Monday, November 30, 2015

The Bible Library: Wisdom & Poetical Books

          I generally do not read a lot of self-help books. Even books on spirituality are not ones to which I naturally gravitate. Much to the chagrin of my novice master, I preferred to read novels when I was in the novitiate. I guess the Wicked series didn't provide enough spiritual nourishment for his taste. Regardless, spirituality and even some self-help books are popular and valuable literature for our day. And whether or not you read such books, perhaps you've taken interest in some article in a newspaper or magazine that offered some advice or "how-to" tips pertaining to your social/domestic life or work – like, the last time you were in a dental office, because seriously... when else do you read the newspaper or a magazine? Maybe you come by these kinds of articles on the Internet through your newsfeed or Pintrest page or simply by searching Google. Further still, many of us have grown up hearing little proverbial phrases that inform our consciences: When in Rome, do as the Romans do; Two wrongs don't make a right; If it ain't broke, don't fix it, etc.
            In our on-going tour of the library that is the Bible, today we're exploring the wisdom and poetical books in the Old Testament. These books usually do not make for the most entertaining reading in the Bible. Aside from the peculiar ancient Near Eastern  context – which can be disconcerting enough and oftentimes unpalatable to our contemporary sensitivities – these books generally do not grab our attention.  Let's just say they're no Genesis or Judges. No narratives about sneaky twin brothers (Gen 25:19-34 or Gen 27) or of hair-trimming seductresses ( Jgs 16:4-30) are to be found in them. But wisdom literature and poetry are not entirely foreign to us. As you can see, we are familiar with books, articles or word-of-mouth phrases that offer advice or sometimes sage wisdom. It should be noted, however, that I would not call all of those self-help articles or books "wise."

            According to Richard J. Clifford – without whose book, The Wisdom Literature, this blog post would not be possible, because frankly wisdom literature is not my forte – in reading the wisdom books "you will probably experience a mix of interest, confusion, boredom, and aversion." But he goes on to say that "though the wisdom literature can seem strange to us, it is important to realize that its concerns are modern; in fact they are our concerns."[1] We all wonder what we ought to do in order to live a happier, more balanced life. We might philosophize about the ultimate meaning of our daily toils and hardships... if there even is one. We ponder our relationship with our creator and often wonder why good people suffer.

            Christians look to the person of Jesus and the Gospel life when grappling with these kinds of questions, but these books, as well as all of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, remain inspired and "permanently valuable."[2] I highly recommend them as a source of ancient wisdom that is ever relevant and has withstood the test of time. Not only that, but these writings also contain some of the most beautiful poetry and prose in Scripture, and they continue to inspire hearts and minds across religious traditions. So let us take a brief tour of some of these books.

            The wisdom/poetical books that are in the canon of scriptures vary according to time and place of composition, and, unlike the books of the Torah or the historical books, their content usually does not refer to a time in actual history or perceived historical memory, though there are exceptions (e.g. the book of Lamentations or Psalm 137). The first book to follow the historical books in the Christian canon of scripture is Job.

Job: Have you ever heard it said of someone (maybe even yourself) "That person has the patience of Job"? If so, you should really read the book of Job. Personally, I don't think he was all that patient. The book is 42 chapters long and from chapters 3-31 Job is kvetching[3] with his so-called friends the whole time. Basically Job was a righteous and wealthy man who revered God. In the realm of the heavenly court, however, a celestial character known as "the satan" makes a wager with God, telling him that Job is only God-fearing because he has nice things. God takes the satan up on the challenge, and Job is cursed with inexpressible misfortune. His so-called friends try to explain to him that he must have done something wrong to deserve all of this, but Job stubbornly defends his innocence. Finally God answers Job's complaint with a beautiful and lengthy speech about God's omnipotence, sovereignty, and incomprehensibly. Job is satisfied with that, and God restores to Job all that was taken away.
            There is so much that can be said of the book of Job. It is truly one of the most beautifully written books in the Old Testament. The Hebrew, I'm told, is some of the most difficult to translate. While I would like to go on about this book, I will only say two things for now.
1.) The character known as "the satan" should not be confused with the devil or a necessarily evil being. The satan literally means "the accuser," or in this context, "the prosecutor."[4] He was a member of the heavenly council whose job it was to report to God his findings about the activities on earth. In other words, the satan was like a district attorney, and that's why everybody hates lawyers.
2.) The book of Job deals with the problem of theodicy: If God is all good and all powerful, why does evil exist; why do bad things happen to innocent people? The book of Job does not actually answer that question forthright. Two things we can take from Job on this point are that pious platitudes are futile in the face of suffering (as indicated by God's rebuke of Job's friends who thought they understood God well), and that God is God, and we are not.

Psalms: I once had a professor tell our class that if the ancient Israelites had iPods, the psalms would be their playlists. The psalms were essentially songs, and that is why a cantor will usually sing the psalm at mass. There are many different forms of psalms: individual laments, communal laments, songs of trust, royal psalms, wisdom psalms, creation psalms, songs of thanksgiving, pilgrimage hymns, etc. [5] I recommend perusing the psalms on your own and meditating on one for a day or week. Some of my favorites are 1, 8, 11, 22, 23, 25, 27, 32, 34, 42 & 43 (they're really one psalm),44,  51, 88, 121-124, 127, 130, 133, 137, and 150. I know. That was a lot of psalms to list, but maybe you will find one of these helpful to you. Or perhaps there is one not listed which you particularly like. The great thing about the psalms is that they run the gamut of human emotions, and, like Job, they're not afraid to express to God frustration and anger. Feel free to comment about some of your favorite psalms.

