THE BOOK OF WISDOM
INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS
MICHAEL KOLARCIK, S.J.
This book has been referred to over the centuries and still today as the book of Wisdom (from the Vulgate) or the Wisdom of Solomon (from the Septuagint). The latter title derives from the middle section of the book where the unnamed speaker is immediately recognized as Solomon—the king who preferred the wisdom of God to fame and riches. In Jewish tradition, Solomon became a model for the "true sage" in whom the best of human wisdom and the most ardent faithfulness to the ways of God were joined. Standing under the authority of this figure of Solomon, the unknown author of this work presents us with a dramatic exhortation to seek justice. It is the gift of wisdom that makes it possible to live justly and to receive friendship with God. The extraordinary deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt and the subsequent guidance through the desert testify to the strength of justice and to the wisdom of God. These three concerns—the exhortation to justice, the gift of wisdom, and the deliverance from Egypt—make up the rich tapestry of the three main sections of the Wisdom of Solomon.
The style of writing is clearly poetic with a strong emphasis on paradoxical and forceful images rather than on logical arguments. Yet the images are arranged and orchestrated in such a way as to sustain an argument for justice and faithfulness. In the first part of the book, the Hebrew poetic device of parallelism between lines is used to great effect—so much so that earlier scholars presumed the text had been written first in Hebrew and subsequently translated into Greek, as in the case of Sirach. But the use of such Greek words as those representing "immortality" (ἀθανασία athanasia) and "incorruptibility" (ἀφθαρσία aphtharsia) makes it difficult to imagine a Hebrew original. In any event, we have no references to a Hebrew text of Wisdom, and the most ancient manuscripts that relate the book of Wisdom are in Greek. Furthermore, the latter part of the book makes use of a freer prosaic style of writing that reveals the author’s familiarity and ease with Greek prose.
AUTHOR, DATE, AND PLACE OF COMPOSITION
The first unambiguous reference to the book of Wisdom stems from the second century ce in the writings of Irenaeus (c. 140–202 ce). Two references are made to Wis 2:24 and 12:10: "Everyone follows the desires of his depraved heart, nurturing a wicked jealousy through which death entered the world"; "from generation to generation the Lord gives an opportunity to repent to all those who desire to return."2 References become multiple in the writings of Clement of Alexandria (c. 175–230 ce), who continuously refers to the book of Wisdom and treats it as a canonical book. The book of Wisdom is cited among the list of books held to be canonical by the church in the Muratorian Canon (c. 180–190 ce). Interestingly, in the Muratorian Canon, the book of Wisdom is located among the canonical books of the New Testament.
Although Origen (c. 185–255 ce) cites the book of Wisdom among his writings and commentaries on Scripture, he shares the uncertainty of its canonical status with others. Jerome follows Origen’s hesitancy and accepts as canonical the twenty-two books of the Hebrew canon (according to a certain combination of books), the number of which corresponds to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The greatest impetus for the formal inclusion of the book of Wisdom in the canon of Scripture came from Augustine (354–430 ce). For Augustine, the long and venerable reading of the book of Wisdom in the liturgy by all Christians revealed its veritable canonical status.
However, it was very clear to early Christian writers like Origen and Augustine that the Solomonic authorship of the book was practically impossible. Although many candidates had been proposed (from the nephew of Ben Sira to Philo of Alexandria), there was no consensus regarding the authorship of this fascinating work.
The great affinity between many phrases in the book of Wisdom and in the writings of Philo (c. 20 bce–50 ce) has brought attention to their relationship. Although they share a common set of concerns and many phraseological affinities, there are no clear citations between them. It would be tempting to see in the book of Wisdom the result of Philo’s personal attempt to write a more religious and poetic work over and above the philosophical and allegorical works for which he is famous. The greatest stumbling block to identifying Philo as the author of the book of Wisdom is his penchant for allegorical interpretation and its absence in Wisdom. Similarly, although Wisdom’s personification of wisdom bears similarities to the Logos theology of Philo, the former does not employ platonic philosophical categories as Philo does. Still, the affinities between the two testify to the distinct likelihood that they shared a common cultural background and could not have been far apart in time.
The relationship of the book of Wisdom to Philo suggests the Roman period of Alexandria to be the likely time frame for the book’s composition (30 bce–40 ce). There are many factors to support this time frame and the location of Alexandria in Egypt for the book’s composition. The particular nuances of numerous Greek words and phrases, for example, in the book of Wisdom belong to the first century ce.
The tension between the Jewish community and the Greeks in Alexandria under Roman rule explains the many concerns for justice that abound in the book of Wisdom. Moreover, the author’s familiarity with Greek poetry and philosophy as well as the author’s presupposition that the reader is conversant with Hellenism would suggest a cultural center with strong Jewish participation. Alexandria provides precisely such a cultural context. Under Ptolemy I (323–285), Alexandria became the capital of Egypt. With its museum and library, Alexandria soon became the leading center of Hellenistic philosophy and art. It is not surprising, then, that Alexandria became the focus for the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek.
According to Philo, the Jewish population in Egypt reached one million, and much of it lived in Alexandria. Although that number may be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that the Jewish community was a major force in the economic and cultural fabric of the city. The Jews formed their own politeuma, an organization with economic and educational rights. Such Jewish literary figures as Aristobulos (180–145 bce) and Philo show how far the Jewish community had integrated many aspects of Hellenism into its own tradition. Whether they gained access to the gymnasium or established their own educational centers parallel to those of the Greeks is difficult to establish. What is certain is that their leading figures were thoroughly conversant with Hellenism.
The tension that the author of the book of Wisdom highlights between justice and injustice, between the Egyptians and the righteous, also mirrors the tension between the Jewish community and other inhabitants of Alexandria. Although Alexandrian Jews had been granted certain rights by Emperor Augustus in continuity with the policies of the Ptolemies, the poll tax that was introduced in 24 bce threw the status of the Jewish community into question. The criteria for applying the tax made a distinction among Greek citizens who were exempt, Hellenes who paid a lower tax, and the Egyptian natives who paid the tax in full. The Jews of Alexandria sought to establish Greek citizenship, and the Greeks vehemently barred them from doing so.
The tension reached tragic proportions in 38 ce when the Jews were attacked in a pogrom-like manner. Synagogues were destroyed or desecrated with portraits of Caligula bearing divine titles. The following year, Philo himself led the Jewish delegation to Emperor Caligula to argue for the rights that had originally been granted them by Augustus. But no positive results were forthcoming. With the assassination of Caligula in 41 ce, the Jews revolted in Alexandria. This led the new Emperor Claudius to settle the dispute once and for all with his forceful letter to the Alexandrians in 41 ce. The letter of Claudius essentially maintained the status quo. Greeks were reprimanded for their hostility toward the Jewish community, but the Jews were told to be satisfied with their position and not to strive for Greek citizenship. In effect, even though the letter brought a certain peace to Alexandria, it was a bitter blow to the Jewish community. Without access to the gymnasium, the Jews had no access to Alexandrian citizenship. This restriction paved the way for future strife and rebellion, which would eventually see the annihilation of the Jewish community in Alexandria during Trajan’s suppression of the Jewish revolt in 115–117 ce.
This combination of a thorough familiarity with and respect for the best in Hellenism that the Jewish community manifested, as well as the tension between the Greeks and the Jewish community, makes Alexandria the likely site for the composition of the book of Wisdom. The argument that Wisdom could not have been written in Alexandria if Philo does not mention it or quote it is quite weak if, in fact, Philo and the writer of Wisdom were contemporaries.
The question as to whether the New Testament writers were familiar with the book of Wisdom is difficult to resolve. There are, however, special affinities between Paul and John and the book of Wisdom. But the common phraseology and ideas are general enough to suggest that they arise from common concerns and values rather than from literary dependency.
The two major influences on the author’s thought and arguments in the book of Wisdom are Hellenism and the Hebrew Bible itself. Throughout the argumentation and imaginative language employed in the work, the author essentially retains a Hebrew mentality while conversing in language familiar to various strains within Hellenism. The author has not gone as far as Philo did in applying philosophical categories from Middle Platonism to the interpretation of the biblical stories. Yet, as in the case of Philo, Middle Platonism provided distinctions and concepts that the Wisdom author employed.
Hellenism is, of course, a wide cultural umbrella that covers diverse philosophical systems and cultural values. With Platonism we can see points of contact all through the author’s argumentation: the respect for beauty, the advantage of virtue, the superiority of the soul, the relationship between body and soul, the ethical perspective on justice and injustice. A certain contact may exist between Epicureanism and the author’s presentation of the wicked person’s project in life (Wisdom 2). In this case, the author was making reference to a popular ethical stance of pleasure that the disciples of Epicurus postulated. The author seems to have borrowed a number of terms and phrases from Stoic philosophers without using them in the precise manner of the Stoics. The Stoic concern to convey a coherent presentation of reality that is permanent and in flux is reflected in the interpretation of the plagues. The Neo-Pythagoreans especially flourished in Alexandria in the Roman period and, with their insistence on heavenly immortality, offered a counterbalance to the Stoics. Other motifs that are close to the Pythagoreans find an echo in the imagery of the book of Wisdom: the order of numbers (Wis 11:20b), the metaphor of music for order and harmony in the universe (Wis 19:18), the seriousness of perjury (Wis 14:28–31).
However, the prime source for the author of Wisdom is Scripture itself. Throughout every section of the book of Wisdom, the author makes reference to authoritative images, concepts, and stories from the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.
In the first section, Wis 1:1–6:21, the images from the creation and fall episodes form a veritable backdrop for the author’s arguments on justice, death, and immortality (Genesis 1–3). Moreover, there is a particular concentration on successive images from Isaiah 52–58 that highlights the author’s arguments against injustice and in favor of justice (the suffering servant, the sterile woman, the eunuch, the just, divine judgment).
In the second section, Wis 6:22–11:1, the author builds on the personification of wisdom exemplified in Proverbs 8 and Sirach 24. The prayer for wisdom that the figure of Solomon articulates in Wisdom 9 is formulated through the author’s adaptation of Solomon’s night vision in 1 Kings 3 and 2 Chronicles 1. Finally, Wisdom 10 is a eulogy of salvation history that recounts wisdom’s role in saving and guiding humanity from the time of creation right up to the events of the exodus from Egypt.
The third and largest section, Wis 11:2–19:22, has been termed a "midrash" on the events of the exodus from Egypt and the journeying in the desert. The books of Exodus and Numbers provide the backdrop for the author’s extended treatment of the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt. There are two large digressions on God’s power and mercy and on the critique of false worship. In the course of these digressions, the author makes continuous reference to the prophets. Although the image of the covenant itself does not command a central focus in the book, such related features to the covenant as election, God’s faithfulness, and the responsibility of humans to decide and act constantly emerge throughout all sections of the book.
One feature that may be striking, at first, from a surface reading of the book of Wisdom is the great divergence of imagery and style among its three large sections. The first section displays a dramatic struggle between injustice and virtue, against which the images of life and death constantly emerge. It is a forceful exhortation to justice as if the issue of justice is a matter of life and death for the author and the reader alike. The second section moves almost indiscernibly to a contemplative tranquility. Here the author offers eloquent praise to the wisdom that comes from God and that guides humans effortlessly in their journeys. In the third section, the positive role of wisdom appears to recede into the background, and it is God who intervenes directly in the affairs of the wicked and the righteous during the exodus events. The conflict between the wicked and the just, which we found already in the first part of the book, is exemplified again in the exodus narrative.
All of these differences between the major sections of the book of Wisdom have led scholars to postulate divergent authors for the respective sections. However, studies on the unity of the language have essentially dispelled the theories of diverse authorship, even though different styles of writing were employed. At most, the author may have written these sections over a longer period of time. The surface dissimilarities among the three sections are matched by their deep unity of imagery and purpose.
One particular image that is used throughout all three sections of the book is the positive role of the cosmos. In the first section, the positive function of the forces of creation is set in relief against the backdrop of the struggle between justice and injustice. It is the cosmos itself that God arms to wage a battle against injustice. In the second section, wisdom’s role to save humanity is assured through wisdom’s presence at the creation of the world and humanity. Wisdom and the cosmos are intertwined in order to bring life and prosperity to the just and the wise. In the third section, the author emphasizes the role of the forces of creation in bringing justice to the wicked and sustenance to the righteous.
In terms of the unity of purpose, each section focuses on a particular concern within the author’s overarching argument. The author is attempting to bolster the faith of the Jewish community under attack by powerful forces (such as those present in the Alexandrian community during Roman rule). The first section is an exhortation to justice that attempts to strip away the facade of the power of injustice and unfaithfulness. It would have been attractive to many Jews to give up their tradition in favor of Greek citizenship. The author counters such deprecation of the Jewish tradition by unmasking the powerlessness of injustice in the face of virtuous justice. Essentially, it is a dissuasion from injustice and death. The second section is more of a persuasion to the faith through the beauty and power of wisdom and virtue. Finally, the last part of the second section (chap. 10) and the midrashic treatment of the exodus events (chaps. 11–19) give historical support to the author’s message. The wisdom of God has continuously accompanied humanity to bring the righteous to prosperity and well-being even through trials and tribulation (chap. 10). God has intervened with the forces of the cosmos itself to bring the wicked to justice and to sustain the righteous (chaps. 11–19).
The book of Wisdom in its entirety does not fit into any particular genre. The work is the result of a creative and imaginative writer who has produced a rather unique piece of literature. Two forms of discourse that stem from Aristotelian rhetoric have been proposed: Protreptic discourse, which is governed by exhortation and persuasion, and the Epideictic discourse of the Encomium, which praises a figure and entertains throughout a sustained argument. Both genres, however, include exhortation and praise. The question is, Which is at the service of the other? Since we are lacking extant sources and examples of these forms of literature from the time of the book of Wisdom, it is not an issue that can be easily decided. David Winston has summarized well the situation regarding the genre: "It is thus extremely difficult to determine whether Wisdom is an epideictic composition with an admixture of protreptic, or essentially a protreptic with a considerable element of epideictic."9
The author makes use of several forms of writing throughout the work. There is the diatribe, especially noticeable in the first part, where the author sets up speakers in order to critique their arguments. There are literary diptychs, which make use of the comparing and contrasting features of synkrisis. These are especially noticeable in the first part of the book, where the lives of the just are contrasted with the lives of the wicked, and in the later part of the book, where the Egyptians are contrasted with the Israelites. The second part of the work makes use of the eulogy in order to sustain the contemplation of the beauty and attractiveness of wisdom. Finally, though it is difficult to call the style of writing known as a midrash a genre because of its loose structure, it is clear that the author makes use of this general style of interpretation when treating biblical texts. In the first part of the book, the author employs a series of images from Isaiah in a manner that has been called midrashic or homiletic. In commenting on the events of the exodus in the last part of the book, the author is clearly following the events as recounted in Exodus and Numbers and attempting to give them a specific interpretation from a unique point of view. This is typical of midrashic writing. All of these styles of writing have been combined by a skilled writer who was able to make use of devices and forms according to the movement of the argument.
The book of Wisdom is a highly structured literary work. It is helpful for the interpretation of specific passages to keep in mind the overall structure of the book and the structure of individual sections. The structures that give shape to the author’s argument and arrangement of images are often dense. They help to bring images in relation to each other, both for comparison and for contrast.
There are two literary structures that the author particularly favors: the concentric structure and the parallel structure of literary diptychs. A concentric structure derives its name from the geometric image of circles sharing a common center (ABCDD′C′B′A′). By paralleling phrases, images, or types of speech at the beginning of a unit to the end, the author skillfully draws the reader’s attention to comparisons, to contrasts, and to development. Often the center of such a unit contains a focus of concentration. Parallel structures draw together images or ideas in parallel fashion (ABCDA′B′C′D′). The term literary diptych is derived from iconography, where two images are set side by side for the purpose of complementarity or contrast. The parallel structure of literary diptychs is particularly suited for developing and emphasizing contrasts.
The opening section of the book is formulated in a rather elegant concentric structure:
Even within this concentric structure, the parallel diptych system is used in the central unit, where the situation of the just is contrasted with that of the wicked:
The second section of the book of Wisdom contains two concentric structures—7:1–8:21, Solomon’s desire for wisdom, and 9:1–18, Solomon’s prayer for wisdom—and a parallel structure of diptychs—10:1–21, where God’s wisdom is shown to have intervened in the life of humanity in order to save the just.
Chapter 10 consists of seven brief diptychs that show how wisdom accompanied various persons from the Torah and helped them against adversaries: (1) 10:1–3, Adam/Cain; (2) 10:4, Noah/those who perished in the flood; (3) 10:5, Abraham/the nations of Babel; (4) 10:6–8, Lot/those who perished in the cities of the plain and his wife; (5) 10:6–12, Jacob/Esau and his personal enemies; (6) 10:13–14, Joseph/his brothers and Potiphar’s wife; (7) 10:15–21, the Israelites and Moses/their oppressors.
The final section of the book is a rather developed series of five diptychs that relate the punishment of the plagues to a particular sin of the Egyptians. The contrast in each diptych focuses on the means of punishment against the oppressors and the means of salvation in favor of the righteous. In addition, two major digressions occur within the second diptych. The digression on false worship (chaps. 13–15) is formulated in three parts that progress from the least blameworthy to the most blameworthy: (1) 13:1–9, philosophers incur slight blame; (2) 13:10–15:13, idol worship is condemned; (3) 15:14–19, the idol and animal worship of Egypt is severely condemned.
Death, Immortality, Justice. The author advances significantly the formal treatment of the status of an individual human being after death. Although the problem of God’s faithfulness to the just who suffer arose in such works as Job and Ecclesiastes, the unambiguous declaration of the survival of the individual is a late phenomenon (Dan 12:2–3; 2 Macc 7:9). The background for the author’s unambiguous declaration of human immortality is the covenantal faithfulness of God to the just. God is faithful to the just, and no torment will destroy them; God’s grace and mercy remain with the elect (3:1–9).
Although the language the author employs to convey the belief in an afterlife is Greek, a uniquely Hebraic ethical understanding is given to that language. The author sustains the idea of the survival of the just after death with such words as "immortal" (Wis 1:15; 3:4; 4:1; 8:17; 15:3) and "incorruptible" (2:23; 6:18–19). But an ethical perspective is brought in to condition this notion of immortality. The author is not positing an inherent immortality that all humans possess. Rather, immortality depends on the inner life of virtue. Immortality is the divine life toward which all human beings have been destined from the dawn of creation (Wis 2:23). But the decisions and actions of human beings that affect others determine the quality of final life.
A life of justice and virtue leads to immortality (Wis 3:4; 6:17–20). A life of injustice and wickedness leads to death (Wis 1:16; 2:24; 5:17–23). Death here is understood not simply as the experience of mortality, which the just experience as well, but as divine judgment. Similarly, the immortal life of the just is not presented as an inherent quality, but as the result of a positive divine judgment over one’s decisions and actions (Wis 5:15–16). Although the author’s presentation of the immortality of the just could be reconciled with the notion of a bodily resurrection, nowhere is a bodily resurrection formally posited in the book of Wisdom.
Even the notion of justice, which figures so dominantly throughout the book, retains its Hebraic nuances rather than the Greek qualities of balance and equality that are associated with justice. The two perspectives are not incompatible, but for the author of the book of Wisdom justice involves the support and respect for the weak. Solomon asks for wisdom to be able to judge God’s people justly (Wis 9:12). Injustice is identified as oppressing and exploiting the weak and defenseless. The wicked employ their power to oppress the widow, the aged, the poor, and the just (Wis 2:12–20).
Personification of Wisdom. In focusing on the wisdom of God through personification, the author picks up the sapiential traditions from Proverbs 8 and Sirach 24. However, what is unique to the author of the book of Wisdom is the emphasis on the specific role of wisdom both in creation and in human affairs. The wisdom that comes from God is able to help humans because it was present at creation. As a result of this, wisdom is a bridge between humans and God. Wisdom knows God’s works, knows what is pleasing to God, and brings friendship with God.
The author integrates the current Greek views of wisdom with the Hebrew sapiential tradition of the personification of wisdom. For the Greeks, wisdom is essentially a means of gaining knowledge, both cosmic and divine. For the Wisdom author, wisdom lives with God and is revealed and given to humans by God. The wisdom that comes from God is a gift that brings to completion the wisdom through which humans were formed at creation. According to the author’s anthropology, human beings have been shaped and formed by the wisdom of God in such a way that they yearn to be completed by the wisdom of God, which comes only as a gift. Solomon provided the ideal figure through which the author presents this anthropology. He is presented as naturally gifted, yet as realizing the limitations of his being and yearning for the wisdom that comes from God.
It is not surprising, then, to see how the author attaches the wisdom of God to the just. Injustice is inimical both to the structures of the cosmos and to the human heart. Wisdom flees from the unjust and the wicked, but waits for the just and actively seeks them out.
The author has gone as far as possible in the personification of God’s wisdom without creating a separate entity as an intermediate being between human beings and God. Wisdom is the manner in which God has created the world and fashioned the human heart. Wisdom is the manner in which God continuously intervenes in history both to save the just and to thwart the designs of injustice.
The canonical status of the book of Wisdom differs among the Christian communities. Discussion regarding the book’s status hinged essentially on the acceptance or rejection of the wider canon of the LXX, the Greek version of the Old Testament. The doubt regarding its acceptance can be traced to the strong voice of Jerome (345–419 ce), who preferred the smaller canon of the Hebrew Scriptures. The authoritative voice of Augustine provided the greatest impetus for acceptance. In the ambit of the Latin Church, the Council of Carthage (397 ce) and the letter of Innocent I to the Bishop of Toulouse (405 ce) follow the list of canonical books presented by Augustine.
The acceptance of the wider canon was settled definitively in the Roman Church at the Council of Trent (1546 ce). The Orthodox Church accepted the Roman canons of Scripture at the Council of Jerusalem in 1672. But since the eighteenth century a renewed discussion has emerged among the Orthodox communities regarding the inspiration of the deuterocanonical books. The Protestant and Reformed traditions follow the lead of Martin Luther, who was inspired by Jerome’s preference for the smaller canon. However, even Martin Luther accepted the deuterocanonical/apocryphal books as inspirational reading while withholding their canonical status. So it is not surprising to note that one of Wisdom’s best modern commentaries stems from the pen of a Protestant scholar. Since there is little doubt as to the Jewish origin of the work, Jewish scholars also study Wisdom as a source for understanding the currents of Jewish thought during the Hellenistic period.13
Kolarcik, Michael. The Ambiguity of Death in the Book of Wisdom (1–6). AnBib 127. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1991. Explores the various levels of meaning that the image of death presents to the reader in the first part of the book of Wisdom.
Nickelsburg, George W. E. Resurrection, Immortality and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism. HTS 26. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. This work sets the context for the Wisdom author’s views of immortality in the larger picture of Judaism. Of particular interest for the book of Wisdom is chapter 2, "Religious Persecution: The Story of the Persecution and Exaltation of the Righteous Man," 48–92.
Reese, James M. Hellenistic Influence on the Book of Wisdom and Its Consequences. AnBib 41. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1970. The precise influence of Hellenism on the author of Wisdom is difficult to determine. Reese explains that though the Wisdom author employs language and images from Hellenistic culture, the mentality of the author remains Hebraic.
Taylor, Richard J. "The Eschatological Meaning of Life and Death in the Book of Wisdom I–V," ETL 42 (1966) 72–137. Examines the notion of the afterlife that can be discerned in the first five chapters of the book of Wisdom.
Vílchez, Jose.Sabiduría. Sapienciales V. Nueva Biblia Española. Estella: Editorial Verbo Divino, 1990. Complete commentary on the book of Wisdom that combines textual analysis with an examination of sources and with theological interpretation. The extensive introduction and appendixes treat the cultural milieu of Judaism in the diaspora. Vílchez’s work has been of great help in the writing of this commentary.
