Tag Archives: Job

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Friendship and Redemption in Hell’s Kitchen: Daredevil, Job, and Jesus

“Though I cry, ‘Violence!’ I get no response;
    though I call for help, there is no justice.
He has blocked my way so I cannot pass;
    he has shrouded my paths in darkness.
He has stripped me of my honour
    and removed the crown from my head.
 He tears me down on every side till I am gone;
    he uproots my hope like a tree.” — Job 19:7-10

The writers of Daredevil sure know their theology.

In season 1, Matt ‘Daredevil’ Murdoch went toe-to-toe with Wilson ‘Kingpin’ Fisk with both initially identifying themselves as the ‘good samaritan’ — reaching out to help the beaten and bloodied citizens of Hell’s Kitchen out of a ditch… only for Kingpin to end up declaring himself the ‘man of malicious intent’ (identifying with the characters in Jesus’ famous parable who put the poor, bloodied, citizen in a ditch, before the good samaritan came by). Plenty of people ‘generalise’ the figure of the Good Samaritan, as a picture of the ‘good neighbour’ — the sort of heroic person we’re all called to be, but this heroic figure who does what the religious leaders of Israel can’t, or won’t do is the archetypal good neighbour in Luke’s Gospel — a Christ figure; a picture of the despised outsider who pulls broken humans out of the ditch to restore them… This was pretty sophisticated stuff identifying Matt Murdoch with a certain messianic vision – superheroes are often thinly veiled Jesus figures, with Daredevil the veil is essentially transparent.

In season 2, Daredevil identified himself with the ‘suffering servant’ — taking the pain and suffering of his people on his own shoulders; sacrificing and suffering to deliver his people, believing there was some good in them, where The Punisher and the sinister ‘The Hand’ were more hellbent on slaughter. Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ is another messianic/Christ figure. Daredevil has consistently been Christlike in his Netflix iteration — right up to his apparent ‘victorious’ sacrificial death on behalf of his team, and the city, in The Defenders.

This is the opening image of season 3 — where a cross visually resolves itself into Matt’s cruciform body, emerging from flames, through water, and back into the land of the living. Matt has been through his own personal crucifixion. Death. Hell. Resurrection. But has he kept his soul? That’s in many ways, the driving question behind the narrative in this season.

Season 3 of Daredevil is every bit as theologically rich as the first two outings, while there’s a fascinating problem with a show being both deliberately theologically astute, and having a messianic protagonist who occupies the place of Jesus in the narrative (who can’t turn to Jesus to understand God’s character and plan)… this season links Matt to the Old Testament character of Job, in order to consider suffering, the question of God’s apparent absence, and the place of friendship.

Across three seasons Daredevil invites us to connect Matt Murdock, and so, by extension, Jesus, with the Good Samaritan, the Suffering Servant, and now Job. This is a rich reading of the narrative unity of the Bible — in fact, it’s cutting edge Old Testament scholarship to see a connection between Job and Isaiah’s servant — and if the writers aren’t making that connection deliberately, they are certainly providing rich fodder for viewers to explore how the Bible holds together… so long as Matt manages not to lose his soul. 

Old Testament academic (and now faculty member here in Brisbane, who, disclosure, is also a friend and member of my church), Dr Doug Green, gave a series of guest lectures in Brisbane while I was at college where he proposed a link between Job and Isaiah’s suffering servant (I wrote his lecture up here). He points out several linguistic links between the portrayal of both the Servant, Job, and righteous, God-fearing, Israelites in exile — those who shared the fate of disobedient Israel, and suffered, while still being faithful. He also makes the case that Job’s restoration is framed as a ‘return from exile’ — a resurrection. Job, and the suffering servant, become the figure who will lead Israel out of exile from God — death — and into life. A shared resurrection. The Good Samaritan is this sort of figure too — if the person in the ditch is also exiled Israel. In his lecture notes (that he provided, which were received in thanks) Doug says:

“Just as the Suffering Servant points forward to the intercessory – and more deeply, the atoning work of Christ – the same is true for Job. And because of this parallel to the Suffering Servant, as we see Job praying for his friends, we get a faint picture of Christ’s intercession on our behalf. In fact, Job’s prayer on behalf of his friends finds an echo in Jesus’s prayer for those who crucified him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).”

“…we should not interpret Job as a stand-alone piece functioning as a sourcebook for theological reflection on the general problem of human suffering. Instead it should be interpreted in close connection to Israel’s covenantal history. Combine this with the numerous connections to Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant, and that inclines me to understand Job (the character) as a righteous Israelite who experiences suffering (a metaphor for exile) but is brought out the other side to experience a double blessing (a picture of the end of Exile and the Age to Come). And ultimately this experience of inexplicable suffering in some way makes him fit to function as an intercessor (or mediator) for those who are the object of God’s anger…

… this intertextual and prophetic reading of Job as Suffering Servant allows us to at last draw a connection between Job and the eschatological suffering Servant, Jesus Christ (and ultimately to Christ’s Suffering people). It allows us to go back and read it as a pre-told story of Christ – the truly righteous and blameless one who suffers “unfairly,” as it were.”

This framework makes Daredevil‘s theological arc, across three seasons, particularly rich, and yet, having Matt operate as the Jesus-figure, participating in an essentially Christ-less Christianity, in the story creates a mind-bending paradox. There are plenty of crucifixes on display around the place, so it’s not that Daredevil invites us, visually speaking, to ignore the place of Jesus in Christian practice, but he is curiously absent from the overt displays of religion — he’s not mentioned in Father Lantom’s homily, he’s absent in Matt’s musings about the place of suffering for the righteous, and, in many ways, he’s absent from Matt’s messianic vision — beyond bearing the suffering of the innocent while punishing (though not executing) the redeemable guilty. Matt, as ‘the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen’ doesn’t embody the cruciform pattern of Jesus life — though Matt the lawyer, the Matt who looks for non-violent solutions and justice, is perhaps closer to the mark.

When we’re tackling questions of theodicy — God’s relationship to suffering, evil, and violence, in the real world — you just can’t do it without appealing to God’s self-revelation in Jesus; Daredevil’s answer is profoundly theocentric (particularly centered on God the father) and anthropocentric (particularly centered on humanity’s position with regards to evil and suffering). Jesus, in his full divinity and full humanity holds those two aspects of any answer to the question in tension. He’s more than just ‘God’s soldier’ acting in suffering, in the cross, God himself suffers. What Daredevil is good at, so long as we recognise the big answer to the big question of suffering involves this tension, is focusing on the humanity of suffering — and how Jesus is an archetypal sufferer. The servant. The Samaritan. Job. Daredevil. They are all ‘types’ that provide anticipation or echoes of the human life of Jesus. It’s legitimate for us to ask why suffering and evil happen, and where justice will be found if God appears to be stepping back — questions Daredevil explores — but, these questions are profoundly answered in the life of Jesus. The experience of Job, and righteous Israelites suffering in exile (the suffering servant), anticipate the suffering of Jesus.

Job is not just an account of suffering — but of exile from God, and restoration. It’s not just a theodicy, but is specifically connected to the suffering of the righteous. It’s legitimate for us to ask why the righteous suffer — as Matt does… but we have to consider that none of us can claim the righteousness of Job. But on with the show… which is also most rewarding if it’s not just about suffering — but about whether Matt is able to function as a hero while he is in exile from God.

At season’s opening, Matt has lost his mojo — more specifically, his powers that he saw as part of God’s calling, what made him a ‘soldier’ for God; capable of delivering justice, opposing evil, facing death, and helping the residents of Hell’s Kitchen out of their ditch. His loss of these abilities, and questions about what happened to Elektra in The Defenders’ finale, sets up a conversation with the nun looking after him in his convalescence (another Good Samaritan; though it turns out this nun has significant vested interests in his wellbeing, both spiritual and physical). Matt frames his crisis as ‘finally understanding’ where he stands with God. And he launches into a retelling of Job with himself as the ‘telos’ of the narrative; the one Job’s experiences point to… he is a new, and different, Job.

