Imagination and Wisdom

Imagination is not the first word that springs to mind in connection with biblical Wisdom. Nevertheless the origin of wisdom required imagination and its application requires imagination. If Wisdom is the quest for ‘how to live well’ this is not in the abstract sense but in a manner that makes the best of our context and reality. How could this not require imagination?

As wisdom originated in the Ancient Near East, reflection—imagination—was needed. The proverbs, which were probably the first wisdom literature, required sifting and testing—imagination is required to apply a saying to a new context and analyse its success. Only through the use of imagination could proverbs be tested, sifted and made Scripture. Only through the use of our imaginations can we apply wisdom to our lives.

When it comes to the Book of Job, imagination is also required to allow it to function as intended. The book is the lengthiest sustained piece of wisdom literature by a long way. If we read it with a closed imagination we will mistake it for narrative in the narrowest of senses. Once we ‘relax’ and use our imagination— recognising it as a work of theological imagination—can we free the text to ‘work’ and function as Scripture. Taken as some sort of historical account it begs so many questions that we are distracted from allowing it to function in any useful manner. Once we see and perceive the premise posed in the opening and the rhythm, beauty and design of the poetic dialogues we can feed on the text. We are then open to thinking afresh about our place in God’s creation and his wider relationship with all humanity. Imagination is an openness to change our thinking, how could we become wiser without change?

 

Hebrew and Wisdom

The books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are of course part of the Hebrew Bible. This means that biblical wisdom is not in any simple sense a timeless philosophy of how to live well. It is instead a way of living well rooted in both Israelite culture and the Hebrew language. This is the organic particularity of all Hebrew and Christian Scripture. For this reason attention to the Hebrew nature of the wisdom material is necessary in order to appreciate it. This post will examine just a single facet of this Hebrew dynamic, a feature know as parallelism.

Parallelism is the name given to the widespread feature of biblical Hebrew whereby the written material can be seen to contain statements that are closely related. It is especially dominant in those parts of the Hebrew Bible that are identified as poetic.

It was Robert Lowth who famously laid the foundations of the modern understanding of parallelism in biblical Hebrew in the eighteenth century. He coined the term parallelism and identified three distinct forms, know as synonymous parallelism, antithetic parallelism and synthetic parallelism. Although this simple threefold classification has been shown to be a gross oversimplification of the riches of this literary phenomena, these three categories are still helpfully instructive as an introduction to parallelism.

In synonymous parallelism, two statements are made which have the same meaning. The following is an example from the Book of Proverbs:

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.     Proverbs 1:20 (NRSV)

Antithetic parallelism is very widespread in the Book of Proverbs and can often be recognised by the use of the word ‘but’. The two parts of the proverb have the same meaning but they are stated as opposites, as for example here:

The thoughts of the righteous are just;
the advice of the wicked is treacherous.     Proverbs 12:5 (NRSV)

In synthetic parallelism a second statement in some way advances or develops the first. A good example of this is:

Commit your work to the Lord,
and your plans will be established.     Proverbs 16:3 (NRSV)

Paying attention to these three types of parallelism will soon reveal that it is not always easy to distinguish between synonymous and synthetic parallelism—how much development demarcates the two? Adele Berlin in her monograph titled The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism has shown that parallelism is a far richer linguistic characteristic than the threefold categorisation indicates. I would strongly recommend this book although it assumes a high level of familiarity with complex linguistics and grammatical terms.

Parallelism goes beyond simply the occurrence of paired statement. It can follow a threefold or even longer set of statements. Its ubiquity invites us to see the common use of the inclusio as an extension of this manner of organising ideas and thoughts. On the larger scale it is echoed in the narratives of the Bible which seem to parallel one other. On a larger scale it can be seen in the rich intertextuality so important to both the first and second testaments of the Christian Bible. In this sense parallelism operates over the same three scales recognised in earlier posts on the Book of Psalms: microstructure (neighbouring lines), mesostructure (use of the inclusio) and macrostructure (intertextuality).

The ubiquitous presence of parallelism becomes a way of thinking and capturing reality, in other words its implications go beyond linguistic convention and the wisdom writings.

 

Further Reading

Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Exodus 12: Six Facets of the Passover

1. The Right Time
We often speak of the right time for something to happen. We do this when from an earthly perspective ‘things’ make sense and come together neatly. Sometimes this can, of course, be God acting providentially. Sometimes, however, we must face that fact that God’s understanding of the right time might differ from ours. Typically, we err on the side of impatience and quick fixes. We also are prone to want to forget that we can learn through hardship, difficulty and pain.

I imagine that is how the descendants of Abraham that lived under Egyptian oppression would have felt. Perhaps questioning, not only God’s timing, but questioning him full stop—“Where is the God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”.

For individuals in desperate situations God’s timing can seem incomprehensible. We need to face this reality with honesty as well as trust.

The Bible is clear that from God’s perspective the Passover, and the whole Exodus, take place at the right time. It would appear that the formation of God’s people required the suffering of slavery and oppression as well as the redemption and liberation of Passover and parted-sea. This whole narrative is presented as part of a plan. A plan prefigured in the patriarchal narratives and their preoccupation with firstborn sons, sacrificial lambs and Egypt. A plan which prefigures the sequel of Jesus’ last Passover meal and his death as firstborn and Lamb of God.