Winston, David. The Wisdom of Solomon. AB 43. New York: Doubleday, 1979. Provides an excellent introduction with an overview of the main themes in Wisdom; includes a thorough treatment of the difficulties of translating obscure words and phrases. One of its greatest uses lies in the many references to other parts of Scripture, to Hellenistic philosophy and literature, and to rabbinic sources.
Wright, Addison G. "Wisdom." NJBC. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990. Synthesizes various insights into the structure of the book of Wisdom that Wright has presented in other articles.
Outline of Wisdom
I. Wisdom 1:1–6:21, Exhortation to Justice
A. 1:1–15, Love Righteousness
B. 1:16–2:24, The Reasoning of the Unjust
C. 3:1–4:20, In Defense of Virtue and Justice
3:1–13a, The Just Are in the Hand of God
3:13b–4:6, The Moral Strength of the Virtuous
4:7–20, The Death of a Virtuous Youth
D. 5:1–23, The Final Judgment
E. 6:1–21, Exhortation to Wisdom
II. Wisdom 6:22–10:21, In Praise of Wisdom
A. 6:22–8:21, Solomon’s Desire for Wisdom
6:22–7:12, The Sage Seeks Wisdom
7:13–8:1, The Nature and Qualities of Wisdom
8:2–21, Solomon’s Love for Wisdom
B. 9:1–18, Solomon’s Prayer for Wisdom
C. 10:1–21, Wisdom Accompanies the Righteous
III. Wisdom 11:1–19:22, The Justice of God Revealed in the Exodus
A. 11:1–5, The Wilderness
B. 11:6–14, The Nile Defiled with Blood—Abundant Waters
C. 11:15–16:14, Animals Punish Egypt, and Quails Are Fed to the Righteous
11:15–12:27, The Moderation of God
13:1–15:19, Critique of Pagan Cults
13:1–9, Nature Worship
13:10–15:13, Origin and Consequences of Idolatry
13:10–19, The Carpenter and Idols
14:1–10, The Navigator and Idols
14:11–31, Origins and Evils of Idolatry
15:1–6, Reflection on God’s Mercy and Power
15:7–13, The Potter and Clay Idols
15:14–19, Idolatry and Animal Worship in Egypt
16:1–14, The Plague of Animals and Delicacies for the Righteous
D. 16:15–29, The Plague of Storms and Manna from Heaven
E. 17:1–18:4, Plague of Darkness and a Pillar of Fire
F. 18:5–19:12, Death of the Enemies and Israel’s Deliverance
G. 19:13–22, Final Reflections
Exhortation to Justice
The opening chapters of the book of Wisdom appeal to the mind and the heart. We are presented with a spectacle of human life filled with tragedy and great hope. The author, speaking like a sage, invites the reader to look behind the scenes and below the surface of appearances to appreciate fundamental truths. The agonizing mystery we confront in the dramatic presentation of a condensed slice of human life is the struggle between justice and injustice. How do we interpret the reality of injustice in life? Why should we value integrity and authenticity in the face of the apparent power of injustice? The author offers us a dramatic scene to lend us eyes that perceive beyond the surface and behind appearances. By weaving a concise nexus between the practice of injustice and the consequence of death, the argumentation exhorts the reader to reject injustice and embrace virtue. What is at stake is nothing less than life and death. Arguments of thought unfold to engage the heart to choose justice and life. The section opens with an exhortation to love justice (1:1), and it closes with a parallel exhortation to learn wisdom (6:9–11). But what transpires throughout the body of the exhortation is a dynamic argument that attempts to uncover the insidious source of injustice as well as the transforming power of virtue.
Although the exhortation at the outset points to a positive value—namely, that of loving justice—it quickly turns to a warning against bringing on death (1:12). Death is presented as a fundamental obstacle to the practice of justice. This death implies a nihilistic judgment on human dignity viewed from the side of mortality, human weakness, and suffering that reduces ethical perspectives to those of evasive pleasure, arrogant power, and brutal violence (2:6–20). By uncovering the false reasoning implied in the nihilistic judgment on human dignity, the argument attempts to liberate the reader from the fear of death to the love of justice and wisdom.
A major innovation in the argument of this work is the unambiguous declaration of a life after death (3:1; 4:10, 16). Although the declaration is unambiguous, the precise when, where, and how are left open and undefined. This eternal life is not simply a state of being but a relationship with the divine. It is the result of God’s faithfulness to those who have been faithful (3:9). Humans were created for incorruption (2:23). The practice of injustice destroys a person’s relationship with God and even with the cosmos. The practice of virtue, despite appearances to the contrary, issues in an indissoluble relationship with God and with the cosmos. Immortality is the positive motive for dissuading the reader from a life of injustice.
Death is the prime negative motive for loving justice and seeking God. In these opening chapters, the image of death retains the contours of its threatening ambiguity in life. Death may signify an end, but it may also signify a new beginning. There is the death of mortality in general, which for the wicked renders life meaningless (2:1–5); for the righteous, mortality is a stepping stone to divine life (3:2–6). There is the death that is experienced as the consequence of unjust actions (5:9–14). Finally, there is a death that is ultimate, a final judgment of God and the cosmos against injustice (5:20–23).
Both eternal life and ultimate death are viewed from the perspective of ethical decisions. The author is not so much concerned with states of being inherent in nature as much as with decisions that lead to just or unjust actions toward others, toward oneself, and toward God. In this regard, the book of Wisdom continues the great Israelite heritage of stressing the value of ethical conduct.
The first section of the book of Wisdom actually takes the shape of the procedures of a trial. First there is an accusation against the unjust, expressed through a statement: Lawlessness leads to death (1:1–11). Second, the wicked, who represent lawlessness, put forth a defense for their lives of pleasure, power, and violence (2:1–20). The conclusion of their defense issues in a counteraccusation of the incoherence of the lives of the just. Third, the author dismantles both the wicked’s defense and their counteraccusation through a deliberation and examination of the evidence. In four series of comparisons and contrasts, the author sifts through the evidence of appearances and reality (3:1–4:20). Fourth, the wicked confess to their error and guilt (5:2–14). Fifth, the verdict and sentencing are conveyed through an apocalyptic judgment in which the just receive a royal award and the unjust are hurled to oblivion (5:15–23). Finally, the concluding exhortation to rulers calls the readers to apply the judgment rendered during the metaphorical trial to their own lives (6:1–21).
The stylistic device that gives formal shape to the opening section of Wisdom is that of a concentric structure (see the diagram on p. 446). This is a favorite device used throughout the book of Wisdom. A concentric, or chiastic, structure has the effect of intensifying the images used during the argumentation by rendering them parallel in the reader’s imagination. In this way, we more readily notice the repetitions and transformations in the flow of the statements.
WISDOM 1:1–15, LOVE RIGHTEOUSNESS
This opening exhortation places before the imagination of the reader the lofty value of righteousness. The conclusion to the exhortation buttresses the importance for humans of embracing this value through the bold assertion that righteousness is immortal (v. 15). "Righteousness" (δικαιοσύνη dikaiosynē) is a word that aptly describes an aspect of Israelite heritage that highly values ethical conduct. In the Torah and the Prophets, righteousness engulfed an ethical perspective regarding all facets of life: relationships to God, to oneself, and to others. The nuances of this word are colored by the subject, whether God or Israel, and by the specific relationship to which it refers. It is a value that demands or presumes a conscious choice and a course of action. When God is righteous, human beings are saved through the deliberate actions of God. When humans are said to be righteous, they have made decisions for justice (Abram, Gen 15:6) or carried out righteous conduct as in response to the law (Deut 16:19–20). More than a mere concept, righteousness denotes an entire program of conduct in life that demands commitment and clarity of vision.
The idea of immortality that is introduced at the conclusion of this exhortation is a key concept for the Wisdom author. This is the only occurrence of the adjective "immortal" (ἀθάνατος athanatos) in the entire book. The noun "immortality" (ἀθανασία athanasia) is employed on several occasions (3:4 in relation to hope; 4:1 in relation to the memory of virtue; 8:13 in relation to remembrance; 8:17 in relation to wisdom; 15:3 in relation to righteousness). It does not refer to an independent quality of being as much as to an aspect of the enduring relationship between the just and the realm of the divine achieved through virtue. This idea of immortality achieved in relation to God through virtue will constitute the author’s main argument for dismantling the reasoning of the unjust.
The exhortation itself is reminiscent of the call of personified wisdom in Proverbs who goes about the streets exhorting people to learn (Proverbs 8). All the words of her mouth are said to be righteous; they will help humans find life. In Proverbs the exhortation is directed to all who are willing to hear. With a similar universalistic aim, the Wisdom exhortation is directed to the rulers of the earth.
Opening exhortations on the value of ethical conduct are typical of sapiential writings. A Hebrew wisdom writing from the Cairo Geniza (probably written during the Middle Ages) begins its proverbial type of teaching with an exhortation similar to the Wisdom text: "Seek wisdom and the right path so that you will be great in the eyes of God and people. All those who remove foolishness and haughtiness from their lives will become wise and strong."
The addressees are referred to as "the rulers of the earth." This title is parallel to that in the closing exhortation, where the addressees are called "kings" and "judges of the ends of the earth," those who "rule over multitudes and boast of many nations" (6:1–2 NRSV). Although it is possible to see in these titles an allusion to Roman or at least to foreign powers, we should not overlook the function of the royal image to denote humanity. Humans are human precisely in their ability to reign over their thoughts and actions. This royal image is not lacking in the Genesis account of creation, in which God generously gives to humanity the command to fill the earth and the task to have dominion and care over the animals (Gen 1:26, 28). The royal image will extend to the reward of the just when they receive the royal gifts of a "glorious crown" and a "beautiful diadem" (5:16 NRSV). In the second major section of the book of Wisdom, we will soon identify the unnamed speaker as the wise Solomon, pre-eminent in judgment. The reader is being addressed as one who reigns over thoughts and actions, words and deeds. The reader, then, is ultimately one who bears kingly responsibility for both just and unjust actions.
Although the exhortation begins and ends on the positive note of the value of righteousness, sets of opposites dominate the body of the exhortation. There is resistance to righteousness. On one side are righteousness, the Lord, God, wisdom, a holy and disciplined spirit, a kindly spirit, the Spirit of the Lord (vv. 1–7). On the other side are perverse thoughts, a deceitful soul, foolish thoughts, unrighteousness, blasphemers, and death (vv. 3–13). These sets of opposites raise the stakes in the exhortation. They are antagonistic to one another. To love righteousness and to seek the Lord with sincerity imply the burden of overcoming resistance to justice.
In setting up these series of opposites, the Wisdom author is delving into the cherished sapiential doctrine of the two ways (Psalm 1). The way of wisdom and virtue leads to life; the way of foolishness and injustice leads to death. And there is opposition between the two ways. The sets of opposites exclude each other. Both correct and wrong thinking have serious repercussions on one’s social life. People with perverse thoughts are separated from God. Wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul. A disciplined spirit flees from deceit and is ashamed at the very approach of unrighteousness (1:2–5). The opposition that is being described between these two ways of justice and injustice sets the scene for a more dramatic confrontation.
Other sapiential biblical works, such as Job and Ecclesiastes, highlight the incongruity between the doctrine of the two ways and life experiences in which the wicked thrive and the just perish. This was an observation as disturbing in ancient times as it remains today. The book of Wisdom confronts this particular incongruity through the lenses of appearance and reality. What appears to be the case in fact is not. What appears not to be the case in fact is. The focus of the author’s argument is to look beyond appearances to the heart of the matter.
The anticipation of a confrontation between justice and injustice is heightened as the arena for the sets of opposites subtly shifts to that of a trial. Opposition is now expressed in images borrowed from juridical terminology (1:6–11). The kindly spirit will not free blasphemers from the guilt of their words (v. 6). God is a witness, a true observer. Justice will punish. An inquiry or report will be made. The unjust will be convicted of their lawless deeds. Much of the emphasis in these allusions to forensic procedures focuses on the eventual revelation of what is done in secret. Because God pervades the cosmos as a witness and an observer, nothing will remain hidden (cf. Mark 4:22; Luke 8:17: "For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light" [NRSV]). This metaphor of the trial is strengthened through images relating to the power of speech: "words," "jealous ear," "sound of grumbling," "tongue," "slander," "lying mouth."
Speech is considered a powerful force. Therefore, to speak untruth is understood to have serious consequences for the speaker. There is a consistency between thought and action that is taken for granted and presumed. Bad thinking leads to destructive actions. The ominous warning against "useless grumbling" and against a "lying mouth which destroys the soul" (v. 11) prepares the reader to view critically the speech of the wicked, which will follow the opening exhortation.
What is at stake in loving justice is nothing short of avoiding death (vv. 12–15). What had begun as a positive exhortation is now being transformed into a warning against bringing on death. To find life through justice demands the explicit rejection of all that leads to death. From now on death and its parallel side, injustice, are seen as prime obstacles to the practice of justice and to the life that ensues.
A rather daring statement is made that radically separates God from death: "God did not make death" (v. 13). On the one hand, the fact that God is said not to "delight in the death of the living" (v. 13) is consistent with the parallel phrases in Ezekiel, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live" (Ezek 33:11 NRSV; cf. Ezek 18:23). On the other hand, traditionally, God is understood to be the author of both life and death, the one who makes alive and kills (Deut 32:39; Sir 11:14). The question then arises as to which death is radically opposed to God. Is it mortality in general that God did not make? Is it death as punishment for injustice? Is it the ultimate death that signifies an ultimate separation?
In the opening of the next unit, a direct parallel is made between death and the wicked (v. 16). The ungodly are said to summon death, "they consider him a friend," they "made a covenant with him," "they are fit to belong to his company." This parallel would suggest that the death God did not make is not the death of mortality, which applies to the righteous and to all the living; rather, it is the death of an ultimate judgment that signifies a broken relationship with both God and the cosmos.
Creation itself is being drawn into close parallel with God. God is said to have created all things for good. This close parallel between God and the cosmos prepares the reader for the positive role the cosmos will play in helping the cause of the just in the rest of the book. At the same time, the realm of death is being separated from the realm of creation and the cosmos. All that exists is described as wholesome. There is no destructive poison in creation, and the power of Hades does not reside on earth (v. 14). The death that the author dissuades the reader from bringing on through injustice is not some destructive power that resides somewhat magically in the forces of the cosmos. Rather, the power to bring on such a death resides in the free decision of human beings.
The author may very well be criticizing some contemporary positions among the Hellenists or the native Egyptians that viewed the world in a dualism of forces of good and evil. Such a critique is pointedly aimed at placing the responsibility of injustice squarely on people who make decisions and not on some controlling or deterministic, cosmic power.
The contrast to this death brought about through injustice is the immortality of righteousness (vv. 12–15). Individuals who are free to choose and to reject bear the responsibility for receiving the gift of immortality or for bringing on death. This personal responsibility makes the exhortation to justice so urgent and the need to uncover the masks of injustice so compelling. The effect of the sets of oppositions that have been created in the exhortation is to build up an expectation of resolution.
1. A word in our own contemporary setting that conveys perhaps some of the evocative force that righteousness has for biblical faith is integrity. A person of integrity is one who adheres to given values even in the face of opposition. In one sense, integrity is tested and known only through opposition. We know whether we adhere to the values of honesty, justice, and respect for others and our world by facing the test of resistance to such values.
The opposition that the Wisdom text envisages between justice and injustice is one that permeates life. It is a part of the human situation and predicament that choices be made for the sake of justice and integrity. Failing to make such choices, human beings collapse into the structures of silence, passivity, and injustice, which ultimately lead to death. Not to speak out against injustice is to succumb to its lure. Much of the drama of human greatness and tragedy devolves on the choices human beings make.
2. It is tempting to shirk responsibility in the face of overwhelming social, environmental, and structural problems. What can one person do in the face of massive injustice? What can one person do in the face of years of environmental abuse? But the voice of one person does matter. The Wisdom text refuses to displace the responsibility for injustice onto foreign cosmic powers or onto an inherent determinism. By the "error of our lives" and by the "works of our hands" we invite death into our world (1:12). Responsibility for greatness and for tragedy ultimately resides in the concrete choices of human beings. We do need to take sides in the polarity of justice and injustice.
3. The author presents a profound basis for optimism in the human struggle against injustice. A rather unique emphasis in the book of Wisdom is placed on the "wholesomeness" of the cosmos (1:14). We have here in the forces of nature an ally in the struggle for authenticity and for maintaining integrity.
This positive view of the cosmos is evidently the author’s interpretation of the Priestly account of creation, "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good" (Gen 1:31 NRSV). The idea that the cosmos is an ally to the cause of justice is introduced in the opening exhortation, and it will recur with added force throughout the entire book. The basis for this positive outlook lies in God, the creator. Since God is the creator of all things, the existence of all things ultimately is wholesome. Injustice, though it pervades human existence, essentially remains foreign to human life. As an intruder, it dismantles what is essentially wholesome and good.
WISDOM 1:16–2:24, THE REASONING OF THE UNJUST
1:16, Introduction to the Speech of the Wicked. The author introduces the speech of the wicked with an explanation as to the way they bring ultimate death upon themselves. Through their words and deeds, which flow from unsound reasoning, the wicked beckon the stark, negative reality of death. Personalistic language is employed to highlight the personal responsibility they bear for inviting death. They summon death through their words and actions; they consider death a friend; they pine away in longing for death; they even make a covenant with death, for they belong to death’s company. This last image encloses the entire unit of 1:16–2:24. In both the opening and the closing of the unit, the wicked are said to belong to the company of death (1:16d; 2:24).
The idea of making a covenant with death highlights the deliberate and responsible choice implied in achieving an alliance. This death has not sought out the wicked; rather, through their thoughts and actions they have sought out death. The phrase is reminiscent of that in Isa 28:15: "We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement" (NRSV). Here Isaiah is criticizing the ruling classes during Hezekiah’s reign (716–686 bce) for placing their trust in an alliance with Egypt, famous for its respect for the dead.
The inner reflection of the wicked constitutes their defense for a project in a life of injustice. The author has the wicked speak for themselves, and this they do with an elegance and poetic flare that belie the nihilism and violence that seethe underneath.
The defense has four major parts: (1) the wicked’s reflection on the ephemeral value of life that portrays their nihilistic judgment (2:1–5), (2) a despairing exhortation to pleasure (2:6–9), (3) an exhortation to power (2:10–11), and (4) an exhortation to oppose the righteous one (2:12–20).
2:1–5, The Ephemeral Value of Life. This reflection on the fleeting value of human life is portrayed in uncommonly rich, poetic imagery. It will be matched in the wicked’s confession of guilt with a parallel reflection using similar imagery to depict their lack of moral virtue (5:9–14). Much of the imagery echoes the depiction of human sorrow and limitations that can be found in other sapiential works, such as Job and Ecclesiastes. The books of Psalms and Prophets also provide parallels for the imagery used in this reflection. Still, a number of images and concepts throughout this section depicting the reasoning of the wicked can be seen to have been borrowed from Hellenistic thought.
The very first line states the wicked person’s negative judgment on life. It is short and sorrowful. Job, in his laments, utters similar phrases that touch upon the fragility and evanescence of life: "Are not the days of my life few?" (Job 10:20 NRSV); "A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers" (Job 14:1–2 NRSV).
All the images used in this unit illustrate the irrevocability of death without the word "death" ever passing through the lips of the wicked. Instead of the usual word for "death," they use metaphors to portray what they judge to be the destroyer of human value ("end," vv. 1, 5; "Hades," v. 1; "we shall be as though we had never been," v. 2; "extinguish," "dissolve," v. 3; "pass away," "scattered," v. 4). It is as if the unspeakable reality of death cannot be named.
The wicked insist upon the irreversibility of death. There is no remedy for it. No one has been known to free us from Hades. There is no return from our fate; it is sealed, and no one turns back. Just as our fate and end are judged to be insignificant and pointless, so too is our beginning. We have come into being by mere chance. In order to portray as vividly as possible the evanescence of life, the wicked compare aspects and elements of the body—such as breath, the heartbeat, reason, the soul—to smoke, mist, a spark, and air. All of these are described as vanishing or dissolving without a trace.
Again, these statements echo similar biblical descriptions of the fragility of life. Qohelet’s speeches abound with such ruminations: "No one has … power over the day of death" (Eccl 8:8 NRSV); "in the days to come all will have been long forgotten" (Eccl 2:16 NRSV); "For who knows what is good for mortals while they live the few days of their vain life, which they pass like a shadow?" (Eccl 6:12 NRSV). The psalms, especially the laments, also share similar sentiments: "For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace" (Ps 102:3 NRSV); "For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave" (Ps 49:8–9 NRSV).
Several images in this unit have no biblical parallels but can be related to contemporary currents in Greek philosophical thought and literature. The Wisdom author has the wicked use these images to depict their denial of an afterlife, which abrogates the context for ethical conduct. The idea of coming into being by mere chance (v. 2) was a common explanation for the origin of the cosmos and all life in late Epicurean thought and was found as well in preceding authors, such as Leucippus and Democritus.
The idea that human thought is but a spark in the beating of our heart (v. 2d) is a unique formulation of the Wisdom author. In the ancient world, both Greek and Hebrew, it was common to locate the reasoning processes with the heart ("there were great searchings of heart" [Judg 5:15 NRSV]). In Epicurean and Stoic thought, the association of the soul with fire was meant to express the superiority of reasoning to matter. But the Wisdom author uses the image of reason’s being but a spark in the heart to show its transitoriness and perhaps even its insignificance. When the spark is extinguished, every function ceases. The body turns to ashes, and the soul dissolves like empty air.
Since much of the imagery employed in this unit has concrete parallels to other biblical sources, we can legitimately ask, Where is the difficulty or fallacy in reasoning? The author has alerted the reader at the outset that the wicked reason unsoundly. The difficulty in their logic does not rest in the assertion of the inevitability of mortality, but in the negative judgment of purposelessness that they ascribe to it.
Here is the crux of the erroneous reasoning of the wicked. They claim that we have come into the world by mere chance and afterward we will be as though we had never been. The wicked espouse a purely mechanistic concept of life. They deny any form of life beyond mortality and any form of divine intervention at death. Just as no divine being gives purpose to life at the beginning, so also there is no divine reality that awaits humans at the end. Perhaps it is for this denial of divine relevance that the wicked are introduced as the "ungodly" (ἀσεβής asebēs, 1:16); this designation for the wicked will continue throughout the author’s rebuttal (3:10; 4:3, 16). Essentially what the wicked’s rumination on life expresses, couched as it is in poetic imagery, is that human life in the face of death is void of meaning. The wicked’s preoccupation with physical death issues in a judgment that portrays despair and hopelessness.
The author chooses to have the wicked speak in eloquent language for a reason. By presenting the wicked’s judgment on life in expressive and poignant imagery, the author is holding up for careful scrutiny what could be construed as a tenable and convincing philosophy of life. Of course, since the wicked speak in their own defense, we would expect their positions on life to be presented in as positive a light as possible. The background image of the trial warns the reader to look below the surface, to sift through appearances to understand the heart of the matter. If the wicked’s judgment on life is described in poetic language that only masks their negative judgment, in the end it will be revealed for what it is: unrelenting despair.
2:6–9, A Despairing Exhortation to Pleasure. The negative judgment on life provides the wicked with a philosophical basis for their project in life. They exhort each other to enjoy life’s apparently innocent pleasures. The series of subjunctives through which they exhort one another serves as a counterpoint to the author’s imperatives that inaugurate the opening exhortation to love righteousness and to seek the Lord. Poetic imagery carries over from the previous unit.
