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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ecclesiastes and Earthy Hebrew Wisdom

Back in May I mentioned in a post that I was reading through Ecclesiastes and that I might blog about what the heck this book is doing in the Bible.  So I figure I'll devote a post or three to that subject.

Before looking at Ecclesiastes itself I think it's worthwhile to consider Hebrew wisdom as a whole.  When we talk about the "wisdom literature" in the Bible, we're referring to Proverbs as sort of the standard for the whole genre (fancy word meaning "type of writing" for you non-English majors—like novel, newspaper article, limerick, etc.).  We're also including Job and Ecclesiastes.  Song of Songs is also grouped with wisdom literature I think particularly because of its instructive conclusion in 8:6-7, but as love poetry (and entertainment) the Song is really its own animal.  We also include in wisdom literature a few of the Psalms (like famously the first one) and bits and pieces of the writings of the prophets (e.g., Jer. 17:5-11).

Now the thing about Hebrew wisdom literature is that it is intensively focused on how to be successful in this life, from the day of your birth to the day of your death.  It doesn't really care about theology per se or ethics in the abstract.  It isn't about where you go after you die.  It's about living well in the here and now.  In wisdom literature the best possible outcome is (in no particular order) wealth, a full stomach, physical health, a loving family, a long and pleasant life, heirs that you can pass your wealth on to when you die, and the esteem of your acquaintances and the wider society.  All this is considered 100% the blessing of God by his love and faithfulness and grace (Heb. hesed).  You won't receive this blessing, at least not long-term, without being wise and living wisely, and the foundation of all wisdom is fearing Yahweh (Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 15:33), which means that you take his instruction more seriously and follow it more loyally than your own desires or other people's bright ideas.

By contrast, in Hebrew wisdom literature the worst thing that can happen to you is poverty, hunger, an untimely (especially violent) death, public shame, exhausting toil for nothing, and irritating dependents.  This is the destiny of the fool (Heb. k'sil, pronounced "kuh-SEEL").  The word k'sil is related to a Hebrew verb that means "to be confident."  Although the verb can refer to confidence as either a good thing or a bad thing, the noun k'sil refers to a person whose confidence is misplaced, namely in his stupid self.  The key to the wise person's wisdom is that he is rigorously skeptical of it, and he unfailingly takes God's direction even when it conflicts with what he thinks is best.  But the fool's folly is that he thinks he knows what he is doing and confidently lives his life as he sees fit, ignoring God's direction, especially when it doesn't suit what he wants to believe.  So the fool is prone to associate with other bad people and engage in armed robbery, adultery, and laziness, which result in disaster.  Wisdom literature calls this kind of foolish life wickedness; it is the opposite of the fear of the Lord and righteousness.

In Hebrew wisdom literature all knowledge is seen as one just as God himself is one and his creation is one.  So knowledge of the natural world and literacy go hand in hand with practical life-management and fearing God.  It seems to have been inconceivable to the wisdom authors for someone to be well-schooled in science for example but defiant towards God—how could someone know so much about some of the laws of God's creation and be so ignorant of the rest?

This is where Ecclesiastes is so interesting.  The Preacher of Ecclesiastes is the bad boy of the biblical authors, because he pushes Hebrew wisdom to its limits and beyond.

The Preacher was "the son of David, king in Jerusalem" (1:1) and if we take this ascription with any seriousness it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is Solomon, the only Davidic king that we know of who wrote proverbs (1 Kings 4:32; cf. Eccl. 12:9-10) and was wiser than all in Jerusalem before him (1 Kings 3:12; cf. Eccl. 1:16) and the last to reign over Israel, not just Judah, from Jerusalem (Eccl. 1:12).  (Most scholars for a variety of reasons argue that it is written by someone who is pretending to be Solomon but isn't actually him; I disagree, but let's not get into that.)  In Solomon we have someone who doesn't fit the mold of ancient Hebrew wisdom.  This is a person who knew more about more of God's works than anyone who had lived.  But he still managed to engage in the ultimate folly: idolatry, worshiping false gods alongside or in place of the true one, the exact opposite of the fear of Yahweh.  Ecclesiastes seems to have been written by an old man who has already seen it all, which would mean that Solomon wrote it after his apostasy and its personal consequences for him but with his incisive intellect still firmly intact.  So Ecclesiastes is written by the one and only Wise Fool, the man who knew so much but forgot that without the fear of Yahweh wisdom becomes folly.  He writes this book having returned to the fear of God, but he has been profoundly changed by his experience from the clear-cut optimism of Proverbs to the self-contradictory pessimism of Ecclesiastes.  My point is that the life of the author alone bursts the Hebrew expectations of wisdom (including his own expectations in his younger days).

Solomon also pushes the envelope of Hebrew wisdom by taking its earthiness to its logical conclusion.  Hebrew wisdom was concerned about this life in this world.  Within its field of examination, this life is all there is.  Well, what if this life is really all there is?  What if death is really the end?  Then how much good will wisdom do?  Solomon, who has and knows more wisdom than anyone else, gives it a mixed review.  He is like a brilliant and learned student of classical literature who is distressed that none of his learning will help him get his car running.  No matter how deep he digs in study in the one area, it doesn't help in the other.  In the same way, Solomon's unparalleled exploration of wisdom from a Hebrew perspective exposes its biggest limitation—a realm of study entirely devoted to this life is totally unhelpful in dealing with the inevitability of death.  So if wisdom as Solomon understood it is the whole enchilada, the sum total of knowledge, then it's not all it's cracked up to be.

But ancient Hebrew wisdom had a way of skirting this unpleasant reality by assuming that people are inherently connected.  So one of the benefits of wisdom and righteousness in the fear of God is that you can pass on wealth to your children, whereas the wicked fool's wealth will be directed by God into the hands of the righteous and his children will have nothing (see also Ps. 109:8-15).  That way you and your name will live on in your children and your property once you're gone—having a permanent place in the family lineage is your immortality.  This is probably what Solomon believed earlier in his life.  But later on, through his solitary experience as the Wise Fool, not to mention sitting for 40 years at the apex of society with no peers as king over the Israelite Empire at its greatest extent, Solomon exposes the limitation of this dodge.  In Ecclesiastes Solomon doesn't care if his name and property live on in his son.  Whoever gets his inheritance, even his own flesh and blood, is a stranger who didn't earn it and doesn't deserve it, and what benefit will it be to Solomon that his son has inherited his property when Solomon is dead?  None!  In Ecclesiastes Solomon challenges whether viewing human life solely as a member of a tribe (i.e., the tribe has inherent meaning but the individual does not apart from the tribe) does justice to what it means to be human.  How does passing on wealth to children and being buried next to one's ancestors help a person when he faces death alone, as all of us ultimately do?

Ecclesiastes is a weird book that seems to turn wisdom itself on its ear.  But it does so by exploring wisdom as the Israelites understood it further than anyone else had gone before.  It reveals that we can only have hope if there is more to wisdom than the wisdom Solomon knew—if there can be genuine knowledge of an existence beyond this one and if there is a way that a naked individual can face death without despair and pass through it.  I think this goes a long way toward making sense of what Ecclesiastes is doing in the Bible, which I'll look at further next time.

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