Archive for December, 2010

Contrary to popular belief, the sages who stand behind the biblical anthology of proverbs do not flatter themselves for having an understanding of the world all sewn up.

The maker of proverbs is a student of the world who, for all the order and pattern he discerns, is left astonished by reality’s inscrutable mysteries. On balance the proverbialist stands more in awe of the world than in control of it.

Yet this capacity to marvel must usually be detected between the lines. One sees it, for example, in the juxtaposition of proverbs that on the surface seem to contradict each other. The anthologist knows that they do not, but rather that wisdom takes the shape of working out just which truth seems more pertinent for this moment of complex reality. There is always a bit of guessing, always the need for the ‘judgment call’.

One notes the capacity for wonder also as the counterpart to the sheer audacity of making proverbs. To state things as unequivocably as the proverbs do is, in the hands of a sensitive student of the world, a reckoning with the fact that they do not always turn out to be that way. It is a pointing in a safe direction, a description of 80% of a peeled-back onion. There are always contingencies. There is always the unknown. There remains at all times the possibility of exception. Any sympathetic reader of proverbs—or for that matter, any modern user of a proverb, whether ancient or recent—knows this and does not insist upon silly absolutisms.

Yet if this understated recognition of the world’s wonder lies below the surface, between the lines, barely visible amid warp and woof in the Bible’s proverbial anthology, it occasionally blossoms to the point of articulation. One such florescence occurs amid the ‘numerical proverbs’ of the thirtieth chapter:

Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a girl.

Wisdom has its limits. Wonder abides at the seam where human understanding is joined to what cannot truly be known.

Eagles soar, the very picture of magnificent serendipity. A snake casts its curling line sideways and yet moves forward on a Spring morning’s sun-warmed rock. A ship, winds changing and sails flying, finds its way across a sea too wide for measuring and puts in to safe harbor. A man, full up with flow charts and deadlines and bills, looks into a woman’s eyes and says three words that throw it all into jeopardy.

There is no doubt that knowledge advances, explains, masters, and controls. The boundaries along which awe must make its home are shifting lines.

Yet the day when a man can no longer scribble his short list of ‘things too wonderful for me’ becomes, in a sense, the date of his death.


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Words matter. Sometimes they wound. At points they murder.

The Bible treats the power of words with remarkable care. It knows they can give life, or take it.

With stark parallelism, the one-hundred-fortieth psalm casts its light upon the destructive power of the slanderer, wishing his absence from the community with the same vehemence that would deny long life to the one who exercises violence by more conventional means:

Do not let the slanderer be established in the land;
let evil speedily hunt down the violent! (Psalm 140:11 NRSV)

Because human opinion is fickle and vulnerable to eloquent lies, slander is to be considered a dangerous habit. Where freedom of speech has enjoyed its unquestioned and totalitarian libertinism, we find it difficult to imagine that a community should see the ‘merely’ verbal violence of slander as a lethal matter. We fool ourselves.

Words matter. They shape conscience, society, and practice. They ennoble the city, they enrage the mob.

Weapons and strong arms gone perverse spill blood. Words do, too.

So, this counter-deceptive prayer: Do not let the slanderer be established in the land.

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The Proverbs manage to blend pragmatic hope with pessimistic appraisal of a world that suffers a nagging defect at its core. If this mix approximates to the life experience of many readers, this may in part explain the enduring appeal of this wisdom anthology, to say nothing of its instructive value.

Though wisdom’s voice does not cross over into despair, it probes the case for pessimism with a certain valor.

The leech has two daughters. ‘Give! Give!’ they cry. There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, ‘Enough!’: the grave, the barren womb, land, which is never satisfied with water, and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’

As sentient human beings capable not only of suffering but of reflecting upon the fact that we do so, we find that life itself seems often to be under assault. Murphy’s Law—the stuff of modern-day folk wisdom—rings true because our wounds and bruises remind us that so many things can go wrong at any given moment, and that many of them do.

The biblical proverbialist, too, knows of a certain relentless campaign that seems to be waged at most times and at all opportunity against peace and productivity. The leech, for example, never ceases to suck a creature’s life-blood.

Grave, frustrated womb, thirsty land, consuming fire. These ubiquitous cancers keep up their incessant narrative that the world—to lapse yet again into folk wisdom—is not our home.

Yet this world, at the same time, is our home. The Proverbs know this if they know anything at all.