Although the exhortation of the wicked appears positive enough, it soon takes on frenetic proportions that belie the appearance of healthy pleasure. The wicked call for the enjoyment of the good things that exist, and they encourage each other to make use of creation as they did in youth. Luxurious items are the order of the day: costly wines, perfumes, and rosebuds (vv. 7–8). A crown of rosebuds is to be worn before they fade and wither. The memory of the evanescence of life in reference to the fading rosebuds carries over from the negative judgment of life. An exaggerated call to revelry betrays signs of strain and despair, almost as if the wicked need to suffocate the cries of despair with frenzied activity. Everyone should take part in revelry and leave signs of diversion everywhere (v. 9). What began as a call to innocent pleasures appears to be heading toward a sinister end.
The conclusion of the wicked’s exhortation to pleasure boasts in such revelry to be their due "portion and lot in life" (v. 9c). The phrase parallels the author’s critique of the speech of the wicked both at the beginning ("they belong to his company," 1:16d) and at the end ("those who belong to his company," 2:24b). In both cases, when the wicked are said to belong to death, the same Greek word for "portion" or "company" (μερίς meris) is employed. By making evasive pleasure that leads to a grasping for power through violence their project in life, the wicked unwittingly bring upon themselves the very realities they so despise: weakness and death.
Two main proponents have been proposed as the target of the Wisdom author’s criticism in this section: Qohelet and the Epicureans. On the one hand, the exhortation to enjoy life does have certain parallels to that of Qohelet (Ecclesiastes), but they are quite minimal. Qohelet on numerous occasions calls for the enjoyment of life: "There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God" (Eccl 2:24 NRSV; cf. Eccl 3:13; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7–9; 11:9). In each case where Qohelet exhorts the reader to enjoy life, God’s presence is assured. Either pleasure is seen as God’s gift or God is understood as one who sets a limit and calls excess into judgment (Eccl 11:9). Since the very presence or relevance of God is denied rather forcibly by the wicked in Wisdom, only with a strained effort could one construe the Wisdom speech as a critique of the preacher in Ecclesiastes.
On the other hand, the call to enjoy life is so diffused in the literature of the ancient world that it is difficult to pinpoint a single source for the Wisdom author. It was a favorite motto for funerary inscriptions. On a tomb inscription from the XIth Dynasty in Egypt we read, "Follow your heart as long as you live. Sprinkle perfumes on your head; clothe yourself in fine linen, anoint yourself with the most marvelous of essences" (author’s trans.).
The exhortation to pleasure became closely identified with Epicurus, who gave enjoyment noble stature as the end to be sought in life. But when Epicurus postulates pleasure as the goal to strive for, he does not identify pleasure with a dissipated life, but understands pleasure to be the result of sober reasoning. Even the garden gatherings associated with followers of Epicurus were renowned for their simplicity and frugality.
Other disciples of Epicurus promoted the famous "discussion-dinner party," whose attendees perhaps on occasion fell into excesses of drinking special wines and eating lavish foods. Marc Anthony and Cleopatra adopted the customs of the symposium in Alexandria. It became customary on such occasions to spice the best of wines with fragrances and for attendees to adorn themselves in flowers. Lucian criticizes the waste associated with such gatherings. His description contains resemblances to the Wisdom author’s portrayal of the wicked people’s exhortation to pleasure. "It is they," said he, "who buy expensive dainties and let wine flow freely at dinners in an atmosphere of saffron and perfumes, who glut themselves with roses in midwinter, loving their rarity and unseasonableness and despising what is seasonable and natural because of its cheapness, it is they who drink myrrh."
It would appear that the author is culling ideas from various representatives of hedonism of his day to portray the dynamic of false reasoning. Although some of the Epicurean ideas, such as the finality of death, the denial of divine presence, and the legitimacy of pleasure, have been used to portray the hedonism of the wicked, it is not possible to single out a specific group as the target of the Wisdom author’s criticism. It is the reasoning process of the wicked that is being criticized rather than a philosophical group or political faction contemporaneous to the author.
2:10–11, An Exhortation to Power. A sudden and menacing turn of events has the wicked extolling the oppression of the poor, widows, and the elderly. The call for oppression finally betrays the appearance of innocent pleasures that followed from the judgment on the ephemeral value of life. The sinister reality of despair that was masked in poetic imagery is raising its head. The call to oppress the weak in society stands in clear contradiction to the law, which protects the weaker members of Israelite society.
This combination of the poor, the widow, and the elderly to designate the weak and the helpless in society is unique in the OT. To be sure, all three groups, along with the sojourner and the orphan, were especially protected under Israelite law (for sojourners, orphans, and widows, see Deut 14:29; for the poor, see Exod 23:6; for the respect of the elderly, see Lev 19:32).
The combination of the poor and the widow occurs more often with the orphan or the sojourner to designate the weak person who stands under special protection (Job 24:3–4; 29:12–13; 31:16–18; Isa 10:2; Jer 7:6; Zech 7:10). The triad of the poor, the widow, and the orphan has the closest parallel to the Wisdom designation of the poor, the widow, and the elderly. Why the Wisdom author has replaced the more usual designation of the orphan with the aged will become clear in the ensuing argumentation. But the wicked persons’ adulation of youthful strength (v. 6) anticipates this derogatory view of old age. In other biblical references, the aged are represented as being vulnerable and in need of protection in various associations with orphans, widows, and the needy (2 Chr 36:17; Jer 6:11; 2 Macc 8:30).
The wicked justify the arbitrary oppression of the weak with a double-sided principle: Power makes right; weakness is useless (v. 11). This idea of power and strength making right is as old as the stars and has found justification in many circles throughout history. The nihilistic judgment of the wicked that the value of life is ephemeral lends its support to the principle that might makes right. On the one hand, if there is no divine reality that gives purpose to human origins or human destination, then the basis for ethical conduct devolves on arbitrary power. On the other hand, if life’s value is radically depressed by the limitations of space and time, then any manifestation of mortality in weakness, sickness, and death should be curtailed and held in derision. What surfaces unmistakably is that the victorious tone of the wicked only serves to mask an abysmal despair in the value of human life.
2:12–20, An Exhortation to Oppose the Righteous One. The reasoning of the wicked takes on a life of its own and focuses with a frightening consistency on the righteous, who oppose their way of life. If might makes right and what is weak is useless, then whoever opposes the wicked will be subject to the weapons of their wrath. What had begun as an exhortation to seemingly innocent pleasure (vv. 6–9) ends in calling for an unambiguous act of injustice, the brutal death of the just (vv. 17–20).
For the first time, the image of the just one comes onto the scene. In tension with the wicked and the godless, the just will occupy center stage for the rest of the first section of Wisdom. The idea of the wicked "ambushing" the just or "lying in wait" (ἐνεδρεύω enedreuō) for the righteous is a familiar description of the wicked in the psalms, particularly the psalms of lament. In Ps 10:8–11 the wicked are presented as a lion lying in wait for the helpless and to seize the poor (cf. Pss 17:8–12; 37:12; 59:3–4; 64:2–6). The wicked are always many. The just stand alone.
The opening motive for the wicked’s oppression of the just one is the opposition directed against them (v. 12). It is the just who are inconvenient in that they oppose the actions of the wicked; they reproach them for sins against the law and accuse them of sins against their training. This motif of antagonism between the just and the wicked echoes the radical separation between God and justice in the opening exhortation. It confirms the standard of the "two ways" in that the just are encouraged to separate themselves from the ways of the wicked (see Pss 1:1; 6:4–5; 38:20; 139:21–22).
The second series of motives for oppressing the just focuses on the claims of the just, which contradict the wicked’s judgment on life and death (2:13–16). The just claim to have knowledge of God. They are children of God; their end will be happy; and they boast that God is their father. These claims are interpreted by the wicked with disdain as opposing their way of life. Hence, the just one is considered to be reproof of their thoughts, a burden for them simply to behold.
Two of the claims of the just that fundamentally contradict the nihilistic judgment of the wicked are the fatherhood of God (v. 16) and the sonship of the just (vv. 13, 18). Moreover, the particular aspect of this filial and paternal relationship that the wicked question in their counteraccusation is the just’s trust in God.
All three themes of God’s fatherhood, the sonship of the just, and their trust in God have their root in the psalms of lament. The fundamental stance of the one who laments is to trust in God despite all odds: "But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation" (Ps 13:5 NRSV); "I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living" (Ps 27:13 NRSV).
Just as the wicked in Wisdom accuse the just of unfounded trust in God (vv. 17–20), so also the wicked in the psalms of lament deride the just for their trust in God. "Many are saying to me, / ‘There is no help for you in God’ " (Ps 3:2 NRSV). "Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!" (Ps 22:8 NRSV). "They say, ‘Pursue and seize that person whom God has forsaken, for there is no one to deliver’ " (Ps 71:11 NRSV).
The fatherhood of God is an image that has its sources in the devout and religious prayer of the psalms and in the messianic texts in which the king/messiah is the adopted son of God. To describe God’s loving care for the weak, the psalms speak of God as a caring father: "Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation" (Ps 68:5 NRSV). "As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him" (Ps 103:13 NRSV; cf. Deut 1:30–31; 8:5; 32:6; Isa 63:16; 64:8; Jer 3:19; Mal 1:6).
The theme of adoption that marked Israel’s relationship to God in monarchic theology stresses the fatherhood of God. "He said to me, ‘You are my son; / today I have begotten you’ " (Ps 2:7 NRSV). "He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation’ " (Ps 89:26 NRSV; cf. 2 Sam 7:14).
Various formulations for the phrase "son of God" (v. 18) are attested throughout Scripture with differing nuances (a holy people, Deut 14:1–2; restoration of Israel, Hos 2:10–11; vocation, Hos 11:1). Still, one particular prophetic source can be identified in the author’s formulation of the opposition between the wicked and the just: the suffering servant of Isaiah, especially the fourth servant song (Isa 52:13–53:12). In Wis 2:13, the wicked recall the just’s claim to be children of God. The Greek word for "child" (παῖς pais) can also mean "servant"; in fact, the LXX translates the Hebrew word for "servant" (עבד ʿebed) in Isaiah alternately as "child" (pais) and as "servant" (δοῦλος doulos). The term is meant to express a special relationship between the Lord and the servant. It is precisely this special relationship of the just to God that the wicked hold in derision. Just as the servant suffers a shameful death and is despised by others (Isa 53:3, 7), so also the wicked propose to inflict a shameful death on the just. A major difference between the persecution of the just in Wisdom and the servant in Isaiah is the vicarious suffering of the servant. For the obvious reason of the developed antagonism between the just and the wicked in Wisdom, the theme of the vicarious suffering of the servant in Isaiah was dropped.
The final part of the wicked’s speech constitutes their counteraccusation against the just (vv. 17–20). They decide to put the just one through the trial of an ignoble death to test whether his claims are true. Of course, the test is a rhetorical one. The wicked inflict on the just the experience of mortality, which they have judged to be the destroyer of human value. Since the just stand for a way of life with ethical parameters that contradicts their project in life, the wicked inflict on others the very conditions of mortality that led them to their nihilistic judgment on life.
Taken as a whole, the speech of the wicked contains a logic that involves a progressive dynamic of evil. The negative judgment on mortality, expressed through poetic imagery, provides a basis for an amoral perspective on life. The commitment to transient, youthful pleasure simply masks the underlying despair that is dimmed or softened through the clamor of busy activity. The other side of the adulation of youthful pleasure is the despising of human weakness and the reliance on power. The sinister side of the nihilistic judgment on life emerges with frightening clarity, until the blatant and brutal project to kill the just reaches the climax. What had begun as a poetic rumination on mortality ends with a frightful project to inflict a shameful death on the just. The wicked’s speech progresses from a nihilistic judgment on life to a project in life that embraces sensuality, that in its turn despises weakness and relies on power, and that finally, when challenged, unmasks itself as an unbridled license to brutal violence.
Since the speech of the wicked provides an explanation and defense of their way of life, it also constitutes the author’s attack against a project of injustice, which brings death. The wicked are being accused of a false judgment on human life, of a pointless sensuality, of a ruthless reliance on power, and of a blatant and brutal act of violence. Their principal line of defense rests in the claim that death renders life meaningless. Therefore, the author will have to explain the shameful death of the just in order to prove effectively that the reasoning process of the wicked is false. The wicked’s call for the death of the just as proof of the validity of their life of despair is the climax of their speech. In the context of the trial scene, it raises an expectation of resolution for the reader.
2:21–24, Conclusion to the Speech of the Wicked. The author reiterates the falseness of the wicked’s reasoning (cf. 2:1). In both the introduction and the conclusion, the author stresses that through their injustice the wicked bring death upon themselves. The author introduces an etiology for both immortality and death to prepare for the dismantling of the false reasoning of the wicked.
However, a new basis for their false thinking is added. Their evil ways have blinded them (v. 21). Their blindness has caused the wicked to overlook three essential realities: the secret purposes of God, the wages of holiness, and the prize for blameless souls. In other words, their wickedness has brought about a blindness to a fundamental truth. This metaphor of blindness prepares the reader for the author’s rebuttal, which will depend heavily on sifting through appearances and reality.
The fundamental reality the wicked overlook is the destiny for which God created human beings: incorruption (v. 23). This declaration contradicts the wicked’s claim that human beings have come to exist arbitrarily and that after death it will be as though they had never been. To sustain the bold claim for immortality, the author appeals to the powerful "image of God" in the Genesis narrative (Gen 1:26–27; 5:1). God has created human beings for immortality because we are made in the image of God’s identity or eternity (v. 23b).
If the origin of human immortality is based on the image of God, then where does death originate? The author has already declared that God did not make death (1:13). Human beings bring on death through their own words and actions. Since the human destiny of immortality is rooted in creation itself, the author appeals to the Genesis narrative to give an etiology for death as well. Through the envy of the adversary, death has entered the cosmos (2:24). The adversary,29 like the serpent in Genesis 3 or the satan in Job, is opposed to the liberal act of God’s generosity to human beings. It is the adversary who occasions the human option for wickedness, and those who belong to the adversary experience death (2:24b).
The author presents a nuanced idea of immortality. Human beings are not created immortal; they are created for immortality. In other words, human beings, who are created in the image of God, form or shape the original image into God’s identity of immortality through their ethical conduct. With a life of injustice, the initial figure of God can be deformed into death, which God did not create. The death that is presumed here signifies a total separation from God and the cosmos, not the experience of mortality that all human beings, even the virtuous, experience.
Sirach relates the image of God to human mortality in a similar fashion to that of Wisdom. It does not, however, draw out the ethical implications for life and death: "The Lord created human beings out of earth, and makes them return to it again … He endowed them with strength like his own, and made them in his own image" (Sir 17:1–3 NRSV).
In terms of the trial image that has been subtly working in the background, the speech of the wicked constitutes the defense of their purpose in life, which in its turn ends in the counteraccusation of the incoherence of the just’s purpose in life. For the wicked, the rhetorical test of death is proof enough of the validity of their entire reasoning process. To disprove the false reasoning of the wicked, the author must resolve the issue of the tragic death of the righteous.
If the death of the just is resolved, then the entire reasoning process of the wicked, beginning with the end, falls apart. If the death of the just is not a tragic manifestation of meaninglessness, then the limitations of human mortality do not render human life worthless and empty. If human life is not worthless, then the experience of youthful pleasures is not merely an evasion of underlying despair. If the experience of youthful pleasure is not meant to smother despair, then power over the weak, who remind us of mortality, does not make any right. The original nihilistic judgment on the vacuity of human mortality, which is the basis for the wicked’s project of injustice, will be proved false.
1. In the speech of the wicked, the author provides us with a rather profound understanding of the psychology involved in the dynamic of injustice. Self-justification for blatant violence does not rest on mere rationalization but has its source in a fundamental judgment on the value we place on life. The nihilistic stance of the wicked flows from despair. Like a chain reaction, their despair elicits a form of escapism from the manifestations of human limitations. At first, in this form of escapism they turn to evasive sensuality. In the case of the wicked, the adulation of youthful pleasure serves only to mask and to deny the underlying despair. The victorious tone in their voice is more like a clamoring noise that tries to fill a deafening silence. It is as if their ensuing project in life is simply to blunt and mask the reality of human limitations and suffering.
Another form of escapism opposes manifestations of mortality. The call of the wicked to exercise power over others, especially over the weak, who remind them of the "uselessness" of a life stamped with mortality, is only a brief and tenuous denial of the "weakness" that awaits everyone in the face of mortality.
Finally the blatant expression of injustice over one who opposes them reveals the full consequence of the wicked’s original judgment on mortality. In their call to kill the just, the wicked only affirm their nihilistic despair and inflict it on others.
There are serious consequences in our lives that flow from the fundamental value we attribute to life. The dynamic of injustice in the wicked’s project shows how difficult it is to isolate one decision from another.
A concrete example of a similar dynamic of injustice can be gleaned from the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11–12). One decision on the part of David leads to another. What appears relatively trivial at the beginning is revealed to be quite hideous at the end. The conclusion of the dynamic is a blatant and unjust killing of an innocent person. But whereas the Wisdom author stresses the initial nihilistic judgment as the source for the spiral of violence, the story of David and Bathsheba concentrates on the final outcome of the dynamic of evil.
2. The author chooses to portray the wicked’s nihilistic judgment on life through poetic imagery. There is a tremendous difference between the reflection on the ephemeral value of life by the wicked in Wisdom and the reflections on human limitations and suffering in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. The reflection of the wicked issues in despair; that of Job and Qohelet issues in hope. What is constant in both is that the experience of human limitations and suffering elicits an important and fundamental human response. On the one hand, the experience of sickness, failure, loss, and death can elicit a destructive despair as it does in the case of the wicked; on the other hand, it can elicit a response of sustaining hope, as it does in the case of the just. Suffering is not neutral. In the end, our response, whether it be the silence of despair or the serenity of respect, will be revealed in our actions.
3. Human dignity resides in our relationship to the divine. The author of Wisdom sustains the value of human dignity in the face of the wicked’s deadening ruminations on mortality. This value is maintained by the affirmation of a relationship with a transcendent being. The ungodly deny a divine presence both in our origins and in our finality. From that denial issues the wicked’s despair and judgment on life, which in turn elicits the final turn to violence.
Both prior to the speech of the wicked (1:12–15) and afterward (2:22–23) the author affirms the dignity of the universe itself and the dignity of human beings in their relationship to the divine creative act. All the generative forces of the world are wholesome. Human beings were created for incorruption and were made in the image of God.
The denial of divine relevance opens the problematic and enduring issue of power constituting right. If there is no God, why do power and might not constitute the only right? We have not substantially advanced the arguments presented in Wisdom over the years. In the face of arbitrary and relative laws based on power, the dignity of human beings becomes arbitrary and relative.
I recall the arguments of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vadim Borisov in their analyses of the regime of power in the Soviet Union. If the concept of the human personality is deprived of divine authority, then the personality can be defined conditionally and inevitably arbitrarily. If the personality is not absolute but conditional, then respect for humans is something one can disregard or claim at whim. Of course, various agnostic or humanistic philosophies still try to maintain an ethic that does not reduce the human being to arbitrary power. But to do so they still appeal to a larger framework, such as society, the community of humanity, or the universe, for the basis of their ethic.
WISDOM 3:1–4:20, IN DEFENSE OF VIRTUE AND JUSTICE
In the conclusion of the wicked’s defense, the righteous one is accused of incoherence. The wicked’s proof for such incoherence is the projected death of the righteous. This tragic death is meant to belie the claim of the just that their end is full of hope. In this way, the entire reasoning process of the wicked and their life project of exploiting creation, oppressing the weak, and doing violence against the just depends on the interpretation of the tragic death of the just. The author must disprove this interpretation for the entire argument of the wicked to collapse. The author examines the evidence by sifting through the appearance of tragedy in the lives of the just and the appearance of strength in the case of the wicked.
In three diptychs, the author examines the way of virtue in the case of the just, who suffer, and the way of the wicked, who appear to thrive over the just. Each diptych begins with a picture of the just, who appear to have suffered, and then turns to the other side to examine the picture of the wicked, who appear to have thrived. The examination constitutes the author’s defense of the virtuous life and an attack against a project of life that consists of injustice.
Each diptych picks up the themes within the speech of the wicked in exactly the reverse order in which they appear. The shameful and tragic death of the just is picked up in the very first diptych (3:1–12), which declares the life of the virtuous to be in the hand of God. The call to oppress the poor man and the widow and the aged is treated in the second diptych (3:13–4:6), which deals with the barren woman, the eunuch, and the virtuous who are childless. This second diptych actually contains two sets of comparisons and contrasts on each side. The one side deals with the barren woman and the eunuch (3:13–19), and the second deals with virtuous people who are childless (4:1–6). What unites them into a single diptych with four parts is the image of the fruit of virtue and wickedness (3:13; 4:5). Finally, the wicked’s call to exploit creation as "in youth" is confounded in the third diptych (4:7–20), which elaborates the blessing of the virtuous youth who has had an early death.
The argumentation of the author cannot be considered purely philosophical or logical. More than not, the critique is based on declarative statements that show the strength of the wicked to be false in the light of the blessedness of the just. The key technique in the criticism is the examination of appearances and reality. This perspective is particularly suitable to the background image of the trial, which examines appearances, reality, and intentionality. What really happened? Why did it happen? And what are the consequences? Such are the questions the author explores within the declarative statements regarding the just and the wicked. The author defends the virtuous life of the just and attacks the unjust lives of the wicked.
The unraveling of the argumentation of the wicked reveals their entire reasoning process as flawed. The death of the just is not the dreaded tragedy the wicked claim it to be. The oppression of the old, the widow, and the poor does not in the end confine the virtuous, who had "little strength to show" during their life. The call to exploit life "as in youth" is shown to be groundless in the face of a youth who has died an early death, yet is blessed in the presence of God. In its turn, the wicked’s nihilistic judgment on the mortality of human beings is shown to be the true cause of a death that goes far beyond the contours of mortality, which they despise.
Wisdom 3:1–13a, The Just Are in the Hand of God
3:1–9, The Reward of the Just. 3:1–4. As opposed to the shameful death the wicked projected for the just one, the author declares the just to be in the hand of God. Three images are used to create a sharp contrast between the blessedness of the just and the anticipated tragedy and shame projected by the wicked. The just are in the hand of God (v. 1); they are in peace (v. 3); and their hope is the fullness of immortality (v. 4). The hand of God traditionally signifies divine power and protection (Ps 95:4). To be in peace intimates the fullness of rest and well-being (Pss 4:8; 29:11). The hope of immortality refers to the author’s declaration that justice is immortal (1:15). This noun "justice" (δικαιοσύνη dikaiosynē), along with its adjective, "immortal" (ἀθάνατος athanatos), is late and quite rare in the LXX (cf. Wis 3:4; 4:1; 8:13, 17; 15:3; 4 Macc 14:5; 16:13). It is a concept borrowed from the Greek that expresses Israel’s hope in God’s faithfulness to the promises of the covenant.
The author concedes the appearance of tragedy and shame, but contends that the reality of the just is one of blessedness (vv. 2–4). Only from the perspective of the foolish do the just seem to have died, and their death seems to have been disaster, destruction, and even punishment.
3:5. By creating this disjunction between appearances and reality, the author is inviting the reader to look behind appearances for enduring values. The author introduces the idea of God’s "testing" the just and offers two traditional metaphors of transformation and applies them to the case of the just who have died.
The idea of God’s testing the people is often associated with the wanderings in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. In the theology of Deuteronomy, the desert experience of Israel is presented as a time of testing and an opportunity for inculcating discipline and knowledge (Deut 4:36; 8:2–5). This theme will be picked up in the later part of the book, when the specific history of the exodus will be treated. The sapiential tradition developed the notion of "testing in order to teach" as a means of passing on the insights of wisdom (Prov 3:11–12; Sir 2:1–5; 4:17–18).
