Saturday, July 11, 2009

8. Critical Issues in the Wisdom Literature

Previous posts have included:

1. Faith, Evidence, and Biblical Scholarship
2. The Old Testament Canon
3. Genres in the Pentateuch
4. Critical Issues in the Pentateuch
5. Critical Issues in the Historical Books
6. The Poetic Sub-Genre
7. Critical Issues in the Psalms
Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes are sometimes considered wisdom literature. We can finish out a look at the so called Poetic Books of the Old Testament if we make a few brief comments at them and throw in Song of Solomon for good measure.

The book of Job comes second in the Writings after Psalms, even though it appears just before Psalms in the Christian Bible. The book in its current form has the overall shape of a story, so it can and has been analyzed as one. It is also susceptible to speculation about stages it might have gone through in arriving at its current form (source criticism). In particular, the material on Elihu arrives somewhat unexpectedly after the prolonged dialog between Job and his three initial comforters. Similarly, the bulk of Job is in poetic form, while its opening and closing are narrative.

However, Job's relevance to all times and places comes chiefly in what is usually perceived to be its central topic, namely, the problem of why bad things happen sometimes to good people. Perhaps more than any other story in the Bible, Job illustrates the importance of taking point of view into consideration. The "evaluative" point of view in Job is clearly that of God at the end of the story. At that point, even Job repents of misunderstanding a good deal of what was really going on (42:6). In the earlier parts of the story, however, Job's view is clearly superior to that of his "comforters." One must be careful in appropriating the earlier chapters, because Job's comforters are often wrong, and Job is sometimes wrong.

In terms of the Christian canon, some of the message of Job seems sub-Christian. Therefore, even its evaluative point of view needs to be weighed against more fully developed Christian faith. For example, God in effect tells Job to "shut up" with his questions at the end of the book because he could not possibly understand (38:2-3). Other parts of the Old Testament and the New Testament, on the other hand, legitimate asking God questions about things that seem unjust (e.g., Hab. 1:2-17).

Much of Job, like Psalms and Ecclesiastes, seems to reject the idea of a personal, conscious continuation of existence after death (e.g., Job 14:14; Ps. 30:9; Eccl. 9:5). On the other hand, some do argue that Job 19:25-26 affirms resurrection. Since Christians believe in an afterlife, we would see ourselves further along in the flow of revelation if Job in fact does not affirm one.

Finally, Job embodies the entrance of "the Satan," the Adversary, into Jewish thought. It is not clear, however, that Satan is yet understood as a stark opponent of God or a "fallen angel" at this point in the flow of revelation. He seems rather more like an employee of God who reports back on the loyalty of the earth. His job is to test people, to see if they will stay faithful when they face trouble and hardship, and he seems to do his job with God's explicit permission.

The matter of the Satan raises issues of the dating of Job in its current form. In the past, some have suggested it might be the earliest book in the Old Testament, since the earthly story itself is neither located in Israel nor does it have any clear interaction with Israel as a nation. We can raise a number of questions about this line of thought, although it is certainly possible that the story of Job was very old.

First, there seems to be a tendency when it comes to Scripture to confuse the subject matter of the text with the dating of the text. I would argue that a fundamental reason for this is because Scriptures are seen as God speaking directly to us. This dynamic often leads to a suspension of the normal patterns of reading. Conclusions that would normally be obvious are completely missed.

The characters of the story subtly become speakers to us and, over time, traditions have a tendency to confuse the characters of a text with its authors. We may see this dynamic in relation to the Pentateuch, where a clear character in the story, Moses, somehow over time comes to be thought of as the author of the story. The subject matter of Job thus has no necessary implication for when it was written, since anyone today could write a story about Job too (e.g., Archibald MacLeish).

A second question has to do with the matter of genre. There is, again, a hermeneutical tendency when it comes to Scripture to assume that a story like Job or Jonah is about historical individuals. On the one hand, we have no reason to have a bias against such stories being historical. But it is often an unexamined assumption that such stories must be historical.

For example, nothing in the book of Job itself would tell us that it could not be read as inspired fiction. The book does not tell us its genre. We do have the fact that James 5:11 seems to think of Job as a historical figure, which for many is definitive in itself. So we once again come to the issue of whether the New Testament discusses the Old Testament in the categories of its day or in absolute categories.

This is an important consideration that shows up in a number of hot issues in the rest of the Bible. No one would accuse an author like Charles Dickens of being a liar because he made up characters like Tiny Tim or Madame Defarge. We know that he was writing novels. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to the biblical texts, we do not have the authors handy to ask them what genre they were writing in.

So while the story of Job certainly could be about things that happened in history, we have no evidence from Job itself to say that the author was not inspired to write truths about the problem of evil by way of fictional characters or by modifying a familiar story. Clearly the vast majority of Christians throughout the centuries have taken Job to be a historical figure. Each believer will have to work out what they believe is possible.

As far as dating, it seems significant that the concept of the Satan does not appear elsewhere in the Old Testament except in 1 Chronicles 21:1 and Zechariah 3:1-2, both of which are post-exilic. Although Christians would later understand the serpent in the Garden of Eden to be Satan, it is significant to notice that Genesis itself mentions nothing about a Satan. Further, we have no evidence of any Jewish writing considering the serpent to be Satan prior to The Life of Adam and Eve in the first century before Christ. The New Testament then follows suit (e.g., 2 Cor. 11:3).

