Tag Archives: Ecclesiastes

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God, Telstra, and the iPhone: What’s going to make your life magic again?

kim-dong-kyu-phone

Illustration by Kim Dong-kyu Based on: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich (1818). From: Technology Nearly Killed Me, Andrew Sullivan, New York Mag, Sep 2016

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” — Arthur C. Clarke

There’s a new Telstra ad that I love because it is beautiful, but that I feel overpromises on what technology can (and does) deliver; in fact, I think it misleads, and invites us to put our hope in the wrong places. But it is a beautiful ad that taps into some deep human desires.

“See? We live in a magical world. We never have to wake up from our dreams. Our restless minds now free to wonder at the wonder of technology; at the magic we’ve created. Possibilities are like stars now infinite constellations fuelled by pure imagination; leading to one destination – to you, to thrive.” — Telstra

The world doesn’t feel as magical as it used to. That’s part of the central thesis of award winning philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Telstra’s marketing gurus seem to have tapped into the haunting sense of loss we have because of the evacuation of magic, or something ‘transcendent’ from our view of the world by suggesting technology itself is the way back; like somehow the answer to our longing for something more than the material is more material, just cleverer, just with the illusion of magic (because part of the evacuation of magic from the world is the belief that anything that looks magical is actually an illusion, which is why we call magicians illusionists now).

It used to be that life was magical; that every thing had some sort of spiritual significance, whether there were gods everywhere behind every event, like a poor harvest or a pregnancy, or in monotheistic cultures everything existed in some way within the life and will of the infinite God; Christians in particular believe that the material world, what Taylor calls the ‘immanent’ world, is somehow given life and significance (or more ultimate meaning) by its connection to the creator, and by Jesus, the creator’s creating and sustaining ‘word’ (transcendent) made flesh (immanent). Colossians 1 has a good example of this view of the world:

For in [Jesus] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” — Colossians 1:16-17

C.S Lewis didn’t just write fairy tales for kids and a bunch of Christian reflections on life; he also published academic work on literature, including a book called The Discarded Image which looked at how older generations viewed the world this way; as enchanted, and how that fuelled their creativity, their art, their literature, and so better answered the longings of the human heart for some sort of enchantment, he argued (in 1964) that we’ve lost something as moderns who have kicked the sense of the transcendent out of our world and settled just for the stuff we can see and taste and touch as ‘reality’ and our source of meaning; C.S Lewis would be a little suspicious of Telstra’s advertising I suspect. Even the best technology — the most luxurious things we can fill our house with — he said were a certain sort of ugly, precisely because of this lack of symbolism, or significance, pointing to anything beyond itself (and so we have modern, and post-modern, art, often wallowing in this milieu, and so soulless and empty).

“Luxury and material splendour in the modern world need be connected with nothing but money and are also, more often than not, very ugly. But what a medieval man saw in royal or feudal courts and imagined as being outstripped in ‘ faerie’ and far outstripped in Heaven, was not so. The architecture, arms, crowns, clothes, horses, and music were nearly all beautiful. They were all symbolical or significant-of sanctity, authority, valour, noble lineage or, at the very worst, of power. They were associated, as modern luxury is not, with graciousness and courtesy. They could therefore be ingenuously admired without degradation for the admirer.” — C.S Lewis, The Discarded Image

James K.A. Smith wrote an accessible commentary on Taylor’s massive tome called How (Not) To Be Secular, here are two key ideas from his work:

“It is a mainstay of secularization theory that modernity “disenchants” the world — evacuates it of spirits and various ghosts in the machine. Diseases are not demonic, mental illness is no longer possession, the body is no longer ensouled. Generally disenchantment is taken to simply be a matter of naturalization: the magical “spiritual” world is dissolved and we are left with the machinations of matter…There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power. Things can do stuff.”

“Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) to be Secular

The implications of these quotes are interesting when read against Telstra’s ad; a campaign designed to reconnect us with the magic we long for, via machines.

The first is interesting because it explains why we look to technology — machines — to enchant our lives; if matter is all that matters, if everything (the universe) is basically one big machine of cause and effect, filled with little machines (us), who make machines (technology) then we’re now likely to rely on technology to give us any sense of what we’ve lost because they’re the closest we get to matter with a soul; other than us, and we get to program the soul into them so they serve us. The second point explains why we want them to serve us by delivering the experience of ‘magic’; because that’s precisely what we’ve lost, and what we long for, and what we’re haunted by. We want matter to matter more than it does; we want a transcendent reality that stretches beyond us; this might be, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, because God has set eternity on the hearts of humanity, but it might just be that we wish magic was real.

If Taylor is right then I don’t think machines; perhaps especially smartphones and screens; will deliver the answer our haunted selves are looking for, they might actually make the haunting worse; especially if all the science looking at what technology use does to our brains and relationships is true; and on this you should definitely read the Andrew Sullivan piece, Technology Almost Killed Me where that picture at the top of this post comes from; Sullivan is one of the world’s most famous bloggers, he went a year without tech, precisely because he felt he was losing himself into a totally ‘immanent’ way of life, and he wanted some transcendence; he found that silence, not distracting technological bombardment, was where something ‘magical’ could truly be found… he looks at how our western world has progressively killed the silence which used to enchant us, and in doing so have ensure our haunted longings for something more, for the infinite reality that silence throws us towards, are not truly satiated.

“The smartphone revolution of the past decade can be seen in some ways simply as the final twist of this ratchet, in which those few remaining redoubts of quiet — the tiny cracks of inactivity in our lives — are being methodically filled with more stimulus and noise.

And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.” There seems no end to this paradox of practical life, and no way out, just an infinite succession of efforts, all doomed ultimately to fail.

Except, of course, there is the option of a spiritual reconciliation to this futility, an attempt to transcend the unending cycle of impermanent human achievement. There is a recognition that beyond mere doing, there is also being; that at the end of life, there is also the great silence of death with which we must eventually make our peace. From the moment I entered a church in my childhood, I understood that this place was different becauseit was so quiet. The Mass itself was full of silences — those liturgical pauses that would never do in a theater, those minutes of quiet after communion when we were encouraged to get lost in prayer, those liturgical spaces that seemed to insist that we are in no hurry here. And this silence demarcated what we once understood as the sacred, marking a space beyond the secular world of noise and business and shopping.”

The inability for technology to really scratch the haunting itch of the loss of the transcendent, that it doesn’t truly ‘enchant’ our world or make our lives feel magical, has fuelled technologist David Rose, who’s committed to creating enchanting technology because he thinks most technology doesn’t live up to the Arthur C. Clarke quote, he wrote a book called Enchanted Objects trying to articulate a vision for the sort of technology that might do this, it’s a compelling read, particularly (I think) for this analysis on the problem with the ideas that screens can deliver the enchantment Telstra promises.

“I HAVE A recurring nightmare. It is years into the future. All the wonderful everyday objects we once treasured have disappeared, gobbled up by an unstoppable interface: a slim slab of black glass. Books, calculators, clocks, compasses, maps, musical instruments, pencils, and paintbrushes, all are gone. The artifacts, tools, toys, and appliances we love and rely on today have converged into this slice of shiny glass, its face filled with tiny, inscrutable icons that now define and control our lives. In my nightmare the landscape beyond the slab is barren. Desks are decluttered and paperless. Pens are nowhere to be found. We no longer carry wallets or keys or wear watches. Heirloom objects have been digitized and then atomized. Framed photos, sports trophies, lovely cameras with leather straps, creased maps, spinning globes and compasses, even binoculars and books—the signifiers of our past and triggers of our memory—have been consumed by the cold glass interface and blinking search field. Future life looks like a Dwell magazine photo shoot. Rectilinear spaces, devoid of people. No furniture. No objects. Just hard, intersecting planes—Corbusier’s Utopia. The lack of objects has had an icy effect on us. Human relationships, too, have become more transactional, sharply punctuated, thin and curt. Less nostalgic. Fewer objects exist to trigger storytelling—no old photo albums or clumsy watercolors made while traveling someplace in the Caribbean. Marc Andreessen, the inventor of the Netscape browser, said, “Software is eating the world.” Smartphones are the pixelated plates where software dines. Often when I awake from this nightmare, I think of my grandfather Otto and know the future doesn’t have to be dominated by the slab. Grandfather was a meticulous architect and woodworker. His basement workshop had many more tools than a typical iPad has apps…”

… Today’s gadgets are the antithesis of Grandfather Otto’s sharp chisel or Frodo’s knowing sword. The smartphone is a confusing and feature-crammed techno-version of the Swiss Army knife, impressive only because it is so compact. It is awkward to use, impolite, interruptive, and doesn’t offer a good interface for much of anything. The smartphone is a jealous companion, turning us into blue-faced zombies, as we incessantly stare into its screen every waking minute of the day. It took some time for me to understand why the smartphone, while convenient and useful for some tasks, is a dead end as the human-computer interface. The reason, once I saw it, is blindingly obvious: it has little respect for humanity. What enchants the objects of fantasy and folklore, by contrast, is their ability to fulfill human drives with emotional engagement and élan. Frodo does not value Sting simply because it has a good grip and a sharp edge; he values it for safety and protection, perhaps the most primal drive. Dick Tracy was not a guy prone to wasting time and money on expensive personal accessories such as wristwatches, but he valued his two-way wrist communicator because it granted him a degree of telepathy—with it, he could instantly connect with others and do his work better. Stopping crime. Saving lives.

— David Rose, Enchanted Objects

He looked to our ‘enchanted’ stories; stories that have the sort of view of the world that Lewis (and his friend Tolkien) looked back to from the past and created in the more recent past… but it’s possible he missed the heart of what these writers (and J.K Rowling) were doing.

What’s the secret to creating technology that is attuned to the needs and wants of humans? The answer can be found in the popular stories and characters we absorb in childhood and that run through our cultural bloodstream: Greek myths, romantic folktales, comic book heroes, Tolkien’s wizards and elves, Harry Potter’s entourage, Disney’s sorcerers, James Bond, and Dr. Evil. They all employ enchanted tools and objects that help them fulfill fundamental human drives.

He does understand that technology will only work if it speaks to fundamental human desires; he’s not going to these stories as books containing “fanciful, ephemeral wishes, but rather persistent, essential human ones,” which he lists as omniscience, telepathy, safekeeping, immortality, teleportation, and expression. Basically, to use Taylor’s terminology, we’re in want of something that will pull us from the immanent into transcendence. Rose does just enough to kill Telstra’s claims that connectivity via a piece of glass can give us what our haunted hearts desire, and the technology he writes about as alternatives, like a magic cabinet that has a built in screen with a skype connection to a matching cabinet, which glows when the person at the other end of the line is nearby and allows instant and convenient conversation; well, that’s pretty great and does fan some of the flames of my heart (and could one day make my wallet lighter). The problem will always be that immanent objects — the product of coding and engineering — will only ever leave us trapped in the immanent world, the ‘brass heaven,’ haunted by a sense that there might be something more to life and relationships than that which can be encoded in bits and bytes made up of 1s and 0s. The problem will always be that eternity is written on our hearts; if only, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, we knew where to look to scratch that itch. This writer, who after his journey through life trying to sort the immanent out from the transcendent, concluded:

So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.” — Ecclesiastes 9:1-2

He doesn’t take this to the negative sort of place you might expect…

You who are young, be happy while you are young,
    and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
    and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
    God will bring you into judgment.
 So then, banish anxiety from your heart
    and cast off the troubles of your body,
    for youth and vigor are meaningless.

Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,

— Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:1

Then he says:

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

— Ecclesiastes 12:6-7

This is what we’re to do in our ‘immanent’ existence; the fleeting ‘breath’ that this writer reflects on time and time again that is unfortunately often translated as ‘meaningless’… we’re meant to reach out towards the God who gave us breath, knowing that as he puts it at the start of his summing up in Ecclesiastes 9: “the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands“… now… If only we knew where to look to see God’s hands. If only there were some way to scratch where we itch… if only there were some way to bridge between the immanent and the transcendent; to satisfy those deep desires that the writer of Ecclesiastes, Telstra and David Rose are searching for — the ability to see the world as meaningful beyond the material, to give us existence beyond ‘breathiness’ so that we become immortal.

Oh that’s right. According to two thousand years of Christians, and the book we live by… We do.

Paul says some more good stuff about Jesus in Colossians 1; about the implications of that time we see the hands of God; hands nailed to ugly planks of wood by barbaric spikes, these hands Paul says hold the cosmos together became very ‘immanent’ and are the ultimate enchanted objects that deliver on our wildest imaginings. Paul says:

And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” — Colossians 1:18-20

That’s more magical than an iThing (as nice as they are) don’t let Telstra, or anyone, sell you short. You can enjoy the sort of life you so deeply desire and are haunted by. You can enjoy life that is more than just immanent, more than just heading towards the dust of the grave, you can enjoy life that’s more than a little bit magical.

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A matter of life and breath

“Ok. Let’s start CPR”

Breath.

We take it for granted right up until the moment that it is gone.

I’m in hospital this week, celebrating the incredible miracle of new life. New breath. For the third time I was there. Physically. Emotionally. Present. There. In the room. Waiting. Watching. Listening.  There, as a mouth opened, and filled a set of lungs with oxygen for the first time.

breath

Breathe little girl.

Thankfully, our little one, has not required CPR. But in a hospital there are many who do. In hospital, life and death exist as the start or end point of different journeys. Hospitals beat airports when it comes to the scale of human emotions. When I walk the corridors I remember the training I was given for news reading — bizarrely — whether its bad news or good, people like the comforting empathy of a warm smile. The smile conveys a subliminal wink and a nod, from a third party, to the idea that life will go on, that everything will pan out. Even if its patently obvious that it won’t. Even if it’s clear that everything has, or will, change. I walk around the hospital with my empathetic newsreader smile plastered on my face, trying not to make eye contact. Just in case. But I listen as I walk. Because the hospital experience, tied up as it is with life and death, is something that feels almost sacred.

“OK, let’s start CPR.”

Life is incredible, and, linked as it is to breathing, breath is incredible. The capacity for the very atmosphere that surrounds us to sustain life is remarkable. Yet like good typography, breath often goes unnoticed. We take it for granted.

I notice it when I’m short of it — in the throes of exercise, or on a cold winter’s night as my mild asthma starts constricting my chest — but other than that its simply automatic. I find myself thinking about breathing if I’m trying to exercise some control over something that I feel like I ought to be more invested in, when I feel the need to still my heart and my thoughts, or when I want to sneak out of a sleeping child’s room unnoticed.

But breath is a miracle.

Breathe little girl.

Nothing reminds you of that faster than a hospital. Where breath is there one moment, and gone the next. Or, more happily, where a breath is taken for the first time.

My newest progeny, Elise, is three days old now. She is alive. She is healthy. She breaths. She is a wonder to me. A beautiful marvel (just like Sophia and Xavier before her).  I’ve spent three days reflecting on that moment where her mouth and lungs opened to receive breath, autonomously, for the first time. It’s true, of course, that Elise has been living on vicariously delivered oxygen for many months now. But this was life without breath. Another miracle.

Breathe little girl. 

It’s interesting how much you pay attention to the breath of another. One that you love. Whether its the breathing of a loved one, a spouse or significant other, when you’re in close proximity, or the breath of a child whose life you suddenly feel (and are) responsible for. There’s some sort of nerve-jangling response hardwired into a parent that comes as an automatic response to every cough, whimper, or choking sound. Nothing gets you breathing faster than hearing something abnormal in the breathing of your child. And yet I have no idea how many times I’ve inhaled or exhaled while writing this sentence. Have you counted your breaths while reading this? Of course not. Though maybe you will. And every breath counts.

Our breaths are numbered — whether by an all knowing divine being, or simply by the period of time we’re alive, and the number of times we inhale and exhale before expiring — we only breath a certain, finite, number of times in this world.

As I write these words I’m sitting next to my wife, Robyn, watching Elise sleep and listening to her breath. Listening for abnormalities. Sure. But listening and celebrating the marvel that is human life.

Breathe little girl. Keep breathing.

Breathing is so fundamental to our human experience.

“OK. Let’s start CPR.” 

These words are a terrifying reminder that one day breathing will cease. For me. For you. That breath will leave your body for one last time, leaving it, if you can believe what you see in the movies, 21 grams lighter. But dead. Lifeless. 21 grams might not be the weight of the soul, that’s a weird sort of dualism that leaves body and soul more separate than I believe they are. But, if that movie (21 Grams) is right, it is the material difference between a dead person and a live person.

Whatever you believe the soul is, that which vivifies a bunch of cells, it departs with your last breath.

Death sucks. It’s like a black hole that sucks the life and oxygen out of what would otherwise be a pretty spectacular universe.

“Ok, Let’s start CPR”

I heard these words as I walked the corridors of the hospital, on my way from my living, breathing, miracle to the cafeteria which serves up a bunch of salty deep-fried rubbish, and sugar — delicious though it all is — that will inevitably lead to a few fewer breaths for me if I keep indulging in them.

As I left the maternity ward I was aware of a piercing, repeating, alarm, and a bit of motion around the doors of a room at the end of the corridor in the ward I walk through to get to the cafeteria. I heard those words.

“OK. Let’s start CPR.” 

They’re stuck in my head. A twin memory, juxtaposed to that precious moment from the birth suite. Clanging. Jangling. Butting up against the reality of new life. Intruding on a celebration.

I purchased my wedges and waited as the hot oil turned them golden brown. I walked back past the room. It was still. Empty. Without breath. I don’t know what happened to the resident, whether they were rushed away for treatment, or how that story ends. But I do know it’s a stark reminder that all is not right in this world.

Those breaths my daughter took as she entered the world, the breaths she takes now as I sit beside her, will one day cease. As will mine. My wife’s. My other children. Breath is fleeting. Life is fleeting.

Breathe little girl. 

The writer of Ecclesiastes, let’s, for the sake of argument, call him Solomon, reflected on the existential dilemma that this dependence on breath places us in, against the backdrop of just how temporary our breathing is in the grand scheme of things.

Breath. Over and over again he repeats the word ‘hebel’ — a word our translations render as “meaningless,” but a word that means breath. Fleeting. Inhale/exhale. You breathe in. You breathe out. And it’s all over.

“Breath! Breath!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly breath!
    Everything is breath.”

What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course. — Ecclesiastes 1:2-6

This leads to a pretty depressing place.

“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is breath, a chasing after the wind.” — Ecclesiastes 2:17

Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is breath. —Ecclesiastes 3:19

Here one minute. Gone the next.

Breathe little girl. 

Why?

Why is it that breath does not last? That life does not last?

This miracle of new life, and new breath, that I witnessed for the third time this week, why isn’t it an eternal miracle?

Why does life end?

If Solomon had been able to answer these questions adequately, then perhaps Ecclesiastes would be a little less morose. He does turn, in the face of futility, to the only one it makes sense to turn to. The one who gives life.

Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
    and the years approach when you will say,
    “I find no pleasure in them”…

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

“Breath! Breath!” says the Teacher.
    “Everything is breath!”…

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind. — Ecclesiastes 12:1,6-8, 13

Solomon’s dad, David, was also confronted by this same existential crisis, the question of what life means in the face of the stark reality of death.

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end
    and the number of my days;
   let me know how fleeting my life is.

You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
    the span of my years is as nothing before you.

Everyone is but a breath,
    even those who seem secure.

 “Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
    in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
    without knowing whose it will finally be.

 “But now, Lord, what do I look for?
    My hope is in you.
 Save me from all my transgressions;
    do not make me the scorn of fools.” — Psalm 39:4-8

Breathe in. Breathe out. Expire. And yet, David speaks of hope and salvation… The Psalms, not all of them are written by David, end up a little more hopeful, relying on God’s life-giving character as part of the answer to death.

All creatures look to you
    to give them their food at the proper time.
 When you give it to them,
    they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
    they are satisfied with good things.
 When you hide your face,
    they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
    they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
    they are created,
    and you renew the face of the ground.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
    may the Lord rejoice in his works.” — Psalm 104:27-31

God gives life. God takes it away.

We humans can prolong life by artificially breathing into someone’s lungs.

“Ok, let’s start CPR”

Sometimes by moments, sometimes by years. But never eternally. We just don’t have enough breath, or life, to give. CPR, at its most basic, is the giving of some of the oxygen allocated to yourself, in terms of the finite number of times you’ll breathe in your lifetime, to someone else. It’s incredible. The transfer of life giving breath from one person to another.

But CPR is a temporary fix. It’ll always be followed by death. This, in part, is because we’ve all only got a finite amount of oxygen to spare. CPR is a dying person giving another dying person a bit of their life. Real life needs living breath, the sort that Psalm speaks of, the sort that creates and renews, when God sends his Spirit — breath that comes from the infinite life giver. It’s God and his glory, and his breath-created works that will endure forever. This sort of breath seems the only answer in the face of death, which only entered the world because we rejected God.

This is not how it was supposed to be. The link between life and breath is no accident. For those who take what the Bible says about life and breath and death seriously, our breathing was not meant to cease. We were made to live. We were made to live in such a way that our very life — the essence of our existence — reflected the greatness and glory and existence of the one who breathed life into us. Whatever points Genesis is making about the origins and function of human life, one thing is clear — breath is what separates us from dust. From dead matter. Breath is why we matter, it’s what gives life in this world — first to the animals (Genesis 1:30), then to humanity.

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” — Genesis 2:7

This breath is what gives us the capacity to live out our function as living images of the living God. Not simply images fashioned from clay, or precious metals. And, Christians believe the living God continues to fashion every human life.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! — Psalm 139:13-17

The other gods of the Ancient Near East had their dead statues. Idol statues that were formed and fashioned by craftsmen, then ceremonially “quickened” in a mouth opening ceremony so they could act for the god they represented— despite this ceremony they remained still, mute, and dead. Breathless.

Idols don’t speak. In part because they don’t breath (have you ever tried breathing without speaking?). And they don’t breath because they don’t live. They don’t help us answer the existential dilemma we’re confronted with at the sound of inspiring or expiring (and just how cool is it that these words are related to breath entering and leaving the lungs?). The consistent testimony of the inspired writers of the Old Testament is that Idols do not speak, or breath, so they cannot inspire… they leave us bereft and helpless in the face of the fleeting nature of life. That’s why the writer of Ecclesiastes finally turned to his Creator.

I look but there is no one—
    no one among the gods to give counsel,
    no one to give answer when I ask them.
See, they are all false!
    Their deeds amount to nothing;
    their images are but wind and confusion.— Isaiah 41:28-29

Everyone is senseless and without knowledge;
    every goldsmith is shamed by his idols.
The images he makes are a fraud;
    they have no breath in them. — Jeremiah 10:14

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
    nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.— Psalm 135:15-18

Replacing the living God with other stuff is what started the long, slow, march towards death for all people. And eventually we’ll become just like the dead, dusty, stuff we replaced him with.

“OK, let’s start CPR”

Death sucks because in suffocating us of life and breath, it robs us of something that is intrinsic to our humanity and its essence. It consumes the life that was given us in order that the one who gives life might be seen.

Even if we do all in our power to be shaped by other gods, idols that we live for and reflect instead, until breath is taken away, until death happens, we still, in our living, breathing, existence point to the existence of the life-giver. The breath-giver.

