Fr. Maurice Gilbert, SJ  Israel's Wisdom

Israel's Wisdom

Fr Maurice Gilbert, SJ                                                               Reflections Index  

All peoples have their wisdom. Based on observation, developed by reflection, expressed in vivid formulas, with poetic tones that are easy to remember and widely known among the people, wisdom is meant for education. Know-how and skill, good sense and tact: wisdom seeks to give the keys to happiness. Shrewd, certainly, but not amoral, because virtue is also of one the keys to human growth, just as the religious viewpoint is.

Israel's wisdom belongs in this category. Born in the Near East, for centuries it was. the only wisdom to be faithfully handed down in Jewish and Christian communities, until modern discoveries brought to light the most ancient wisdom writings of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Today we possess Near Eastern wisdoms from the third, second and first millenniums before our era. Israel's wisdom also belongs in this more precise category of rediscovered wisdom writings.

Proverbs, Job, Qoheleth or Ecclesiastes, the Wisdom of Ben Sirach, also known as Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, and the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon are thus similar to the various wisdoms of the ancient Near East and contribute to universal wisdom, except that, since the development of philosophy and science in ancient Greece, knowledge has grown in a structured way in the West, to the point of stifling the role of wisdom for individuals and society, especially since the Industrial Revolution. The distinction of the various sciences, in particular, has led to the division of knowledge, sometimes even creating antagonism between the knowledge acquired by reason and that coming from faith.

Ancient forms of wisdom, and certainly the wisdom of ancient Israel, was unaware of these tendencies, which we know should be corrected.

Faith and reason

The wise men of the Bible were believers. They were both sages and believers, without division but not without crises, as we will see. To understand them, we must explain how they were distinguished from priests and prophets. The sages were not responsible for worship or for the knowledge and practice of the Law; that fell to the priests. Unlike, the prophets, the sages did not have to remind the people of the Lord's demands that stemmed from the commitment made in the covenant; nor did they have to discern the signs of the times in a human history guided by God. The sages had to analyze common, everyday experience to discover useful norms of conduct that could be shared with everyone. Now, the scope of this daily experience is extremely broad. Man is always present there, at the very centre. Whether it is a question of nature, atmospheric elements, the stars, the sea, the vegetable or the animal world, it was for man, so that he could find his way in a universe which he does not have complete control (even less then than today), that the sages observed and reflected in their search for explanatory principles. The human being himself, with his various characteristics and tendencies, both as an individual and in his social and family dimension, in his joys and sorrows, his successive ages and his death, was the sages' chief concern. Daily experience also includes the effects of virtue and vice, of the good man does, but of the evil he commits as well: what will the sage say to lead his fellow man to the happiness he desires? But daily experience also involves man's religious attitude: it too deserves analysis and advice. As for God's action in human life, is it devoid of norms or are they unknowable? On this difficult part of the journey the sages thought they could make progress. in short, their range of experience never excluded that of religion and faith.

Moreover, their capacity for knowledge never created a division between secular and religious knowledge. Not only were there not two distinct observable worlds for them, one of daily routine and the other in which the Almighty reigned, but; because of the specific service they had to offer society, they had only one means of knowledge, their reflective understanding. However much it might be clarified by their common faith in the God of Israel, it remained a reflective understanding. For the sages, faith was never a hindrance to reason; instead it supported it, even challenging it at times and clarifying it at others. Nor did reason ever eliminate faith; it purified it more than once in Job and Qoheleth, and was led along new paths in the Book of Wisdom.

A theology of creation

According to the Bible, the economy of salvation is essentially linked to history. The Pentateuch, the prophets and many of the psalms present a theology of history with many accents. The sages are an exception, in that they engage in wisdom. Their reflective understanding is based, in religious matters, on a more universal theology of creation, allowing them to unify at once the different areas of common experience they analyze.

What do we mean by a theology of creation? Essentially, that this theology refers not to the God of the covenant which was made with Abraham, or on Sinai, or the one in which the Lord committed himself to David, but to the God who created the whole universe. Not that Israel distinguished the Creator from the Lord who entered their history. Since at least Deutero-Isaiah in the sixth century, the God of Israel is recognized as the one God and the only Creator of the world.

The sages' recourse to a theology of creation, the basic exposition of which is found in the first pages of the Bible, had the advantage of permitting a universalistic vision, essential in the eyes of the sages: they wanted to speak of man, of adam, of every human being. On the other hand, the recourse to creation refers to and explains the order they were trying to clarify in theuniverse and the human world. When the sages speak of God, of YHWH, they mean the order he put in his work.

