BIBLE COURSES: WISDOM LITERATURE
© Rabbi David L. Kline http://good-to-be-a-jew.blogspot.com/
THE EXAMINED LIFE: PHILOSOPHICAL WRITINGS IN TANACH
ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ *
Rabbi David L Kline
Congregation Beth Elohim, Brooklyn, Tuesdays, 7:30
Biblical authors famously wrote about their world and culture in myths and legends, quasi-historical records, prophetic innovation, and law, ritual and moral. Then, apparently beginning in the 4th century BCE, our ancestors turned to introspection about life, the world, values, and meaning. They posed questions some of which had answers and some did not. Their writings never resembled the dialectic discussions preserved in Greek literature but Hellenism doubtless influenced the new intellectual discourse. (Alexander conquered the area in 333 BCE and Greek became the dominant culture and language for at least the next two centuries.) The wisdom literature sheds light on late biblical thinking, preparing the way for Rabbinic creativity and eventually, systematic philosophy.
PIOUS WISDOM: devotion to God, faith in divine reward and punishment, work ethic, conformity, preserving status quo. This is conservative thinking and characterizes Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and many psalms.
Mishley / The Book of Proverbs seems to be the work of a school of thinkers and anthologists. An early tradition ascribed the words to King Solomon whose wisdom was legendary. The brief notes and sample verses of the Proverbs reading guide are intended to help you browse through the 31 chapters. Look for lines that interest you, whether positively or negatively. Think needlepoint. Hear Polonius. Note the remarkable similarity, beginning in ch. 22 to “The instruction of Amenope,” a 12th century BCE Egyptian document. Wisdom is repeatedly personified as a woman!
D'varim / The Book of Deuteronomy, in the view of critical readers, was the earliest–notwithstanding its placement–book of the Pentateuch, the Chumash. It has long been dated to the mid seventh century BCE, the time of King Yoshiyahu when a major religious purge, described in 2 Kings 21, introduced the document. More recent thinking attributes Deuteronomy to the early fifth century, following the return from Babylonian exile when there was a need for defining religious practices and teachings. Suggested readings:
Deut 6:4-15 Sh’ma and V’ahavta. Relationship to God
Deut 28 Reward for obeying God, punishment for disobeying God
T'hilim / The Book of Psalms contains 150 poems focusing on praise, petitions, and feelings: confidence, despair, triumph, joy, anger, wonder. These selections exemplify pious thinking:
Psalms 1 Happy is the one who has not walked in wicked counsel
Psalms 3 You have punched my enemies in the jaw
Psalms 23 The Lord is my shepherd
Psalms 103 For God fearers, His love is eternal
GREEK PHILOSOPHY: *ho de anexetastos bios ou biotos anthropoi,
“The unexamined life is no life for a person.”
γνῶθι σεαυτόν, gnōthi seauton, “Know thyself.”
Beginning in the 6th Century BCE, Greek thinkers introduced critical/systematic reasoning and dialectic argument. They seem to have been interested in how the world works and why, and they called this “philosophy.” Alexander the Great, in 333 BCE, conquered and ruled an empire from Macedonia to Persia and down to Egypt. This Hellenistic world included Y’hudah, which had been governed by Persia for two centuries. Alexander died young. The empire divided into three, with Y’hudah first dominated by the Ptolmeys of Egypt and later by the Selucids of Syria. Greek became the lingua franca and, along with it, the rulers advanced city organization (polis, including citizenship, rights and obligations), sports, theater, religion, and philosophy. Leading Y’hudim, including kohanim–priests–embraced Hellenism.
The links below lead to a taste of Greek philosophy, essential background for the later biblical writings. Some of us will be way ahead in such readings. I am continually impressed by the material but struggle to keep up. In class, we’ll pretend to be early Jews first encountering the new wisdom.
http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/2d.htm Introduction to Socrates
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Socrates Great quotes from Socrates
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1656/1656-h/1656-h.htm Translation of Apologia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristotle Extensive intro to Aristotle
http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext05/8ethc10.txt Aristotle’s Ethics
12/3/13, 12/10/13, 12/17/13
KOHELET / BOOK OF ECCLESIASTES To my ear, Kohelet was a thinker challenged by the questions raised by the Greeks but satisfied to leave the questions unresolved, that is, he was more interested in the questions than in the answers. The book flies in the face of pious wisdom.
Browse the chapters with the aid of the Kohelet reading guide. A line by line commentary will be helpful. Expect explanations to differ and even clash. Look for existentialism, irony, skepticism, cynicism, charm. Try out the theology.
We shall open with “For everything there is a season. . .” ch 3, and head from there to vanity–better translated “vainness” or “hot air” or “empty wind” or “nothingness.” After that, discussion will follow the divisions suggested by the reading guide.
T’HILIM / BOOK OF PSALMS collects poetry composed for all sorts of religious functions from early to late periods. Some of the poems were likely sung as part of the worship in the Holy Temple. Others seem intended for private devotion. Some celebrate a royal coronation or birthday. These selections sound like attempts to deal with tough and complex questions in a pious context.
Ps. 8 contemplation: What is man in the cosmos?
Ps. 49 would-be wisdom
Ps. 73 losing and regaining faith
Ps. 112 intellectual recasting of Ps. 1
Ps. 128 the good family
Ps. 37:1-6, note grass metaphor; 90:1-6; 103:15ff
Ps. 104 a world of order and purpose, v 14 distinction between animal and human
Ps. 19 science, then piety, leading to hope (?)
Ps. 44 a prayer: What’s the matter, God? (~ 79)
Ps. 50 rethinking sacrifices (cf Amos, et al), what God really demands
Ps. 88 thoughts about death: dark and mindless (cf 6:6)
Ps. 139 meditation on theology and piety
IYOV / BOOK OF JOB addresses the meaning of suffering in the world, offering a notion that stretches religion even further than Ecclesiastes. (Both books include a brief coda that contradicts the author’s message.) It opens with a dramatic prose narrative, a schematic scene and horrific plot. The story is a hypothetical, a construct that presents a world where God’s interest need not coincide with a human’s interest. The rest of the book, written in poetry, is a response, a discourse on the story. Three sets of speeches between three visitors and Job. The three argue that Job must be terribly guilty; Job knows and defends his integrity. Along comes a fourth and yet more argumentative character. At last, God speaks, from the whirlwind. Job accedes. God indicts the visitors. Coda.
In our first session, we’ll talk about the story of God, Satan, and Job. The second session will address highlights of the rest of the book. The Job reader’s guide will help you navigate.