Tag Archives: Solomon

Crossing the Jordan, finding Jesus: redeeming wisdom and re-casting masculinity in conversation with Jordan Peterson

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction. — Proverbs 1:7

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. — Proverbs 9:10

Jordan Peterson is a wise man. But just how wise he is depends on how much the these claims about wisdom are real. And if they are real; just how much one is prepared to acknowledge that not being as wise as you can be — articulating a wisdom apart from the real ‘fear’ of the Lord — is actually a form of folly. And if it’s folly, then such that if we were to doggedly follow him as a wise man, when some truer wisdom is out there is to adopt an incomplete picture of how to live. And so here, humbly (mostly pointing to the wisdom of others), I’d like to offer some suggestions to those who find the sort of wisdom Peterson offers in his videos, and his books, including his just 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote For Chaos appealing.

Peterson’s 12 Rules are strongly built on a foundation that reality occurs along a spectrum of chaos and order; the ‘ying and yang’ of Taoism; that in fact, these ‘forces’ or orientations, held in balance, are at the heart of the cosmos and the human psyche. He personifies chaos as feminine, which he argues is ‘archetypal’ but has rightly frustrated many women (especially because he has so caught the imagination of young men). The first chapter, on lobsters and dominance hierarchies, almost got its own post such is its suggestion that for men to get women to swoon over them, and date them, they need to capture some sort of ‘will to power’ and stand up straight… there was some stuff in that chapter that I felt had the tendency to leave ‘upstanding’, or ‘dominant’ men feeling entitled to be loved, and thus righteously angry at their advances being rejected.

In many ways his insights are a bit like some of the Proverbs we find in the Bible; axioms we can live by as we pursue an understanding of the ordering of the cosmos and what a ‘good life’ in that cosmos looks like. One thing the book of Proverbs teaches us is that a certain form of wisdom isn’t limited to Christians; but absolute truth about the world; a sort of ‘realer’ wisdom involves connecting truths about creation with the creator. Proverbs is structured as a series of bits of advice from a father to a son about how to be a man; it’s really a set of reflections for the nation of Israel about how to be the ‘son of God’; living well in God’s world; but scholars have long noticed that not only does Proverbs borrow large chunks from ancient wisdom (including not just content, but this form — advice to a son), it engages with a fundamental idea common in the ancient world… that the world is ultimately a balance between order and chaos. There’s an Egyptian goddess — Ma’at — and belief in Ma’at underpinned much Egyptian wisdom, including the Wisdom of Amenemope (that Proverbs quotes extensively). Here’s a bit of detail about Ma’at

“The central concept of Egyptian wisdom literature lies in its understanding of the goddess Ma’at. The daughter of the primordial creator god Amon-Re (although in later times she came to be associated with the Memphite god Ptah), Ma’at symbolizes both cosmic order and social harmony. Thus, Ma’at is not only that force which ensures the regularity of the sun god’s path across the sky each day (surely the most visible sign of an orderly universe!), but she is also order, justice, and truth in the human sphere. These two aspects of Ma’at should not be viewed as mutually exclusive, however: for the ancient Egyptian, cosmic order and moral order were inextricably bound up with one another. This may best be seen in the office of the king—the king ruled by making the concept of Ma’at the fundamental moral basis of his reign, and by doing so, reestablished order on the cosmic plane, as it was during “the first time” of creation.” — Carole Fontaine, ‘A Modern Look At Ancient Wisdom — The Instruction of Ptohhotep Revisited,’ Biblical Archeologist, 1981

More recently Michael Fox wrote ‘World Order and Ma’at: A Crooked Parallel,’ (published in the Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society in 1995), where he said:

“Ma’at, whose etymological sense is straightness, is not order as such. It is, rather, the force that creates and maintains order, namely justice/truth, a concept that we subdivide, perhaps artificially, in English…  Ma’at is order: the just and true working of society maintained or restored by the efforts of God and man. On a cosmic scale, Ma’at does displace or “drive out” evil or “disorder” at creation and thereafter especially at each coronation [of a king], but it does so by divine or royal agency.”

Fox makes an interesting subsequent point when it comes to Ma’at’s intricate relationship with Egyptian mythology; that you can’t generalise principles from one mythic theology and generalise across theologies; which is pretty much Peterson’s schtick.

