From Hand Washing to #SyrophoenicianLivesMatter: Mark 7

As human beings we have an annoying trait of complicating what God instructs us to do. This is where Mark 7 begins, but not where it ends. At the start of the chapter it is the Pharisees who are complicating God’s instruction. In fact, Jesus will go on to explain they are doing something even worse.

Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus faces hostility from the religious leaders. It was not just Jesus that the leaders had it in for, Israel had a long tradition of prophets who criticised the status quo and thereby the leaders. In Jesus’ time it was still the case. Many people would announce a new teaching, usually centred on the need for political change. Then they set out to bring truth to power. Some, like Jesus, gave everything in the attempt.

Here, the Pharisees have taken some of God’s instruction (torah) and made an extra burden of tradition to go on top. The Law (torah) required priests to ritually clean their hands. This was an act of grace as it reminded them that when dealing with the Holy God of Israel a clean heart is essential.

Please note that this is not about hand hygiene—though this is the centre of our daily lives at present. As an aside, we might want to have a word with Jesus and his disciples on this count.

The accusation that the disciples have not washed their hands, is a claim that they have not obeyed the extra rules made by the Elders. These rules had been added as a burden on everyone. When you are travelling doing itinerant ministry, is not feasible to carry the necessary dedicated washing cups, pots, and bronze kettles. And Mark’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus liked his disciples to travel light.

Jesus, as a rabbi, is responsible for his disciple’s actions. At this level, the Pharisees are justified in bringing the matter to Jesus. The problem with their case is, however, twofold. Firstly, their motives are dubious. This, however, is not the point that Jesus takes up with them. The second issue is the key one. By focusing on man-made traditions these become a distraction from God himself.

Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

We must not get self-righteous at this point by spotting what we do without thinking. In my own Baptist tradition, the trinity of words: tradition, doctrine, and ritual are often unspoken and these matters judged as peripheral. We might read what Jesus says about human traditions and then go further than Jesus does.

In quoting from Isaiah, God-sanctioned tradition, Jesus is primarily pointing out that God desires true worship. He wants hearts that are set on him. At the same time, he affirms that doctrine and ritual still have a place. In the New Testament, the disciples and Jesus’ brother, James, affirm both doctrine and ritual. In the case of ritual, we still have cleansing effected baptism, we have Christ’s sacrifice proclaimed in bread and wine, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit through anointing with oil. All these are mandated by Jesus and/or the testimony of the New Testament.

Our Christian tradition makes it easier to see some things than others. Let us not abandon other commandments of God. And Let us remember that working these out requires a framework of tradition, doctrine and ritual.

Things get worse for the Pharisees as Jesus spells out why he has quoted Isaiah. He suggests that their specific traditions get in the way of God’s commands. He mentions the idea of ‘corban‘ in which something could be set apart for God. The specific issues seem to be that some where giving land and wealth, made ‘corban‘, to the religious leaders. In doing so, some then deprived their parents of the support that was their due in old age, according to the Law.

Then Jesus gets to the revolutionary bit. Jesus’s comments about the human heart, our insides, our outsides, and purity is both great teaching, spells out a bigger problem—a problem for everyone.

With reference to our basic bodily functions, Jesus explains that what we eat cannot make us unclean. This even transforms some of the commandments of the Law. This is a trajectory that enables God’s people to eat screech owl and even pig should they wish to. The repercussions of this took years to work out after Jesus death hence the editorial note in verse 19.

The counterpoint to this is that we know a person’s heart by their fruit. There is that horrible list: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Jesus and the Pharisees are on common ground with this list. They can also agree on its root cause.

Jesus and the Pharisees agreed on ample evidence from the Scriptures that the heart is the underlying problem:

  1. God judges people on the basis of their heart, ‘for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7, NRSV).
  2. The law acknowledges the problem of the uncircumcised heart (Leviticus 26:41).
  3. Proverbs 20:9 puts the issue as a rhetorical question: “Who can say, “I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin”?”

Why does he tell them what they already know? The problem is that human effort, via traditions, cannot deal with the sinful heart that we each have. Not even God’s commandments can do this. They might be a helpful bandage or provide palliative care, but they do not deal with a sinful heart. This is a bigger problem than ritual impurity over the lack of hand-washing.

Jesus does not address the problem in this encounter with the Pharisees. Remarkably in the next episode in Mark’s gospel it is a Syrophoenician women—yes, a Gentile—that perceives that Jesus is the at the centre of a game changing solution to this conundrum.

Here we enter someone’s home, the details are left out by Mark. Presumably, this is a house where Jesus has been able to get peace and quiet previously—a safe house. But his effort to get some downtime has not worked. A Syrophoenician woman gate-crashes his rest. This is a bold and desperate move; Gentiles don’t barge into Jewish homes to address a Jewish Rabbi.

It is the hope that Jesus can work a miracle that has driven her to do the unthinkable. She begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her absent daughter, left suffering at home. So far so good, our sensibilities have not been ruffled even if those of polite Jewish society have.

And then we wake up because our Lord and Saviour, our role model for life, the sinless one, the man who has just preached that we are all judged by what comes from our mouths, makes what could be understood as a racial slur. Jesus implies the common label of Gentiles as dogs in what he says to his woman. So offensive is this episode that Luke misses it out of his gospel written to a Gentile audience. 