The gods of the nations around Israel were represented by dead images, fashioned from dirt. But not the God of the Bible. The living God. The God who could not, and would not, be represented by dead statues. Statues with no breath in them. The living God needed living representatives.

Idols are dead. And dumb. As we follow them, or simply turn away from the life-giving God, that becomes our destiny. Dumb death. This future is all we can inflict on others on our own steam (or breath). This is why CPR is only a temporary fix. We are expirers by our nature, not inspirers.

The living God, on the other hand, speaks and gives life. Rather than death.

Where people make images of dead gods, the living God gives life to living images.

Humans.

That we die is an affront to what we were created for. God is a living, breathing, God — who gives and sustains life through breath, and ends life by taking that breath away (Numbers 16:22, 27:6, Job 12:10, 27:3, 33:4). As long as we live and breathe, by God’s design and as his gift, we still actively bear his image. Whether we like it or not…

If it were his intention
    and he withdrew his spirit and breath,
all humanity would perish together
    and mankind would return to the dust. — Job 34:14-15

God takes life, because God gives life.

This is what God the Lord says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,

    who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
    who gives breath to its people,
    and life to those who walk on it. — Isaiah 42:5

God gives life to all people. In this sense, all living, breathing, speaking people, whether they remain turned away from God and towards things that kill or not, continue to represent something true about God. But temporary life isn’t really a complete testimony to the eternal life of the life giver, given eternal life is. Psalm 104 delights in the idea that the glory of God will endure forever as God rejoices in his works. Adam and his descendants don’t truly carry out the role of image bearer.

Jesus does.

The humanity Jesus reveals in his perfectly obedient life, death, and resurrection, is a truer humanity than our natural, death-riddled, humanity. The humanity offered to us in Jesus, the new life, and new birth, offered to those who turn to him and receive God’s Spirit, is a fuller picture of God, and the answer to the crisis of existence that confronts us in the face of death. It solves the shortness of our life, by offering eternal life. A share in the true essence of God’s life. In the Old Testament story, turning away from God and towards idols leaves people metaphorically (or perhaps metaphysically) with stone hearts, and as dry bones. God’s promise to his people is that he will re-enter the scene to renew and recreate life (which echoes the hope of Psalm 104).

“‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” — Ezekiel 37:4-6

This is divine CPR. CPR that works because the infinite one, with lungs of infinite capacity, who breaths life, not death, is the one administrating the life-giving intervention.

The beauty of the Christian story is that as God breathes his Spirit back into us we start reconnecting with the divine, inspiring, purpose of human life, powered by God’s breath. We become his workmanship again. Consider Ephesians 2, the whole chapter, or even the whole letter, is gold, of course… but these bits:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved… For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do… For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit… And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. — Ephesians 2: 4-5, 10, 18, 22

We become work that will endure eternally. Inspired, rather than expiring. The effort put into knitting us together in the womb meets its divinely inspired purpose. Breath and life intertwine as we become God’s image bearers again. Presenting a living image, and pattern, we see perfected and demonstrated in Christ (see Colossians 1:15-21). The weird thing about the pattern of Jesus life, the way he demonstrates that he is God’s craftsmanship (and the way I think Paul follows his example, cf 2 Corinthians 3-4), is that it’s caught up in being prepared to stop breathing for the sake of others. It’s about being prepared to lay down life now, confident that the one who gives life will take it up again (John 10:14-18). It’s on the Cross where the pattern for life-giving humanity that reflects the life-giver is laid out for all to see. On the Cross the one who connects us with the life-giving God shows exactly what it looks like to truly trust and obey God. He demonstrates what it looks like to simultaneously and perfectly love God, and love your neighbours, and your enemies. At the Cross Jesus defeats death, and he does that by putting his breath, and life, in its place. In the hands of God. Showing us what it is to trust God in the face of the apparent meaninglessness of a short existence.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. — Luke 23:46

Through Jesus, God’s life giving breath — his Spirit — comes to dwell in us, not us alone, but us his people — giving us life again. God’s life. Eternal life. The promise of the Old Testament prophets and the hope of the Psalms (even the hope of Solomon), meet their fulfilment.

Paul, who wrote that stuff from Ephesians, ties up all this stuff— idols, images, and God’s relationship to life and death, and breath in Jesus — as he speaks to the leading thinkers of Athens, in Acts 17. These thinkers are those who spend their time grasping and grappling with the existential question death presents to us. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, Paul turns to the Creator of life to find a way to answer this question without being all-consumed by existential angst.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

Breathe. 

Life is found in and through the one who the creator, the living, breathing, God raised from the dead. Jesus.

My prayer for my kids, for Elise, for Xavi, for Soph (and for all those I love), is that they might know that they are fearfully and wonderfully crafted by God, as his workmanship, that they might stay connected to his purpose for them through Jesus, and grow to love God, and live by his breath. Not our on their own steam. Because this is what lasts. And as a dad, it’s the only thing that gives me hope knowing that one day the lives I hold in my hands, and in my heart, will end.

Breathe little girl. Keep breathing. 

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Three (or six) videos about life under the sun

I like these videos a lot. I come back to them occasionally. They have pretty huge explanatory power – but they are all sort of depressing and without lasting hope.

Life is amazing. And improbably. And amazingly improbable. And we all have different ways of dealing with the improbable hand we’ve been dealt.

This has been the pursuit of smart people since before the smart guy in Ecclesiastes (in the Bible) – but there haven’t been any particularly new answers. Life as we experience it is a vapour. Nothing is new.

These come from smart people: Ze Frank (The Time You Have – but seriously, check out his animal videos), Leonard Read (I, Pencil) and David Foster Wallace (This is Water).

They all kind of remind me of the Wisdom literature – which I spent a fair bit of time reading for my thesis thing. They’re also a bit like sermons. Sermons about what it means to be human.

This is Water

The video misses what I think is the most pertinent point Wallace made in the speech. Which was given to a bunch of graduating students.

“This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

He’s so close to nailing the Christian understanding of idolatry.

But here are the other two…

The Time You Have in Jelly Beans

I, Pencil

I, Pencil does get a little bit theological.

There is a fact still more astounding: The absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead, we find the Invisible Handat work.

… Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

I tried to find an equally compelling video about life following Jesus – because his arrival on earth changes up the vapour verdict of Ecclesiastes, provides a different understanding of the “water” that surrounds us, that we breathe in, that defines our reality, provides a different way for us to think about our jelly beans or days on the earth, and how to spend them, and his amazingly improbable life – God made man, murdered and resurrected to redefine our humanity – is a greater story than the improbable and amazing story of the pencil. Or any human ingenuity.

The best I’ve got is this one – a sermon Jam from David Platt.

This one isn’t bad either. I don’t mind the “sermon jam” as a genre.

And Francis Chan’s “God is Better” is a nice counter point to “This is Water”…

Everything is Remixed

These are good. Watch them. Check out the blog. I had no idea that Star Wars was such a pastiche (see part 2). Brilliant. It’s all very Ecclesiastes.

Remix. Remix. Everything is a remix.

Or perhaps, to quote Ecclesiastes:

8 All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.

Here’s a line from part 2:

“George Lucas collected materials, he combined them, he transformed them. Without the films that preceded it, there could be no Star Wars. Creation requires influence. Everything we make is a remix of existing creations, our lives, and the lives of others.

Everything is a Remix from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

Everything is a Remix Part 2 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

Here’s the take on Avatar:

“Of the few box office hits that aren’t remakes, adaptations or sequels, the word “original” wouldn’t spring to mind to describe ‘em. These are genre movies, and they stick to pretty standard templates. Genres then break-up into sub-genres with their own even more specific conventions. So within the category of horror films we have sub-genres like slasher, zombie, creature feature, and of course, torture porn. All have standard elements that are appropriated, transformed and subverted.

Let’s use the biggest film of the decade as an example. Now it’s not a sequel, remix or adaptation, but it is a genre film — sci-fi — and most tellingly, it’s a member of a tiny sub-genre where sympathetic white people feel bad about all the murder, pillaging, and annihilation being done on their behalf.

I call this sub-genre “Sorry about Colonialism!” I’m talking about movies like Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, The Last of the Mohicans, Dune, Lawrence of Arabia, A Man Called Horse, and even Fern Gully and Pocahontas.”

This extended look at Kill Bill’s hat tips to everything in cinema is a little too violent for me to embed. But check it out.

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Old Testament 102: Meaningful “meaningless” – An exploration of הבל in Ecclesiastes

The Hebrew word “Hebel” has a pretty broad semantic range – meaning that translating it as “meaningless” is just one of many potential meanings. Literally it means “breath” – but its use in Ecclesiastes is metaphoric.

Scholars are divided on how best to translate it – Fox, in a 1986 article in the Journal of Biblical Literature, settled on “absurd,” Waltke in his Old Testament Theology settled on “nonsense,” Provan, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes chose a “fleeting breath,” while Kidner, in his commentary chose “airy nothingness.”

Provan recognises a bit of circular reasoning involved in the process – Hebel is not used this way in the rest of the Bible, and to understand the way it is used we must understand Ecclesiastes, but to understand Ecclesiastes we need to understand the function of Hebel.

Fox, comments on the difficulty the word presents:

No one English word corresponds exactly to the semantic shape of hebel as Qohelet uses it, but it is possible to render the word by an equivalent that comes close to representing its range of meaning and that bears similar connotations. The best translation equivalent for hebel in Qohelet’s usage is “absurd, absurdity… The essence of the absurd is a disparity between two terms that are supposed to be joined by a link of harmony or causality but are, in fact, disjunct. The absurd is an affront to reason, in the broad sense of the human faculty that looks for order in the world about us.

Barry Webb’s Five Festal Garments follows the NIV’s “meaningless” translation, but agrees with Eugene Peterson that the notion of trying to pin down an exact translation of the word is futile. Peterson says “various meanings glance of its surface as the context shifts.”

Webb and Peterson suggest the word serves to demonstrate Qoheleth’s role as a debunker:

“He will not tolerate pretension or allow anything to appear more solid or satisfying than it really is. In a delightful image coined by Peterson, he uses hebel like a broom to sweep away all our illusions.”

Webb comments on the structure of the book, demonstrating a unity within the “frame” – “The body of the book is framed by a superscription, a thematic statement, and an opening poem at the beginning, and three corresponding elements in reverse order at the end: closing poem, same thematic statement, epilogue.”

He sees the internal structure of the book as a series of observations and instructions – hebel occurs 23 times in these observations (out of 38 times in the book). In the observations it is almost always used in a stereotyped conclusion: “This too is hebel.”

Hebel appears as a negative refrain, a “chasing after the wind” eight times. The observations made are to back up the introductory thesis that everything is meaningless.

Webb believes that ultimately hebel refers to the universality of death – it doesn’t matter what we achieve, we’re going to die. He says that’s part of the purpose of representing Solomon’s works and achievements as meaningless – it’s not his apostasy, as the prophets suggest, but his mortality, that makes his great wisdom altogether hebel.

Webb suggests that the writer of Ecclesiastes has Genesis 1-11 in mind as he writes, and that Hebel is not a simple fact, but a reference to the judgment God has placed on the world, a manifestation of the fall.

“The special contribution of Ecclesiastes is to insist on the presence of Hebel as a universal datum of human experience which must be acknowledged, and to rule out of court any kind of wisdom that refuses to do this – even if its practitioners claim to be disciples of Solomon. It guards wisdom against unreality.”

Kidner, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes, suggests the “mere breath” of Ecclesiastes is a desperate and ominous description of that which is slight and passing. He thinks the doubling effect common in references “vanity of vanities” is a parody of “holy of holiness” – and thus utter emptiness stands in contrast with utter holiness.

