The Wisdom tradition flourished in Israel among the courtesans and the scribes who worked for the king. As such, those who sought after wisdom were people with social and economic advantages, agents of the king in diplomatic missions and members of the bureaucracy that keeps close to the centers of political power. What in the East was called wisdom came to be known as philosophy in Greece. In its origins wisdom had to do with the behavior to be adopted by those who live the way life should be lived. The sayings of the wise crossed frontiers freely and promoted conservative, stable societies. Their principal theme was not justice but wealth, spiritual, intellectual and material. The instructions of the wise aimed at advancing the social and economic standing of their disciples. Since God acts according to retributive justice, one is to obey the rules of the dominant social culture so that “you may prosper in the land.”
Even if in Israel “the fear of the Lord” came to be considered “the beginning of wisdom” and was to have priority over the social culture, most of the proverbs of the wise have a secular perspective and could be priced in any of the neighboring nations. Proverbs similar to those found in the Bible are also found en the wisdom traditions of Egypt, Babylon and Canaan. It is notable that in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament no mention is made of Israel’s election or of the covenant that distinguishes it among the nations. While the prophets and Deuteronomy give chesed, covenant loyalty, priority as God’s distinguishing virtue, as such it is does not appear in the wisdom books, but does appear thusly in the Psalms.
The wisdom literature is also notable because while in it one reads how to preserve the status quo, one also finds in it those who criticize, those who question, those who do not submit to the authority of the elders. We find Proverbs, where we learn how to make friends, make money and have influence in the community. We also find Ecclesiastes, where the author examines the instructions of the wise and the folly of fools and determines that “wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise man has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness; and yet I perceived that one fate comes to both of them” (Eccl. 2: 13-14). To the one going to “the house of God,” The Congregation Caller” (Qoheleth, Eccl. 12:11 admonishes, “draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools who do not know that they are doing evil. . . . When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it; for he has no pleasure in fools” (Eccl. 5: 1, 4). In both cases what is to be avoided is not to act unjustly or to be idolatrous; it is to be a fool. Surely this advice could have been given in any religious context. The application of wisdom is universal. On account of it, “there is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God: (Eccl. 2: 24).
As a true philosopher, the Caller-Preacher is a liberal, a critic of the constrictions imposed by a society that exalts traditional values. While he seeks pleasing words, as a good Shepherd he speaks words that are “like goads, and like nails firmly fixed” (Eccl. 12: 10-11). In this he is not much different from Socrates. He admonishes his young disciples: “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. . . . and remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (Eccl. 11: 9, 12:1). Thus, while calling for responsibility at the final judgment of God, he trusts the young and allows them freedom to follow their own judgment in their every day life.
For the wise the human family lives under their Creator and the Creator is God Almighty. Job can imagine a god who is unjust, but cannot conceive that God is not almighty. Precisely because God is The Almighty, and in God’s creation retributive justice does not work, since the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, God is neither loving nor just. For the author of Job, creation demonstrates that God is almighty and that human being must recognize the distance that separates the One who inhabits eternity from those who live on earth where everything is transitory. As the Caller-Preacher said, God “has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccl. 3: 11). “God is in heaven, and you upon earth” (Eccl. 5:2). “I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has made it so, in order that men should fear before him” (Eccl. 3: 14).
Based on this premise of the Caller-Preacher, the author of Job has God finally confront Job to make him confess that, since he had nothing to do with creation and God is the Almighty Creator, Job must accept the advice of the Caller-Preacher and speak less and listen more. Wrapped in the whirlwind God accuses Job to speak words without knowledge (Job 38: 2). God asks Job for details about creation assuming that one who considers himself sufficiently wise to accuse God of injustice should be able to give them. By forcing him to acknowledge his ignorance about creation, God, with a great deal of sarcasm, has forced Job to admit that since he was not present at creation he cannot give the details God has been asking for. Then Job admits, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer thee? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once. . . even twice, but I will speak no more” (Job 40: 4-5).
Creation and its mysteries belong only to God. The theology of the wise men of Israel in its entirety is based on creation, not election and covenant. Its perspective embraces the whole human family; it is universal. He who admits ignorance about creation is the true wise person. All human beings must attain to wisdom and recognized themselves without distinctions as creatures. The fear of YHVH as Creator is the beginning of wisdom.
The authors of Ecclesiastes and Job provide sharp criticism of the parochial theology of deuteronomic orthodoxy where God’s approval is measured by the family’s wealth. They criticize the promoters of orthodoxy who pretend to know much, talk folly and offer sacrifices without knowing that they do evil. The book of Job does not give us a transcript of conversations taking place in the council of the sons of God, or in the house where Job suffered his boils, or of a confrontation between a God wrapped in a storm and Job. In it we have a theological work of the first magnitude in which we are admonished not to confuse a god created by human orthodoxies with the God Creator of heaven and earth. On the basis of the god of orthodoxy Job accused God of being unjust. Confronted by the Almighty Creator God Job declares himself unworthy (something which in his long dispute with his friends adamantly refused to do) and sat “in dust and ashes” (Job 42: 6). The drama of Job teaches us that those who have received an epiphany of the Creator can do no other but get rid of the cheap gods of orthodoxy (Job 42: 3, 5).