In this tricky saying, Jesus explains that his ministry has been essentially to the Jews, and only in passing to the Gentiles. In this way, Jesus’ ministry is food for the children of Israel, and not food for Gentiles.

Are you feeling uncomfortable? Are we going to have to have take down any statues of Jesus and crosses that commemorate his death and resurrection, in a #SyrophoencianLivesMatter rampage? Is Jesus being racist?

We will of course never know Jesus’ tone, his demeanour, the possible twinkle in his eye when he said these words. What we do know is that despite alluding to the labelling of Gentiles as dogs, standard practice in his culture, his statement elicits the most remarkable response from this woman:

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In this brief exchange and based on the knowledge of Jesus that brought her to a strange Jewish house, she has understood what the Pharisees with all their hand-wringing and hand-washing have missed. She has seen that Jesus’ work starts with Jews but is the hope of all humanity. She is pleading that this might begin right here and right now with her daughter. Her faith and courage are rewarded:

Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

This remarkable new understanding of Jesus’ work is the start of Mark’s Gospel revealing that he in his deeds and his person he will address the bigger problem of the heart. Both Jew and Gentile will have the possibility of a circumcised heart as Leviticus puts it.

Life Understood Backwards

Looking Back
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard claimed that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

The experience of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus was something like this. How could they understand Jesus’ life at its end? Even at the end did it make sense? Cleopas and the other, unnamed disciple have not understood Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. We do not know how much time they spent with Jesus—it is clear they are not among the eleven disciples. But they certainly knew enough to be disappointed. He was not the deliverer they had hoped for. They, like many, wanted a Messiah who was a military redeemer. A messiah like David in every sense. An anointed leader who would defeat the occupying Romans just as David had tackled Goliath and the Philistines.

The one they had begun to think might be God’s anointed ruler had died shamefully on a cross. A remarkable man in many ways, but in the end as frail as any other. And now the women claimed his body was gone. More than that, they also said they had seen angels announcing that he was alive.

These events lived forwards made no sense to these two followers. Jesus was a man who taught with authority, healed the sick, and cast out demons. Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem like a king. And then it all turned sour. These two disciples had apparently given up on the one they had been following. They had left Jerusalem for Emmaus and presumably were returning to their old lives.

But they encounter the risen Jesus, although they do not know this at first. This meeting is a revelation—a revealing in two stages. They experience a progressive understanding of who Jesus is. They will come to understand Jesus’ life.

First Jesus makes them look back as they journey together. They simultaneously look back on the life of Jesus and the work of God in the Old Testament. The Risen Jesus does the most remarkable thing. He combines his story with the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. Read through Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures become the First Testament to his life, his death, and his resurrection. Jesus is the fulfilment of the Hebrew scriptures.

The second stage of unveiling is a more personal encounter that goes beyond explanation. It is an opening of their eyes. They literally see the risen Christ. They had started out lost on the road, but now were found. They had been blind but now they could see.

Our Conversion
We are unlikely to have had the same type of encounter with the risen Christ as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. But there is likely to be some similarity. I remember at the age of seventeen finding out more about Jesus and the Bible. I had seen lots of the bits and pieces of the gospel but struggled to put it all together. I still needed my eyes to be opened. I can remember two distinct moments when Jesus suddenly made more sense. The first was a bit like the two disciples on the road having things explained to them. My Emmaus road was a tent, in Margate, where the crucifixion was explained in rather graphic detail to me, and several hundred others. This converted my brain and my conscience. I went forward knowing that my life was never going to be the same again.

Just a few days later I had the second step of eye opening—only possible because of the first. I was reading the Parable of the Tenants in Mark 12 and my heart was converted. My heart burned at that moment like the experience of those two disciples. I understood at a heart level just what it meant that God had sent prophets to speak of him. Prophets who were beaten and killed. I understood at the heart level that he sent his own Son that we might know him. Only for him to suffer the same fate. It was as though Jesus was there with me, unpacking the Law and the Prophets—refreshing me as the bread of life with a meal.

Knowing Jesus in this way does not mean that the rest of our lives suddenly make complete sense. But it is a start. Much still happens in my life that I do not understand. Things have happened to me and my family which I wish had not. But in Christ I trust that in the end it will make sense. The times of pain and trial will be found to have some benefit or important consequence. If we have met Jesus on our Road to Emmaus we can find him too in our Valley of the Shadow of Death. The poet B M Franklin puts is this way:

My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

Our Ongoing Experience of Christ
In the Emmaus story the two disciples do something simple. They have a meal with Jesus—they break bread with him. It is no surprise that it was at the breaking of bread that their eyes were opened, and they recognised that the man before them is the risen Lord Jesus. Less than a week earlier Jesus has broken bread and explained that his body must be broken. These two disciples would surely have heard about this odd teaching.

Almighty God does not fix his broken creation and broken relationships with a display of power and might. He does the unthinkable—Jesus lays down his life for his friends. One of the most frustrating things about our distance from one another because of Covid-19 is the fact that we cannot gather, and worse still that we cannot eat bread and drink wine, and remember Christ together. As the body of Christ, we are meant to meet together.

In our distance from each other let’s be reminded of the privilege of meeting together so that we can make the best of that day when we join one another again. Let’s remember that puzzle that we are in a mysterious sense the body of Christ.

