Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Week Twelve: How are wisdom and salvation connected in Wisdom of Solomon?

Wisdom of Solomon, by connecting wisdom and salvation, presents a new theology in which the righteous are saved by wisdom, thus gaining eternal life (Perdue 300). Other books in the wisdom corpus, such as Proverbs, connect wisdom and salvation; however, the theology of wisdom and salvation of Proverbs is much different than that of Wisdom of Solomon. According to Proverbs, righteous individuals whose lives are in step with wisdom will experience salvation and reward in their present context, not in the afterlife. In fact, the theology of Proverbs does not include an afterlife, but rather Sheol, which is a state of nonexistence after death that is neither reward nor punishment. This represents the more conventional view of wisdom literature. However, Wisdom of Solomon puts forth a new theological understanding of wisdom and salvation.
            First, Wisdom of Solomon presents wisdom not only as present in creation, but as an living, acting, salvific force in both creation and the history of Israel. In Wisdom of Solomon 10.15, wisdom is described as delivering God’s people from Egypt. Since the exodus served as the primary metaphor for salvation in Hebrew thought, this connection between wisdom and the exodus served as a concrete connection between wisdom and salvation for the Jewish people. In addition to connecting wisdom to present salvation, Wisdom of Solomon is the first wisdom book to connect wisdom to eternal salvation or immortality. In this new theology of salvation, “it is righteousness, embodied in the behavior of human beings, that becomes the means by which they may become immortal” (Perdue 300). Because wisdom— as the emanation of God— is immortal, those who embody wisdom and her way of righteousness also follow in her way of immortality.
 Also important to note is the context in which Wisdom of Solomon was written. Written in first-century Alexandria, both the author and his audience were living in an increasingly anti-Jewish culture, struggling to live in the midst of persecution and eventually an attempted extermination (Perdue 273). In this context, Wisdom of Solomon’s theology of wisdom and salvation would have likely resonated with the author and his audience. The traditional theology of salvation, emphasizing God’s justice done in the present through a system of reward and punishment, would not have reflected the reality of the suffering righteous during this time period. On the other hand, Wisdom of Solomon’s theology of salvation, which promised eternal life after the persecution and struggles of this world, would have appealed to the situation of the Jewish people in Alexandria.
Overall, it fascinates me that this theology of salvation as eternal life was a new concept in the time of Wisdom of Solomon. It seems that today, salvation as the promise of immortality in the afterlife is the dominant theology of salvation! While my faith tradition does not emphasize salvation nearly as heavily as many Christian traditions, it is still assumed that faith in Christ comes with the promise of eternal life. Personally, my theology of salvation takes into consideration God’s saving power both in eternity and in the present. In my experience, too strong an emphasis on salvation in the afterlife can lead to complacency in the present. However, forgetting the promise of eternal life would be forgetting the sacrificial love of Christ. As a Christian, this is central to my faith, but I do believe there is a balance to be found between present and eternal salvation. For me, this balance is found by trusting in the promise of eternal life and living into the present, saving realities of God’s Kingdom by following the teachings of Christ.

Week Eleven: What is the role of chapters 44-50 in Ben Sira?