“The book of Job. The story of God’s perfect servant Job, who prayed every day at dawn with his knees on the ground and his face in the dirt. Slaughtered ten goats. One for each of his children, and burned them at the altar in God’s honour. Of all God’s soldiers, Job, he was the most loyal.

Sister: I know the story Matthew.

Matt: Well, then, you know what happens next. God murdered all ten of his children in cold blood, scorched every inch of Job’s land, lashed at his body until his skin was covered in bloody welts. God rained shit and misery on the life of his most perfect servant, and still, Job would not curse him. You know what I realised. Job was a pussy…

See. That was me sister. I suffered willingly. I gave my sweat and blood and skin without complaint, because I truly believed I was God’s soldier. I don’t any more. I am what I do in the dark now. I bleed only for myself… I’d rather die as the devil than live as Matt Murdoch.”

Matt has lost his connection to God; he’s now explicitly not a Christ figure… or at least, he bleeds ‘for himself’ and not for God… but somehow still wants to heroically bleed for others. He is not God’s ‘suffering servant’… He is not Job; or he is, but a different kind of Job. A Job who can’t fathom God’s plan and so, in his suffering, in God’s apparent absence — in exile — Matt turns his back on God… or tries to.

In the story of Job, Job is visited by a bunch of friends who try to explain Job’s suffering. Friends who visit him in his misery, and, rather than being a comfort, pile on more misery… mostly by giving horrible advice. Job’s friends speak as ‘wise’ voices from the nations around Israel… all except Elihu; who speaks with the pious, naive, voice of an Israelite who claims to speak for God. These friends seek to uphold God’s goodness, and blame Job… while Job defends his righteousness. Job is ultimately vindicated by God, he is a ‘righteous sufferer’ — a ‘suffering servant’. He is not suffering because he did something wrong. God has not abandoned him. And yet… he suffers.

Where Job, for the most part, is devastated, bemused, and conflicted by his suffering — and afflicted by his friends — while remaining confident of God’s goodness even in suffering, Matt goes another way, losing confidence with God… and where Job’s friends are useless in guiding him to a right way of understanding his suffering, Matt’s friends are redemptive and useful. And it’s his friends and their relentless presence with him in his suffering — and their good advice — that chart the path to redemption; in their faithfulness to Matt, they start to taste redemption for themselves.

The central moral dilemma in this season is the question of what should happen to Kingpin. There’s lots to this season around the development of a foe for Daredevil — Bullseye — who, incidentally, is the only character to don the red leather suit in this season — and there’s the thread around the mysterious nun and her interest in Matt… but Matt’s real dilemma isn’t how to take down Bullseye, or how to deal with the secrecy around this nun; it’s whether to stray from the path of righteousness; to truly enter the darkness.

In an interaction Karen Page has with Father Lantom while taking refuge in the church building, Father Lantom, Matt’s priest, articulates Matt’s theological vision — “whatever it is that you’ve done, or haven’t done, it can still be redeemed” — Karen says “I’m not so sure I believe that.” As Matt embraces the darkness he tries to push his friends away — he isolates himself from their counsel — like most of us do with our wise friends, or even that internal voice that says ‘stop’ as we embrace sin… he has decided to kill Kingpin, and doesn’t want to be told otherwise. He says he’s pushing them away in order to protect them from what he might become, to keep them ‘innocent’… While Karen and Foggy Nelson, Matt’s two friends, are initially convinced that Matt’s vigilante justice is not the answer, and that he should go ‘through the system,’ Karen starts to think that Matt should kill Kingpin. But Foggy… Foggy knows what straying from the path of righteousness would do to Matt’s soul — and, what it would do to their friendship as a result. His friends are true friends in the face of suffering — they won’t let him go, even when he tries to push them away, they are determined to be there for him, and to lead him out of darkness into the light — not just because he depends on that, but because their friendships do. His friends are faithful.

Foggy: Matt’s Matt because he believes that everyone deserves a shot at redemption.
Karen: Except Fisk.
Foggy: Everyone. It’s a Catholic thing. That’s why he doesn’t kill people. If he crosses that line Matt will never be able to forgive himself.
And being around us will just remind him of who he was and what he’s done.
Karen: Yeah, we’d really lose him, wouldn’t we? — Forever, this time.

From this point, Matt’s friends are relentless in their counsel that this would be disastrous; profoundly because it would represent him truly abandoning God, and his claims to be a righteous, suffering servant… for Matt to kill Fisk would represent his becoming Fisk. The visuals throughout this series on this note, where Fisk is presented in white (and as obsessed with a particular white artwork) and as a ‘warrior of the light’ — operating under 24/7 scrutiny as an FBI informant, while Matt dons the black, and occupies the shadows, are compelling. The tension in the narrative, shaping Matt’s decision, is the question ‘is there anything ‘white’ in Fisk? Is there anything that can be redeemed? And once he decides that there is, he can’t kill him — and in this, Matt finds his own redemption.

Matt’s showdown with Fisk is his apocalypse — it reveals who he truly is, and where God really is in suffering — that God is at work in redemption, forgiveness, and friendship. Where he has Fisk truly at his mercy, in that crucible moment, he stays his hand.

God knows I want to, but you don’t get to destroy who I am.

From this moment on the tension in the series is resolved; it’s the denouement, much like the epilogue at the end of the book of Job. Matt is restored. His relationships are mended. His rediscovery of his faith — his compass — doesn’t just put him back on the path of light, but Karen and Foggy are now linked with him again, sharing in the light and life of Matt’s discovery. He returns to the light. Bloodied. But restored. Truly resurrected. He has listened to his wise friends — and in his restoration, his redemption, they are all redeemed. They all discover the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. Much like Job ends up making sacrifices to restore himself and his friends to relationship with the life-giving God. And much like Jesus, the suffering servant, offers himself as a sacrifice to restore us to life and relationship with God and one another…

Matt connects his suffering to the moment that made him — the moment he was blinded as a child. There’s still no Jesus explicitly found in his theodicy, but there is the answer Job receives from God amidst his questions; that God is the artist and architect of this world, and our sight, like Matt’s, is human and limited.

See, I was pretty angry at God and bitter towards his world.
How could a loving God blind me? Why? Anyway, he told me God’s plan is like a beautiful tapestry.
And the tragedy of being human is that we only get to see it from the back.
With all the ragged threads and the muddy colors.
And we only get a hint at the true beauty that would be revealed if we could see the whole pattern on the other side as God does.

Matt realises that God’s redemptive plans for the world might involve a suffering servant; that they might involve a faithful Job, a Good Samaritan… it’s not just an ‘everything happens for a reason’ trite answer, but rather a discovery of who he — and we image bearers — were made to be in a world where suffering and evil exist. That we were made for life-giving friendships that allow us to enter in to the suffering of others, and to stand against evil, as we reflect God’s presence in his world.

“I realise that if my life had turned out any differently, that I would never have become Daredevil. And although people have died on my watch, people who shouldn’t have, there are countless others that have lived. So, maybe it is all part of God’s plan. Maybe my life has been exactly as it had to be.”

Matt realises that his priest, Father Lantom, modelled sacrificial love — the death of self — and that this sort of posture is freeing; that it drives out fear in the face of suffering. Matt can be the ‘man without fear’ again. Matt is now free to be Job; free to trust God. Free to suffer. Free to be a servant. God’s soldier… He is truly restored. Finally resurrected.

