Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wisdom and Protest Literature

My introductory class on the Old Testament is almost finished. One of the final topics we covered was wisdom and protest literature, two genres in the Ketuvim, or Writings, of the Hebrew Bible. Wisdom literature is most clearly exemplified in the book of Proverbs, and protest literature in Ecclesiastes, Job, and Ruth.

Wisdom literature is, unsurprisingly, focused on wisdom. It was presented to us as the third way in the Hebrew Scriptures of understanding humanity's relation to God. The first was that of the priest, where God is reached through ritual and purity and the tabernacle or temple was the focus. The second was that of the prophet, where God is found in God's word, which thus becomes the focus of piety. The third is that of the sage, or seeker of wisdom; the premise being that God can be found all around us, in the everyday experiences of our life. Seeking wisdom in the world, then, is seeking God. There is confidence that God can indeed be found this way. Now, no one of these three ways is superior to another, but all three can be clearly seen in the Scriptures, and there seems to be a chronological development (at least, it is clear that the sage comes last).

The outlook we find in Proverbs and other wisdom writings is a very optimistic one. In the world, one can find folly and wisdom; and if one is careful to distinguish between the two, one can choose to follow wisdom. Following wisdom leads to life, while following folly leads to death (see the powerful image of Wisdom and Folly personified in the first section of Proverbs). Wisdom can inform proper action in all aspects of life, especially in the family. Underlying this focus on wisdom is a belief that those who make good choices, who live good lives, get good results; and those who make poor decisions face the consequences. In short, everyone gets what he or she deserves; the order of things is just. There is a right course to follow, and wisdom allows one to discern that course.

Protest literature takes a variety of forms, but all writings in this genre are speaking out against the accepted order of things, rejecting the orthodox opinion. The story of Ruth, for example, is defying the belief that all foreigners (Ruth is constantly identified as "the Moabite") are impure and wicked. Some protest literature speaks against wisdom literature; Ecclesiastes and Job are both in this vein. Ecclesiastes rejects the idea that wisdom can be found in the everyday events; rather, all is "vanity" (the Hebrew word appears nearly 40 times in the book of Ecclesiastes), and the wise are a sham. Though the events in life are cyclical ("To everything there is a season"), it is difficult to discern the right time (when is it time for war, and when time for peace?). The claim that wisdom teaches the right course of action is denied. The idea of justice–namely, that each gets his just desserts—is also rejected, because good and bad alike die. Ecclesiastes points out the simple fact of life that sometimes, the bad are rewarded and the good punished; this recognition leads to a fatalist attitude. In the end, all that one can do is eat, drink, and be merry, although there is a nuance here—Ecclesiastes is not simply a call to hedonism; the author believes that God approves of life: "There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God" (Ecclesiastes 2:24).

Job is also a protest against wisdom literature. We can see this from the very outset of the story: Job is a pious man, almost absurdly pious, but yet he loses everything (except his life, which he wishes could also be taken away). However, there is a textual point which affects the reading of Job: as is clear from looking at the text, there is a prose envelope (beginning and ending) surrounding about 40 chapters of poetry. The prose story probably stood alone at one point, telling of the pious man who is tested, passes the test because he refuses to curse God, and has everything restored to him. The poetry added into the middle of this story completely changes its meaning; although Job never does curse God, he curses just about everything else, and he is not rewarded at the end, but rebuked by God himself. The outcry of the character Job is the outcry of human experience against the optimism of the wisdom literature: I am suffering, and I did nothing wrong! Job's friends act as the voice of orthodoxy here, arguing that Job must have done something to deserve this punishment. Job can find no answers in these arguments, because he knows his own innocence. It is only in the face of God's awesome power that Job finds any kind of closure. For Job, there is no wisdom or justice; there is only the experience of God: "I had heard you by the hearing of my ear, but now my eye sees you."

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