Let us consider a few examples. In Proverbs 8, the personalized figure of Wisdom justifies the listening she requires of all by the threefold fact that she ensures order in everyone's personal life, in society and in the universe. In response to Job, the Lord shows him that he, Job, does not control the world. At the end of his short work, Qoheleth invites the young man to remember his Creator before the evil days of old age arrive, Ben Sirach appeals to the beginning, to creation, when describing man's place before God, and the Book of Wisdom, for example, justifies the divine moderation in punishing the guilty by the love which God continually bears for the creatures to whom he is always present through his Spirit.

Fear of God, the beginning of wisdom

Should we be surprised, then, that the sages said the most authentic key to wisdom is found in the human attitude of docility and humble openness to the divine mystery? For the sages of ancient Israel, fear in this sense does not mean dread, but respect marked by affection, reverence, as we would feel towards someone from whom we have received much and whom we would not want to hurt or deceive. Ben Sirach will recognize that this attitude is one of love.

The day when some sixth-century sages crafted the sentence: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Prv 1:7), they took a considerable step forward: for them there is no worthwhile knowledge of our world or of ourselves without this necessary attitude of loving openness to the divine. And so we can see how much reason is dependent on faith: without the fear of the Lord, there is no genuine wisdom.

Saying this hardly simplified the task of Israel's sages.

The limits of wisdom

Recognizing the need to find one's place before God in order to be an authentic sage did not make the Almighty more accessible: he lost nothing of his transcendent mystery.

Early on the sages could say: "Man proposes and God disposes" (cf. Prv 16:1). It is not because he recognized the Almighty that man surpasses the limits of his finiteness. Harnessing one's horse for baffle is not the same as winning. Victory is. awarded by YHWH (cf. Prv 21:31). Receiving an inheritance is something tangible and certain, but will marrying bring harmony and happiness (cf. Prv 19:14)? Man encounters his limits, and if he rejects them, he becomes a fool.

Two books of biblical wisdom have shown with astonishing skill the damaging effects of this lack of proportion. Job is as convinced as his friends that virtue should be rewarded with happiness here on earth. Since Job has fallen into misfortune, the reason, in the eyes of his friends, is that he has sinned. But since Job knows he is innocent, he eventually accuses his unrecognizable God and demands him to appear! Finally YHWH speaks to make Job understand that he does not control the universe: in other words, his suffering is not the price of sin and virtue in itself does not bring earthly happiness. Qoheleth lists the cases in which human, all too human, wisdom leads to nothing and, for him, the mystery of God's transcendence, which he recognizes, remains unaltered, but he no longer perceives any order in his world.

Thus the two books remind man of his limits and serve as an antidote to any lack of proportion, a real risk among human beings, but one which also destroys true wisdom. These attempts have at least clarified a little who God is and who man is: it is a gain for genuine wisdom.

A philosophy of sacred history

Ben Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon took a further step. Sacred history itself became the subject of their meditations. This does not mean that in doing so they lost their role as sages. It is as masters of wisdom, in fact, that they reread the accounts of the heroic deeds in their people's history.

In having Wisdom speak (Sir 24), Ben Sirach recounts how, after coming forth from God, she ruled the universe, but in searching for a dwelling-place, she was commanded by the Lord to put down roots in Israel. It is there, from the sanctuary in Zion, that she begins to grow, like a tree of life, covering the Holy Land, extending her branches, bearing flowers, perfume and even fruit—herself—which she offers to those who hunger and thirst. Now, for Ben Sirach this allegory, which simply describes God's presence ceaselessly offered to his people, can only be understood in terms of the Law. Here the word "Law" does not mean the codes of precepts nor even the Pentateuch, but the overall meaning it had acquired at the time, namely, revelation, God's historic intervention in the history of his people. In the sage's eyes, this history appeared full of wisdom, the best expression even of the divine Wisdom. It would be a mistake, then, to claim that for Ben Sirach the sapiential current is subject to the juridical order. At the end of his book, Ben Sirach draws a portrait of the principal figures of biblical history, from Adam to Nehemiah. Why this historical fresco after a hymn to creation? All are judged according to their fidelity to, the ideal which the author presented in Wisdom's discourse. It is thus as a sage that Ben Sirach sketches these portraits.

The Wisdom of Solomon offers a long, prayerful meditation on the Exodus to show how Solomon, in asking God for wisdom, could rely on the witness of those who had experienced Israel's foundational event. For the anonymous author, the Exodus had shown how the cosmic elements struggle, in God's hand, to punish the ungodly or to relieve the just in their distress. But the Exodus epic appears above all as a new creation (Wis 19:6). The theology of history becomes the theology of creation, all the more important because, if Israel's origin was a new creation in which the cosmic elements had a preponderant role to play, the reader can think that the same will occur at the end of history: at the beginning of his work, the author advanced the thesis of the incorruptibility of the human being, but perhaps he was envisaging the resurrection of the body for the just. Thus, one of the last sages in ancient Israel, by rereading sacred history to its foundations, but from the angle of a theology of creation, was among the first to advance the theological reflection of his people on the mystery of the hereafter.