Scattered we might be, but we are still united in Christ.

A Call to Passion for Christ
The two disciples have their hearts kindled by Jesus. A mixture of joy that he was not dead and a revelation of what he had accomplished in the twin events of cross and resurrection.

How can we kindle that flame afresh—that same passion and conviction in Christ that we have tasted before? There are obvious answers of course, such as prayer and Bible reading. But in the spirit of the gospel, and to keep the light alive in us, reaching out to our fellow disciples is vital. As members of his body our concern should be with the health of all.

Jesus came that we might have life and have it to the full. Circumstances prevent us meeting to celebrate together. This does not mean we retreat and just wait for a better time. A crisis like this, it tests our depth in Christ. Being united and encouraged in Christ can be as simple as a phone call, a text message, a card, or a good old-fashioned letter. Some of us might be called to heroics if we are on the front-line but for most of us we need to do the small things that show love and concern. George Eliot expresses it will in her novel Middlemarch:

“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Many of the blessings we can bring to one another, even at this time, are unremarkable. But these things not only achieve good now they echo in eternity as the lives of disciples of Jesus lived well. A crisis is just the time when we need some gospel purpose, when we need to show love, kindness, and generosity. Encouraging one another, listening to one another, taking time to do something for one another is part of living the gospel—it is the ongoing re-creation of proper relationships in Christ Jesus.

It is not just our fellow Christians that need encouragement. In these odd times all sorts of questions are in people’s minds. Many people are asking questions about life and death, not so different to those asked by Cleopas and his friend.

Our lives do not make much sense lived forward. How much more is this the case for those who do not know Christ? There are likely to be people you know who are lonely. If nothing else, you can remedy this for a few minutes. There are almost certainly people you know who are fearful. Well, you can listen. There are very likely people you know who are asking questions. Your effort to reach out to them might be the only answer they get.

We believe in the priesthood of all believers we can all use this time to connect with others.

Loving One Another Makes Sense
The act of reaching out to someone is a small step in making sense of life. The strengthening of relationships is a natural consequence of the gospel. Simple acts of love will strengthen both parties and strengthen the body, the fellowship of believers.

The one certainty of understanding our lives is that where there is love this is where they most readily make sense.

The ‘Corona test’ asks of us all how much we love. If we have not love we are, as the Apostle Paul says, a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Love sings a better song. Don’t wait for someone else to connect.

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew’s gospel which tells us how our lives will make sense in the end when we meet him face-to-face:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:34–40, NIV

Maps and Wisdom

First Testament Problems

One of the challenges posed by the wisdom literature of the First Testament is what we, as Christian disciples and pilgrims, should do with it. Many Christians I have spoken to simply don’t see Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes as a priority in their Bible reading and reflection. Their thinking boils down to the question: “Why should I read Wisdom when it is so obviously trumped by the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles?”. Even those Christians I know who have read these three books recently see Job and Ecclesiastes as problems that need to be addressed, rather than life-giving Scripture to be cherished. A disturbing view emerges—once Job has been ‘explained’, there is no need to read all those tedious dialogues once, let alone to return to them at a later point. To be fair much of the First Testament, not just Job and Ecclesiastes, can be challenging. This challenge should however be the start of something and not the end. How could rich Scripture be a quick fix? How can we even know the issues it aims to address? Are we not simply narrowing its potential as a source information rather than being open to its transformative potential?

Full of Wind or Full of the Spirit?

If we see the Wisdom Books as the distillation of wise people’s observations and reflections from across the ancient Near East, curated and edited to become Scripture by generations of the sages of Israel, how could we imagine that its appropriation would be either quick or easy? How could it be as simple as reading a paperback self-help book by a contemporary privileged author who hasn’t seen death first hand or struggled with day-to-day survival? Why would we expect a podcast or sermon to crystallise the Book of Job into a paragraph of propositional truth? Such a view is especially ironic when Job is read carefully—it shows us that distilled overly simplified wisdom is the way to becoming full of wind (ruach) rather than spirit (ruach), see Job 26:4.

A Map or a Compass?

We have seen that the ancient Near Eastern understanding of wisdom is ‘living well’ and that the biblical development of this is ‘living well in fear of the living God’. This can mean that Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are seized upon for quick and precise answers. In short, these resources are incorrectly defined as maps for life. Both the testimony of Scripture and the experience of living the life of faith, reveal that God does not provide a map for our life. Indeed, such a map would be a denial of the very freedom and grace that Jesus Christ came to bestow upon his disciples. Despite the absurdity of God providing a map for our lives, time and again we seek the quick fix. Sometimes we hear those around us who claim to have received such instant guidance. And of course, God can choose to speak into our lives through dreams, circumstance and even in an audible voice. More often than not, however, having equipped us with Scripture, His Spirit and grace, he lets us make choices. We have a compass from him not a map. Our routine day-to-day choices come through walking with him in simple integrity. Less often, we face more complex choices. These are the choices that Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes prepare us for. They can only prepare us if we read, reflect and question these books.

The City Gate: Wisdom in Community

Perhaps another reason we struggle with Wisdom Literature is that we make it reading it a solitary exercise; a part of our individualistic devotions. When we remember the societal and corporate experiences and effort that shaped these First Testament books our individualism looks foolish rather than wise. Biblical wisdom is corporate and communal in its richness. Why not find a way in which you can work on First Testament wisdom with some friends, and so discover God’s wisdom together in the twenty-first century? Our church has found that once a month over breakfast works well for us. Where is your equivalent of the city gate (see Proverbs 1:21 and 8:3)?

