Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Books of Wisdom

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Books of Wisdom

Rev. Anthony David

Feb. 5, 2012

This morning we journey into the heart of some of the most remarkable books in the Hebrew Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Books of wisdom, books in which the focus is, as Joseph Campbell so eloquently puts it, the “monstrous nature of the earthly human realm as well as its glory”—how to live practically in the midst of this realm as well as to understand the Big Picture meaning of it all.

Let’s jump right in, and I want to do this with a story that actually comes from outside the Bible, from the tradition of Zen Buddhism…

A Zen Master, goes the story, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal. The Zen Master returned and found him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. The Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

That’s the story, and I begin with it for two reasons. One is simply to emphasize the fact that to truly understand wisdom in the Bible, you have to go outside the Bible, you have to see that wisdom is and has always been the endeavor of all nations and all ages. In cultures that, geographically speaking, were too far away from Israel to influence it (like that of China and India) … and also in cultures nearby, like Egypt and Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. These nearby cultures—what their wisdom traditions said and how they said it—have amazing echoes in the Bible books we read today. Wisdom outside the Bible influenced the wisdom we find within it.

For example, consider these proverbs from Sumer, from around 2000BCE:

Whoever has walked with truth generates life

Wealth is hard to come by, but poverty is always at hand

The poor are the silent ones of the land

Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes describes proverbs like these as “short sentences founded on long experience”—and that’s exactly what they are. Some of them are just observations about the way life is, but others are of a more “how-to” nature: how to live well. Like these—and as you listen to them, keep two things in mind: these proverbs are more than 3000 years old, and today is Superbowl Sunday–:

He who drinks too much beer must drink water

He who eats too much will not be able to sleep

(and my favorite)

Since my wife is at the outdoor shrine, and furthermore since my mother is at the river, I shall die of hunger

Proverbs outside the Bible influenced proverbs in the Bible. A particularly fascinating example of this comes from comparing an Egyptian wisdom text entitled The Instruction of Amenemope, which parallels sections of the book of Proverbs like you would not believe. Image for image, word for word. Israel’s wisdom did not emerge in a vacuum. It echoes the themes and preoccupations of the nations that went before it and surrounded it.

This is also true of the wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Scholars tell us that Job was written around 500 BCE, and Ecclesiastes was written several hundred years later, around 300 BCE. Both of them are quite different from the book of Proverbs. Whereas Proverbs compiles short wisdom statement after short wisdom statement, Job tells a remarkable story about one man’s suffering and eventual meeting with God, and Ecclesiastes is the record of one man’s dialogue with himself about the nature of life and how to be happy. In ways very different from Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes face down the monstrous nature of the earthly human realm as well as its glory—each of them gives voice to despair as well as to making peace with life—but hidden in their voices are older voices from other lands and other times…. One of these voices comes from around 1700BCE, from an early king of Sumer, Zugagib:

I advanced in life, I attained to the allotted span

Wherever I turned there was evil, evil—

Oppression is increased, uprightness I see not.

I cried unto god, but he showed not his face.

What in one’s heart is contemptible, to one’s god is good!

Who can understand the thoughts of the gods in heaven?

The counsel of god is full of destruction; who can understand?

Where may human beings learn the ways of God?

He who lives at evening is dead in the morning.

My limbs are destroyed, loathing covers me;

on my couch I welter like an ox

I am covered, like a sheep, with my excrement.

My sickness baffles the conjurers

And the seer left dark my omens.

It’s raw, isn’t it? His pain and confusion and despair. 3700 years ago, Zugagib gave voice to it; and you can find his voice deep within the voice of Job, written 2500 years ago; you can find his voice deep within the voice of Ecclesiastes, written 2300 years ago. And what about us today? If we are feeling pain and confusion and despair today, for whatever reason—and the reasons can be so many—what’s hidden deep within our voice?

The thirst for wisdom—the discontent and dis-ease that motivates it—transcends time.

I want to return to the story I began this sermon with. The one about the Zen Master and the thief. We’ve already seen the first reason why I began with it, and now here’s the other. Just this: to help us connect our lives with the wisdom in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Help us bring it all together…

So we remember that, in the story, we meet the Zen Master there in his little hut at the foot of a mountain. He’s living the simplest kind of life, a happy and healthy kind of life. It’s a great symbol of what the book of Proverbs wants for its readers. Life is a way, life is a path, and we can walk smoothly or we can stumble, we can run or we can fall. Proverbs seeks to prevent stumbling and falling by presenting us with the accumulated wisdom of generations. Follow the advice, and our way will be well:

Righteousness delivers from death.

The perverse get what their ways deserve, and the good, what their deeds deserve.

No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.

The faithful will abound with blessings.