            The combination of creation and salvation history is a theme unique to Ben Sira (Perdue 257). By celebrating the faithful ancestors of Israel, chapters 44-50 in Ben Sira illustrate God’s work through God’s people in history, rooted in the order of God’s creation. These chapters are written in the Greek style of encomium, which was characterized by “the glorification of human beings.” As such, “the object of praise in this great ‘hymn’ is not Yahweh, but rather ‘Men of Piety’” (Perdue 257). However, Ben Sira was not advocating for worship of humans over God, but rather celebration of God’s work through humans.
Ben Sira specifically praises individuals in Israel’s history who have lived radical lives of obedience to Torah, which for Ben Sira is the revealed wisdom of God. Specifically, the offices of priest, prophet, king, and judge are upheld as righteous (Brenneman 11/9/10). This would have supported Ben Sira’s personal interests, as a “scribal interpreter of Scripture” (Perdue 228). As someone working in the temple, Ben Sira would have benefitted greatly from the temple-centered Jewish culture of his day. Therefore, it makes sense that he would intentionally uphold Torah and temple as central to Jewish life and religious devotion. Perdue speaks to the type of history portrayed in chapters 44-50, saying, “Ben Sira often engages in revisionist, romanticized history…in which he selects, omits, rewrites, and praises the great heroes of the past who were pious, righteous, faithful, honored, and therefore to be remembered” (258). Essentially, Ben Sira crafts a hymn praising the Jewish heroes whose lives uphold and affirm his theology and agenda.
In praising these individuals, Ben Sira praises the ongoing work of God throughout history. For Ben Sira, creation is the framework in which God’s saving acts, through righteous people, occur throughout history.  Perdue illustrates this point by saying that chapters 44-50 are “introduced by a majestic hymn on creation…thus there is a close relationship between creation and salvation history effectuated through the acts of the pious heroes” (260). For Ben Sira, according to the order of creation these ancestors were predestined to live righteous lives which should be remembered (257). Therefore, their very lives are a witness to God’s creating, ordering, sustaining power. Finally, Ben Sira’s “account of Israel’s salvation history served as the outgrowth of the progressive realization of the redemptive purpose of God’s sustaining power” (Perdue 259). According to Ben Sira, obedience to Torah and temple served as a means of sustaining creation. By living in obedience to Torah and leading righteous lives, these righteous ancestors had actually worked alongside God in the work of sustaining the order of creation (Perdue 261). Thus, in chapters 44-50 Ben Sira proclaims a theology in which salvation history and creation are interconnected, sustaining the cosmos and God’s chosen people throughout the history.
To me, Ben Sira represents a sort of theological evolution of sapiential themes. Central themes such as creation and justice have continued throughout the wisdom books, but depending on the historical context and social location of the authors, these themes have been portrayed very differently. In Proverbs, creation was God’s revealed wisdom, and as history moved forward Torah came to be understood as God’s revealed wisdom. However, even with this shift, creation remained the general revelation of God through which Torah wisdom was given as a gift to God’s chosen people. This shift alone reflects great theological evolution in Jewish theology. It seems to me that as wisdom theology has evolved throughout the books we have studied, it has become increasingly complex and intentionally interconnected. I am actually not sure if this is because Ben Sira’s theology is more complex than the theology of Proverbs, or if this is because I am more aware of the complexities and able to understand them. Overall, much of Ben Sira’s theology is similar to my own. Ben Sira’s theology of retributive justice is the one critical exception to that statement, but none of the wisdom books articulate a theology of justice that is close to my own, which is influenced strongly by the prophets and the teachings of Christ. However, Ben Sira’s combination of creation and Torah is compelling, shaping a theology in which truth is found at the intersection of God’s world and God’s Word.

Week Ten: What is the significance of creation in Ben Sira?