Job and Hitching to Wisdom

The Old Testament has been in the news in the last few weeks. Andy Stanley, a gifted preacher and Senior Pastor at North Point Community Church, argued in a series of sermons (Aftermath #1, #2 and #3) that Christians should unhitch from the Old Testament. Having listened to the sermons concerned, more than once and having read a follow-up interview, I am still not clear just what he actually means by ‘unhitching’. What I am clearer about is that Andy Stanley makes a number of unhelpful assumptions and steps in arriving at his conclusion. These include:

  • The notion that atheists object to the Old Testament but are quite willing to accept the New Testament’s claim about the resurrection of Jesus.
  • A misrepresentation of the Reformation idea of sola scriptura; divorcing it from the Rule of Faith.
  • Equating ‘the law’ with the whole of the Old Testament.
  • An understanding of Old Testament law as legalism, a notion that has been thoroughly discredited since E. P. Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism.
  • A failure to recognise that Paul worked very hard to stay hitched to the Old Testament, as evidenced in the whole Pauline corpus, given his experience of the resurrected Jesus. Paul remained a Pharisee committed to the Law (Philippians 3:5).
  • The failure to acknowledge the fact that not a single chapter of the New Testament can make sense without reference to the Old Testament. This includes the very chapters Stanley preached on.

Here in the UK, part of the incredulity at his suggestion of ‘unhitching’ might come from the fact that most Christians this side of the pond are not wedded to the incredibly unhelpful notion of Scripture’s inerrancy (most famously part of the Chicago Statement). I have a high view of Scripture, informed by 2 Timothy 3:16, but have found inerrancy to be a slippery and alien notion for describing Scripture. It represents the on-going and unhelpful tendency to make Scripture what it is not—history, science, biography and other modern categories. ‘God-breathed’ works better. And why would anyone want to unhitch from something that is God-breathed? Rather ironically Stanley says he agrees with the Chicago Statement’s view of Scripture in the same breath as attempting to deal with the problems introduced by this conservative straitjacket.

But what about Job? Despite the fact that I don’t agree with Stanley, we must acknowledge that Christian frustrations, of one sort or another, are not a new issue. Perhaps it is cheap to mention Marcion? Perhaps not. In any case, any Bible-reading Christian will have had challenging encounters with the Old Testament. Anyone who hasn’t is really not paying attention to its claims, worldview, ethics and God. Job raises one subset of the wider and very legitimate question: ‘What are we meant to do with the Old Testament?’. We certainly can’t see it as a monolith. The books of which it is comprised are of very different categories, although we could do worse than start with the Jewish categories of Torah (instruction rather than plain law), Prophets (this includes what we often call history books—Joshua to Kings—as well as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve) and the Writings. The Writings, where Job belongs, are akin to DVD extras. They complement the story that is unfolded in Genesis to Kings.

Job is often said to answer the question of suffering. But it does not. If we read it only to address this question we will ultimately be disappointed. If we think it might answer the question of the origin of evil we will be perplexed. So why do we have (i)  a narrative about God and Satan agreeing to let Job suffer, (ii) chapter-after-chapter of poetic dialogues with subtle, and sometimes less than subtle differences of opinion, and (iii) an epilogue in which Satan makes no appearance?

Well this post won’t entirely answer such questions. But a plausible and partial answer is that although we do not find theological certainties about suffering and evil, we find something far more biblical. We find, written large, the dangers of being hasty in narrowly pinning down answers to the biggest questions in a broken creation. All of Job’s friends think they have answers. In so doing, they make the twin mistakes of thinking (i) they know Job better than he knows himself, (ii) they know the mind of God. Job has questions. They have answers. Whilst it would be overstating Job’s case to say that God speaks to him with approval—he does not. Nevertheless, he receives from God. He receives nothing less than revelation (Job 38:1–42:6). What do Job’s friend get? Nothing except the text’s occasional play on words—wordplay that implies they are full of wind (ruach) rather than God’s Spirit (ruach), see for example Job 16:3.

Can we tell the difference between the wisdom of questions, and the foolishness of wrong answers and false certainties? Job, the book, exists to help us learn just this.

Job might have foreseen his resurrection (Job 19:26). We certainly have that hope (1 Corinthians 15:12). But, this side of resurrection, we cannot make Scripture what it was never meant to be. Scripture answers where salvation and the Universe’s future is to be found, and also founded—that is in Christ. It also, in texts such as Job, helps us learn to speak wisely about the mystery that is our God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and to know when we should just put our hands over our mouth (Job 40:4).

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.

God and Wisdom, Part 1

The form of this post is a little different to the previous ones in this #AtoZWisdom series. It is a book review. The book in question is by Tremper Longman III and the reason why it provides a fitting post on ‘God and Wisdom’ will soon become apparent.