As you hear these words from Proverbs, keep in mind an important piece of historical information. At the time these words were written, there was absolutely no idea of an afterlife in which souls might experience connection with God, or justice, or continued learning and growth. The belief at the time was in Sheol, a place of darkness where the dead go, where they persist as entities without personality or strength, cut off from God. So, when the book of Proverbs says, “The faithful will abound with blessings,” it’s talking about THIS-world blessings. If there’s gonna be any justice, it’s THIS-world justice.

That’s the worldview that the book of Proverbs puts out there. Reality is ordered in such a way that the human sense of justice and fairness is fully satisfied. The perverse get what their ways deserve, and the good, what their deeds deserve. Which also implies that if something bad happens to you, well, you must have done something wrong to deserve it. You got trouble? What did you do!?

Call this worldview conventional wisdom. And conventional wisdom might make sense in the abstract. It might…. Until some kind of thief breaks into your hut, like he breaks into the Zen Master’s hut there at the foot of the mountain. What possibly could the Zen Master have done to merit that? Living as he is the simplest kind of life, an embodiment of blessing, bothering absolutely no one… and yet the thief comes. Conventional wisdom says that you always get what you deserve, but .. really?

That’s the question Ecclesiastes and Job ask, over and over again. Really? On this point, they are absolutely opposed to Proverbs. In other words, you got a crazy wrestling match right in the middle of the Holy Bible! People who say that the Bible speaks with one voice don’t know what they are talking about! For Proverbs, the world is straight; for Ecclesiastes and Job, the world is crooked.

“In my vain life,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes, “I have seen everything: there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing. There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.”

That’s the writer of Ecclesiastes, and he’s just telling it like he sees it. That’s what we find in THIS world. Reality is NOT ordered in a way that satisfies the human sense of justice and fairness. Not at all. Death comes to all, he says. Death comes randomly, and we die just as the animals die. Live righteously all your life, but, still, the manner of your aging and death may be excruciatingly painful for yourself and for all concerned. THIS world is a crooked, crooked world…

Job is the poster boy for this. His flocks stolen or destroyed, most of his servants murdered, his children killed as a house collapses on them. His body broken, with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Reduced to sitting among the ashes, scraping his sores with a broken piece of pottery. Why me? he asks… But we know: God allowed Satan to make Job suffer as part of a test of character. Does Job fear God for nothing? But what does this have to do with conventional wisdom, the idea that suffering can only be punishment for evil deeds? Job is the good guy, and the only reason why he attracted the attention of God and Satan to begin with was because .. he was good!

It’s a crooked world…. And in both Ecclesiastes and Job, we discover a response to this reality that sounds like this:

Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, “A man-child is conceived.”

Let that day be darkness!

That night—let thick darkness seize it!

Let it not rejoice among the days of the year….

Yes, let that night be barren: let no joyful cry be heard in it….

Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?

Why was I not buried like a stillborn child?

For my sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water.

I am blameless: I do not know myself.

I loathe my life.

This is Job speaking. Note how this language is exactly opposite what you read in the book of Genesis, where God creates the universe, where God says “Let there be light!” and it is all good…. In his despair, Job would go the exact opposite direction. “Let there be darkness.” Not creation, but destruction. “I loathe my life.”

We find the same sentiment in Ecclesiastes:

I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen also to me. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this is also vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life….”

People, this is the Bible talking. We are witnessing some of the most honest wrestling with the Big Picture meaning of life there can be. The Bible has many moods to it, and existential despair is certainly one of them….

And the Bible wants us to take it seriously. You see, Job isn’t any old shmoe. He was one who was, says the Bible, “blameless and upright, who feared God and turned away from evil.” As for the writer of Ecclesiastes: the Bible says he was one who had everything that conventional wisdom says is good. He knew what it is like to win a Superbowl. He knew what it is like to get the fantasy girl. He knew what is like to win the lottery. He had it all—wealth, health, intelligence, power, wisdom, everything—and yet he still found himself hating life. The Bible won’t allow us to rationalize this away, to say, Oh, they’re just being immature, or Oh, all would be well if they just took some Prozac. No. Life is crooked. The human realm is as much monstrous as glorious, and the monstrous aspects can at times feel so monstrous that it swallows everything up, you find you can no longer feel the glorious parts of the world, you can no longer receive any of that into your heart. Just darkness just darkness just darkness….

But is this where the story ends?

Well, we know in the story of the Zen master and the thief, that the Zen master responds in a way that is simply breathtaking: “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. Later, the Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

That’s how the story ends, and in a perfectly beautiful way it suggests where Ecclesiastes and Job end up. It’s true: they each go through a phase of hating life. But then they move beyond it. Here’s how.

