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Archive for the 'Wisdom' Category

Job as the “Poster Boy” for Retribution Theology

13th February 2011

“Once upon a time there was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job” is the way I would translate the opening of the biblical book of Job. “There was a man…” (‏אישׁ היה) is a parabolic beginning to the story about someone called “Job” (iyyov; ‏איוב‎). The name is of unclear etymology (although definitely not an Israelite name) and the place is similarly obscure (could be an area south of Israel around Edom [Jer 25:20; Lam 4:21] or perhaps associated with the Arameans [Gen 10:23; 22:21]).

The opening description serves to conjure up notions of antiquity and mystery about this ancient sage. Interestingly, Ezekiel 14:14, 20; 28:3 mention Job alongside two other ancient heroes: Danel (‏דנאל‎) and Noah. These references are to ancient non-Israelite heroes whose righteousness was legendary (note that the reference to “Daniel” is not to the biblical Daniel (‏דניאל‎); he would have been a child at the time of Ezekiel. Rather, the reference is to Danel, a legendary hero who we learn about from Ugaritic myths. E.g., the Aqhat Legend [CTA 17, COS 1.103] talks of a hero called Dani’ilu/Danel [dnil] who is childless, and because of his own righteousness is given a son, Aqhat, by the gods).

No matter how one takes the opening of the book, what is highlighted from the very beginning is Job’s integrity. He is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1b). This hyperbolic fourfold description underscores Job’s superlative righteousness:

  • “blameless” (‏תם‎). Used particularly in wisdom lit. as integrity or perfection
  • “upright” (‏ישר‎). Lit. “straight”, often modifies “way”; used fig. for correct human conduct
  • “fears Elohim” and
  • “turns from evil” (see Prov 3:7, “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear Yahweh, and turn away from evil”)

This fourfold description is suggestive as four is frequently used in the Bible to indicate completeness (cf. the fourfold destruction of all that Job has later in the chapter).  Job’s superlative righteousness is also indicated by the fact that God has clearly blessed him:

There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east (Job 1:2-3).

The numbers symbolic significance, suggesting completeness and perfection:

  • Seven sons and three girls (= ten)
  • Seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels (= ten thousand)
  • Five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys (= one thousand)

The opening ends with the note that Job is “the greatest of all the people of the east.” And in biblical parlance, the east was know for its sages — and he’s the best there was!

Job Poster

The point of this introduction is to present the biblical character of Job from the very beginning as the ancient Near Eastern sage par excellence. He is the best there was and perhaps best there ever will be. He is even better than Noah who is only provided a threefold description by the biblical narrator (Gen 6:9). if anyone should be blessed and allowed to prosper, it is Job. And as such, Job is the perfect set-up for the story of Job. He is the ideal test case. He is, as I like to call him, the “Poster boy for Retribution Theology” (see my poster image above). If God blesses (in this lifetime) those who are faithful to him (as many ancient Israelites believed — and way too many people still continue to believe today), and if suffering is the result of God’s judgment on sin, then Job should be blessed. And when evil comes upon Job, it must have been because he did something wrong (as Job’s friends suggest). It is this notion of retribution theology that the book of Job dismantles.


Posted in Job, Wisdom | 6 Comments »

Fools in the Book of Proverbs

1st April 2008

Well, it’s April Fool’s Day (and appropriately my birthday) and I thought rather than trying to fool everyone with a clever post, I would do a post on the different types of fools in the Hebrew Bible, and more specifically in the book of Proverbs.

The first fool we meet in the book of Proverbs is presented as the antithesis of the person who is seeking wisdom:

The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge;
fools/dullards (‏אוילים‎) despise wisdom and instruction (Prov. 1:7).

We meet the other three fools a bit later on the lips of Woman Wisdom (‏חכמות‎), when she cries out in the streets to the fools and admonishes them to heed her advice:

How long, O simple ones (‏פתים‎), will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers (‏לצון‎) delight in their scoffing
and fools (‏כסילים‎) hate knowledge? (Prov. 1:22)

These four types of fools have the wrong attitudes prerequisite for gaining wisdom. As fools, however, they are not all equal. There is still hope for the simple one, while the dullards, fools, and the scoffers are progressively more set in their ways.

