By Charles Fager
Wisdom and Revelation in Everyday Life
In the early 1830s, a young man went to sea, hoping to make his fortune. A Presbyterian by birth, he read his Bible each night in his shipboard hammock, and he was haunted by a verse in the fourth chapter of Proverbs: “Wisdom is the principal thing: Therefore, get wisdom: and with all thy getting, ge understanding.” Wealth, the youth piously decided, was nothing without this seasoning of wisdom. But where was such a combination to be found?
Presently his ship sailed into the harbor of Nantucket Island. Nantucket was then a wealthy and vibrant community, built and largely populated by members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers.
As he walked the bustling, cobbled streets of Nantucket town, observing the fine grey shingled houses and the plain but prosperous inhabitants, another verse from Proverbs came to him. It was something about “I am Wisdom, and in my right hand is riches and honor.”
The more he saw of Nantucketers, the more he felt sure that here was a group that genuinely understood and knew how to apply this kind of Wisdom.
When he turned down one street, which was known then as “Petticoat Row,” he saw a succession of neat, prosperous-looking shops and stores. Almost all were operated by Quaker businesswomen.
The sailor was so impressed with this commercial tableau that he impulsively entered one of the shops, a kind of grocery store. He walked up to the counter and said to the plain-dressed woman behind it, “Madam, I want to know why you Nantucket Quakers seem so wise in the ways of the world.”
The Quaker woman said to him, naturally very humbly, “Well, of course, it’s mainly because we follow the Inward Light. But,” she added, “it’s also because we eat a special kind of fish, the Wisdom Fish.”
“Wisdom Fish?” the sailor exclaimed. “What’s that? Where could I get some?”
“Friend,” the Quaker shopkeeper said, “thee is in luck. I just happen to have one here, which I can sell thee for only twenty dollars.”
Twenty dollars was a lot of money in those days, but the sailor didn’t hesitate. He pulled out his purse, handed over the money, and she handed him a carefully wrapped parcel, which he carried out of the shop with an excited smile on his face.
He returned a few minutes later, however, looking puzzled and a bit disturbed. “Excuse me, madam,” he said, laying the half-opened package on the counter. “This is nothing but a piece of ordinary dried codfish.”
Under her modest white bonnet, the Quaker shopkeeper raised one eyebrow.
“Friend,” she said quietly, “thee is getting wiser already.”
Before getting into the meat, or the fish, of this essay, I think it’s only fair to let you know a little bit about my qualifications. This is important for my own peace of mind, because in the spring of 1992, shortly after beginning work on a series of lectures on Wisdom, I started having doubts about the idea.
After all–who was I to be talking and writing about Wisdom? What did I know about it?
Why did I think I had any to share?
The more I thought about this, the more uncertain and nervous I got, to the point that by midsummer I was about ready to call the whole thing off. Me? Talk about Wisdom? What kind of foolishness was that?
But then, blessed assurance came that I did indeed have something to say about this, something to share with listeners then and readers now. And this reassurance, my credential, if you will, came in the form that in our culture today is the most certain, the most irrefutable, the most conclusive of all.
I’m speaking, of course, of a mail order catalog. It arrived unheralded one day in late summer.
The title on the cover announced simply: “Mature Wisdom.”
It came addressed to me, and it even had my name spelled right.
What a relief. Holding it, I knew that I must in fact be qualified to talk about Wisdom. That’s because, having studied mail order marketing a little, I understand that within its inner circles exists a sacred priesthood, a hidden order of Database Illuminati. With mystic insight and utter devotion, they labor tirelessly at their hermetic rites, merging and purging the lead of ordinary mailing lists until they are transmuted into the gold of true market segmentation. With all the computerized personal information about each of us to work with, these high- tech seers come to know thee and me better than we know ourselves, and will, if we but let them, lead us into our true market niches.
This modern alchemy had, in the nick of time, revealed that my place in this universe was indeed among the wise and mature. Who knows where they got this idea; but with my doubts thus soothed, I paged through the catalog, then got back to work. Talking about Wisdom would, I now knew, work out just fine.
So much for my qualifications. By contrast, the story of how I became interested in Wisdom in the first place was a different and more sober one. In large measure it was the result of a series of shocks of recognition that have come upon me in recent years.
One set of shocks has to do with parenthood: I have children, and they clearly see me as part of the Establishment. As an unrepentant former 1960s radical, that is not how I have viewed myself; but there’s no denying it now, I am part of the Establishment. What else are parents?