The psalmists share with the wise a profound admiration for the power of the Almighty Creator God. For them also The Almighty has triumphed over the forces of chaos that ruled in the darkness of the abyss and has established cosmos, order and beauty. God has imprisoned under lock and key those opposing forces and has established for them limits which they cannot trespass (Job 7: 12; 26: 10-13; 38: 8—11; Ps. 104: 9, 25; Prov. 8: 29). To gain this victory over chaos, like the prophets, the wise and the psalmists fall back on the mythological cosmogonies of antiquity. Rahab, Leviathan, the dragon of the sea and the waters of the abyss, which in the time of chaos before creation were over the mountains but now are under control and cannot go beyond their limits (Ps. 104: 6-9), appear as significant protagonists in the creation. No human being can place a ring in the nose of Behemoth or of Leviathan and take them around as if they were a domesticated bull. But God who made them both undoubtedly can (Job 40: 19; 41: 2). God is the one who pierced the twisting serpent (Job 26: 13).
These representations of the forces of chaos domesticated by Almighty God reaches its zenith in a Leviathan created by God to play in the sea with the waves, as if it were God’s pet (Ps. 104: 26). In Job, God challenges Job to compare himself with Behemoth, “the most excellent of the works of God” to which God gave authority (a sword) over everything on earth. Its strength is put in relief by a tail like a cedar and genitals with interlaced nerves (Job 40: 15-19). Job’s impotence is ridiculed by the strength of Behemoth. Of course, these images of Leviathan in the sea and Behemoth on land contradict the apocalyptic vision of Isaiah 27:1: “In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.” Leviathan here is no pet splashing in the waves. This contrast underlines the optimistic perspective of creation in the wisdom traditions.
Finally, we must take a look at creation in Prov. 8: 22-31. These verses are, in the first place, an encomium to wisdom and have three sections: the priority of wisdom among created things (vv. 22-26), the participation of wisdom in creation (vv. 27-30a) and the joy wisdom has in God and creation is reciprocated by the joy God has in wisdom (vv. 30b-31).
The first section establishes the priority of wisdom using a formula that is also used at the beginning of the Enuma Elish and at the beginning of the narrative in Gen. 2: 4b-3: 24).
Enuma Elish begins saying:
When on high the heavens had not been named,
the earth beneath had not been called by name, when primordial Apsu, their begetter and Mummu-Tiamat, she bore them all, their waters mingled as a single body, no reed hut had sprung forth no marshland had appeared, none of the gods had been brought into being, and none bore a name, and no destinies determined, then, it was that the gods were formed in the midst of heaven.
Genesis 2: 5 says: When no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground . . . then, the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground. Proverbs 8: 22-26 says: The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first. Before the beginning of the earth, when there was no abyss I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills I was brought forth. Before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world.
While the author of Job points out that Job had not been present at creation and therefore lacks the wisdom necessary to judge God (his judgment had been based on the god of orthodoxy), the author of Proverbs points out that wisdom came to be before creation and was present at creation. The syntax of the passage is a bit elusive and makes it difficult to decide whether wisdom was the master craftman, the architect, the magician who carried out the job or wisdom (as the personification of a divine hypostasis) was only present as a witness of creation. If one takes into account Prov. 3: 19, wisdom was the agent of creation: “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.” This is different from what is said by the psalmist: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath (spirit) of his mouth” (Ps. 33: 6).
The author of Proverbs, like the author of the psalm (and the author of Genesis 1), already conceives God as one inhabiting eternity wholly beyond the imagination of human beings. God is a transcendent being. To carry out creation God utilized the service of a mediating agent, a demiurgos. In Prov. 8 the creating agent is wisdom, understanding. For the psalmist it is the word, the spirit. Centuries later, Christians took both of these texts as definitions of the Christ and said that the agent of creation had been the pre-existent Christ. In the IV century Arius and his followers, basing themselves on Prov. 8: 30, insisted that the pre--existent Christ was not co-eternal with the Father, since the text says that wisdom came forth as an emanation conceived by the Father that was then used as the master craftsman, the architect of creation.
Even though Prov. 8 is not a poetic narrative of creation, it does specify details of the creative process in which wisdom acted as the artificer: the formation of the heavenly dome and of the ocean that is below and around the earth, the stabilization of the dome and of the fountains of the abyss, the setting of limits to the sea and the formation of the subterranean mountains that uphold the disc of the flat earth. For this work wisdom availed itself of a compass, as a good master craftsman would. The psalmist describes this process very succinctly: “For he founded the earth upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers” (Ps. 24: 2).
Finally, as in Job 38: 7, the wise man of Prov. 8 reminds his disciple that the participants in the creation joyfully celebrated the completion of the enterprise (v. 31).
In summary, the wise men of Israel emphasize that he who pretends to know how God does things is a fool who speaks in terms of gods created by human beings to satisfy their own needs. He who has confronted the Creator places his hand over his mouth and listens. He does not talk. Wisdom consists in recognizing that God did not place the world within one’s grasp from the beginning until the end. In order to say this, the wise and the psalmists of Israel used a cosmological geography that can only be classified as “primitive”, “outdated”.
Until the latter part of the XVI century many Bibles had representations of this cosmic geography, but no modern Bible, as far as I am aware, includes such an engraving since it would only be a distracting curiosity. Even if those engravings are no longer found among the pages of our Bibles, the words that are an integral part of the biblical text and served as the basis for those illustrations cannot be expurgated and swept under the rug as many fundamentalists and creationists try to do pretending that no one notices. He who pretends to teach what the Bible teaches about creation must take seriously into account all the evidence in the Bible.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2939