We have so far been studying a little of
the Greek wisdom tradition and now we're going to turn our attention
to the Hebrew wisdom tradition, which in some ways is much older than
the Greek tradition. These two traditions have been two of the major
tributaries that have contributed significantly to the formation of
the way we think in the West.
The Hebrew tradition is much different than
the Greek in certain ways. It is monotheistic, for example, where the
Greeks were polytheistic. Further, the God of the Hebrew tradition is
a very different kind of being than the gods of the Greeks. The Hebrew
God is seen as the creator of all that is, the originating cause of
all being. The Greek gods were of course more powerful than humans,
but they were still very limited beings. Further, the God of the Hebrews
is said to love his people, to feel genuine affection and tenderness
for them, and to wish the best for them in all circumstances. The Greek
gods sometimes felt affection for, and sometimes felt destructive toward,
human mortals. (These overbroad characterizations of the Greek and Hebrew
theologies are, of course, only very generally true. They are the result
of painting with a very broad brush.)
The differences between these two traditions
can be seen even in the form and tone of the two different languages.
Greek is a rather conceptual language, comfortable with talking in terms
of concepts, ideas, essences (the essence of goodness, truth and beauty,
for example) and pure being. Hebrew language, on the other hand, is
more likely to be very earthy and grounded and physical. The notion
that humans are made of earth is perfectly natural for the Hebrews.
Even the notions and images of where true
wisdom is to be found differ in the two traditions. In Plato's cave
story, for example, true wisdom is not to be found down under the earth,
but is instead to be found by heading upward, out into the light,
and from there up to the top of the mountain. You'll see
in the Book of Job, on the other hand, an image which suggests
that wisdom is to be found down deep in the earth, mined
from the earth as are jewels and precious metals. Wisdom is more likely
to be found in the deep and substantial for the Hebrews,
rather than high up in some place less connected to the earth.
Though I'm painting these differences very
broadly and with almost unfair generalizations, still there is some
truth in them.
The Wisdom Literature
The Hebrew scriptures (what Christians usually
refer to as the Old Testament) are conventionally divided into three
- The Torah
- The prophets
- The Writings
1. The Torah
is comprised of the first five books of the scriptures, Genesis,
Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
(These names, by the way, are actually the Greek names for those books;
the Hebrew name for the first book of The Torah, for example, is Bereshith,
which literally means "In the beginning.") These are in some
sense the most sacred books, the most serious books, in the Hebrew scriptures.
It could almost be said that God speaks most directly to humans through
these five books. There is something absolutely special and central
about The Torah. The word "Torah" itself is usually translated
as "Law," but it also has connotations of "The Way."
It describes how things are, how God is, and how we are to be. (We will
not be reading anything directly from The Torah this quarter.)
2. The Prophets
are those writers, such as Jeremiah, Isaiah, Obadiah, Jonah and the
others, both major and minor, who speak the word of the Lord -- "Thus
saith the Lord" is one of their most frequently spoken phrases
-- and call human beings to task, reminding us of how we ought to be.
3. The Writings
are pretty much everything else. This includes histories, psalms/songs,
proverbs and various miscellaneous writings. In this category is a group
of books known as "the wisdom literature," and we will be
reading three of these books: Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes,
in that order. They do not usually appear in that order in the collection,
but some evidence indicates that they may have historically developed
in this order.
Book of Proverbs
This book, as you will see, is primarily
a collection of wise sayings -- proverbs -- from all around the then
known world. Legend has it that Solomon, the wisest of the Hebrew kings,
commanded his lieutenants, during their travels, to collect these nuggets
of folk wisdom from everywhere they went in the world. This book, then,
is the compilation of many of those wisdom sayings from all over the
world (or at least what they understood to be the world at that time).
The collection is preceded by 9 chapters that might best be termed "an
exhortation to wisdom." This exhortation is put in the mouth of
parents who deeply love their children and who want their children's
lives to be as happy as possible and who want things to go well for
them. They hope their children will not do the kind of stupid things
that will just mess up their lives. They hope that their children will
act and live wisely rather than foolishly so that they will be happy,
prosperous, healthy and much beloved by others.
