I chose to turn to the Book of Proverbs next, because I wanted to get try on of the books in the Old Testament considered Wisdom literature. I read a fascinating book last year called Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem, and one of the things I took away wasn’t specific to the Book of Job at all, but encompassed the entire Old Testament:
Modern scholarship suggests three very distinct schools of Ancient Hebrew thought participated in the construction of the Tanakh [Hebrew bible]: the Deuteronomistic school, the Priestly school, and the wisdom school. We should not consider these separate denominations of Judaism; rather, they were different, but overlapping strands of Ancient Hebrew thought that went into the creation of Judaism. And each school looked for guidance to a different ideal figure in Hebrew society. For the Deuteronomist, this was the prophet for the Priestly school, the Priest; and for the Wisdom school, the Sage.
This suggests three different voices within the Bible, and one that isn’t as recognized are the sages, because they aren’t written into the narrative like the prophets and the priests are. Wisdom literature in the bible is primarily found in three books: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Last year, I had read two books dedicated to the other two, Re-reading Job and Nothing New Under the Sun, so I thought I would single-handedly tackle Proverbs on my own, with no help materials other than my NRSV translation.
The book itself begins with an exhortation to wisdom that is tied together with living the instructions and teachings of parents:
My child, if you accept my words, and treasure up my commandments within you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding… then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. (2:1-5).
Is there wisdom to be found elsewhere than from your parents’ teaching? Does this limit our sources of truth? Some may have concerns over this scripture, especially in a world that dislikes seemingly arbitrary authority. But the Bible teaches to honor thy father and mother, and even the sages didn’t disagree that this was good advice. I think the connection between wisdom can be found in our parents’ exhortations, but eventually we need to find the source of truth for ourselves. And that is what this scripture promises: if we do accept the words of our parents, we will eventually “find the knowledge of God” for ourselves. Our parents give us a direction to look, a source of living water from which we can learn.
Much of the wisdom found in Proverbs is in the form of couplets with contrasting elements. For instance,
One who forgives an affront fosters friendship, but one who dwells on disputes will alienate a friend. (17:9)
Basic pattern: here’s what you should do, and here’s what you shouldn’t do. Even when written over 2000 years ago, the advice still rings true. In general, these are universal principles. While reading them, I found that several themes kept coming up, and I tried to pick some of them out. I will outline some of them here with a few examples:
The ability to take a rebuke without complaint and the folly of scoffers
This is wisdom that perhaps conflicts very strongly with the accusation-reaction culture of our dialog today. The writer of Proverbs suggests a different model:
A rebuke strikes deeper into a discerning person than a hundred blows into a fool (17:10)
A discerning person actually gets something from a rebuke. I don’t think this means that they let it hurt them as a person. But they don’t totally ignore criticism either. To the contrary, the wise will seek to learn wisdom from those who rebuke them, regardless of those who are doing the rebuking:
Strike a scoffer, and the simple will learn prudence; reprove the intelligent, and they will gain knowledge. (19:25)
This reminded me of a quote from Joseph Smith. I can’t find the exact reference, but it was something about taking the rebuke/criticism/rumor as a whole, find whatever truth there is in it, and learn from it. The only reference I could find was from a blog by Greg Trimble where he summarizes the ideas as: “Look deeper, Brother, and see if maybe there is a kernel of truth in what they are saying.”
Should we not better strive to learn from those who rebuke us rather than casting it aside as so much dross?
The wisdom in accepting advice
Similar to the previous one is accepting counsel. Check out this model for decision-making:
Without counsel, plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed. (15:22)
To me, I had to think about this one for a minute. Isn’t relying on counselors a sign of a weak leader? Don’t we want someone who can think for themselves and make their own decisions? The model I thought of was Grima Wormtongue, advisor to King Theoden of Rohan. The advisor was totally manipulating the king! Don’t you put yourself in danger of a narrow and self-serving point of view? That is where I think the wisdom comes in many counselors; their self-serving interests will average out, you get a wide variety of perspectives, and you can’t rely on any single one person’s point of view. In the end, you have to make the decision yourself, but you have help seeing the problem in its true light, and you see all possible options. Truly,
Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you man gain wisdom for the future (19:20)
Slow to anger
Proverbs contains the famous adage:
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (15:1)
Another bit of advice that doesn’t capture our current model of dialog; everyone is trying to get themselves worked up about something. If you aren’t indignant, you obviously don’t care enough. I don’t think this is an avoidant/accomodating conflict style either; rather, tone matters. Are you really going to change anyone’s minds if you are yelling at them?
It is honorable to refrain from strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel (20:3)
Being careful and slow
One more on relationships and dialog. We all like to form and express our opinions, but the writer of Proverbs says we should take our time in doing so:
The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil (15:28)
The Internet is filled with quarrelsome Youtube comments, contentious Facebook threads, and and hateful Tweets. All are likely done on impulse rather than after careful thought. I really liked this comparison to how water flows:
The beginning of strife is like letting out water; so stop before the quarrel breaks out (17:14)
Once you spring a leak, there is no way to contain the coming flood. Like a hole in a dike.
The special status of the poor
Proverbs reminds us that the poor are favored of God, something that society today doesn’t reflect. We try to keep ourselves away from them, avoid contact, and ask our governments and relief organizations to deal with the problem. First, the Lord sets us a hierarchy counter to the wisdom of man:
It is better to be of a lowly spirit along the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud (16:19)
The proud and the rick are worse off than the humble poor. But the writer also acknowledges that the world doesn’t necessarily agree with this assessment:
Wealth brings many friends, but the poor are left friendless (19:4)
The Lord takes it very seriously when we take advantage of the poor, or we treat them ill:
Those who mock the poor insult their Maker; those who are glad at calamity will not go unpunished. (17:5)
And, in an Old Testament version of Christ’s statement “the least of these my brethren”, the Lord also treasures those who treasure the poor:
Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full (19:17)
The writer of Proverbs has a very low opinion of the lazy:
The lazy person buries a hand in the dish, and will not even bring it back to the mouth (19:4)
He even has a nickname for them:
How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep? (6:9)
Joseph Smith seems to be channeling these sentiments when he wrote: “Cease to be idle… cease to sleep longer than is needful.”
Man’s knowledge versus God’s knowledge
Finally, the Sage also acknowledges the Lord’s hand in all things. Even when we think we are in control, the Lord is directing us:
The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps (16:9)
The Sage doesn’t believe in coincidence or chance. There is purpose in everything:
The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone (16:33)
I loved learning from this wisdom literature, and I think the attitudes of the Sages of the Old Testament are still of great worth. Proverbs is a mine, not of cliches, but of wisdom that is often counterintuitive, and requires a bit of humbling.