Kidner both suggest the phrase “under the sun” is the key for defining the scope of the “hebel” statement – it’s not life under God, but life without him.

It is a phrase almost as common as “meaningless” – occurring nearly thirty times in the book. Others have suggested a temporal notion that goes with the phrase – that it means this lifetime, in this place.

Webb suggests that the “under the sun” is not exclusively used to exclude God from the picture.

“What is significant, however, is that the verdict of hebel is consistently maintained, whether God’s involvement with the world is on view at a particular point or not. Belief in God does not relieve the observed and experienced fact of hebel.”

Kidner believes that theologically, we need to read Ecclesiastes in the light of the epilogue to appreciate its place in the canon, and the nature of the discussion.

Webb suggests that the epilogue reintroduces the frame narrator, who seeks to put Qohelet’s thoughts into perspective. He suggests that the epilogue points to the one thing that remains when the searching of wisdom ends in frustration – the Fear of the Lord, which consists of keeping his commandments.

Andrew Shead makes an argument from the text itself, studying the form, and grammar to make a case for unity in style between the epilogue and the rest of the book, suggesting a single author, and a single voice. At this point, Tremper Longman’s objections that Ecclesiastes is a pagan book with no real redeeming features except the opening and closing statements fails to take into account Qoheleth’s purpose as identified by Kidner and others.

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Old Testament 102: Kidner on Von Rad on Protest, Biblical Theology, and Wisdom

In his commentary on Ecclesiastes, Kidner addresses the opening salvo in Ecclesiastes (1:1-11), and particularly the statement “there is nothing new under the sun” and the idea that everything repeats itself (1:8-9), suggesting that it presents a new attitude in Israel – a weariness of doing much, and getting nowhere…

Von Rad, in his Old Testament Theology, thought at this point the author of Ecclesiastes, and thus the Wisdom Literature:

“lost its last contact with Israel’s old way of thinking in terms of saving history, and quite consistently fell back on the cyclical way of thinking common to the East,… only… in an utterly secular form.”

Kidner suggests that might be a fair assessment of the outlook, but that this is an outlook adopted by Qoheleth to expose the views of worldly man, in order to create a hunger for something better.

Von Rad’s views only work because he gets rid of the “Fear of the Lord” bits because he thinks they get in the way of the real message of the book.

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Old Testament 102: Barry Webb on Protest (against Proverbs) in Ecclesiastes

Barry Webb, in Five Festal Garments, suggests that the epilogue locates the Qohelet, the writer of Ecclesiastes, in the mainstream of Israelite wisdom (while I think he’s writing against certain elements of the wisdom movement), and that it is therefore inappropriate to see his teaching as a direct attack on Solomonic wisdom, especially in the canonical form in which we have it in the book of Proverbs. But…

“Clearly there is a tension between them that is evident in the body of the book… and which can not be ignored in any responsible reading of it. The difference relates essentially to the way the doctrine of creation functions in the two works.”

Ecclesiastes draws deterministic inferences from creation. For example, that the creator of the world is responsible for good times and bad (7:14), and that he has set limits to human knowledge (3:11), so we are therefore never in a position to secure guaranteed outcomes for particular behaviour.

Proverbs, on the other hand, sees creation as equally important, but is less influenced by the fall account, and more open ended and positive. It sees the created order as an expression of the wisdom of God (Proverbs 8:22-30). Which brings a confidence that careful observation can enable the gaining of wisdom, which will mostly lead to some modicum of success.

“These two works are certainly in tension, but not in fundamental conflict if we attend to them carefully. Proverbs acknowledges that in the end, it is God, not human beings, who determines the outcomes of events: “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps” (16:9)… And Ecclesiastes, as we have seen, acknowledges the relative advantage of wisdom over folly (2:13, 10:12). They are both anchored in creation theology, and the fear of God is the essence of wisdom for both of them. Proverbs begins with it, and Ecclesiastes ends with it.”

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The Wisdom Literature as an Apologetic: Part Six

The sixth, and final, part of a pretty long essay. Here are parts one, two, three, four, and five.

The Wisdom Literature as an international theological dialogue

The people of Israel had a predilection for harnessing themselves to the international theological zeitgeist, a propensity typified by their well-documented struggle with idolatry, and their geographical position as a political football between Assyria and Egypt meant they experienced a socio-political identity crisis, so it is likely that the primary function of any critique of foreign theology was internal.[1]

I propose that the wisdom literature adopted and critiqued the wisdom conventions of surrounding nations in the same way that Israel’s historians adopted and critiqued stories of creation and the flood from the ANE and contrasted them with an account grounded in the actions of Yahweh.[2] A true understanding of wisdom, like a true understanding of history, is grounded in understanding Yahweh’s involvement in the world, not in its ANE equivalents. If the wisdom literature is an apologetic for Yahweh as the author of life, in a deliberate comparison with other ANE gods,[3] and if this apologetic occurs in the context of an international wisdom conversation, then it was both didactic for the people of Yahweh, and a declaration to the nations.

Many have commented on the present day use of wisdom literature for apologetics and evangelism because they present universal truths unrestricted by culture.[4] But only some seem prepared to push this purpose back into Old Testament times seeing biblical wisdom apologetically engaging with ANE culture.[5]

Clements (1995) suggests a “lack of covenantal presuppositions enabled [the wisdom literature] to serve as an internal apologetic to Jews and as a non-national basis for religiously motivated moral teaching of a high order” which in turn linked the fear of the Lord with the way of wisdom.[6]

While this apologetic may not have been a direct pointer to the mechanism of salvation, it was a pointer to its author, couched in the international language of the day.[7]

An apologetic critique of the best of contemporary philosophy is strikingly similar in approach to Paul’s criticism of Greek wisdom in Acts 17[8] – and as Qoheleth reminds us time and time again, “there is nothing new under the sun.”


[1] Which is one of the great ironies of a link to Solomon.

[2] For a discussion of this process see Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, pp 49-56.

[3] Wright, op. cit, p 444, suggests wisdom literature warns against foreign gods as seriously as the law and the prophets.

[4] Hubbard, ‘The Wisdom Movement,’ pp 30-31, Wright, op. cit, pp 442-455

[5] Fyall, R.S, ‘Job and the Canaanite myth,’ Now My Eyes Have Seen You: Images of Creation and Evil in the Book of Job, New Studies in Biblical Theology 12, (Downers Grove: IVP), p 194, Kaiser, W, Ecclesiastes: Total Life, pp 32-33 suggests an international audience for Ecclesiastes is a possibility

[6] Clements, R.E, Wisdom and Old Testament Theology, p 273

[7] Wright, op. cit, p 448, “Wisdom points us to Yahweh, the God who is the only hope of that salvation and indirectly to the story of Yahweh’s revealing and redeeming acts in which the world’s salvation is to be found.”

[8] See Winter, B.W, ‘Introducing the Athenians to God: Paul’s failed apologetic in Acts 17?,’ in edd Chia, R, and Chan, M A Graced Horizon: Essays in Gospel, Culture

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The Wisdom Literature as an Apologetic: Part Five

Part five of a pretty long essay. Here are parts one, two, three, and four.

Case Study: the Acts-Consequences Nexus and the nations

The so called “acts-consequences nexus” is central to theories of protest within the wisdom corpus. The premise that Proverbs asserts such a worldview, or perhaps that a calcified misinterpretation of Proverbs gave birth to a retributive theology in Israel, while Job and Ecclesiastes protest against it, has found significant scholarly support. [1] However, this retributive view of the world was not limited to Israel, it was a fundamental assumption underpinning the beliefs of many ANE nations, and a motivation in the pursuit of wisdom.[2]

Internal Protest

Von Rad (1972) suggests Jewish wisdom presupposed Yahweh as the order underpinning creation who would only act at last resort.[3] In order to reach this view he inexplicably dismisses Proverbs that call for trust in the Lord (Proverbs 3:5; 14:26; 16:3, 20; 18:10; 19:23; 28:25; 29:25; 30:1-14). The extreme version of this view reduces God to a deistic first-cause with a hands-off approach to creation,[4] and in this view the Yahweh of Proverbs functions the same way as the gods of the ANE.[5]

A retributive “reap-what-you-sow” theology is bound to result in disappointment in a broken world. Seemingly good people suffer, protest literature exploring this disappointment is common in the ANE.[6] Whybray suggests Israel’s protest literature was not unique, nor dependant on foreign works.[7]

This view of protest within the canon has become popular in modern wisdom scholarship,[8] and some have tried to identify retributive theology in the ethics of the prophets, suggesting it played an important role in Jewish theology.[9] Any concept of retributive theology legitimately found in the Old Testament is carefully grounded in the will of Yahweh,[10] and is usually the fruit of a promise.[11] I would suggest this view actually describes the purposes of the wisdom authors in addressing ANE conceptions of reality.

Ecclesiastes and Wisdom

If Ecclesiastes is understood as a protest against the mindless pursuit of wisdom characterised by the “wisdom movement” typified by the statement in 8:16-17, then this has been interpreted as a critique of Proverbs’ embracing of wisdom “Wisdom is supreme, therefore get wisdom” (Proverbs 4:7).[12]

However, it is possible that both statements reflect two sides of the same coin if they are read in the light of the “Fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:6, Ecclesiastes 12:13). Qoheleth’s objection to the wisdom movement must then be understood as a rejection of the wisdom movement as it exists in the ANE.[13]

Job and Retribution

Job maintains his blamelessness in the face of his friends, who clearly advocate a doctrine of retribution (for example Elihu’s words in Job 34:4-9).[14] His words in 9:22 speak out against such a doctrine, and his views on Yahweh’s rule of the world, and his own righteousness, are vindicated when Yahweh rebukes the friends because they have “not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7,8), dismissing any possible inkling of an acts-consequences nexus.

A major theological purpose of Job seems to be to overturn retributive theology,[15] theology that is commonplace in the ANE,[16] and not as clearly advocated in Proverbs as some suggest.[17]

The Problem with the proverbial Acts-Consequences Nexus

Waltke (1996) rejects what he perceives as three common aspects of the internal protest theory:

  1. Solomon was a dullard who failed to understand reality
  2. Proverbs contains promises that are not true
  3. The aphorisms within Proverbs present “probabilities not promises.[18]

Treating the book as a cohesive unit, rather than treating its aphorisms as axioms, radically countermands all three of these positions. This approach produces a balanced view of the world without an absolute law of cause and effect.[19] It is possible that Proverbs dealt with the “ends of life” rather than the means, and further that it dealt with the eternal consequences of temporal decisions (Proverbs 12:28).[20]

There are several proverbs (Proverbs 15:16-17; 16:8, 19; 17:1; 19:22b; 22:1; 28:6) that explicitly link righteous acts with poverty, and criminal acts with wealth, and others focus on failures of justice (Proverbs 10:2; 11:16; 13:23; 14:31; 15:25; 18:23; 21:6, 7,13; 19:10; 22:8, 22; 23:17; 28:15-16, 27).[21] These fly in the face of this acts-consequences concept,[22] most importantly, is the notion in Proverbs 15:16, that the “Fear of the Lord” can be coupled with having little, and that this is better than wealth.