“The idea of Ma’at did not and could not exist in Israel. Ma’at… was the foundation myth of the Pharaonic state and was inextricable from the Egyptian religion and hierarchy. The most important and frequent statements about Ma’at, such as that Re lives on Ma’at, or that Ma’at is the daughter of Re, or rites such as the daily offering of Ma’at to Re, or images such as Ma’at in the prow of Re’s boat, can have no meaning outside an Egyptian context. Only by stripping Ma’at of its distinctive character can one even claim to find a parallel in Israel.”

I’m not sure I totally buy this, I’m more inclined to be with Lewis in Myth Became Fact (see part one of this series), that all ‘myths’ are in some sense an attempt to articulate an intrinsic ‘mythic’ quality of the human spirit. But what’s interesting is how Ma’at is both the sort of order Peterson speaks about as ‘archetypally’ male, as opposed to the feminine chaotic, that Ma’at is said to be similar to the Hebrew Hokma (wisdom, and a feminine noun), and Greek Sophia (wisdom, and a feminine noun); in Proverbs, wisdom is personified as female (symbolised as a wife to be pursued). All three ancient traditions that have some sort of archetypal ‘order’ personify that order as female. His statements about order and chaos being masculine and feminine almost universally and then his frequent dipping in to Egyptian mythology are a weird and obvious contradiction. In Egypt the personification and deification of Chaos is also a serpent — Apep, and Apep is male. He’s considered the opposite of the female Ma’at.

Ma’at, or wisdom, was the antidote to chaos — a properly ordered life — for the faithful reader of the Old Testament, who might dabble in the wisdom of the world, and find truth in a collection of axiomatic statements about reality from foreign sources, this wisdom must be built on the platform of Israel’s knowledge of the creator of that order. While Fox suggests Ma’at didn’t directly influence Hebrew wisdom — specifically the understanding that ‘ma’at’ was the fundamental order of all things — it’s impossible to deny that Egyptian wisdom influences Proverbs when Proverbs explicitly features Egyptian proverbs from the Wisdom of Amenemope. The bits where Proverbs explicitly borrows from — or quotes — foreign wisdom are bracketed with statements like those quoted from Proverbs above — the fear of Yahweh, Israel’s God, the creator of the cosmos, is the beginning of wisdom. Yahweh trumps Ma’at; both in the wisdom stakes and the mythic stakes. But in this borrowing there’s also a model for us thinking about how we might approach Peterson and his (and Jung and Nietzsche’s) mythological approach to wise living.

To understand this model one has to think about the narrative, or mythic, content the Proverbs are delivered in (in the form of the Bible, and Israel’s unfolding history); and to some extent the relationship between wisdom and gold… and Israel and Egypt. Israel, as a nation, is birthed out of Egypt; they are formed or ‘cast’ as God’s image-bearing son; his people. They are released from Egypt after God steps into history to rescue and claim them. He has Moses confront Pharaoh to say of the Israelites:

Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’” — Exodus 4:22-23

Israel, corporately, both men and women, are God’s ‘son’. Part of the point of the exodus  — where Israel crossed the Jordan  — was them being declared as God’s children; to be a pattern for, or example of, wise living who were meant to bless their neighbours in part by being wise, so that the nations would see their wise lives and glorify God. In the early chapters of Deuteronomy — another guide to wise living for a ‘son of God’, Israel’s wisdom is to be part of its witness (reading Solomon’s reign, and the Proverbs, against these words is interesting, isn’t it).

Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? — Deuteronomy 4:6-8

This is in the same chapter that Moses talks about Israel crossing the Jordan as them entering their inheritance; entering ‘sonship’ so to speak, and there’s a pretty big warning about making idols or images of God because they are his images; and his nation of priests (Exodus 19); they are meant to represent him in the world.

Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.

The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance. I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan; but you are about to cross over and take possession of that good land. Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. — Deuteronomy 4:15-24

To ‘cross the Jordan’ is to become a son of God; whether you’re male or female (there’s an interesting implication of the command not to represent God as a man or a woman, which fascinates me because of how in Genesis 1 God (plural) makes humanity in his image as ‘male and female’… and yet dynamically personifies all his people as his ‘son’; now, Jordan Peterson would see this as supporting his archetypal view of chaos and order being masculine and feminine, but I’m going to suggest Biblical archetypes work in a different way (and sometimes Peterson seems to get this, he does have a nice ‘narrative’ reading of the whole Bible going for him).

