Several books in the Hebrew Scriptures are widely referred to as “Wisdom books,” in which is summed up much of a “wisdom tradition” that developed in ancient Israel.
This series will discuss some aspects of these wisdom texts, in part for their intrinsic interest, and in part as a way of approaching the always challenging issue of how to interpret scripture generally.
Much proverbial Wisdom in the Bible can be summed up in the proposition that being righteous, prudent and even shrewd(all of which are synonyms for Wisdom in these books) will pay off, will produce concrete, favorable results. It is very unusual to find any talk in the wisdom texts about last judgements, afterlives, or things working out in heaven; no pie in the sky bye and bye.
Instead, Proverbs promises that the wise will have their pie (and cake) on the table and will eat it too, in this life. Happiness, wealth, justice, family preservation, along with–and as signs of–the blessing of God, ALLl can be attained in this life, never mind what happens after death.
I call this theme the Hebrew version of Dress for Success. And by the same token, on the downside we are assured and admonished that the foolish and wicked will get theirs, not in some hellish hereafter, but in THIS life. Furthermore, 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 Today’s English Version (TEV), a statement about Positive Mental Attitude:
“Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts.”
“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 when Congress and recent administrations decided to let the savings and loans crooks play their multi-megabillion-dollar crap games backed by our pocketbooks and those of our children.
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 in fact that section was ghostwritten by my mother.)
On the other hand, we are just as frequently reassured 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, for sharp shopkeepers.
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 a customer feels cheated, 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, what may be the first recorded example of literary deconstructionism in the western tradition.
More on the challenge next time.
Note: the views expressed here are solely my own.
Copyright © 1996 by C. Fager. All rights reserved; fair use OK.