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?

 

God and Wisdom, Part 2

7. Sources of Wisdom: Experience, Observation, Tradition, Correction, and Ultimately Revelation
In this chapter Longman explores the expected role of experience and observation in wisdom. These are the sources that mark out the idea of wisdom, i.e. in this sense it differs from legal material, historical narrative and prophetic texts. Longman argues that despite these distinct points of departure of wisdom thought, they have a theological trajectory crystallised in the centrality of the idea of Fear of the Lord. Longman also explores the false claims to revelation within wisdom material, such as those of Eliphaz and Elihu, and he argues that though such views are found wanting they can also be instructive.

8. Wisdom, Creation, and (Dis)order
Longman explores the connection of wisdom with creation, a relationship which he points out is the subject of some scholarly disagreement. He starts out with a brief survey of various key wisdom texts in Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom Psalms and Song of Songs. He suggests that creation is a thread in all five texts, although he also points out that it is not a dominant concern. On this basis he makes that case that ‘the sages’ understand both the fact of creation and the existence of a creator as part of their worldview. Longman concludes this chapter by considering the role of wisdom in a world which is both ordered and yet broken.

9. Israelite Wisdom in its Ancient Near Eastern Setting
Israelite wisdom is more open to similar literature in other Near Eastern nations than is the case for prophecy and law. Longman argues that this openness is, however, not an uncritical one. He argues there ‘is, accordingly, no way that the Israelite sages who produced Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes would think that ancient Near Eastern wisdom teachers were wise in the most important sense of the word’ [p.163]. This is of course unsurprising in light of Longman’s central argument that Fear of the Lord is a necessity as a foundation for wisdom.

10. Wisdom, Covenant, and Law
In this chapter Longman addresses the claim that was highlighted in chapter 9, namely that wisdom is concerned with universal matters and is in some sense distinct from the wider Old Testament. Anyone who has read the book, or even this review, up to this point will know Longman’s likely conclusion—he argues that there are connections between the various Old Testament covenants and the Law.

11. The Consequences of Wise and Foolish Behaviour: The Issue of Retribution Theology
This chapter is an important one in that it addresses some of the terrible category mistakes that have been made regarding the wisdom elements of the Old Testament. He addresses the fact that a proverb is not a promise and the even more insidious claims of those who articulate a so-called prosperity gospel. The way this is approached is helpful—the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes are both recapitulated in terms of their identification of a simple theology of retribution in this life as ‘wrong-minded’. On this basis he helps unfold a more nuanced appreciation of the Book of Proverbs. In this way the three books generally identified as wisdom literature are seen to be of one mind in rejecting the notion of retribution theology.

12. The Social Setting of Wisdom
This chapter is helpfully frank about the limitations of the data available about the social setting of wisdom. The evidence for both the existence of schools and sages in Israelite society is considered. Longman concludes that despite some evidence we cannot be certain of the existence of schools of professional wise people. There is judged to be sufficient evidence to conclude that the wisdom has a variety of social settings and the canon has made use of proverbial instruction from every stratum of society.

The third and final part of this review will follow very soon.

Afterword or After Z

I hope that readers of this blog have found the recent posts on the Hebrew Bible interesting and informative. My aim was twofold.

Firstly, for Christian readers of the Old Testament my aim was to highlight how the Old Testament is not in some senses the same as the Hebrew Bible. Although the texts are the same, they are arranged differently and even more importantly our presuppositions as a reader transform the texts in terms of their meaning and significance. In this way I regard the Old Testament as a re-reading of the Hebrew Bible—in seeing it as such an already initiated trajectory for the texts is continued. This is because, even before Christ the very process of collecting the texts necessitated they be re-read.

Secondly, for the more casual reader with little familiarity with the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament I was hoping that the posts might point to the richness of the Hebrew Bible and the various writings found within. In this way I would be delighted if the reader left my blog in favour of the object which it hopefully signifies.

I hope that the above aims will have worked for some readers of this blog. Like all such enterprises it has various weaknesses. I am sure that the posts betray some of my idiosyncrasies. What is a bigger concern for me, and one I can see all too evidently, is what has been omitted. In putting together the posts with the rather poetic constraint of the A to Z motif, I was conscious that the Hebrew Bible’s Latter Prophets were largely absent. It is possible that I might attempt to remedy the absence of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve at a later date—perhaps another A to Z challenge beckons? For the coming months, however, this blog will return to the more infrequent and normal occasional posting of short contributions centered on the Psalter and the occasional pertinent book review.

