Sunday 9 August 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (17/50) – Words for the Wise

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the seventeenth of the fifty emails.

A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies…
She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar…
She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard…
She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy…
She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes…
She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue…
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Honour her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Proverbs 31:10-31

The major turns in the biblical story – God’s promise to Abraham, his redemption from slavery, his covenant with the people, the giving of the law, the establishment of the monarchy, the building of the temple – are conspicuous by their absence in the biblical wisdom literature.

As it turns out, wisdom is rooted further back – in creation – grounded in the orderly regulation of the world by the creator God, even while acknowledging (as Job and Ecclesiastes do in different ways) that there are great mysteries woven into the fabric of life in God’s world. Wisdom is not, therefore, a ‘secular’ alternative to other, more ‘sacred’ parts of the Bible. Nor is it surprising that Israel is able to engage with surrounding cultures, gleaning insight where they reflect the truth that is God’s truth, because of the recognition that he is the source of wisdom.

This is made clear in the opening of the book of Proverbs, where it is said that ‘the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom’ (1:7). If wisdom literature is concerned with living wisely in God’s world, then fear of the Lord is the first principle of such a life, where wisdom does not begin in human autonomy, but in deep reverence of the Lord God; where wisdom is not merely intellectual capacity, but linked with discipline and discernment, shrewdness and skill; where wisdom produces a certain kind of character and demonstrates itself in particular sorts of actions. And, what’s more, which operates in every sphere of life – at home, at the city gate, in the market square – and which embraces the daily rhythms of eating, drinking, working, sleeping.

This is powerfully portrayed in the Bible’s fullest description of the regular activity of an ‘ordinary’ person – the woman who ‘fears the Lord’ (31:30), whose wisdom is demonstrated in her everyday activities of being a wife to her husband, a mother to her children, providing for her family, managing her household, engaging in international trade in cloths and textiles, negotiating the purchase of fields, looking out for the poor.

Insofar as the woman is a picture of wisdom itself, matching the portrayal of ‘woman wisdom’ in earlier chapters of Proverbs, it’s applicable to men as much as to women, setting out the ideal of practical wisdom, embracing actions and speech, worked out concretely in the kitchen, on the field, at the desk, wherever God has called us.

For further reflection and action:

1. Read and reflect on the whole of Proverbs 31:10-31, perhaps pausing to consider how the ‘fear of the Lord’ might inform your own activities today.

2. How ‘air-brushed’ is the woman of Proverbs 31? Is she a role model for all women everywhere or a male fantasy of the perfect spouse, placing yet more unrealistic pressure on women? Or something else?

3. Song of Songs is often held to belong to the Bible’s wisdom literature. What might this suggest about how the poems should be interpreted?

4. If wisdom literature looks back to creation, it also looks forward to Christ who is the wisdom of God (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:24, 30). If Christ is the wisdom of God, what difference might that make, or what added insights might it provide, to our reading of Old Testament wisdom literature?

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