But Matt’s answer would be richer and fuller if he wasn’t totally occupying the place of Jesus in the story; if he, like Job, could respond to suffering — even suffering as one who is righteous by trusting God as redeemer, looking forward, like the rest of the Old Testament, to the truly righteous suffering servant; the Good Samaritan. Light in the darkness. God’s true answer to suffering, and the moment we see the real picture woven in the tapestry of our existence. Jesus.

I know that my redeemer lives,
    and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
    with my own eyes—I, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me! — Job 19:25-27

In Jesus we see real redemptive friendship. We see God. We see God, our friend, stepping in to our suffering — and taking on suffering, death, hell and exile, for us, to bring not just his resurrection, but ours, to end our suffering, exile from God, and death, by giving us life with God forever, so that we might face what comes without fear. Because our redeemer lives, and so shall we.

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How to make saying “Jesus is still king” actually something comforting, not something jerky and dismissive

Trump has been president-elect for a week now. And Jesus is still on his throne.

The fallout from the election has been pretty interesting, but perhaps the thing I’ve found most frustrating in it all… apart from the damage Trump’s election may or may not do to Gospel proclamation when it turns out the white evangelical American church was seduced by a narcissist who’d promise them anything and everything so he could get into power, and perhaps that he doesn’t really want to share that power with anyone… apart from that the thing I’ve found most frustrating is the rush to the Spiritual high ground in the midst of genuine lament. Which is what the statement “Jesus is still king” actually feels like (even if its well-intentioned and absolutely true).

One of the great failings of our modern western version of Christianity is the death of lament. I know this because this was one of the things I fought hardest against in college before giving up my objections. I didn’t think lament was important, I thought truth and the enlightenment that comes from it was what should give us comfort in the mess of life and suffering. But that’s terrible and inhumane. I’m now convinced from how we see lament play out in the Bible (in the wisdom literature and the prophets but especially in the words of Jesus on the cross) that lament in itself is part of the process of being human, and being comforted.

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). — Matthew 27:46

This is pure lament. In fact. It’s a quote from one of the Psalms of Lament (Psalm 22). It’s a deep irony that in the moment that Jesus is enthroned; he laments. We’ve lost that paradox. I suspect it might have been of little comfort to Jesus if someone had run up to him at that moment and said “but you are now on your throne” and “this is God’s grand and infinitely complex plan for the salvation of the world”… what sort of jerk would you have to be to do that in his moment of great suffering, in his moment of lament.

There is much to lament about when it comes to Trump’s election, especially if you’re already feeling marginalised in a society that favours the strong and dominant, or if you care deeply about such people, especially perhaps if you’d love more people at the margins of our society to know that the Gospel of Jesus is good news when many spokespeople for the Gospel of Jesus have started also proclaiming the counter-gospel of Trump. And by this I’m meaning ‘gospel’ in the political (and original) sense in which it is good news — the proclamation of the arrival of a king and their kingdom; and by counter-gospel I mean compare everything Trump says and stands for with the Cross and the beatitudes and anything Jesus ever said or did… There’s lots to lament, and perhaps some things to celebrate if you like your Supreme Court judges conservative and if that’s why you voted the way you did…  but that you are celebrating (which 81% of the white evangelical church may well be, though most of them apparently voted while holding their noses) does not give you space to invalidate the lament of others, or to simply proclaim this fundamental truth — the real Gospel — about Jesus being enthroned as though that should pull them from their grief. There are much better ways to make that truth ring out as a comfort to the grieving. Here are two things I think need to happen before people will hear this proclamation in any way that is helpful; those words are a necessary comfort, this isn’t a ‘preach the Gospel, when necessary use words’ thing, but a recognition that preaching is never just words. Ethos and pathos are part of the package of any proclamation of the ‘logos’. That is who we are, and how we say things, will always shape the way what we say is received and whether it is heard and effective.

Listen to, and join, people in their lament.

Evil sucks. Suffering sucks. Lament is a good response to that because the God we lament to does not stand apart from our suffering. Jesus is king, and that is meant to make a difference in the world, starting with the church. I’m as keen as the next person to scoff at the universities who are giving their students playdough and colouring in books to help them through grief… or to think people taking to the streets and looting probably isn’t really helping… that represents our prevailing culture’s paucity of resources when it comes to genuine lament and processing tragedy. And perhaps we’d have a counter-example to offer if we hadn’t systematically beaten lament out of the life of the church in pursuit of nodding head-smart piety. We need to rediscover how to lament; we need to make space for it, which means we need to listen to those voices who haven’t given up lamenting… those people who are suffering, without simply shouting truth into, or over the top of, it. And this, the election of Trump, is an opportunity.

Just because you aren’t lamenting doesn’t make lamenting invalid; maybe the victims of injustice have a better proximity to that injustice to decide how to respond… maybe, for example, white evangelical men (like me) aren’t actually in the best place to assess what Trump’s election means to women, or people of colour. Maybe we should listen to stories like this one about being an abuse survivor in church and reacting to Trump’s election before jumping in with the platitude that Jesus is king. We could also have listened to abuse survivors talking about the detrimental impact of Christian support of Trump before his election too… it wasn’t like there was no warning that a significant portion of our community would feel like this. Maybe we should be listening to the communities at the margins — the non-white communities, the LGBTQI communities, etc, and hearing their concerns — whether they’re in the church or not, before jumping in with proclamations that seem to make no difference to their day to day experience of marginalisation and fear? There is a way to make a difference, I think, and we’ll get to that, but the first step is to listen before we speak. To understand. And to join in the grief and lament we hear from our friends at what is wrong with the world.

What I learned in college, and continue to learn as I pastor people who are suffering, is that sometimes saying technically correct things can be true but unhelpful. Sometimes it’s best just to sit in and share the pain for a while; and to cry out in protest, anger even, to the God who is sovereign and the king who is enthroned. Sometimes you should shut up for a while and listen. Sometimes you should live out a truth in such a way that it allows you to enter suffering because you know it is temporary not just invalidate the reality of that suffering because you know it will pass.  One time where this is true is while people are grieving. And that’s one of the lessons we learn in the book of Job.

Job’s friends are jerks. Some of them say things that are just wrong; they tend to spiritualise a bunch of Ancient Near Eastern wisdom and give Job answers for his suffering that are just totally off base; that he’s being punished for doing wrong. That he’s not the righteous dude he thinks he is. That he’s experiencing retribution from God for sin. But the narrative of the book of Job consistently upholds Job as actually being a righteous man. The first three friends are rebuked for having Job wrong… but there’s this other guy, this other friend, who I think isn’t speaking Ancient Near Eastern truth to Job, but Biblical truth, only I think he’s not speaking this truth in a commendable way, and the narrative helps us get there if we read it carefully. Elihu, says things that are true, but just seems to be not all that much of a comfort or a friend to Job. Elihu is the guy who posts “Jesus is king” the day after Trump is elected. Elihu turns to the lamenting Job (who is lamenting for very good reason) and instead of being a human shoulder to cry on, he claims to speak for God, and he says:

“His eyes are on the ways of mortals;
he sees their every step.
There is no deep shadow, no utter darkness,
where evildoers can hide.
God has no need to examine people further,
that they should come before him for judgment.
Without inquiry he shatters the mighty
and sets up others in their place.
Because he takes note of their deeds,
he overthrows them in the night and they are crushed.
He punishes them for their wickedness
where everyone can see them,
because they turned from following him
and had no regard for any of his ways.
They caused the cry of the poor to come before him,
so that he heard the cry of the needy.
But if he remains silent, who can condemn him?
If he hides his face, who can see him?
Yet he is over individual and nation alike,
to keep the godless from ruling,
from laying snares for the people.” — Job 34

Basically he’s saying: “God rules. You won’t understand what he’s doing but he’s doing something so shut up with your yammering”… the pre-Jesus equivalent of “Jesus is king.”