Tremper Longman III, The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017

Both the title and subtitle of this book distil the backbone of Tremper Longman III’s account of wisdom in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (OT/HB). He argues, with clarity and conviction, that the diverse elements of wisdom in the OT/HB find their unity within a theological framework. Such a view is not shared by all scholars. Indeed, some drive a wedge between wisdom (often in the form of the three books, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job) and the cultic life of Israel. Longman not only sees the wisdom elements of the OT/HB as theological but in his commitment to a canonical reading (p.26) he sees ‘Fear of the Lord’ as the specific theological locus. Perhaps some will find such a reading displays too great a hermeneutic of trust, but the book makes an excellent case for such a reading—and despite the claim of theological canonical unity the wisdom material is not flattened but is permitted its wide-ranging claims and emotions.

The book has fifteen chapters and covers more ground than many introductions to the wisdom books of the OT/HB. I would recommend this book, because of its clarity, to anyone wanting a first introduction to wisdom literature. The book engages with wider technical scholarship, but it is written without pretension and little prior knowledge is required to get the best from it.

The rest of this review will make some brief comments about each chapter to give a flavour of the book’s thesis—and yes that is what it is, a coherent argument for a specific reading. For this reason, readers already familiar with biblical wisdom will also find this book stimulating.

The length of this review means that it will be posted in two parts. In this post the first six chapters are covered.

1. Proverbs: The Fear of the Lord Is the Beginning of Wisdom

This chapter considers three ways in which the Book of Proverbs defines wisdom. The first of these is at the practical level, as a skill for living. Longman suggests that wisdom, in this sense, parallels how emotional intelligence can lead to success in life. The second aspect of wisdom is the ethical level—the Book of Proverbs continually equates a wise person with a good person. The third level, according to Longman, is the theological level and especially the Fear of the Lord as expressed at the outset in Proverbs in 1:7. The theological perspective is further developed by considering the rich imagery of woman wisdom who permeates the Book of Proverbs.

2. Ecclesiastes: Fear God, Obey the Commandments, and Live in Light of the Coming Judgement

Longman explores from the outset his view that the Book of Ecclesiastes is the product of two voices and not just one. He argues that the bulk of the book, 1:12–12:7, are the words of Qohelet as indicated in by the constant use of the first person. He identifies Qohelet as a pseudonym of a post-exilic author. The case is made for the prologue (1:1–11) and the epilogue (12:8–14) being the second voice; the editor who commends the work to his son and thereby to all subsequent readers. This epilogue is key to Longman’s theological approach to the book. He argues that the work shows the limits of human wisdom—it is Fear of God (12:13) that is an essential stance for overcoming the limits of wisdom.

3. The Book of Job: “Behold, the Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom” (Job 28:28)

Longman dismisses the unhelpful caricatures of the Book of Job, such as a supposed concern with answering the questions of either suffering or theodicy. He rightly sees the book as a wisdom dispute. The three friends of Job share a similar wisdom view—so-called retribution theology. Because of this view they are convinced that Job’s suffering testifies that Job must have sinned. Job shares their perspective but knows he has not sinned. Thus, argues Longman, Job’s concern is that God is unjust (p.47). Longman sees Elihu as largely sharing the same view but being especially ‘full of hot air’. In the light of Yahweh’s speeches to Job and the book’s epilogues, Longman argues that Job makes three key contributions: (i) God is the source of wisdom, (ii) the proper human response to such wisdom is submission, and (iii) the fear of the Lord already articulated in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes is central.

4. Other Sources of Wisdom: Deuteronomy, Psalms, Song of Songs, and Prophecy

In this chapter Longman explores various parts of the OT/HB some of which are generally recognised to have some wisdom elements (for example Psalms) and others that are more controversial with respect to the role of wisdom (Deuteronomy for example). Longman is at pains to point out that even if there were such a concept as wisdom literature the books mentioned in this chapter would not be part of this literature. His argument is that wisdom motifs and ideas are found more widely in the OT/HB than is generally appreciated. This is important to the argument about the nature of wisdom in later chapters.

5. Joseph and Daniel: Paragons of Wisdom

In this chapter, and the next, Longman further broadens the concept of wisdom to the narratives of the OT/HB. This chapter is concerned with the Joseph and Daniel narratives. Longman explains that some scholars, for example von Rad, have made much of the wisdom influence in the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37–50). Others, like Crenshaw, have argued quite the opposite. Longman steers a clear middle road. He does not argue that wisdom is the dominant genre or theme within the Joseph narrative or the Book of Daniel. Rather he points to some core similarities between the characters at the heart of these stories. These are (i) their use of wisdom to interpret dreams, (ii) they acknowledge God as the origin of their wisdom, (iii) they use their wisdom to guide their foreign royal masters.

6. Adam and Solomon: From the Heights of Wisdom to the Depths of Folly

In this chapter Adam and Solomon (and the king of Tyre) are explored as examples of individuals who journeyed from wisdom to folly. The example of Adam is of course interesting due to the account of his folly at the outset of the HB/OT. The account of the fall in Genesis 3 is rich with the language of wisdom: the serpent is described as crafty/prudent (3:1), there is the tree of knowledge (2:17) and the fruit is perceived by Eve as being useful for gaining wisdom (3:6). The negative outcome of the story shows the stark problem of humanity seeking wisdom on their own terms without God. Longman shows that Solomon, despite his wisdom, followed a similar path of trusting in things other than God.