3:6. The two metaphors that facilitate the notion of the transformation of the just in the context of God’s testing are borrowed from metallurgy and the temple cult. Both metaphors share the image of fire as the element that causes transformation. The transformation of the just is compared to gold’s being tested or purified in fire (v. 6; cf. Ps 66:10; Prov 17:3; Zech 13:9; Mal 3:2–3; Sir 2:5). The testing of gold in fire has the double function of verification and purification. The second metaphor, the burnt offering, accentuates the union between the just and God. The just are literally compared to a burnt offering that, though consumed by fire, is accepted by God as a pleasant fragrance (see Gen 8:21). If the metaphor of gold’s being tested in fire stresses transformation and purification, the second metaphor stresses God’s acceptance and union with the just.
3:7–8. The transformation of the just includes also a heightening of their activity at the time of judgment (vv. 7–8). Until now, the just have been passive, both during the wicked’s speech and during the author’s declaration of their blessedness. They are at peace in the hand of God. But at the time of judgment they will "shine forth"; they will run like "sparks through the stubble"; they will "govern nations." This idea of the righteous shining with brilliance is often associated with the vindication of the just at the time of judgment in apocalyptic writings. In Dan 12:3, for instance, the wise and the righteous are described as shining forth like the brightness of the sky and the stars (cf. Matt 13:43).
Several descriptions in the wicked’s speech are reversed in the author’s presentation of the just. The just were in the hands of the wicked, but now they are in the hands of God (2:18–3:1). The wicked were to put the just to torment, but now no torment will touch them (2:19–3:1). The wicked planned to test what would happen to the just, but it was really God who had tested the just and found them worthy (2:17–3:5). The wicked were to try the forbearance of the just, but God is the one who has tried them like gold in the furnace (2:19–3:6).
3:9. The final brief comments on the just reiterate the faithfulness of God in covenantal terms. The just abide with God in love. Grace and mercy rest on the holy ones, and God’s providence watches over the elect. The author’s belief in an afterlife is rooted more deeply in covenantal theology than in Greek philosophical ideas concerning the immortality of the soul.
3:10–13a, The Punishment of the Wicked. 3:10–11. In contrast to the active blessedness of the just, the author declares the hope and strength of the wicked to be empty and useless (v. 11). As a result of their injustice, the wicked will be punished according to their reasoning (v. 10). The wicked will not be punished simply because they have sinned. Rather, in the very manner of their wickedness, they will experience the punishment of their own reasoning.
The author draws a close connection between the false reasoning of the wicked and the experience of punishment. This is a unique perspective in the work that once again reveals the author’s profound psychological understanding of the relationship among thought, praxis, and consequences. The entire reasoning process of the wicked contains the seeds of their own destruction. The nihilistic judgment on life, the invitation to evasive pleasure, the beckoning to oppress the weak, and the call to kill the just—all of these principles informing their view are understood by the author to turn against the wicked.
It is not as if the punishment is an external penalization that has no bearing on the manner of the injustice perpetrated. The author envisages an internal coherence between one’s actions and their consequences. This will be particularly emphasized in the latter half of the book, where the author treats the issues of idol worship (11:16; 12:23–27; 14:30–31) and the punishment of the enemies of the righteous ones in the plague episodes (15:18–16:1; 18:4–5). An explicit relationship will be drawn between their sin and the punishment for it.
This idea of a relationship between sin and punishment is implicit in several psalms of lament in which the psalmist calls on God for liberation and for the wicked’s punishment according to their very means of wickedness: "Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends" (Ps 7:16 NRSV; cf. Pss 5:10; 9:15; 35:8; 37:14–15; 109:29; 141:10).
Although the punishment of the wicked for their false reasoning and injustice is envisaged as taking place in the future (they "will be punished as their reasoning deserves," v. 10), the seeds of destruction are already operative in their lives. Their lives really are miserable, their hope is vain, their labors are unprofitable, and their works are useless. These images are the very antitheses of the experience of the just, who are in peace, whose hope is the fullness of immortality, and whose future is to govern nations and rule over peoples.
3:12–13a. The concluding declaration of the first diptych focuses on the fruit of the wicked, the topic for the next diptych. The wives of the wicked are foolish, their children are evil, and their offspring are cursed. The author’s judgment of punishment for the wicked here is rather harsh and comprehensive, without distinctions and exceptions. Even the children and the wives of the wicked will experience destruction.
The author takes pains to attribute the cause of ultimate death to the words and actions of the wicked. Why does the curse of the wicked extend to wives and children who may not have any guilt? Of course, the author is continuing in a longstanding tradition that claimed that blessings and curses continue to the fourth generation (cf. Exod 20:5; 34:7; Num 14:18; Deut 5:9; Sir 41:5–10). Actions do have consequences on other people, for better or for worse. If the wicked hope to accumulate advantages and wealth through injustice, they will be sorely dismayed. This irony introduces the contrast in the next diptych between the hopeless fruitfulness of the wicked and the hopeful sterility of the just.
1. This passage, which declares the hope of the just who have died (3:1–9), is one of the many biblical texts offered for selection at funerals. The author encourages the embracing of pain and loss, but offers hope as well. The declarations and images in the text have the unique capability of offering hope without bypassing or diminishing the pain of loss. Recognition is given to the suffering and death of others in the image of gold’s being tested and purified in fire and in the image of the burnt offering. To lament and mourn the loss of family and friends is an important element in human relations, and it is not wise to pass over mourning lightly.
Yet, at the same time, pain and loss may be transformed into hope. The purification of gold leads to brilliance; the burnt offering signifies union. This is the unique perspective the author wishes to bring to the tragedies of life. In contrast to the perspective of the wicked, who see in human tragedy a destroyer of human value, the author focuses on the relationship between the just and God that emerges from their experience of tragedy. Far from being destructive tragedies, experiences of pain and loss can become moments of purification, resolution, and even deeper union with others.
2. The interpretation of tragedy in our own lives and in the lives of others remains ambivalent. Perhaps it is almost an instinctive reaction to interpret tragedy as punishment and a consequence of guilt. Instead of seeing tragedy, loss, sickness, and even death as a call to care and to be concerned for union, we judge either other people or ourselves as being accursed. Perhaps we simply try to avoid the realities of those who suffer altogether.
"Though in the sight of others they were punished,/ their hope is full of immortality" (3:4 NRSV). The Wisdom text offers a different perspective on the reality of tragedy and limitations in human life. Tragedy, loss, and death are not the destroyers of ultimate human value. The book of Job is the great precursor to the Wisdom text for modulating the perception and interpretation of tragedy in life. The tragedy of Job’s life and family was not the result of his guilt, no matter how much the tradition and the three friends tried to impose such an interpretation on his experience. Christ, likewise, modulated the interpretation of tragedy in the case of the man who was blind from birth. The disciples presumed guilt to have been the cause of his blindness, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2 NRSV). Jesus’s response transformed the perspective on tragedy. He denied sin to be the cause for that tragedy and instead stated that the response to the man’s blindness will be the manifestation of God’s works (John 9:1–3).
3. In the author’s critique of the lives of the wicked, a parallel is drawn between their sin and their punishment. Implicit in this parallel lies the age-old belief that injustice will finally catch up with the perpetrators. The reward of justice and the punishment of injustice too easily may be understood as extrinsic to moral conduct. For the Wisdom author, the fruit of a moral life is already implicit in the concrete decisions and actions of individuals. Even if the explicit or public revelation of justice and injustice resides in the future, the personal consequences of moral acts, like planted seeds, are active from the start.
Wisdom 3:13b–4:6, The Moral Strength of the Virtuous
3:13b–15, The Moral Fruit of Virtue. 3:13b–14. This central diptych is aimed at dismantling the wicked’s despising of everything that is weak and useless (2:10–11). Again, the issues of appearance and reality in the case of the just and the wicked are paraded before the reader for critical examination. This is done in two sets of comparisons and contrasts of the childless, who are righteous, and the wicked, who thrive. The particular image that unites the elements of this double comparison and contrast is "fruit" (καρπός karpos). The sterile woman will have "fruit" in the day of accounting (v. 13b), whereas the "fruit" of the wicked will be useless (4:5). Where there appears to be fruitlessness in the virtuous, there will be fruit. Where there appears to be fruit in injustice, there is no lasting fruit.
In order to recast the reader’s perspective on human tragedy, the author chooses two traditional images of the accursed and raises them to a status of "blessedness." Because of the virtue of the barren woman and the eunuch, what appears to be human weakness and tragedy turns out to be a stage or a passage toward blessedness.
The barren woman and the eunuch are traditional images of curse and misfortune. The corollary image of blessing is that of fruitfulness. The abundance of children was considered a major sign of God’s blessing. The initial divine blessing and command at creation, "Be fruitful and multiply …" (Gen 1:28), constitutes procreation as one of the intrinsic blessings of humanity (cf. Psalm 128). The gift of children was a sign of blessing associated with the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:2; 15:3–5; 17:15–21) and also in a particular manner with the deuteronomic covenant (Deut 30:16). Sterility for both women and men was considered a grave misfortune (Gen 30:23; 1 Sam 1:4–8). The eunuch was barred from the priesthood and the assembly of the Lord (Lev 21:20; Deut 23:2). As such, the images of the barren woman and the eunuch are extreme examples of human limitation and weakness.
In a turnabout of events, the author declares both the barren woman and the eunuch to be blessed because of their moral integrity. The barren woman who is undefiled will bear fruit during the final judgment (v. 13b); the eunuch who has done no lawless deed will have a place of great delight in the temple of the Lord (v. 14). In this way the reader is being challenged to evaluate what constitutes true blessedness. The author has not flinched from choosing traditional images of curse as possible examples of blessedness.
Although there is no other biblical passage in which these two traditional images of curse are transformed precisely into declarations of blessedness, it is evident that the Wisdom author is borrowing themes from Isaiah. In Isaiah 54, the prophet exhorts the barren woman, who represents Jerusalem, to rejoice, for she will have many children (Isa 54:1–3). In Isaiah, the city of Jerusalem is referred to as a barren woman (Isa 54:1) and a widow (Isa 54:4); Jerusalem is like a wife abandoned by her husband (Isa 54:6–7); the city is afflicted (Isa 54:11) and oppressed (Isa 54:14). In each case, the image of affliction is transformed into an image of restoration. Jerusalem will have many children; God is declared to be her husband; the covenant of peace shall not be taken away; the city will be rebuilt with magnificent stones; the city will become a safe haven. The author of Wisdom has condensed and focused on the image of the barren woman from the Isaiah passage. But the added perspective is that of her virtue. Because of her virtue, which is stated in negative terms ("undefiled," "not entered into a sinful union"), the barren woman will have fruit.
Similarly, the idea of righteous eunuchs’ receiving a place in the Temple is borrowed from Isaiah. In Isaiah 56, the covenant of the Lord is extended to all who maintain justice and who keep the sabbath. Specifically this includes the foreigner who loves the name of the Lord, eunuchs who hold fast to the covenant, and the outcasts of Israel.
3:15. The temporal fruitlessness of the virtuous barren woman and the virtuous eunuch is reduced to mere appearance when compared to the fruitfulness they will have in their virtue. The author continues the attack on the reasoning of the wicked by transforming the perspectives on ordinary human limitations and weaknesses. Just as the death of the just appeared to be a final tragic event only in the eyes of the foolish, so too is the fruitlessness of virtuous individuals who hold to their integrity only apparent. In fact, the virtuous, who bear little or no temporal fruit, have the root of understanding, which ultimately does not fail. Perhaps no other biblical author has pushed the concept of blessedness so far as to exclude from it material goods and to include within it the experience of suffering.
3:16–19, The Apparent Fruit of the Wicked. In direct contrast to the moral fruitfulness of the just, the author declares the temporal fruit of the wicked to be of no account. On the day of judgment there will be no consolation for the unrighteous generation. Whatever temporal fruit they have acquired through unrighteous means will not come to the hoped-for maturity. The final outcome of the unrighteous generation is grievous.
If we understand the expression "children of adulterers" literally as the children of the unrighteous, then the author’s reasoning would appear to be entering a rather awkward position. Innocent children would appear to be punished for the sins of their parents. As in the case of vv. 12–13, the author’s argument has more nuances than the literal sense would suggest. In prophetic literature, terms relating to adultery signify Israel’s faithlessness to God, idolatry, and abandonment of the law (cf. Isa 57:3–13; Jer 5:7–9; 7:8–10; Ezekiel 16; Hos 2:2–13; 3:1–5; 4:2–19). Adultery referred to the whole complexity of Israel’s faithlessness to God. Children from such an "adulterous" relationship signified the advantages and privileges gained from alliances and cultic practices. Instead of relying on the covenantal promises, Israel adopted cultic practices and entered political intrigues through which Israel hoped to secure advantages and privileges; thus the children of adultery represent these advantages. Even within prophetic teaching, the judgment of God is presented as demolishing the children of adultery—that is, the advantages that Israel hoped to secure through idolatry, foreign alliances, and cultic practices (cf. Jer 5:8–9; Hos 9:12).
The particular nuance that the Wisdom author is deriving from the image of the hopelessness of the children of adultery is that the wicked’s hoped-for consolation will turn to nothing. Children represent hope and strength. They provide a guarantee for the future. However, for those who practice injustice, all the apparent advantages that have been thus gained will fail, like children of an adulterous relationship. The fruit of wickedness, contrary to its appearance of blessedness, will become a curse.
The wicked had declared might to be their right, and they judged weakness to be useless (2:11). The author is focusing on the image of fruitfulness as an external sign of might and strength and fruitlessness as an external sign of weakness and helplessness. The apparent fruit of unjust actions will not bring the hoped-for consolation. The apparent fruitlessness of the righteous will in fact bring forth the fruit of virtue.
4:1–2, The Advantage of Virtue. Unlike the opening and closing diptychs, the central diptych contrasts the hope of the virtuous who are childless with that of the wicked in a double set of comparisons. In this second half of the diptych, the author declares the particular advantage of virtue to be immortality. Parents live on in their children. But how do the childless continue? Through their virtue and honor, the just will live on in relation to God and to others. In virtue there is immortality. Therefore, it is better to be childless and virtuous than to have the abundance of the wicked (cf. Ps 37:16, "Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked" [NRSV]).
What was stated negatively for the barren woman and the eunuch is stated positively in the case of virtuous people who are childless. The righteousness of the barren consisted of their refraining from unlawful conduct, whereas the righteousness of the childless consists of being rooted in virtue.
The author has adapted familiar Greek ideas on the value of virtue to the case of the just who are childless. For Plato, the life of the soul was far more important than the life of the body. In the examination of justice from the point of view of who is happier, the just or the unjust, Plato champions the enduring value of virtue, which lives on.
Virtue is personified as a victorious athlete who marches with the crown of victory after having won spotless prizes (v. 2). In 1:8, justice was personified as one who punishes. In the following section of the book, wisdom will be personified as the object of the unnamed Solomon’s admiration.
4:3–6, The Disadvantage of the Wicked. In contrast to the advantage of virtue, the prolific brood of the wicked is declared to be of no use. Whereas virtue was compared to a victorious athlete, the results of wickedness are compared to a doomed tree and a rootless plant.
Vegetation is used often in Scripture as a metaphor for the flourishing of moral life. The righteous are compared to trees that are planted by streams of water and that yield their fruit in due time (Ps 1:3; Jer 17:7–8). Perhaps even more frequently, especially in the prophetic writings, we find the image of vegetation, and particularly the vine, as a metaphor for judgment against the unfaithful (Isa 5:1–7; 27:1–6; Jer 2:21; 5:10–11; 8:13; 12:10–13; Ezekiel 15; Amos 4:9). The destruction of the vine, which is ordinarily a symbol of life and abundance, is a striking image that portrays the precariousness of an immoral and unfaithful life.
The author of Wisdom adapts the vegetation metaphor for the life of the wicked to include the progressive stages of growth: seedlings, roots, boughs, branches, fruit. By following the progressive growth of the plant from the illegitimate seedling to its useless fruit, the author stresses the thoroughness of the plant’s ineffectiveness. Even if the seedlings take root, those roots will not be deep; even if they put forth boughs, they will be shaken by the wind; even if they sprout branches, they will be broken off; and even if they should provide a semblance of fruit, it will be useless (vv. 4–5).
The metaphor for the children of adultery veers away from vegetation and returns to that of a trial. Even more useless than fruit, the children of the wicked become witnesses against their parents when God examines them (v. 6). This is the pivotal issue in the author’s argument on the apparent fruit of the wicked. The author is unmasking the illusion of strength and power that the wicked gain through injustice. Not only are the advantages and privileges of the wicked said to be useless, like unripe fruit that cannot be digested, but also this fruit actually testifies against them for their injustice.
Since the wicked had regarded weakness as useless and power as making right, then the fruit of their injustice would appear to be a vindication for their stance in life. The author counters this erroneous reasoning by declaring the fruit of the wicked to be both useless and accusatory. The wicked will fail not because they will not achieve success from their injustice, but because their supposed success will not bring them the hoped-for security; instead, it will be a source for their own condemnation at the time of accounting.
To elucidate the change in perspective from appearance to reality, the author provides several reversals of fortune in the case of the just and the wicked. The barren woman and the eunuch who are virtuous have the "root" of understanding (3:15), whereas the wicked do not plant deep "roots" (4:3). The wicked lamented that there would be no "memory" (μνημονεύω mnēmoneuō) of them after their death (2:4), whereas in the "memory" of virtue there is immortality (4:1). In their frenetic boasting, the wicked called for wearing "crowns" of roses before they fade (2:8), whereas it is virtue that marches victoriously carrying the "crown" (στέφανος stephanos, 4:2). The wicked claimed evasive pleasure to be their lot in life (2:9), whereas it is the righteous eunuch who will have a "lot" (κλῆρος klēros) in the Temple (3:14). The wicked had planned to inflict a shameful death on the just one to see what the end of his life would be (2:17), whereas the "end" (τέλος telos) of the unrighteous generation is said to be grievous (3:19). The wicked had judged weakness to be useless (2:11), whereas the apparent success of the wicked is shown ultimately to be "useless" (ἄχρηστος achrēstos, 4:5).
The reversal of fortune regarding the apparent fruitlessness of the just and the supposed fruitfulness of the wicked is aimed at countering the wicked’s despising of what is weak and extolling the virtue of sheer might and success. The author’s counterattack relies heavily on the distinction between appearance and reality. What appears to be a weakness of the righteous in the end turns out to be the strength of their virtue. What appears to be a strength of the ungodly—namely, all the benefits and privileges accrued from injustice—in the end turns against them and reveals their moral weakness and depravity.
The author’s treatment of the theme of childlessness points to a more general and universal problem: How do we interpret the many forms of human weakness and limitations that we encounter in ourselves and in our world? If the first diptych aimed at facing the issue of the human tragedy of a violent and unjust death, the second diptych focuses on the less obvious tragedies that the unfulfillment of human possibilities presents.
In ancient Israel, children were considered one of the great gifts and rewards in life. They were a sign of God’s blessing. Childlessness was considered to be a lack and even a curse. The image of the "fruit" of the wicked and the righteous relies on the presence of children, but goes beyond the metaphor of procreation to include all the consequences of injustice. The fruit of one’s actions includes all the strengths, achievements, and failures of one’s labor of righteousness or of injustice. The Wisdom author explores the apparent lack of the "fruit" of the righteous and the apparent strength of the "fruit" of the wicked to face the issue of the meaning of human weakness and the propensity for false hope.
1. The strength of injustice is only apparent and illusory. The seeming strength of injustice is one of the great problems that emerges with growing intensity among the sapiential circles of Israel. The wicked appear to thrive while the just appear to founder. The apparent thriving of injustice runs head on against the covenantal promises. Obedience and faithfulness to the law bring life; injustice and faithlessness bring death (Deut 30:11–20).
A number of eloquent voices in Scripture speak to this perennial problem. Psalm 73 is dedicated entirely to the theme of the apparent success of injustice. The psalmist confesses to having been sorely tempted to envy the arrogant for their prosperity. What saves the psalmist from succumbing to this temptation is the realization of the ultimate end of the wicked at the time of judgment. Job, in confronting the accusation of his three friends, contemplates the bitter paradox of the just who perish and the wicked who thrive (Job 21). Qohelet continuously raises the issue of the apparent strength of folly or injustice to jolt the reader from reducing reward and punishment to an automatic consequence of one’s actions (Eccl 2:12–17; 4:1–3; 7:15; 8:10–17).
The particular nuance that the Wisdom author brings to the paradox is the dichotomy between appearance and reality. The author concedes the appearance of strength to the practice of injustice but denies its strength to be effective in the long run. Moreover, the effect of the author’s reversal of images between the just and the wicked is to raise the importance of being critical of appearances. For our culture, which relies so heavily on appearances and first impressions, this exhortation to reflect on the essentials and arrive at the heart of the matter can be a significant voice for integrity. It calls for a critical examination of the fruit of one’s action and its effect in the long run: "Thus you will know them by their fruits" (Matt 7:20 NRSV). Although the fruit of injustice may appear strong in the short term, in the long run it reveals its origins in nihilism. Success, strength, and achievements brought about unjustly are false sources of hope. In the end, these very strengths will reveal their function of simply masking the abysmal despair that breeds injustice.
2. The weakness of integrity is only apparent. In antithesis to the paradox of the seeming strength of injustice is the apparent weakness of integrity. What benefit is there to following a way of life of justice and integrity? Weakness, limitations, and surface failure put integrity and justice as a way of life to a sore test.
But the author challenges the reader to set his or her gaze beyond the immediate, beyond appearances, to view the result of justice in the long run. Virtue is respected by God and by people (4:1). A life of virtue places one in relationship to God and in a relationship of integrity with others. Again, it is in the long run that the true strength of justice is grasped with all its clarity. What cannot be destroyed in a life of integrity is the enduring relationship with God and others.
Ultimately, the author is affirming the covenantal promises. Faithfulness to God’s way of justice does bring life; the way of injustice does bring death. But this defense is not sustained in a naive or superficial manner. The defense of justice and the critique of injustice are sustained by an examination of the ultimate fruit that is derived from ethical conduct. For a critical assessment of the strength and weakness of justice, one has to go all the way. What is the ultimate result of having achieved success, security, and temporary glory through a life of injustice? What is the ultimate result of clinging to a life of integrity and justice while enduring failure, threat, and a seeming anonymity? In the long run, a life of injustice leads to the alienation it presumes, whereas a life of justice places one into relationship with others.
Wisdom 4:7–20, The Death of a Virtuous Youth
4:7–15, The Righteous Are Pleasing to God. The final diptych contrasts the death of a virtuous youth with the prolonged life of the wicked. Just as children in ancient Israel were a sign of great blessing, so too was a ripe old age considered to be a blessing (Gen 15:15; 25:8; 35:29; Exod 20:12; Deut 4:40; Judg 8:32). Old age was presented as a sign of wisdom and as a reward for right conduct in the sapiential traditions as well (Job 42:17; Prov 3:1–2; 10:27; 16:31; Sir 1:12). Again, as with the case of the barren, the author has not shrunk away from choosing an image that ordinarily evokes tragedy and misfortune to propel the reader to seek out the deeper source of human dignity. What is truly disastrous is not a brief life lived out with integrity, but a long life filled with the perpetration of injustice.
An early death was considered a great calamity; it was a curse one wished only on enemies (Ps 109:8). But viewed from the perspective of virtue, an early death may even signify a blessing. The author is advocating the same change in perspective as in the case of the violent death of the just and the fruitless lives of the righteous. From the point of view of justice and integrity, what appears tragic is only a stage in further growth.