            Creation has played a major role in the theology of each wisdom book we have studied so far. In Proverbs, creation functioned as a reflection of God’s wisdom and perfect order. In the book of Job, creation is a primary image as Job attempts to reverse and undo the order of God’s creation. In the wisdom Psalms, creation images are used in both Psalms 1 and 19. In Qohelet, the teacher emphasized creation as an empty, meaningless cycle. While creation theology varies greatly among biblical wisdom literature, in spite of these differences creation is a present and dominant theme in every book. The same is true for Ben Sira. In Ben Sira, creation serves as “the theme…that unites the book into a well-constructed literary composition” (Perdue 236). Ben Sira expands creation theology to encompass themes of obedience to Torah and Jewish election in addition to the traditional themes of order and retributive justice (Perdue 238).
            In the first chapter of Ben Sira, Wisdom is personified as a woman much like the poems of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs. Ben Sira, however, identifies Wisdom as “both the revelatory word of God and the divine commandments of the Torah” (Perdue 237). Here, Ben Sira’s emphasis on election and Torah stand in contrast to Proverbs’ focus on universal wisdom revealed in creation. Rather than creation being the revelation of God’s wisdom, for Ben Sira creation is simply the larger context in which God’s special revelation of Torah is given. In 16.26-30, Ben Sira presents a Torah-based view of the creation of the cosmos. Just as God spoke the cosmos into being, Ben Sira declares that the order of the cosmos is accomplished and maintained “because the works of creation are obedient to the divine imperative” (Perdue 238). While traditional creation theology explained the maintenance of order by God’s daily and continual victory over chaos, Ben Sira establishes a new theology in which the order of the cosmos is maintained by creation’s obedience to God’s command (Perdue 238). This understanding of the order of the universe “becomes the pattern for human understanding and moral behavior” (Perdue 239). As the order of creation is maintained by obedience to God’s command, humans can and should live in step with God’s order by obeying God’s command as revealed in the Torah (Perdue 240). The significance of creation in Ben Sira is explained well by Perdue, who says, “obedience to God, the foundation for order and regularity in nature and human society, is grounded in creation theology” (Perdue 242).
            Overall, in Ben Sira, creation seems to function as God’s opening act, while Torah is the real star of the show. Creation represents the universal revelation of God’s wisdom, while Torah represents God’s special revelation to the Jewish people. This shift from universal to special revelation is central to the theology of Ben Sira, and it sets the book apart from the other wisdom texts we have studied. Personally, I prefer the more universal creation theology of the earlier wisdom books, but Ben Sira’s use and expansion of creation themes in his Torah-centered theology is incredibly creative. I find it especially rewarding that I am able to identify and understand the shift throughout wisdom literature from general revelation to special revelation, from creation to Torah. I find it comforting to see these changes in perspective in biblical literature throughout history. I have experienced drastic shifts in my theology throughout my faith journey, and looking back these shifts can be overwhelming. Sometimes I wonder how I possibly found my way from where I have been to where I am today. Sometimes I even question the legitimacy of my faith because of the context in which I first experienced God. However, I am reminded by the shift in theology throughout wisdom literature that faith is indeed a journey, and the beginning of that journey is not the end of the story.

Week Nine: What is hebel and what is its significance in Qohelet?

          Hebel is a Hebrew word which occurs thirty-eight times throughout the book of Qohelet (Perdue 191). The NRSV translates hebel as “vanity” (Eccl 1.2), but Perdue further explores the semantic range of the word. Perdue argues that hebel “contains in this text a restricted semantic range of meaning,” and he goes on to list the common translations of the word: vanity, absurdity, and ephemerality (Perdue 191). Next, Perdue states that “the literal meaning of hebel…is breath” (192). This gave me a new perspective on hebel which focused on its intangibility. For some reason, the word “vanity” had always brought material wealth to mind rather than fleeting intangibility. Perdue argues that “in [his] judgement, Qoheleth uses this metaphor to evoke the imagination to visualize and recognize the experience of ephemerality or evanescence” (Perdue 192). In Perdue’s opinion, the essence of hebel lies in the meaning that I had never before seen! Perdue talks about the importance of understanding all of the interpretations of hebel through the lens of “evanescence,” the fleeting, vanishing reality of breath (192). In addition to hebel being a metaphor for the short-lived human breath, Perdue also emphasized hebel’s use as a metaphor for the human “desire to retain the life-giving breath given them by the Creator” (192). Based on Perdue’s arguments, he puts forth an alternative translation to “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Eccl 1.2): “all is breath quickly passing and a desire to retain life’s animating spirit” (192). This alternative translation encompasses both aspects of hebel as breath, as suggested by Perdue.
          So, what is the significance of hebel in Qohelet? Essentially, our understanding of hebel becomes our understanding of the message of Qohelet. Of course, any word that is repeated 38 times in 12 chapters is important to interpretation, but hebel’s importance is related more to its use than its frequency. After all, hebel forms the inclusio in 1.2 and 12.8 that frames the entire book of Qohelet (Perdue 191). In these verses, Qohelet proclaims, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity” (Eccl 1.2; 12.8). Because Qohelet proclaims that ALL is “hebel,” our interpretation of the word hebel is applied to Qohelet’s view of everything. Personally, I find Perdue’s argument about the meaning of hebel as breath, fleeting and fading, to be a compelling one. His alternative translation helped me better understand the spirit of the passage. Instead of hearing an argument focused on material wealth (which had been my interpretation based on “vanity”), I began to see the fullness of Qohelet’s argument that as humans, everything we do is short-lived, like the breath we breathe. Further, the double meaning of hebel as a metaphor for our (failed) efforts to “retain the divine spirit” and its life-giving breath served to emphasize the spiritual dimensions, though negative, of Qohelet (Perdue 192). Lastly, studying hebel in the Perdue text helped me realize the wide diversity of semantic range. While the translation of hebel as “breath” does not necessarily rule out the correctness of the translation “vanity,” it painted a very different picture of the passage in my mind. As I saw the many different meanings in just this one verse, I wondered how my understanding of other familiar verses would change if I explored the semantic range of the key words. It is both exciting and overwhelming to think about, but overall it serves as a reminder that the Bible is indeed a living text, shaped by the work of humans along with God— and still being shaped as we do the work of interpretation and application!

