Wisdom Literature and Theodicy

This is the last week that I’ll be introducing new content to my students of the Hebrew Bible. I end with the Wisdom Literature because it puts a nice, not-so-tidy bow on the semester. As I wrote in my short series of blog posts, ‘Canon and Metanarrative’ (see Part 1, 2, and 3), I center the Tanakh around ‘the traumatic events that inspired the composition, editing, and collecting of many of the texts that eventually became canon‘ meaning that for ‘the Hebrew Bible , my focus is two-fold: (1) the Babylonian Exile, which many scholars see as the period when earlier texts were being collected and edited, and new ones were being created, in order to help the Jews establish their identity vis-`a-vis the Babylonians, and (2) the occupation of successive empires such as the Persians, the Ptolemaic Greeks, and the Seleucid Greeks.’ By ending the semester with the Wisdom Literature I’m able to bring it back around to these events and reinforce the underlying theme of the semester that the Bible is variegated and multivalent. I’m able to show that these Scriptures don’t answer the same questions with the same answers.

Let’s take the question of why Israel’s Covenant God would allow the suffering of exile and occupations. The Book of Proverbs sides with the Deuteronomistic understanding of the universe: there’s a cause-and-effect to living wisely—to living in ‘the Fear of Yahweh’—where, generally speaking, obeying ‘Wisdom’ leads to the good life. The Book of Ecclesiastes complicates this message a bit by focusing on our shared ending: death. Ultimately, what brings together every Jew, Babylonian, Persian, and Greek who walks this earth? Death. The narrator may try to bring the hearer comfort at the end of the book but the fact of the matter is this: Qoheleth, even as he advocates for wise-living over foolish-living, can’t assure his hearer that one path has a better outcome than the other. Finally, the Book of Job, which throws a wrench in the whole discussion. The hearer, seeing the world through Job’s eyes, is confronted with this message: Why ask about suffering and evil in the world? Even if you could speak to the Creator directly the answer would be overwhelming and unsatisfactory. The best answer is this: you’ll never understand all that goes into making this world function including the evil you experience.

And with that, students will end a semester of thinking about our lives in our world through the lens of the Tanakh. Not tidy. Not comforting. Instead, like life, it ends with a conversation where there are multiple viewpoints, none which seem to easily win the day.

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