Dialogue in Wisdom

One of the things that many modern readers find especially challenging about wisdom literature is its use of dialogue. In the modern Western world and Church nothing really prepares us for Scripture’s internal debates. And yet when we meet the Bible on its own terms we find that dialogue and questioning are a common feature. This use of dialogue is especially obvious in the book of Job, where much of the book is a series of dialogues. There are various reasons why dialogues can be difficult to appreciate and to appropriate. The issue of appreciation concerns an expectation of what the Bible is. That the Bible is meant to be in some senses both didactic and authoritative is part of an orthodox understanding of the nature of Scripture. When these ideas combine, however, to form a simplistic notion of guidance then some genres of biblical literature becoming flattened. In this way various misconceptions can arise. With regard to wisdom literature, one of the most problematic is reading wisdom as promised blessing—what would have been an observation validated by reflection is misread as a guaranteed truth. This is especially ironic as much of the concern of wisdom is the debate, and hence dialogues, around key issues such as personal and national blessing.

Each of the three biblical wisdom books has a distinct role for dialogue. One way of looking at Proverbs, for example, is that it has been shaped by hundreds of years of dialogue (as well as reflection). In the case of Ecclesiastes, the book’s often pessimistic claims invite the reader with faith to reply. In the Book of Job, dialogues play a more explicit role in the text. The book commences with a narrative opening which sets the scene concerning the cause of Job’s afflictions. Three dialogues then follow in which Job and his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, dispute the cause of Job’s afflictions:

Dialogue 1

Eliphaz                  4–5

Job                         6–7

Bildad                    8

Job                         9–10

Zophar                  11

Job                         12–14

Dialogue 2

Zophar                  20

Job                         21

Bildad                    18

Job                         19

Zophar                  20

Job                         21

Dialogue 3

Eliphaz                  22

Job                         23–24

Bildad                    25

Job                         26–27

As the dialogues unfold, Job’s friends put him under trial and Job puts God under trial. In the three cycles of dialogue various nuances of argument are put forward—it is a demanding task to enter the debate and distinguish the subtlety and distinctiveness of the various views. Even when we start to discern the different views, choosing between them can still be tricky. There is also a temptation to simplify the journey of reading into the destination. But what if not only the outcome of the Book of Job is important but also the ups-and-downs of the dialogues too. For if the only things that mattered were normative answers to the questions addressed by the Book of Job, then why would the book even exist in anything like its canonical form?

The bigger picture is important here too. In some ways the three biblical wisdom books can be seen as a dialogue between three different takes on what wisdom actually is. Although we have seen that they share a common role for Fear of the Lord as a basis for wisdom, in many other respects they differ enormously in their stance. Appreciating their distinct nature and differences will be a central concern of the rest of this series of posts.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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