Here’s a little interlude; a short tangent if you will, about why playing genders off against each other (though with an acknowledged mutual need for one another mostly for some biological imperative) is a common worldly idea but something the Bible fundamentally undermines. I like that Jordan Peterson acknowledges some fundamental differences, biologically, physically, and in how those differences might shape different behaviour, but I don’t like how his ‘dominance hierarchy’ stuff essentially justifies a certain sort of ‘noble patriarchy’ rather than a radical co-operation-in-difference. It seems to me that his basic rendering of the biological universe and its application to human behaviour basically doesn’t just leave men as lobsters competing for status so they can claim the best mate (and be attracted to them), but also leaves us men like peacocks in a perpetual game of charming our mate — or making our desires and demands that we believe might be ‘dark’ and so hesitate to raise them, clear and open, with the expectation that our significant other will embrace them (that was perhaps the creepiest bit in the book) rather than operating in partnership with a radical sort of commitment to elevating and celebrating the other. The heart of Peterson’s model for relationships in his order/chaos paradigm is the ‘masculine’ quality of assertiveness; of making one’s will known, standing up straight, and claiming it (or at least living as though you are entitled to your will), this is pictured as a proud and dominant lobster rising as high up a ‘dominance hierarchy’ as you can. It’s a terrible model for relationships between men and women — and it runs counter to the Biblical picture of wisdom as a woman, and the advice both to Israel (as God’s son) and Israelite sons, to pursue (and presumably listen to and value) a wise partner. The problem in Genesis 3 wasn’t that Adam listened to his wife, but that she gave foolish advice (and so the ‘harlot’ or foolish woman in Proverbs is also a woman, so too the nations whose gods and women pull Israel away from Yahweh. Individualism and this sort of ‘will to power’ doesn’t work in marriage if it’s true that ‘the two become one flesh’. I’d say what gets extrapolated from how men and women relate together from Peterson’s biological account against the Biblical account is a fundamentally different ordering of society. One of the best articles I read last year was by Brendon Benz, titled ‘The Ethics of the Fall: Restoring the Divine Image through the Pursuit of Biblical Wisdom’, he makes a fantastic case for us to reconsider how we understand the dynamic of the image of God being ‘male and female’ such that a purely individualistic view of being human doesn’t work theologically. Here’s a long quote because it provides a thoroughly different ‘archetypal lens’ for reading the Bible as an organising ‘myth’ to the Jungian individualism Peterson advocates (a Jungian ‘plurality’ would be extra fun though).

Thus, wisdom demands a partner—one who is willng to speak, and at the same time, one who is willing to give ear. The result of this corporate engagement is the ability to discern between good and evil, and thereby administer justice. This identification comes as a surprise when it is juxtaposed with Genesis 1–3. In chapter 3, God judges the man and the woman unfavourably for seeking the knowledge of good and evil, suggesting that their decision to do so was not motivated by wisdom. This apparent tension is resolved, however, when it is read in light of a relational interpretation of the divine image, and according to the nature of social power advanced by such scholars as Anthony Giddens. The result is an alternative reading of the so-called fall in Genesis 3 that provides a more concrete understanding of the part humanity must play in successfully responding to the injustices that result from it. In Genesis 2:16–17, God warns the man, who is “alone” in the garden (Gen 1:18), of the negative consequences that will befall him if he violates his individual limit. This indicates that the fall narrative does not depict humanity’s transgression of a divine boundary that was intended to curb human understanding. Instead, it illustrates that the attempt to take possession of the knowledge of good and evil—an important social resource—in isolation and on one’s own terms results in the collapse of the divine image, which, according to Genesis 1:27 and Matthew 18:20, is manifest only in the encounter between the I and the Other who listen. When one understands that the events in Genesis 3 undermine the divine image as it is depicted in Genesis 1 and embodied in Genesis 2, a potent statement emerges regarding the urgency of constructing power-sharing relationships in the context of diverse communities whose members listen. As is reflected in the vulnerability of God’s own interactions with humanity in texts like Genesis 18 and John 20, such relationships are necessary if individuals are to image God, and thereby wisely administer justice…”