 

 

X is for Xerxes

Xerxes is the Greek name of a Persian ruler who reigned in the 5th century BCE. In the Hebrew Bible he is named Ahasuerus which is a transliteration of his name from Persian. In English translations this word is usually rendered Xerxes as this is how he has become known in classical history. An exception is the New Revised Standard Version where he is given his Hebrew name. Despite appearing in nearly every chapter of Esther, he is only mentioned once elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, in Ezra 4:6.

Details of the life of Xerxes and his reign are found in diverse documents from the time he ruled and shortly after. A more complex issue is how factual the story of Esther might be. On this matter scholars differ significantly. The story certainly has some remarkable features to it which make it sound like a fable (see the previous post, ‘N is for Novella’). One of these is the classic line whereby King Xerxes besotted with Esther offers her: “Even up to half the kingdom” (Esther 5:3 and 7:2). The most remarkable aspect of the story, however, is the coincidence that occurs which works against the villain of the story, Haman.

An element of the book of Esther which is frequently noted is that God is absent from the story. Or to put it more precisely, he is not directly referred to. The inference from the story and the coincidences within it, by which the Jewish people escape death at the hands of Haman, is that God is at work providentially behind the scenes.

I am reminded of my all-time favourite film, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson called Magnolia. This film is not for everyone as it contains some unsavoury scenes in the lives of people who are in different ways broken by modern American life. The main characters all live in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, California. Much of the film documents the lives of these dysfunctional people and the audience puzzles at these only vaguely connected lives. Deep into the film a remarkable event occurs—I won’t spoil it here but will say that is thoroughly biblical. This event finally explains why the film is named Magnolia. The title it turns out is a play on the theological term, magnalia Dei which means the mighty acts of God. Just like in Esther, God is not mentioned and yet the implication is that he, or some powerful force, is there working behind the scenes.

What really matters as we live our lives is the knowledge that God is at work behind the scenes. Whether you see Esther as a historically reliable account or a literary fiction is less critical. In the words of the opening of Magnolia:

It is the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just something that happened. This cannot be one of those things. This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. These strange things happen all the time.

 

 

 

F is for Fall

Right on the heels of the two creation accounts in Genesis 1–2 there follows the story of what is often termed ‘The Fall’. This familiar story of the Garden of Eden, Adam, Eve and the serpent poses an interpretive challenge. Just as with the Creation accounts, translating Genesis 3 into straightforward propositional truth tends to pit science against the Bible. We should also note that seeing this story as in some sense symbolic or mythical poses different challenges. It is however this latter approach that I find sensible.

There are a number of reasons why this approach seems necessary to me. One example will serve for this post. What are we to make of the cursing of the serpent by God? What else is going on in this account about why snakes have no legs, and crawl on their bellies? Surely this has to be mythopoetic language and if so, the whole story must function in the same way. The challenge of seeing the narrative as imagery does however beg the question ‘How do we equate the symbolic language with the theological concept of the fallen nature of humanity?’ Throughout much of Church History theologians have taken Genesis 3 at face value and have built ontological arguments on it—the most famous of these being Augustine’s doctrine of original sin.

In contrast a more mythical interpretive paradigm does not provide a cause-and-effect account of how it is that human beings have collectively chosen their own path and have a broken relationship with God. For some this lack of mechanism is unnerving as it leaves unanswered questions. And yet more positively the very lack of a mechanical account resonates with the wonderful mystery, that though science can explain much about biology, including genetic evolution, it cannot provide a metaphysical account of ‘the world’ except for the singular possibility that there is no purpose to ‘creation’. Is ‘The Fall’ an account of the first two people making a bad choice that echoes through eternity—accounting for the broken relationship between man-and-man, man-and-woman, humanity-and-creation, humanity-and-God? Or is it a mythic statement of the way things are, a state of affairs which it is difficult to refute?

One way of looking at Genesis 3 is to note that it sounds like something of a prequel to Exile. The account of Genesis 3 concludes with Adam and Eve being exiled from Eden. When viewed in this way the history of exile, the mythopoetic imagery of Fall are mutually enriching and the common experience of human beings cohere into a theology of being strangers in a strange land. We are all lovers of those who share our humanity and yet we are unable to live this out with consistency; simultaneously in awe of the world around us and yet sowing the seeds of its destruction; day-by-day seeking self-fulfilment but discerning that something is absent.

Opening ourselves to a rich nuanced interpretation of The Fall (and Creation) is the start of a journey to a new worldview and this possibility turns into a exilic pilgrimage to the Promised Land, the heavenly Eden. It does this in a way that asks as many questions as it provides answers.