Proverbs: As I mentioned before, we've all heard proverbial phrases in our lifetimes. The book of Proverbs is an anthology of such wisdom sayings in the Hebrew tradition. The wisdom of Proverbs was not about theoretical knowledge, but rather practical knowledge – knowledge that helped you conduct you life in the correct manner. A wise person does morally good things, and the foolish person is one who does wicked things.[6]
            The female imagery in Proverbs is, like in much of the Bible, ambivalent. There is the "strange" or foreign woman, whose wanton ways will lead a young man to disaster. Yet wisdom itself is personified as a woman as well, and she is written about with exceedingly high regard. Interestingly enough, I knew a woman who was a big fan of the book of Proverbs and had several favorites of her own. Maybe you have or will find a few of your own favorites as well.

Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth: Don't read this book if you're depressed. Its message isn't depressing in and of itself, but one could easily take it the wrong way and think that life is meaningless. That isn't the point of Qoheleth though. Yes, it often repeats that "all is vanity" – which is to say that everything is transient or insubstantial[7] - but life does have meaning, and it does have order. It's order and meaning belong to God, according to Qoheleth, and we should accept that and enjoy the good things God has given us. After all, let's face it; we're all going to die one day, rich and poor alike, so don't bother building up your own wealth and legacy. That is what is what is truly meaningless.
            This is actually a very good book for those stereotypical father figures portrayed in movies like Click or Liar, Liar that have no time for their families because they're too busy with work. The dad in the song "Cat's in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin could also have learned a thing or two from this book. And while that song was probably not inspired by Qoheleth, the song "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by the Byrds definitely was (Ecc 3:1-8). Click the title to give it listen.

The Song of Songs: This is like the Fifty Shades of Grey of the Bible. No, I'm totally kidding. There's no S&M in it. But it is the most erotic bit of literature to be found in the Scriptures. The Song of Songs is a collection of  love songs or speeches by two lovers with occasional choral interjections by the bride's companions and brothers. Some commentators of antiquity, both Jewish and Christian, have suggested that the Song of Songs is an allegory of the love of God for Israel or for the Church, and while that may be a fine way to meditate on this book, there is no reason to believe that it was written as a figurative depiction of God's love. There's not even any mention of God in it. That being said, what a beautiful testament it is that this collection of love poems, which celebrates human love and passion and is so rich in erotic imagery, has been canonized as sacred.

            For this post, I'm going to be brief about the Wisdom of Solomon and the Wisdom of Ben Sira (aka Sirach). These are deuterocanonical books (aka apocryphal) and will probably be treated more in a later post.The Wisdom of Solomon, I can assure you it was not written by Solomon. It was probably written the latest of any other book in the Old Testament (perhaps in the late first century BCE or early first century CE). According to Coogan, it was written "in order to demonstrate the superiority of Judaism and probably to persuade Jews who may have abandoned their religion to return to it."[8]  
           Ben Sira was definitely written sometime between the years 180 BCE 175 BCE, by a man named Jesus (Yeshua) who was the grandson of a man named Sira. Go figure that there was more than one man named Jesus in the ancient Near East. Sirach is an anthology of wisdom that the author apparently had passed down to him. I've recently read a good portion from Ben Sira and find it to be full of very sensible advice. I especially liked his assessment of true friendship in 6:5-17.

            And lastly we come to the book of Lamentations – another book one should not read when depressed. It is a collection of poems describing the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, so naturally it is not going to be the most cheerful – not that anyone was expecting it to be with a name like "Lamentations." It had been presumed that that author was the prophet Jeremiah, and that is why it follows his book in the Christian canon of scripture. However, scholars are pretty certain that Jeremiah was not the author. Among the more interesting things about this book is that the first four poems are acrostics in Hebrew. Each line or stanza begins with a successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet. If you've ever written a poem using the letters of someone's name as the start of each line, it's kind of like that, but with the whole alphabet. This was one way to aid people in memorizing the poem... and trust me; the destruction of Jerusalem was not a thing one should forget.

            So having taken a whirlwind tour of the wisdom and poetical writings of the Old Testament, for this week I encourage and recommend reading Psalm 49. It is a good example of a wisdom psalm, and it fits in well with some of the themes of other wisdom literature, like Job and Qoheleth. As you meditate on this psalm, consider what is really important in life. Do you put your trust in material things or in God and in cultivating life-giving relationships? What is your reaction to the psalmist's description of the universality of death? Does death frighten you? Even if it does, do you have hope in redemption and resurrection? What sort of wisdom do you glean from this psalm, and how will it affect your life this week?
            Of course, you do not have to read this particular psalm this week. There are plenty of other good passages from the wisdom/poetical writings. I also recommend reading the entirety of Lamentations, or Song of Songs. They're short books. Or you can peruse the book of Proverbs, or find another psalm you may enjoy reflecting on. If you have the time, I highly encourage reading the whole book of Job (ideally in one or two sittings). All of these are great books for reflection and meditation, and they may just be even better than a self-help book.

            As always I welcome questions and comments. And now that is made even easier! Bible Codega now has a page on Facebook, so I invite you to "like" the page and leave a comment or question there if you prefer. Next week – or sometime after final exams (yikes!) – we'll take a look at prophetic literature.

             For now I leave you with somewhat of a proverb my father used to tell my siblings and me: "Smile! The sunshine's good for the teeth." Not the most morally consequential phrase, but hopefully it brightens your day. Peace!

[1] Richard J. Clifford, The Wisdom Literature, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 17, 18.
[2] Vatican Council II, “Dei Verbum” § 14.
[3] The word "kvetch," by the way, is of Yiddish origin and means to complain persistently. It also sounds an awful lot like another word which can mean the same thing but is not very appropriate.
[4] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 483.
[5] Coogan, 462.
[6] Clifford, 51.
[7] Ibid., 103.
[8] Coogan, 518.

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