Week 1 Wisdom Literature
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
The Series in a Nutshell
Education aimed at transformation requires conversation. That, in a nutshell, is the overarching theme of this nine-week Lectio series on the Hebrew Wisdom Literature. Today I want to introduce you to that literature, explain why this theme will serve as our key to understanding it, and give you an outline of what to expect in the weeks to come.
Hebrew Wisdom Literature: An Overview
What is the Hebrew Wisdom Literature? Simply put, it is that huge and diverse group of biblical writings that seek to promote — what else? — wisdom. Hebrew Wisdom Literature includes the following:
In the canonical Old Testament:
- A number of Psalms (1, 34, 37, 73, 92, 112, 127, 128, and 133)
- Song of Solomon
In the Old Testament Apocrypha [Author’s Note 1]
- Book of Wisdom (aka Wisdom of Solomon)
- Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach (Sirach for short; aka Ecclesiasticus)
And what is “wisdom”? There is much disagreement in the Wisdom Literature about that, as we shall see, but for now let’s define it broadly as that constellation of godly habits, praiseworthy character traits, and shrewd insights into the ways of the world, which it is the duty of older people to help younger people acquire. (In this Lectio series, whenever I refer to human wisdom — that is, whatever habits, character traits, and insights a given author is promoting — I shall lowercase it, but whenever I am referring either to divine Wisdom or to one or more of the biblical writings classified as Wisdom Literature, I shall capitalize it.) A person who teaches wisdom — and one must obviously possess it in order to teach it — is a “sage,” and a person who is already wise enough to know that he or she needs to learn more of it, and as much of it as possible, is a “pupil” [Author’s Note 2].
Education, Transformation, Conversation
Now we can unpack the claim that “education aimed at transformation requires conversation.” First, the Wisdom Literature is educational literature. It distills what the sages have learned through careful study, deep reflection, and long experience, and imparts it to the young. It assumes that wisdom can and should be taught, that it can and should be learned.
It is uncertain whether there were actual schools in ancient Israel for the teaching and learning of wisdom. Perhaps we should picture less formal and more intimate settings, such as a kitchen table or a campfire. The conversation between Job and his wife and counselors takes place with Job sitting in an ash pit (Job 2:7–13)! [Author’s Note 3] But for our purposes it doesn’t much matter where these instructional tête-à-têtes took place. What counts is that the sage takes it upon himself or herself to impart beneficial knowledge to the pupil. The prologue to Proverbs underscores this:
For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding words of insight,
for gaining instruction in wise dealing,
righteousness, justice, and equity;
to teach shrewdness to the simple,
knowledge and prudence to the young —
let the wise also hear and gain in learning,
and the discerning acquire skill
to understand a proverb and a figure,
the words of the wise and their riddles (Proverbs 1:2–6).
Second, this kind of education is aimed at the transformation of the pupil’s character, conduct, and outlook on life. True, there are passages in the Bible where hokmah, the Hebrew word for “wisdom,” is used in reference to the mastery of certain technical skills or to qualities of “character” that even nonhuman creatures may exhibit. These are rather narrow or restricted uses of the term, but not necessarily misuses [Author’s Note 4].
Usually, however, “wisdom” has much deeper resonances, and includes a host of morally, spiritually, and intellectually admirable qualities that people achieve only through sustained and deliberate self-cultivation, and sometimes through sorrows and sufferings. The prologue of Proverbs names some of these qualities: righteousness, justice, equity, shrewdness, and prudence. Sages are made, not born, and attaining sagacity takes more than growing old or earning more academic degrees. Wisdom is the steady, intentional, protracted development of “soul” or “selfhood,” the readiness to grow from one’s experiences, learn from one’s mistakes, and listen to others of proven ability and reliability.
Third, life-transforming education usually takes place through conversation. Cordial, animated dialogue is taking place between the sages and their pupils, and while the sages usually do the talking, their sayings and speeches usually seem to take account of the specific needs, problems, and questions of their young charges. The prologue of Proverbs illustrates this point, too. Wise pupils “hear and gain in learning” (1:5) and gradually develop the skills needed to interpret and apply the profound and sometimes enigmatic words of their teachers.
It is noteworthy that the verb “listen” occurs 13 times in Job and 11 times in Proverbs — usually as a direct command, and elsewhere as a recommended practice. Indeed, in the two cases where someone is said to have failed to listen to wise counsel, ill fortune or bad character is the inevitable result (Proverbs 5:13; 13:1).
Yet we must not suppose that “wisdom” conversations are all one-way affairs (as the instructions given by elderly sages to eager young pupils usually are). Chapters 3–27 and 29–31 of Job comprise a fierce dispute among four elderly sages about the nature of wisdom, and Chapters 32–37 are a speech by a young man who has overheard this debate, feels exasperated with its apparent inconclusiveness, and barges in with his own opinions.