The sage has confidence

The sages could never have advanced, if they had not lived with confidence. They thought that their intelligence was capable of knowing, that observation of experience could lead to the formulation of valid principles and rules. Even when their intelligence reached its limits, they realized that the knowledge of that limit was also true knowledge. When their analysis of lived experience led to an impasse, such as the suffering of the just, as in Job's case, or when the sharpness of their vision let them see no more than the limit of their knowledge, as with Qoheleth, even then they continued to speak, in the certainty that their intelligence had just discovered something important about its capacity.

The author of the Wisdom of Solomon went even further: starting with what we see in this world, our intelligence can go back, as a postulate, to the One who is its maker. The grandeur and beauty of the world enable us to infer by analogy the qualities of the One who fashioned it. This is why the Greek philosophers who divinized the world itself were mistaken. The same author also states that the God who made the world and is thus superior to it is the very One who intervened in Israel's history (Wis 13).

The sages were convinced that if their intelligence could know, it is because there is a knowable order in reality which they could trust. All our modern sciences are based on this postulate. The sages could speak of man because, if their message was true, everyone would recognize it: our attitudes and behaviour, as varied as they may be, obey knowable laws or lead to consequences that are just as knowable in their principles. An order governs the human race: the sages had confidence in this order; they could thus feel an affinity for the sages of paganism who experienced this same confidence. Order does not only govern the human race. Humanity longs for the fulfilment of this order, and the sages, well aware of the actual disorders between human beings, intended to show them the way that creates this order whose characteristics they described. Trusting in the order which governs the human race, they thought to serve humanity by reminding it of the ideal it bears in itself.

In the same way, the sages thought that there was an order in the universe, that they could know something about it and that they should trust it. All of their knowledge implied the existence of this order and the confidence they had in it. If they relied on a theology of creation, it is precisely because it implied this knowable order that they could trust.

Wisdom, God's presence

It is God who has put this order throughout the universe. What relationship should we see between this order and the personification of divine Wisdom? As we said above, about Prv 8, Wisdom justifies the listening she requires by the order that she establishes in each one's life—truth and justice—in society—adviser to rulers, she upholds right and the common good—in the universe—it is in her presence that YHWH has made firm the whole cosmos. This threefold justification explains the idea of order as conceived by the sages of ancient Israel. But this justification only shows the reason for the listening that Wisdom requires. A listening to what? If correctly understood, Prv 8, like Prv 1:20-33 and Prv 9:1-6, other texts personifying Wisdom, introduce the collection of proverbs (Prv 10-31) which form the essential part of the book. What does this mean, if not that the proverbs collected here are regarded as the words of Wisdom personified? All this wisdom of Israel is regarded not only as the work of the sages, but also as the expression of the Wisdom itself that comes from God. It is she who is expressed through them so that the order in the world may be recognized and accepted; so that the disorder of the foolish may also be recognized and transformed into order. By accepting the sages' proverbs, Israel will fulfil the plan of divine Wisdom in personal, social and cosmic life. How ban we not detect in these proverbs the challenging presence of God's Wisdom? Is it so far from what our classical theology calls inspiration?

For Sir 24, the offer that the Lord makes to Israel and constantly renews is to enter into its history. Divine Wisdom has pitched her tent in Jacob; she has sunk roots In Zion; she has grown, blossomed and borne fruit. which she continually offers. Here the sage Ben Sirach recalls the mystery of the divine Presence in the heart of sacred history. Faced with the temptation of Hellenistic wisdom, this Presence gives meaning to Israel's historical legacy.

A final step will have to be taken by the author of the Wisdom of Solomon before the New Testament is revealed. Divine Wisdom appears to this author as essentially spiritual. She is the Presence of God in the world which she animates in view of the good, while being distinct from it: being of God, her transcendence does not prevent her immanence, and thus the pantheism of the Stoics is overcome. She is also the Presence of God in the heart of the prophets and holy ones, the heart of the sage whom she guides, enlightens and purifies. In the eyes of this author, only this inner divine Presence, which Wisdom is, can enable him to be a true sage: it too must be sought in prayer, as Solomon did, and loved.

Thus we can see to what extent faith in God was perceived by Israel as the driving force of the most genuine human wisdom. The possibility of this wisdom, in all its breadth, was gradually revealed only by the Presence, God's Wisdom.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 February 1999, page 14

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