Here is where we sort wisdom’s long view from folly’s immediacy, declare our preference, make our choice. Here is where we know YHWH’s care or fall prey to accident in its apparent absence. Here is where we construct a family, build a home, learn to read, cradle our grandchildren, plant a tree whose fruit will delight another generation’s mouth, not our own. Here is where we invest that portion of our being that is capable of doing good.

Here is where we lean into insatiable entropy in a faintly quixotic—but YHWH-endorsed—effort to construct a world worth the trouble of it all.

Or chase the wind.

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Distance is not always what it seems.

The psalms have in common with the book of Isaiah a penchant for inverting the normal correspondences of distance and proximity. Employing the overlap between spatial and moral concepts of height, these voices of the biblical anthology claim that YHWH in his supreme elevation is paradoxically closer to those who are spiritually low than to those who exalt themselves.

For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly;
but the haughty he perceives from far away. (Psalm 138:6 NRSV)

Pride consists in taking oneself high, near—one might suppose—to God. The psalmist will have nothing of the calculus that equates self-elevation (our English translations go for moral connotations via words like ‘haughtiness’, but the Hebrew text will not abandon the concrete notion of height or altitude) with achievement.

Do you want to be near to YHWH, the writer appears to ask his reader? Do you crave access to the Most High?

Then stay low. YHWH—very high—hangs with the humble.

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The abstract of this article reads as follows:

The purpose of this study is to critique some of the prevalent theories regarding the biblical alphabetic acrostics and to expose a previously unrecognized feature that most of the acrostics share: ‘Alphabetical thinking’ manifests itself differently in each poem; however, one common thread in most of the acrostics is the more prevalent use of the qatalּ form instead of the yiqtol form as compared to other poetry. This is likely a function of the versatility of the qatal to fit both the acrostic artifice and the acrostic style (aspectual orientation in particular). Two psalms, one acrostic and one non-acrostic, are analyzed and their verb usage compared. Three avenues of further study are proposed.

Noting the ‘belittlement’ of the Bible’s acrostic poems as a ‘silly trick’ that has been manifest from some quarters, Giffone attempts to allow the ‘acrostic form’ and the ‘acrostic style’ to speak for themselves.

The article helpfully surveys the absence of unifying form-critical qualities across the biblical acrostics and quasi-acrostics with the exception of the guiding role played by the alphabet itself. His article also brings the reader current with representative views regarding the purpose of the acrostics. These range from the assumption of ideological purpose on the one extreme (for example, the construal of order in turbulent times) through the thesis that ‘alphabetical thinking’ represents a memory aid and on to the minimalist idea that the arrangement is a mere aesthetic artifice. The author probes the higher-than-usual occurrence of qatal forms over prefixed yiqtol forms in the acrostic poems without evidently embracing the simple explanation that the prefixed Hebrew verb severely restricts the alphabetical possibilities and so cedes the artistic ground it normally occupies to the more alphabetically versatile qatal. After detailing various ways in which the biblical acrostics manifest their formal idiosyncrasy (both strictly and messily), Giffone elaborates a ‘test case’ via comparison of Psalms 32 and 34, with uncertain results. To this reader’s eyes, Giffone suspects that an ideological purpose lies behind ‘alphabetical thinking’ but does not find clear evidence in his study that this is so.

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The abstract of this article reads as follows:

J.M. Allegro has convincingly shown that the archaic Hebrew relative pronoun זה can function as a genitive marker in a common Semitic pattern Noun Pronoun Noun (cf. Aramaic bayta di-malka). So far, it has been assumed that once זה was replaced by אשׁר this pattern was no longer possible in Hebrew. The current paper offers data which indicate that at least in Biblical Hebrew אשׁר can still function as a genitive marker.

This excellent article convincingly argues the case that זה was replace by אשׁר as ‘a lexical replacement rather than a syntactic change’.

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The abstract of Shapira’s article reads as follows:

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1895) is considered the pioneer of feminist literature; after her, in the 1950s, came Simone De Beuvoir (The Second Sex), and the latest crop of feminist writers includes Phyllis Trible, Mieke Bal, Ester Fuchs, Cheryl Exum, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Ilana Pardes, and many others. These women deal also with the Bible, as they claim that the female characters, such as Eve and Miriam, have a great influence on the personal and social status of women until today. This is especially true in the Christian world, whose cultural base was the Bible.