 

Ecclesiastes and Wisdom

This book is one of the most marginalised of the Old Testament. There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this. One in particular perhaps stands out for contemporary readers—its first words seem to question the basic understanding that many have of Scripture. Whether the modern reader goes to Ecclesiastes with certainty or in the hope of straightforward guidance, either way they do not get what they hoped for or expected. Instead they read:

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?

Ecclesiastes 1:1–3 (NRSV)

It is not only the stranger to wisdom literature that would be surprised by vanity and meaningless as a point of departure. Any student of the Book of Proverbs would also think that there is a category mistake here. How can this be the same type of literature as Proverbs? Is it in fact the opposite? A worldview of vanity and disorder is surely antagonistic to the order assumed in Proverbs? To an extant this is the same issues covered in the previous post on Dialogue. Here we have simply stated the question at its most acute.

There are other challenges with Ecclesiastes but in this post we are going to consider this one issue; the apparent antagonism between not just Ecclesiastes and Proverbs but all three wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible. I suggest some initial reasons, below, why the differences between these three books might not be as extreme as they first appear. We will then consider that their diversity in many respects matches what we find the biblical psalms.

An underpinning ethos of wisdom is the ongoing testing, refining and discarding of inferences based on observation. Contemporary analogues exist such as in science the notion of a working hypothesis and in philosophy the methodology of critical realism. Biblical wisdom, at least in part, seeks to establish how to live well based on wise reflection on the nature of creation. In this way, Proverbs can be seen to lean towards a wholehearted embracing of the efficacy of the wisdom method. We might even say it embodies a hermeneutic of trust. Ecclesiastes comes to a different conclusion after trying variations of approach. Both books, look to what is needed in addition to wisdom—Fear of the Lord—one as an opening assumption (Proverbs 1:7) and the other in conclusion after highlighting various problems (Ecclesiastes 12:13). The Book of Job tests a very specific assumption of reward which is found wanting. In Job the necessity of revelation alongside wisdom comes through an encounter with Job which silences his wise enquiries (Job 40:3–5). In their different ways all three books encourage wise reflection but also recognise its limits.

In addition, it is vitally important to acknowledge that none of the three wisdom books claim to be an end in themselves. This is true not only of the biblical wisdom but in addition to wider Ancient Near-Eastern wisdom literature. In short, such literature is not an end in itself, it is an educational resource and approach to living. The individual literary units are not to be blatantly or blandly applied to life situations. The Book of Proverbs provides the most succinct indication of this in its twin proverbs:

Do not answer fools according to their folly,

    or you will be a fool yourself.

Answer fools according to their folly,

    or they will be wise in their own eyes.

Proverbs 26: 4, 5 (NRSV)

In many respects the three wisdom books exemplify the three categories of psalms identified by Brueggemann. He articulated what has been recognised as a very fruitful paradigm which connects the ancient psalms with the modern life of faith. Put simply the psalms can be classified into three categories of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Brueggemann uses the term typology of function recognising that the hermeneutical connection between then and now operates at a very human contextual level.

We can conclude by noting that in this way:

  1. Proverbs is a book founded on order. The author is oriented and trusts that wisdom works day-to-day because of the existence of a creator and their implicit trust in him. Many psalms have a similar underlying basis. The author of Proverbs, and its accepting reader, would feel comfortable singing hymns of trust and faith to God.
  2. Ecclesiastes is a book in which the orderly nature of life and extent to which trust in God can deliver the good life is being questioned. In modern parlance a hermeneutic of suspicion is operative. The sort of suspicion we all encounter in the dark moments of life—the death of a loved one, the failure of a relationship or the loss of health. These are the moments in which the laments of the Psalter or the cynicism of Ecclesiastes eclipses simple trust. They are the moments of exile, whether real or metaphorical. Trust is still key but it is not longer simple and unquestioning
  3. The Book of Job is a book of movement. It starts with the questioning cynicism of Ecclesiastes. It proceeds with some received wisdom being painfully showcased as wanting. It concludes with an answer which is not rational but revelatory—a revelation of God that demands reorientation.

We will return to Eccelesiastes in future posts. It is my hope that the second part of this post will be developed into an academic publication in due course.

Mountains Will Tremble Before Him: Isaiah 64:1-9

What does this mean? (vv.13)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Do you ever have moments when you just wish that God would intervene and make things right? I think we all do from time to time. It might be we just feel we need him and he feels distant—we feel alone, or overwhelmed, or frustrated. It might be that our life does not make sense—our finances are a mess, we are addicted to something unwholesome, our relationships seem broken or we are struggling with our family. It might be that we are horrified with the way things are. Why can’t God show up and deal with the warmongers, those that promote hatred, those that sow discord and those that use terror as a means to their own ends? Maybe, more positively, we have simply arrived at the elusive spiritual fulfilment of the Apostle Paul—“to live is Christ and to die is gain” [Phil 1:21]—a readiness for the Day of the Lord and the New Heaven and the New Earth.

There are all sorts of reasons to want God to show up, but the sort of arrival of God described here might not be what we always have in mind. The Advent of God described in Isaiah 64 certainly seems far away from a baby in a manager. This is the full-on might of God the Father, Yahweh God of Israel, showing up in all his power, glory and majesty. God appearing in creation as only the creator can.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Isaiah was writing to a people that knew this God of power, glory and majesty. For centuries they had known the reality of this God who made mountains tremble. Moses had made a covenant with him and experienced him in the burning bush. The nation had seen him settle in smoke and cloud on Sinai. They had followed him—a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. He had dwelt with them in the holy of holies. And yet, more recently they knew his reality only by his absence. They knew what it was to be in exile, to be a pawn played by the big nations.

