Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Week Four: How do the themes of creation and justice relate in wisdom literature?

             The themes of creation and justice are so interconnected in wisdom literature that I find it difficult to decipher where one ends and the other begins. It seems impossible to articulate a sapiential theology of justice without creation and vice versa. Creation and justice share a reciprocal relationship that creates a theological circle of sorts, and I find it fascinating to stand in the center of this circle and ponder its significance. Perdue explains that “justice is understood in the wisdom texts as a righteous order established by Yahweh at creation and maintained by divine oversight” (58). This sapiential theology of justice is directly related to the sages’ theology of creation, which asserts that creation is a reflection of God (Perdue 9). Since God is revealed in creation, and God is a God of justice, it is only logical that creation is also a revelation of justice (58). It is important to note that the sages did not understand creation as an event that happened in the past, but rather as a process still taking place today (Perdue 58). Perdue explains that the sages viewed creation as “a continuous action in shaping a world of bounty” (58). Here, it is clear that the sapiential understanding of creation was one of abundance, so this would also carry into the sages’ theology of justice. Yet it is also important to remember that the sages’ view of God’s providence and abundance is rooted in creation and the concept that in creation, God provided and maintains everything needed for human survival (Perdue 9). Since this theology of providence is linked to creation, it makes sense that it would also be linked to justice. These connections and relationships make perfect sense, but sometimes I find myself feeling lost and overwhelmed in the midst of what seems like a theological maze!
                The theology of justice rooted in creation also profoundly impacts the sages’ view of and reaction to poverty. Proverbs 22.2 says, “The rich and the poor have this in common; the LORD is the maker of them all” (NRSV). This concept was the basis of the sages’ belief that the poor had the “right to exist and have their needs met” (Perdue 61). Since justice is reflected in creation, and since God created both the rich and the poor, living justly requires God’s people to treat the weak and poor members of society with respect. Proverbs 14.31 says that “those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him” (NRSV). Just as creation is a reflection of God, the people whom God has created— both rich and poor— reflect God’s self and deserve honor and respect. In treating the poor well, God’s people treat God well and are rewarded. Up until this point, I am thrilled with the sapiential theology of creation and justice as it relates to poverty. However, as we discussed in class, though the sages argue for equality in creation, they do not extend this argument to equality in society (Prov 22.7). As God’s created ones, all people deserve respect, but this equality does not necessitate economic or social equality. The sages’ equality seems to apply only to human dignity, which is a critical aspect of equality, but I struggle with equality stopping there. In class as we discussed this, I did not have much to say because to me, the concept of Proverbs “making a case for the status quo” (Brenneman) is downright disturbing. I appreciate the sages’ theology of justice that protects the human dignity of every individual, but I find it difficult to stop there. For me, believing that every individual is created equally by God, and therefore a reflection of God, necessitates actions toward equality in every other area of life— economic and social included.

Week Three: Read Proverbs 22.17-24.22 and note the similarities with “The Wisdom of Amenemopet.”