Suggestions of an acts-consequences nexus may result from an under-realised eschatology. Proverbs suggests the consequences of righteous or wicked decisions may not come until the end of life (Proverbs 11:4,7, 18, 21, 23, 28; 12:7, 12; 14:32; 15:25; 17:5; 19:17; 20:2, 21; 21:6-7, 22:8-9, 16; 23:17-18; 24:20). The eschatological view point of Proverbs is best articulated in 24:14-16,[23] and 12:28, which Waltke suggests contains a promise of immortality.[24] The absence of such an undertone in Ecclesiastes and Job is a result of their more temporal concerns.[25]

This eschatological concern is uncommon in the Old Testament.[26] But securing a place in the afterlife was a primary concern of Egyptian wisdom. Egypt’s wisdom schools were called “Schools of Life,” for this reason.[27] Egyptian wisdom presented the gods of Egypt as subjects to the established order,[28] and the afterlife as tied to living life in accordance with ma’at.[29] Proverbs holds that Yahweh created, and controls this order,[30] and man’s hope is found in fearing him.[31]

The evidence for “protest” against conventional wisdom is strong in Job and Ecclesiastes,[32] but it is plausible to suggest Proverbs was not the target.[33] A simple reductionism of the works into a battle between optimism and pessimism will no longer suffice.[34]


[1] Shields, M.A, ‘The End of Wisdom,’ pp 238-239

[2] See note 6.

[3] Von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, p 191

[4] Waltke, B, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ Andrews University Seminary Studies, Autumn 1996, Vol. 34, No.2, pp 333-334 citing Huwiler, E.F, “Control of Reality in Israelite Wisdom” (Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University, 1988), p 64

[5] Whybray, N, ‘The Social World of the Wisdom Writers,’ p 246, Blenkinsopp, J, Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament, p 46 suggests the acts-consequence nexus is an unhelpful hangover from Israel’s adaptation of ‘old wisdom’.

[6] Dell, K.J, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1991), p 38

[7] Whybray, N, ‘Two Jewish Theologies,’ p 181

[8] See Morrow, W.S, Protest Against God, pp 129-146, Dell, K.J, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, pp 35-56, Shaking A Fist At God: Insights from the Book of Job (Ligouri: Triumph Books, 1995), pp 37-66, Enns, P, Inspiration and Incarnation, pp 74-82

[9] Hubbard, ‘The Wisdom Movement,’ p 11 citing Gerstenberger, E. ‘The Woe-Oracles of the Prophets’, Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962) 249-263

[10] Lucas, E, ‘The Acts-Consequences Nexus,’ p 8 suggests any character-consequences nexus in Proverbs is not the result of an impersonal order, but rather the “will of Yahweh.”

[11] Israel’s occupation of the Promised Land was certainly linked to their righteousness – cf Deuteronomy 30.

[12] Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, p 78

[13] Crenshaw, J.L, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, p 24 suggests Qoheleth’s rejection of observing signs is a rejection of Mesopotamian wisdom, and p 26 suggests his embrace of life as opposed to suicide contrasts with Egyptian and Mesopotamian skepticism.

[14] Some have suggested that Job’s friends are representatives of the wisdom movement, or that all the characters are sages, Perdue, L.G, Wisdom Literature: A Theological History, pp 90-91, Zimmerli, Walther, ‘Expressions of Hope in Proverbs and The Book of Job,’ Man and His Hope in the Old Testament, Studies in Biblical Theology, SCM Press, London, 1971, pp 16-19, When confronted with Job’s plight, Eliphaz calls on Job to return to God, Bildad links righteousness and hope, and Zophar demands Job turn to righteousness. For Zophar the question is straightforward, if Job’s fortunes are in tatters then his righteousness is in question (Job 11), that the friends’ understanding of the underlying order of things, Dumbrell, W.J, The Faith of Israel, p 259 suggests the dialogues “explores the limits of traditional wisdom” before turning to an understanding of the world centred around Yahweh’s controlling interest.

[15] See Dell, K.J, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, pp 35-56

[16] Dell, K.J, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, p 39, Blenkinsopp, J, Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament,’ p 48 suggests retribution was a common theological belief of the ANE.

[17] For example, Dell, K.J, Shaking A Fist At God, p 40, Dell suggests Job’s friends draw their theological inspiration from Proverbs.

[18] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?, pp 322-325

[19] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom: A reappraisal of the historical and canonical function of Ecclesiastes, (Eisenbrauns, 2006), p 15

[20] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ pp 323-327, Lucas, E, Proverbs: The Act-Consequence Nexus, forthcoming, p 4

[21] Van Leeuwen, R.C, “Wealth and Poverty: System and Contradiction in Proverbs,” Hebrew Studies 33 (1992): p 29, Lucas, E, Proverbs: The Act-Consequence Nexus, forthcoming, p 7 suggests these “better than” Proverbs

[22] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 326

[23] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 326

[24] A position adopted by the NIV but not the ESV, Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much,’ pp 329-330

[25] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?’, p 327,  notes “they are concerned with events under the sun and focus on the righteous man flattened on the mat for the count of ten; they do not focus on his rising, though they do not rule that out.”

[26] So much so that questions are raised as to whether Israel had any concept of an afterlife. It is fair to say that the notion of a resurrection had developed by the time Paul used it to split the Pharisees and Sadducees – so it is not an idea completely foreign to Old Testament theology. A case could, perhaps, be made for Job’s apparent change of heart regarding “retribution” (Job 27) to be attributed to an eternal view of the world and judgment coming at death.

[27] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?’, p 328 citing Crosser, W “The Meaning of ‘Life’ (Hayyim) in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes,” Glasgow University Oriental Society Transactions, 15 (1955), pp 51-52

[28] Wright, G.E, The Old Testament Against Its Environment, Studies in Biblical Theology, (London: SCM Press, 1950), p 44

[29] Sinnott, A, ‘The Personification of Wisdom,’ p 41 – Ma’at is important for personal immorality and the “entire basis for the Egyptian understanding of the world”, however, Fox, M.V, ‘World Order and Ma’at: a crooked parallel,’ suggests Ma’at is not a cut and dried “retributive” system

[30] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 333

[31] Zimmerli, ‘Expressions of Hope in Proverbs and The Book of Job,’ p 24

[32] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom, p 35 suggests that the “apparent distinctive thoughts of Qoheleth” have common ground with Ancient Near East wisdom well before the exile.

[33] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom, p 16 suggests the wisdom movement is Job’s target, and that the story of Job demonstrates that God is not subject to the retributive system that had been “established by the sage.”

[34] Waltke, B, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 323, Nonevangelical academics, tend to pit the optimism of the so-called older wisdom represented in the Book of Proverbs against the pessimism of the so-called younger, reflective wisdom represented in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.”

,

The Wisdom Literature as an Apologetic: Part Four

Part four of a pretty long essay. Here are parts one, two, and three.

With what shall we fix it? How “The Fear of the Lord” fits as a corrective

The Fear of the Lord has been identified as a unifying theme in the wisdom corpus for varying reasons.[1] It is a point of contrast with international wisdom, when the concept of “fear” is discussed in ANE literature it is to be directed towards the king.[2] Biblical wisdom, חכמה, focuses on fearing not one who controls created order, but the one who created and controls the order.[3]

The “fear of Yahweh” is a touch point of Jewish orthodoxy synonymous with faithful obedience (Deuteronomy 4:10; 5:29; 6:2, 13, 24; 10:12, 20).

The phrase occurs throughout Proverbs (Proverbs 1:7, 2:5, 9:10, 10:27, 14:27, 15:16, 15:33, 16:6, 19:23; 22:4; 23:17, 31:30, and an injunction to “fear the Lord” occurs in Proverbs 1:29; 3:7; 8:13; and 24:21), it occurs almost exclusively in the passages tied to Solomon (Chapters 1-24), and does not appear in those collected under Hezekiah.[4]

The passages linked to Amenemope and Ahiqar fall in passages attributed to Solomon. Those passages are either directly proceeded by, or followed by, a reference to fearing Yahweh (Proverbs 22:4, Proverbs 24:21, and Proverbs 23:17).

The phrase is also used to contrast with the teaching of wise (Proverbs 13:14) and the fear of Yahweh (Proverbs 14:27), with both considered as the “fountain of life.”[5]

The “Fear of the Lord” in Job

Job does not use the same Hebrew construction as Proverbs (preferring alternatives like אדני ראתי to יהוה ראתי).[6] A thematic link between fear, God, and wisdom is drawn several times (Job 1:1, 8, 9; 2:3; 4:6; 6:14; 15:4; 22:4; 28:28; 37:24).

Job 28’s wisdom poem is an important thematic point. Some see it paying homage to traditional “retributive” proverbial wisdom, which is then rebutted in the concluding chapters,[7] the view concludes that the “fear of the Lord” is not the complete answer to Job’s dilemma.[8] It seems more likely that this chapter is directed at foreign concepts of wisdom.

Greenstein (2003) argues that Job 28 contains deliberate correctives against ideas of godly wisdom from Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Canaanite, Akkadian, Ugaratic, Sumerian and Syrian poetic expressions of wisdom.[9] Job 28’s view of wisdom corrects two common ANE misconceptions of the source of wisdom, where wisdom was understood as originating from a distant God located either in the heights or depths of creation.[10] Job 28 locates wisdom not in the deep or the sea (28:1-22, especially 14), but in the fear of the Lord (28:28) because he knows where wisdom dwells (28:23), tests it (28:27). Chapters 38-42 establish Yahweh’s case for being feared. He is the creator of all things, and he holds them under his sway.

The “Fear of the Lord” in Ecclesiastes

The “fear of the Lord” is present in Qoheleth’s exploration of wisdom (Ecc 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12-13) and most importantly guides the interpretation of his work in the epilogue (12:13).

The epilogist sees the “fear of the Lord” as a fitting summary of Qoheleth’s quest. While some dismiss this insertion as a late intrusion that radically alters the message of Ecclesiastes,[11] Shead (1997) used a semantic comparison with the rest of the book to argue for a common author, and thus for the epilogue’s centrality in interpreting the text,[12] Shields (1999) concurs on the centrality of the epilogue,[13] specifically the centrality of “Fear God and keep his commandments” (Ecc 12:13),[14] but he rejects Shead’s structuralist approach.[15] Shields sees Qoheleth protesting against the wisdom movement – a group of professional sages operating in Israel, and indeed throughout the ANE.[16] A position best summed up in the teacher’s own words No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun… Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.” (Ecc 8:16-17).[17]

The “Fear of the Lord” and the nations

Israel’s covenantal blessing of the nations (Gen 12:3) is widely understood to have functioned centripetally.[18] This model of understanding the wisdom literature may call such an understanding into question. Israel’s obedience to Yahweh was to be a demonstration to the nations, who were to respond “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6). Wisdom had a role to play. Presenting a critique of wisdom of surrounding nations, and proffering a plausible alternative, may have been the impetus for the type of centripetal movement depicted in Micah 4:2.

Solomon’s dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8:41-43) desires that the people of the nations might fear the Lord. Psalm 96 has been described as a “missionary Psalm,”[19] it calls for declarations of his glory and authority among the nations (verses 3, and 10), calling them to fear him above all gods (verse 4). Kaiser (2000) suggests this is evidence of a centrifugal outreach in Israel.[20] The presence of this international interaction and the thematic importance of the “fear of the Lord” may provide some support for this view.


[1] Kidner, D, Wisdom to Live By (Leicester: IVP, 1985) p 17 sees it as salvaging the wisdom corpus from self-interest, mutiny and despair, Kaiser, W.C, Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978) p 170 suggests that it is the “organising theological principle” of the OT wisdom, Wilson, L, ‘The Book of Job and the Fear of God,’ Tyndale Bulletin 46.1 (1995) 59-79 provides an overview of its use in Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, Dumbrell, W.J, The Faith of Israel, p 264 identifies it as the theme of Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes p 285, Clements, R.E, Wisdom in Theology, pp 60-62, holds a post-exilic compilation of Proverbs, and thus a different purpose, suggests that the Fear of The Lord is to help post-exilic Jews realign their faith after the loss of land and temple.