The experience of old, turned into a desire for salvation, for restoration, for vindication and for judgement of those brash big nations and their false gods. They wanted the nations to quake and squirm before their God, their Yahweh. Israel did not get the answer from Yahweh they hoped for. When the Father did rend the heavens it was indeed God who came down. But it was the Son who came down and became a man. A man who commanded the elements, but whose mission was not one of smoke, fire and trembling. No mountain trembled, at least not at his first Advent. Later, in his death and his resurrection, the cosmos would be set on a path to being remade but to the casual observer this was not Isaiah’s Day of the Lord. The first Advent happened 2,000 years ago—We still await the second.

 

Who is this God? (vv.45)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Israel did not invent their God. Israel experienced their God. Firstly through the patriarchs who he brought to the Promised Land working through day-to-day agriculture and farming, through world events and through asking remarkable things of unremarkable people. Later they experienced him through deliverance from slavery , through plagues upon their captors and through parted-water and desert wandering.

They were called to be a holy nation. God loved them so much that he gave them his precious law. Not a law just of legal statements but a law of life-giving instruction explaining who this God who acted on their behalf was. Instructing them to wait upon him in worship, sacrifice and praise—to centre a nation on doing right before him. But like us, when experience receded to memory they forgot, they turned away, they sinned by looking elsewhere for life and reward. Despite understanding that a God who can rend mountains is not one to be crossed, the people of Israel looked to Baal and other manufactured gods. They were led astray by other peoples they should have shared their faith with.

Idols of wealth, sex and power are not discoveries of our modern world—though we have developed, promoted and even marketed them. Humankind has struggled with such idols from the moment we looked from the true God to others with whom we hope to find satisfaction. That original choice, to question our relationship with God opens up the possibility of plugging that gap with alternatives that feel good in the short term, but fall to dust in the longer term, and in the age to come. We, like our ancient counterparts, struggle to remember the ways of God.

 

Why is this a problem? (vv.67)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

A God who makes mountains tremble is a problem for frail, sinful people. Such holiness and majesty that makes mountains quake is hostile to our lack of holiness. The language of the Bible on this matter, so we are told, is dated and outmoded. But we know our moral brokenness, our sin, is not removed by it being unpopular or inconvenient. The gospel of Good News only makes sense when we understand the bad news of our brokenness. Of course God did not make us broken—humanity chose that path.  Isaiah’s language of uncleanness picks up on a central theme of the law. He explains that despite our best efforts our attempts at doing right fall short of the perfection of God.

Theologians have tried to capture our difference from God in terms of righteousness in precise and sophisticated language, but the Prophet Isaiah’s language of filthy rags says it all. And as Isaiah nails our unrighteousness so well, he also captures the terrible consequences. This is poetic language, but no less sobering and disturbing for that. The fallen condition means that all will shrivel like a leaf and the wind of our sins blows us away as dust.

 

When will this happen? (vv.89)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

The God who shakes mountains is also a God of mercy and grace. As the potter he wants to remake us. The Two Advents are the means of this mercy and grace being worked out to refashion us. Advent is the coming of God who as potter can refashion us to cleanse us from sin, give us new life so that we will not shrivel, re-clothe us with royal garments and restore relationships.

That First Advent —the Incarnation of the Son as a baby—the story of the God-man Jesus is the story of the rending of the heavens firstly in Incarnation and secondly in Resurrection. Nothing less than a shockwave that makes space-time tremble as the New Creation is initiated. A new creation in which ultimately sin will not consume us as its power has been broken. A new creation in which resurrection eclipses the shrivelling finality of death. A new creation in which our filthy rags are replaced with spotless robes. A new creation in which relationships are made whole and wholesome.

The Second Advent, the so-called second coming, is Isaiah’s Day of the Lord. That day is when God completes both mercy and judgement and on that day:

[He] rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before [Him!] (64:1)

Right now of course we are caught between two Advents. It is here that we can encounter our Father as the potter. We can acknowledge him in his glory and majesty and know him in the mercy revealed at that first Advent. We will not know the completion of God’s work until the day when mountains tremble but we can continue the journey, to that day, by being re-moulded by him.

We can be clay in his hands; he gives us freedom to choose. One of the key ways to transformation, to be clay in his hands, is to learn what it means to wait. Waiting for God is central to the Christian faith. Why else would we find the psalmist crying time-and-again: ‘how long O Lord?’ Our Western societies have lost any sense of waiting. The patient waiting for the age to come stands in stark contrast to the spirit of the age—the spirit of secular Christmas. The Bible promises more, but at a pace which is down to God. We don’t know when that day of second Advent will come. But we do know that patient waiting on him is the key. Waiting is not passive—as we wait we are moulded and refashioned.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Regurgitating Jonah

Prologue

The Book of Jonah is for children. We might not say so, but our actions and thoughts often say otherwise. It is most likely met in church and home as a story for children. As adults we are perhaps embarrassed by its improbabilities.