This is hardly an original insight. But what I recently began to realize is that the attitude of children toward this parental Establishment is double-edged.
To be sure, there is youthful rebellion against it. It was ever thus. How far such rebellion will go in the nineties, whether my children’s generation will match mine for pure cussedness, remains to be seen. At this point I’m cautiously hopeful for a little less trauma than what we put our parents through. The emphasis here is on the word “cautiously.”
Yet sometime in the second decade of my parental career, I began to notice that the Establishment is not only the part of society that young people rebel against. We also have a positive function: we are the group they seek, however equivocally, to learn from.
By “learning,” I don’t mean instruction, in such skills as reading or writing or how to catch a baseball, valuable as these are. Instead, I’m referring to a view of life, a sense of its shape, its meaning, and direction. I’m finally beginning to understand that it is a parent’s role to provide the basic sense of shape, meaning and direction for their children’s world. It is this world-shaping function that I’m going to call “learning” here.
Children get much of this learning from parents, whether the parents want them to or not, whether they feel competent to provide it or not. The pedagogical role simply comes with the parental territory.
This is, above all, what makes parents the Establishment, no matter what their political views are, or their place in the outside world’s social structures may be. We parents establish, in large measure, how our children see the world and life.
While much of this process goes on unintentionally, even unconsciously, there are also times when parents are supposed to articulate this role, to put it into words and thereby pass it on intentionally. At such times, children not only learn; parents are also called upon to teach.
This conscious teaching role is often at its most challenging when it is unexpected–as when a child asks, in all innocence, something like, “Mom(or Dad), why do we have to go to Meeting(or church)?”
Now, when such a question means only, “Why can’t we stay home on Sunday mornings so I can watch cartoons?” it is easy enough, and entirely proper, to answer simply, “Because I’m the daddy, (or mommy) and I say so.” I have given that answer frequently myself.
But such a question often means something else. Even when mixed with petulance, it can be more accurately formulated as, “What is the significance of this activity called worship to my life?” Or yet more challengingly, “What is its meaning in your life, Mommy (or Daddy)?”
With such a question, and there are many others like it, children are looking directly to parents to teach them something important about the shape and meaning of life in their world.
And how many of us who are parents, especially among those of us who still think of ourselves as liberals, can really answer such questions?
Here it is not a matter of, “Because I say so,” (or even, “Because God said so”) but rather, “Why do I (or God) say so?”
It’s very common in this situation for a parent to feel like something of a fraud, an impostor.
As in, “Who, me? Explain why we worship?” (Or explain God? Or pain? Or, say, war?)
Confronted with such questions, parents can run, but take it from this one, they can’t hide: At such moments they are explicitly being called upon to teach, ready or not. And the subject of this teaching is not information, or skill, or even knowledge. Rather, it has to do with the shape and meaning and direction of the world, and the place of their young lives within it. For me, and for a tradition that goes back more than two millennia, the name for this kind of teaching has been Wisdom.
The same teaching role is forced upon parents when we and our children face another kind of shock: The shock of loss. My children, for instance, have had to make sense of a world in which marriages and families fall apart. That has not been easy, nor can I honestly say that is it finished. Further, bigger losses will come, of that we can be sure. In fact one such loss is already on the horizon: my oldest and best friend, a quasi-uncle to my children, has inoperable cancer. What am I going to say when my children (or his) ask me, “Why did he have to die?”
For that matter, what am I going to say to myself?
Suffering and loss: Why?
You don’t have to be a parent to be haunted by such questions.
For many people, through much of their lives, many of these questions can be safely ignored in favor of the more pressing concerns of youth and young adulthood. But when that question becomes inescapable for you, like it or not you have begun a quest for Wisdom. And at my age–I’ve just passed the half- century mark–the occasions for asking are already piling up:
Why did my wife get cancer?
Why did a venerable member of our meeting live for twenty years paralyzed, and then have the wife who was his light and comfort snatched from him by a rare blood disease, leaving him to face a slow death alone?
Why does a valued colleague have no legs?
Why, why, why?
Doubtless you have your own list of whys. And the one which is either at the top of this list, or will be soon enough, is: Why do I have to die? To glimpse our own mortality is one of the surest ways to be pushed willy-nilly into a quest for Wisdom.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself here. After all, by my time of life, and for some much sooner, the troublesome question “Why?” begins to crop up not only in disasters and failures, but in successes as well.