Similarly, the Song of Solomon is a colloquy among a bride, a groom, and their respective groups of friends — though admittedly the subject is not wisdom as such, but romantic love. The key point is that the Wisdom Literature, taken as a whole, is an extended conversation about the good life: many different “voices” are represented in this literature, and many different kinds of verbal interaction and oral discourse are envisaged — including “classroom” instruction (Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach); “courtroom” debate (Job); love tryst wooing (Song of Solomon); autobiographical monologue (Ecclesiastes); and, throughout these books, assorted exhortations, maxims, prayers, riddles, curses, and narratives.
A Cinematic Illustration
To illustrate the idea that growth in wisdom requires conversation among persons of differing, even antagonistic, points of view, let’s look at a couple scenes from the movie The Last Samurai (2003). The scene is Japan in 1876–77, at a time when the young emperor is being pressured by some of his advisors to modernize and westernize the country. This sparks a rebellion led by Moritsugu Katsumoto, a skilled samurai warrior and devout Buddhist.
The modernizers in the emperor’s court believe that to defeat Katsumoto the Japanese army must learn the arts of modern warfare. To train them in these arts, the modernizers hire several American cavalrymen as military consultants. One of these is Captain Nathan Algren, a veteran of the Civil War and the Indian Wars of the Old West whose conscience is tormented by the atrocities he has committed in the service of his country, and who has tried to drown his guilt and disillusionment in drink.
During the first battle, Katsumoto’s forces rout the still badly trained conscripts of the new army. Algren is captured in the fight and taken to the samurai lord’s mountain fastness. After a time, he is brought to see his captor, who is meditating in his family’s ancient temple. To Algren’s surprise, Katsumoto proves to be the very opposite of an insular, know-nothing reactionary. He speaks excellent English, knows much about the American West, and is eager to know more. He tries to engage Algren in a series of what he calls “good conversations.”
At first Algren resists, displaying crudity and rudeness, in shocking contrast to the “traditional” but exquisitely “civilized” demeanor of his captor. But Katsumoto is persistent. When Algren asks him what he wants of him, Katsumoto replies, “To know my enemy.” In part, Katsumoto is interested in his enemy’s military tactics and weaponry: he is a soldier who will soon be leading an army of archers and swordsmen against one equipped with rifles, cannons, and Gatling guns.
But beyond that, Katsumoto is interested in Algren himself — as a person, as a guest, and as a potential friend. Gradually Algren learns that Katsumoto is fighting to protect a way of life devoted to the quest of perfection and inner repose, which he fears will be lost in his country’s rush toward modern science, technology, and commercialism. As Algren gradually learns his captor’s way of life, he finds healing for his tormented conscience. But Katsumoto also learns from Algren some tactics for facing his technologically superior enemies, and even a history lesson — the story of the Battle of Thermopylae — which steels him to face his doom.
The movie illustrates a point that the Hebrew sages understood: there is more to the cultivation of wisdom than the transmission of information. It’s a “good conversation,” a process of two-way growth, in which the roles of “sage” and “pupil” are gradually blurred, to the betterment of both parties. This process takes place through frank and fearless dialogue. As Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.”
Four Key Issues
Within this sprawling conversation, many different religious and moral issues are explored, far more than we can deal with in nine weeks. So I have chosen four, and beginning next week will devote two weeks to each. For each issue, I will spend one week describing what might be called the “standard” or “orthodox” Wisdom perspective, as set forth in Proverbs, and the other week to describing a critique of the orthodox view, as set forth in one or more of the other Wisdom books. But it is best to understand Wisdom orthodoxy as a whole before moving to the critiques. So in weeks 2–5 we’ll describe the orthodox position on these issues one by one, and then in weeks 6–9 we’ll look at a critique of each in turn. The issues (and the specific texts) that we shall investigate, and the sequence in which we shall investigate them, are shown in the following table:
|Week 2: A Prudential Motive (Proverbs 1: 7–3:18||Week 6: Against Prudentialism: The Problem of Evil (Psalm 37; 73; Job 38:1–41:34)|
|Week 3: An Optimistic Attitude (Proverbs 8:1–9:18)||Week 7: Against Optimism: The Vanity of Life (Ecclesiastes 1:1–3:15)|
|Week 4: An Empirical Method (Proverbs 3:1–6:35; 10:1–15:33)||Week 8: Against Empiricism: Divine Transcendence and Divine Revelation (Job 28:1–28; Wisdom of Solomon 6:1–9:18)|
|Week 5: An International Perspective (Proverbs 22:17–24:22; 30:1–33; 31:1–9||Week 9: Against Internationalism: The Particularity of Israel (Wisdom of Solomon 10:1–19:22)|
I’m looking forward to making this journey with you!
Questions for Further Reflection
- The theme of the series is “Education aimed at transformation requires conversation.” How does the Lectio writer define the three operative words in that statement?
- How does the writer use the film The Last Samurai to illustrate the theme statement of the series?
- Think of the people who have been the “sages” in your life. What wisdom did each of them impart? How did they teach — by word or example? How successfully have you built their wise teachings into your life?
- Now think of the people for whom you play the role of sage. How do you teach? How do you respond when they don’t seem to “get” what you are trying to teach them?
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