I read Elihu’s words and think about the scale of tragedy that’s just been inflicted on Job — he’s lost his whole family, his wife, his children… everything. And I think “Elihu, you need to get out more” and many other swear words that I can’t write. When I read the opening of Job I imagine myself in his shoes, and the loss of all those I love… and that’s precisely what his friends should be doing when they approach him. Imagining and empathising. And it’s precisely where they fail… and where we often fail too.

There are plenty of pietistic readings of Job that jump on board with Elihu because he’s a brash, young, truth teller who seems to be doing the Biblically wise thing of starting wisdom with the fear of the Lord and speaking accordingly. But being a brash, young, hothead isn’t typically what a wise person looks like (when wisdom is described in Proverbs), so that Elihu is described as a bit of a hot-head should be a warning sign that all is not well when it comes to his words, even if they’re totally right (for more on this see my friend Arthur’s analysis of how the narrator treats Elihu). Pietism like this often feels like a case of leaving your humanity at the door and being God in a particular situation — seeing the world God’s way — and that’s a problem because we can’t throw our humanity out, and we’re not called to. A significant amount of the Biblical response to God ruling through evil despots is lament at God’s judgment even amidst the knowledge that God’s judgment is just and that God does rule. Habakkuk, for example, opens up his book with lament…

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.” — Habakkuk 1:2-4

He’s totally on board with the idea that what’s going on via powerful foreign kings who don’t stand for God’s kingdom is part of God’s sovereign plan, but he asks this totally legitimate question… And even if this suffering is God’s judgment, that doesn’t mean we just sit on the sidelines while people are suffering because it’s God’s job to judge and our job to be the cheer squad. Our job is to be human, and to love our neighbours. Or, as God condemns those who stand on the sidelines while his judgment is playing out in Obadiah 1… not being moved by the plight of those under judgment earns us judgment…

Because of the violence against your brother Jacob,
    you will be covered with shame;
    you will be destroyed forever.
On the day you stood aloof
    while strangers carried off his wealth
and foreigners entered his gates
    and cast lots for Jerusalem,
    you were like one of them.
You should not gloat over your brother
    in the day of his misfortune,
nor rejoice over the people of Judah
    in the day of their destruction,
nor boast so much
    in the day of their trouble.
You should not march through the gates of my people
    in the day of their disaster,
nor gloat over them in their calamity
    in the day of their disaster,
nor seize their wealth
    in the day of their disaster.
You should not wait at the crossroads
    to cut down their fugitives,
nor hand over their survivors
    in the day of their trouble. — Obadiah 1:10-14

Our job isn’t to jump in to God’s judgment as sword wielding head kickers like a little brother keen to dob on his sister so she gets more anger (and credit to Mark Baddeley from QTC for both pointing this out, and this example), our job is to be brother and sister, to be the friend who comforts our loved one as we see them suffering… whether they deserved the smack or not.

Now back to Job and Elihu… and the question of responding the right way to lament and suffering…

The God of the Bible, the God who speaks to Job, and who Job trusts in, is more than a distant God who sometimes chooses to remain silent. He is a God who lives, and who speaks, and who enters in to our suffering. That’s what Job’s friends should’ve done. Job’s friends — including Elihu — could’ve learned a lot from Jesus who joins us in lament to the point of his crucifixion where he takes those famous words of lament upon his own lips… as he suffers the world with us, and death for us. Jesus both models the human response to suffering, and speaks and lives God’s response to suffering… and it’s not simply platitudes. He gets alongside us in our suffering, and he also joins in the lament… then he does something about it by pointing us to what is good, and true, and beautiful, and eternal.

Cultivate a kingdom-within-the-kingdom where an alternative to Trump is lived out in a compelling and comforting way

When Trump was elected last week there were a bunch of people rushing to be ‘Elihu’; running to the Spiritual high ground to piously speak real truth in the face of genuine lament as though truth alone is enough to pull people from their grief into comfort. The spiritual high ground isn’t actually where Job wants us to end up though… it wants us on the ground looking up at truth about God, next to the grieving, not speaking down at them. The low ground might just be where real spirituality, and real knowledge of God, can be found. Especially if in Jesus we see the face and hands of the God who speaks to Job… and the answer to Job’s confident declaration in the face of his friends’ terrible advice (and terrible friendship).

I know that my redeemer lives,
    and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
    with my own eyes—I, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me! — Job 19:25-27

Speaking truth is really important; but so is where you speak it from. Truth without the attachment and emotion that come from empathy doesn’t actually comfort (in my experience giving or receiving it). Life doesn’t work like that. We’re more than simply brains on a stick waiting for a good argument to pull us out of our feelings. Feelings pull us out of feelings. Truth is helpful for this — but we feel truth emotionally as much as we know it intellectually; and providing an intellectual answer to someone who is lamenting, whether you think they should be lamenting or not, is a pretty jerky thing to do.

When we say “Jesus is king” and aren’t really living like it we’re actually undermining the truth of this statement and its power. We’re putting all our persuasive eggs in the basket marked ‘head’… When we say ‘Jesus is king’ to an abuse victim grieving that a bloke who turned abuse into a badge of honour, or worse, simply ‘locker room talk’ is now the most powerful man in the universe but aren’t at the same time creating a church community that thoroughly repudiates that sort of behaviour, well, I’ll let this anonymous storyteller’s words do the job

“So when I hear Donald Trump talking degrading women and talking about using their bodies, that’s not objective for me. He’s the representation of my abuser, writ large on a television screen and given a powerful platform.

However, my abuser wasn’t the only one by whom I felt violated. Christians failed me badly as well. When I revealed what had been going on, my family and I were advised by the pastor to leave the church. In our absence, lies, rumours and accusations circulated the church which were eventually fed back to us. “Everyone knows he’s a bit handsy – why is she being so sensitive?” [Why was the ‘handsy’ guy allowed to be a youth leader if everyone knew?] “Maybe she asked for it.” “It was just once.” [It was 2 years of planned assault, by his own admission.]

So when I hear Donald Trump brag that the women he assaulted enjoyed it, it’s personal, because the same things were said about me. And when I hear others minimise what he did, it’s personal, because my testimony was also despised.”

The way this case was handled is terrible, and we can’t say it’s isolated (nor is it perceived to be isolated). We have a Royal Commission going on in Australia that makes it pretty clear that our house isn’t in order on this stuff. This story is terrible precisely because it represents a failing to live the truth that Jesus is king — the king who came to bring sin to light and destroy it — in such a way that might bring comfort and security to this victim or to others… So when Christians say “Jesus is king” in response to genuine lament, what this person hears is something quite different.

When we say Jesus is king and aren’t living it by pursuing a community that looks like his kingdom (especially if we’re not living it by running to attach ourselves to the centre of worldly kingdoms) the effect is the same on every community marginalised by the community-at-large; and when we respond to tragedy just with these true words, but without pursuing his kingdom with our actions, we’re not actually engaging with where real truth and change and comfort happen. This is a failure of our church to fully imagine the sort of world that this deep truth will ultimately create; that it starts creating through us now.

Imagine a church where abuse victims feel not just heard, but safe. Where their testimonies bring real change because they are taken seriously; where the community is committed to bringing dark things into the light on the big stuff, and that shapes how we approach life together on the small stuff.

Imagine a church that is able to thoroughly, and with real integrity, speak against the abuse happening outside its community because we’re known for taking it so seriously within our community.

Imagine how much more comforting this proclamation would be if our ethos matched our logos; if our community matched our proclamation. If we were a place where the LGBTQI person grappling with their identity and their sense that despite the popular rhetoric they’re oh so very different from their neighbour felt loved and welcomed and safe and able to explore what “Jesus is King” might mean for them?