The article presents an overview of seven areas in the Bible which point up the equality, and even the superiority of women, and our conclusions are: A) The Bible, which is mainly patriarchal, has an additional, parallel direction, in which there is a clear trend of feminine equality; B) The majority in the Bible is religious, that is, equality of the woman as a person before God, like the equality of each person within the human race; C) From this we see that the Jewish religion, as portrayed in the Bible, contains the elements which form the theological and historical base of equality; D) A possible conclusion from this work is that this ‘feminine’ side of the Bible, from Sarah and Miriam, may become the base at this time for spiritual renewal.

Shapira approaches the text synchronically. The author treats the biblical material responsibly, not supposing that conventional conclusions about the biblical text’s ‘patriarchal’ convictions can be overturned. However, Shapira finds a kind of counter-current to patriarchality that can be accessed as an alternative and subordinate biblical ideology that may be employed to construct a biblically-dependent ideology that hints at something like gender equality even if the data do not prove enough ‘to testify to biblical equality between men and women in the sense which modern democracy defines “equality”.

The author appears both to place value upon the biblical data for constructing an adequate contemporary ideology and to reckon with the possibility that this contribution may manifest itself in the minimalistic shape of a discernible counter-ideology in the biblical materials.

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Like others of the twelve ‘Minor Prophets’, the book of Habakkuk is not an easy ready.

The writer reels under the unceasing violence of a society run amok and besieged by tormentors whom it has seemed to invite to their terrible task. Masochism at a civilizational level might not be too harsh a description of the conduct that Habakkuk laments.

Anticipating modern inquiry into ‘divine absence’, Habakkuk wonders aloud how YHWH can remain silent in the face of unrelenting calamity. Although YHWH responds to this prophet’s plea, he does not appear in the prescribed manner. All is not suddenly set right with the whoosh of the deity’s arrival on the scene. Yet neither is Habakkuk’s complaint left untouched as an adequate description of what is really going on.

In the end, the book credits Habakkuk with an extraordinary declaration.

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19 NRSV)

In famine and disappointment, the prophet discovers the capacity to praise his unresponsive God. And in this, he finds strength.

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The biblical Proverbs know the corrosive effect of things. No naivete lingers in these lines, only the most intelligent realism.

Throughout this biblical book, scarcity with honor has been recognized as an almost distinguished condition, or at least a circumstance that is preferable to familiar alternatives. Wealth, too, has been appraised as a worthy blessing so long as the heart and the conduct of the one blessed by it are well tended.

Yet the passage before us turns to assess the real danger that both poverty and riches bear within themselves. Suggestively, these economic conditions of apparent woe and weal, respectively, are placed alongside ‘falsehood and lies’ on a short list of things worth avoiding.

Two things I ask of you, O LORD; do not refuse me before I die:

Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.

Although the Proverbs underscore the capacity of the wise man or woman to shape life and even to mold a desired future, this articulated fear reckons with forces that are not so easily wrestled into blessing. Finding themselves in such a place, the Proverbs loose a rare prayer to the God who can manage invisible threat.

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When the New Testament describes the ‘word’ of the Lord as ‘living’, ‘active’, and ‘potent’, it is by no means staking claim to a new truth. Rather, it aligns itself with the Hebrew Bible’s insistence that YHWH reveals his own heart and mind by speaking.

The biblical tradition privileges speaking and hearing as the principal means—though not the exclusive way—by which the Creator discloses himself to his creatures. Frequently, we are told that those who would hear face the daunting task of developing, disciplining, and refining their powers of audition. God speaks, one might say, but not everyone hears.

Proverbial wisdom places rather less emphasis upon the speaking Creator and relatively more on the capacity of the observant learner to trace his ways in creation. So it is a little surprising to find, near the end of the biblical anthology of Proverbs, this nearly prophetic assurance and warning:

Every word of God is flawless;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.

Arguably, this counsel comes into our hands as legacy of the non-Israelite ‘Agur’. It may be significant in this light that the word translated as ‘God’ is not the ordinary Hebrew expression (Elohim) but rather than less common Eloah. Perhaps a ‘pagan’ sage addresses Israel with a truth that familiarity may have obscured.

Every word spoken by God is without defect. His word—or, better, the speaking God—becomes for the attentive listener a secure hiding place in a world where both words and deeds too often prove hostile and even lethal.

The speech of this conversational Creator is so valuable, so sure—elsewhere we are told that it is also sweet like honey—that modification of it should not be risked. We blabber-mouthed humans too quickly add to it our accretions, bend it into our shape, make it sound like we sound when we talk.

Agur the outsider knows how dangerous such verbosity becomes when the most important thing is to listen, to hear, to be taught, in the midst of the luxury that it is to live before a God who speaks.

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