The Simple (petayim; פתים).
The Hebrew word petayim (פתים) is found 17 times in the Bible, 13 of which in the book of Proverbs. The petayim are simple and naive; accordingly most English translations render petayim with “the simple” (KJV, NIV, NRSV, NJPS, etc.). They are untutored (1:4); lacking both sense (7:7; 8:5) and wisdom (9:6). They are self-satisfied (1:22); uncommitted (7:21); and believe everything (14:15). A bit dense too in that they do not avoid danger (22:3; 27:12), if they even knew where they were going (1:32). But they do have the potential to learn (8:5; 19:25; 21:11), and are the object of wooing by both Woman Wisdom (9:6) and Woman folly (9:4, 16). Their basic need is shrewdness, as they are weak-willed and easily seduced, but there remains some hope for them.

Fools/Dullards (kisîlîm; כסילים).
Kisîlîm (כסילים) is the dominant word in the Hebrew Bible for fool. It occurs some 70 time in the Old Testament and a whopping 49 time in the book of Proverbs. While it is typically translated in English by “fool” (KJV, NRSV, NIV, etc.), the NJPS renders it consistently as “dullard” — which may not be a bad practice so as to differentiate them from the other type of fool, the ‘evîlîm. Dullards hate knowledge (1:22); are complacent (1:32); and reckless (14:16; 17:10; 29:11). They lack understanding and sense (8:5); are deluded (14:8); take pleasure in evil (10:23). They are easily seduced by folly (7:22); and their actions are foolish (13:16; 14:24), and they are an embarrassment to their parents (15:20; 17:21, 25; 19:13). And are characterized by imprudent and slanderous speech (10:18; 12:23; 13:16; 14:7; 15:2, 7, 14; 18:2, 6, 7; 19:1), and do not take rebuke seriously (17:10). They should not be trusted (26:6). The only saving grace for dullards is that they are potentially teachable (8:1-5; but 17:16, 23:9), though you need to have wisdom to know when it is appropriate to answer them (26:4-5). My favourite proverb associated with the kisîlîm (and perhaps my favourite out of the whole book of Proverbs) is Prov 26:11, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a dullard repeats his folly.”

Fools (‘evîlîm; אוילים).
The word ‘evîlîm (אוילים), typically translated as “fool” in English translations, is found 26 times in the Hebrew Bible, 19 of which occur in the book of Proverbs. These fools despise wisdom and discipline (1:7); are thoughtless (7:22); are self-deceived (12:15); have a lack of sense (10:21); and are incorrigible (27:22). They don’t take advice (12:15; even of a parent – 15:5); and are characterized by chattering speech (10:8, 10, 14; 14:3; 14:9; 20:3; 29:9; cf. 17:28). They are easily angered (12:16) and quick to quarrel (20:3). My favourite image associated with this type of fool is found in Prov 27:22, “Even if you pound the fool in a mortar, grinding him like grain in with a pestle, you will not remove his folly from him.” Ouch!

Scoffers (letsîm; לצים).
The verb lyts (ליץ) “to scoff” occurs a total of 28 times in the Hebrew Bible; it is found in the book of Proverbs 18 times, frequently as a substantive participle translated as “scoffer” or “mocker.” These mockers delight in their mocking (1:22); are proud (3:34; 21:24); and vainly seek wisdom (14:6); and are incorrigible (9:7; 15:12). Not only do they not listen to correction (13:1; 15:12), they abuse those who try to rebuke them (9:7, 8); and mock things that are of value (14:9). They are an abomination to all (24:9). There is not much hope for them.

So this April Fool’s Day, have some fun, pull some practical jokes, but do not act a fool — at least not in the biblical sense of the word!


Posted in April Fool's Day, Proverbs, Wisdom | 3 Comments »

The Mysterious Appearance of “Satan” in English Translations of the Book of Job

26th March 2008

scotty_in_hell.jpgThe appearance of “Satan” in virtually all English translations of the book of Job befuddles me since it is very clear that Satan was never in the book of Job to begin with! While almost every English translation of the book of Job will refer to “Satan” in the first couple chapters of the book, there is scholarly consensus that this is certainly not what the Hebrew original is referring to!

In the prose prologue to the book of Job we are introduced to “the satan” (‏השטן‎) who is among the “sons of Elohim” (‏בני האלהים‎) (1:6). It is pretty clear that this passage isn’t referring to “Satan” (i.e., the king of demons) since the Hebrew noun “satan” has a definite article. The biblical text refers to “the satan”, not “Satan.” Personal names in Hebrew (as in English) do not take the definite article. I don’t go around referring to myself as “The Tyler” — and if I did, people would think I was weirder than they already think I am.