Imagine if we were a community not just dedicated to treating people as equal regardless of their skin colour, but pursuing justice even at the cost of our own privileged place in the world, and our own comfort.

Imagine if we were trying to tackle racism not just in our affirmation of the image of God in all people at an individual level, but in figuring out what it means for our gatherings and communities to be shaped by different cultures and hearing different voices, not just the dominant white male voice that has tended to make marginalised or minority communities feel like participating in church means becoming white or leaving their own cultural expressions at the door (or not creating the phenomenon of churches that are mono-ethnic and drawn from these minority communities, who create these communities for various reasons that mostly look like our failure to imagine church life together in which the Gospel is plausible for different cultural groups, thus meaning we lose the opportunity to hear their voice).

Imagine the richness of a church community that made space for many voices and many cultures rather than building mono-cultures. Imagine the comfort that’d come from those many voices together proclaiming “Jesus is king.”

Imagine if those words; which are basically the message of the Gospel; were not an empty platitude but a political mantra that described our approach to life in the world; lives dedicated to living out his coming kingdom together.

Imagine if we understood the words “Jesus is king” as where real power lies, and the source of real politics and so didn’t run as fast as we could to attach ourselves to worldly power; be it the democratic process, popularity, or the powerful leader; but instead ran to our suffering neighbours to live with them and comfort them in their suffering, and to the powerful to rebuke them; where in both cases our lives and words model the truth we proclaim.

Imagine how those words “Jesus is king” would be heard then, if they weren’t simply a detached platitude, unmoored from the life we live in the world; or a social media ‘hot take’… the words of young angry hotheads (typically removed from the suffering) who are desperate to tell the world that God really is in control (and he is) in a way that shows how very wise we are.

You may have just imagined what the church should look like. What’s it going to take to get there?

I think it’s going to take less people rushing to be wise like Elihu, and more people responding to suffering and lament, like Jesus. Who joined the chorus while absolutely doing something about it; while securing a lament free future by becoming the enthroned king.

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). — Matthew 27:46

That Jesus is king is a great comfort; but it is made truer and greater still when you sit with the suffering and look up, understanding what’s really at stake, than it is when you stand apart from suffering and look down.

Book Review: Paradoxology

I’ve spent the last year having my mind blown by four big ideas.

One. The story of the Bible, centred as it is on the death and resurrection of Jesus, required an incredibly intricate amount of planning and execution, which I think is the mark of a truly sublime story.

Two. The way the Bible’s narrative becomes richer if you see the Image of God as a vocational calling to be the living God’s living ‘idols,’ such that turning to, and being shaped by, dead idols is a fatal mistake that undermines the foundation of what it means to be human, and turning back to God, via Jesus, who carries out this vocation perfectly, is where we rediscover what it means to be truly human. Like the people we were made to be. The whole Old Testament seems to explore what happens to people when they live like the God who brings life calls them to — as his representatives — or forget who they are made to be, chasing after things that are sources of death, not life.

Three. What happens to a bunch of theological questions — especially surrounding the Cross, and the questions we want to throw up as objections to God — when you grapple with the concept of infinity, and the idea that God is infinite and we are not.

And four. Just how essential paradox is to Christian theology — which is especially cool when paired with a growing sense I get when I try to understand crazily intelligent scientists (of the Quantum Physicist variety) that being comfortable with paradox is foundational to heaps of modern science.

I’ve thought about other things too. And thinking almost always blows my mind. But these are incredibly untapped wells. Thinking too much about paradoxes and infinity hurts my head, in a way that gives me hope that I’m on the right track… But I do think there’s a whole lot of meaty thinking in these two areas both for Christians and skeptics alike. When we fail to defend Christian belief without these two head-hurting ideas in the mix I think we’re selling our belief short. Think about the essential paradoxes at the heart of Christianity. The Trinity being one God in three persons. Jesus being fully human, and fully divine. The Bible being fully human, and fully inspired. God being fully in control of creation, but our experience suggesting we are fully in control of our own decisions… these go on. And on.

There are also heaps of really tough questions Christians need to, I think, be able to answer. For ourselves, even if not for others. Questions about God’s character and actions in the Old Testament and at the Cross (I tried to articulate my view on this question here), the question of why evil exists at all in a world where God is said to be infinitely good, and infinitely in control (I had a stab at saying what I think on this question here). I don’t think science is a good reason not to believe in the God of the Bible —  but I think these questions, and others like them, might be. If we can’t answer them. I can certainly understand people who choose these objections as reasons to walk away from God. Another challenge is, of course, why the church — the people of God — are so very disappointing on so many fronts, from institutionalised abuse, through to the ongoing existence of the brokenness that pervades all our relationships still existing in this community that is meant to have things more together.

Enter Krish Kandiah’s ParadoxologyHere’s a video promo.

It’s a pretty sensational book, I enjoyed its honesty and its humanity. Its willingness to ask questions. I want to say, right from the start, that I would absolutely and wholeheartedly recommend reading it, buying a few copies, and lending it to people. I’d give it to people without expecting to need to have massive conversations defending the content of the book — but there were just a couple of points at which my own personal idiosyncrasies meant I wasn’t quite satisfied with his answers. We’ll get there below.

I love the weight given to the book by Krish’s real life examples. The questions aren’t asked in isolation from real life — each chapter, each paradox, includes examples from Krish’s experience, both as a convert from a largely non-Christian family, in his own family life, and from his ministry. He seems like an absolutely stand up guy. I have no experience of this other than reading about him online, but the presentation of his life, in pixelated form, suggests he embodies the life this book calls us to live. His willingness to ask questions, and to deal openly with alternative answers to some of the paradoxes he raised, demonstrates the kind of intellectual integrity that I think is absolutely essential to any sort of ethical persuasion. I won’t deal with everything he deals with in depth — suffice it to say, the paradoxes mentioned above are all dealt with, with charity, humility, and grace. The book moves from paradoxes raised in the Old Testament to paradoxes raised in the New. There are crossovers, of course, where some paradoxes are only truly resolved by the paradox at the heart of the Bible’s story — the incarnation, where Jesus, the divine son, a person of the Trinity, becomes human. And is executed. I felt a little like this was a weakness — I had to read all the way through to that chapter to really get a satisfactory (at least for me) answer to the what Kandiah calls the Abraham Paradox and the Job Paradox. But that’s a minor quibble, when you think about it, because the Bible functioned in the same way for people who read the OT before Jesus arrived on the scene.

I highlighted 357 passages in the book. According to my Kindle stats. And I’m looking forward to revisiting them as I preach, write, and think, about some of the questions Kandiah tackles.

I’m never sure how useful any book is going to be in actually persuading people to shift their thinking on the question of God. There are plenty of times in Paradoxology where I felt like I was convinced, or had my beliefs reaffirmed, because I already accepted a bunch of the categories Kandiah was operating with, but I wasn’t sure how useful some of those categories would be for people who’ve thrown the theology baby out with the theistic bathwater. If, like Dawkins, a reader thinks all theological categories are hogwash until proven otherwise, this book doesn’t necessarily undo that thinking. It does present Christianity as intellectually coherent, and stimulating, and I think it does a pretty good job of removing theology from abstraction and showing how belief in God and acceptance of a bunch of Christian categories for thinking about the world does have a real pay off for how we live. I think the real benefit for de-churched readers is that Kandiah tackles many objections that people who have a familiarity with Christianity might bring to the table in a winsome no-holds-barred (or no-questions-barred) way, quite removed from a defensive group-think mindset that some might be expecting. While, for the unchurched, or those of other faiths, Kandiah frequently compares his robust Christian account of a paradox with alternative attempts to reconcile the same observations of the way the world is (and various senses of the way the world ought to be).