God’s image necessarily consists of, and therefore requires, a plurality—in this case, male (zāḵār) and female (nĕqēḇâ). This plurality of personhood is echoed at the beginning of the chapter, wherethe masculine “God” (ʾĕlōhîm; v 1) and the feminine “Spirit of God” (rûaḥ ʾĕlōhîm; v 2) are named as two of the entities involved in creation. When it comes to humanity as the image of God, therefore, Buber rightly observes that “In the beginning is the relation—as the category of being … as a model of the soul; the a priori of relation; the innate Thou” (78). In sum, Genesis 1 indicates that God is imaged only when two or more are gathered in the freely self-limiting relational character of God (cf. Murphy: 173–77). This corresponds to the words of Jesus, whom the authors of the New Testament regard as the image of God (John 1:1–3; Heb 1:1–3; Phil 2:5–8). In Matthew 18:20, he states, “where two or three are gathered in my name,” or my character (Wright 1998: 116), “I am there among them.” The implication of this requirement is that an individual neither posses the divine image as a substance of his or her own being, nor images God in isolation. Rather, the imago Dei is manifest only in relation.”

I won’t drag this out but there’s long been a connection drawn between the idea of the image of God (in the Ancient Near East) being a claim to sonship, usually by kings, so in Israel you get this broadened to include men and women (Genesis 1) and then every Israelite (Exodus 4).

When Israel crossed the Jordan on their way into the promised land they plundered Egypt; stealing its literal gold. This gold was then used to create both the golden calf (idolatrous and destructive folly) and the furnishings of the tabernacle (part of Israel’s worship of God as creator and provider of the good and abundantly fruitful life in the land). Crossing the Jordan was Israel’s path into nationhood — sonship even — and what they did with gold ultimately revealed what sort of child they were; at certain points they were wise and they flourished (and the nations flocked in to hear Solomon’s wisdom), but at other points they borrowed not just the gold of Egypt, but their gods as well. They were more likely to jump on board with the idea of Ma’at, than fear Yahweh. Which is exactly what we learn in the figure of Solomon. Solomon has an interesting relationship with Egypt, with Proverbs, and with gold. In the account of his reign in 1 Kings we get the sense that he has a fraught relationship with Egypt; that it’s a significant country in terms of his life.

“Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt and married his daughter. He brought her to the City of David until he finished building his palaceand the temple of the Lord, and the wall around Jerusalem.” — 1 Kings 3:1

“And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. These countries brought tribute and were Solomon’s subjects all his life.” — 1 Kings 4:21

Then…

God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Kalkol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songsnumbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.” — 1 Kings 4:29-34

When Solomon prays to dedicate the temple he specifically remembers that Israel were brought out of Egypt and cast as his people like a statue from a fire, he says

And forgive your people, who have sinned against you; forgive all the offenses they have committed against you, and cause their captors to show them mercy; for they are your people and your inheritance, whom you brought out of Egypt, out of that iron-smelting furnace.” — 1 Kings 8:50-51

In the law for the future king of Israel in Deuteronomy there’s a specific command not to take horses from Egypt; and as things turn for Solomon, the first real sign that things have gone wrong (apart from marrying the daughter of Pharaoh which was also a Deuteronomic no-no) is:

“Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt and from Kue[j]—the royal merchants purchased them from Kue at the current price.” — 1 Kings 10:28

1 Kings wants to make real sure we know Solomon doesn’t end well; he doesn’t pursue the sort of wisdom he started out asking for; and so Proverbs becomes a sort of deeply ironic book attributed to him.

As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been… So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done.  — 1 Kings 11:4, 6

Solomon is a pretty interesting picture of the fully realised ‘man’ or, more broadly, a representative picture of flourishing Israel… a true son of God who asks for, rather than takes hold of, wisdom from God. Here’s how Benz describes his request for wisdom:

“1 Kings 3, Solomon asks for “a listening heart (lēḇ šōmēaʿ) in order to judge your people and to discern between good and evil” (v 9). After expressing pleasure with this request, God identifies Solomon’s “listening heart” as a “wise heart” (lēḇ ḥāḵām; v 12). Read in parallel, these two statements indicate that wisdom is predicated on the capacity to listen.”