Take, for instance, Congress. William Penn House is only a few blocks from the Capitol. Lecturing there reminded me that I once worked on a Congressional staff, and this brought me close to a lot of people who were very successful in their fields. Yet anyone who has watched Congress closely will have noticed what I noticed, that many of them lead hard and often frustrating lives. Just how frustrating was shown in 1992, when a huge number of them simply threw up their hands and said, “What’s the point? Let me outta here.”
The same reaction is found among many of us who are less famous and outwardly successful. Take me: When this was written, in the autumn of 1992, I was earning more than I ever have, and yet I get the urge at least every week to dump it all, move somewhere else and do something else. In addition, earlier this year I was selected to be in the new edition of “Who’s Who In Religion.” I’m proud of that, of course. But I also often ask, “So what?”
And when you get to the “So what?” part of life, at whatever age and whether you know it or not, you’re looking for Wisdom.
And “where,” to quote an earlier seeker, “is Wisdom to be found?”(Job 28:12)
I’m not sure when I realized that the toughest questions in my life all pointed me toward a quest for Wisdom. Nor can I pinpoint when this seeking turned me in the direction of the Bible. Others may find it in different sources; but this is the way I went.
If the date of this turn is hazy, though, the reason is not: I realized that the “So what?” question had been asked more urgently, wrestled with more memorably and expressed more tellingly than I ever could, in a single phrase from a small book that’s more than two thousand years old.
This phrase is one that is, or should be, familiar to us all:
“‘Vanity of vanities,’ saith the Preacher, ‘all is vanity and a striving after wind.'”
For many of us, a time comes when, reading a verse such as this, in the first short chapter of the brief book of Ecclesiastes is like having something reach out and grab you by the throat. At least that was true for me.
And if the first chapter doesn’t do it, the third chapter will: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die….”(Ec. 3:1-2)
How memorable is this text? Well, if it is any measure, I can’t think of any other biblical passage that has been the basis of a Top-40 folk-rock hit song.
In any case, beginning a few years back, I was drawn, like an iron filing to a magnet, toward what are called the Wisdom books in the Bible. These books are principally the Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, plus two books found in Catholic Bibles, The Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus, or Sirach. There are Wisdom passages in many other biblical books, but these five will take up most of our attention here.
Part of what drew me to the Biblical treasury of Wisdom was simple theology: I believe the Bible has important things to say about what matters in life. And it has been my experience in Bible study that this is indeed the case.
But there was another aspect to this attraction as well, and it had to do with a word that has been very important in the history of the Bible, namely “revelation.” The Bible has traditionally been presented to Jews and Christians as being in some way a deposit of the self-disclosure of the Divine–as revelation.
The term revelation is usually associated with extraordinary and dramatic events: the parting of the Red Sea; a heavenly voice speaking to Saul on the road to Damascus; phenomenal cures, like Jesus and the woman with an issue of blood; prediction, as when the prophet Jeremiah pronounced the coming doom of Jerusalem; or visions, as of wheels within wheels for Ezekiel; and dreams calling Joseph to flee with Mary and the child to Egypt. Much of the Bible is built around such extraordinary events.
The Wisdom books, convey their message without any such marvels. Here by and large we find texts dealing with the most mundane and common of experiences: marriage and family life; farming, business, bureaucracy and government; wealth and poverty. And instead of miracles, or thunderous divine commandments, here we see a process of experience being reflected upon and the results expressed concisely and tellingly.
Furthermore, if there is much talk of kings here, there is as much material drawn from the everyday, even the seemingly inconsequential. In the 30th chapter of Proverbs, for instance, verses 24 through 28 draw our attention to, respectively, ants, badgers, grasshoppers, and lizards. There is not an angel, a burning bush, or a miracle cure anywhere in sight.
The origins of the Wisdom books, like those of most parts of the Hebrew scriptures, are obscure, and there are various theories. I’ll just mention a few here in passing, because it’s not my purpose to dwell on them or sort them out:
Some scholars think materials such as the sayings in Proverbs are all conscious, intentional acts of creativity–that is, somebody sat down and wrote them, as a form of aphoristic poetry, a kind of Hebrew haiku. Many such scholars believe they were produced in large part for use in teaching apprentice scribes, as a kind of primer both for learning to write, and as part of a scribe’s preparation for his role as adviser to the powerful.