We are however missing something if we dismiss this oddest member of the Twelve Minor Prophets. It is so different to the other Eleven. This oddness does not make it suitable for children nor relegate it to irrelevance. Rather, the opposite is true. This book has the capacity to challenge us in a way that adults need to be challenged and children do not.

It is only adults that know about cynicism, disappointment, running away, apathy and selfishness to a great enough depth to be the target of such a sharp and barbed prod from God.

To follow this meditation you will need to have a copy of Jonah available.

 

Running Away

Make yourself comfortable. Loosen your shoulders. Breathe deeply and slowly. Imagine you are Jonah. Keep asking what do you feel, taste, hear, smell and see.

Read Jonah 1:1–3

Why are you running away from God? You know so much about his ways. But sometimes you choose to go in the wrong, in fact the opposite, direction. Why is it sometimes so hard to do the things of God?

Why is it that there are some people that you do not want to be with? Is it their poverty that makes you run away from them? Is it their sin you can’t abide? Do you flee from them because of their ‘pagan’ religion?

How is it that running away from people can be the same as running away from God himself? Surely you know there is no running away from God? Where can you hide from him?

 

Where Can You Flee?

Read Jonah 1:4–12

You find it easy to judge others. Especially those who don’t share your faith. You are, after all, born of a chosen nation. You are born of a famous father, Amittai, who was a prophet of great renown. You too have been chosen for the same privileged role—to utter judgement on the nations.

Waking up you remember that you’ve ignored Yahweh’s call. Worse than that you have fled his presence, or at least you have tried to leave him behind.

Bleary-eyed you find that the pagan sailors have eyes wide-open to God. They see him at the heart of this storm. They perceive he is angry with someone on the ship. A fraction of a second after you judge them for their silly superstition you realise it is true, that it is you that God is angry with.

You have to do the right thing—your life for theirs is not the end you had expected. But you can’t bear to be responsible for their deaths too. You surrender to being thrown overboard; as you are going to die either way. You hear yourself say “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”

 

Going  Overboard

Read Jonah 1:13–16

Your horror grows as the sailors can’t bring themselves to throw you overboard. You’ve rarely heard such earnest prayer. Prayer born out of desperate fear and anguish. Calling on God’s name for salvation.

You are paralysed with fear. You can’t find the courage to throw yourself overboard nor can your lips find words, try as you might.

As your rather dull life flashes before you, you realise that you were at the crossroads of something important which your life had been moving to. But now it is too late, you’ve missed the boat—or rather you’ve got on the wrong one. It’s almost a relief when rugged calloused hands grab you roughly and throw you into the roaring waves.

 

Composing a Psalm

Read Jonah 1:17–2:9

Your lungs have barely started burning as you hold on to what you think is your last breath, when you realise that you are not drowning. Damp squidgy glutinous material is all around. The smell is like the fish market you passed through yesterday, yet one hundred times worse.

You attempt to calm yourself after your breakfast has made a reappearance. Your mind tries to find the words for this new experience. All you can do is patch together snippets of the psalms you have sung so often before. You patch verses together and they sort of work.

You are trying to believe that being in the stomach of a fish is God’s salvation rather than just the start of a slower death.

You realise that despite your daily commitment to the psalms, “songs of trust”, you’ve never really been tested before. This really doesn’t seem the best way to learn such a lesson—you ask yourself, “Why did I flee from God?”

Unlikely though the prospect seems you promise yourself, and God if he can hear you, that next time you will do what he asks. Even if it is pronouncing judgement on the smelly undeserving people of Nineveh.

In that moment you have to admit that you smell far worse, however, than any Ninevite.

 

Vomited Up

Read Jonah 2:10–4:3

Since being regurgitated you have done all that God asked. You walked 400 miles from where the fish vomited you up. You’d begged for help to get fresh clothes and food. You have pointed out to the people of Nineveh that these ‘pagans’ do things that are an abomination to God.

The people believed you! At first you enjoyed being a celebrity. The king believed you! If the kings commands were taken at face value, why even the cows and goats had repented.

But then God does a U-turn because of his mercy. Where is the justice in all this? What use is Law if it can be overturned with repentance? Are these pagans God’s chosen? Are these Assyrians God’s holy nation? Why can’t God stand up for his ways, punish those that do wrong? Wouldn’t punishing these people vindicate his own people?

 

An Angry Prophet

Read Jonah 4:4–11

Pray:

Father, we confess that too often we reject you ways. We want to know your mercy and grace, and yet we are slow to help bring news of your mercy and grace to others.

Father, we pray that we might learn to see this world with your eyes. Grant us wisdom to walk with you and to honour you with our choices.

Help us see temptation for what it is—a journey away from you.

Father, we pray that we would see others as you see them. Help us know with our hearts that you love all men, women and young people. Help us to love irrespective of wealth, status, ethnicity, gender and peoples’ mistakes.

Help us see the plank in our own eyes that we can love more truly.

Lord we are your servants. Help us learn from Jonah’s weakness that we can begin to echo better Jesus’ meekness.

Father, help us to be people of prayer. May we may pray more with our own words. May we pray liturgy together more passionately. May we desire your Spirit’s words more voraciously. And may we read, and be read, by your Word more frequently.

Amen.

 

Afterword: The Two Brothers

Read Luke 15:11–32. Whilst you do so imagine you are the first son (or you can be a daughter) and that the second son is called Jonah.