Week Eight: How is skepticism connected with Qohelet?

           It is impossible to understand the connection between skepticism and Qohelet without also understanding the historical and social context of the book. Perdue emphasizes this point by saying that “placing Qoheleth within its social world is critical to understanding its teachings, purpose, and relationship to Judaism as a whole” (Perdue 183). According to Perdue, Qohelet was likely “a man of wealth and prominence” (172) living in Jerusalem “in the third century BCE” (181). During this time, there was heavy Greek influence in Jerusalem; as a result, Qohelet “would have had the opportunity to encounter Greek culture and philosophy firsthand” (Perdue 181). Since Qohelet was likely familiar with Greek philosophy as a result of his social and cultural context, it is not surprising that the worldview articulated by Qohelet reflects that of Greek Skepticism (Perdue 184).
          So, what are the characteristics of Greek Skepticism? Of course, we frequently use the word “skeptic” and “skeptical” in conversation, but studying Perdue made me realize that our use of this word is not always in line with the philosophy of Greek Skepticism. In my experience, the word “skeptic” is often used with a negative connotation. For example, if someone is skeptical about something, they likely have a negative feeling toward it. On the other hand, Greek Skepticism is characterized by a radical nonassertion, which “[leads] ultimately to tranquility and the cessation of anxiety” (Perdue 185). Greek Skepticism does not imply a negative assertion, but rather no assertion at all. This is because the original meaning of the Greek word “skeptic” meant “inquirer.” Skeptics, or inquirers, were individuals who “[searched] for what was true” because they were “not satisfied that current knowledge was verifiable.” In the end, this search led the skeptics to believe that nothing was really true (Perdue 183). In the end, this realization liberated them from the responsibility to prove their every statement or belief. This is a foreign concept to me, especially as a student in an academic environment that requires me to both make assertions and prove them! However, in order to understand Qohelet, it is important for me to understand this foreign intellectual and philosophical context.
          As a teacher, Qohelet clearly articulated the philosophy of Greek Skepticism. Perdue explores six parallels between Qohelet and Greek Skepticism, including the beliefs that “justice avails nothing,” “truth cannot be obtained,” “it is impossible to differentiate what is true from what is less true or even false,” “it is impossible to know beforehand the outcome of an action,” “the divine…cannot be known,” and “the human quest to determine the good is doomed” (Perdue 184). As I read this list, it is difficult for me to relate to these statements because they are so different from my theology. However, it is easy to see the similarities between Qohelet and Greek Skepticism. These themes seem negative to me and I have trouble seeing these as liberating beliefs that would lead to “tranquility and the cessation of anxiety” (Perdue 185). Honestly, studying these themes in Qohelet and Greek Skepticism adds to my anxiety!
          Perdue explains that “Qoheleth moves from theological affirmations, which are not self-evident and based on experience and rational reflection, to humanism, in which human qualities, activities, and experiences provide reasonable answers verified empirically to important philosophical questions” (184). This quote helped me understand the shift that takes place in Qohelet from theology to humanism, which fits in well with Greek Skepticism and also explains much of my discomfort with the book. While Qohelet prefers to move the conversation from God-truth to human-truth, my natural orientation is the exact opposite. This explains the internal disagreement I felt as I read Qohelet, and I appreciated Perdue’s insights that helped me identify this difference between Qohelet and myself.
          Even though I disagree with much of what Qohelet has to say, I found it interesting to listen to this voice that is so different from my own. As we have studied wisdom literature this semester, I have enjoyed learning more about the immense diversity of perspective in wisdom literature and in the Bible as a whole. Understanding the Bible as an active conversation rather than a single voice has been a theme in both of my Biblical Studies classes, and I have found this concept to be an empowering one. In embracing the diversity found in the canon, I have found myself more able to hear the voice of Qohelet, knowing that the discomfort I feel is not only acceptable, but welcome in the ongoing conversation that is Scripture.