Again. This is one of the books I’ll be having on hand to work through with people — probably particularly Christians who are struggling with concepts of God that feel too black and white, or simple, but also with people who are prepared to give Christianity some serious thought, the kind of thought where one is prepared to entertain mystery and paradox without needing to resolve them into a neat package.

There were heaps of passages I really enjoyed in the book. Here’s a sampling — and one or two very minor quibbles.

I love this definition of faith.

“The belief that faith is by definition a blind leap into the unknown is so prevalent that often unbelieving friends will say things to me like, ‘I wish I could believe like you do, but I think too much.’ This might sound like a gracious compliment but it is actually an insult – perhaps unwitting – and might be better phrased: ‘I respect your faith, but I’m just not as gullible as you.’ They may as well have said: ‘I used to believe in the tooth fairy too.’ Many people have described faith as believing what you know isn’t true. Richard Dawkins, the vocal atheist and zoology professor, dismisses it as ‘the process of non-thinking called faith’. But the Bible refutes this. Looking more closely at Abraham’s story, there are three things that we can establish about the nature of true faith. First, faith is not a leap in the dark. The Bible’s stories, including this episode in Abraham’s life, are all intended to refute this mis-definition of faith. The Bible is full of testimonials that present reasons for trusting in God. Jesus himself described his words and his miracles as ‘evidence’ for belief. The step of faith is an informed decision. This may sound like a paradox, but it is one we live with every day. Take, for example, the mundane but potentially life-changing decision to cross a road…

…When it comes to crossing a road, we gather evidence with our eyes and ears, and when we are reasonably confident that it is safe, we step out in faith and aim for the other side of the road. Similarly, when as Christians we take a step of faith, we use judgement based on gathered evidence and previous experience, and, trusting in our convictions, we move forward. Abraham had his eyes wide open when he decided to lead his son to Mount Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice. He had evidence that God would fulfil his promises. He had already experienced the miracle of God’s provision of Isaac. He had seen that God could bring dead things to life. He knew that his future was safest in God’s hands. So it was an immensely challenging, but not an intrinsically irrational, step to keep trusting God.”

His most powerful chapter — perhaps because it’s the question I personally find most vexing — was the Joshua Paradox, an exploration of the Canaanite genocide. Coupled with the Job Paradox, an exploration of the question of suffering, you’ve got two chapters which, by themselves, are a reason to buy the book. These are the questions he sets about answering:

How do we reconcile the paradox of a God who has compassion on the Jewish nation through all their failures, but then commands them to show no compassion towards other nations? How can a God of love order the annihilation of a whole people-group, the mass slaughter of men and women, old and young, and even animals too?

“Whether we are forced to watch the suffering of others, or experiencing suffering in our own lives, we desperately want to know ‘Why?’ Why does God stand passively by when there is so much suffering going on all the time?”

I like his answers. But I do wonder if one aspect of the answer to the question of how we’re meant to feel in the face of the Canaanite thing is similar to how Job is told to feel, by God, in the end of the Book of Job. It’s not just, as Paradoxology suggests, that God is judge, that the people of Canaan are being judged justly, that our very existence (in the face of universal condemnation for sin) is a merciful gift from God, and that God accommodates people and achieves his purposes by using the only kind of war available at the time — though I think these are all true. There’s also the sense that we’re meant to be uncomfortable in the face of these stories. We’re meant to react as humans. To be compassionate rather than robotic in the face of pain. To empathise with those facing God’s judgment — judgment we also deserve.

Even as God continues to use war and evil to carry out his purposes— assuming that’s how the Romans 13 reality operates, where Governments are appointed by God —we’re meant to do what we’re called to do, as people who follow Jesus, love God, and love our enemies as we imitate our crucified king. We should be moved by compassion, and a sense of injustice and horror about the reality facing other humans, even if this reality is tied up with God’s judgment. I think Kandiah is right, in the video, and the conclusion of the book, to remind us that a properly robust relationship with God includes being prepared to voice our feelings, and our protest, and that this is part of not being crippled by paradox.

It’s nice that Paradoxology deals with Joshua and then Job. Because Job is kind of the human reaction to suffering on a micro-level, rather than a whole nation suffering, we get Job suffering. And asking questions. And being comforted by a bunch of ‘wise’ friends.

I love Job. It’s taken me a while to get my head around exactly what’s going on. Job’s friends spout a bunch of worldly wisdom at Job. They look like they’re doing the right thing, and what they’re saying could have come out of the pages of Wisdom Literature from around the Ancient Near East. They think they’re being Job’s friends. But they’re not. They’re saying a bunch of stupid stuff. The importance of understanding the nature of their ‘friendship’ will, hopefully, become clear in a moment.

Kandiah suggests one of the dilemmas presented and resolved in Job is the question of where God is in suffering.

“Why does he criticize our tendency to walk on by on the other side of the road when we see people in need, when he himself sees all suffering and yet chooses to do nothing? Does God not care? Does God not understand? Or perhaps he is, after all, incapable of stepping in? God’s deliberate policy of not fixing things when we are suffering highlights one of those universal paradoxes – we believe that God is active and powerful, so if he does not intervene, we are forced to conclude that this God is actively choosing to be passive”

Again. The Job Paradox is a stirring chapter. But here’s something I wondered as I re-engaged with Job, and read this chapter. What if Job’s friends acted like Jesus? What would that do to the Book of Job’s approach to the paradox of human suffering and God’s apparent absence?

Here’s how Kandiah sums up the story of Job.

“The book of Job challenges the premise of the paradox that God is either too weak to stop suffering or too mean to bother to do so. This book asserts that there are circumstances when an all-powerful and all-loving God might allow suffering to take place. Acknowledging this point is very difficult to grasp, most of the book of Job argues the opposite case.

Job receives a seemingly endless cycle of visits and lectures delivered by his so-called friends Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu. They all assume more or less that ‘if you sin, you will suffer’ and equally, ‘if you suffer, you have sinned’. They spend hour after hour, page after page, repeating this line of reasoning. Sometimes it feels that Job’s counsellors might be just trying to wear him down with their many words. It makes the book difficult to read, let alone understand. Perhaps the exasperating experience of reading the book of Job is intentional, as we encounter the obtuse and yet insistent counsellors.

Maybe finding Job’s friends infuriating acts as a warning to us to avoid their mistakes. They are earnest and well-meaning, but they are almost completely wrong in what they assume about God, Job and the universe. Perhaps too we may be reminded of the need for genuine humility, the need to be slow to speak and quick to listen. If we follow this advice we will be able to avoid causing some of the pastoral and emotional damage that Job’s friends bring.”

What if Job’s friends had come to Job with wisdom beginning with the Fear of the Lord — exactly the wisdom God confronts Job with at the end of the book. The sort of wisdom that the Israelites who read the finished book of Job hopefully picked up, and carried with them, as they comforted friends and family members (and neighbours) in the midst of real suffering? Surely the real way to be a friend in suffering is not to speak empty words, but words of real comfort (or to just sit, and speak no words at all). Surely the real way — later modelled at the Cross — is to enter into, and share in, the suffering of another, in order to alleviate it.

I love the link Kandiah draws between Job and Jesus… he hints towards what I think might be a profoundly challenging answer to people asking where is God when people are suffering…

“The book of Job points us to another time when an innocent suffered because God’s honour demanded it. The paradoxes that trouble us in thinking about God’s character coalesce around what we as Christians believe to be the most important events of human history – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. On the cross we see the perfectly innocent and blameless Jesus suffering due to no fault of his own. What Job was asked to do involuntarily, Jesus volunteered for. Satan was not allowed to touch Job’s life – Jesus gave up his life.

