Saturday, September 01, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (22)

The book of Proverbs was written almost three thousand years ago and preserves truth gathered well prior to that. It is genuinely ancient, and comes out of a cultural setting (or really, cultural settings, plural) with which we can only pretend to be even slightly familiar.

Thus, even if we study and research until the cows come home, we should not be the least bit surprised to find that there are occasional words and phrases in Proverbs that we just can’t parse properly. We can make educated guesses. We can eliminate ridiculous suggestions (of which there are more than a few). But in some cases we will have to content ourselves with being less than 100% sure what a particular word, phrase or sentence really means.

That is no shame to us, and I am confident that so long as we treat the text respectfully as the word of God it is, the Holy Spirit will enable us to glean from it everything necessary for life and godliness in our day, just as he enabled Solomon’s earliest readers to glean from it what they needed. This is true even when we modern readers experience impediments to understanding that Solomon’s earliest readers certainly did not.

10. Wisdom and Folly Contrasted (Proverbs 9:1)

That said, we also owe it to the Lord, to ourselves and to other Christians to take the very best shot we can at understanding the difficult bits rather than glossing them over or pretending there is no certainty at all to be found in the word of God.

A House with Seven Pillars

So here goes:
“Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars.”
I should start by apologizing for bogging down in the very first verse of this rather intriguing final chapter of Solomon’s introduction to Proverbs, but the “seven pillars” referenced here are probably the most controversial portion of the chapter and are more than interesting enough (to me at least) to consider at some length.

Now, it is evident the seven pillars are a metaphor for SOMETHING. That part is obvious. Jonas Greenfield, writing in the Jewish Quarterly Review back in 1985, points out how unlikely it is that Solomon had any kind of real-world architecture in view:
“Was a house with seven columns or pillars standard — or even frequent — in the ancient Near East? The answer, based on a survey of the available material and discussion with archaeologists is an unequivocal ‘no.’ ”
Not terribly shocking, really.

The Best of a Bad Bunch

Greenfield also conveniently lists the various metaphorical meanings proposed for the phrase over the years:
“The seven pillars of wisdom have been variously interpreted: the seven firmaments or heavens, the seven planets, the seven regions or climates, the seven days of creation or the seven books of the law, the seven gifts of the holy ghost, the seven eras of the church, the seven sacraments, the seven liberal arts, and even the first seven chapters of the book of Proverbs.”
All but one of these suggestions seem less than satisfactory, which probably explains why new proposals continue to crop up. It is impossible to imagine, for instance, that Solomon’s earliest readers were thinking anything at all about the gifts of the Spirit, the eras of the church, the sacraments or liberal arts. Those concepts would have seemed more alien to the people of Solomonic Israel than the idea of seven pillars holding up a house seems to us. Further, it is next-to-impossible to confirm from ancient literature that the number seven was consistently assigned by the ancients to the heavens, planets, climates or books of the law. Even if we assume it was, only “books of the law” has any real connection to wisdom.

The very best suggestion in this rather feeble bunch is undoubtedly the seven days of creation. Wisdom was certainly present for each of these days and instrumental in the creative work of God, as Proverbs 8:22-31 repeatedly tells us: “When he established the heavens, I was there.” Assuming that “Wisdom has hewn her seven pillars” accurately translates the original Hebrew, this is a perfectly reasonable reading that basically boils down to something like “Creation is built on wisdom.”

I’d buy that. Proverbs certainly teaches it.

Seven Sages

But Greenfield says most of our English Bibles mistranslate the phrase. For solid textual reasons he lays out in his paper, he believes the passage should really read:
“Wisdom has built her house. The Seven have set its foundations.”
Greenfield believes the “Seven” refers to seven apkallus, or sages, the record of whom is preserved in Babylonian literature and who were associated with seven cities in ancient Mesopotamia including Ur, the city where Abraham was born. When we take into account the fact that the book of Proverbs contains a great deal of wisdom collected from non-Israelite sources, this too does not seem an unreasonable claim for Solomon to make.

As Tremper Longman III puts it:
“Ever since the publication of the Instruction of Amenemope by the Egyptologist E.A.W. Budge in 1923, scholars have recognized that Israelite proverbs have extensive analogues in ancient Near Eastern proverbial literature similar to the example above. Besides the Instruction of Amenemope (typically dated to 12th century B.C.E.), we have examples of Egyptian instructional literature that come from the Old Kingdom period (2715-2179 B.C.E.) down to the latest periods of Egyptian history. Sumerian, Akkadian, and Aramaic wisdom texts also contain proverbs worth comparing with Israelite proverbs.

That Israel knew and appreciated ancient Near Eastern wisdom may be observed in a passage that pays homage to Solomon’s prodigious wisdom: ‘God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt’ (1 Kgs 4:29-30). For this to be a compliment, the wisdom of those to the east of Israel and Egyptian wisdom has to be pretty impressive.”
Hmm. So the “Seven” would be non-Israelite wise men; the best of the best.

The Best of the Best

Thus if Greenfield is correct, we should really read the line something like this: “The house that Wisdom built (really, this book that we are reading together) is perched on the foundation of all the greatest intellectual, social and spiritual discoveries of all the wisest men in human history.”

Unless we are prepared to argue that the ancients of the Near East knew nothing useful about life, and that all the customs and wisdom we find in the Old Testament are completely original to Israel (a claim even the most unlearned student of history would find laughable), this seems a perfectly plausible reading.

What we might add is this, again in the words of Tremper Longman:
“While the Israelite sages learn from their ancient Near Eastern counterparts, they differ on the ultimate source of their wisdom. Prov 1:7 announces that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,’ a theme that reverberates throughout the book of Proverbs as well as the other wisdom books (Job 28:28; Eccl 12:13). It appears that while the Israelite sages recognized that their ancient Near Eastern counterparts were a source of practical and even ethical wisdom, they themselves believed that the God of Israel was one who made the world and so deserved their worship.”
World’s Greatest Editor

So essentially what God did in answer to King Solomon’s prayer for wisdom was make him the greatest editor in the history of humankind: of all the historic wisdom of the ancient world, he lost nothing that was worth keeping and kept nothing that wasn’t, and he rewrote, tweaked and refined numerous existing sayings that less-than-perfectly expressed the mind of God with respect to human behavior, social interaction, governance and so on.

If you’re interested in examining in greater detail the sort of worldview adjustments Solomon applied to the received wisdom of other nations, Scott Bailey has a worthwhile post on the differences between Proverbs and some remarkably similar Egyptian wisdom literature here. In one instance, where the Instruction of Amenemope reads, “Your being will prosper,” Solomon amends it to “… so that your trust may be in the Lord.”

Hey, a prosperous being is not a bad deal. But a God in whom we can have confidence beats it hands down.

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