I am reminded here of a little book by H
Jackson Brown titled Life's Little Instruction Book (Rutledge
Hill Press, Nashville, 1991). This
too is a book of wise little proverbial sayings passed on from a father
to his beloved son. In the introduction to that book the author tells
This book began as a gift to my son,
Adam. As he packed his stereo, typewriter, blue blazer, and other
necessities for his new life as a college freshman, I retreated
to the family room to jot down a few observations and words of counsel
I thought he might find useful.
A few days later his mother and I helped
him move into his new dorm room. When he was all settled in, I asked
him to come with me to the parking lot. It was time for the presentation.
I reached under the car seat and, with words to the effect that
this was what I knew about living a happy and rewarding life, handed
him the bound pages. He hugged me and shook my hand. It was a very
I suspect that this is also the spirit in
which the Book of Proverbs should most fruitfully be read. H
Jackson Brown's book includes items like the following:
Complement three people every day
Have a dog
Watch a sunrise at least once a year
Overtip breakfast waitresses
Say 'please' a lot
Learn to play a musical instrument
Buy great books even if you never read them
Be a student in some kind of class
Once in your life own a convertible
These wise little sayings -- proverbs, really
-- are passed on from a father to the son whom he dearly loves, in hopes
that by following them the son's life will be a happier and better one.
I think this may be some part of the spirit
in which the Book of Proverbs is offered to us.
This book tells the story of a good ("perfect")
man who has lived rightly, who is happy, and whose life has gone quite
well. Until now, when suddenly all manner of terrible things befall
him. The central questions in the book are:
How could this be, that a good person has
such outrageously awful things happen to them? How are we to make sense
of it When Bad Things Happen to Good People (the title of a very
sensible little best seller by Rabbi Harold Kushner several years ago)?
How could an all good and just God allow such bad things to happen to
a perfectly just and holy man? (See "The
Problem of Evil")
What can we learn from the way that Job behaves in the presence of so
much suffering. How does a truly good person endure suffering of that
What is so repugnant about the way that Job's "friends" behave
toward him, and whatever would move them to behave that way?
Book of Ecclesiastes
Rabbi Harold Kushner refers to this book
as "the most dangerous book in the bible." One question I
would like you to consider in your discussions when we talk about this
book is: What do
you suppose it is about this book that some have seen as so dangerous?
This book is perhaps best understood as
a kind of discussion/debate going on within the soul of a single person.
One side of the debate argues that life is pointless, useless, meaningless
and all in vain. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," say
the book's opening lines. The other side of the debate argues that life
does have opportunities for happiness and joy and that we should take
delight in those joys that are available to us. Legend has it that the
book was written by Solomon, the wisest of the Hebrew kings, who, after
experiencing all the best that life had to offer, still had serious
doubts whether it was all worth it. (Legend is almost certainly wrong
in the ascription of authorship; however, whoever the author of the
book is, he or she is definitely wondering whether life has any lasting
If you are interested in seeing how a modern author, Leo Tolstoy, struggles
with these issues of meaning and emptiness in life, see his extremely
well-written and short autobiography titled A
Confession available either online or in print.
The way in which Tolstoy phrases the question
posed by Ecclesiastes is:
My question - that which at the age
of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide - was the simplest of
questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child
to the wisest elder: it was a question without an answer to which
one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: "What
will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will
come of my whole life?"
Differently expressed, the question
is: "Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?"
It can also be expressed thus: "Is there any meaning in my
life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?"
It is a question that many people, perhaps
most, struggle with at some point in their lives, and the Book of
Ecclesiastes is one of the earliest writings to give voice to the
Another question for your consideration
when discussing this book: Given
that this book was considered so dangerous and even so potentially heretical,
what reasons do you think the Rabbis might have had for including this
book in the canon of holy writ?
A note on translations of the bible:
Many translations of the Hebrew scriptures
are very dated and just do not speak accurately to people who are familiar
only with contemporary English. There are numerous contemporary translations
of the bible, however, and any of those would probably suit your purposes
perfectly well. The paperback edition I ordered for you at the bookstore
is a perfectly adequate one, but if you have another translation that
you would prefer, please feel free to use it.