In the case of at least one book, Ecclesiasticus or Sirach, this theory clearly has a lot of merit. But for the rest, it is much more speculative. Other scholars question this Wisdom school idea, and point to the fact that collections of Wisdom sayings were found in many other cultures besides Israel. They suggest that the creation of proverbs was by no means confined to a cultured elite, pointing out that the material in Proverbs clearly runs the social gamut from the king’s palace to the marketplace to family matters. In their view, the scribes functioned more as collectors and editors of the best of this material than as authors.
There are other theories about the sources of Hebrew Wisdom writings, but as I said, we are not going to dwell on them or try to sort them out. The most important thing about these books, for my purposes, is that whatever their origins, these texts are offered to us as a part of the Bible, as part of this deposit of revelation, without explanation or apology.
And after reading and reflecting on them, I became persuaded that part of the message of their inclusion in the canon was that revelation can occur, not only through extraordinary and supernatural events–but also–and perhaps most often, even typically, through the ordinary and familiar–if we but understand how to see it.
Thus part of the message of the biblical Wisdom books is that everyday life can be a medium of revelation. That is to say, it too is an arena in and through which the divine discloses itself. And in the Bible this kind of revelation takes some characteristic forms, the most familiar of which is the proverb.
To illustrate, let’s take one of the sayings that for some reason I have always liked, from Proverbs Chapter Six, verses 6 through 11. Let me quote it from two translations:
King James: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise. Which having no guide, overseer or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard?…Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: So shall thy poverty come….”
The contrast with the Today’s English Version is striking; here is a sample: “Lazy people should learn a lesson from the way ants live….How long is that lazy man going to lie around? When is he ever going to get up?”
(Proverbs, incidentally, is an excellent book for showing the difference that various translations make: At one end of the spectrum there is the stately, formal eloquence of the King James (KJV), and at the other is the pungent vernacular directness of the Today’s English (TEV). There’s no one best translation; but for Proverbs, the TEV’s bluntness seems to me often closer to the spirit of many of the texts; still, I love the cadence of the KJV in this particular passage.)
Now, what seems to be the message here? At first sight, it appears simple enough: laziness leads to poverty. Ants understand this, and work hard to store up food for the winter. But another part of the message seems to be a call to reflection: If ants can figure out the relationship between diligence and prosperity, humans should be able to also.
Or take Chapter 23:29-35, verses which deal with a hazard that is as real now as it was then. Here the contrast between KJV and TEV is particularly striking:
KJV: “Who hath woe? Who hath sorrow? …Who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine….They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not: when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again.”
TEV: “Show me someone who drinks too much, who has to try out fancy drinks, and I will show you someone miserable and sorry for himself, always causing trouble and always complaining….’I must have been hit,’ you will say; ‘I must have been beaten up, but I don’t remember it. Why can’t I wake up? I need another drink.'”
Actually, I’m less interested here in the content of these proverbs than what we can learn from the form of these passages. What I want to highlight is that in a few memorable phrases they compress and illuminate a large body of experience. That’s what I think a proverb is: a memorable brief statement which sums up and illuminates a large body of experience and reflection. Another way to say this is that they disclose something of the shape and meaning of a series of experiences.
Reflecting on these books, I realized something else that attracted me to them. As a form of revelation, proverbs are something I have some familiarity with. That is, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a miracle performed, though there have been a couple of ambiguously mysterious experiences I could talk about some other time. And while I’ve had what Quakers call leadings, I’ve never had a vision, really, or heard a supernatural voice.
I’m not a skeptic about such experiences; but they are essentially outside my experience. So if that’s the main way revelation comes, it’s basically foreign to me.
On the other hand, I have had statements come to me which were to all intents and purposes proverbs in this biblical mode, brief statements which sum up and, for me at least, illuminate a large body of experience. Let me illustrate by venturing to mention two of them.
“A journalist’s job is to get the facts;
“But a journalist’s vocation is to get the truth.”
“Money comes and goes; but time only goes.”
Well, okay; maybe this pair isn’t of biblical caliber, but that’s not the claim here. They do sum up and illuminate much experience, for me if no one else. And I mention these simply to underscore that this form of learning by expressive reflection on everyday experience is not something reserved for an elite, a divinely-chosen few.
To the contrary it seems clear to me that this too is part of the message of the Wisdom books, that such revelation through the everyday is available to ordinary people, indeed it is intended for everyone.