          I am fascinated by the relationship between Egyptian and Israelite wisdom, which is illustrated quite well in the connections between “The Wisdom of Amenemopet” and Proverbs 22.17-24.22. “The Wisdom of Amenemopet” is one of the most compelling things I have read all semester; as I read it, I was shocked at the numbers of parallels with the biblical text. “The Wisdom of Amenemopet” could easily be mistaken for biblical text, and I found myself getting lost in the text and forgetting that it was not scripture. Honestly, at first I did not know how to react to these feelings, but my fascination quickly overpowered my hesitation. While this certainly challenges some of my assumptions about the Bible, it also opens new doors for me to understand the Bible and the context in which it was written.
            One of the major similarities in “The Wisdom of Amenemopet” and Proverbs 22.17-24.22 is that both texts are divided up into thirty wise sayings. “The Wisdom of Amenemopet” is divided into thirty Roman numerals, and Proverbs 22.20 says, “Have I not written for you thirty sayings of admonition and knowledge,” which seems to be a direct reference to “The Wisdom of Amenemopet.” In my TNIV Bible, Proverbs 22.17-24.22 each of the thirty sayings is noted with a subheading. This makes comparison between “The Wisdom of Amenemopet” and Proverbs fairly simple if one has a copy of the Egyptian wisdom. The beginning of the first section of “The Wisdom of Amenemopet” is basically identical to Proverbs 22.17-19, and the striking similarities do not stop there. Proverbs 22.22-23 is parallel with the second section of “The Wisdom of Amenemopet,” focusing on defending the rights of the poor and weakest members of society. Section three of “Amenemopet” is nearly identical to Proverbs 22.24-25; both warn the wise to avoid making friends with the “hot tempered” (Prov 22.24) and “hot-heads” (Amenemopet III).
             In addition to similarities between “The Wisdom of Amenemopet” and Proverbs 22.17-24.22, I also noticed parallels between other parts of the Bible and “The Wisdom of Amenemopet.” For example, in section 25 of “Amenemopet,” it says, “Man is clay and straw, God is the potter. He tears down and He builds up every day, creating small things by the thousands through His love.” This reminded me of two verses in Jeremiah, first and most notably Jeremiah 18.1-6, which portrays God as a potter and Israel as the clay in God the potter’s hands. In the next few verses, God speaks of tearing down wicked nations and building them up again after they repent and return to God (Jeremiah 18.7-11). This is strikingly similar to “The Wisdom of Amenemopet” and its description of God the potter. Also, in the call of Jeremiah in 1.10, God tells Jeremiah, “I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” Though this is not a direct parallel to “The Wisdom of Amenemopet,” it shares the language and concept of God tearing down and building up, but here God includes Jeremiah in this work. I enjoyed exploring the similarities and differences in these two passages, as Jeremiah is often credited with the idea of God the potter.
            Chapter 30 of “The Wisdom of Amenemopet” also reminded me of Psalm 119; this section of “Amenemopet” says things such as, “Mind carefully these thirty chapters— they delight, they instruct….come to treasure what they say. Peruse them, store them in your heart.” This idea of wisdom both delighting and instructing reminds me of verses such as, “I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you” (Psalm 119.11) and “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain” (Psalm 119.35-36). This focus on delighting in wisdom and holding it in one’s heart is found in both the wisdom Psalms and “The Wisdom of Amenemopet.” While “The Wisdom of Amenemopet” clearly has the most in common with Proverbs 22.17-24.22 and most likely predated and influenced the biblical text (Perdue 45), I also enjoyed exploring the countless other parallels and similarities.

Week Two: What does Perdue mean by "theology of the sages"?