E is for Exile

The exile is a key event in the biblical account of the history of God’s people. It is the conclusion of the story recounted by the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) as well as the ‘climax’ of the parallel account in the Book of Chronicles. It is so important to the overall story of the Hebrew Bible that the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve so-called Minor Prophets) are often categorised in the threefold grouping of (i) pre-exilic, (ii) exilic and (iii) post-exilic. The pre-exilic prophets warn of the possibility of exile as punishment for the nation and the post-exilic prophets the consequences of exile.

Our concern in this post is the 6th Century BCE when the Babylonian armies captured the land of Judah and sacked the city of Jerusalem. This was not a singular event and the military violence culminated in several deportations. At a literal level the term exile refers to these deportations but in reality the exile was bigger than this. It embodies much more than the experience of those who were deported to a foreign land, like those by the rivers of Babylon in Psalm 137. The bigger picture includes those left behind and the impact of events seen as God’s judgement by the returning Judahites. Exile is a complex nexus of history and theology, like so much else we find the in the Hebrew Bible.

The Latter Prophet Jeremiah speaks of two deportations and other sources indicate there were three; in 597 BCE (Jeremiah 39:1), 586 BCE (Jeremiah 52:29) and 582/581 BCE (mentioned in Josephus’ Antiquities X. ix. 7). There is no reason to doubt the broad historicity of these events—as well as the wider narrative in Kings. Many of the features of the biblical record cohere well with Josephus and also Babylonian accounts. The latter include both narrative texts and the details found on monuments and artefacts.

The theological implication of God’s people suffering defeat, humiliation, violence and deportation is crystallised in all of its unpleasant rawness in the book of Lamentations. We will return to this short book of laments in a later post. For now we note that the exile raised the same type of questions that the more recent events of the Holocaust raise. The ‘exile experience’ is not something confined to past history as an event; it pre-empts later experiences of God’s people and the experience of individuals too. This is one of the reasons why laments are a key feature of the Hebrew Bible and why their use should not be confined to the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem.

Of course the story did not end with exile—although for those in its midst it would have felt like it had. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, a single book in the Hebrew Bible, give accounts of the rebuilding of Jerusalem. The return from exile was not a straightforward return to the way things had been. The return was followed by centuries of turmoil as the Jewish nation took on a new shape without a proper monarch. During this reshaping there was ongoing oppression by the Persians, Greeks and Romans. It was during this time that much of the Hebrew Bible was written and other parts edited.

D is for Deuteronomistic History

Perhaps the choice of topic for the letter ‘D’ is a surprise. Many readers may not have heard of this theory. This idea seeks to explain the observation that the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings tell a coherent story. The coherency of the story is explained in a variety of ways all of which centre on the strong literary relationship of the book of Deuteronomy and what in the Hebrew Bible are termed the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). The earliest explanations of this literary relationship which were made well over one hundred years ago proposed that the Former Prophets were edited by someone who was committed to the theological outlook of the book of Deuteronomy. Later the German scholar Martin Noth (1902–1968) suggested that Deuteronomy and the Former Prophets had such strong similarities in terms of themes and literary style that they were at some level a single literary work. This work was dated to the exilic period (the exile will be our next topic). Like all intriguing theories it has been revised and refuted by other scholars.

It is likely that no overall theory will ever be recognised as the consensus but what is clear is the base data—anyone reading from Deuteronomy through the books of Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings and II Kings (the Hebrew Bible’s books of Samuel and Kings were each split in two for the Christian canon) will find they are carried forward in a compelling account spanning the Israelites poised to conquer the promised land to their exile from the land. The story is a complex ‘Game of Thrones’ history with strong theological claims and themes throughout. In the English-speaking world Joshua to Kings are seen as historical books whilst in Hebrew their theological freight is to the fore in their designation as Former Prophets. We would do well to note that history meets theology here in a complex and rich tapestry, for as we shall see the Hebrew Bible resists our modern categories that would separate the marriage of history and theology asunder.

By way of conclusion it is worth noting a central aspect of the book of Deuteronomy. The book displays many of the characteristics of an ancient near-eastern legal document. Read in this light it represents a legal covenant between Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the nation of Israel. In keeping with such treaties it uses the language of blessings and curse. The former the result of keeping the agreement and the latter the consequences of breaking the terms of covenant. In short if Israel serves Yahweh faithfully then they will know the blessings of peace and prosperity in the Land that they have been given by God. If, on the other hand, they follow the other deities of the ancient near-east or are led astray by idols they will lose the land and the peace and prosperity granted by Yahweh. The Former Prophets unfold the story of the gaining of the Land and the complex journey which leads to its loss in the midst of war, calamity and exile.

