By The Rev. Deacon Joe Dzugan
April 30th, 2023
Lectio Divina – Divine or Sacred Reading-(Download)
All things come from you, O God: the light of the rising sun and the enfolding darkness of night, the lives of those who have gone before and the life of the creatures still to be born.
As you blessed us at the beginning of time in the eternal womb of creation, so bless us at the end of time when we journey into the unknown.
As you graced us with love at the dawn of this day, so guide us and the world this night into the unfolding of tomorrow.
- J. Philip Newell, Celtic Treasure – Daily Scriptures and Prayer, p. 88.
Part IV - “Wisdom Stories” (cont’d)
[“Inspired – Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again” by Rachel Held Evans.]
No one doubts the literary achievement of the book of Job, its imagery and themes influencing everything from Handel’s “Messiah” to Joseph Stein’s “Fiddler on the Roof” to Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” But identifying the genre of the original story can be tricky. Some call it a folktale, others a work of theological speculation. Tennyson called it “the greatest poem of ancient or modern times.” But most agree the book of Job falls squarely in the tradition of wisdom literature.
In the world of the ancient Near East, wisdom wasn’t just a virtue; it was a coveted commodity, prized for its promise of a full and honorable life. The book of Proverbs compares wisdom to rubies, gold, and silver, and claims “nothing you desire can compare with her” (Proverbs 3:15). And so, the sages and wise men of the court were treated like rock stars as they instructed their disciples using pithy, easy-to- memorize maxims and riddles and debated among themselves the nature of truth, suffering, God, and the universe. Some of their surviving writings read as straightforward, practical, and worldly wise, while other pieces are more speculative and introspective, even pessimistic. In the Protestant Bible, the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon are generally grouped together and categorized as wisdom literature. Jews identify these books as part of the Ketuvim, or “Writings” – miscellaneous works that are neither Torah nor prophecy.
Wisdom literature can take the form of short, didactic insights (as in the book of Proverbs), or poetry (as in the book of Psalms and Song of Solomon), or story and soliloquy (as in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes). The Bible’s wisdom literature includes everything from admonitions against getting drunk to erotic poetry that would make [almost anyone] blush, to the ruminations of a wealthy sage suffering an existential crisis, to an acrostic poem extolling the virtues of an excellent wife. One of my favorite insights in all the Bible’s wisdom literature comes from Proverbs 27:14: “If anyone loudly blesses their neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.”
As we say in the Episcopal Church, this is the Word of the Lord.
The aim of wisdom literature is to uncover something true about the nature of reality in a way that makes the reader or listener wiser. In the Bible, wisdom is rarely presented in a single decision, belief, or rule, but rather as a “way” or “path” that the sojourner must continually discern amid the twists and turns of life.
I had a college professor who assigned the book of Proverbs in his Psychology 101 class, instructing us to circle in our Bibles every appearance of the word “way” or “path.” The point, he said, is that wisdom isn’t about sticking to a set of rules or hitting some imaginary bull’s-eye representing “God’s will.” Wisdom is a way of life, a journey of humility and faithfulness we take together, one step at a time. To an anxious student who spent a lot of time worrying that her major or her homecoming date or her student senate bid were outside of God’s will, this lesson proved an enormous comfort.
So, what does the story of Job say about wisdom?
Well, for one thing, it favors the wisdom of those who have actually suffered over those who merely speculate about it.
“From this book above all others in scripture, we learn that the person in pain is a theologian of unique authority,” wrote Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis in her marvelous book titled “Getting Involved with God.” The one who complains to God, pleads with God, rails at God, does not let God off the hook for a minute – she is at last admitted to a mystery. She passes through a door that only pain will open, and is thus qualified to speak of God in a way that others, whom we generally call more fortunate, cannot speak.”
Even more significantly, the book of Job challenges the prevailing wisdom – wisdom found elsewhere in Scripture – that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. As professor and author Timothy Beal put it, “The book of Job is like a fault line running through the Bible. In it, the moral universe affirmed in texts like Deuteronomy, according to which righteousness equals blessed well-being and disobedience equals cursed suffering, is shaken to its core.”
But it’s not just Job. Throughout the Bible’s wisdom literature, we catch pieces of the other side of the conversation regarding punishment and reward. The same psalmist who declares, “A little while and the wicked will be no more,” elsewhere demands of God, “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?” and describes in anguished detail the successes and pleasures of evil people, lamenting, “They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. . . . Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence” (Psalm 37:10; 82:2; 73:5, 13). The author of Ecclesiastes simply argues, “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other” (Ecclesiastes 7:14).
In short, when it comes to the nature of suffering and blessing, the Bible does not speak with a single voice. There is not a biblical view of theodicy. There are biblical views of theodicy. And the people who wrote and assembled Scripture seemed perfectly fine with that unresolved tension. German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno once said, “To let suffering speak is the condition of all truth.” If the Bible’s war stories reveal the perils of letting God’s children tell the story, then the Bible’s wisdom stories uncover the beauty of it, the necessity. In the paradox of Job, the vulnerability of the Psalms, and the angst of Ecclesiastes, God’s children are invited into the whirlwind, to cry out and question, to
demand and debate, and to consider the big questions of life without resting in easy answers. The Bible reflects the complexity and diversity of the human experience, with all its joys and sorrows. And in the story of Job, it’s not the learned theologians who get the peek at glory; but the man who said, with candor and courage, “I desire to argue with God.”
For this week with the “ear of your heart”: Read Ecclesiastes chapter 3 and practice Lectio Divina.
“Thought for Extending the Practice”: The Teacher says, “God has made everything fitting in its time, but has also placed eternity in their hearts, without enabling them to discover what God has done from beginning to end.” Saint Augustine reflected this when he wrote: “Out hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The ambiguities of life invite us to stand before God in humble confidence. The order in creation suggests that life is not haphazard. Does this realization provide you with a sense of security within the world?
Source for “Thought for Extending the Practice”: “The CEB Lectio Divina Prayer Bible”
An invitation to our virtual participants: Discussion and comments are very much encouraged and
welcomed. Online discussions can be held in the comments section in the upcoming post on Facebook for this week’s Deacon’s Reflection which is part of adult formation at St. Francis Episcopal Church.
The blessings of heaven, the blessings of earth, the blessings of sea and of sky.
On those we love this day and on every human family the gifts of heaven, the gifts of earth,
the gifts of sea and of sky.
May the light of God illumine the heart of my soul. May the flame of Christ kindle me to love.
May the fire of the Spirit free me to live this day, tonight, and forever. Amen.
- J. Philip Newell, Celtic Treasure – Daily Scriptures and Prayer, p. 89.
“Inspired”, Deacon Joe Dzugan, St. Francis Episcopal Church, 2023.