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Archive for January, 2011

The high value of wisdom is dynamic rather than static.

It is a gift—the Proverbs also consider it an achievement—that keeps on giving. Some forms of wealth hold their value but do not generate more. Wisdom is active, catalytic, interest-bearing, expansive. Wisdom adapts to a changing environment and proves its worth with suppleness as circumstances evolve.

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. (Proverbs 3:13–15 NRSV)

The wise person is no mere repository of information. Rather, the sage takes in his predicament—or that of his community—and knows what to do. The wise woman does not live encased in fear of the unknown, for she has the capacity to deal with the unknown when it shows its face. The wise man does does not merely bear information that will prove useful tomorrow. He walks toward tomorrow with supreme usefulness.

Silver and gold are good things. Yet they must be stored, secured, and transported. Each stage of the process throws up risks and liabilities.

Wisdom, by contrast, works its way into the warp and woof of a human life.

It requires neither protection nor heavy lifting, though the cultivation of it is the most arduous effort.

Where the wise person goes, it goes too.

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The eleventh psalm has often been quoted as a counsel of despair.

If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? (Psalm 11:3 NRSV)

Whether as a summons to vote this or that political party into office or a warning against the dismantling power of a culture’s decay, the psalmist is brought in to verify that righteous deeds become impotent when the wider culture has crossed a certain threshold of barbarism.

Most modern English translations of the Bible make a critical placement of the quotation marks that turns these words into the counsel of the despairing who have lost their confidence in YHWH. They are probably right to do so.

In the LORD I take refuge; how can you say to me, ‘Flee like a bird to the mountains; for look, the wicked bend the bow, they have fitted their arrow to the string, to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart. If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?’

Read in this way, the psalm does not counsel despair. It refutes it.

For two reasons, the poet reckons that discouragement is implausible. First, the discouraging word directed at him does not take into account his own programmatic decision to trust in YHWH.

Second, such pessimism fails to fathom the searching, testing gaze of YHWH, who has not left his throne. Nor does it contemplate YHWH’s moral passions.

The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD’S throne is in heaven. His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind. The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence. On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulfur; a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. For the LORD is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.

As long as YHWH still hates the lover—splendid paradox—of violence, the discouraging word rings emptily. So long as YHWH still loves righteous deeds and brings the doer of them into intimate conversation with himself, despair is not only implausible. It sounds faintly ridiculous.

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We think of faith as a matter of the heart.

Each man, woman, or child has faith. Faith is mine, faith is private, faith is the exertion of a person’s will against the privations, limitations, and frustrations of circumstance.

So we believe, for our culture has taught us well. We have been good learners.

Yet over and above the indelible individuality of faith and the experience of it, the biblical witness allows us to glimpse shared faith.

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’

In the famous story of the paralytic whose friends bore him to Jesus, these men would not be stopped. Although Matthew’s telling does not linger over such details, we learn elsewhere that they cut their way through a roof and lowered the man practically on top of Jesus. Crowds clogged the doorway and faith would not permit postponement.

Curiously—for us, at least—the text discerns Jesus’ motivation to heal this man in the faith of more than one individual. It is reasonable, though perhaps not necessary, to imagine that the paralyzed man shared the adventurous confidence of his friends. They appear convinced that—if only Jesus could me made aware of their friend’s plight—he would do something. The text does not find it urgent to localize faith in them or in him or in any one.

Jesus sees their faith, turns to a man who has forgotten how to move his limbs, and pronounces his sins forgiven.

They walk away, the man’s litter tucked under someone’s arm.

Sometimes we carry a fallen friend to Jesus, believing—almost—for him.

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Both the righteous sufferer and the gloating murderer speak to the absence of God.

The former employs a question mark, the latter an exclamation point. So do they determine their own destiny.

The tenth psalm bursts upon its reader with one of the psalter’s classic, pained questions:

Why, O LORD, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10: 1-2 NRSV)

When the righteous sufferer addresses the hiddenness of God, he knows that something is wrong and pleads for it to be set right.

By contrast, the troubler of the poor affirms God’s absence as the convenient status quo.

They stoop, they crouch,
and the helpless fall by their might.
They think in their heart, ‘God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.’

The righteous lament God’s hiddenness. The wicked declare it their stage and prance blood-stained and cackling upon it.

The psalms know that YHWH’s absence is not the final word, even as they plead for the void to be filled by his raised arm. The wicked imagine that—since no just Governor watches or cares—all things are possible.

The righteous prays for resolution. The wicked assumes continuity.

The world hangs on a prayer.

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When the gospels abbreviate Jesus’ work, they include healing diseased people as a constituent aspect. Jesus healed, often, regularly, purposefully. It is not only an act of compassion on his part. It becomes evidence that his proclamation of God’s kingdom breaking into human experience has credibility.