C is for Creation

There is no escaping the centrality of the theme of Creation in the Hebrew Bible. Not only is it encountered on numerous occasions, both explicitly and implicitly, but it is also the point of departure of the book of Genesis and therefore the whole Hebrew Bible.

In the previous post we considered two polar opposite approaches to the Hebrew Bible and their respective presuppositions. These were scientific atheism and highly conservative Christianity. Both conservative Christian approaches and militant atheism share a tendency to translate the two accounts of creation found in Genesis 1–2 into propositional truth. In this way the outcome is either:

  1. The Bible’s account of creation is so at odds with astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology that the biblical account is false, or
  2. The Bible’s account of creation is so at odds with astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology that these sciences are wrong.

Of course there are alternatives. These alternatives centre on considering what these texts are—i.e. they are not a series of straightforward propositional truths. This is not to question their potential for conveying truth but rather to recognise that there is something more complex at work in these texts and that their interpretation is richer than a series of true/false statements. I want to suggest that an initial reading of the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1–2 which recognises their cultural milieu indicates two useful starting points.

Firstly, there is a poetic dynamic to the accounts:

  • They are highly rhythmic and stylised—for example the six fold refrain of ‘. . . and there was evening, and there was morning . . .’ (see 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23 and 31).
  • There is word play—for example the use of ‘adamah as earth (as in topsoil) in 1:25 and 2:6 and the use of ‘adam as the first man (earth creature) in 2:7.

Some poetic features are lost in translation but the rhythm and form are readily apparent.

Secondly, the two creation accounts in Genesis and other elements of Genesis 1–11 are part of a number of Ancient Near-Eastern texts which deal with origins. They arose in a context which saw a number of accounts for the origin of the world and explanations of the way things are. For example, there are Akkadian, Egyptian and Babylonian creation stories. These Hebrew accounts provide their own unique answers to the questions being asked at that time.

Of course even when such considerations are handled sympathetically these texts can still be dismissed as wrongheaded, but the way we can dismiss or embrace them is richer than polarising modern science against ancient text as propositional statements which capture timeless truth. The possible ‘thicker’ readings lack the simplicity and closure of the ‘thinner’ alternatives. They raise questions as well as provide answers. The central claims of Genesis 1–2 provide the presuppositions underpinning the whole of the Hebrew Bible—that the Hebrew God, Yahweh, created the universe and that humankind are, at some level, special within this creation. There is no scientific proposal here which can be tested. Rather, this is elegant use of the possibilities of poetry to populate the imagination with rich theological images. This thicker possibility leads us to wonder and perhaps argue about how we interpret the account—how do Adam and Eve fit with the scientific consensus? As a Christian who is also a scientist I welcome the fact that neither scientific consensus nor the Bible trumps the other at the outset of a process of critical evaluation and consideration.

 

Further reading

For a stimulating scholarly exploration of the centrality of creation in the Hebrew Bible see Herman Spieckermann, ‘Creation: God and World’, pp. 271‒292 in The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (ed: John Barton), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016

B is for Bible

The word Bible derives from the Greek word biblion which originally meant scroll. Over time the word Bible came to mean a collection of books of religious significance. In modern English the word tends to have a wider meaning as a massive tome providing comprehensive coverage of a topic. The object considered in this series of posts defies any simple attempt at classification. A key background issue to this series of posts is the differences of opinion on just what the Hebrew Bible is.

When we read the Hebrew Bible we interpret what is says having already made a decision as to what it is. This is the classic conundrum of interpreting any text—interpretation requires a starting point or to put it formally, presuppositions. The challenge of good reading is to allow the object to challenge these presuppositions.

Two polar presuppositions are worth considering in order to illustrate this point. The most conservative Christian readings perceive the Bible as the final word on matters beyond those of religion or doctrine to include history and science. Such a stance does not invite the possibility of reading the Bible and expecting to have this view challenged, modified or refined. Any apparent tensions or contradictions with secular accounts of history, geology, physics, psychology, etc. are explained in terms of the failings of the alternatives not as either limitations of the Bible or the possibility that the Bible has been interpreted inappropriately. At the other end of the presuppositional spectrum, the convinced atheist will tend to read the Bible in a similar but opposite fashion—such a reading reveals numerous discrepancies within the Bible. Such ‘discrpencies’ are especially apparent if the Hebrew Bible is read as a mechanical propositional account of the universe. I am not suggesting that either atheists or conservative Christians are deliberately closed to critical thinking or changing their minds, rather I am suggesting that these polar positions mean that the Bible is understood in a rigid way that resists adaption to a new understanding.