The author argues that an honorable old age is not something that can be established by external signs of age, such as gray hair. Neither can it be measured by number of years. Rather, an honorable age is achieved in a life of innocence, understanding, and inner maturity (vv. 8–9). The idea of progressive internal growth is portrayed through the images of "a life become pleasing to God" (v. 10) and "coming to perfection in a short time" (v. 13).
Pushing away even further the interpretation of an early death as necessarily tragic, the author goes so far as to consider the early death of a virtuous youth to be an expression of divine favor (vv. 10–15). This certainly is a novel position within the biblical writings. More than likely, the idea was facilitated by the popular axiom in Greek and Roman literature, "He whom the gods love dies young." It is parallel to our own popular expression, "The good die young." The Wisdom author is adapting this idea in the light of the Enoch stories in Genesis and Sirach. Two links to the Genesis account of Enoch (LXX) exist in the Wisdom text: The idea of Enoch’s pleasing God and the idea of transference: "Enoch was pleasing to God, then he was found no more, for God transferred him" (Gen 5:24). Notice that in the Hebrew Bible the opening phrase reads, "Enoch walked with God …" unlike the Greek text, which Wisdom employs. Sirach makes a similar reference to the Enoch account of the Greek version of Genesis in the hymn that honors the ancestors: "Enoch pleased the Lord and was taken up, an example of repentance to all generations" (Sir 44:16 NRSV; cf. Heb 11:5).
The particular nuance attributed to God’s pleasure in the case of the virtuous youth’s being removed from the world is that of saving the youth from evil and calamity. God has taken up the virtuous youth, who has achieved maturity early, lest the future corrupt him (vv. 11–12). This idea was also present in Greek, Roman, and rabbinic literature: "For who knows but that God, having a fatherly care for the human race, and foreseeing future events, early removes some persons from life untimely."
The Wisdom author stresses God’s motivation of care and love in the early death of the virtuous youth. As with the case of the tragic and violent death of the just in the first diptych, people misinterpret the untimely death as tragic and void of divine care (v. 15). But from a perspective of justice and virtue, even events of seeming tragedy are interpreted in the light of God’s grace, mercy, and providence.
4:16–20, The Righteous Youth and the Aged Wicked. The conviction of the wicked frames the second half of the diptych. At the outset, the righteous ones and the just youth are said to condemn the ungodly and the prolonged age of the unrighteous (v. 16). In the conclusion, the lawless deeds of the wicked will convict them to their face (v. 20). The author stresses the quality of judgment in the righteous youth. It is the youth, ordinarily not renowned for judgment, who will condemn the aged, who are commonly associated with wisdom, for their wickedness.
There are biblical precedents for the image of a wise youth who criticizes the wicked or foolish people who have the respect that belongs to elders. In the book of Job, Elihu defends his right to speak out because the source of wisdom resides in the breath of God and not in length of years. As a younger man, inspired by the Spirit of God, Elihu is critical of his elders for not responding effectively to the laments of their friend Job (Job 32:6–9). Qohelet speaks of the advantages of a poor and wise youth over an old and foolish king (Eccl 4:13). God is said to have aroused Daniel, a youth with a holy spirit, in order to confound the wicked elders and liberate Susanna from false judgment (Sus 45).
The author’s judgment against the wicked is expressed in apocalyptic language. This language anticipates the similar expression of the formal judgment that occurs after the wicked’s confession (5:17–23). In part, the language of destruction may have been inspired by Isaiah’s judgment on the downfall of the king of Babylon (Isa 14:3–21). The Lord "will laugh" the wicked to scorn; they will become "dishonored corpses"; they will be "dashed, shaken," and "left utterly dry" (vv. 18–19). At the time of reckoning, the lawless deeds of the wicked will convict them.
The issue of appearance versus reality is applied to the case of the virtuous youth who dies an early death. Although it appears to be a tragedy, such a death need not be interpreted as a calamity or disaster. On the contrary, from the perspective of virtue and maturity, such a death may be a sign of God’s special favor. People may see such events and not understand their true meaning or take such ideas into consideration (v. 15).
A number of images are taken up by the author from the original speech of the wicked and the previous diptychs in order to dismantle the reasoning of the wicked and counter their false accusation of the just. The wicked wanted to see whether the claims of the just were true, and so test him to the end (2:17); now the wicked will see the end of the wise and still not understand (v. 17). Just as the righteous were to become active and govern nations and peoples in the first diptych (3:7–8), so too the just and the righteous youth condemn the wicked in the third diptych (v. 16). Just as the children of the wicked become witnesses against them at the time of accounting in the second diptych (v. 6), so too the lawless deeds of the unrighteous convict them at the day of reckoning in the third diptych (v. 20).
By taking up another image of disaster and tragedy—namely, that of the early death of a virtuous youth—the author is countering the wicked persons’ adulation of youthful pleasures (2:6–9) and their negative judgment on the transience of human life (2:1–5). In this way, all three diptychs counter the judgment and exhortation to injustice that reflect the wicked’s approach to life. And this they do in reverse order as they appear in the wicked’s speech.
During the sifting of appearances and reality, the author systematically uncovers the true meaning of the violent death of the just, the final fruitfulness of the barren woman and the eunuch, the special divine favor shown to the virtuous youth. The first diptych refutes the challenge of the wicked, who project the shameful death of the just one to be a confirmation of the validity of their stance toward life. The second diptych counters the wicked’s decision to make might their right and to oppress those who are weak, the poor, the widow, and the elderly. The third diptych on the wise youth refutes the negative view of the wicked’s judgment on physical death, which had led to their initial exhortation to evasive youthful pleasures. The interpretation of physical death plays a critical role in the author’s refutation of a style of life that justifies injustice. The entire reasoning process of the wicked falls apart and prepares the reader for the day of judgment, when they will confess the error of their ways and their sin.
1. The author’s declaration of the blessedness of the wise youth who has died is not meant to be an answer to someone who is grieving the loss of a child or young friend. The death of a young person increases the poignancy of the loss of life, the waste of human possibilities, and the transience of life. Precisely for this reason, the author chose this common enough experience of human affliction to heighten the appreciation of a life of virtue and justice. Far from being an ultimate tragedy, even a short life can be considered a full life if it is measured by integrity and not by the ordinary standards of human strength. By looking behind the appearance of loss, in the case of a youth who has died, the author celebrates the power of virtue, justice, and inner maturity.
2. Wisdom and virtue can be found in the most unlikely places. The author holds up the example of a virtuous and wise youth in contrast to the wicked elderly in a manner that challenges our ordinary perspectives on wisdom and virtue. Wisdom and virtue traditionally are associated with the tried, the experienced, and the aged. But it is more important to assess the acts and judgments of human beings in the light of wisdom and virtue than it is to assess their appearances and places in society. Christ would proclaim a similar change in perspective in even more drastic terms: "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you" (Matt 21:31 NRSV; cf. Luke 18:9–14).
3. In the context of the author’s refutation of the wicked’s argument, the image of the death of a youth calls into question an absolutely negative judgment of the loss of youthful energies. The wicked regard the experience of the loss of life so negatively that this judgment justifies their escape to youthful pleasures. If youthful pleasures are pursued simply to evade the limitations and afflictions of life, they will never completely satisfy the desire for communion. Communion and integrity can be achieved even when youthful energies are diminished to the point of death.
4. The negative interpretation of an early death is mitigated by two realizations. The first is communion with God. God’s faithfulness to the promises of the covenant has elicited the faith in an afterlife (4:15). The communion that is envisaged between the youth that has died an early death and God depends not so much on the immortality of the human being as much as on the enduring covenantal relationship. This communion is realized through the virtuous life of a youth that has been found pleasing to God.
The second is the idea of the inner maturity of virtue, whereby the essence of life reaches its completion. What is critical for the author of Wisdom is the inner life of virtue. The failings and shortcomings of life in their physical contours—even including early death—pale in comparison to the dignity of a life lived out with integrity.
5. The appearance of wisdom and achievement of the aged is not to be confused with virtue. As with the earlier cases of the tragic death of a virtuous person and the apparent fruitlessness of a barren person, the author calls for an examination of the true nature of human strength and wisdom. What appears to be a tragic loss of life in the case of the wise youth indeed is not. Presumably the author could have chosen other figures to signify human strength, such as people of wealth or those with educational and political might. Instead he uses three extreme examples of human misfortune to highlight with clarity the significant values of virtue and justice for determining the dignity of human beings. The true failures, tragedies, and disasters in life are not what the wicked think they are. Moral vacuity expressed through a life of evasive pleasure, exploiting the weak, and perpetrating violence brings on a death and destruction that is far more devastating than the experience of mortality, which all human beings encounter.
WISDOM 5:1–23, THE FINAL JUDGMENT
5:1–3, Introduction to the Scene of Judgment. The author has refuted the entire reasoning process of the wicked in a series of diptychs that uphold the integrity of the just and condemn the ways of the unjust. Despite appearances to the contrary, the blessedness of the just is assured by virtue of their relationship with God, whereas the downfall of the wicked is guaranteed by the vacuity of their moral life. The lynch pin in the wicked’s argument was their final project to condemn the just one to a shameful death (2:20). In their minds, a shameful death would disprove the just’s pretensions to an enduring divine relationship and would confirm their own negative judgment on the transiency of life. In turn, the negative interpretation of life justified their flight to evasive pleasure, their grasping of power, and their exercising of violence. By having the just one stand with confidence before the oppressors in a final judgment, the author strips away any vestiges of the wicked’s claim to truth. The author brings the reader to the lofty heights of a divine perspective whereby the blessedness of the just shines clearly against the moral tragedy of the wicked. The power of injustice and the impotence of virtue are reversed. The just one will stand before the oppressors.
The theme of a final judgment has continuously been brought to the fore by the author. In a sense, a final judgment functions as a "trump card" for eliciting in the present a reflection on the eventual outcome of one’s judgments and actions. The terms of this judgment are general and descriptive. It is called an "inquiry" and a "report" that will be brought to God (1:9). The author’s favored termἐπισκοπή (episkopē) refers to God’s day of visitation or accounting, in which God cares for the just and punishes the wicked (2:20; 3:7, 9, 13; 4:15; cf. Isa 10:3; 23:17; 29:6). But this day of judgment is also described as a time when God will examine or judge human beings (3:18; 4:6).
The mere presence of the just one who stands before the oppressors constitutes irrefutable evidence against the wicked. The very act of standing up has juridical overtones. A judge stands in order to inquire and to pronounce judgment (Job 31:14; Ps 82:1). A witness stands to accuse or to defend (Deut 19:15–16; Job 33:5). A person who cannot stand has nothing further to add for his or her defense (Ps 1:5). Therefore, the very presence of the just one constitutes a condemnation. Not a word need be spoken, yet the wicked are accused and condemned. The wicked had wanted "to see" whether the words of the just were true (2:17); now in divine judgment they "see" the end of the just and are overtaken with fear (v. 2).
The wicked confess their guilt. Just as the author provided the reader with the privileged position of following the wicked persons’ perspective on life, so too is the reader allowed to listen in on the wicked’s confession of guilt. A confession can have one of two purposes. In the context of a relationship, confessing one’s sins or wrongdoing can have the function of expressing conversion or a change of heart that seeks reconciliation. We confess our sins in order to elicit the forgiveness of God (Ps 32:5). In the context of a trial, the confession confirms the validity of the accusation and justifies the condemnation (see the story of Achan, who confesses his sin of taking booty and is promptly executed after the misdeed is verified, Josh 7:10–26).
The confession of the wicked in the book of Wisdom takes place only among themselves. It does not take place in the presence of God and not even in the presence of the just one. The wicked are not seeking reconciliation through their confession. They simply are admitting to their error among themselves. Even though they are said to speak with remorse and in anguish, the purpose of the confession is not to indicate a change of heart but to provide incontrovertible evidence that their reasoning has been false. After the three diptychs that defend the just and accuse the wicked, even the unrighteous admit they are wrong.
5:4–14, Confession of the Wicked. Just as the author’s defense of the just in three diptychs unraveled the wicked’s argumentation in the reverse order of their project in life, so too does the wicked’s confession disclaim their project in reverse order. The death of the just is not their final and tragic end (vv. 4–5); the wicked’s paths of lawlessness and exploitation brought only destruction (vv. 6–7). Their arrogance and wealth have not provided profit (v. 8). As a result, their lives have become the meaningless and hopeless reality that they feared mortality had decreed for all human beings (vv. 9–14).
The wicked’s confession of error covers their entire reasoning process, not just their miscalculation of the final end of the just one. A shadow is cast right back onto their original ruminations on the transience of life, and it covers their evasive pleasures, exploitation of the weak, and violence.
There are several touches of irony in the wicked’s confession in phrases referring to images employed in their project of life. The wicked had derided the just one for claiming to be a "child of God" (2:13); now they acknowledge that the just one is counted among "the children of God" (υἱοί θεοῦ huioi theou, v. 5). The wicked had described revelry as their proper "lot" (κλῆρος klēros, 2:9) in life, but now they acknowledge that the just have their "lot" among the saints (v. 5). The wicked acknowledge that they have "taken their fill" (ἐμπίμπλημι empimplēmi) of lawlessness and destruction (v. 7), whereas they had exhorted one another "to take their fill" of costly wines and perfumes (2:7).
The recognition of their error and guilt leads the wicked to a lengthy reflection on the vacuity of their moral lives (vv. 9–14). This reflection stands in parallel fashion to the opening reflection on the transience of life (2:1–5). Both sections are marked by poetic images. Just as the wicked had judged their lives to be stamped fatally by the sign of mortality, so now they recognize that their moral conduct is stamped by hopelessness as well. Whereas in the first reflection the wicked ruminated on the transience of their physical existence, now they lament the transience of their moral existence. Their hopelessness and rootlessness in the moral sphere are parallel to their judgment of meaninglessness in the physical sphere. They are being punished according to their very own reasoning (3:10).
Two brief images open the disclosure of the illusory nature of their project in life. All the appearances of their wealth have vanished like a shadow and like a rumor (v. 9). These images are followed by the elaboration of several metaphors depicting the transience of their project. First comes the metaphor of the boat with its oars, which after its passing leaves no sign of its presence (v. 10). Next comes the metaphor of the bird that pushes itself through the air and leaves no sign of its coming (v. 11; cf. Job 9:26). Finally there is the metaphor of the arrow shot through the air toward a target whose trajectory cannot even be recognized (v. 12). All of these metaphors emphasize the common feature that no trace is left of an object’s passing.
The wicked profess what they had denied in their opening reflection: There is an enduring value in the transience of life—virtue. But as a result of their unjust actions they have nothing of it. Four poetic images conclude the wicked’s confession whereby the rootlessness of their hope is emphasized. Without virtue, their hope is like chaff in the wind, frost in a storm, smoke in the wind, and the passing memory of an occasional guest (v. 14). It is possible that this last image of an occasional guest is formulated in the light of the Near Eastern custom of traveling in the evening and spending the day in hostels so as to avoid the heat of the day. Such guests would come and go and not be noticed.
The confession of the wicked continues to follow the pattern in Isaiah. Just as the author borrowed themes of the suffering servant, the barren woman, the eunuch, and the wise one from Isaiah, so too do we find a confession from Israel that precedes a scene of God’s judgment. In Isa 59:9–13, the people confess their sin with at least one image similar to that employed by the wicked in Wisdom: They recognize how they walk in darkness and how they grope like the blind because of injustice (Isa 59:9–10; cf. Wis 5:6–7). Similarly, various parts of the wicked’s confession allude to sections of the suffering servant of Isaiah ("hold in derision," Wis 5:3–4 = Isa 53:3; "we have strayed," Wis 5:6 = Isa 53:6).
The author has chosen to express the confession of the wicked in eloquent language similar to the wicked’s ways of injustice. On the surface, the reasoning of the wicked remains polished, erudite, and even sophisticated. For the sake of the reader, the author does not wish to strip away from the wicked the attractive facade of their erroneous positions. The effect of the eloquent language of the confession is to underscore the importance of judging not on the surface appearance, but according to the results of judgments and actions. Although the wicked can speak with eloquence and even though they have the appearance of strength, their injustice is heading them toward a death that is far more devastating than the physical death they lament in their opening ruminations.
5:15–23, The Apocalyptic Scene of Judgment. The confession of the wicked confirms the author’s argument in the three diptychs. It prepares the way for judgment to be established with respect to both the just and the wicked. The image of a royal reward is used to depict the victory of the just (vv. 15–16), whereas the image of a final and cosmic conflagration is employed to depict the punishment of the wicked (vv. 17–23).
In sharp contrast to the transience of the wicked’s hope, the righteous are said to live forever (v. 15). The author here confirms the destiny that God has determined for human beings (1:15; 2:23). Faith in an enduring relationship with God is the hallmark of the just (3:1; 4:7; 5:1). The transcendent image of God as "the most high" is joined to the image of God’s immanent "care," which reflects the concern of a parent watching over his or her child (v. 15b).
Two royal images are used to convey the dignity of the just person’s future and eschatological reward: the crown and the diadem (v. 16). The author’s use of these two images may have been inspired by Isa 62:3, where the downcast of Zion are assured that they will become a "crown of beauty" and a "royal diadem" in the hand of the Lord. The royal reward is consistent with the opening address, in which kings and rulers are exhorted to justice (1:1), and it anticipates the final address, in which kings are encouraged to listen and judge correctly (6:1).
God protects the just like a warrior whose hand covers them and whose arm shields them. The image of the divine warrior who prepares for battle is an adaptation of the metaphor that occurs in Isa 59:17–19. The analogy is expanded somewhat from Isaiah’s use of breastplate, helmet, garments, and mantle to the use of the full armor of a hoplite in Wisdom. Each weapon of a hoplite is compared to a divine attribute: zeal = armor, justice = breastplate, impartial judgment = helmet, holiness = shield, wrath = sword.
Particularly innovative in the metaphor of the divine warrior in Wisdom is the role of the cosmos. The Lord is arming creation as well (vv. 17, 20), and creation will join God in battle against the enemy (vv. 20–23). This positive role of creation on the side of justice is consistent with the author’s declaration of the positive forces of the cosmos (1:14). The forces of creation are on the side of the righteous against injustice.
The ultimate conflagration is depicted in a limited apocalyptic fashion in which meteorological phenomena bring about the destruction of wickedness. The forces of the cosmos—lightning, hail, water, rivers, winds, storms—will ravish the earth as a result of lawlessness (cf. Pss 18:7–15; 97:1–5; Isa 29:6).
Little can be deduced regarding the specific eschatological beliefs of the author from this restrained apocalyptic account. Such beliefs as the resurrection of the body, a definitive annihilation of the physical cosmos, and the location of blessedness cannot be presumed. In this respect, the apocalyptic judgment in Wisdom differs from other presentations of the ultimate conflagration in its brevity and in its restrained descriptions. The author is not so much interested in focusing on the end times as in portraying the importance of living a life based on justice and virtue in the present. The final conflagration simply affirms the royal reward of the just and the destruction of wickedness. It functions as the cosmic sentencing in the context of the trial that has been working in the background of the author’s debate (cf. Job 34:21–30).
This somber but noble account of God’s judgment brings to a close the tension that was raised in the opening exhortation between justice and injustice. It is this ultimate death portrayed in apocalyptic fashion that became the negative motive for the author’s exhortation to love justice and to seek God. This death is the result of the deliberate judgments and actions of the wicked, which they have brought upon themselves through their words and deeds. This is the undesirable destiny of alienation from God and the cosmos that the author dissuades the readers from bringing upon themselves. Through a false reasoning on mortality that leads to a life of evasive pleasure, exploitation of the weak, and reliance on violence, a death far worse than mortality is experienced.
1. Considering the final day of judgment is relevant for the present. It may appear that the consolation for the just and the punishment of the wicked reside in a future so distant that the day of judgment is irrelevant for the present moment. This could become a difficulty if the issue of time becomes the overriding factor. But for the author of Wisdom, the consideration of the ultimate judgment is meant to focus the reader on the present situation. Judgments and actions of virtue or of injustice already initiate the dynamics of immortality and of moral death. By bringing the reader to the lofty heights of a divine perspective at an ultimate judgment, the author is focusing the lens on the true outcome of a life of virtue and a life of injustice.
2. The fruit of injustice has no enduring significance. This hard truth is one that the author argues in the three diptychs and is confirmed in the wicked’s confession. The contrast between appearances and reality is heightened from the perspective of the ultimate judgment. When we examine the final outcome, what remains of our actions and relationships in the long term says a great deal about the quality of life in the present. In the case of the wicked, the strength and benefits of injustice disappear, and their status is shown to be transient.
The wicked are said to perceive this dissonance from the perspective of the enduring relationship between the just and God. What the wicked had embraced as signs of pleasure, strength, and power turn out to be hollow and transient benefits from the perspective of justice. The illusion of strength that accrues from unjust actions is built on a false hope that eventually is revealed for what it is. False hope leaves them rootless and hopeless.
3. The forces of the cosmos have both a positive and a negative function. They are positive toward justice and negative toward injustice. The unique viewpoint of the author of Wisdom interprets the forces of creation as having a concrete function for the human world. This is an extension, or perhaps an adaptation, of the creation story in Genesis. God saw everything that had been created and declared it good. For the author of Wisdom, then, the source of evil resides in the human heart and not in the forces of the world. In fact, even the forces of creation aid human beings in the pursuit of justice and hinder the practice of injustice. The exodus event will be interpreted in the latter half of the work as an instance in history of the forces of the cosmos coming to the aid of the just and hindering those who pursue injustice.
4. A good example in our own time of the principle that justice is an inherent aspect of the cosmos is our concern for the conservation of the environment. Perhaps at no other time in history have human beings been more acutely aware of the consequences of exploiting the resources of nature. Nature does have its way of reconstituting a balance with powerful and even cataclysmic events. Actions in the present, along with all of the negligence of the past, do have serious consequences for the future. We can either align ourselves with the forces that balance nature or set ourselves over and against the environment. In either case the environment will work for us or against us.
WISDOM 6:1–21, EXHORTATION TO WISDOM
In returning to words of exhortation similar to those of the opening, the author is bringing to a conclusion the first part of the work. Almost immediately, the opening exhortation to love justice and to seek God turned into a warning against a way of life that would hinder those values. The main negative image behind the warning is death: "Do not invite death by the error of your life" (1:12 NRSV).
The defense of the wicked for an unjust way of life was motivated by the negative judgment on mortality and human weakness. Their counteraccusation envisaged a shameful death for the just one. This would disprove the claims of the just and conclusively prove the validity of their own position. Through the metaphor of a trial, the author has paraded before the imagination of the reader the various scenes of the just in the hand of God—the barren woman, the eunuch, and the virtuous youth. In the examination of these scenes, the author has cut through the appearance of tragedy and injustice. These scenes function, therefore, as witnesses for justice against injustice. Finally, the scene of a final judgment elicits the confession of the wicked. They retract their entire reasoning process, which exemplified the defense of the way of injustice. The wicked are sentenced to annihilation, and the just are vindicated.
But the exhortation does not conclude with the sentencing. In suitable sapiential fashion, the author invites the reader to learn and to appropriate the lessons of the trial scene. These lessons are a matter of vital importance—the dissuasion from death, the persuasion to life. By appropriating the lessons of a warning against death, the reader can then pursue the love of justice and wisdom. With an uncluttered mind that is not mesmerized by the appearance of the power of injustice and the impotency of virtue, the attractiveness of wisdom will be readily accessible.
6:1–11, Exhortation to Kings. 6:1–2. The addressees of the exhortation are formally referred to as "kings" (βασιλεῖς basileis) and "judges" (δικασταί dikastai) who rule over multitudes (vv. 1–2; cf. "monarchs" [τύραννοι tyrannoi] in vv. 9, 21). These terms pick up the opening scene where the addressees are called "rulers of the earth" (1:1). As is the case in the opening address, the exhortation "to listen," "to learn," and "to give ear" is reminiscent of personified wisdom, who goes about the streets to convince listeners of the importance of her message (Proverbs 8). Sages would introduce their wisdom with similar exhortations (Job 13:6; 21:2; Prov 4:1; Eccl 3:1). There is a sense of urgency in the plea that has been accruing since the author introduced the stark image of death (1:12).