Ultimately, God has not been passive about the evil in the world: he has actively submitted himself to suffer on our behalf. As we shall see in the paradox of the cross, it is because of Jesus’ death that the sin and suffering of the world will be finally resolved. This has two important implications, which help us with the paradox of pain. First, when we suffer we are not further away from but rather drawn closer to the one who suffered for us. Second, when we reach out to relieve the suffering of others we are most like God, because God did everything that was necessary to deal with the evil and suffering in our world.”

If the church is the body of Christ, if we’re united to Christ, if we’re being conformed into his image by the Holy Spirit, then surely part of the answer to the question “where is God in suffering” in our world, is that God is there wherever the Church is seeking to provide comfort in a wise way. God is not absent unless we choose to make him absent, by absenting ourselves. I think God can certainly be present without his church, but our responsibility is to really love our neighbours, like Jesus did, not like Job’s friends did. This was one of the points at which it might have been structurally helpful for Paradoxology to have front-ended the Jesus Paradox. The fullest account of all the other paradoxes is shaped at the foot of the Cross.

It’s a great book. Buy it. Read it. Give it to your friends.

Here are some other bits that I loved.

“…It is only because of our limited time-bound vantage-point that God appears to be unpredictable, when in fact his actions are entirely consistent with his character. We only see a glimpse of what God is doing. Our lives are like a screen-grab from a movie. We can only comprehend a tiny fragment of the total picture, so it is hard for us to understand what God is doing. Imagine that you had never seen the classic Disney Pixar movie Finding Nemo, and you were given a single frame of the film and asked to guess the storyline. In this single image is a tiny orange clown fish talking to a huge shark. You can marvel at the colours, at the amazing graphic skill the digital artists have achieved, and the strange posture of a hunter communicating with his prey. But you couldn’t know whether this is the end of the film or the beginning. You couldn’t tell whether the shark is about to eat the clown fish, or if the clown fish has managed to talk down his aggressor. There is certainly no way of telling that the shark is a jolly aspiring vegetarian who is deeply moved by the clown fish’s story of loss and determination. One picture cannot possibly give enough background information to guess what happens next. Compared to the eternal purposes of God, even a decade of our lives is like that freeze frame in a movie. Of course, God can zoom in and know every miniscule detail of our daily lives, but we are incapable of zooming out to see our lives with the advantage of distance, bigger context or retrospect.

So what should we do when God’s actions (or his inaction) seem unpredictable or irrational? God’s response to Habakkuk is to tell him to … wait for it … yes, to wait for it…

Waiting is difficult, though, because we like to feel we are doing something. But the waiting that God asks for is not tedious passivity – he encourages us to wait actively, giving ourselves to God’s purposes in the world. Waiting involves continually living by the values of the coming kingdom, knowing that one day they will be vindicated by God himself. Waiting is also difficult for us because the more we have to do it, the more we are inclined to give up hope. But waiting can be a powerful testimony of our true allegiance.”

And, on the Cross…

“Imagine watching the ultimate heist movie with, of course, a priceless diamond arriving at a museum. The alarms are set to cover every inch of the display hall, and weight sensors are sensitive to the nearest gram. Extremely careful planning is necessary by the prospective thieves so that at the decisive moment an unnoticed switch or substitution can occur. The diamond has to be replaced by something that is exactly its weight, or all the alarms will sound and the caper is over. This image gives us an inkling of what was going on when Jesus died on the cross. This particular substitution had been planned in minute detail since before the beginning of time itself, and signposted throughout the Jewish Scriptures. You can see those signposts from the moment that sin entered the world. God had promised that if humanity sinned, death would result, but in the Garden of Eden the first thing to die after the fall were not sinful human beings but animals, sacrificed to provide fallen people with the clothes they needed to cover over a nakedness that was no longer appropriate in a world contaminated by sin…

God was building up to the exact moment that his Son Jesus was born in Israel, at a time when the country was under Roman occupation. The death of Jesus involved the ultimate substitution. Jesus’ death did not just satisfy but fulfilled the sacrifice system set up in the Old Testament.

The cross of Jesus is the place where all of God’s plans come together. X marks the spot: this place, this time is where God is resolving the great paradox of history. God uses the tiny details of history to solve the riddle of the universe, demonstrate his perfect love and redeem his broken world.”

Dealing with genocide in the Bible

I had a crack at answering the conundrum that is the violence of the Old Testament in an essay in first year. And again in preparation for an exam last year. I’m still working out exactly what my answer to this moral question is – I think I’ve decided I was wrong in my earlier efforts to get my head around this issue.

I think I’m closer to the answer, and I’m hoping writing this post helps me get closer again… it’s a complex question, so it requires quite a bit of complex working out. And this post is some of my working. It’s long. It’s the longest post I’ve ever written. So maybe grab popcorn or something. Or just skim it. I thought about making this a series of posts, but I’d rather just have one long one, and not occupy people’s feed readers for days. Sorry. Skipping one post is easier than skipping eight.


Brick Testament rendition of Joshua 10:30

So did God carry out genocide in the Old Testament? And does that matter?

I think he did. And I think it does.

But not in the way the the New Atheists want to think it happened – or matters. I think most people operate with far too small a picture of God. A picture of God that looks like a big human, who should act like a big human, and should be judged like a big human.

This issue is much more complicated than flat and ‘literal’ readings of the text made popular by the likes of the New Atheists allow, and I can’t understand the indignation these Dawkinesque types direct towards a God they don’t even believe exists…

The question isn’t really “did God do this” – either he did or he didn’t. If you don’t think God exists then you’ve really got nothing to complain about when it comes to the events described in the Old Testament. If there’s no God involved then Israel should, according to the narrative, be commended as the little guy who did everything they could, against the odds, to survive amidst nations of bullies – who did worse things enemy children than kill them in battle.

The question is, if God did this, why aren’t we rising up in rebellion against him and trying to take him out in some sort of cosmic battle? The old epics are full of this stuff. Why are people so keen to worship, love, and revere him? Why are people prepared to speak of him as good?

What Christians are really being asked when they’re asked this question is “how can you be part of something like this, rationally, aren’t you better off writing it off as a nasty myth?”

But anyway, here’s a walk through my present thinking on this question… It’s quite possible I am wrong. It should always feel wrong to be appearing to be defending genocide, especially if it involves the death of children.

I don’t think it’s going to be satisfactory to everybody. It possibly won’t be satisfactory to anybody. But this will be where I send people when they ask me what I think about violence or genocide in the Old Testament. It’s meant to be comprehensive. It’s hopefully a helpful window into how I can still be a Christian while acknowledging that there are things we understand to be shocking in the Bible.

And if you’re one of those people I’ve sent here in the future, or you’ve been sent here by someone else – I want you to know four things.

Firstly, I just want to say from the outset that you don’t need to worry – I think there’s a big difference between something being described in the Bible and something being prescribed (or commanded) in the Bible.

Secondly, I really don’t want to shirk things here. I don’t want to dodge the question. I don’t want to pretend there’s nothing that looks like genocide in the text of the Old Testament (or, perhaps more importantly – though I’m largely dealing with the Old Testament – in the picture of Hell, God’s judgment, in the New Testament). I also don’t want to defend God, or defend the authority of the Bible. God doesn’t need me. He speaks for himself, through the Bible. I’m ultimately, in this piece, trying to defend the rationale, in my head, for thinking it is morally and intellectually coherent to submit to, and revere, the God of the Bible.

Thirdly, I quote big chunks of the Bible here – for two reasons, I want to show my working, and show how I think the Bible accounts for its own content, and secondly I don’t want to assume that you, dear reader, are necessarily familiar with what the Bible says, or that you’ll look it up. I’ve tried to bold the bits that are extra significant for my argument so that you can skim. I’ve used headings to break up the monotony of the text, and to help you skim to bits that might scratch the itch that has brought you here.