Not that all of us will write proverbs–though I think we all could if we set our minds to it–but that, to the extent that we attain Wisdom, we will be able to recognize it when we hear it expressed, to learn it in the sense that our children consciously learn about life from us, and to teach it when the time comes.
The Eighth and Ninth chapters of Proverbs make this wide-open approach explicit. (Both also picture Wisdom as a woman, a feature we’ll talk about more later.) Here are their opening verses:
TEV: “Listen! Wisdom is calling out. Reason is making herself heard on the hilltops near the road and at the crossroads she stands. At the entrance to the city, beside the gates, she calls: ‘I appeal to you, mankind: I call to everyone on earth….I love those who love me; whoever looks for me can find me.'” (8:1- 4, 17)
“Wisdom has built her house….She has sent her servant girls to call out from the highest place in town: ‘Come in, ignorant people!…Leave the company of ignorant people, and live.” (9:1-6)
Nothing very exclusive here; Wisdom is not starting a private club. For that matter, Lady Wisdom is not even well-bred; in Proverbs 1:20-23 she is seen calling out insistently in the street to all and sundry. This was highly assertive behavior for a female figure in that culture, or in ours for that matter.
So the first two important features about biblical Wisdom are, first, that this form of revelation does not drop from the sky, but is to be refined from the ore of everyday living in the crucible of the reflective human mind; and secondly, the resulting nuggets are available to all.
There are three additional aspects of this biblical Wisdom which I want to discuss: what I call the Hebrew Dress for Success; Wisdom’s radical challenge to orthodoxy; and revelation as dialectic. Let’s take them in order.
Much proverbial Wisdom in the Bible can be summed up in the proposition that being righteous, prudent and even shrewd(all of which are synonyms for Wisdom in these books) will pay off, will produce concrete, favorable results. It is very unusual to find any talk about last judgements, afterlives, or things working out in heaven; no pie in the sky bye and bye.
Instead, Proverbs promises that the wise will have their pie on the table and will eat it too, in this life. Happiness, wealth, justice, family preservation, along with–and as signs of–the blessing of God, all can be attained in this life, never mind what happens after death.
This is the Hebrew version of Dress for Success. And by the same token, we are assured and admonished that the foolish and wicked will get theirs, not in some hellish hereafter, but in this life. Further, their comeuppance will be visible and painful. The number of such declarations is almost endless.
Let’s look at only a few:
Proverbs 22:4 (KJV): “By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honor, and life.” 3:13,6: “Happy is the man that findeth wisdom….Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honor.”
The advice gets more practical than that: In Pr. 4:23, for instance we have, at least in the TEV’s rendering, a statement about Positive Mental Attitude:
“Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts.”
In three places, Proverbs warns us very explicitly to avoid getting involved with the debts of others: Pr. 6:1-5; 17:18; and most pointedly of all in 20:16 (TEV):
“Anyone stupid enough to promise to be responsible for a stranger’s debts ought to have his own property held to guarantee payment.”
There’s no denying that this is good advice– Americans should have paid attention to it when Congress and recent administrations decided to let the savings and loans crooks play their megabillion-dollar crap games backed by our pocketbooks and those of our children’s.
In the book of Ecclesiasticus, or Sirach, the advice gets still more concrete. It tells us, for instance, how to conduct a power lunch: Ecc. 31:12- 22(TEV); 32:1-3; in chapter 41:16 & 19, it even reminds us to keep our elbows off the table. (I often wonder whether in fact that section was ghostwritten by my mother.)
On the other hand, we are just as frequently reassured that the foolish and wicked will be swiftly and surely punished. For instance, Proverbs 11:8 (TEV): “The righteous are protected from trouble; it comes to the wicked instead.”
And 11:31(TEV): “Those who are good are rewarded here on earth, so you can be sure that wicked and sinful people will be punished.”
You get the idea.
So crime doesn’t pay, and virtue is reliably rewarded. This is Wisdom construed as wising up, a word to the wise, street-wise, for wise guys and gals. This is the Wisdom, even, of the Nantucket Quaker shopkeeper and her fish.
You think I’m kidding? Read Pr. 20:14 in TEV: “The customer always complains that the price is too high, but then he goes off and brags about the bargain he got.”
But if the sailor gets too upset, Proverbs has advice for the shrewd shopkeeper as well: “If someone is angry with you, a gift given secretly will calm him down.”(Pr. 20:14) Here, though, the TEV’s writers shrank from the actual meaning of “gift”; the New American Standard(NAS) version calls it what it the Hebrew says it really is: a “bribe”.