In the Hebrew Bible, the noun “satan” (‏שטן‎) occurs 27x in the Hebrew Bible, fourteen of which are found in the first two chapters of the book of Job. Of the remaining thirteen times, seven instances occur with clear reference to a human adversary. Take, for example these passages from the NRSV:

But David said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah, that you should today become an adversary [satan] to me? Shall anyone be put to death in Israel this day? For do I not know that I am this day king over Israel?” (2Sam 19:22)

But now the Lord my God has given me [Solomon] rest on every side; there is neither adversary [satan] nor misfortune (1Kings 5:4).

Then the Lord raised up an adversary [satan] against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite; he was of the royal house in Edom (1Kings 11:14).

Other examples of satan referring to human adversaries include 1 Sam 29:4; 1Kgs 11:23, 25; and Ps 109:6. The other five occurrences appear to refer to some sort of celestial or angelic adversary. The “Angel of Yahweh” (‏מלאך יהוה‎) is referred to as “an adversary” (satan) to Balaam in Num 22:22 and 23, while the book of Zechariah mentions “an adversary” that accuses the High Priest Jonathan in the presence of the angel of Yahweh (Zech 3:1, 2 [2x]). Like the passages in Job, virtually all English translations render “the satan” (‏השטן‎) in Zechariah as “Satan” (see KJV, RSV, KRSV, NIV, NASB, etc.) even though the articular noun is not being used as a personal name. The one exception to this longstanding traditional translation is found in the NJPS where it translates “ha-satan” in Zechariah as “the Accuser” and in Job as “the Adversary.” The usage of the related verb stn (‏שטן‎), “be hostile to, accuse,” parallels the noun, though of its six occurrences, only one refers to the work of a celestial being (Zech 3:1); the others are actions attributed to human adversaries (Pss 38:21; 71:13; 109:4, 20, 29).

The only passage in the entire Hebrew Bible where satan may refer to “Satan” as the fallen leader of demonic forces is 1 Chronicles 21:1, where satan (significantly without the definite article) incites King David to take an ill-fated census. This passage is also an interpretive crux historiographically, since it parallels 2Sam 24:1 where Yahweh incited David to take the census. Evidently, the Chronicler had theological problems with Yahweh inciting the census and then punishing David for taking it, and therefore made the change in his text for theological reasons (alternatively, the Chronicler’s Hebrew text of 2Samuel may have already contained the change, since the evidence of 4QSam-a suggests the Chronicler may have had a different text). While I still lean towards the traditional understanding of this passage as referring to “Satan,” I should note that most recent commentators have moved away from this understanding and have proposed a human adversary or an angelic adversary akin to Job and Zechariah.

When we turn to the book of Job, then, we do not find the full-blown figure of Satan. Instead, we find a celestial being who is part of Yahweh’s divine council, i.e., one of the “sons of Elohim”, who functions in the book of Job as a heavenly adversary. More specifically, in the book of Job, the satan fills the role of a prosecuting attorney. In this respect, the NJPS translation as “the Adversary” is perhaps the best possible.

The development of “the satan” into “Satan,” i.e., the evil arch-enemy of God, seems to have occurred primarily after the Hebrew Bible, perhaps under the influence of Persian Zoroastrianism (although this is debated). Whatever the influence, when we turn to Second Temple Jewish literature such as 1 Enoch or the DSS, we find a far more developed angelology/demonology. This is continued into the New Testament where you find a full-blown (albeit not systematic) angelology and demonology.

What I find interesting is why virtually every modern English translation continues to render “the satan” in the book of Job as “Satan,” despite the fact it has a long historical pedigree (facilitated no doubt by the LXX, Targums, and Vulgate, among others). True, the NRSV (as well as a few other English translations) has a footnote providing an alternative understanding (“the Accuser; Heb ha-satan“), shouldn’t it really be the other way around? While it doesn’t surprise me that the more conservative Christian translations have kept the traditional rendering as “Satan,” it does surprise me that translations such as the NRSV has perpetuated such a traditional understanding.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the figure of “the satan” in the book of Job is not sinister; he does question the motives behind Job’s fear of Yahweh, but he is not the “Satan” found in the New Testament. There is significant theological development from the time of the Old Testament through the Second Temple period to the New Testament and beyond. But in our translations of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament I think it is very important to translate (as mush is possible) the original meaning of the text, rather than a later theological interpretations/developments (and yes, I recognize all of the pitfalls surrounding the language of “original meaning,” but I think you know what I mean). In the same way translations shouldn’t import the notion of the Trinity into the Hebrew Bible, nor should they import a more developed demonology into the Old Testament.

