pupil should feel the freedom — and take the responsibility — to ask questions.
All three of these common features of Wisdom Literature are strikingly displayed in today’s reading.
You will also recall that this series concerns itself with four key issues that preoccupied Israel’s sages, and that two sessions will be devoted to each issue. Weeks 2–5 discuss the “orthodox” position on each of these issues in turn, as elaborated in the Book of Proverbs, and weeks 6–9 discuss the qualifications and correctives given by later sages.
The first issue we will consider is that of motivation. Why should a person even bother pursuing wisdom? Is it worth all the time and effort needed to develop those praiseworthy character traits, wholesome habits, and practical life skills that collectively are said to make one “wise”? Today we shall study the commonsensical and morally satisfying answer to these questions given by the early sages, and four weeks from today we shall look at the later sages’ rather dour rejoinder.
Beginning at the Beginning
The “curriculum” devised by the sages for the study of wisdom opens with a startling assertion: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7) [Author’s Note 1]. But why should the fear of God be the proper starting-point in the quest for wisdom? Why not the love of God? Why not the fear — or the love — of the human teacher, to whom the pupil is more immediately accountable?
Scholars tell us that the Hebrew term “fear of God” does not mean cringing terror at what will happen if an angry, punitive, spy-in-the-sky deity catches us messing up. Rather, it means the veneration of God, the healthy respect for God’s sovereignty. I agree with this, as far as it goes, but I don’t think it catches everything that the verse is trying to say.
What it misses is an important part of the answer to our big question for today. What this verse is telling us is that God’s universe is morally ordered, such that good actions usually have favorable consequences, and bad actions usually have unfavorable ones. Here, “good” means “in accordance with God’s law,” and “bad” means “contrary to God’s law.” The beginning of wisdom, and a point on which all further progress in it depends, is recognizing that the law of cause and effect operates in human affairs.
This point is captured in a parallel verse, which reads, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight” (4:7). The first step in the journey to wisdom is realizing that the journey is long and arduous, but realizing, too, that you are equipped with a reliable roadmap (God’s law) and friendly guides (godly sages).
Thus, when we are told that “the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge [or wisdom],” we are really being told that, in God’s morally ordered universe, following God’s wise and righteous laws is likely to bring happiness and well-being, while breaking God’s laws is likely to mean breaking yourself against them. So take heed! Have a care!
If You Do Bad, You Will Do Badly (Proverbs 1:8–19 and 1:20–33)
Fittingly, the first block of text to follow the programmatic verse just discussed is a warning against one of the first and easiest pitfalls into which young people can fall: getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. Note first the didactic setting: “Hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching” (1:8).
Now note the formative purpose: “For they [i.e., parental teachings] are a fair garland for your head, and pendants for your neck” (1:9). How very clever of the parent to suggest that wholesome guidance will beautify and adorn the growing child! For children are often less interested in “being good” than in “looking good,” and if they think that “being good” will make them look bad in the eyes of their friends — that is, will make them look timid, narrow, prissy, or over-serious — they are far more prone to dangerous experimentation and outright rebellion.
Then comes the speech, nine verses’ worth of warnings (1:10–18). It might look at first like a monologue, but look again. Embedded within it one can hear answers to the usual objections children make to parental admonishments. Indeed, most of the speech is actually a parental satire on what the child’s ne’er-do-well friends have been telling him. We don’t know whether the child has reported his friends’ false promises to his parents, or whether the parents simply know, having been around the block a few times.
But we do know that the parents are here engaging a potentially wayward child in earnest conversation. They don’t belittle the child’s quite natural desire for adventure — which again is shrewd of them, for doing so would defeat their purpose. But they argue that the kind of adventure the child’s friends are proposing is not only wrong, but ultimately self-destructive. “Such is the end,” they conclude, “of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors” (1:19).
This last sentence beautifully expresses what might be called the “deep logic” of so much of the Wisdom Literature, that solid confidence of which we spoke earlier that the world is morally ordered in such a way that vice is swiftly and surely punished. If God is good, and if God is sovereign, evil must fail. That’s a pretty “theoretical” way of saying it, but the parents are engaged in a morally formative conversation here, and they are quite ready to speak directly, even threateningly, to their straying child: If you do bad, you will do badly.