Week Seven: Why does the Torah rise in prominence in wisdom literature in the Second Temple period?

          During the Second Temple period, the sages were connected to the Zadokite priesthood, which was extremely focused on Torah and temple worship (Brenneman). With the completion of the Second Temple in 520-515 BCE, the temple and the priesthood stood at the center of Jewish life and faith. During this time, with the Zadokite priesthood serving in the temple, Perdue explains that “a new type of scribe emerged who served as the interpreter of Torah and eventually of other parts of Scripture” (148). Since the Zadokite priesthood of the Second Temple period emphasized Torah and temple, the scribes and sages of the time period followed their lead. As a result, sages and scribes took on the role of interpreting the Torah. As the Torah became associated with the sages and scribes, the Torah became “theologically understood as equated with wisdom” (Perdue 138). Of course, sages and scribes who were composing wisdom literature during this time would have emphasized Torah in their writing. Ben Sira is an example of wisdom literature that integrates Torah into the traditional wisdom theology. Perdue expands upon this point by saying, “by the time Ben Sira’s text is composed, the Torah’s assimilation into creation’s cosmological and anthropological spheres is at the heart of sapiential understanding” (160).
          The Torah’s rise to prominence during the Second Temple period is also illustrated by certain redactions made during this time period by the dominant P school, which was made up of Zadokite priests and scribes (Brenneman). The P school emphasized word as the primary metaphor for God’s wisdom (Brenneman), which reflected the increased importance of Torah. In light of this emphasis on Torah as God’s revealed word and God’s word as wisdom, the P school placed Genesis 1 at the beginning of the canon (Brenneman). The P school also placed Psalm 1 at the beginning of the book of Psalms, which emphasizes the importance of God’s law (Torah). It amazes me that these redactions by the P school, still reflected in our canon today, were direct results of the Torah’s rise in prominence during the Second Temple period. More specific to wisdom literature, a redaction by the P school of Psalm 19 combines the traditional sapiential theology and the Torah-centered theology of the Second Temple period (Perdue 154). Perdue explains that “presumably the composer of the second psalm or perhaps a later redactor brought the two poems together to portray two types of revelation: natural revelation through creation and the revealed will of Yahweh contained in the Torah” (154-155). Clearly, Torah’s rise in prominence had a lasting impact on wisdom literature and biblical literature as a whole.
          It fascinates me how the sages’ association with the Zadokite priesthood resulted in this radical shift of the role of the sage and the theology of the sages. In associating with this priesthood which place Torah and temple at the center of theology and practice, the sages assumed a decidedly more Torah-centered role and their theology came to reflect this as well. This association with the Zadokite priesthood had an enduring impact that we still see today in the redaction of the canon! In the same way, the people and groups with whom we choose to associate impact our theology and identity. I have seen this play out in my own life and the lives of others. For example, my choosing to study Biblical Studies at Bluffton is a choice that has impacted and will continue to impact my theology and understanding of Scripture. If I had chosen a secular university or a conservative Christian college, I would be learning very different things. This is much like the impact of the sages choosing to be closely associated with the temple and Zadokite priesthood, resulting in the emphasis on Torah (and eventually all of Scripture) as God’s revealed wisdom.

