Thank God for the Canon: On the Delusion of Lady Wisdom

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There is a clearly established system at work in the biblical book of Proverbs. For the writers and compilers of Proverbs, which is essentially a collection of short pithy insights meant to help its readers cope with life, God blesses the righteous and curses the unrighteous.

“The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous,” Proverbs 3:33 says.

Simple enough.

In fact, several books of the Hebrew Bible function under this paradigm. It is the perspective of the Judean historians who composed Joshua—2 Kings; scholars refer to this as the Deuteronomistic History because it is based on the way the book of Deuteronomy interprets history.

For instance, the northern kingdom of Israel is wiped out by the Assyrians in c. 722 BCE. They are carried off into oblivion and the Deuteronomistic Historian informs us that this is because Israel is sinful. Now, it is critical to bear in mind that the Bible was written almost exclusively by Israelites from the southern kingdom, Judah. The two kingdoms split after the death of King Solomon in the late 10th century— think American Civil War—so it is not difficult to ascertain some political pandering that smacks of a certain Southern (Judean) bias. The northern kingdom is reported to have exactly zero good kings, while the southerners have a few. I suggest to you that the reason for this is not that Israel’s kings were wicked but rather because the historians were writing in retrospect from a religious point of view.

Now, our modern notion of history as objective, factually corresponding information about events often gets in the way for readers of the Bible. The biblical writers did not possess this notion, nor was their intention to merely relay facts. Instead, the Deuteronomistic Historian was writing the story of a people who saw their identity tied up with their national deity (YHWH) and seeking to explain YHWH’s rationale for allowing their national demise. Their worldview told them that they must have done something to deserve their destruction; they must have sinned and now have to face the punishment for that sin.

To fully show my hand, I must admit that I’m not exactly a big fan of the book of Proverbs. It’s exceedingly patriarchal, sexist and written by and for the privileged class. But don’t hear me wrongly, I think that its useful (2 Tim. 3:16) and I even think that it is largely correct in its advice about life and living in the world. Wisdom really does direct one’s life toward typically higher modes of living and being, surely this is largely agreeable. However…

shit happens.

It happens to good people and bad people and in-between people. It happens to wise people and foolish people and people who really don’t seem to deserve it. Educated people tend to have greater chances for upward mobility, financial security and are less likely to face systemic oppression. But cancer, natural disasters, miscarriages, car wrecks and fires aren’t all that picky. To paraphrase Jesus himself, the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. To suggest that wisdom guarantees a better experience of life across the board is simply unwise, naive even. It seems to me that anyone with life experience can attest to this.

Thankfully, this doesn’t mean we have to throw our Bibles in the trash. Our canon also includes books like Job, Ecclesiastes and the Psalms. Job tells the story of a righteous man whose life is brought to utter ruin for no essential reason. Ecclesiastes is the nihilistic rantings of a teacher who has lived a full life and concludes that everything is utterly meaningless. The Psalms are full of poems and songs that question why God allows good things to happen to bad people and bad things to happen to God’s favorite people. If any of these were left alone, we would not have the full story. It is only when we allow them to inform one another dialectically that we gain access to truly biblical conceptions about existence, even if it is often in the form of paradox.

My experience tells me that Proverbs is wrong sometimes; however, Proverbs also tells me to learn from others, to guard my heart and that laziness is a bad thing.

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