This is the kind of Wisdom that I ran into when I said to my son a few months ago, “Asa, I want you to work hard in school this fall. I know you can, because you know, when George Washington was your age, he was already learning how to manage his family plantation.”
And Asa said, “Sure, dad. But did you know, that when George Washington was your age, he was president of the United States?”
The second striking feature of Wisdom, though, is the flip side of the confidence of Proverbs. In fact, it is a radical challenge to it, what may be the first recorded example of literary deconstructionism in the western tradition. It came about evidently because over the course of time, some of those who pursued the formulas for attaining Wisdom and its benefits presented in Proverbs, began to notice some major discrepancies between these proverbial texts and their lives.
One powerful voice of these sobering second thoughts was the author of Ecclesiastes, who is known to us as Koheleth, or the Preacher, or in the TEV translation, the Philosopher. In his experience, life didn’t always turn out swimmingly for the righteous. The basis of his observations is summed up in 9:11, one of those verses which the King James expresses the best:
“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race it not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
Or, as the TEV more frankly puts the conclusion:
“Bad luck happens to everyone.”
But bad luck was not the worst of what Koheleth saw “under the sun.” Consider 8:11-14, which the TEV renders most tellingly:
“Why do people commit crimes so readily? Because crime is not punished quickly enough. A sinner may commit a hundred crimes and still live. Oh yes, I know what they say: ‘If you obey God, everything will be all right, but it will not go well for the wicked. Their life is like a shadow and they will die young, because they do not obey God.’ But this is nonsense. Look at what happens in the world: sometimes righteous men get the punishment of the wicked, and wicked men get the reward of the righteous. I say it is useless.”
This is an extraordinary passage, and here I think the TEV serves us far better than most other translations, because it highlights the confrontational character of Ecclesiastes. He is not, in my view, simply offering some friendly constructive criticism, pointing up some loose ends in Proverbs and its Dress for Success self-assurance. No, Koheleth is going for the jugular; he even takes on theology, and the sages who expounded it, a few verses further on. Again the TEV does the most justice to his radicalism:
“Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day and never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. Wise men may claim to know, but they don’t.” (8:16-17)
Astonishingly, in Ecclesiastes we have an all-out, fundamental challenge to the view of life, and Wisdom, presented in the book immediately preceding it. Nor is it a polite debate; as the TEV’s renderings show, it is more like a brawl. You could sum up much of this book in the words of a vulgar slogan I’ve seen on more than a few bumpers: “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”
This challenge to the confidence of Proverbs is deepened by the text that many Bible students consider to be the crown of the Hebrew scriptures, if not the entire Bible, the Book of Job.
You know the story: Job is rich and righteous, but Satan talks God into making a bet on Job’s steadfastness if he’s subjected to pointless and unjust suffering. So Job’s family is killed and he ends up covered with boils and sitting on a manure pile. And as if that’s not bad enough, Job is then subjected to a series of sermons from four well-meaning friends, who harangue him endlessly with the Proverbs notion of the good always winning out.
But Job, to his credit, will have none of this; and in Chapter 13, he denounces, not only these false comforters, but the very “revelation” they are so devotedly, if mindlessly, reiterating: “‘Everything you say, I have heard before. I understand it all; I know as much as you do….But my dispute is with God, not you….You cover up your ignorance with lies; you are like doctors who can’t heal anyone. Say nothing, and someone may think you are wise!'” (13:1,3,4-5 TEV) In Chapter 21, Job really lays it on the line. Again it is in the TEV that its pungency really comes through:
“My quarrel is not with mortal men….Why does God let evil men live, let them grow old and prosper?…God does not bring disaster on their homes; they never have to live in terror….On the day God is angry and punishes, it is the wicked man who is always spared.” (Job 21:4,7,9,30)
So here we find the comforting Wisdom of Proverbs, not merely questioned, but fiercely–and I think, very effectively–under attack. And this confrontation is the second feature of the biblical Wisdom material that I want to highlight.
One reason to highlight this challenge is that, as gloomy as these parts of the Wisdom writings may seem to some, I find them tremendously refreshing, even uplifting. In fact, I’m not sure I could believe that the Bible was really a special, “revealing” book, if Ecclesiastes and Job weren’t in it.