[2] Wilson, L, ‘The Book of Job and the Fear of God,’ at p 62, cites Derousseaux, La crainte de Dieu, 21-66 who studied the occurance of ‘fear’ in Egyptian, Akkadian, Aramaic and Ugaritic texts. Interestingly the king, in Egypt and Mesopotamia, mediated between the gods and society “maintaining the social order in harmony with nature and the divine” see Wright, G.E, The Old Testament Against Its Environment, Studies in Biblical Theology, (London: SCM Press, 1950), p 63

[3] On its uniqueness in Wisdom literature see Ruffle, op. cit, p37,

[4] Steinmann, A.E, ‘Proverbs 1-9 as A Solomonic Composition,’ Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 43/4 December 2000, pp 659-674 at p 666

[5] Stay tuned for the bit below where “life” in Proverbs and Egyptian wisdom get mindblowingly explored…

[6] Wilson, L, ‘The Book of Job and the Fear of God,’ pp 66-67 suggests this is consistent with the Fear of Yahweh employed elsewhere.

[7] Wilson, L, ‘The Book of Job and the Fear of God,’ pp 69-73

[8] Wilson, L, ‘The Book of Job and the Fear of God,’ p 73

[9] Greenstein, E.L, ‘The Poem on Wisdom in Job 28 in its conceptual and literary contexts, Job 28: Cognition in Context, ed. Van Wolde, E.J, Leiden:Brill, 2003, pp 253-281

[10] According to the second model, wisdom is hidden from human view and is hidden in the depths of the earth. According to the first model, a solar-like divine power can bring the hidden to light and illuminate its details. Both models underlie the poem on wisdom in Job 28. Greenstein, E.L, ‘The Poem on Wisdom in Job 28 in its conceptual and literary contexts, Job 28: Cognition in Context, ed. Van Wolde, E.J, (Leiden:Brill, 2003), p 263, he later identifies a favourable comparison between Yahweh and a Babylonian Sun God, because Yahweh, in Job 28 “sees and penetrates into all that is hidden, can see to the bottom of the earth as well, and it is therefore he alone who knows where wisdom is located.”[10]

[11]I am much more interested in dealing with the final form of the text than engaging in source criticism – Wilson, L, ‘The Book of Job and the Fear of God,’ p 63 agrees – suggesting that the epilogue both affirms the questioning nature of the book and provides a foundational principle for daily living.

[12] Shead, A. G, ‘Reading Ecclesiastes ‘Epilogically’’ Tyndale Bulletin 48.1 (1997) 67-91.

[13] Shields, M.A, ‘Ecclesiastes And The End Of Wisdom,’ Tyndale Bulletin 50.1 (1999), p 121,

[14] Shields, ‘Ecclesiastes And The End Of Wisdom,’ p 124

[15] Shields, ‘Ecclesiastes And The End Of Wisdom,’ pp 121-124

[16] Shields, ‘Ecclesiastes And The End Of Wisdom,’ pp 125-129 – regarding the presence of similar ideas in the Ancient Near East: “Qoheleth’s words have always (so far as we can determine) troubled those who have read them and tried to understand them against the background of the faith of Israel. They do not fit easily with the wisdom of other sages as recorded in Proverbs (or, for that matter, from other sources in the Ancient Near East), and the wisdom of Qoheleth’s contemporaries could probably also be included. Consequently, it would be tempting to dismiss Qoheleth’s words and adhere to the more traditional conclusions of the sages (which could perhaps best be described as ‘pleasing words’). The epilogist here makes clear that the words of Qoheleth are true. Where other sages may have offered different advice, they are the ones who should be considered to be incorrect—not Qoheleth.”

[17] Shead, op. cit

[18] Kaiser, W.C, Missions in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), p 37, Scobie, C.H.H, The Ways of Our God: An integrated approach to Biblical Theology, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2003) p 520

[19] Kaiser, W.C, Missions in the Old Testament, pp 34-36.

[20] Kaiser, W.C, Missions in the Old Testament, p 35

,

The Wisdom Literature as an Apologetic: Part Three

Here is part three of my essay on the wisdom literature. Here’s part one, and part two.

An International Affair

The reference to Solomon’s wisdom “surpassing that of Egypt and the wisdom of all the men of the east “(1 Kings 4:30) invites us to compare Israel’s wisdom with the nations,[1] and it is therefore feasible to expect similar interactions between wisdom literature linked to Solomon and the wisdom literature of the ANE.

Parallels have been established between the wisdom of Israel and the wisdom of Babylon, Egypt,[2] and Sumer,[3] Canaan, [4] and the Akkadian empire.[5]

What about the language barrier?

Rumours of a language barrier seem greatly exaggerated. This oft-cited objection to comparisons, on the basis of language,[6] appears to have been turned over by the discovery of a multi-lingual library of wisdom literature at Ugarit.[7] This discovery of documents from geographically disparate locations in a city close to Israel, written in Akkadian, Sumerian, Hittite and Egyptian languages suggests this barrier may be an overstated obstacle and that ANE scribes were internationally conversant.[8]

In any case the biblical picture of Israel’s struggle with foreign idols, and interactions with neighbours, does not suggest this barrier posed significant communication problems.[9] Israel was clearly conversant in foreign theology, and only a brave “argument from silence” could suggest that this was not a two-way conversation.[10]

The writers of biblical texts are well known to have used forms and genres common elsewhere in the ANE.[11] Even the Solomonic historiography (1 Kings 3-11), which firmly establishes wisdom as a defining theme of Solomon’s reign,[12] is consistent with ANE royal propaganda.[13]

Same, Same, but Different

The Book of Proverbs shares much in common, even some content, with the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope,[14] other similarities between the structure and rhetorical devices[15] of Proverbs and other works from the ANE have been noted,[16] Ecclesiastes also embraces common ANE wisdom structures.[17]

Ruffle (1977) suggests an Egyptian scribe working in Solomon’s court may have reproduced the Amenemope passages citing “plenty of evidence” for cultural contact between nations,[18] and argues this view is consistent both with the context and biblical account.[19]

It may be possible to demonstrate that wisdom borrowing was a two-way street, if Proverbs existed in some form around the time of Solomon then it is possible that the Aramaic Wisdom of Ahiqar, dated between the 7th and 5th centuries BC,[20] may have borrowed from Proverbs.[21]

Several Mesopotamian documents have been strongly linked to Job.[22] The Baal sagas from the temple library of Ugarit shed further light on ANE theology corrected in Job, where Yahweh is presented as being in control of the chaos of creation.[23]

Hurowitz (2006), in a survey of the theological content of a Babylonian wisdom piece The Wisdom of Supe-Ameli concluded that the critique of wisdom contained in Ecclesiastes “criticises accepted and widely held didactic wisdom” from the ANE.[24] Similar connections have been made between Ecclesiastes and the Gilgamesh Epic,[25] a specific example of dependency comes in the form of the cord of three strands motif employed in Ecclesiastes (Ecc 4:9-12) and Gilgamesh (lines 106-110) “Two men will not die; the towed rope will not sink, a towrope of three strands cannot be cut. You help me and I will help you, (and) what of ours can anyone carry off?”[26] Other similarities have been noted with the Babylonian The Dialogue of Pessimism,[27] and several of the texts also compared to Job, and Egyptian texts The Songs of the Harper, The Dispute of a Man with His Ba, and the Instruction of Ptah-hotep.[28]

Such comparisons often fall into the same trap experienced by the proverbial pair of hunters who encounter a fresh pile of manure in the woods.[29] Some deny any grounds for comparison,[30] others note significant similarities but see divergent theological views as evidence of little or no influence,[31] and minimalists raise questions about the nature of revelation,[32] and see an opportunity for source criticism.[33] All agree that Hebrew wisdom deliberately creates a monotheistic distinction from conventional ANE thought.[34] This deliberate distinction, not the similarities, should provide the most fruit for understanding the relationship between similar works.[35]

Wright suggests Israel’s wisdom thinkers and writers took part in an international dialogue “with an openness to discern the wisdom of God in cultures other than their own,”[36] and that such comparisons lead to the conclusion that there was “a lot of contact between Israel’s wisdom thinkers and writers and those of surrounding nations.[37]


[1] Longman III, T, How To Read Proverbs, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2002)p 62 agrees.

[2] Whybray, N, ‘The Social World of the Wisdom Writers,’ p 242 suggests Israelite wisdom literature constantly received influence from Egypt, and elsewhere in the ANE, and suggests Israel was never totally isolated from the mainstream of ANE culture.

[3] Zimmerli, Walther, ‘Expressions of Hope in Proverbs and The Book of Job,’ Man and His Hope in the Old Testament, Studies in Biblical Theology, SCM Press, London, 1971, p 13, “We know too that it [Old Testament wisdom] stands in international relationship to equivalents in Egypt as well as in Babylonia, and before that in ancient Sumer.” for more on comparisons with Egyptian wisdom see Beaulieu, P-A, ‘The Social and Intellectual Setting of Babylonian Wisdom Literature,’ p 8,

[4] Ruffle, ‘The Teaching of Amenemope and Its Connection With the Book of Proverbs,’ Tyndale Bulletin 28, (1977), p 35, citing Albright, W. F. Wisdom in Israel and in the Ancient Near East, Leiden (V. T. Stipp. 3) (1960), pp 1-15.

[5] See, for example, Beaulieu, P-A, ‘The Social and Intellectual Setting of Babylonian Wisdom Literature,’ pp 3-19, Bruce, F.F, “The Wisdom Literature of the Bible: Introduction,” The Bible Student ns 22.1 (Jan. 1951), p 7, on the comparison with Babylonian wisdom see Hurowitz, V.A, ‘The Wisdom of Supe-Ameli,’ Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel, ed Clifford, R.J, Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series No 36, SBL: Atlanta, 2006, pp 44-45, Ruffle, op. cit, 36

[6] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom, p 40, suggests the Hebrew literature uses a vocabulary unparalleled in similar texts in Egypt and Mesopotamia, but he cedes that the parallels between the literature suggests some common ground.

[7] Fyall, R.S, ‘Job and the Canaanite myth,’ Now My Eyes Have Seen You: Images of Creation and Evil in the Book of Job, New Studies in Biblical Theology 12, (Downers Grove: IVP), pp 191-194

[8] Clifford, R.J, The Wisdom Literature, p 38

[9] Certainly not when it came to Israel adopting the gods, or women, of  neighbouring nations.

[10] Rahab’s testimony would be one notable example of a foreigner coming to Yahweh having heard stories of his greatness.

