Painting: The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities, about 1675-82, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
June 16, 2019
This week the first reading returns to the Old Testament with a section from the Book of Proverbs. It is primarily composed of short and pithy sayings expressing the ethical standards and beliefs of the day, usually referred to as Wisdom. Wisdom in this sense was not exclusive to the Jews and was used throughout the ancient Middle East. The Book of Proverbs was a compendium of reflections used to train young members of the governing class to be wise leaders. The Jewish elders wanted to show that they could answer the questions of their young in a way that would have made sense to their children but also reflected their traditions and belief in God. Wisdom may also be found in the books of Job, Wisdom, Ecclesiastes and many Psalms.
The Book of Proverbs is particularly interesting because it collected materials from about 1000 to 350 BC, from the court of King Solomon to the rebuilt temple in occupied Jerusalem. As I mentioned it is mostly composed of short statements, but the section we read today is different. It is a song within a song. As we saw the first time we read this book, the first third is a song sung by a father to his son on the virtues of following wisdom and living a good life. Today’s reading is a song from Wisdom herself within this song.
Before looking at it directly, we need to look at its context. It occurs after the father has told his son about “Dame Folly”. She preys on young men who have not been living an upright life.
10 And lo! the woman comes to meet him,
robed like a harlot, with secret designs—
11 She is fickle and unruly,
in her home her feet cannot rest; Proverbs 7:10–11
The unaware follow her:
22 He follows her stupidly,
like an ox that is led to slaughter;
Like a stag that minces toward the net,
23 till an arrow pierces its liver;
Like a bird that rushes into a snare,
unaware that its life is at stake.
Compare this to Wisdom:
1 Does not Wisdom call,
and Understanding raise her voice?
2 On the top of the heights along the road,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
She does not lurk in the darkness nor does she seek to entrap youth, but speaks openly and with understanding, appealing not to base instincts but to that which is highest in us.
8 Sincere are all the words of my mouth,
no one of them is wily or crooked;
9 All of them are plain to the man of intelligence,
and right to those who attain knowledge.
10 Receive my instruction in preference to silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold.
Note she also speaks for herself. She offers more than information or even good counsel:
17 “Those who love me I also love,
and those who seek me find me.
18 With me are riches and honor,
enduring wealth and prosperity.
Wisdom offers a personal relationship which is greater and offers more than the folly of the world. We begin today with the clear statement that Wisdom is of divine, not human making:
22 “The LORD begot me, the first-born of his ways,
the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago; Proverbs 8:22
Although Wisdom was international and thus not purely Jewish, the author of Proverbs carefully and subtly weaves his moral instruction into the traditional Jewish cosmology though the Hebrew creation myth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water;
Proverbs 8:24 (NAB)
Compare this with
1 In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,
2 the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters. Genesis 1:1–2 (NAB)
These parallels continue for several verses, and end with
30 Then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
Playing before him all the while,
31 playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the sons of men. Proverbs 8:30–31
Creation is a key concept for Jews and is unique in the ancient world. For most people, the world came into being in many ways from accident or spite, but not by the actions of a powerful and loving God. As we look at the world around us, the extent and depth of chaos calls this belief into question. That there is an order to the world and that it reflects a caring God is a daring statement.
Key to this is that Wisdom is hard wired into the world. Creation indeed was a celebration and one which gives joy.
5 while David and all the Israelites made merry before the LORD with all their strength, with singing and with citharas, harps, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals. 2 Samuel 6:5
Because wisdom reflects the way the world was formed, we can only find happiness in living a “wise life”. This chapter of the Book of Proverbs concludes:
33 instruction and wisdom do not reject!
Happy the man who obeys me,
and happy those who keep my ways,
34 Happy the man watching daily at my gates,
waiting at my doorposts;
35 For he who finds me finds life,
and wins favor from the LORD;
36 But he who misses me harms himself;
all who hate me love death.”
Our ancestors found comfort, strength and guidance in the knowledge that there is an order and purpose in the universe. The Lord not only created the sea and sky, but also the moral universal as well. To deny this structure would have been as foolish as denying the physical world. It is to surrender to Dame folly.
Like them we live in a time and place which has seen many developments in society and culture. Many of these are from other lands and nations and can offer us important insights. We have much to learn from psychology, anthropology and the sensibility of the Global South. We should not ignore this opportunity. Yet, this can lead to a confusing mix of ideas and theories. As we live in the post-enlightenment Global North, the most likely result will be that they will be interpreted according to cultural individualism. Like our ancestors, we have the assurance of God that the world has been created by Wisdom which has put love beneath and above all things.