On the one hand, there is no need to look to specific contemporary rulers, kings, or emperors as if they are the direct addressees of the book of Wisdom. The "king" is a metaphor for human beings who are human insofar as they judge, act, and rule (Gen 1:26–27). Especially in sapiential circles, the royal image becomes the metaphor of the sage who understands and knows how to judge and to act. This royal metaphor, which begins explicitly in the closing exhortation, will become concrete in the unnamed king and sage, Solomon, for the second part of the book.
On the other hand, this does not mean that the author is not intending a critique of political power. The function of the ruler is important to understand from the point of view of faith for subjects as well as for rulers. The declaration "you that rule over multitudes and boast of many nations" (v. 2), could very well have been inspired by the extension of Roman authority during the diaspora. This does not, however, make the Roman emperor the addressee of the entire work. The Jewish community in the diaspora also had to come to terms with the meaning of such power in their cities and the role of Roman authority in their own self-understanding.
6:3–4. The author introduces a key element of the faith of Israel regarding the true source of kingship and sovereignty. The Lord is the one who confers dominion; the Most High is the source of sovereignty (cf. Judg 8:22–23; 1 Chr 29:10–13; Prov 8:15–17; Dan 2:20–23). As such, the Lord remains the unrelenting defender of justice before those who administer power in the world. God is the guarantor of justice, the one who inquires into the dealings of human beings (cf. v. 8). Therefore, the same judgment against the wicked that the author has presented in the trial scene awaits anyone who does not rule rightly and who transgresses the law and the purposes of God.
6:5–8. A corresponding theme that the author develops in the exhortation is the heightened responsibility of those in power (cf. Luke 12:48). The greater the power, the greater the accountability. To heighten the effect of this axiom, the author appeals to the longstanding tradition of God’s not deferring to the powerful and the mighty. This is especially consistent with the author’s penchant of looking behind appearances to the heart of judgment and action. Judgment is not partial to appearances. Since God is the source of all, everyone is accountable to God (cf. Deut 1:17; Job 34:19; Ps 104:27–30; Prov 22:2). God holds all accountable, especially those with greater responsibility. The lowly may find some leniency, but the mighty will be judged with severity (v. 6; cf. Luke 12:47–48).
6:9–11. The final purpose of the exhortation is to learn wisdom in order not to transgress. The reader is challenged to appropriate the insights and the understanding that emerge from the entire sequence of the trial scene in the earlier chapters. If we do not appropriate the importance of loving justice, then the death from which the author has dissuaded the reader will come with its full force as God’s justice.
This short counsel within the larger exhortation (vv. 1–21) marks the switch from the author’s warning against bringing on death to the persuasion to love wisdom as a means of practicing justice. The first part has concentrated on what one must not do to avoid the judgment of God. The second part concentrates on what must one do (learn wisdom, observe holy things, set one’s desire on the words of the sage). If the reader has appropriated the insights and understanding that follow from the results of the wicked’s ruminations on life, then all the more important will it be to learn wisdom. To avoid death, one must pursue wisdom so as to learn justice.
6:12–21, The Qualities of Wisdom. Wisdom is presented as a person who seeks out the sage. The author is freely adapting the personification of wisdom from the book of Proverbs (Prov 8:1–17). The literary device of personification is frequently employed by the sages (cf. Proverbs 8; Sir 6:18–31). Very briefly the author had employed the personification of justice in the opening exhortation (1:8). With this introduction to wisdom, the author is anticipating the second part of the work, which focuses on the sage Solomon, who seeks out wisdom as a bride.
The double movement of the encounter between wisdom and the sage characterizes this opening presentation of wisdom. An encounter may take place with one person moving to another, or by two people moving toward each other. The author uses the double movement of both the sage and wisdom for the meeting. The sage is instructed at first to seek wisdom, to rise up early to meet her, to fix his thought on her, to be vigilant. But wisdom is not passive. She does not simply wait for the sage. She "hastens to make herself known"; "she sits at the gate"; "she goes about seeking those who are worthy of her"; "she appears to them in their paths"; "she meets them in every thought." Since wisdom is intimately connected to God, it is not difficult to recognize the author’s understanding of divine grace and intervention operating in the figure of wisdom.
Two adjectives characterize the quality of wisdom. She is "radiant" (λαμπρά lampra) and "unfading" (ἀμάραντος amarantos, v. 12). Both adjectives serve to describe the encounter between wisdom and the sage. Wisdom as radiant light is easily discernible to the one who seeks her. Wisdom as unfading light shows her constancy and permanence, her immortality. One has time to meditate and concentrate on her with one’s whole mind and heart. Both images reflect the double movement of the encounter between wisdom and the sage. Wisdom actively seeks out human beings, and she lets herself be discovered by those who seek her.
A chain syllogism (sorites) encapsulates the surprising conclusion that the love of wisdom leads to a kingdom (vv. 17–20). Chain syllogisms were a popular literary device used to condense insights and propositions with a playful effect. The classical sorites was a six-part chain syllogism in which each proposition led to another and finally concluded with a surprise declaration. But there were many variations of it. The end of each proposition would become the opening for the next. The playfulness in these syllogisms was meant to lead the reader along with several propositions that one could easily give assent to and then surprise the reader with a more difficult proposition. In our case, the surprise ending consists of the proposition that the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom. The kingdom is an appropriate goal for the addressees, who are described as kings, judges, and monarchs.
With the offering of a kingdom through wisdom, the exhortation of the first part reaches its conclusion. The reader has been encouraged to divest a way of life of injustice, which leads to death. The argumentation of the diptychs is subtle. By sifting through appearances and reality, the author has enhanced a change in perspective according to the light of virtue and justice. The dissuasion from death has now been transformed into a persuasion toward life. Wisdom is an illuminating source for justice that brings one into proximity to God and to immortality. For the second part of the book, wisdom becomes the central concern. The focus will concentrate on the wisdom that comes from God and how it accompanies human beings throughout their struggles for a just life.
1. God is the source of power. The exhortation by the author for kings and judges to learn and understand puts matters of authority into perspective. Throughout the diptychs and in the trial scenes, the author has stripped away the appearance of the strength of injustice as well as the apparent weakness of virtue. In the final exhortation, even the act of ruling and judging is declared to be rooted in the sovereignty of God. The mere fact that one has authority over others is no reason to attribute such power to oneself. Such a misconception opens the way for the abuse of power. The forms of injustice that follow are subject to the same judgment of God and creation. The author cautions everyone who acts with authority not to be mesmerized by the appearance of strength as if it were rooted in oneself.
The tendency to attribute strength and authority to oneself is recognized within the Torah, and so too is the need to be reminded of the ultimate source of governance in God. The homilies of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy offer a point of comparison with Wisdom’s exhortation. The Israelites are poignantly reminded of their relative insignificance before crossing the Jordan River. It was not their strength in numbers or even their moral conduct that prompted God to elect them and to bring them success and blessings in the land. It was out of God’s love that Israel was chosen. Only by remaining rooted in God will Israel be blessed in the land (Deut 8:1–9:7).
2. Responsibility brings accountability. This reflection concretely places the function of authority into greater perspective. For whatever reason one is given authority, one will be held accountable for the exercising of that authority. The theme of judgment permeates the exhortation. In fact, it is the perspective of the ultimate judgment that allows the author to critique the ways of injustice in the present. Similarly, in the case of authority, the more authority a person has, the more justice will be expected from that person. The Wisdom author foreshadows Christ’s parable of the unfaithful slave: "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded" (Luke 12:48 NRSV; cf. Matt 25:14–30; Luke 19:11–27).
3. There is a paradox in the experience of seeking God and discovering in the encounter that it is the seeker who has been sought and found by God. The Wisdom author recognizes the double movement in the human relationship to God. The background metaphor of encounter is used to portray the movements of the sage who seeks wisdom. The sage and personified wisdom strive to meet each other. They each set out to encounter the other. The sage "seeks" wisdom, "desires" her, "gets up early" to find her, and "fixes the mind" on her. But wisdom also "hastens to make herself known," "she goes about seeking those worthy of her," "she graciously appears … and meets them in every thought" (6:12–16 NRSV). No matter how hard we strive to find God in our lives and in our world, the moment of encounter often reveals how, in fact, it is God who has been seeking us out, speaking to us through others with many words and in different languages of silence and action.
4. Wisdom makes one intimate with God. A life of injustice brings death, but a life of justice brings one into union with God. The way to a life of justice is through wisdom. Wisdom is a value to be sought even as God seeks out human beings to give them wisdom. The way is clear for the author to advance a way of understanding the human condition in a manner other than that of the wicked. The second part of the book becomes a eulogy of wisdom that began in the conclusion of the exhortation. Wisdom is on intimate terms with God, and it is through wisdom that human beings come close to God.
If anything, the complexity of human life and the challenge of discerning between justice and injustice should bring about a humble desire for wisdom to guide us through life.
In Praise of Wisdom
On the surface, the tone of these chapters is quite different from the first part of the book. Speech in the first person signals the main shift in perspective and in emphasis. The various scenes of the trial that mediated an argument against injustice had been presented through a narrator speaking in the third person. Now, the author speaks personally, "I will tell you what wisdom is and how she came to be" (6:22), as if to heighten the understanding of the author’s personal knowledge of wisdom.
If the first part of the book can be understood as the tense drama between justice and injustice, represented in the conflict between the righteous and the wicked, the second part can be understood as the creative drama between wisdom and the righteous, represented in Solomon’s love of and desire for wisdom. The first section of Wisdom presented an argument against a life of injustice and death. The second part presents a persuasion to the wisdom that comes from God. Understood in this light, the sections complement each other.
The main shift in perspective focuses on the unnamed speaker: Solomon. By attributing the eulogy and praise of wisdom to Solomon, the author is garnishing authority for the values of wisdom. The Hebrew tradition idealized Solomon as the wise sage who was able to govern through wisdom. The well-known story of Solomon’s first act of judgment, which uncovered the true mother of a child, formed a basis for the process of idealization (1 Kgs 3:16–28).
In keeping with the policy of not naming names throughout the book, the author uses descriptions that lead the reader to identify the speaker as Solomon. This feature is well known in certain genres of Greek writing that belong to protreptic discourse and to the encomium. It is a stylistic feature that is meant to engage the reader’s mind playfully to make judgments of identification.
The significance of Solomon, who praises wisdom, is that he offers a counterpart to the wicked in the first part of the book. Like the wicked, Solomon offers a perspective on mortality that issues in a concrete project in life. Unlike the wicked, Solomon’s ruminations on mortality lead to a profound desire for wisdom so as to govern justly.
The main shift in emphasis from the first part focuses on personified wisdom. These chapters are permeated with Solomon’s desire for, praise of, and love of wisdom. The personification of wisdom is perhaps the unique contribution of the sapiential tradition to Israel’s theological heritage. In the book of Wisdom, wisdom is presented through the imagery of romantic courtship. Solomon desires to win wisdom over as a suitor who woos his lover. In the other sapiential sources for the personification of wisdom (Proverbs 1–9; Sirach 24), wisdom speaks on her own behalf. But all three sources share the common feature of relating wisdom to the act of God’s creation.
The author highlights two functions of wisdom in the process of personification: (1) the creative role of wisdom for humans (7:12, 22; 8:5–6; 9:2, 10–11, 18; 10) and (2) the cosmic function of wisdom in the universe (7:24; 8:1). These emphases contrast with the Hellenistic concept, whereby wisdom is primarily understood as a means of attaining knowledge and of contemplating God. For the Wisdom author, wisdom is a gift and a revelation of God that works with humans and in creation.
As in the first part of the book, the technique of concentric structuring abounds in this central section of Wisdom. Chapters 7–8 are concentrically structured with the description of the nature of wisdom standing at the center:
The extreme sections describe what prompts Solomon to pray for wisdom. In the two mid-sections, Solomon extols wisdom by comparing her favorably to other commonly recognized goods.
Chapter 9 presents the climax of Solomon’s eulogy of wisdom. Here he adamantly prays for the wisdom that is a gift of God. The prayer begins with his recalling how the world and human beings were created through wisdom, and it ends declaring wisdom to be the one who has saved humans continuously throughout history. In the center stands the request for God to send forth wisdom from the holy heavens and from the throne of God’s glory.
In addition, the unit C′, 9:13–17a, is also arranged concentrically within itself.
The conclusion of Solomon’s prayer provides the theme for the rest of the work. Wisdom is the one who saves the righteous in their difficult conditions of life. Chapter 10 specifically describes how wisdom accompanies righteous persons throughout history to prompt them through the crises and difficulties of life. Beginning with Adam and ending with Moses, the author tersely charts wisdom’s saving role in history. As in the case of Enoch (Wis 4:10) and Solomon (Wisdom 7–9), the biblical characters remain unnamed, but their descriptions allow for relatively easy identification.
Chapter 10 provides the link between the eulogy of wisdom (chaps. 6–9) and the midrashic treatment of the exodus and the desert experience in the concluding part of the work (chaps. 11–19). The concluding part picks up the thread of the argument from wisdom’s role in raising up Moses to save the troubled people and compares the Israelites in the desert to the plague-ridden Egyptians. The subject of the last part of Wisdom is not personified wisdom, but God. Wisdom recedes into the background, having completed her function of drawing the righteous into an immediate relationship with God.
WISDOM 6:22–8:21, SOLOMON’S DESIRE FOR WISDOM
Wisdom 6:22–7:12, The Sage Seeks Wisdom
6:22–25, Introduction to Solomon’s Discourse. This passage displays the author’s literary penchant for linking major units with transitional sections. As such, it has striking parallels of phrases to the first part of Wisdom and to the eulogy of wisdom in the second. Royal imagery from vv. 9 and 21 is continued in the reference to a sensible king’s being the stability of the people (v. 24). The exhortation to "honor wisdom" recalls the enclosing exhortations of the first part to rulers, judges, and kings (vv. 21, 25; cf. "my words," vv. 11, 25). Solomon will not hide any "secrets" (μυστήρια mystēria, v. 22; cf. 2:22, "they did not know the secret purposes of God" [NRSV]). Envy is dissociated from wisdom (v. 23; cf. 2:24, through the devil’s envy death entered the world). Of course, the unit has even stronger links to the eulogy of wisdom of the second part. The origins and qualities of wisdom, which Solomon promises to reveal in the introductory speech, become the focus and the subject for the ensuing chapters.
The unique theological perspective in this short introduction to Solomon’s eulogy on wisdom rests with the author’s emphasis on the universality and openness of the revelation of wisdom. Solomon will tell of wisdom’s origins and her function in history. No secrets will be hidden, and the truth will not be sidestepped. This openness to the gifts of personified wisdom is consistent with the figure of wisdom in Proverbs and Sirach, in which wisdom proclaims openly her values and gifts.
Solomon’s insistence on revealing wisdom’s origins freely without reservation is the author’s counterpoint to the secretive initiation procedures of the mystery cults. In such cults, such as those developed in Egypt around the veneration of Isis and Osiris, there would be a combination of public expressions of celebration (processions, rituals of purification and sacrifice) and secretive rites of initiation of which very little is known. In contrast to the value of secrecy in the mystery cults, the Wisdom author champions the openness of wisdom’s revelation. Wisdom has a universal appeal that is readily available for all who have the disposition of virtue.
A proverbial saying that highlights the value of wisdom ends the introduction. Many wise people and a sensible king are said to be the salvation of the world and the stability of the people (v. 24). This proverbial statement echoes Prov 29:4, where justice replaces wisdom as the virtue that brings stability, "By justice a king gives stability to the land" (NRSV; cf. Eccl 10:16–17; Sir 10:1–50).
Since the first part of the work identified the just with the wise, especially in the diptych on the virtuous youth (cf. 4:16–18), the multitude of the wise and the sensible king represent those who have learned justice through wisdom. They are the source of salvation. Wisdom’s positive role in the salvation of humanity throughout history in general and in the case of Israel specifically (9:18; 10:1–21) is consistent with the author’s positive stance toward the world (1:14).
7:1–6, Solomon Is Mortal and Limited. Solomon’s resolve to pursue the wisdom that comes from God is preceded by a brief, yet touching, reflection on his mortal condition. This reflection serves as a direct counterpart to the ruminations of the wicked on the transience of life (2:1–5).
Solomon recognizes his common lot with humanity. The reflection is not evasive. Solomon declares his mortality (v. 1). But what accompanies the recognition of the mortal condition is the solidarity of Solomon with the rest of humanity. Solomon is mortal, equal to and like everyone else. Since he is a son of Adam, he belongs to humanity. His origin is described not like that of the wicked, by mere chance, but out of the desire of his mother and father, "from the pleasure of marriage" (v. 2).
The author’s description of the formation of the embryo is informed especially by Greek science. The idea of the embryo’s being molded into flesh in the mother’s womb through the compacting, or "curdling," of the semen in the blood was common in Greek writings. In Ps 139:13–16 and in Job 10:10 we have references to the formation of the embryo in which God is said to be the author of life or the creator who knows intimately the workings of human beings.
Solomon’s formation in the womb for a period of ten months is like that of all other people. The Hebrew tradition understood the time of human gestation to be nine solar months ("I carried you nine months in my womb" [2 Macc 7:27 NRSV]; but see 4 Macc 16:7, where pregnancy translates the Greek wordδεκαμηνιαῖος [dekamēniaios] to mean "a ten-month period"). The Greeks and the Romans often referred to a ten-month period for pregnancy; Roman law understood ten lunar months to comprise the period of gestation. Aristotle noted that for human beings the period of gestation differs from seven to eleven months, with the ninth month being the most common for birth.
Solomon recalls how at his birth he breathed the "common" air and fell upon the "kindred" earth. The world is not presented as a hostile, transient environment. Rather, the earth constitutes a home that is "common" and compassionate. Even though his first sound was a cry, like that of all healthy newborns, he was cared for and nursed in swaddling clothes. Solomon recognizes that his first cry of need was met by the care of another human being.
The conclusion of the reflection stresses Solomon’s equality with everyone else. For everyone there is one entrance into life and one exit from it (7:6). Solomon’s egalitarian status could very well be an implicit critique of the divine status attributed to Egyptian pharaohs and to the kings of the Hellenistic period. But the author’s purpose of stressing Solomon’s commonality with humans has a more immediate aim. Solomon does not have a status separate from other humans that guarantees special wisdom. The wisdom that Solomon will seek and attain is open to everyone.
Instead of issuing in despair, as is the case with the wicked, Solomon’s ruminations on mortality bring him into solidarity with humanity. The world is not perceived as a hostile environment in which might makes right. Rather, the experience of human limitations, like the first cry of a newborn, elicits care and concern for others. Recognizing the common limitations of all human beings, Solomon is led to yearn for the transcendent reality of God.
7:7–12, Solomon Prays, and Wisdom Is Given. Whereas the wicked’s negative judgment on the value of human life led to a project of evasive pleasure, power, and violence, Solomon’s recognition of the solidarity among humans in their limitations leads to an openness to God.
The reference to prayer and wisdom in v. 7 unmistakably employs the dream episode of 1 Kings (cf. 2 Chr 1:6–12), where Solomon came to Gibeon to offer sacrifices, and God appears in a dream to offer him a choice (1 Kgs 3:1–15). In the dream, Solomon recognizes the great task of being king and his own need to be guided in government and in judgment. Therefore, he requests an understanding mind and the ability to discern between good and evil. God responds by giving Solomon a wise and discerning mind, and God also grants him what he did not request: riches and honor.
Similarly, in the Wisdom text, Solomon recalls how he prayed and called out. The reflection on his smallness, fragility, and commonality with humanity leads him to search for a source to guide him. Understanding and a spirit of wisdom are given to him so that he will prefer wisdom to all else. Yet, all good things come to him as well through wisdom.
The author relates the gift of wisdom to the human goods that became associated with the life of Solomon (1 Kgs 4:20–34; 7:1–51). First, wisdom is declared to be superior to all that is most esteemed among humans: power and wealth (v. 8); precious stones and wealth (v. 9); health, beauty, and light (v. 10). This technique of comparing wisdom to riches, gems, and honor for exalting the benefits of wisdom was common in the sapiential tradition (Job 28:12–19; Prov 3:13–18; 8:10–11, 19).
At the same time, through wisdom, all good things have come to Solomon, and he rejoices in them. Solomon’s delight in the natural qualities of health, riches, and beauty serves as a counterpoint to the wicked’s evasive adulation of sensual pleasure (2:6–9). The author is adding nuances to the notion of blessedness, offered in the first part of the work. Earlier, in the diptychs, the author had argued that blessedness rooted in virtue endures even in the face of suffering and in the lack of natural human goods. The author is not pessimistic or strictly ascetic toward the pleasures of human life. Pleasure is not meant to be evaded; it is a gift of wisdom. The Preacher’s exhortation in Ecclesiastes to enjoy life as God’s gift finds an echo in the Wisdom text (see Eccl 2:24; 3:13; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7–9; 11:9).
The relationship between physical goods and virtue was much discussed in Greek philosophy. The Stoics held a position whereby virtue is considered the only quality necessary for human happiness. Aristotle offered a notion of happiness that integrates the good functioning of the three fundamental aspects of human life: the outside world, the body, and the soul. Philo offered positions on human happiness that resemble those of Wisdom: A person attains happiness and bliss, "when there is welfare outside us, welfare in the body, welfare in the soul, the first bringing ease of circumstance and good repute, the second health and strength, the third delight in virtue.47
The conclusion of the passage adds a nuance to the relationship between wisdom and human goods that supersedes the source in 1 Kings. In 1 Kgs 3:10–13, the gifts of "riches and honor" are given in addition to the gift of a wise and discerning heart. The Wisdom author refers to wisdom as the engenderer of human goods (the rarely used Greek wordγενέτις [genetis, v. 12b] is the feminine form of γενέτης [genetēs], which means "the begetter" or "father"). The image of the mother is a rare metaphor for wisdom. Ordinarily, wisdom is presented as a lover. In Sir 15:2, wisdom is compared to a mother in parallel fashion to the young bride, "She will come to meet him like a mother, and like a young bride she will welcome him" (NRSV). In Proverbs, personified wisdom is not called a mother; yet she exhorts others as a mother would her children (cf. Prov 7:24; 8:32). Philo describes wisdom as a mother and nurse. As is the case with the author’s view on the internal consistency between sin and punishment, the author postulates an intimate and intrinsic connection between wisdom and human goods. Wisdom is not passive in the world; rather, like a mother, wisdom actively engenders the human possibilities for happiness.
The fact that Solomon comments on not having known that wisdom was the mother of all goods singles out his pristine love for wisdom. He did not pursue wisdom in order to have these goods. Rather, in discovering and receiving wisdom he has unearthed a value that goes far beyond his desires and expectations.
1. Gratitude leads to generosity. The eulogy for wisdom is introduced with Solomon’s desire to impart knowledge of her freely and without restriction (6:22–25). This unfettered placement of knowledge at the disposition of others corresponds to the universal accessibility of the wisdom that comes from God. The figure of wisdom in the sapiential writings who proclaims the ways of God from the rooftops and in the marketplace is consistent with the figure of Solomon, who imparts wisdom freely (Prov 1:20–21; 8:1–4; Sir 16:24–25). Another strain in the sapiential tradition will insist on the limits of human wisdom and will stress its inaccessibility (Job 28:1–28; Eccl 7:23–25; 8:16–17).