For the writer of Ecclesiastes, the key realization is tied up with a peculiar word: “vanity.” “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” he says, over and over again, but he’s not talking about excessive pride in one’s looks…. The original word that gets interpreted as “vanity,” “havel,” really means “mist” or “vapor” or “breath.” “Havel havaleem, ha-kol havel”: “breath of breath, everything is breath.” The implications of this are powerful. If everything in life is like breath—if it’s impermanent like this, changing like this, hard to grab a hold of, hard to get a clear picture of—then, unless we unconditionally acknowledge and accept this fact about life, we will find ourselves miserable. Life is a series of breaths, and the only sane response to this reality is to breathe and breathe and keep on breathing. Don’t ask Why me? Ask What’s next? Stay in flow of life, stay in the moment, move with it and trust that there, in the moment, is everything we will ever need to be happy. It’s the Zen master in the story, whose safety in his little hut in the foot of the mountain is vanity, is breath. The thief comes, and instantly, safety has become danger, but the Zen master, because he does not continue trying to grasp for safety, is capable of poise, is able to stay in the moment, is able to convey the compassion and hospitality that is the essence of his inherent worth and dignity as a person. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he tells the astounded thief, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” “Poor fellow,” he mused later on, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

The Zen master’s only safety and ours is in this present moment.

The writer of Ecclesiastes puts it this way:

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart for God has long ago approved of what do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.

Carpe diem, in other words. This side of Sheol, don’t hesitate: seize the day. Get in the zone of each moment given to you, and that will save you from hating life. Don’t grab at the breath that life is; instead, breathe and breathe and breathe…. “Havel havaleem, ha-kol havel”: “breath of breath, everything is breath.”

As for Job. His way of going beyond hatred towards life… It’s very different. Hugely ironic, given a popular stereotype about Job, that he was patient, as in “the patience of Job.” Whoever came up with that one must never have read the Bible either. Because when you read the book of Job, what you see is a man who is impatient like crazy. Obnoxious in all his complaining about the injustice and unfairness of life. He just goes on and on and doesn’t give up. Broken record.

You know I am not guilty (he says to God)

and there is no one to deliver me out of your hand.

Your hands fashioned and made me

and now you turn and destroy me.

On and on and on. Job also takes an oath affirming his integrity and righteousness, invoking God to curse him if his oath is false. Biblical scholars tells us that all of this is laid out in such a way that lawyers would recognize as a formal lawsuit. Yes, Job is actually challenging God to appear in court, and if God doesn’t, then Job’s oath of innocence stands. He is cleared of all charges. Talk about chutzpah!

So no wonder God appears, and he’s not happy. Out of the whirlwind, God appears:

Who is this that darkens counsel

by words without knowledge?

Gird up your loins like a man,

I will question you, and you shall declare unto me.

Nothing that God goes on to say or show Job speaks to his particular predicament. God at no time confesses, says, OK, I’m sorry, it was a stupid little bet, Satan was getting too big for his britches once again and I couldn’t resist taking him down a notch… No. All God does is overwhelm Job with an abundance vision of the grandeur and majesty of creation. The foundations of the earth, the sea, the dwelling place of light, the storehouses of snow and hail, the constellations, clouds and rain and lightning, and on and on….

God doesn’t give an answer like the writer of Ecclesiastes does. Ecclesiastes gives words, but God goes beyond words, gives experience. And it is more than enough. Job comes away transformed. The book ends with his restoration, with his wealth and health and family restored—and every Bible scholar I’ve ever read sees this as a cheap ending, completely unsatisfying, a shame. But I see it as a culmination of the entire book. For think about it. Job knows first hand how breath-like life is—how pleasure can turn to suffering on a dime. When that happens, you don’t want any more pleasure. You don’t want to invest yourself in something that is so unreliable. You don’t want any more riches, you don’t want any more children, you don’t want any more health. More children, more wealth, more health are just invitations to more pain. Yet Job comes away from his encounter with God able to invest in life anew. He can begin again. He is able to receive the joy of restoration even though he knows all too well that life is crooked and he serves a God who is crooked who might test him again at any moment, take away all that he has yet again. But he accepts his new life unconditionally. He can live in the moment like a Zen Master.

The path there is chutzpah, to begin with. If you are feeling the injustice and unfairness of life so deeply that you hate your world, good. But don’t stop there. Flow with the intensity of your feeling until it corners you into an encounter with the glory of the Sacred, the glory of the abundant Spirit of Life. Ride your discontent all the way to God. God will come to you. Because the God of the Bible understands. The God of the Bible knows what it is like to hate life. This is the same God, remember, who destroyed the entire world with a flood, and ever since has been tempted again and again to destroy. But the God of the Bible grows over time. The God of the Bible changes over time. And perhaps this God will share with you what He shared with Job. That despite all, despite its crookedness, a crookedess the runs through God’s own heart, life is still worth loving, still worth caring for. The majesty of creation. The crooked God. The precious fragile lives that are yours and mine.

In sacred mystery, all are lifted up.