If this post as piqued your interest, you may be interested in some of the following books:

  • Powers of Evil: A Biblical Study of Satan and Demons by Sydney H. T. Page (Baker, 1994; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com ). [This is a well-researched and well-balanced biblical-theological examination from a somewhat conservative Christian perspective from my colleague at Taylor Seminary]
  • An Adversary in Heaven: Satan in the Hebrew Bible by Peggy L. Day (Harvard Semitic Monographs; Scholars Press, 1998; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). [This is an academic study of the satan in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.]
  • The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth by Neil Forsyth (Princeton University Press, 1989; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). [This is an engaging academic look at the development of the figure of Satan in connection with the ANE combat myth]
  • Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible edited by Karel van der Toorn, et al (2nd edition; Eerdmans, 1999; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). [This is a comprehensive academic reference dictionary that will give more more than you ever wanted to know about angels, demons, and deities]

For recommended commentaries on the book of Job, see my Old Testament Commentary Survey. If you are interested in the further development of the figure of Satan, see Phil Harland’s excellent series of posts on the “History of Satan.”


Posted in Old Testament, The Book of Job, Translation Theory, Wisdom | 23 Comments »

How to Understand Proverbs (and Avoid Twisting Scripture)

17th March 2008

How do we read and understand individual proverbs found in the book of Proverbs? Do we take them as universal truths? Do we read them as promises from God to be claimed? Either way of reading proverbs, I maintain, is entirely wrong-headed since it falls prey to genre-misidentification. Rather than seeing proverbs as universal truths or promises from God, proper genre identification understands them as “sanctified” generalizations based on experience that may be used to guide our lives.

Proverbs are Not Promises

A popular approach to understanding proverbs — especially in a church context — is to see them as promises from God to be claimed by the individual believer. Take for instance, the following passage from Proverbs 3:1- 10:

1My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments;
2for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you.
3Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.
4So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people.
5Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.
6In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
7Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
8It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body.
9Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce;
10then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.

I have heard these verses preached as promises, especially vv. 5-6 and 9-10. But do these verses guarantee the results promised? If you keep God’s commandments will you enjoy long life? If you trust in Yahweh will you enjoy straight paths? (I won’t even touch on the common misapplication of relating this proverb to divine guidance). If you fear Yahweh will you be physically healthy? Despite what late-night prosperity preachers claim, if you tithe your first fruits, will God reward you materially? Are these promises to be claimed?

Or how about this proverb:

Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray (Prov 22:6)

As a Christian parent I would like to “claim” this, but that is not the way proverbs work. This is a generalization based on experience. Perhaps in the appropriate circumstances this and other proverbs are true, but I think we all know enough real life situations where this has not been the case. If proverbs are promises, then either God is unfaithful or we don’t claim them with enough faith.

What is more, this sort of “claim it” approach to proverbs is also contradicted by other wisdom traditions found in the Bible. The book of Job poignantly illustrates that “trusting in Yahweh” doesn’t guarantee health and wealth. What is more, the book of Ecclesiastes highlights that the opposite occurs far too often:

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is absurd (Eccl 8:14).

The Contextual Nature of Proverbial Truth

In order to properly understand proverbs we must distinguish between promises in admonitions and proverbial truth. Proverbs are true in the right context — they are not universally true. Take, for example, this famous pair of biblical proverbs:

“Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself” (Prov 26:4).
“Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes” (Prov 26:5).

Obviously both proverbs cannot be universally true! Nonetheless, anyone who has ever interacted with a fool knows the “truth” of both sayings. Sometimes it is appropriate to ignore fools, while at other times it is necessary to “put them in their place” with a gracious response. The wise person will know what response is appropriate in different situations: “To make an apt answer is a joy to anyone, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov 15:23)

The recognition that proverbs are generalizations that apply in certain circumstances really shouldn’t surprise us. This is the same way proverbs work in our culture. We have English proverbs that appear contradictory and yet are appropriate in the right circumstances. How about: “Too many cooks spoil the broth” compared to “many hands make lite work.” We can imagine circumstances where both are appropriate.

So when it comes to reading proverbs we need to keep in mind both their genre and our context. They are not promises to be claimed or universal truths; rather they are generalizations that are true in the right circumstances.