After all the miracles and mythology, it’s like the bumpersticker that Senator Tom Harkin’s presidential campaign was giving out last winter, the one that read, “No More Bushlit.” While extraordinary or miraculous events may happen now and then, I live most of the time in the ordinary and everyday. And it is these biblical voices, rooted in the everyday, that most often speak to my condition. I may try to expect a miracle, but Wisdom is what I depend on day in and day out–if I can find any.
Yet I am also uplifted–inspired would be a better word–by the process I see at work here. This is the third crucial aspect of these texts that I want to highlight: the fact that in it this dialectic, this “heresy,” this challenge to traditional understandings of revelation–this subversion of the original version of Conventional Wisdom–is affirmed by the body of revelation itself.
Again, take Job. At the end of his trials, after he has rejected his friends’ rationalizations and demanded an accounting from God of what has happened to him, God finally speaks to him out of the whirlwind.
God doesn’t give the answers to his fate that Job seeks, but God does something else that is very remarkable. God rebukes Job’s comforters, those who upheld and repeated the conventional Wisdom, and instead commends Job, the challenger: “‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you did not speak the truth about me, the way my servant Job did.'” (Job 42:7) This commendation of Job’s angry truth-speaking is repeated in verse 9.
Thus this entire dialectical process, going from the good advice and assurance of success we find in Proverbs, to the sharp challenge presented by Ecclesiastes and Job, is included in what biblical tradition tells us is a deposit of divine self- disclosure, or revelation. It’s part of it–many scholars say a central part of it, and I agree with them.
One reason I agree is that this tradition thereby legitimizes a condition of inner struggle and ambiguity of understanding that is very familiar in my life, and I think is familiar to many others today as well. The message I draw from this legitimation is that these struggles, the accompanying uncertainty, and the sharp divergence of views they encompass, are included within the realm of meaning and revelation the biblical Wisdom tradition represents.
Let me try to put this another way. From the biblical perspective:
If you have miracles and signs to make sense of your world for you, fine;
Or if you are able, even without such signs and wonders, to maintain confidence in the understanding of life your conventional Wisdom presents you with, that’s fine too.
But then, even if you haven’t seen any wonders, and even if you are beset by doubt and uncertainty and ambiguity and struggle as you attempt to make sense of life–yes, even this too is not beyond the reach of biblical faith and experience.
We might call these three approaches the Way of Wonders, the Way of Faith, and the Way of Wisdom.
One of premier Quaker theologians of our time, Jim Corbett of Pima Meeting in Tucson, Arizona, summed up this third way in a memorable declaration, during the time a few years back when he was on trial for his part in creating the Sanctuary movement. Most of the defendants in that trial were religious people, some Catholics, a Presbyterian, and this grizzled, weatherbeaten Quaker, a desert goatherd who also had a Harvard degree in philosophy. When he and the other defendants were all asked during a sanctuary gathering about their religious views, the others had much to share.
Corbett, though, didn’t say much, except to describe himself as an Unbeliever. This response caused no little consternation. After all, how could a member of a Quaker meeting, who had so vividly put his faith, his witness, even his life on the line, be without belief? But when he was questioned more closely about this, he only smiled slyly and added that he was indeed an Unbeliever, but an Unbeliever in the biblical tradition.
Not many of his listeners understood that declaration, and there’s much more to it than what I’ve tried to lay out here. But I believe that Jim Corbett was describing something real: the Biblical tradition, the biblical revelation, includes a place, an important place, perhaps even a central place, for the way of Wisdom, a way toward understanding, summing up and illuminating our human experience that does not depend on miracle, or faith, or even belief.
In sum, the Wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible suggest that reflection on our human experience, and the compression and illumination of this experience in vivid poetic language, is connected somehow to the mysterious and awesome process of divine self- disclosure. Even Proverbs with all its glib self- confidence is not totally oblivious to this: Pr. 2:6 puts it well: “It is the Lord who gives Wisdom.” Or this familiar verse: Prov. 9:10 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom….”
Some people don’t like that word fear, and the Hebrew root word for “fear” could also and perhaps better be rendered as meaning “reverence for the awesomeness” of unfathomable reality, or more, simply, humility. Though, to be honest, Job reminds us that unbounded power is indeed something to be fearful of.
And the Wisdom thus discovered–even the discovery of how little ultimate understanding we really have–is part of the teaching, the shaping of our understanding of life, the “establishing” that we must do for our children, or for others in our care, and ultimately for ourselves.
Copyright © by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.