It’s interesting that the example given of Solomon’s wise listening is a court case between two women — mothers — prostitutes — one with a dead son, one with a living son; if you want to talk about archetypes there’s a strong sense that choosing the foolish prostitute who killed her son would’ve been a really bad idea for Israel’s king… and yet ultimately he symbolically (when it comes to the symbolism of Proverbs and the Old Testament picture of the nations around Israel being ‘prostitutes’ makes the unwise and morally wrong choice. He doesn’t find a wise conversation partner — a wife, a co-image bearer (or community of them) who will help him make wise decisions as he listens (David and Abigail are an interesting counter-point to this, where David does pursue a wise wife). I want to stress that this isn’t a suggestion that everybody needs marriage to be completed — but we do, in our shared life, need men and women speaking and listening in order to live the fullest vision for humanity — the ‘image bearing’ vision of faithful sonship as men and women. And this pushes back on Jordan Peterson’s archetypal framework pretty strongly…

Solomon is this positive figure for about ten minutes; and then he’s a picture of disorder and folly; and somehow the Proverbs reflect that high point before his fall. Solomon is described as being somebody in command of the natural world such that he is able to understand and document its order — and you get a sense from the narrative he was also engaging with the sages and wise men of the nations… he was also quick to have his head turned by women he should not have been pursuing, and because he was at the top of the ‘dominance hierarchy’ taking what he should not have taken; the picture in Proverbs of the wise advice from the king (Solomon) to his son to pursue a wife of noble character; the personification of wisdom, is deeply ironic against Solomon’s life and approach — but even more so against Israel’s approach to wisdom.

What’s also archetypal here, against Peterson’s system, and as mentioned above is that wisdom or order is feminine, and perhaps the brashness of masculinity needs to be tempered by a listening partnership with wisdom rather than embracing destructive folly; the gendered stuff Peterson does is inverted in the Proverbs… but the warning from Solomon’s life, and Proverbs, in history is that if you’re going to plunder gold from Egypt you better be sure not to use it to build idols, or have it pull you away from the truth about the God you should be fearing. Incidentally, later, and probably without having discovered the strong links between Proverbs and Egyptian wisdom, Augustine took the idea of plundering gold and explicitly applied it to what the Proverbs implicitly practiced — the idea that truths expressed by people in the world about the fundamental order of creation should be taken and used to their proper ‘ordering’ — their telos — which he saw as ‘to preach Christ’ (if all this stuff fascinates you, it is what I wrote my thesis on; the (short version of the) title is Plundering Gold from Egypt to Contextually Communicate the Gospel of Jesus, and it includes a big chunk on Proverbs and wisdom, and how to ‘plunder Gold’ appropriately.

The book of Proverbs, like Jordan Peterson, appears to teach men to be men, but is really a guide for all people to re-order or re-cast their lives against a background of chaos. There’s lots of ‘truth’ in what Peterson writes. But here’s the thing — the ‘mythic frame’ — the ‘story’ that wisdom is delivered in matters. Especially when that wisdom is a sort of axiomatic description of an ‘ordered life’ and where it explicitly speaks as though myth matters. It’s much harder to purely plunder Egypt, without straight up importing idols, if we’re careless about the mythic frame and the vision of masculinity (in this case) being put around those ideas, and that’s where Jordan Peterson is perhaps more dangerous than we think.

Sometimes Peterson is golden, but there are lots of places where we need to be careful that we’re not importing a wrong picture of God from his work, and carelessly popping it in our homes and lives when really it’s a Trojan calf that will pull us away from truths about God… that he seems to be on a journey himself, and taking the Bible pretty seriously as a source of truth, makes him both exciting and dangerous. Because while real wisdom begins with the fear of Yahweh; and while this was framed as an instruction manual for sonship in the book of Proverbs; we get a true picture of what it means for all Christians (men and women) to be both sons of God and brides of Christ (talk about confusing gender categories) in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and what it means to truly follow him

There have been some worthwhile reflections on Peterson’s picture of masculinity offering Jesus as a corrective to his vision; or rather a corrected vision of Jesus (and the cosmos) as a better antidote to chaos. But I’m not sure how possible it is just to tweak his picture around the edges. Plundering Peterson might require an almost total meltdown of his rendering of Jesus and the cross and a total recasting of his vision for humanity.

It’s interesting to consider how ‘crossing the Jordan’ works as a Biblical archetype ultimately found in Jesus, and how this might invite us to cross Jordan Peterson, and understand the Cross as something more than taking responsibility and trying to save both yourself and the world… what if our real humanity is actually found in the mystery of union with Christ; that somehow our sonship is about dynamically being ‘one with him’ though still many.