[11] Clifford, R.J, The Wisdom Literature, p 24

[12] The vast majority of occurances of הכם in the so called Deuteronomic History occur in this passage – see Lemaire, A, ‘Wisdom in Solomonic Historiography,’ Wisdom in Ancient Israel, ed Day, J, Gordon, R.P & Williamson, H.G.M, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 1995, p 107

[13] Lemaire, A, ‘Wisdom in Solomonic Historiography,’ p 113, Crenshaw, J.L, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 2010 Edition, pp 44-46

[14]Especially chapters 22:17-24:22 which fall within a “Solomonic” section, Early academic discussion surrounding the issue is summarised at length in Ruffle, J, ‘The Teaching of Amenemope and Its Connection With the Book of Proverbs,’ Tyndale Bulletin 28, (1977), pp 29-68, Crenshaw, J.L, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction, pp 252-260

[15] The two rhetorical devices in the introduction (Proverbs 1-9) a father instructing his son, and the personification of wisdom and folly, were common ANE frameworks for wisdom instruction, see Day, J, ‘Foreign Semitic Influence on the wisdom of Israel and its appropriation in the book of Proverbs, On the personification of wisdom as a Semitic, and Egyptian, tradition see pp 60-69, and on the instruction from a father to son see the treatment of the Wisdom of Ahiqar, pp 65-66, on both see Sinnott, A, The Personification of Wisdom,(Ashgate Publishing: Aldershot, 2005), pp 44-45, Longman III, T, How To Read Proverbs, p 70-77

[16] Ruffle, op. cit, 36

[17] Crenshaw, J.L, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), pp 28-31

[18] Though he ultimately plays down the significance of similarities between Proverbs and Amenemope, Ruffle, J, ‘The Teaching of Amenemope and Its Connection With the Book of Proverbs,’ Tyndale Bulletin 28, (1977), pp 65-66, the idea of Egyptian sages being employed in Israel’s court also surfaces in Hubbard, ‘The Wisdom Movement,’ p 6

[19] Ruffle, op. cit, p 66, his evidence includes specific mentions of foreigners holding senior positions at the Israelite court, and the suggestion that some of Solomon’s officials have Egyptian names

[20] Millard, A, ‘In Praise of Ancient Scribes,’ Bible And Spade, 2 (Spring-Summer-Autumn 1982) pp 33-46 p 40

[21] Day, J, ‘Foreign Semitic influence on the wisdom of Israel and its appropriation in the book of Proverbs,’ Wisdom in Ancient Israel, ed Day, J, Gordon, R.P, & Williamson, H.G.M, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp 55-71 – Day establishes a comparison, and the presence of a direct quote in Proverbs 23:13-14, but suggests Ahiqar has priority, arguing for a later than 1000BC composition of that passage in Proverbs, Steinmann, A.E, ‘Proverbs 1-9 as A Solomonic Composition,’ Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 43/4 December 2000, pp 659-674 at p 666 suggests a dating around that time is feasible, however, Whybray, N, ‘Thoughts on the Composition of Proverbs 10-29,’ p 71 suggests Ahiqar was an Assyrian document contemporary with the Israelite monarchy.

[22] Clifford, The Wisdom Literature, pp 70-72 identifies three Mesopotamian comparisons – the “Sumerian Job” A Man and His God, “I will Praise the Lord of Wisdom” or Ludlul bel nemeqi, and The Babylonian Theodicy – which Clifford argues directly influenced Job, Andersen, F.I, Job: An Introduction and Commentary,  (Leicester: IVP, 1974) pp 24-27, identifies a Ugaritic story called Keret, and an older Sumerian poem, as grounds for comparison, Blenkinsopp, J, Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament: The Ordering of Life in Israel and Early Judaism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p 69, mentions those works and the Dialogue of Pessimism as possible comparisons, Kidner, D, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes, (Leicester: IVP-Academic, 1985), pp 125-141 also mentions the aforementioned documents. Von Rad, G, ‘Job 38 and Egyptian Wisdom,’ The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, (London: Oliver and Boyd, 1965), pp 281-291 suggests a comparison between Job and the Onomasticon of Amenemope, and the Papyrus Anastasi I, suggesting structural similarities between the two, Perdue, L.G, Wisdom Literature: A Theological History, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), pp 85-89

[23] Fyall, R.S, ‘Job and the Canaanite myth,’ Now My Eyes Have Seen You: Images of Creation and Evil in the Book of Job, New Studies in Biblical Theology 12, (Downers Grove: IVP), pp 191-194

[24] Hurowitz, V.A, ‘The Wisdom of Supe-Ameli,’ Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel, ed Clifford, R.J, Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series No 36, SBL: Atlanta, 2006, p 45

[25] Bruce, op. cit, p 8, Kaiser, W, Ecclesiastes: Total Life, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979) pp 38-41 discusses ANE parallels to Ecclesiastes

[26] For a more detailed comparison see Day, ‘Foreign Semetic influence,’ pp 59-62

[27] Greenstein, E.L, ‘Sages With a Sense of Humor: The Babylonian Dialogue Between a Master and His Servant and the Book of Qohelet,’ Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel, ed Clifford, R.J, Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series No 36, (Atlanta, SBL, 2006), originally published in Beth Mikra, 44 (1999), pp 97-106

[28] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom: A reappraisal of the historical and canonical function of Ecclesiastes, (Eisenbrauns, 2006), pp 29-31 draws comparisons with the Babylonian Theology, Ludlul bel nemeqi, and the Instructions of Ahiqar, also Kidner, D, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes, (Leicester: IVP-Academic, 1985), pp 138-139, also Crenshaw, J.L, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), pp 51-52

[29] One says to the other, “what’s that?” the other answers “it looks like deer droppings,” and leans down to smell it,“it smells like deer droppings,” the other tastes it “it tastes like deer droppings!” “Oh,” they both say, “it’s a good thing we didn’t step in it.”

[30] Andersen, F.I, Job: An Introduction and Commentary, (Leicester, IVP, 1974), p 24 identifies, two extremes to avoid when examining comparisons between Job and ANE literature. The first is to contend enthusiastically for the uniqueness of revelation, the second is to suggest that Israel invented nothing themselves.

[31] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom: A reappraisal of the historical and canonical function of Ecclesiastes, (Eisenbrauns, 2006), p 33, after a lengthy list of comparable documents Shields concludes that the similarities are vague enough to rule out dependency, though they place the books in an ANE context. Whybray, N, ‘The Social World of the Wisdom Writers,’ p 246 quotes McKane (1970) suggesting the theological correctives (specifically mentions of Yahweh) in Proverbs 10-29 are embellishments of “old wisdom” that was secular in nature, Ruffle, op. cit, pp 63-66 suggests that the pursuit of wisdom was so common that such similarities were inevitable.

[32] Enns, P, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the problem of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), p 39 – while not advocating the position, Enns suggests that foreign influence on scripture raises questions about the nature of revelation.

[33] A question articulated by Ogden, G.S, Qoheleth, (Sheffield:Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), pp 236-237

[34] Bruce, F.F, op cit, p 8, “These distinctive features belong to the unique revelatory character of Hebrew religion, with its emphasis on the one living and true God…” Wright, The Mission of God, p 446 “They approached the wisdom of other nations with the religious and moral disinfectant provided by Yahwistic monotheism.” Clements, R.E, Wisdom in Theology, pp 152-153 describes the ‘Yahweh-isation’ of ANE wisdom ideas, Longman III, T, How To Read Proverbs, p 77 calls it a process of “adaptation of ideas” into a broader Jewish understanding of the world. Whybray, N, Wisdom In Proverbs, pp 24-25 suggests that the presence of Yahweh in Hebrew literature isn’t enough to show that the wisdom teachings are religious in nature, but that this is consistent with borrowing from ANE wisdom – he calls references to Yahweh “superficial.”

[35] Enns, P, Inspiration and Incarnation, p 39 makes a similar case – criticising the assumption that the more a biblical text looks like its ANE equivalents the less inspired it is.

[36] Wright, C, The Mission of God,’ p 441

[37] Wright, C, ibid, p 444, Hubbard, ‘The Wisdom Movement,’ p 6 also comments on a dialogue between Israel and Egypt as part of an international wisdom movement.

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The Wisdom Literature as an Apologetic: Part Two

This is part two of my essay on the function of the wisdom literature. Feel free to disagree, it’s a pretty minority position (I can only find two people who vaguely agree with me). Here’s part one.

A Solomonic Rubric

Solomon is indelibly linked to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. Whether or not he was the actual author,[1] or this is simply a royal fiction,[2] this is an interpretive key,[3] placing the books alongside the Biblical account of his reign (1 Kings 3-11). In the broader ANE world, especially Egypt, wisdom and royalty went hand in hand.[4]

Solomonic Dating

It is plausible that a deliberate pursuit of wisdom, and collation of wisdom literature, began during Solomon’s reign (1 Kings 4:32),[5] and possibly that it served an educational purpose.[6] Those arguing for a late dating of Proverbs assume that Jewish wisdom evolved from short and incoherent to long and integrated,[7] a study of the structure of comparable wisdom literature from the ANE in around 1,000 BC established similarities, in length and form, to Proverbs 1-9,[8] further examinations established stylistic and linguistic parallels with Canaanite and Ugaritic literature,[9] chapters 10-29 were also found to be of the same ANE vintage as the rest of the book,[10] and a lexical study suggests a common author of the passages in Proverbs attributed to Solomon.[11] Ecclesiastes is often dated late because it is said to contain Persian loan words, Kitchen (1977) demonstrates that these loan words had their roots in ancient Semitic languages that pre-existed Hebrew.[12] Job can also plausibly be dated in this time.[13]

A pre-exilic dating is not necessary in order for the books to be engaging with ANE wisdom, or for a Solomonic rubric to be valid. The question of Solomon’s actual involvement with these works is ultimately interpretively irrelevant. They are, whether actually, or fictively (or both), tied to the account of his reign (1 Kings 3-11, and especially 1 Kings 4:29-34).[14]

Waltke (1979) suggests the comparison between Solomon’s wisdom and that of surrounding nations (1 Kings 4:30-31) implies “that his proverbs were a part of an international, pan-oriental, wisdom literature.”[15]

Wright (2006) suggests “any wisdom that is associated with Solomon must be connected with the Solomonic tradition that God should bless the nations in their interaction with Israel.”[16]

Solomon participates in an international wisdom dialogue with foreign leaders, judges justly, and blesses the ANE world in fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise (Genesis 12:3), in the manner envisaged by the Psalm 72. His international focus is evident in his prayer dedicating the temple contains an international injunction (1 Kings 8:41-43). It is also feasible to assume that the description of Solomon’s collection of wisdom crossed national boundaries.[17]

The aspects of his reign that I would suggest have bearing on our interpretation of biblical wisdom are as follows:

  1. An interaction with the ideas of the nations and their rulers and wisdom, and thus with the religious beliefs of the nations (1 Kings 4:29-34, 1 Kings 10:23-24)
  2. A theological focus, and corrective of international wisdom, based on the “fear of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:43).
  3. A desire to see the nations come before Yahweh, recognising his rightful position as creator of the world and the basis of wisdom and righteousness (1 Kings 8:41-43, 59-61, 1 Kings 10:9, Psalm 72).

Each of these elements is present in Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, and while each book has a distinct “wisdom” theme, they are internally theologically consistent when viewed through this rubric.


[1] Kaiser, W.C, ‘True Marital Love in Proverbs 5:15-23,’ The Way of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Bruce K Waltke, ed J.I Packer and S. K Soderlund, Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, 2000, p 111, and Kaiser, W, Ecclesiastes: Total Life, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), pp 25-29 advocates for Solomonic authorship of  Ecclesiastes – a very minority position.

[2] Kaiser, O, ‘Qoheleth,’ Wisdom in Ancient Israel, ed Day, J, Gordon, R.P & Williamson, H.G.M, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 1995, p 83, Whybray, N, ‘The Social World of the Wisdom Writers,’ Wisdom: The Collected Works of Norman Whybray, ed. Whybray, R.N, Dell, K.J, Barker, M, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005) p 238 puts Ecclesiastes in the Hellenistic Age, Clements, R.E, Wisdom in Theology, p 19

[3] The final form of Proverbs even pays homage to Solomon with a numeric link – it contains 375 lines, the numeric value of his name. Dumbrell, W.J, The Faith of Israel, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 2nd Edition, p 263

[4] Burdett, D, ‘Wisdom Literature and the Promise Doctrine,’ Trinity Journal 3 (Spring 1974) p 3, Clements, R.E, Wisdom in Theology, pp 104-109 on the royal nature of wisdom in Israel and the ANE, Brueggemann, W, Solomon: Israel’s ironic icon of human achievement, (Columbia: University of Southern Carolina Press, 2005), pp 116-117  follows Von Rad in describing a “Solomonic enlightenment,” though where Von Rad thought it was actual, Brueggemann sees fiction, Wilson, L, ‘The Place of Wisdom in Old Testament Theology,’ The Reformed Theological Review, vol 49, 1990, pp 60-69, at p 62

[5] Clements, R.E, Wisdom in Theology, p 18, Ruffle, J, ‘The Teaching of Amenemope and Its Connection With the Book of Proverbs,’ Tyndale Bulletin 28, (1977), p 35, Ruffle dates Proverbs in the reign of Solomon, suggesting the scribes and counselors mentioned throughout Samuel and Kings (2 Sa. 8:17; 15:37 20:25; 1 Ki. 4:3; 2 Ki. 22:8-10) were more than capable of producing the work, Whybray, N, Wisdom In Proverbs, p 20 suggest the wisdom movement may have originated under Solomon even if the claims of 1 Kings are hyperbolic.

