Monday, August 31, 2009

The Tension Between Ideal and Real

The ideology reflected in biblical wisdom literature about retribution or the deed-consequence nexus is far too complex to neatly sweep it all into the tidy dogmatism of mechanical retribution (i.e., health, wealth, and power prove one is righteous, their lack proves one unrighteous). Even suggesting that the sages themselves likely believed in the doctrine of retribution (as I did in a previous post) now seems too simplistic. While Job's friends are unwavering in their commitment to retribution, a close reading of the book of Proverbs reveals that the sages were aware of the inequities of real life and held the conflict between faith and experience in unresolved tension. Ray Van Leeuwen explains:

[These contradictions in Proverbs] have come to express one broad worldview which acknowledges the conflict of dogma and experience, yet maintains both (1992, 26 n. 3; emphasis his).

Job is not a polemic against any so-called conventional wisdom that holds to a strictly mechanical worldview where the wicked are punished and the righteous are blessed. However, it is likely that the idea had currency among some groups, perhaps a common superstition as evidenced by Jesus' disciples in John 9.

John 9:1-3 (ESV): As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. [2] And his disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" [3] Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

Jesus similarly refutes this simplistic theology of retribution in Luke 13.

Luke 13:1-5 (ESV):  There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. [2] And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? [3] No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. [4] Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? [5] No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

Wisdom primarily involves proper behavior, navigating life successfully in relation to God and other people. The wisdom embodied in Proverbs provides instruction on navigating both our relation with God and our relation to one another. Righteous living is the utmost virtue. In a perfect world, it should bring blessings, but it may not. Yet, it should be sought more than riches or power. Reading individual proverbs in isolation from each other can lead to a dogmatic atomistic reading where the retributive sayings alone are incorrectly held to represent the view of the sages in general. The sages were aware that in real life the wicked prospered, the unrighteous ruled, and the righteous poor were oppressed.

Proverbs 11:16 (ESV)  
A gracious woman gets honor, and violent men get riches.

Proverbs 16:8 (ESV) 
Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.

Proverbs 16:19 (ESV) 
It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.

Proverbs 28:15-16 (ESV) 
Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people. [16] A ruler who lacks understanding is a cruel oppressor, but he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days.

These examples (and many more could be added to them) reveal that the sages are implicitly aware of the injustices and inequities of life. Even as they teach that one should be righteous because it will lead to blessing, they affirm that one should remain righteous even in the midst of oppression. Ray Van Leeuwen summarizes thus:

In general, the sages clearly believed that wise and righteous behavior did make life better and richer, though virtue did not guarantee those consequences. Conversely, injustice, sloth, and the like generally have bad consequences (Van Leeuwen 1992, 32; emphasis his).

There are other options to explain this tension, but they seem motivated by our drive to resolve logical contradictions. For example, these contradictory sayings or opposing worldviews could reflect dissent and pluralism among the sages. This makes sense in light of the fact that Proverbs is a compilation of sayings, but the book as a whole seems to have undergone a deliberate shaping which suggests this tension was simply maintained unresolved. First teach the rules, then teach the exceptions to the rules (see Van Leeuwen 1992, 32). Proverbs is not an anthology of opinions similar to much rabbinic literature (though I am interested in how "wisdom" shifts in Judaism to equal Torah and wise living becomes equivalent to Torah piety).

The issue is still unresolved. The Bible maintains both an idealism about the value of righteous living and a realism about the injustices of life experience. Perhaps the bottom line is that the workings of God are mysterious and one cannot predict the outcome of life based on a formula.

Proverbs 16:4 (ESV)  
The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.

Suffering could be part of God's plan according to John 9:3.

Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

There is more that could be said about the issue of righteous suffering and the implications of the doctrine of transgenerational punishment as hinted at here in John's Gospel. But that will have to wait for a future post.

N.B. Much of my thinking reflected here is indebted to Ray Van Leeuwen's excellent article, “Wealth and Poverty: System and Contradiction in Proverbs.” Hebrew Studies 33 (1992):25-36.


  1. I couldn't agree more with your conclusion, esp. at it relates to the book of Proverbs (I can’t wait for my semester to begin, so I can track that article that you mentioned down at my library). However, I am not so sure that Job is not meant to contradict a simplistic notion of retributive justice. To me, it seems that Job’s companions are slavishly applying the concepts of retribution (simplistically) in a way that is obviously not true one’s live experience. Thus Job serves as a correction to a false notion of justice.

  2. I think Job is meant to show that retributive sayings can't be applied universally. It's like one long philosophical discussion focusing on breaking down a dogmatic love for the "rules" by giving an exemplary exception.

    I used to think of Job as arguing against a conventional wisdom and being (like Qohelet) on the opposing side of some split between wisdom factions. Now I'm rethinking the implications and meaning of Job in the larger body of biblical wisdom literature with this tension in mind. Yes, Job is correcting a simplistic notion of justice, but they had to start somewhere.

    I'm thinking as a teacher and student- how often do we get (and give) an oversimplified explanation only to somewhat undo what we've taught or learned down the line by adding ambiguity and complexity.