Matthew takes a line from the prophet Hosea about Israel, God’s son, coming out of Egypt and applies it to Jesus own ‘crossing the Jordan’ moment as an infant — where he fled to Egypt to avoid the toxic, patriarchal, masculinity of Herod (who tried to dominate the threat posed by an infant by wiping out every infant he could find — as one worse than Pharaoh). Matthew says this ‘crossing the Jordan’ moment was so that the Old Testament archetype could be fulfilled; for ‘out of Egypt God calls his son’ — this is both a geographic call, and a spiritual one — a call to leave Egyptian dominance hierarchies and archetypes behind, and to embrace something new built on the fear of the Lord. A new picture of wisdom. Jesus has another ‘Jordan’ sonship moment when he is baptised in the Jordan. John the Baptist is baptising people in the Jordan — a picture of the exodus where Israel was created, birthed, through those waters, and Jesus arrives to be baptised. When this happens:

Jesus was baptised too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened  and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” — Luke 3:21-22

Jesus is recognised as God’s son, our image of humanity, our image of image bearing, is recast in him (a theme picked up throughout the New Testament).

Jesus was ‘one greater than Solomon’ (Luke 11:31); he also drew implications for living from careful observations of the natural world (Luke 12:27 — where he invites us to consider how nature is more gloriously arrayed than Solomon, and asked how much more God might love his children); and yet his picture of the good life was not an expression of the will to power; not a case of ‘standing up straight with your shoulders back’… and when he calls us to take up our cross it is not simply an invitation to bear on our shoulders the reality of suffering; but to carry around in our lives a living breathing picture of living with a sense that death is dead. Instead of being like Solomon and taking, Jesus says those who follow in his pattern of sonship will:

But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. — Luke 12:31-34

In Jesus God becomes our father. We become his sons — whether we’re male or female, but this ‘sonship’ requires a dynamic, image bearing relationship of listening to the other and not simply being individuals with a will to power — because real wisdom is not found in dominance, but submission. Our crossing the Jordan — our exodus — our baptism — is a baptism ‘into Jesus’; a receiving of God’s Spirit to make us one with him (so individualism is tricky to maintain as a sort of exclusive picture for flourishing humanity).

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. — Galatians 3:26-29

Jordan Peterson is a wise man offering a reasonable version of Egyptian wisdom (except he should invert the genders of order and chaos). He offers a reasonable ‘Egyptian’ attempt to plunder the gold of true Israel. But until he understands the world inverting foolishness of the cross, until he fears God, I’m not sure it’s wisdom at all, and I’m pretty skeptical of claims about his usefulness for the church without some serious re-framing and melting down of whatever gold it is he offers so that it can be used in service of the creator.

Real wisdom is not found in power but the fear of the Lord and the subversive wisdom of the Cross. You want to see how the crucified Jesus is archetypal? Look at Paul. His teachings and his life. I’ll flesh this out (in an almost literal sense) in the next post, but here’s what he says about the wisdom of the world and how it is confounded by the cross not just subtly tweaked… this is what really ‘fearing God’ looks like — seeing human strength and dominance as foolishness in the face of God’s power and his operations in the world.

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” — 1 Corinthians 1:20-31 

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Old Testament 102: Goldsworthy on Wisdom and Solomon

“The Biblical evidence supports the view that Solomon, despite his failings, was a key figure in the development of wisdom in Israel”

1. Solomon’s wisdom had common ground with foreign wisdom, but was superior to it.
2. Solomon was capable of making shrewd judgments.
3. He was concerned with understanding the natural world.
4. The material glory of the kingdom was related to wisdom.
5. The temple was the means by which Israel could rightly make sense of the universe – because it pointed to the activity of God in seeking restoration.
6. The focal point of wisdom was the “fear of the Lord” which meant faith in the redeeming acts of God.

“Even pagans will have the wisdom to see that it is the height of folly to forsake a God who has proved his greatness in the way he has led and saved his people.”

Goldsworthy says 1 Kings 4:20-21 is an obvious reference to the promises made to Abraham so that their fulfilment is identified with Solomon’s reign.

In 1 Kings 4:29-34 Solomon’s wisdom is compared with that of all the wise men of the nations surrounding Israel, including Egypt.

Representatives from these nations recognised Solomon’s wisdom, and they flocked to hear it.

1 Kings 4:32-33 notes Solomon’s interest in nature (the way the world works) – which may explain the type of wisdom representatives from other nations were coming to hear.

