Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wisdom and Reality

The book of Proverbs makes it sound so simple-the righteous will prosper and the wicked will be punished (Prov 10:3). But life doesn’t really work that way, does it? Biblical wisdom literature should be read as educational rhetoric. It says the righteous will succeed in life because the goal is to persuade the pupil to be righteous. It says the wicked will be punished because the goal is to scare encourage the pupil away from wickedness.

Proverbs can’t be universal truths because some proverbs show up in alternate versions saying contradictory things (Prov 26:4-5). Proverbs are situationally-appropriate, not universally applicable. One of the qualities of wisdom is the ability to discern the proper behavior for any given situation. Depending on the circumstances, a different response may be in order.

Unfortunately, that explanation doesn’t work for the issue of reward and retribution. There’s no context-appropriate shift in applicability. The world of wisdom literature seems to present a black and white contrast. Yes, it’s idealistic rhetoric, but what did the sages really believe?

Looking at the book of Job, I’m tempted to say that conventional wisdom held that this retribution formula (or the deeds-consequence nexus, see Fox 2000, 91) was true to reality. The book of Job is fundamentally an extended polemic against mechanical retribution. Job and his friends go round and round arguing over what evil Job must have done to deserve his suffering while he continually protests his innocence. Why compose such an argument against the retribution formula if everyone knew it was only idealistic rhetoric anyway? I suppose one could say that Job’s friends are deliberately presented as caricatures of different aspects of conventional wisdom, but then, what’s the point of the book?

Deuteronomy also presents a similar deeds-consequences nexus when it lays out the blessings that will accompany obedience to the Torah and the curses that will follow disobedience. Deuteronomy and likely much of Proverbs was collected and written with the exile of the Northern Kingdom still in recent memory, making future punishment look all but inevitable if Judah did not repent. Perhaps Job with its more overt representation of God as the agent of this retribution is more of a polemic against the theology of Deuteronomy.

This seems to be to be an as-yet unsolved (and perhaps unsolvable) theological problem. Many people in communities of faith take comfort in these idealistic platitudes in Psalms and Proverbs that tell them everything’s going to be okay if they’re good. Many preachers even take them at face value and teach that God wants you to be wealthy and prosperous. If you’re not wealthy or prosperous, it’s because you don’t have enough faith. If you only had enough faith, God would make you rich.

And yet, we seem to have developed a theology of explaining why the righteous suffer. I’ve heard song lyrics like “sometimes he calms the storm, other times he calms the child.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

This issue is getting more complex, too complex for one post. I need to finish re-reading Ray Van Leeuwen’s article “Wealth and Poverty: System and Contradiction in Proverbs.” Hebrew Studies 33 (1992):25-36.

Reference: M.V. Fox. 2000. Proverbs 1-9. Anchor 18A. New York: Doubleday.

1 comment:

  1. Van Leeuwen's article is exceptional. It requires a more astute reading of Proverbs than many are willing to give it.