Week Five: What is theodicy and how does it relate to the book of Job?

            Theodicy is the collision of God’s justice and the world’s injustice. Questions of theodicy ask how injustice could possibly exist in the presence of an all-powerful, just God (Brenneman 9/23/10). Theodicy is a new term for me and certainly not a common word, but the questions of theodicy are much more common than the word itself! In fact, I cannot think of a single person I know who has not asked the question, “How could a good God allow such bad things to happen to good people?” This is the central struggle of theodicy, whether or not these individuals realize they are asking a question of theodicy.
            Theodicy relates to the book of Job because the book of Job is essentially an argument with questions of theodicy at its core. The dialogues in Job are mostly exilic writings (Brenneman/Perdue-Job outline), and Perdue explains that during the exile “myth had to be reexamined for metaphors that would render a new metanarrative for the sages in exile” (79). Essentially, in the midst of the horrific, traumatic Babylonian exile, the sages and the other Judahites were forced to examine their current situation through the lens of the previous sapiential theology. The traditional sapiential theology was based on the (retributive) justice, providence, and sovereignty of Yahweh, who created and maintained the cosmos. The horrors of the exile forced the people to reexamine this theology. As a result, some individuals chose to uphold the traditional theology, explaining the exile with a theory of retributive justice. These individuals chose to believe that Judah somehow deserved this punishment, and the exile was simply God doing God’s job of punishing the unrighteous. However, as the people reexamined their theology and sought a metanarrative to suit their current situation (Perdue 79), some people were not content with the traditional explanation of retributive justice that landed Judah in exile. These individuals argued that God’s justice is not retributive, meaning that Judah found itself in exile not because of God’s justice, but because of God’s injustice. In the exilic dialogues of Job, these two conflicting theological viewpoints are displayed in a debate between Job and Job’s friends.
            In the dialogues, Job’s friends represent the traditional sapiential perspective, much like the sages of Proverbs (Brenneman 9/23/10). Job’s friends argue that Job, who represents the people of Judah in exile, is suffering because of sin and unrighteousness. Though Job continually expresses his innocence, his friends insist that God is giving him what he deserves in the form of retributive justice. Jobs friends, representing the retributive justice response to questions of theodicy, do not question God’s justice or sovereignty; rather, they assert that Job’s suffering is proof of both God’s justice and sovereignty. On the other hand, Job’s perspective in the dialogues represents the radical view of justice. Job argues that he is righteous yet suffering, and this is a direct attack on God’s justice. For Job, and for the radical school of wisdom, the suffering of righteous individuals means one of two things: 1) God is sovereign and unjust, or 2) God is not sovereign and this situation is out of God’s control. Both of the radical answers to questions of theodicy are direct attacks on God and direct attacks on the traditional sapiential theology. Throughout the book of Job, these two theological understandings collide in a debate that is only resolved at the end of the book as God restores Job and thus restores Godself and God’s justice (Perdue 127).
            Overall, the book of Job filled with deep questions surrounding the issue of theodicy is a fascinating glimpse into the theological atmosphere before, during, and after the exile. For me personally, studying Job and its vastly different perspectives on justice has been exciting and life-giving. It disappoints me that the retributive understanding of justice eventually wins out, but the book of Job provides a framework for God’s people to ask and explore questions of God’s justice, and that is certainly a step in the right direction.