And lastly, if you don’t stick around to the end of the post (because it’s quite substantial) – it’s important, I think, that you consider the character of the God who Christians believe is behind both the Old and New Testaments – an infinite God who sends himself into a finite world, to a death on the cross, for people. This is a big deal.

Bigger than we can grasp.

We who are born to die, for whom death is a day to day reality – we sort of take death for granted. It’s part of our daily assumptions and decision making process. It’s real. But God dying? An infinite and immortal God – a person of the Trinity – becoming man and dying, is actually a really, really, big deal. It takes a bit of a revolution in our thinking to get that. But how many human lives is one infinite life worth? Mathematically speaking?

Using a poor analogy – how many ants is it ok to kill to save one human life? I think we’re approaching the magnitude of the cross when we get a sense of that question.

Anyway. If you want to read on…

Continue reading

Also (pretty official)…

I have a new day job. For January at least. But I haven’t signed any of the paperwork yet. Doing some marketing of some sort for a government department that houses books. I’m not sure what the rules about writing about this sort of thing are yet (because I haven’t started). But it’s pretty providential timing. And I’ll be working with my friend Amy. Who is an occasional commenter here. Should be fun. I like the idea of not completely losing my marketing/PR skill set. But this job also has some nice menial components to it which won’t entirely do my head in during the college break.

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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.”

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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

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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.

,

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

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Doug Green on Job

Doug Green, another member of faculty from Westminster Theological Seminary, is guest lecturing on Job now. This is some of his speculation. Let me stress, speculation, on Job. Here are my notes…

Questions of authorship and date are pretty irrelevant (Doug Green has shifted in his thinking on this). Job seems to be an ancient story, and the text of Job in our Bible seems to be the “God ordained” version of the text… the question he asks is: What is it about Job that encouraged or invited its readers to consider it worthy of its spot in the Bible?

How did they discern that it was actually scripture. What is it about the book that when we read it we say “it’s Biblical” – this question was settled long before any modern councils (or post AD councils) – Israel valued Job the same way it valued Torah and Prophets.

Theologically it doesn’t “become” Scripture. It is Scripture. But it takes people to discern that. The path to canonicity for the “writings” was more rocky than the law and the prophets. In the redemptive historical tradition in which he stands is that the Bible is an unfolding story of redemption (ie following Geerhardus Vos). The Bible is the product of, and gets its shape from, the great narrative of redemption. At its core the Bible is a history book – the history of a covenentally structured relationship. This relationship has an ethical dimension to it.

The Bible tells a story to people living in a story and tells them how to live in that story.

The Psalms are not just a hymn book, but a prophetic book and a redemptive history of Israel…

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon – don’t seem to be reflections on redemptive history but on a creation theology. The first verse of these books all have a hook on them to redemptive history. The beginning of these books says “make a connection between these books and Solomon” – there’s something that connects them to this figure from Israel’s history. Could there be a post-exilic use of Solomon to make a point for post-exilic Israel? Doug hasn’t found the connection yet. I reckon it might be something to do with this

Job is an anomaly. He’s not Jewish, he’s not connected to Israel in any particular way, and yet the book is both now, and historically, part of Scripture.

Job is a blameless and upright man. He contends for his innocence in chapter 31.

The Satan in Job is not the devil, but rather the leader of the opposition.

Job’s friends appear to be applying Deuteronomic theology to Job (if you’re righteous God will reward you, if you’re suffering you’ve done something wrong). They work backwards from his suffering to prove that he is not blameless and righteous.

Job steadfastly maintains his innocence and calls for his day in the celestial court. Job eventually earns YHWH’s rebuke. But initially YHWH comes down on Job’s side (between Job and his friends). Nothing in the book suggests that Job is anything but blameless or innocent (this doesn’t mean sinless). He’s sacrificing, so he’s probably atoning for sin…

Job’s life moves through three stages – from the good, to the bad, to the better. That’s the Bible’s redemptive story in a nutshell.

Job’s recovery from his calamity involves a metaphorical resurrection from death. It’s proto-resurrection language. The concept of exile and the concept of death are closely related concepts. For example, the Garden of Eden – on the day you eat this you will die – he didn’t die, but he did get exiled. This opens up interesting readings of Ruth also – if exile = death and return = resurrection…

The transition from the bad to the better is summarised in 42:10 – the Hebrew should best be translated “The Lord turned/repented the captivity of Job” – elsewhere in the Old Testament this phrase is used with reference to Israel’s return from exile (Deuteronomy 30:1-3). This (Deuteronomy 30) is how Israel’s story will end. The language is picked up and used throughout the prophets to describe Israel’s return/restoration from exile.

By using this same language to describe Job’s return from his conditions is the author/redactor encouraging us to read Job as a parable of the righteous remnant of Israel as they join naughty Israel in exile. Does it answer the problem of why the righteous are lumped in with the unrighteous?

Is it expressing Israel’s hope of a blessed return from exile.

Objections to this treatment of Job are based on the Hebrew words in question – it’s only elsewhere used to discuss the treatment of nations, this is the only use of the word with regards to an individual.

Doug wants to avoid illegitimate totality transfer – but he thinks the original readers were more likely to draw parallels between this use of language and its common use with regards to national restoration.

Job’s description as a “servant of YHWH” could possibly, possibly, be a link with Isaiah’s suffering servant…

Job’s speeches throughout the book contain syntactical and lexical similarities to the suffering servant language in Isaiah.

Are our current readings of Job to sober – we’re trained as moderns to read very carefully and with discipline. Ancient Jewish readers draw connections between texts that we think are a little too long a bow to draw. They read with much more abandon…

Is there anything in the text that links Job to the suffering servants or to exiled Israel. Reading Job either as a type of the suffering righteous member of Israel in exile has been dismissed by sober “enlightened” readers who want one particular meaning or interpretation. Some have said this view doesn’t account for the richness of Job.

But are there enough things in Job that suggest we should read it in line with the Suffering Servant and Israel’s exilic context. The Targum (early Jewish interpretation) depicts Job as a Torah keeping Israelite. Perhaps even a righteous Israelite.

This pulls Job into the great narrative of redemptive history – like the latter part of Isaiah, and Daniel – books that are commentaries on the conundrums of exile – the suffering of righteous members Israel. It’s a reading that turns into an additional commentary, not just a generic commentary on suffering, but on this non-covenental treatment of the righteous members of Israel. Who should have expected to remain in the land…

Doug concludes: There is a huge circle in his argument – the assumption of redemptive history filtering through Scripture effects the way he reads Job. It’s not necessarily developed by the text itself without this framework.

But if it’s right – Job isn’t purely a “wisdom book” it has a connection to the history of Israel’s redemption. It’s a theological account of Israel’s experience. It can be read as a parable of the experience of the righteous suffering in Israel. It gets pulled into the orbit of the Suffering Servant prophecy. It takes on a prophetic nature when read in dialogue with Isaiah (eg Isaiah 53) we can now draw a connection between Job and Jesus. Christian readings are always Christotellic (directed to Christ) – not Christ under every rock, but a story that ends up with Christ. Christ is the archetypal innocent sufferer.

Christological ramifications – the incomprehensible sufferings of the righteous, the question of why the righteous suffer sits unanswered until Christ comes.

Job has this intriguing role as intercessory for his friends – “go to Job, he will pray for you”… there’s a hint that the suffering servant’s job is to mediate for the unrighteous.

One of the intriguing things at the end of Job is that the three daughters are named, and the sons are not… another striking thing about the three daughters is that they get an inheritance. Normally this happens when the sons are dead. But in this ending of Job (a picture of the age to come – perhaps) the daughters are named, and inherit alongside the sons. Job, the feminist. It’s an intriguing “age to come” ending.

He calls Psalm 44 “Job’s Psalm”…