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Old Testament 102: Wisdom and Biblical Theology (part one)

I’m wildly speculating that one of the questions on wisdom literature in next Tuesday’s exam will be on how to fit wisdom literature into Biblical Theology. One of the “main men” of biblical theology is Australia’s very own Graeme Goldsworthy. His “Gospel and…” series has laid the foundations for the Australian approach to the issue more than any other unifying ideas. His “God’s people living in God’s place, under God’s rule” maxim is a useful way to quickly come to terms with where any particular piece of the Bible fits into the broader narrative, both in the past, and in terms of eschatology.

Gospel and Wisdom is his attempt to integrate the wisdom literature (and more broadly, the wisdom movement) into the narrative of the Bible. The wisdom literature doesn’t fit easily into such characterisation because it almost completely excludes reference to Israel’s covenant obligations (I think there’s an alternative way to do it, which I’ve outlined in my six part posting of my Wisdom Literature essay. Which I’ll summarise in a later post. But you can read it starting from here.

Summarising Gospel and Wisdom is going to take a few posts. But here’s the reconstruction Goldsworthy offers for the development (and place) of wisdom literature in Israel’s history. In 17 points. There are a lot of points in here that I think sit nicely with my idea that the wisdom literature was used as part of Israel’s covenant obligation to bless the nations… but we’ll get to that.

1.     Popular folk wisdom would have emerged at various levels of society as the expression of what people learned through their life’s experiences. It is not certain what form the earliest wisdom sayings took, but the evidence does not support the idea that longer sayings developed from the one line proverb.

2.     In the period before Israel went into Egypt, education in family groups would most likely have led to the formation of sayings used in the training of children.

3.     With the development of the organized state of Israel came the recognition of men who would give wise counsel in the matter of running the country.

4.     The sages or wise men emerged as a recognizable group. It is not clear whether these were recognised as officials of government, religion or education. It has been suggested that the scribes later came to be the guardians of wisdom.

5.     Wisdom may not have been a “single phenomenon” but rather a search for knowledge and understanding pursued in various ways.

6.     Solomon was probably a patron of Israel’s wisdom movement during its heyday.

7.     Egypt and Babylon’s wisdom no doubt influenced Israel’s – but how much is a matter of some discussion.

8.     The movement to a monarchy began form a sinful desire to be like the nations (contrasted to the Judge’s efforts to bring the nation back to YHWH, sometimes spectacularly). But was eventually demonstrated to be an appropriate pointer to the coming Messiah.

9.     David is also influential in the development of wisdom, a wise woman encourages him to act wisely with regard to Absalom, she flatters David as one who has the wisdom of an angel, the same as the ability to discern good and evil (2 Samuel 14).

10. Wise men were emerging under David (good and bad counsel from counselors seems a bit of a theme in 2 Samuel). Egypt had had people performing the same functions in the time of Moses.

11. Deuteronomy 4 has already established a relationship between wisdom and the law. “Observe them carefully for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations” – who will hear about all these decrees and say “surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people”

12. The law did not cover every contingency in life – it provided a framework within which Israel had to show its responsibility before God. Had the law covered every contingency it would have showed a very different view of man.

13. Keeping the law was wisdom, but the law was not exhaustive. Israel was given guidelines in the law by which to understand and maintain relationships with God, man, and the world. But the law was never a substitute for the pursuit of wisdom. The humanness of God’s people meant much more than doing those things specifically stated in the law. The law did not tell Israel how to develop the arts, but it did put a limit on artistic endeavour (Exodus 20:4).

14. Between Abraham and David God revealed the meaning of the covenant through redemption and law – what was begun in the Exodus was finally established under David.

15. Under David and Solomon the stage is set for the flowering of wisdom – “the tutelage of the law loses its absolute status because the kingdom means the freedom to live wisely and responsibly.”

16. Wisdom grew from Israel’s beginnings, but during the formative period of salvation history it was not prominent in the life of Israel.

17. “God wants his people to live not  by a lot of rules and regulations, but responsibly and in a manner which harmonises with his kingly rule.”

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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.

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The Wisdom Literature as an Apologetic: Part Two

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

A Solomonic Rubric

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

Solomonic Dating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[17] Ruffle, op. cit, p 66

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Gary Millar on the Song of Solomon

Last night Gary Millar spoke on Song of So(ngs)lomon. With a particular focus on how to preach it. He had what I think is a pretty interesting take on the book – an interpretation that would make Song of Songs a nice foil to Ecclesiastes (which explores the futility of a life lived pursuing material happiness).

