Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Proverbs: What (or Who) is this Wisdom Thing?

This post represents an important milestone. By starting the Book of Proverbs, I am now officially furthest I have ever managed to read in the Bible. You may recall from my introductory post way back in May of 2013 that my last attempt to read this thing bogged down and ended with Psalms.

Of course, if you read my last post then you know I cheated a little bit this time: I skipped almost two thirds of Psalms. There’s a good reason it stopped me the last time. Namely, that reading through the Psalms is torturously tedious. So I told myself I’d try skipping back to deal with individual Psalms later, and I’ve moved on to Proverbs.

Oh! Another milestone! I’ve passed the halfway mark! We’re on the downward slope now!

Now, Proverbs is set forth as a collection of sayings and essays from Solomon himself, the Biblically declared wisest man who has ever lived or who ever will. What should we expect? I mean, it probably won’t be as wise as the stuff God says himself, because Solomon is only a man. On the other hand, he is the wisest man ever! So it’s gotta be pretty good stuff, right?

Well, the good news is that there does seem to be some good advice in here. On the other hand, there’s some stuff that doesn’t seem so great, and there’s also some total gibberish. But let’s start at the beginning.

The Book of Proverbs opens up with a simple introductory statement that we are reading the proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel. It then goes on to say that to know wisdom, justice, and insight, a wise man must be willing to listen to instruction and continue to learn. Not too shabby a beginning, until you hit the seventh verse:

Prov 1:7 The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

It says a good bit about the character of the god Solomon is describing that he should say fearing him is the first thing you should know. Not love, not understanding, but fear. And I should point out that, logically, one would have to know (or at least believe) this Yahweh exists and something of the brutish nature of his personality before one could reasonably start fearing him. So to say you need to begin at fear has already skipped a few steps.

Although… it occurs to me that he could be saying that the thing Yahweh fears most is people beginning to gain knowledge. That would be fairly consistent with the rest of the Bible, actually, but it seems unlikely to be something Solomon would have believed.

Moving on, though, Proverbs continues as though Solomon is explicitly addressing his son with words of advice. And we do get some good advice about not letting people talk you into doing such unpleasant stuff as murder and theft. Then it just randomly moves into a section that kind of personifies wisdom as a woman that talks to people.

Prov 1:20 Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; 21 at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance to the city gates she speaks:”

What follows that quote is a lengthy first-person soliloquy by this wisdom person about how awesome it is to have her, and how calamity will befall those who reject her. It includes imprecations about how, when bad stuff happens to foolish people, she will laugh and mock them. It’s kind of a weird section – especially in light of the fact that the Bible has consistently mocked and derided the mental and moral capacity of pretty much everything female up to this point. Why would it suddenly embody wisdom as a woman, then?

There’s an interesting theory floating about out there that the original form of this section was about a separate goddess of wisdom (I’ve seen both Asherah and Sophia proposed) who used to be worshipped as a companion to Yahweh, but whose worship was later stamped out by the Yahweh cult. I didn’t dig all that deeply into it, but it makes an interesting theory. It also makes a kind of sense in light of the fact that the First Book of Kings tells us Solomon was chastised by God specifically for the crime of taking up the worship of his wives’ gods. Doesn’t seem like much of a stretch that he might have written some stuff praising them.

On the other hand, maybe Solomon was just being poetic and fetishizing women a bit – he did have a thousand wives and concubines, after all.

Anyway, the monologue by wisdom gets us to Chapter 2, where Solomon takes up monologue about wisdom. And not so much about what wisdom is as about how awesome it is to have. He also talks a bit about his belief that wisdom is given by God, though it’s not terribly clear whether he means that wisdom involves following God’s laws or that God directly puts wisdom into you as kind of a separate thing. But he does say that once you have wisdom, you will understand righteousness and the value of knowledge, and how to avoid evil; stuff like that. It’s all pretty vague fluffy stuff, but it seems to come down to a belief that wisdom is spectacularly awesome (expressed again in a few places by describing wisdom as a “she”), and that it consists entirely of doing what God tells you to do without burdening your head overmuch with stuff like independent thought.

            So then we get into some actual, concrete words of advice. And there’s actually some decent stuff in there (e.g. “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,” “Do not plan evil against your neighbor who dwells trustingly beside you,” “Do not contend with a man for no reason,”). But then, once Chapter 4 goes back to referring to wisdom as “her” we get a really bizarre verse.

Prov 4:7 The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.”

            Like, what the fuck does that even mean? It starts of like it's actually going to define for us what wisdom is, but then descends immediately into gibberish! It’s word salad, completely devoid of content! This might be excusable if the verses that followed somehow explained what it means, but they don’t even make the attempt. Instead, we get yet another soliloquy about how precious wisdom is, and how if you “prize her highly,” she will “honor you,” and “place on your head a beautiful garland,” and “bestow on you a beautiful crown.”

            The rest of Chapter 5 is kind of self-congratulatory stuff about how Solomon has taught his son wisdom and given him wise instruction, plus a lengthy diatribe against wicked people. That gets us into Chapter 6, which is almost entirely dedicated to a long-winded warning against adultery. Of course, that’s pretty easy advice to give for a man who literally has hundreds of wives and concubines to choose from at any given time. And the framing of the warning is along the lines of warning his son not to allow an adulterous woman to ensnare him, as if the only way a man might commit adultery is if the woman seduces him. The long diatribe also contains this bit of hilarity, in talking about the adulterous woman:

Prov 6:25 Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes; 26 for the price of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread, but a married woman hunts down a precious life.”

            Yes, my friends, the Biblically-declared wisest man the world has ever known, or will ever know, advises us that if we’re so horny we’re thinking of sleeping with another man’s wife, we should just go to a prostitute instead. This might be shocking to you, in light of the expressed morality of the sort of people who claim to look to the Old Testament for rules of behavior. But as I’ve observed before, it’s pretty clear that under Old Testament law, a man is allowed to have sex with as many women as he likes and it won’t be considered adultery unless some other man has a prior ownership claim on her. Solomon’s advice is perfectly in keeping with this idea, so at least it has consistency going for it.

            Anyway, that’s probably enough for now. Proverbs, I think, is going to be pretty tricky to write about for many of the same reasons Psalms was. Even in this bit I’ve skipped over a lot, and I suspect I’ll be skipping a helluva lot more before it’s done with. After all, it’s thirty-one chapters long and I’ve only gotten through six so far. I don’t really want to spend too many posts on it if it canbe avoided.

            Until next time, everyone be well!