A good little introduction that I would recommend for anyone interested in how to understand and interpret the book of Proverbs is Tremper Longman’s How to Read Proverbs (InterVarsity Press, 2002; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com).


Posted in Bible, Old Testament, Proverbs, Wisdom | 4 Comments »

The Fear of Yahweh and the Hermeneutics of Wisdom

12th March 2008

I’m teaching a course on wisdom literature this semester and I thought I would do a few posts relating to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. In this first post I want to look at what I think is a programmatic theological passage for how we should approach the wisdom tradition in Scripture: Proverbs 1:1-7. This passage not only provides the hermeneutical key to understanding the rest of the book of Proverbs, it also presents a comprehensive vision of the integrating function of biblical wisdom or hokmah (חכמה).

The first seven verses of the book of Proverbs present a comprehensive vision of wisdom that functions as a hermeneutical key to the rest of the book of Proverbs:

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:

2For gaining knowledge of wisdom and discipline,
for understanding words of understanding,
3for acquiring disciplined insight:
righteousness, justice, and equity;
4for giving shrewdness to the simple,
to the young knowledge and discretion —
5Let the wise listen and gain in learning,
and the discerning purchase guidance,
6to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.

7The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge;
wisdom and discipline fools despise.

The accumulation of terms relating to wisdom and knowledge in these verses indicate the vast scope of the wisdom enterprise. While the nuance of many of these terms are debated, they clearly represent a broad range of intellectual qualities, concrete skills, and moral virtues. Looking at this preamble a bit closer, you realize that in its comprehensiveness it touches on a variety of virtues, and has a certain systemization and progression to it. William P. Brown, in his work Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1996; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com), argues that this is a systematic arrangement that “exhibits a tightly wrought concentric structure” (p. 25). Brown’s structure is as follows:

A – Comprehensive, intellectual values: wisdom, instruction (2a)

B — Literary expression of wisdom: insightful sayings (2b)

C — Instrumental virtue: effective instruction (3a)

D —- Moral virtues: righteousness, justice, equity (3b)

C’ — Instrumental virtues: prudence, discretion, erudition, skill (4-5)

B’ — Literary expression of wisdom: proverb, figure, words, enigmas (6)

A’ – Comprehensive, intellectual values: fear of Yahweh, knowledge, wisdom, instruction (7)

“Wisdom”, according to this comprehensivesummary includes not just intellectual values, but also practical skills and instrumental virtues.  Most significantly, it also includes moral virtues like righteousness, justice, and equity — and if there is anything to Brown’s structure, the moral virtues are underscored by virtue of being in the middle of the concentric structure. Being wise is not just about “smarts”, but includes practical skills and moral character.

The climax of this passage is v. 7, where the “fear of Yahweh” is said to be the beginning of wisdom. The fear of Yahweh starts one on the path to wisdom, and the insights about life which follow help one on the path. It is interesting that it is commitment to Yahweh is understood as being inextricably linked to the search for human knowledge. It is this verse then that “joins into a unity intellectual, experiential activity and religious behaviour” (B.S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture).

This brings together all the previous virtues and values and connects them with one’s relationship with Yahweh. This is absolutely central and is an important correction to the modernist worldview that divorces religious conviction from “objective” truth. All of the great concepts that give order and conherence to reality as we know it are subsumed in the fear of Yahweh. These are not unrelated ideas but are the building blocks for a Christian worldview.

Furthermore, in Proverbs faith is not opposed to reason (see Raymond Van Leueuen, Proverbs, NIB, p. 34), but rather faith makes it a possiblity. This contradicts an assumption characteristic of a modernist worldview that sees knowledge and wisdom as separate from the “fear” or “knowledge” of God. This is expressed in the variety of dichotomies thrown about in our world: sacred/secular, public/private, facts/values, science/religion, reason/faith, objective/subjective, etc. In contrast, Proverbs — and the rest of Scripture — eschew these diachotomies and compartments and argue that all life is to be lived in the service of God, and according to God’s “ways” or norms.

What I find quite fascinating is how this understanding of the prologue to the book of Proverbs, with its emphasis on the personal and comprehensive nature of wisdom, is also reflected in recent epistemological and hermeneutical advances. Hans Georg Gadamer (my hermeneutical hero) has underscored the situatedness of our understanding and that rather than pretending to be unbiased in the name of some “scientific” method, we must be aware of our prejudices/presuppositions and recognize that they in part make understanding possible.


Posted in Bible, Old Testament, Proverbs, Wisdom | 3 Comments »