I’ve been studying for my final exam in my Introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament class this weekend. One of the topics that I have been reviewing in preparation for the exam is the category of wisdom literature found in the Bible.
All wisdom literature is made up of human reflections on the meaning of life and how it works, but we find two kinds of wisdom literature in the Bible. One is proverbial wisdom, which comprises collections of short, pithy statements (and sometimes short stories) that is general good advice about how to live well. These proverbs often take a concrete example and generalize it to all of life. The problem is that life is rarely that simple, and there are many exceptions to these “rules” for living.
The second kind of wisdom literature is known as philosophical wisdom, and we find this type of wisdom literature in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Both of these books are asking and exploring a question about life. Ecclesiastes is asking about profit we get from life. What is the point of life beyond working to get our basic needs met? Job is asking whether there is ever such a thing as disinterested righteousness. Do we ever do good when there is no reward (or no perceived reward) for doing so?
For much of my life, I have been enamored with proverbial wisdom. I was convinced that if I could just figure out the rules and live up to those rules, then life would go well for me. I tried hard, but that approach didn’t work for me. I was always discovering exceptions or “rules” that were contradictory or “rules” that seemed to miss the heart of loving God and loving people.
As I’ve gotten older, I find myself more in the realm of philosophical wisdom. I have become more engaged with the questions than with answers. I have become increasingly convinced that it is more important to be wrestling with the right questions than with accepting the “right” answers that may be given.
Life, as I experience it, is seldom clear cut. It seems that choices are so often between options that are all imperfect, and wisdom in that situation is about discerning the best solution that can be found, knowing that even the best choice will still be flawed.
It is reassuring to me to know, from the Biblical text, that others have struggled with these same questions about how life works and what life means for millenia. It is also reassuring to me that these questions and the wrestling with them was valued highly enough to added to the canon along with books like Proverbs that purport to have the answers. I love the fact that these books are preserved together in conversation with one another … and, by extension, with us. It’s good to know that I am not alone.
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