Such claims require faith. In the midst of turmoil Moses needed trust and faith. As Hebrews tell us:

By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.     Hebrews 11:28

There are times when we need the same level of faith as we face the worst that life in a broken creation can throw at us. Redemption and liberation in all their richness are a two-stage process. They happen here and now most certainly. But our deliverance is made complete only in the age to come. As we peer through a glass darkly, trust is required. Whatever the appearance of things to us—in God’s timing all things make sense.

There are times when trust is relatively easy. There are times when it takes all our effort and courage. When trust in God comes easily we would do well to be disciplined in walk with God, so that we have the wisdom, discipline, strength and trust to lean on him in the tough times.

2. The Right Space
God not only acts at the right time, but also in the right space. God is a God who works and acts in specific places. This rather obvious claim—that God is Yahweh and Jesus was a Jew—challenges people in our culture who do not believe in God. For many people the God they don’t believe in is an abstract being far removed from this earth. Our Christian claim is far more surprising. Whilst the question of the existence of an abstract god can be addressed by reason, many of the most important claims about the God of Moses rely on revelation.

We don’t know why God chose the lifetime of Moses to work out his plan. We don’t know why God chose Abraham as the Father of his people. We don’t know why God sent his son to live, die and be resurrected in a nation under Roman rule. But the Bible tells us so.

When we are obedient to God, we are in the right space. The right space is not, however, always a place of straightforward blessing.
Israel as a nation where in the right place in the events of Passover and the escape from Egypt. They were also in the right space when in slavery, as God was forming and preparing them as a people.

We can put ourselves in the wrong space as we make bad choices. But when bad things happen to us it is not necessarily a consequence of bad choices or sin—the Book of Job killed that damaging theology. Trusting God in the midst of challenge and adversity is the sign we are mature followers of Jesus; such challenges are of course the way that God disciplines and matures us. Even in the secular world of self-help the truth of learning through challenge and failure is recognised.

Time and again in the story of the exodus the people of God must decide, in the midst of trial and turmoil, who will they trust? Time and again in the story of our little lives we have to decide, who will we trust?

Exodus 12 6th May 2018

3. Yahweh’s Power
The central act by God at the Passover—the death of the firstborn of every family—is a dramatic act of power. It is also terrifying on just about every level. To modern sensibilities the Passover narrative is a text of terror and there are of course interpretive strategies that address this challenge in different ways—with diverse degrees of success and conviction. This is not the place to rehearse these.

Some theologians use a special phrase to refer to events like the Passover in First Testament: Magnalia Dei, or The Mighty Acts of God. The events described in the Passover and wider exodus story are at the top of the scale of power. The other plagues, whilst acts of power in their own right have merely been a foretaste of this event. Each plague ridiculed an Egyptian god. The tenth and final one shows Yahweh rather than Osiris as the god of death. It can also be seen as an answer to the horror of Pharaoh’s dealings with new-borns at the opening of Exodus. Yahweh’s tenth plague is a terrible reply.

The Second Testament provides fresh insight into God’s power. God, as glorious creator, is still of course a God of raw power. But in Christ we see that in God’s mercy he does not deal with earthly power by just trumping it. He subverts the very meaning of power in the cross—in the frailty and weakness of Jesus’ body, broken for us, we see God’s power displayed in a new upside-down light. Cross and Resurrection together complete the re-evaluation of God’s power—Paul’s letters reflect on this at length (for example see 1 Corinthians 1).

The Mighty Acts of God in Passover are a foretaste of the New Testament’s Passover Lamb, Jesus. Who would have thought that a single lamb would one day enable members of every tribe and nation to be saved at the same time as redefining power? We would do well to understand that in this age God’s power is made known firstly in meekness and secondly in majesty. The biblical hope is one in which for God’s plan to be completed, a day is coming when majesty will once more be centre stage.

4. A New Reality
The Passover marks a new reality. Once they were not a people—now the descendants of the Patriarchs are the people of God. Once we were not a people—in Christ the new Passover Lamb we were made the people of God.

The Passover is the turning point of the story of how the Israelites escape captivity in Egypt. Such a decisive act of power by their God is what was needed to initiate their departure. A grieving hard-hearted pharaoh will now let God’s people go.

This new reality looks back—Yahweh’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob make a decisive step towards completion. The Passover also echoes the ram that substituted for Abraham’s firstborn.

This new reality looks forward—he foundations of the New Exodus are laid. The many lambs of Passover pre-empt the one lamb at Calvary. The death of so many firstborn precedes the death of the Yahweh’s firstborn.

5. Calling to Mind
We need to remember—to call to mind—God’s faithfulness in creating and redeeming a people. As frail human beings we are too slow to remember God’s acts and his grace. One minute we are thanking and praising God, the next we have forgotten.

Throughout Scripture there are exhortations to remember—to call to mind—who God is and his Mighty Acts redemption and salvation. Scripture is many things, including testimony. We have a First Testament, or testimony. We have a Second Testament, or testimony. The act of reading the smallest part of Scripture is an act of remembering—calling to mind—the living God. As daily bread it is vital nourishment.

The testimony of the Bible should not of course be only an individual practice. It has a special vitality as gathered communities remember together. This is especially the case in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, as we remember the one Passover Lamb.

6. Every Soul
The story of good news started very specifically with promises made to one man named Abraham. But the good news that was founded then is for every soul.

The story became richer with promises made to one nation. But the good news that was emerging is for very soul.

The story finished with one man’s death and resurrection. The Good News that the one man was both God-man and Passover Lamb. And that he was God’s firstborn son—firstborn because he is the first of many children, for the good news is for every soul.