The parents fall silent, and now a new voice enters the conversation — one that takes our breath away. It is God himself. Or is it? Actually, the speaker is introduced as “Wisdom.” This fascinating personage — often referred to by Bible scholars as “Lady Wisdom,” and known to Eastern Christians as “Holy Wisdom” — makes numerous appearances in the Bible (Proverbs 8:1–36; 9:1–6; Wisdom of Solomon 1:6; 6:12–25; 7:7; 7:22–8:1; 9:17; Sirach 4:11–31; Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:35; 11:49), and if we consider all these passages together, we find that she possesses very personal — and indeed, pronouncedly feminine — qualities.
We must delay a thorough investigation of Lady Wisdom until next week, but we must at least ask how we ought to think of her. Is she some kind of female deity, perhaps a consort of Yahweh, the God of Israel? Certainly not! For Jews, monotheism is inviolable; nor, for Christians, is there any question of adding a fourth Person to the Blessed Trinity. Rather, Lady Wisdom is best understood as an attribute of God — one of many, though none of the others is “personified” in such a striking way. But the point of this personification is to underscore the tender, “motherly” way in which God seeks to bestow a portion of his own divine wisdom on us, his children.
Most of Lady Wisdom’s speech provides divine confirmation for what the human parents have already said. She issues a series of dire threats to “simpletons” and “scoffers” (Proverbs 1:22) — that is, to the very people whom the child in the previous section was itching to run with. But in her very last verse, she changes her tactics and offers one magnificent promise to those who pay heed to her teaching: “Those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster” (1:33). So far we have seen that those who do ill will do badly. Now we see the converse: those who do good will do well. This takes us immediately to our third text block for today.
If You Do Good, You Will Do Well (Proverbs 2:1–3:18)
This lengthy passage (which can be subdivided into three shorter ones: 2:1–22; 3:1–12; 3:13–18) displays the three features we have noted in the two blocks just discussed. Its purpose is formative, and its style, though overtly monological, is truly conversational, in that it presupposes a responsive listener. So, too, the setting is didactic, although now we have “returned to earth,” so to speak, and it is once again a human being who is speaking. But the tone here is very different from that of the sage’s previous speech (1:8–19). It is encouraging and reassuring.
It’s as if the concluding line of Wisdom’s oration had reminded the sage that in rearing the young, frightening threats are not enough. They must be combined with loving promises — and, in this speech, promises abound. True, four verses are devoted to warning the youth about sexual indiscretions, but most of the block is positive and upbeat, assuring the young pupil of the blessings in store for those who find wisdom.
Two verses from this block neatly summarize what we have been saying today: “For the upright will abide in the land, and the innocent will remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it” (2:21–22). In God’s morally ordered universe, righteousness eventually pays off, while the descent into evil, alluring as it may seem at the moment, ultimately works against one’s own best interests.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Today’s reading assumes that we live in a morally ordered universe, where good behavior leads to good fortune, and bad behavior is ultimately self-sabotaging. But questions immediately arise: Is this assumption correct? Is it really true that those who do good do well, and those who do bad do badly? Has that been your experience?
- Even if we do live in a morally ordered universe, such that goodness pays, is it morally sound to let selfish motives drive our conduct? Shouldn’t we do good simply because it’s good, and not because it happens to be prudent? Isn’t “mercenary virtue” just a respectable form of vice?
- Think about your experience of watching cops-and-robbers shows on TV. Why do you feel such satisfaction when the “good guys” prevail and when the “bad guys” get what’s coming to them? The answer may seem obvious, but sit with the question a bit. Does it reveal any assumptions you are making about the way the world does work … and about the way it should work? How valid are those assumptions?
- Here’s another question about cops-and-robbers shows: How do you feel when one of the good guys uses illegal or underhanded methods to catch the bad guys? In a morally ordered universe, do righteous ends justify the use of unrighteous means?
- How much “freedom” should young people be given by their parents and teachers to “experiment” with ______ [you can fill in the blank!]? How do parents and teachers know when healthy boundaries and sensible rules have become unnecessarily constricting, and, indeed, when they arouse resentment and thus unwittingly become inducements to misbehavior?
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