In the case of the Wisdom author, what has been freely given to Solomon is likewise given freely in return. This attitude of generosity is explicitly and concisely formulated in the preaching of Jesus, "You received without payment, give without payment" (Matt 10:8 NRSV). Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples not to hold their light under a bushel basket but to put it on a stand for all to see likewise is concretely exemplified in Solomon’s disposition to impart freely the knowledge of wisdom (cf. Matt 5:15; Mark 4:21; Luke 11:33).
2. Solomon’s appreciation of human weakness elicits a sense of solidarity with humanity. It is interesting to notice how both the wicked (2:1–5) and Solomon (7:1–6) provide short reflections on the human condition of mortality prior to elucidating their projects in life. What for the wicked leads to despair for Solomon leads to solidarity with humanity.
Solomon’s reflection on his own mortality and smallness constitutes his commonness with humanity. Recalling his frailty as a crying infant is not something that belittles him. Instead, his memory serves to remind him of the care and solicitude shown to him in his fragile state: "I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths (7:4 NRSV). A reflection on the limitations of human life in space and time need not lead to despair if the experience of suffering and weakness draws human beings together. On the one hand, suffering and weakness can remind us of our commonness with humanity. On the other hand, perceiving another person’s need may draw out of us the care and solicitude that issues in unbreakable bonds.
3. Human weakness may open a person to transcendence. A parallel result of Solomon’s reflection on mortality is his openness to transcendence. The realization of his "smallness" not only solidifies Solomon’s commonness with the rest of humanity, but it also leads him to search, to desire, and to reach out. Again, in Solomon’s outreach is the counterpoint to the inner despair of the wicked. Their negative judgment on life leads them to collapse in on themselves to mask the abyss with evasive pleasure and violence. Solomon’s acceptance of his limitations leads him to pray and to call out.
4. A spirituality for suffering can be found in Solomon’s two responses to his reflection on mortality: solidarity and desire. These responses provide the author’s counterpoint to the response of the wicked. Suffering will always remain a mystery that cannot be resolved by conceptual formulations. But the author’s treatment of the wicked’s and Solomon’s responses to human mortality provides clues for approaching the mystery of suffering both in ourselves and in others. Human suffering elicits solicitude and care. The anguish of human limitations reminds us of our solidarity with all of humanity. In facing the suffering of others, we sense the need to speak a word of solidarity and to reach out with solicitude. Finally, suffering in its many forms, from the normal experience of human finitude to the horrendous displays of despair and violence, invites or even shocks a person to reach out for answers. Suffering leaves us restless. Instead of collapsing in on himself in despair, like the wicked, however, Solomon accepts his "commonness" with all of humanity. He remembers the solicitude and care shown to him in his fragility. He looks beyond the self through prayer to find a response to the enigma of his situation in life.
5. Wisdom abounds with gifts. The description of wisdom’s many attributes exemplifies the principle of abundance. Solomon recognizes that in wisdom all of life is ordered to bring forth the best of human goods. Solomon’s response to receiving wisdom is the fullness of gratitude that rejoices in all of wisdom’s gifts. Gratitude issues in his generosity to impart knowledge of wisdom without restriction. The figure of the wise Solomon epitomizes the principle of abundance. The more he has, the more he receives and the more he gives. When Solomon pursues wisdom first, all other gifts are showered on him with wisdom. A similar perspective on abundance is found in the teaching of Christ. The figure of wisdom is replaced with the kingdom of God and righteousness: "But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt 6:33 NRSV; cf. Luke 12:31).
Wisdom 7:13–8:1, The Nature and Qualities of Wisdom
7:13–22a, God Is the Guide of Wisdom. 7:13. The author had affirmed the relationship among wisdom, justice, and God in the opening exhortation (1:1–4). Now that the speaker is to divulge ungrudgingly and without guile what has been learned (v. 13), the relationship between wisdom and God comes to the fore with striking emphasis. The repetition of the idea of not holding back or hiding the wealth of wisdom reiterates the author’s critique of the secretive methods of induction into the mystery cults (cf. 6:22–23; Sir 20:30–31).
7:14. Through the gift of wisdom comes friendship with God (v. 14; cf. vv. 27–28). Friendship was highly valued in the wisdom tradition, and it became an ideal for fostering a faithful and personal relationship with God (Job 29:4; Ps 25:14; Prov 7:14; 18:24; 27:10; Sir 6:5–17). Friendship with God was one of the highest epithets that could be given to a person. Abraham received the appellation of God’s friend, and Moses spoke to God as a friend (Abraham, 2 Chr 20:7; Isa 41:8; Jas 2:23; Moses, Exod 33:11; cf. Christ and the disciples, John 15:13–15).
7:15–16. In the preceding passage, the author had just finished highlighting the superiority of wisdom to all human goods. Wisdom is described as the author or mother of good things. Now the intimate relationship between wisdom and God is laid bare. God is declared to be the source and guide of wisdom, the corrector of the wise (v. 15). Although wisdom has been personified according to the tradition of Proverbs and Sirach, the image of wisdom does not have a separate status apart from God. This intimate relationship between wisdom and God will allow the author to drop references to wisdom in the third part of the work as the subject who acts and to replace the subject with God, who acts on behalf of Israel. God is the giver of wisdom, and wisdom brings one into unity with God.
To impart the wisdom that comes from God, the sage asks for God’s help and inspiration (v. 15). To be able to speak well and to express oneself with convincing artistry was a particular value of the sapiential tradition, as its literary activity testifies (Eccl 12:9–12). Yet the sage calls upon God and recognizes that even this acquired talent is a gift to be sought from God. Wisdom was described as the source of all human goods; yet, wisdom itself has its source in God. Therefore, all the gifts that belong to wisdom, "our words," "all understanding," and "skill in crafts," are in God’s hand.
7:17–20. The knowledge that the sage attests contains several references to Hellenistic philosophy and science of the day. The range in knowledge covers chronology and astronomy (vv. 18–19), zoology, demonology, the human psyche, botany, and pharmacology (v. 20). The author is appealing to the traditional motif of extraordinary wisdom and knowledge that became associated with Solomon, considered pre-eminent among sages (1 Kgs 4:29–34).
On the one hand, such phrases as "structure of the world," "activity of the elements," "the beginning and end and middle of times," "alternations of the solstices," and "cycles of the year" (v. 19) belong to technical and popular Hellenistic ideas on the universe. Alexandrian astronomy was famous for calculating the corrections needed for the public calendar to match the solar calendar. It was under Ptolemy III Euergetes (246–221 bce) that an extra day was added to the calendar every four years so that the seasons would fall into regular cycles. In 45 bce, Julius Caesar employed the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to oversee the implementation of the Julian calendar.
On the other hand, such phrases as "the natures of animals," "the varieties of plants," and "the virtues of roots" (v. 20), point to the traditional knowledge attributed to Solomon. In the eulogy of Solomon’s wisdom, both botany and zoology are included in his vast knowledge: "He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish" (1 Kgs 4:33 NRSV). Ordinarily, God is presented as the one who understands the thoughts of human beings (Ps 94:11; Jer 17:9–10). Yet this knowledge is attributed to Solomon, based perhaps on the "discerning mind" he received in the dream sequence (1 Kgs 3:12). The phrase "powers of spirits" (or "of winds") can be understood either as meteorological or magical knowledge. Magical knowledge would appear to be somewhat out of place in a list of specialties that reflect Hellenistic concerns, but later Jewish tradition attributed to Solomon knowledge of magical arts. Josephus, for example, describes Solomon’s magical knowledge and how it was used against demonic spirits for the purpose of healing the sick.
7:21–22a. The concluding sentence forms an inclusion to the opening part of the passage with the idea of learning (vv. 13, 21). Solomon learned and taught because wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught him. The book of Wisdom is the only book in Scripture in which wisdom is presented as the fashioner of the cosmos (cf. 8:6, where she is the fashioner of what exists). But this idea is in continuity with the presentation of wisdom in Proverbs. There wisdom is the first act of God’s creation, present to God and to the cosmos as it is being created and formed (Prov 8:22–36; cf. Wis 9:9). Wisdom is personified as a master worker or a darling child taking delight in the creation of the cosmos. By attributing a stronger nuance of creation to personified wisdom, the author is once again bridging the distance between the transcendent God, creator of all, and the palpable experience of the cosmos.
7:22b–8:1, Wisdom Is Praised. Through the figure of Solomon, the author had promised to reveal the origins of wisdom and to trace her activities from the dawn of creation (6:22). This is precisely what takes place in the very center of the second part of the book of Wisdom. Wisdom is praised both for who she is and for what she does. This eulogistic passage forms the central unit of the concentric structure of 7:1–8:21. The author eulogizes wisdom through a description of her innate, natural qualities (7:22b–23), through an explanation of her origins in God (7:24–26), and through a presentation of her activities in the world and in history (7:27–8:1).
7:22b–23. The description of wisdom’s innate and natural qualities takes the form of a list of attributes. There are numerous examples of this device for eulogies or for praise in both Hellenistic and rabbinic writings. The goddess Isis, for example, has so many names attributed to her that one epithet for her is "countlessnames." In similar fashion, Philo attributes the epithet "manynames" to wisdom, referring to the several names given to wisdom by Moses.52
In this passage, the number of qualities attributed to wisdom, twenty-one (vv. 22–23), is not arbitrary. Three sets of the perfect number seven signify complete perfection. For the most part, the adjectives or qualities are borrowed from Greek thought, especially that of the Stoics. Of themselves the terms do not offer precise connotations. Rather, they are approximations and nuances that point to the subtlety, authenticity, and permeation of wisdom in the cosmos.
Intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear; unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent; humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing, penetrating—it is not easy to discern a clear-cut pattern in the list of attributes, but three general concentrations of qualities can be recognized in the three sets of seven attributes. The qualities of the first set point to the mobility and transparency of wisdom. Appropriately, this series begins with the image of intelligence. Wisdom will be described as "an initiate in the knowledge of God" (8:4 NRSV), who "knows and understands all things" (9:11 NRSV). The second set points to the moral good associated with wisdom. Wisdom is dissociated from the opposite of the good, as in the opening exhortation (1:4). She is unpolluted and loves the good. The third set begins to point to wisdom’s indomitable relationship to humanity. Wisdom is humane, pervading and permeating all that exists. Wisdom’s pervasiveness in the cosmos makes her immediate and immanent to human beings.
7:24–26. Of the twenty-one attributes, the mobility and the pervasiveness of wisdom in the cosmos are singled out for special attention (v. 24). The idea that thought is faster than any physical motion was a common reflection in Greek philosophy. Philo likewise made use of the idea of swiftness in praising the speed of the Logos and commented on the speed of the mind: "For the mind moves at the same moment to many things material and immaterial with indescribable rapidity."54 The idea of the pervasiveness of knowledge that penetrates all things was a typically Stoic idea. Even the use of the double verbs "pervade" (διήκω diēkō) and "permeate" (χωρέω chōreō) points to its Stoic source, which makes use of these verbs to describe the presence of the spirit. Because of its mobility and pervasiveness, wisdom is readily accessible to human beings as a source of right conduct.
Five metaphors are used in the central part of the unit to indicate the relationship of wisdom to God (vv. 25–26). Each metaphor attempts to relate wisdom to an aspect of God. Wisdom is the breath of God’s "power" (δύναμις dynamis), an emanation of the "glory" (δόξα doxa) of the Almighty, a reflection of the eternal "light" (φῶς phōs) of God, a mirror of the "working" (ἐνέργεια energeia) of God, and an image of the "goodness" (ἀγαθότης agathotēs) of God. All of these varied metaphors attempt to root wisdom in God through images that point to wisdom’s flowing, emanating, or originating from an aspect of God.
The metaphors themselves are quite an innovation for the Wisdom author, in comparison to the descriptions of the origins of wisdom in Proverbs 8 and Sirach 24. The author is combining various terms and metaphors that refer to divine or spiritual activity from Greek and Hellenistic sources. Yet, the author is evidently applying such metaphors to the traditional Jewish concept of wisdom.57
The use of "breath," which in general denotes exhalation, signifies the close connection between wisdom and the power of God. The Greek word for "breath" (ἀτμίς atmis) comes closer to signifying the effect of the mist on our nostrils than it does to the breath of God in the Genesis creation accounts. As such, it often refers to the fragrance of incense (Lev 16:13; Sir 24:15). Wisdom, then, is like the fragrance of the power of God. The metaphor of the pure emanation (NRSV) or effusion (NAB) of God’s glory brings us into the semantic range of water, although light can be said to flow as well (Ezek 1:13, lightning issues from the fire). Wisdom is being compared to the flowing of water from the source, which is God’s glory. With the qualification of wisdom as being a pure flowing, the author is intensifying the authenticity of wisdom’s relationship to God. Just as pure water flows freely from a good source, so too nothing defiled or impure contaminates wisdom, whose source is God (cf. 1:4; 6:23).
The comparison of God to various forms of light is a frequent and effective image in the OT, especially as light relates to the theophanies of God (Exod 24:17; Isa 60:1–3; Ezek 1:27–28; Hab 3:4). The psalms often speak of God’s light and the light of God’s countenance brightening up the life and path of humans (Pss 4:6; 27:1; 36:8; 43:3; 44:3; 89:15; 104:2). The author has already applied images of light to wisdom. Wisdom is radiant and unfading (6:12). Wisdom is said to surpass the brightness of light and the sun (7:10, 29). But here, wisdom is presented as the reflection of the eternal light. The same idea is continued in the following metaphor, which employs the image of a spotless mirror reflecting the activity of God (v. 26b). Philo also uses the metaphor of the mirror to describe how the activity of order and management in the cosmos mirrors the powers of God. Wisdom, essentially, is busy with the activity of God (7:22; 8:6).
The metaphor of the image of God’s goodness confirms the attribute of goodness and friendship that has continuously been applied to wisdom. Wisdom has been called a "kindly spirit" (1:6), the mother of all good things (7:11–12) who provides "friendship with God" (7:14; cf. 7:27) and who "loves the good" (7:22). The metaphor of "image" is biblical, used to convey the relationship between humans and God (2:23; cf. Gen 1:27; 5:1; 9:6). But with the specific nuance of explaining the relationship of God’s goodness to wisdom, the metaphor in Wisdom is particularly at home with the platonic metaphor of a copy, "It is wholly necessary that this Cosmos should be a copy of something," and with Philo’s application of the metaphor to relate the Logos to God, "The Divine Logos is himself the Image of God."60
The novelty for the author of Wisdom in identifying the proximity of wisdom to God lies in the density of the images, not in creating a new personality for wisdom. No other biblical source provides the variety of metaphors for relating personified wisdom to God. Yet all of these metaphors of fragrance, flowing, reflection, mirroring, and image relate only aspects of God (God’s power, glory, light, activity, and goodness) to wisdom. The Wisdom author is expanding the traditional images of God’s Word and God’s deed—which relate the transcendent God to the life of Israel—to include images that portray causality and relation in God’s dealings with humanity.
7:27–8:1. This unit explains the activity of wisdom in the life of the cosmos and humanity. Here the author highlights wisdom’s effective influence on humanity. Cognizant of wisdom’s effective role in the cosmos and in the lives of the just, Solomon will proceed to desire her above all else and to discover how to obtain wisdom (8:2–21).
The paradox of wisdom’s being one, yet able to do all things, perhaps is inspired by the Greek paradox of the one and the many, or the problem of change and permanence, as put forward by Parmenides (504–456 bce). It was a paradox applied to the many faces of Isis, who is described as being one, yet able to do everything. However the same general idea is not absent in Scripture, "You [God] change them like clothing, and they pass away; but you are the same" (Ps 102:26–27 NRSV). The simplicity of wisdom is comparable to the unicity of God (Deut 6:4). Similarly, the parallel idea in the same verse has its roots in Greek philosophy. While remaining in herself, wisdom renews all things. In Greek philosophy, God is described as the "unmoved mover," who "remains in the same place," "not moving at all." However, the idea that wisdom renews all things has particular biblical overtones. Making things new is the activity of God’s Spirit: "When you send forth your spirit, they are created; / and you renew the face of the ground" (Ps 104:30 NRSV). The author is drawing close parallels between wisdom and the activity of God in creation. Wisdom is God’s activity in the cosmos and in humanity that renews the earth and restores human beings.
The turn to the specific focus on wisdom’s relationship to humanity (7:27c) is consistent with the image of wisdom in Prov 8:31, where wisdom is said to rejoice in the inhabited world and to take delight in the human race. Wisdom enters into holy ones to make them friends and prophets of God. Both ideas have already been asserted by the author. Divine providence especially cares for the just (3:9), and those who have wisdom obtain God’s friendship (7:14). What had been stated negatively in 1:3–6—namely, that wisdom flees from deceit—is now stated positively. Wisdom collaborates with the holy ones. Both friend and prophet refer to relationships of personal friendship and affiliation (Isa 6:1–9; Jer 1:4–10; Ezek 2:1–3:11).
The notion of God’s loving the person who lives with wisdom anticipates the following unit, in which Solomon seeks to obtain wisdom as his spouse. The image of "living with wisdom" conjures up the parallel that the relationship between the just and wisdom is comparable to that of husband and wife (cf. Isa 62:5). They are completely faithful to each other, and their mutual love reaches a completion that goes beyond themselves.
To complete the eulogy, the author returns to the superiority of wisdom over light and ends with wisdom’s pervasiveness over the earth, which effectively orders all things well. What is particularly striking and new in the comparison (from that of 7:8–10 and 7:24) is the introduction of a moral perspective. Wisdom is superior to light not because of brightness, since night follows day, but because evil does not prevail over wisdom. The tension between injustice and wisdom that dominated the first part of the work resurfaces, but with the emphatic superiority of wisdom assured.
The concluding remark also contains echoes of the Stoic belief in God’s providence. The author has prepared for the conclusion that wisdom reaches from one end of the earth to the other and orders everything well in the description of wisdom and in the metaphors relating wisdom to aspects of God. Wisdom is mobile and actively present in the world and in humans. However, the image of wisdom stretching through the universe is similar to the Stoic belief of the pneuma stretching from one end of the universe to the other. Similarly, the idea of wisdom’s ordering all things well is parallel to the Platonic and Stoic ideas that God orders the universe continuously.
1. Knowledge of the cosmos is consistent with the wisdom of God. The author of Wisdom presents, essentially, a positive view of the cosmos, of human beings, and of human knowledge. The role of God and God’s wisdom in creation confers upon the cosmos and human beings a primary dignity that endures even during the conflicts between justice and injustice. The author, therefore, welcomes the insights of Greek and Hellenistic philosophy and integrates them into Israel’s faith. Within the controversy of faith and science, the book of Wisdom comes down on the side of the integration of faith and knowledge. Since God has created the cosmos through wisdom, then knowledge of the cosmos leads to God.
In praising the origin of knowledge in God, the author’s list of insights into the cosmos, into nature, and into the thoughts of human beings seems like a litany of praise for God and wisdom. It is as if the wonder and amazement of the intricate functioning of the cosmos lead to the awe and the astonishment of the source, who is God (7:17) and God’s wisdom (7:22). The list of insights embraces the major fields of Greek knowledge: the activity of the elements, the calculation of time through astronomy, the variety of animal species, vegetation, human psychology, and medicine. At the beginning of the list of various forms of knowledge, God is praised as the originator of knowledge. At the end of the list, wisdom, the fashioner of all, is praised as the teacher. In the reflection on the origin of false worship, the author will reiterate the consistency between knowledge of the cosmos and divine origin (13:1–9) with greater philosophical precision.
The constant growth and expansion of our knowledge of science, of human psychology, of medicine, and of technology can appear rather daunting in terms of faith in a personal creator. Other voices in Scripture warn humans of the folly of holding one’s own knowledge up with arrogance, thereby considering humans the center of the universe. The story of the tower Babel in Genesis signals the danger of truncating knowledge of the universe from the purposes of the creator. At the same time, the belief in the creation of the world by a personal God reminds us that the cosmos is imprinted with signs that point to a divine origin. The voice we hear in the book of Wisdom reminds us that the wonder we experience in understanding the universe can lead to the contemplation of the source of God’s wisdom.
2. The eulogy of wisdom shows signs of attempting to bridge the distance between God’s transcendence and God’s immanence. The distance yet proximity of God is a paradox at the heart of Israel’s faith. God, at once, is understood as reigning high in the heavens, beyond human understanding, yet intervening in human history to call Israel and to save the just (see Psalms 33; 113; 136). God’s face cannot be seen; yet God is the one who cares for Israel as a parent. Traditional images that bridged the distance between God Almighty and God, compassionate love, rested on God’s Word and deed. Through Word and deed, God would reach into human history to save the just and destroy resistance.
Personified wisdom is the later sapiential contribution to theology that bridges the gap between God’s distance and God’s proximity. The author understands God’s proximity to human beings as being realized in the signs of intelligence in creation itself. The twenty-one attributes of wisdom attempt to describe wisdom’s pervasiveness in and through the universe and the solicitude for human beings in calling them to the moral good. Wisdom is not personified to the point of becoming a separate entity. Rather, through five metaphors, wisdom is presented as God’s intervention in history: a breath of God’s power, a flowing of God’s glory, a reflection of eternal light, a mirror of God’s activity, and an image of God’s goodness. The whole point of wisdom’s activity is to bring human beings into proximity to God. It is wisdom who makes humans friends of God.
3. Although it remains unclear whether the NT writers were familiar with the book of Wisdom, some of the christological formulations in the letters associated with Paul have strikingly close parallels to the metaphors for wisdom’s relationship to God in 7:25–26. Paul employs the image of a mirror reflecting the glory of the Lord to portray the manner in which God’s glory transforms human beings in Christ:
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Cor 3:18 NRSV)
Just as wisdom is called the image of God’s goodness (7:26c), so too does Paul refer to Christ as "the image of God" (2 Cor 4:4 NRSV). Similarly, in Col 1:15, Christ is referred to as "the image of the invisible God" (NRSV) through whom all things were created. The author of Hebrews employs the rare Greek word for "reflection" to explain how Christ "is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being" (Heb 1:3 NRSV, italics added; cf. Wisdom 7). Since the personification of wisdom became a literary device for presenting the immanence of God in human history, it was natural enough for the NT writers to employ similar language in presenting Christ as the image of God.
Wisdom 8:2–21, Solomon’s Love for Wisdom
8:2–9, Solomon Desires Wisdom. This passage corresponds to the unit 7:13–22 within the concentric structure through a parallel of several themes and images (i.e., wealth, riches, understanding, wisdom as fashioner of what exists, as knower of the seasons). After praising wisdom’s nature, her origin in God, and her effect on humanity, the figure of Solomon turns to a more personal note. It is for these reasons that Solomon is personally caught up in the pursuit of wisdom. There is a return to speech in the first person. The language changes to that of love, courtship, and marriage. The same issues of wisdom’s nature, relationship to God, and benefits for humanity are pursued, but now from Solomon’s personal point of view. It is as if the speaker is contemplating the precious moments of falling in love with a value of extreme importance.
8:2. The underlying metaphor of courtship is unmistakable. Solomon recounts how he had sought wisdom from his youth, desired to take her as a bride, and became enamored of her beauty. The literary device of treating wisdom or other abstract values as a lover and wife who is to be sought and cherished was common in both the Israelite and the Greek traditions. Both Proverbs and Sirach provide excellent examples in the sapiential tradition of offering advice on the importance of choosing a good wife (Proverbs 31; Sirach 25–26). In Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a woman calling attention to her values in the streets (Prov 1:20–33; 8:1–21), as the woman of a household who prepares a feast for those who are willing to hear insight (Prov 9:1–6), as a sister and an intimate friend (Prov 7:4). Sirach uses several metaphors for the pursuit of wisdom: a hunter (Sir 14:22), a suitor (Sir 14:23–25), a youth in quest (Sir 51:13–22). In a very brief metaphor, wisdom is presented as a bride and a steadfast wife (Sir 15:2–6).