In the light of this consistency of activity, each of the three snapshots of human healing that Matthews sews together is remarkable for its idiosyncrasy.

When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’

The leper’s euphoria is tempered by Jesus’ unanticipated emphasis on process. Jesus insists that the man subject the joy he must have felt to the religious and social mechanics of the community’s equilibrium.

The experience of healing is undeniably about him. Yet, at the same time, it is not.

This, at least, is the plausible comment that routinely comes to this passage. It may be entirely adequate. One wonders, however, whether Jesus also glimpsed an opportunity to shape the man’s persona in a way that pivoted not on personal suffering or ostracism but rather on the wider health of his people.

In this light, the generic observation that Jesus heals falls short of the particular touch that he brings to each of his counterparts.

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’ The centurion answered, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another, “Come,” and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this,” and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.’ And the servant was healed in that hour.

Here the interplay between Jesus’ generic project of healing and his particular attention to the unique contour of a human being’s life takes shape as a variation upon a developing theme.

The centurion’s analogy—I trust you to heal, Jesus, for I understand both authorship and agency—claims Jesus’ attention. The man who might have exercised a barely ornamental function in the vignette comes vocally to the center. Not only does the man come to be visibly admired by Jesus. He is also designated a model of faith and a precursor of a worldwide family of followers of Jesus who respond to Israel’s Messiah as he has. Though Bible readers do not know his name, they rehearse his story to this day, and try to find trust like his.

When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’ (Matthew 8:1–17 NRSV)

One hesitates in a gender-obsessed day to make the simple observation that many women—not least in traditional societies that have not known strong winds of change—find deep honor in serving domestically and in hosting. It would not surprise that Peter’s mother-in-law should fit this pattern.

Yet she is bed-ridden and fevered, unable to lift a hand when Peter’s master and his entourage turn up at her door.

Jesus heals her, as we might expect a serial healer to do.

Yet Matthew captures the detail which the reader trained by his text might now come almost to expect: she becomes in the story an individual, active, fulfilled, and contributing to a cause larger than and beyond her self.

Jesus heals, yes. But the gospel wants more from us than generic observation and much more than sloganeering.

Matthew presses hard with his lines: Jesus heals this one. That one. And me.

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The abstract of this article reads as follows:

In this essay, I attempt to inscribe the mysterious location known as ‘the cities of the sea’ (כרמי הים) onto the map of rabbinic scholarship. Classical rabbinic authors look toward this mythic locale for three reasons: (1) to discuss tales of sin (and sometimes salvation); (2) to offer definitions and clarifications of obscure words; and (3) to explain halakhic exceptions. Through an examination כרמי הים in the classical rabbinic corpus, I argue that ‘the cities of the sea’ should be understood as a locus of rabbinic pedagogy and not necessarily viewed as an actual, mappable location.

Rosenblum argues suggestively, if on necessarily slim evidence, that ‘the cities of the sea’ in rabbinic discussion is a ‘pedagogical space’, serving a ‘discursive site for pedagogical purposes. It is meant to be turned toward for instruction, and not necessarily to be located on Google Earth.’

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The abstract of this article reads as follows:

Life in this world is the only life, according to the ancient biblical belief. Robert Alter (Uri) in the introduction to his translation of the book of Psalms (2007) explains why he sometimes chose one word and not another to remain faithful to the biblical belief of Psalms, and discarded here and there the excess baggage of belief in the world to come, which throughout the generatins has clung to certain words and expressions that appear in the psalms. Two texts from Modern literature, one Hebrew, the other Russian, exemplify in this article the tension between belief in this world and belief in the world to come of two female protagonists, independently of each other. The last part of the article relates to a personal event that illumines something about Robert Alter, the man and the translator.

The author’s poignant tribute to the great Robert Alter’s method and legacy highlights Alter’s option for shedding the ‘baggage’ attributable to Christian quotation, doctrine, and eschatology in favor of the concreteness that is arguably native to the Hebrew psalms themselves. Ben-Dov’s development of two moments in literature in which the protagonists found it necessary to negotiate ‘this-worldliy’ and ‘other-worldly’ reception of the psalms frames Alter’s choice of the former in the introduction to his celebrated translation of the biblical psalms.

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It is too easy to imagine that God is in the fire.

He is often absent there.

Though it is wrong to fear the extraordinary, it is equally misguided to crave it. We lust after raised voices and clenched fists when our nourishment comes cradled in whisper and caress.

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15–20, NRSV)

Jesus routinely follows precedent in biblical wisdom by privileging simple, steady obedience over its ambitious alternatives.

Prophets will come, he warns his followers. No doubt they will be impressive, disturbing, and spiritually invigorating. Such prophetic voices, raised in anger or illumination, are for Jesus a dime a dozen.