[6] See Whybray, N, Wisdom In Proverbs, pp 19-21

[7] Steinmann, A.E, op. cit, at p 660, Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p 334, Clements, R.E, Wisdom in Theology, p 24 describes the process of evolution with Ecclesiastes posited as a third century BC product, and a post-exilic date for Job and Proverbs 1-9.

[8] Kitchen, K.A, ‘Proverbs and Wisdom Books of the Ancient Near East: The Factual History of a Literary Form,’ Tyndale Bulletin, 28, 1977, pp 69-114, This study also found that wisdom literature from the period often included an epilogue.

[9] Ruffle, ‘The Teaching of Amenemope and Its Connection With the Book of Proverbs,’ Tyndale Bulletin 28, (1977), p 35, citing Albright, W. F. Wisdom in Israel and in the Ancient Near East, Leiden (V. T. Stipp. 3) (1960), pp 1-15.

[10] Whybray, N, ‘Thoughts on the Composition of Proverbs 10-29,’ The Collected Articles of Norman Whybray, p 71

[11] Steinmann, op cit. pp 662-673

[12] Kitchen, K.A, ‘Proverbs and Wisdom Books of the Ancient Near East’, pp 106-107, Dumbrell, W.J, The Faith of Israel, p 284 argues for an early dating of Ecclesiastes on the absence of certain Hebrew constructions that developed later.

[13] Kidner, D, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes, (Leicester: IVP-Academic, 1985) pp 74-75

[14]Again, for the purpose of theological interpretation whether or not that account is historiographic propaganda or accurate history is largely irrelevant, Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom: A reappraisal of the historical and canonical function of Ecclesiastes, (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2006), pp 24-25 suggests that the allusions to Solomon can not be used for dating the work in a pre-exilic setting, but served to legitimise the works, at pp 26-27 he argues for such a dating on the basis of Qoheleth providing advice on life in a royal court.

[15] Waltke, B.K, ‘The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature,’ Bibliotheca Sacra 136 (July-Sept. 1979), pp 211-238, see also Fox, M.V, ‘World Order and Ma’at,’ p 37, Fox suggests Proverbs borrowing from Amenemope “proves communication was open for this most international of genres.”

[16] Wright, C.J.H, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, Inter-Varsity Press: Nottingham, 2006, p 448

[17] Ruffle, op. cit, p 66

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The Wisdom Literature as an Apologetic: Part One

I’ve mentioned my theory on the wisdom literature a couple of times, in passing. I’ve decided researching and writing just for my lecturer is pretty boring. So I’m going to post my thinking (in the form of my essay) here for you to critique. It’s long. So I’ll do it in parts. Here’s the intro:

Where wisdom fits

The wisdom literature has been described as the “embarrassing step-child of Old Testament theology,”[1] because of both the clear influence of other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) wisdom, and because there was no obvious synergy with “redemptive history” frameworks.[2] Some consider the wisdom corpus as natural theology due to an absence of direct redemptive action from God, rather than direct revelation.[3]

Difficult waters were muddied further by suggestions that Job and Ecclesiastes were so theologically divergent from the Old Testament, they must be considered “protest literature,”[4] produced to directly refute the so called “acts-consequences nexus” supposedly identified in Proverbs.[5] This system of retribution was a common ANE belief,[6] and it has been demonstrated that elements of Israel’s community had adopted such a position.[7] Such a reading of Job and Ecclesiastes is possible. But I suggest such retributive theology was a syncretism with foreign beliefs, that Proverbs itself sought to redress, and more broadly that biblical wisdom is partly a theological corrective of ANE wisdom, which was inherently religious.[8]

The pursuit of wisdom, and the production of wisdom literature, was an important intellectual and theological pursuit in the ANE,[9] it crossed international borders.[10] Examinations of the relationship between the biblical wisdom corpus and the wisdom of surrounding nations have arrived at varying conclusions, though all acknowledge cross-pollination of wisdom ideas. Many have rightly rejected the notion that Israel imported ideas from surrounding nations to develop their own cult,[11] but few have suggested that Israel deliberately interacted with these foreign ideas in order to push people towards a life appropriately geared to the Fear of Yahweh.

The foreign influence in the wisdom literature is apparent on the surface, Proverbs lists two foreign kings as authors, and none of the characters in Job are presented as Hebrew,[12] below the surface the wisdom corpus reveals a deep familiarity with contemporary ANE wisdom.[13]

This piece synergises the international influence, and the theological “protest” undergirding the text, by adopting an interpretive rubric that places the wisdom literature within Israel’s redemptive narrative. The wisdom corpus provides a Yahweh-centric approach to the same eternal questions as ANE wisdom, with the “fear of the Lord” offered as a theological corrective.[14]

Scholarly consensus is that wisdom literature describes Yahweh as the “guarantor of order that makes life in the world possible,[15] most ANE wisdom concerned itself with understanding that order,[16] Egyptian wisdom placed the order in the hands of the king, who controlled Ma’at, while Israel’s king sought to place the control rightly in the hands of Yahweh.[17]


[1] Brueggemann, W, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, (Fortress Press: Mieapolis), 1997, p 334, or “errant child” Clement, R. E, ‘Wisdom and Old Testament Theology,’ Wisdom in Ancient Israel, ed Day, J, Gordon, R.P & Williamson, H.G.M, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 1995, p 271

[2] Brueggemann, W, Theology of the Old Testament, p 334, a summary of the “redemptive history” understanding and its synchronisation with the wisdom literature can be found in Hubbard, D.A, ‘The Wisdom Movement and Israel’s Covenant Faith,’ Tyndale Bulletin 17 (1966) pp 3-33, on wisdom’s international origins and lack of covenantal features being interpretively problematic see Clements, R.E, Wisdom in Theology, (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992), 2002 Edition, pp 20-22

[3] Burdett, D, ‘Wisdom Literature and the Promise Doctrine,’ Trinity Journal 3 (Spring 1974) p 2

[4] Dell, K.J, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1991), Morrow, W.S, Protest Against God: The Eclipse of a Biblical Tradition, (Sheffield: Phoenix Press, 2007), pp 129-146

[5] Essentially the idea that righteousness automatically produced material reward, and wickedness produced punishment, for a discussion regarding how appropriate it is to find such a nexus in Proverbs see Waltke, B, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ Andrews University Seminary Studies, Autumn 1996, Vol. 34, No.2, pp 333-334 and Lucas, E, Proverbs: The Act-Consequence Nexus, forthcoming

[6] Beaulieu, P-A, ‘The Social and Intellectual Setting of Babylonian Wisdom Literature,’ Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel, ed Clifford, R.J, Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series No 36, SBL: Atlanta, 2006, p 7 suggests that “every important Mesopotamian text” presupposes that individual misfortune flows from failure to meet the prescribed actions of the gods, Whybray, N, ‘Two Jewish Theologies: Job and Ecclesiastes.’ Wisdom: The Collected Works of Norman Whybray, ed. Whybray, R.N, Dell, K.J, Barker, M, () p 180 – suggests the Old Testament shares the “naïve assumption that virtue brings its own reward” with the ANE world. Fox, M.V, ‘World Order and Ma’at: a crooked parallel,’ JANES 23, 1995 pp 37-48 urges caution with applying the Egyptian concept of Ma’at to this notion or a retributive order.

[7] Some argue that Israel developed a calcified reading of Proverbs and a notion of Deuteronomic blessings and curses being applied to the individual. Many have suggested that this is the underlying philosophy of Job’s three friends as they seek to explain his suffering. Their assumption that he is suffering as the result of this retributive theology leads them to place the blame for his circumstances wrongly on his head see Zimmerli, Walther, ‘Expressions of Hope in Proverbs and The Book of Job,’ Man and His Hope in the Old Testament, Studies in Biblical Theology, SCM Press, London, 1971, pp 16-19, Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom: A reappraisal of the historical and canonical function of Ecclesiastes, (Eisenbrauns, 2006), p 15

[8] Beaulieu, P-A, ‘The Social and Intellectual Setting of Babylonian Wisdom Literature,’ pp 6-7 a survey of Mesopotamian wisdom literature summarised the concerns of the “traditionally defined” wisdom books as “the rejection of hubris, the acceptance of human mortality, and ultimately on the submission to fate and to the order created by the gods.”

[9] Clements, R.E, Wisdom in Theology, (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992), 2002 Edition, p 17, Ruffle, op. cit, p 36, Clifford, R.J, The Wisdom Literature, (Nashville, Abington Press), 1998, p 40 “Biblical wisdom literature is thus truly international, being found in the great empires that dominated Israel’s world as well as in the geographically closer cities of the Levant.”

[10] See, for example, Whybray, N, Wisdom In Proverbs: The Concept of Wisdom in Proverbs 1-9, (London: SCM Press, 1965), pp 15-16 on the international conversation taking place between scribes and sages across international borders.

[11] For example, Fox, M.V, ‘World Order and Ma’at,’ p 48

[12] On the link this implies with ANE wisdom see Day, J, ‘Foreign Semitic Influence on the wisdom of Israel and its appropriation in the book of Proverbs, Wisdom in Ancient Israel, ed Day, J, Gordon, R.P & Williamson, H.G.M, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 1995, pp 55-56, Day suggests this international flavour means Israel’s “wise men” were more internationally minded than others within Israel.

[13] Wisdom that Von Rad points out is under the subject of divine judgment (Wisdom that is the subject of divine judgment (Isaiah 19:11; 44:25; Ezekiel 28:12ff; and Obadiah 1:8), Von Rad, G, Wisdom in Israel, p 319

[14] Williams, J.G, Those Who Ponder Proverbs (Sheffield: Almond, 1981), p 53, as an analogous point – scholars have long considered the Genesis account of creation as a corrective of creation narratives from surrounding cultures including the Enuma Elish a view that has reached broad acceptance with varying nuance. Enns, P, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the problem of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), pp 26-27 notes the comparisons with the Enuma Elish and suggests the contrast in theology was a deliberate contrast with the reigning Babylonian authority.

[15] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p 336

[16] This search for order has oft been conflated with the Egyptian concept of Ma’at, which has been traditionally understood as the personification of the truth or order underpinning creation – even the gods were subject to this order. Many have commented on its link with the presuppositions of Biblical wisdom – see Zimmerli, Walther, ‘Expressions of Hope in Proverbs and The Book of Job,’ Man and His Hope in the Old Testament, Studies in Biblical Theology, SCM Press, London, 1971, p 15, however Fox, M.V, ‘World Order and Ma’at: a crooked parallel,’ JANES 23, 1995 pp 37-48, at p 38 suggests the scholarly depiction of Ma’at as relating to order is wrong and that it almost exclusively means “truth and justice,” he suggests that the concept of a fundamental order of creation was foreign to both Israel and Egypt (p 41) and that Ma’at, like Yahweh, was understood as the “creator of order.” Clements, R.E, Wisdom in Theology, pp 45-46 suggest wisdom attempted to grasp the natural order of society, creation and the realm of human conduct.

[17] Fox, ‘World Order and Ma’at,’ p 41