He suggests the book is written by Solomon about “the one that got away” – a woman who rebuffed his advances because she had found true love with her “beloved”. The thrust of the argument is that the book then gives Solomon’s insights into a life lived pursuing happiness and completion through the pursuit of sexual encounters – and comes to the conclusion that true happiness is found in its proper context, and if you fully subscribe to his theory, real satisfaction and joy comes through experiencing the love of God.

Here are my notes in slightly edited form. Simone has blogged her response to the evening here.

  • What is Song of Songs doing in the Bible? Nobody seems to know – none of the commentators agree.
  • When we read the Bible our starting point has to be “this is the word of God” – and with careful reading we really should be able to figure out what it’s about.
  • There’s a very long tradition of ignoring the sexual element – the Westminster council suggested that any reading along those lines was incorrect… Calvin said “it’s about sex, what’s the big deal?”
  • The people who insisted it wasn’t about sex believed it was all about Jesus.
  • Ascribed to Solomon – uniquely placed to write this sort of treatise on love and marriage. 1,000 women, world’s wisest man… Solomon realised that he’d mucked it up. And that’s why he wrote this book.
  • The key to the book is found in the last few verses… chapter 8 verses 1-11. “Solomon had a vineyard”… These statements unlock the whole book – almost certainly a reference to Solomon’s harem. “Lord of the multitude”… the tenants are probably the staff of the harem… each was to bring for its fruit 1000 shekels of silver… “my vineyard (body in ch 1)”, the thousand shekels are for you and 200 are for those who care for the harem. Solomon would pick someone, send the guys out to make an offer they couldn’t refuse, and it seems there was a feisty woman “my vineyard is my own” – don’t try to buy me. Money, wisdom and henchmen can’t buy you love.
  • Solomon is the wisest man in the world. He is rich. He is powerful. “Who does this woman think she is…” perhaps leads Solomon to reflect on his life and “who does he think he is”. Perhaps realises that somewhere along the line he’s lost the plot.
  • Solomon realises he has missed out on real love. And perhaps even a relationship with God. And so he writes about a young couple who are passionately and permanently in love. As the book goes on it becomes less and less likely that Solomon is one of the lovers. He becomes distant to the story.
  • The book opens up a raft of very difficult pastoral issues – because as soon as we start talking about issues surrounding sex people become edgy. Many people have baggage in this area.
  • The man works really hard to make his beloved feel beautiful. His beloved is his standard of beauty cf Driscoll (one area where he was helpful). It’s clear when reading the poetry (though sometimes the imagery is culturally odd for us) that this man thinks and puts all of his effort into making his words encouraging for his wife.
  • It’s hard to distinguish between actuality and anticipation. The book is full of images that are clearly enticing but can’t actually be tied down. General pictures not specific pictures. It’s a mistake to press this book into service of saying anything about sex. The metaphors are deliberately slippery – nudge, nudge, wink, wink – you can’t work out what the specific language is. Immensely sexual but not explicit.
  • It’s not entirely clear who is speaking at what point. We’re not sure if the people are real or parables. We’re not sure if he’s writing through the lens of rejection and imagining the world of the woman who turned him down… the way in which this relationship is described is with Solomon as a stranger to this kind of love.
  • Chapter 1 v 5-6 – dysfunctional families do not rule out the possibility of real love. Solomon seems to be urging us to hold out for the real thing.
  • Chapter 3 v 6 – “Solomon’s carriage”, King Solomon made it himself, royal guard, wearing the crown etc… This woman is dreaming about her wedding. It’s a royal wedding – she dreams of her dream man rocking up in the royal regalia. No suggestion throughout the rest of the book that this is a royal wedding, she gets beaten by the night watchmen which is unlikely if she’s a princess etc… Possible explanation: The girl has a dream, having seen Solomon’s wedding she imagines her wedding to be something like this. Her dream man has the face of her lover – by the end of chapter 3 it could potentially still be Solomon.
  • Solomon is being passed over for this woman’s real king. “I opened the door…”, “oh daughters of Jerusalem what would you tell my lover…” – this is not how things work for Solomon in terms of securing a wife. Solomon starts to understand that he has love wrong.
  • Solomon isn’t the Bible’s sex therapist – he warns us of the problems of sexual idolatry.
  • Because of Ephesians 5 we’re used to modeling love on the trinity. But Solomon instead suggests we need to look the other way. We should see marital love as an echo of God’s love for us.
  • God is the ultimate – not sex. So at the end of his debauched life Solomon comes to the conclusion that he’s mislead it and that God should be the focus.