             By “theology of the sages,” Perdue is describing a theology that weaves together themes of creation, providence, and wisdom (Perdue 15) in order to create a vision of who God is, who we are, and how these things are interconnected. I must admit that not long ago, I would have resisted any theology based on creation and providence. For most of my life I associated the term “creation” with literal creationism and “providence” with prosperity theology. My strong feelings about both of these topics caused me to avoid the larger themes all together. However, these associations are not accurate in light of wisdom theology. Rather, Perdue explains that for the sages, God is “revealed in the order and workings of the world and in acts of providence both in maintaining creation and in directing human history” (9). This is a theology that engages both creation and providence in ways that resonate with me. I was not introduced to the theme of order in the creation stories until my Bible classes at Bluffton, but learning that Genesis is about more than literal creationism has been a liberating experience for me. As Perdue explains, in wisdom theology God’s character is revealed in the order and workings of creation (9). While it is a relatively new development in my own theological understanding, I am learning to see creation as a portrait of God. 
              Providence, another central theme of the theology of the sages, is also revealed in the workings of creation (Perdue 9). The theology of the sages views God’s maintenance of creation as proof of God’s providence. Perdue explains this concept, saying that “the sages assumed that God was good, caring, and justice, for the world contained the materials necessary for human and other creatures’ survival” (9). This understanding of providence stands in stark contrast to the high expectations of providence we have in our culture today. In the theology of the sages, God’s providence seems like such a simple concept: if one has what one needs to survive, God is praised for God’s providence. Yet it seems like our theology of God’s providence has shifted so much that we are taught to judge God’s providence by whether or not God meets our wants, not our needs. While the sages’ theology of providence is based on the universal truth that the earth contains everything we need for survival, our Western theology of providence seems to be based on situational, selfish desires. I must say that I side with the sages on this issue of providence, but it is extraordinarily difficult to live out this theology in our Western culture that is permeated by a sense of entitlement.
            The last core theme of sapiential theology is wisdom (Perdue 15). In Perdue’s explanation of wisdom theology, he says that “for the sages, the ultimate object of the quest for knowledge was God” (9). Job 28.28 echoes this sentiment: “Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” (NRSV). For the sages, seeking wisdom is seeking God, because wisdom is an integral part of God’s character (Perdue 29). Job 28.28 says that true wisdom is the reverence of God. The theme of wisdom in the theology of the sages is perhaps the most obvious; after all, this is wisdom literature. However, sapiential theology defines wisdom in a spiritual rather than intellectual way, and I find this intriguing. Job 28.28 defines wisdom not as earthly knowledge, but as “the fear of the Lord.” This is clearly spiritual language. I would argue that wisdom is a combination of knowledge and spirituality; while I believe knowledge and spirituality have a reciprocal relationship, I would place an emphasis on spirituality over knowledge. As someone who has chosen to study religion, I am especially interested in these dynamics as they play a role in my life every single day. I am looking forward to studying the theme of wisdom in the theology of the sages this semester, and I am curious to see how my understanding of wisdom, creation, and providence will change as I continue to study wisdom literature!

Week One: What is exegesis?

“The ultimate goal of biblical exegesis is not information but transformation. True exegesis is accomplished only when individuals and communities engage in the embodiment or actualization of the text. The reading community, we might say, is to become a ‘living exegesis’ of the text” (Gorman 22). As I was reading the Gorman text this summer, this quote caught my eye and profoundly shaped my understanding of exegesis. When I read it for the first time, I shared it with my parents and told them, “This is the reason I am a Biblical Studies major.” I cherish this opportunity to study what I believe to be living texts, texts that shape my worldview. But most of all, I appreciate that who I am becoming is as much a part of my education as what I am learning. This is the difference between information and transformation. Information is an important aspect of exegesis, but the goal of exegesis is information that results in transformation; good exegesis must be both informational and transformational (Gorman 22). This language of transformation is the foundation on which I have built my understanding of exegesis.
Of course, there is much more to exegesis than information and transformation. Exegesis is the process of deeply questioning, exploring, and engaging scripture. Exegesis intentionally creates space for scripture to transform lives. As I read Gorman’s descriptions of exegesis as investigation, conversation, and art (10), these concepts resonated with me. First and foremost, exegesis is investigation. It is impossible to understand a text without asking questions of its context; the investigation of the sociological, cultural, and historical background of the text is perhaps the most important part of the exegetical process. However, conversation and art are also important aspects of exegesis. To me, the exegetical process seems to be nothing more or less than conversation. As exegetes, we are in conversation with the text and the text is in conversation with us. We engage the text alone and in community, and exegesis creates space for transformation in our lives and in the life of our community. Exegesis is a conversation between individuals, communities, and scared writings that transcends space and time. In investigating historical and cultural questions, we start a conversation between “readers living and dead” (Gorman 11). Finally, exegesis includes elements of art. Exegesis is not black and white; instead, it leaves room for discussion and discernment. Exegesis requires creativity to ask new questions of the text and creativity to ask old questions in search of new insights. Above all, there is one word that encompasses my understanding of exegesis: interaction. Exegesis is interaction with the text, interaction with others, and interaction with God.