‘Show me their fruit’, he says, reducing their appeal to that feature of human behavior that is most difficult both to produce and to reproduce: righteous deeds.

One must not forget that Jesus and the tradition that treasures his words and brings them to our ears revere, to name just one, a John the Baptist. Jesus and his earliest witnesses are not opposed to sizzling flame on the tongue of a prophet. Indeed, they tell us, one must not dare the mistake of ignoring such a heavenly torch.

Yet if simple righteousness is absent from their conduct, they are like a fruitless tree. Fire goes there, but not the spoken, impressive kind. Just fire. Consuming fire. No glory there.

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The abstract of this article reads as follows:

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics serve as a more useful heuristic model for understanding the moral vision of the book of Proverbs than Socrates’ ethical theory. While Socratic ethics provide a general guide to portions of the sapiential material, Aristotle’s emphasis on the organic relationship between the moral and intellectual virtues as well as the role of character in ethical decisions accounts for the variegated materials within the book as a whole. In the view of the differences between Aristotle and Socrates’ ethical theory and their relationship to the book of Proverbs, Aristotle’s ethics illuminate the moral dimensions of the document. Similar to Aristotle, the sages present the collaboration of character and intellect as the acme of moral development: character proves the constitutional base for the appropriation of wisdom and determines the goal of virtuous activity, while wisdom identifies the means for achieving that goal in a particular situation. This teleological thesis captures the fundamental features of sapiential ethics.

Ansberry discerns in ‘virtue ethics’ or ‘character ethics’ an amenable spirit vis-à-vis the Old Testament’s sapiential materials. Yet the author finds Aristotle’s emphasis upon character in knowing and doing right to be closer to the biblical Proverbs than the more purely intellectual approach of Socrates. Socrates—arguably over against not only Aristotle but also biblical wisdom—is more sanguine about the path from knowledge to virtue, since—per a Socratic axiom—virtue is almost equivalent to knowledge.

When the full range of Old Testament proverbial wisdom is taken into account, knowledge does not per se produce wisdom. Rather, a virtuous disposition is required for that alchemy to have its way in the cultivation of moral activity.

Particularly in the ‘sentence literature’ is the close relationship of moral virtue and intellectual virtue placed in evidence. Socrates’ dictum that no one willingly does evil is here called into question. For both Aristotle and the biblical sages ‘unethical behavior is not simply the product of ignorance’.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, according to Ansberry, moral virtues are cultivated by both habituation and instruction, a two-fold path to virtue that finds echo in the Proverbs. So too does the importance of perception keep virtue in both texts from becoming a mere set of universal principles. Sensitivity, contextualization, and shrewd judgment are required for the human actor to act righteously. Though Aristotle’s ethics do not required divine disclosure, they agree with biblical wisdom in these respects (but see also approaches to the biblical proverbs as ‘secular’ material).

Whereas Socrates usefulness as a heuristic model for understanding the biblical proverbs is distinctly limited, Aristotle’s ethics excel by comparison.

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Everywhere, we are told to plan for the future. This is no idle counsel. Tomorrow relentlessly and suddenly becomes today.

Yet Jesus’ radical counsel removes the demands of the future from the licit objects of our fretting. Tomorrow? Fuggedaboudit.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing?

Such teaching exercises upon us an influence that oscillates between great release and immense frustration.

We want to live carefree. Yet we cannot. We know neither the language nor the rhythm of such trust.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

Jesus bring us closer, here, to the engine of such existential ease. Indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

Here, at least, our need is legitimated. We are not fools to imagine that we require these things.

Foolishness is banished to the space occupied by worry about them. It is there that we are not to stand, there that our feet and hands find themselves unfit for an alien task, there that we stumble over obstacles we cannot see. But our heavenly Father knows, thus we can rest.

Jesus’ summons is not to mental relaxation for its own sake. We are not relieved of effort. Rather, we are directed to marshal our energies towards a particularly focused project.

What we are to abandon is not the irrefutable, economic sine qua non of life on earth. That would be gnostic self-deception. Rather, we are to trust our heavenly Father with all of that, if Jesus is to believed, while we bend our shoulder to this.

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Jesus does not here call his own to self-abandonment or an excessively other-worldly state of mind. In fact, with stunning realism, today is defined in terms of its freight of trouble.

Jesus calls us to focus on the one thing we can do something about. Remarkably, it is a project that, in bearing his Father’s own name, seems as though it might have been the one thing that lies beyond our reach: the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Before us lies one of the Christian story’s great reversals. We are told that the one thing we might be reasonably expected to accomplish—providing for our future—lies outside our control and in better hands than ours. Jesus’ Father and ours has that one covered. Paradoxically, the matter toward which we are to give ourselves heart and soul is owned entirely by God, in fact named after him: his kingdom and his righteousness.

Things are—ever, always—not as they appear.

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