The Bible & Theology Toward Christian Maturity
Wisdom Literature Invites Dialogue About the “Good Life”
By Richard Steele, Professor of Moral and Historical Theology and Summer Quarter Lectio Writer
In this Orthodox icon of Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, the Greek letters stand for “Jesus Christ, Wisdom of God.” (Eileen McGuckin, “Sophia, Divine Wisdom Icon,” acrylic on wood, 12.5" × 9.5".)
Education aimed at transformation requires conversation.
That, in a nutshell, is the overarching theme of the nine-week Lectio series on the Hebrew Wisdom Literature. I want to introduce you to that literature and explain why this theme statement will serve as our key to understanding it.
What is the Hebrew Wisdom Literature? Simply put, it is that huge and diverse group of biblical writings that seek to promote — what else? — wisdom.
Wisdom Literature, taken as a whole, is an extended conversation about the good life: many different “voices” are represented in this literature, and many different kinds of verbal interaction and oral discourse are envisaged — “classroom” instruction (Proverbs); “courtroom” debate (Job); love tryst wooing (Song of Solomon); autobiographical monologue (Ecclesiastes); and, throughout these books, assorted exhortations, maxims, prayers, riddles, curses, and narratives.
And what is “wisdom”? There is much disagreement in the Wisdom Literature about that, as we shall see, but for now let’s define it broadly as that constellation of godly habits, praiseworthy character traits, and shrewd insights into the ways of the world, which it is the duty of older people to help younger people acquire.
A person who teaches wisdom — and one must obviously possess it in order to teach it — is a “sage,” and a person who is already wise enough to know that he or she needs to learn more of it, and as much of it as possible, is a “pupil.”
Now we can unpack the claim that “education aimed at transformation requires conversation.” First, Wisdom Literature is educational literature. It distills what the sages have learned through careful study, deep reflection, and long experience, and imparts it to the young. It assumes that wisdom can and should be taught, that it can and should be learned.
It is uncertain whether there were actual schools in ancient Israel for the teaching and learning of wisdom. Perhaps we should picture less formal and more intimate settings, such as a kitchen table or a campfire. The conversation between Job and his wife and counselors takes place with Job sitting in an ash pit (Job 2:7–13)! But for our purposes it doesn’t much matter where these instructional tête-à-têtes took place. What counts is that the sage takes it upon himself or herself to impart beneficial knowledge to the pupil.
Second, this kind of education is aimed at the transformation of the pupil’s character, conduct, and outlook on life. “Wisdom” includes a host of morally, spiritually, and intellectually admirable qualities that people achieve only through sustained and deliberate selfcultivation, and sometimes through sorrows and sufferings. The prologue of Proverbs names some of these qualities: righteousness, justice, equity, shrewdness, and prudence. Sages are made, not born.
Third, life-transforming education usually takes place through conversation. Cordial, animated dialogue is taking place between the sages and their pupils, and while the sages usually do the talking, their sayings and speeches usually seem to take account of the specific needs, problems, and questions of their young charges. The prologue of Proverbs illustrates this point. Wise pupils “hear and gain in learning” (1:5) and gradually develop the skills needed to interpret and apply the profound and sometimes enigmatic words of their teachers.
As we listen to Wisdom Literature in this series of Summer 2013 Lectio readings, may we also “hear and gain in learning.”