It is thus quite possible to see the concept of the Satan as one that entered the flow of revelation while Israel was in captivity. If so, then Job in its current form would date from the period after the exile, regardless of how old the story itself was. The fact that the Writings were the last to join the Jewish canon is sometimes taken to indicate that they tend in general to date later than the books of the Law and the Prophets.

The proverbs of Proverbs, like most of Job and all of Psalms, are poetry. They thus follow the patterns of synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic parallelism.

As someone once said about proverbs, they are sometimes true. The point is that proverbs are neither promises nor absolute predictions. They are rather observations about life that ring true enough of the time that people pass them on with knowing looks and tell-tale winks.

The example of Proverbs 26:4-5 is often given to illustrate. Verse 4 says, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly." Then verse 5 says, "Answer a fool according to his folly." Obviously, both statements cannot be true for all situations if the words are being used in the same sense. They are worded to sound like opposite statements. Proverbs thus are not absolute philosophical assertions. They are broad statements that are generally rather than always true.

By their very nature, proverbs tend to be passed down anonymously. Who knows, for example, who first said, "A bird in hand is worth two in the bush"? Certain personalities collect and perpetuate proverbs, but they are not necessarily the ones who coined them. It is thus no surprise to find that the proverbs of 22:17-24:34 overlap extensively with a collection of Egyptian proverbs called the Instruction of Amen-em-ope, which dates from before 1000BC. Some collections of proverbs in Proverbs explicitly identify individuals other than Solomon as their sources (e.g., 30:1 and 31:1).

The first verse of Proverbs identifies king Solomon as the source of the book. Since parts of the book attribute proverbs to other individuals, such a heading apparently was not absolute. Traditionally, the bulk of Proverbs has been thought written down by Solomon. But since 1:1 refers to the proverbs as Solomon's, we might think of a later collector actually putting the sayings together. We then get into the same question we have seen elsewhere of whether ways of referencing material are central to the truthfulness of the material.

Ecclesiastes is a fascinating, even if possibly depressing book at times. Like Proverbs, its heading points to Solomon as the author of the bulk of its material. And like Proverbs, many have questioned whether that is a matter of tradition or history. At the same time, the question of authorship seems a little different with Ecclesiastes than with Proverbs or the other Old Testament writings we have seen so far. The Pentateuch does not claim Moses as its author, nor do any of the individual psalms claim David as their author. Proverbs implies that much if not most of its material was passed on by Solomon but does not claim that Solomon was the actual editor of the proverbs.

But Ecclesiastes both frames its material in 1:1 and 12:9-14 as Solomon's. 1:12 has Solomon himself, the "Teacher," as the voice of the vast majority of the book. Ecclesiastes thus purports to be the very words of Solomon. We thus must either 1) take this attribution literally, 2) consider it a literary device, where someone is writing from the perspective they believe Solomon would take, or 3) consider the heading of 1:1 a mistaken understanding of who the "Teacher" was.

The similarity of some of Ecclesiastes to Epicurean thought at some points has led some to date it to the 200s BC, after Israel came under Greek rule to the north in Syria. But nothing in Ecclesiastes needs such a hypothesis to explain it. There are two Persian loan words that lead some scholars to date the book in its current form to the post-exilic period. Once again, different Christians will have different senses of what options are appropriate to consider.

One of the most noticeable features of Ecclesiastes is its seeming denial of any afterlife. It is thus has comments similar to those we have seen in Job and Psalms. But Ecclesiastes has some of the starkest language in this regard. "A living dog is better than a dead lion. The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no more reward, and even their memory is lost... never again will they have any part in everything that happens under the sun" (Eccl. 9:4-6).

Thankfully, the New Testament and later Jewish understanding have moved beyond this apparently sub-Christian view. The framer of Ecclesiastes, either the Teacher himself or an editor who added the beginning and ending, has a bottom line reaction to the words of the Teacher. "Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the all of humanity" (12:13). Certainly this bottom line remains fully appropriate as one way of summarizing Christian ethics for our time on earth.

Song of Solomon
This lovely piece of poetry was typically allegorized throughout Christian history as a parable of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Most now would recognize it as patent love poetry, whatever further theological meaning we might find in it as Christians. It also is attributed to Solomon in the first verse. And like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, some take this as tradition rather than history, pointing in particular to apparent Persian and Greek loan words that would not have existed in Solomon's day. Some believers will find it essential to defend Solomonic authorship, while others will find this quest tangential to this book read as Christian Scripture.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

The issue always with "tradition", is the political state of a person's context. Tradition is a way of understanding "god" as sovereign, when otherwise, there would be "no hope". That is not the case, when it comes to free societies, as there are means of appeal, in our law courts.

All ancient literature was written in a time when certain classes had no other way to understand or explain life. We understand that life is constructed by those in authority, and they must be held accountable when they go beyond the bounds of "reason". Our government is built upon reasonable social contract understanding, not a "pie in the sky".

All scripture is not inerrant, infallible, but pertinent to the specific situations that they authose wrote to...that is why it is dangerous to universalize these texts. They are wisdeom of how people act toward others, and that also meand corrupt, selfish, and dominaeering governments.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You didn't mention Esther. As Esther doesn't mention God, but Esther appeals to the government (King) to "protect" her uncle. Government was representative of God.