Wisdom Books

This coming Sunday is Holy Trinity Sunday. In yesterday’ post we touched upon the “theology and economy” of God’s innermost life which is a fundamental part of the Christian creed. In many forms, the Trinity and all that it implies in terms of person and nature, is at the heart of a whole range of heresies during the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries. But there was no Sunday that was universally dedicated to this most fundamental of beliefs – not until the 14th century. As noted yesterday, this week I plan to consider the first reading from Proverbs in which the focus is on the oikonomia of the Wisdom of God. Let me provide some context with an overview of the Book of Proverbs (adapted from a word by Rev. Donald Senior).

Composition. Proverbs is a collection of sayings and instructions from the lived life and experience of the Jewish people. Scholars are largely in agreement that a good part of the book shows evidence of original composition – perhaps as commonly shared wisdom saying and instructions – during the era of the kings of Judah and Israel. (late eleventh to the early sixth centuries BCE). Most scholars believe the book reached final compilation and written form in the period immediately after the Exile in Babylon – when chapters 10-31 were “pulled together – and chapters 1–9 were added as the introduction.

Many believe that there was a compelling motive for why the various books of Wisdom reached a written form sometime after the Exile. The experience of exile had exposed the people of Jerusalem and Judah to a wider culture than their own. It was not that long after the Exile that their world was engulfed in a wave of Hellenistic culture and wisdom – courtesy of Alexander the Great and his successors. The lure of competing ways of thinking and being needed to be countered by their own divine Wisdom.

The process of collection and compilation is likely from several sources. There is a verse (25:1) that suggests the materials could be traced to King Solomon and the scribes of the royal court: “These also are proverbs of Solomon. The servants of Hezekiah, king of Judah, transmitted them.” This perhaps refers to the task of compiling what seems to have its roots in the traditions of the tribes of Israel. The origin of the material, however, need not be imagined in an either/or scenario. Folk wisdom could have well been taken up and re-expressed by royal scribes. In any case Proverbs wins over readers with its compelling portrait of wisdom and inviting them to see life afresh, “wisely,” through its wit, originality, and shrewd observation.

Purpose.  The primary purpose of the book is to teach wisdom and to young and old alike: “That people may know wisdom and discipline, may understand intelligent sayings; May receive instruction in wise conduct, in what is right, just and fair; That resourcefulness may be imparted to the naive, knowledge and discretion to the young. The wise by hearing them will advance in learning, the intelligent will gain sound guidance.” (1:2-4) What is being taught is not theoretical knowledge but practical expertise. Jewelers who cut precious stones were wise; kings who made their dominion peaceful and prosperous were wise. One could be wise in daily life, too, in knowing how to have a prosperous household while living a long and healthy life without trouble in God’s universe. Ultimately wisdom, or “sound guidance” (1:5), aims at the formation of Godly character.

The Nature of Wisdom. In the ancient Near East (ANE), people assumed that wisdom belonged to the gods, who were wise by reason of their divinity; human beings needed to have wisdom granted them by the gods. Many of the “beginning of the world” accounts found in surrounding ANE cultures depict creation in two stages. In the first stage, human beings lived an animal-like existence, without clothes, writing, or kingship (seen as proper governance). Over time, the gods came to realize that such a low grade of existence made the human race inadequate as their servants, so they endowed the race with “wisdom,” which consisted of culture (e.g., kingship) and crafts (e.g., knowledge of farming, ability to weave). Such wisdom elevated the race to a “human” level and made them effective servants of the gods. Furthermore, divine wisdom was mediated to human beings through earthly institutions—the king, scribes (who produced wise writings), and heads of families (fathers, sometimes mothers). These traditional mediators appear in Proverbs – in fact, the book is credited to King Solomon. Throughout the book kings are mentioned as pillars of society (e.g., 16:12–15); writings are a source of wisdom (1:1–7); the father instructing his son is the major paradigm of teaching. Proverbs differs, however, from other wisdom books in concentrating on wisdom itself, treating it as a virtually independent entity and personifying it as an attractive woman. Other books urge readers to perform wise acts, but Proverbs urges them to seek wisdom itself and portrays wisdom as a woman seeking human beings as disciples and companions.

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