Both approaches have a tendency to flatten the Bible into propositional truth and ignore the poetic devices, literary forms and the nuances invited by the different genres of literature which comprise the Hebrew Bible. To make matters worse, some who read in this manner describe their readings as ‘literal’ when in fact they have removed the Bible a priori from the realm of literature.

My view of the Bible (either the whole Christian Bible or the Hebrew Bible) is that it is neither (i)  the product of cultures who imagined a God and sought to collect writings to testify to this claim in a haphazard and unconvincing manner, nor (ii) handed down from heaven as the final word on faith, science and history. This series of posts starts with the premise that this is a thoroughly human book—written over centuries, subject to editing and selection, diverse in genre and resistant to definition. This premise does not preclude either of the views mentioned above being correct in their judgement of the Bible’s veracity. It is, however, a starting point for what could in principle a more open journey to either theism or atheism. I have spent more than thirty years reading the Bible and am still ‘happy’ with the messy human premise but equally convinced that God was at work in the events that inspired the biblical authors, and working providentially in the authorship, collecting and editing of the constituent parts of the Bible. Year-on-year I find myself revising the details of my understanding of the nature of scripture and want to remain open to finding out from the Bible itself, just what it actually is. Perhaps this latter point is still an act of faith—believing that the Bible can change readers, can teach, can transform. But it can also be seen as a working hypothesis which is constantly being tested.

 

A is for aleph to tav

The Hebrew alphabet seems an ideal way to start an A to Z series of posts on the Hebrew Bible. In this way we can celebrate the English language and the Hebrew Bible simultaneously. The Hebrew alphabet begins with aleph and ends with tav. We shall see that the Hebrew Bible invented the idea of an A to Z before the English alphabet even existed. The alphabet is a good place to start for other reasons too. It is a helpful reminder that when most of us read the Hebrew Bible we read it in translation. Even the act of picking up a copy of the Hebrew Bible is a choice—a choice of one rendering into English over another (I hope any Hebrew readers will forgive my presumption). Rather than seeing the need to read in translation as a problem however, its positive dimensions should be noted. The very necessity of translation makes us appreciate head-on the nature of the task of reading this profoundly important cultural object. As we read it we will find it is not just the language that we find alien.

If we read the Hebrew Bible out of interest and genuine enquiry we must address not only the linguistic challenge but also recognise that this is only the first rung on the ladder to understanding these texts. Whilst one alphabet and language can be rendered into another it is perhaps a more proscribed process than connecting the modern reader’s cultural perspective with those of the authors, editors and characters of the Hebrew Bible.

This blog aims to provide a starting point for the journey of both understanding and appreciation needed to bridge the gap between ‘then’ and ‘now’. Despite some thinker’s scepticism about the possibility of bridging what has been termed an ‘ugly broad ditch’ [1], I am writing from a conviction that a ‘fusion of horizons’ [2] is a genuine possibility. More than that, that reading the Hebrew Bible is a fruitful and rewarding venture. At the outset, I must point out that I am writing from the vantage point of Christian faith. This stance is inevitably founded on presuppositions although of course there is no truly neutral viewing gallery alternative. I hope that anyone reading from a different perspective will see that my attempt is at least honest in its presuppositions and able to display critical judgement.

The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet turn out to be linguistically richer than the English alphabet—they are strictly speaking consonantal phonemes rather than letters. Each of them can have vowels appended to them. Despite this, these twenty-two consonantal phonemes often function in ways analogous to the English alphabet. This is especially true in terms of the A–Z motif so familiar to fellow April A–Z bloggers. In fact the Hebrew Bible takes the concepts of completeness and organisation that an A–Z motif implies and utilises it time and again. Some of the poetic parts of the Hebrew Bible, as we shall see, embrace aleph to tav as a profoundly meaningful literary device.

 

Notes

  1. Gotthold Lessing (1729–81) was a German Enlightenment philosopher. He famously (or infamously) used an image of “the ugly broad ditch” (der garstige breite Graben) to describe the problem of historical distance between the present and past historical events.
  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) was a German philosopher. He was a proponent of a rich idea of “the fusion of horizons” (horizontverschmelzung). The concept involves a connection between a modern vantage point, or horizon, and an ancient one. When a proper connection or fusion, is established the contemporary observer understands from a new vantage point. This approach has had an impact on modern hermeneutics (theories of interpretation).