The Wisdom author extends the treatment of the personification of wisdom as a lover and a bride. The figure of Solomon, whom tradition held to have cherished wisdom (1 Kgs 3:9), lends itself to the metaphor of courting wisdom as a lover. The metaphor of human sexual love to connote the passionate pursuit of values or faithfulness to God has its precursors in the Song of Songs and in the extensive metaphor of Israel’s being the bride of God (Isa 62:4–5; Hos 2:14–23). Here the metaphor is held up to the reader’s imagination to contemplate the values associated with wisdom.
8:3–4. The metaphor is applied not only to Solomon and wisdom, but also to God and wisdom. Wisdom’s divine origin is dignified through a symbiosis of God and wisdom. Wisdom lives with God. The Lord loves her. The term used to characterize wisdom’s relationship to God as an "initiate" (μύστις mystis) in knowledge is a technical term used in the mystery cults to designate the highest level of illumination for their members.
8:5–8. Four conditional sentences introduce wisdom’s effective role for humanity in creation. If riches are a value to be pursued, then even more so is wisdom the source of wealth. If understanding is a value, then even more so is wisdom, the fashioner of whatever exists. The author appeals to wisdom’s enduring role in creation to highlight her benefits (cf. 7:11, 22).
If righteousness is a value to be loved, then so much more so is wisdom, the origin of the four virtues: self-control, which moderates the use of pleasure; prudence, which discerns the means for ends; justice, which determines what belongs to each; and courage, which gives strength to surmount difficulties and trials. This is the first clear reference in Scripture to the famous debate of the four virtues in Greek literature. Plato classified virtue into four categories as expressing the harmony or health of the soul. Although the Epicureans rejected the platonic division, they discussed all four virtues in the pursuit of pleasure.66 The Stoics and Philo continued to speak of the four virtues, and Philo attributed the origin of the virtues to the divine Logos very much as our author attributes them to wisdom. The author may very well have been inspired to integrate the Greek philosophical debate on the virtues with the traditional understanding of wisdom. In Proverbs 2, for example, wisdom is presented as the origin and bestower of several virtues (cf. 4 Macc 1:18).
Finally, if wide experience is a value, then so much more so is wisdom, who knows the past and the future, who understands speech and riddles, and who has foreknowledge of signs and wonders. The underlying allusion here is to Solomon’s ability to solve riddles and enigmas (1 Kgs 5:9–14; 10:1–9). Among the sages, the ability to communicate with effective speech was highly regarded. The disciples of Qohelet valued this particular ability in their master (Eccl 12:9–13).
The common word pair "signs and wonders" (σημεῖα καὶ τέρατα sēmeia kai terata, 8:8) is ordinarily associated with the great events surrounding the exodus (Exod 7:3; Deut 4:34; 6:22; 7:19; Ps 135:9). In reverse order, it appears in 10:16 referring precisely to the great events of liberation that wisdom inspired through Moses. These signs and wonders associated with the exodus will become the focus in the last part of the book. The phraseology here anticipates the wisdom of God to be the one who saves the people and guides them through the desert with signs and wonders.
8:9. To conclude the series of conditional sentences, Solomon expresses his decision to have wisdom live with him. This decision continues the metaphor of courting wisdom as a lover in the opening sentence of the unit (v. 2). For the author, to accept wisdom into one’s life is like engaging oneself in marriage. The commitment to live with wisdom will assure Solomon good counsel and encouragement in the trials of life.
8:10–16, Wisdom Grants Success. This unit corresponds to the declaration of wisdom’s superiority over all goods within the concentric structure (7:8–12). The image that is treated throughout the unit is Solomon’s fame, both during his life and after his death. Two phrases introduce the alleged fame Solomon will have through wisdom. The first addresses the fame he will have during his rule (v. 10), and the second introduces the fame of immortality that will belong to him (v. 13). The time frame focuses on the future, and the form of discussion is a personal and interior reflection of the unnamed speaker, Solomon.
The allusion to Solomon’s fame is based on two features in the historical accounts of Solomon’s rise to power. The first is to the youthfulness of Solomon, who recognizes his need for experience and wise counsel. In the dream sequence, Solomon confesses that he is but a child and does not know how to govern. Therefore, he asks for an understanding mind so that he can govern wisely and continue in the footsteps of his father, David (1 Kgs 3:7–9). In his reflection on Wisdom, Solomon realizes how he will have glory and respect before the multitudes and his elders, even though he is young. The idea of youths having understanding beyond their years was already addressed in the third diptych (4:7–20). Other examples in Scripture would be those of Joseph, who could interpret dreams (Gen 41:33–45); Elihu, who confronts the elders (Job 32:6–14); and Daniel, whose wisdom saved Susanna (Sus 44–46, 64). Solomon confesses that the reputation he has acquired is based on his commitment to wisdom.
The second feature in the historical accounts to which the author makes an allusion is the reputation Solomon will earn as a wise statesman both in Israel and beyond. His keen judgment is represented in the astute action he took to determine the true mother of a child (1 Kgs 3:16–28). His fame is alleged to have spread throughout all the neighboring lands (1 Kgs 4:29–34), and his rule extended far and wide (1 Kgs 4:20–21). Even the Queen of Sheba came to Solomon to verify his fame as the wisest of kings (1 Kgs 10:1–13). For the author of Wisdom, Solomon’s reputation as a wise and powerful statesman was made possible because of the gift of wisdom that he received from God.
The claim that wisdom will confer immortality on Solomon is consistent with the previous association of wisdom with immortality (6:17–20). Wisdom brings one close to God and confers immortality. In the Isis cult, the goddess Isis was considered to have been the conferer of immortality, which she conferred on her husband, Osiris, and on her son Horus. The immortality Solomon will enjoy is the honored reputation that will last even after his death. This reputation of immortality stands in sharp contrast to the reflection of the wicked, who were denied any lasting memory after death (2:2–5).
Finally, the metaphor of loving wisdom as a wife concludes this part of Solomon’s inner reflection on the advantages of living according to wisdom. Wisdom is the one who brings complete rest and joy. All of Solomon’s activity in planning and ruling finds its culmination in rest and peace through wisdom (v. 16). Both Solomon’s public life and his private life will become well ordered so that he may enjoy in peace the fruit of his labor.
8:17–21, Wisdom Is a Gift of God. This unit corresponds to the opening unit of the concentric structure (7:1–6). The opening of Solomon’s reflection on his human limitations and mortality led to the realization of his solidarity with all humanity and his openness to the transcendence of God. Here at the conclusion of Solomon’s reflection and eulogy for wisdom, we return to the concrete awareness of his need to ask from God the wisdom that is graciously bestowed as a gift.
8:17–18. The speaker recaps the essential features of the lengthy reflection on wisdom (vv. 17–18). In kinship with wisdom, there is immortality (cf. v. 13); in friendship with her, pure delight (cf. v. 16); in laboring with her, unfailing wealth (cf. 7:11); and in the experience of her companionship, understanding and knowledge (cf. 7:21–22). The conclusion of the summary leads to Solomon’s awareness that he must actively seek the gift of wisdom.
8:19–20. The theme of Solomon’s birth and childhood binds the unit to the opening reflection on his first cry as an infant (7:3). What is critical to the author of Wisdom is Solomon’s awareness that even his good corporeal and spiritual nature needs to be completed by the wisdom that comes from God. The author is balancing the positive dynamic of the human structure against the incompleteness of human nature. It is as if the wisdom of God has fashioned human beings in such a way that they are complemented by the wisdom that is bestowed as a gift. The very structure of human beings is oriented to being completed by the transcendence of God (cf. 9:5–6, 13–17).
The controversial theory of the pre-existence of the soul has played a part in the formulation of the author’s positive view of Solomon’s nature. A good soul fell to Solomon’s lot—or, rather, being good, Solomon entered an undefiled body (vv. 19–20). The author’s qualification of the priority of the soul over the body was probably influenced by nuances of Greek ideas treating the pre-existence of the soul. The notion of pre-existence had already worked its way into Jewish thought as exemplified in Philo and Josephus. But, in both formulations of vv. 19–20, the author is asserting the natural harmony that exists between Solomon’s soul and body. What the qualification stresses is not so much the pre-existence of the soul as the moral perspective of the relationship between body and soul. By the virtue of "being good" Solomon entered an undefiled body. This is consistent with the author’s ethical stance toward immortality.
8:21. Even though Solomon’s natural disposition is as good as anyone could expect, he realizes that he will achieve the goal of his desires only through the gift of the wisdom that comes from God. Solomon’s naturally good disposition gives him the insight that there is a gift from God that completes his desires.
At the beginning of the reflection, Solomon ponders the aspects of wisdom in his heart (v. 17), and at the end he prays to God with all his heart (v. 21). The idea of praying to God with all one’s heart and soul and might was firmly ensconced in Hebrew piety. The author may very well be alluding to the shema in describing the ardor in which Solomon prays to God for wisdom, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deut 6:5 NRSV).
1. The effect of Solomon’s reflection on the beauty of wisdom provides an insight into the self-appropriation of values. Solomon’s pursuit of wisdom does not issue from a blind obedience or from outside pressure. Rather, by contemplating the reality of the wisdom that comes from God, the author engages the intellectual and the affective capacities of the mind and the heart. The author provides the reader with the inner dispositions of the unnamed Solomon that lead him to embrace the value of wisdom: the appreciation of beauty, wealth, intelligence, the virtues, and the desire for wisdom’s intimacy with God, and even the knowledge of human experience. The pursuit of wisdom leads to the balance and harmony of a full human life.
The appropriation of the value of wisdom with all of its associated virtues in the figure of Solomon provides a contrast to what the wicked do with their lives (2:1–20). Despair motivates their judgments and actions in life. Love motivates Solomon’s decision to embrace wisdom.
2. The mystical marriage between Solomon and wisdom continues a long-standing tradition of highlighting the personal engagement involved in choosing and appropriating values through the metaphor of human love. Just as courtship and marriage fully engage the entire spectrum of our intellectual and affective concerns, so too does the pursuit of God’s wisdom demand the engagement of the entire person. The relationship between Israel and God is portrayed often enough through the image of a marriage. Hosea made extensive use of courtship and marriage to portray the painful consequences of unfaithfulness as well as the freshness, intimacy, and beauty of God’s "first love" for Israel (Hos 2:1–23), and Paul used the metaphor to depict the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph 5:22–33). This marriage metaphor, then, both heightens the beauty of the exchange of love in the covenant and sharpens the pain of loss due to unfaithfulness.
In Christian mysticism, the use of language of human love to express divine love was inspired by these metaphors from the scriptures. John of the Cross rewrote the Canticle of Canticles based on a contemplative discussion between God as the bridegroom and the soul as the bride:
She has entered in, the bride,
To the long desired and pleasant garden,
And at her ease she lies,
Her neck reclined
To rest upon the Loved One’s gentle arms.
Teresa of Avila spoke of the final stage in one’s relationship with God in terms of a spiritual marriage. In the Interior Castle, she sets out to explain the progression of the soul in its spiritual journey as being led by God through a series of mansions. The seventh mansion represents the complete fusion of the soul with God through the image of a spiritual marriage. Human friendship, love, and commitment provide images through which we can grasp both the challenge of wisdom and its gifts of rest, completion, and intimacy.
3. A spirituality from abundance emerges through Solomon’s eulogy of wisdom. Solomon’s awareness of his natural gifts does not lead to arrogance or complacency, but to the contemplation of the origin of his being. The awareness of having been given abundant gifts brings him to recognize the source of those gifts. In his final reflection on wisdom’s many benefits (8:17–21), Solomon offers the counterpoint to his opening reflection on mortality and limitations (7:1–6), which offers a spirituality of privation and suffering. The final reflection offers a spirituality of abundance. Human limitation can be the birth of desire and longing. Solomon’s realization of his mortality led him to yearn for completion in God. The experience of life in abundance also can lead to a yearning for union with the source of all gifts.
The eulogy of wisdom suggests that there is also a proper way to live with abundance. In the wicked, despair brought forth a plan in which abundance and power simply masked a nihilistic stance in life. They used the natural gifts of life to cover the abyss of weakness and mortality. Solomon’s many gifts, which he received from his natural environment, however, lead him to reflect on the source of his blessedness. Instead of collapsing in on himself, Solomon reaches out to the source of blessedness.
What do we have that we have not received as a gift? Even the most personal achievements of insight or works of art never occur in a vacuum. Someone gave us encouragement or provided the right conditions for us to receive insight or inspiration. It may be easy to forget the giver in the experience of abundance (see Deut 8:1–20), but to reflect on the source of prosperity brings the purpose of abundance to its completion: union between the lover and the beloved.
WISDOM 9:1–18, SOLOMON’S PRAYER FOR WISDOM
This eloquent prayer for wisdom has been recognized by many commentators as the climax of the book of Wisdom. The eulogy of wisdom, which began at the end of chapter 6, flows into a dramatic appeal to God by the unnamed Solomon for the gift of wisdom. Throughout the chapters that dissuaded the reader from bringing on the reality of death by living a life of injustice (chaps. 1–6), the need for guidance in the turbulent sea of life has been coming to the fore. The wisdom of God offers the context of a positive vision for creation and humanity. With the wisdom that comes from God, humans find completion for their energies. And so Solomon pleads with God for the gift of wisdom.
The prayer is located near the central position of the book, especially when considered from the point of view of lines in the manuscripts. It is modeled on the dream sequence in 1 Kgs 3:1–15 and the nocturnal appearance of the Lord in 2 Chronicles 1. Both stories relate how God appeared to Solomon in a dream or in a vision to grant him any request. Instead of choosing riches, fame, or a long life, the standard values, Solomon asks for a discerning mind and wisdom. The significant difference between Wisdom and those accounts is that the original context of a dream or a vision has been changed into a prayer initiated by Solomon.
The prayer is crafted exquisitely from a literary perspective. It is as if the density of insight and feeling enclosed in the prayer needs an appropriate form to express and contain what otherwise would be dissipated. A curious fact is that the most moving passages of Scripture, upon a little probing, turn out to have been crafted with great artistic care. It would appear that insight and profundity favor an aesthetic expression.
The three sections of the concentric structure of 9:1–18 may be outlined as follows:
Through this structure, the author balances ideas and images within the prayer. The first section within the structure (vv. 1–6) speaks of wisdom’s role in creation for all humanity. This section stands parallel to the last section (vv. 13–18) in which the tasks of life in general again are addressed. In the beginning, it is wisdom’s role in creation that assures wisdom’s intimacy with God (v. 1). At the end, it is wisdom’s role in salvation history that assures humanity its intimacy with God (v. 18). The middle section (vv. 7–12) concentrates specifically on the task of kingship placed on the shoulders of Solomon. In itself, it is balanced by two halves that treat Solomon’s call to govern, and in its center rests the formal request that God send to him the wisdom that is with God (v. 10). The prayer synthesizes the broad perspectives of the author’s view of the human relationship to God and to the cosmos. It balances the reflection on human limitations and potential with the essential function of wisdom in creation and in salvation.
9:1–6, Wisdom Fashioned Humanity. Key themes are touched upon in the opening address of the prayer: the God of the ancestors, the God of creation, the creation of humanity through wisdom, the call of humanity to rule over the world in justice, the limitations of humanity for this great task, the need for human knowledge to be completed by the wisdom of God.
God is addressed in traditional Hebrew fashion as the God of the ancestors and the God of mercy (v. 1). The image of the God of the ancestors recapitulates the providence and care shown to Israel through the history of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (cf. Gen 26:24; 28:13; 32:10; Exod 3:13–16; 4:5; Deut 1:11, 21; 4:1; 12:1). During the divine intervention into the life of Moses in the desert, God’s name is revealed precisely through the image of the God of the ancestors (Exod 3:13–16). But immediately the image of the God who saves is juxtaposed to the image of the God who creates the world (v. 1) and humanity (v. 2). God is the savior and the creator.
The reference to the Priestly account of creation is unmistakable. God creates by the spoken word (Gen 1:3–29; cf. Ps 33:6). Humanity is given dominion over God’s creatures and the task to rule the world (Gen 1:26–28). This task represents the ideal of God’s plan for humanity: to rule as God rules, through justice and mercy. The author adds a clarification of wisdom’s role in creation. Humanity has been formed by God’s wisdom (cf. Ps 104:24; Prov 3:19; Jer 10:12, the same verb for "to form" is used in Wis 13:4). The relation of God’s wisdom to creation and to humanity has already been addressed by the author on several occasions (Wis 1:6; 6:12–20; 7:14, 22, 27; 8:6, 13). It is a key idea that guarantees the efficacy of wisdom in bringing humanity continuously into union with God.
In the light of the great task that belongs to humanity, Solomon recalls the limitations and weaknesses that humanity equally shares. Humans are weak and short-lived, with little understanding in comparison to the complexities of the world (vv. 4–6). As in the earlier instances of this reflection on human weakness (7:1–6; 8:19–21), the awareness of limitations is no cause for despair. Rather, the reflection propels Solomon outside himself to seek wisdom in someone greater. The reflection is double-sided. Humans are limited, yet these limitations are subsumed by the wisdom of God (9:4–6). Humans also have many strengths. But if the wisdom of God is lacking, then even these gifts and strengths will lack their full power (v. 6). From the point of view both of human weakness and of human strength, Solomon realizes the efficacy of the wisdom that comes from God.
9:7–12, Solomon Needs God’s Wisdom. 9:7–8. The prayer turns to the great tasks that have been placed on the shoulders of Solomon. First there is the call for him to be king over Israel (see 1 Kgs 1:28–40; 3:7), and, second, there is the call to build the Temple on the holy mountain (see 2 Sam 7:12–14; 1 Chr 28:11–19). The various terms employed for the construction of the Temple combine the image of the tabernacle in the desert with that of the Temple in Jerusalem ("a temple on your holy mountain," v. 8a; "an altar in the city of your habitation," v. 8b; "a copy of the holy tent," v. 8c).
The instruction to Solomon to build the Temple is parallel to the instruction to Moses to build the tabernacle (tent of meeting) so that God may dwell among the people (Exod 25:8–22). The tabernacle housed the ark and the incense altar as well as a table, a candelabrum, an eternal flame, Aaron’s staff, the priestly vessels, and a book written by Moses. The Temple in Jerusalem was meant to function as the tabernacle had done throughout Israel’s early history. It became God’s dwelling place (Psalm 84). When Solomon dedicated the Temple after its completion, the ark and the tent of meeting were placed in it (1 Kgs 8:4; 2 Chr 5:5). The relationship between the tent of meeting and the Temple was already implicit in David’s plan to build a temple to house the ark (2 Samuel 7).
It would appear that a platonic concept enters the author’s formulation when the Temple is described as a "copy of the holy tent" prepared by God from the beginning (v. 8c). The chronicler speaks of a "plan" for the Temple that David gave to Solomon, which likewise was given to David by the Lord (1 Chr 28:11–19). Sirach also may contain an allusion to a heavenly tent where personified wisdom is said to minister to God and that, therefore, was established in Jerusalem (Sir 24:10).
Although the precise formulation may very well be under platonic influence, the idea of an earthly temple reflecting a heavenly one is old, indeed. Gudea, the governor of Lagash in the second millennium bce, spoke of the ground plan of a temple to be built, given to him in a dream. Sennacherib (704–681 bce) likewise spoke of the founding of the city of Nineveh as having been planned long ago in heaven. Philo made use of the platonic theory of forms to explain how the tabernacle envisaged by Moses was modeled on a prototype produced by immaterial and invisible forms.
9:9. The abrupt switch to the theme of wisdom in the prayer has been prepared in the opening reference to wisdom. Because Solomon has been given such a great task and is so limited, he needs the wisdom that has fashioned human beings and, therefore, understands what is right. The author contends once again that wisdom is with God (cf. 7:21; 8:3, 21). But the particular nuance that adds force to the affirmation is wisdom’s presence at creation. Wisdom knows God’s works, was present at creation, and, therefore, understands what is pleasing to God. The author is continuing in the sapiential tradition of Proverbs and Sirach regarding wisdom’s presence in creation (Prov 3:19–20; 8:22–31; Sir 1:1–10; 24:1–7).
9:10. At the very center of the prayer stands the formal request that God send forth wisdom to Solomon from heaven. The phrase is formulated chiastically:
A send her forth
B from the holy heavens
B′ from the throne of your glory
A′ send her
The purpose of receiving the gift of wisdom is that wisdom "labor" at the side of Solomon, thereby enabling him to be united to God in his life and in his work. Wisdom is the one who makes friends with God (cf. 7:27), because she is intimately in union with God and a collaborator with human beings (cf. 6:12–16; 8:16–18; 9:2). The emphasis on learning what is pleasing to God (vv. 9, 10d, 18) may well be an echo of the central statement in the dream narrative of 1 Kgs 3:1–15, where Solomon’s request for a discerning mind is described as "pleasing" the Lord (1 Kgs 3:10).
9:11–12. Wisdom’s presence at creation (v. 9) guarantees efficacy in her collaboration with Solomon. Since wisdom knows all things, she will guide and protect Solomon in his decisions and actions. The idea of the glory of wisdom guiding and protecting Solomon may be an allusion to the pillar of cloud and fire that guided the Israelites in their flight from Egypt (Exod 13:17–22; 14:19–20). The theme of Solomon’s task to rule and to judge is picked up positively in the second half of the prayer. With wisdom, his works will be acceptable; he will be able to judge justly; he will be a king worthy to follow in the footsteps of his father, David.
9:13–18, Wisdom Saves Humanity. Completing the concentric structure of the opening section of the prayer, the author addresses the phenomenon of human limitation with the concluding summary of wisdom’s role in salvation. Just as the opening dealt with both wisdom’s role in creation and a reflection on human weakness, so too does the conclusion show how human weakness is taken up and compensated for by the teaching and saving wisdom of God.
On first reading, it would appear that the author’s formulation of human weakness in this section combines Greek and sapiential ideas on the limits of human knowledge. Greek philosophy holds the idea of the body burdening down or hindering the mind’s activity. However, for the Wisdom author it is not matter that separates humans from God but injustice (5:1–23). The idea of the soul’s being imprisoned in matter would be quite foreign to the author of the book of Wisdom (see 1:14; 8:19–20). The Hebraic notion of the "flesh" symbolizing human weakness and fragility comes much closer to the author’s understanding of human limitations than do the precise nuances of the Platonic distinction between the body and the soul (see the use of the term "flesh" throughout the flood narrative in Genesis 6–9).
From the sapiential tradition, the author makes reference to the limits of human knowledge with respect to the wisdom of God. The poem to wisdom in Job 28 emphasizes the human incapability of finding wisdom (Job 28:12–15). The preacher in Ecclesiastes likewise emphasizes the limits of human wisdom: "That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out" (Eccl 7:24 NRSV). Whereas the sages caution against arrogance and hubris in their emphasis on the limits of wisdom, however, the Wisdom author stresses that human knowledge is completed by the wisdom that comes from God. The reflection on human weakness is formulated through a series of apparently rhetorical questions: Who can learn? Who can discern? Who has traced out what is in the heavens? Who has learned God’s counsel? The surprising answer is affirmative when God grants wisdom. The conclusion to the reflection is that with the wisdom that is given by God all of these endeavors are possible (v. 17). This is consistent with the author’s view of the function of human weakness, treated earlier. Human limitation and suffering need not be interpreted as signs of human despair and meaninglessness, as the wicked interpret them (2:1–11). Rather, like Solomon, the experience of fragility and weakness can propel one to seek the wisdom that comes from God (7:1–7; 9:4–6).
The conclusion to the prayer draws a direct parallel between creation and salvation. It is through wisdom that human paths are set right, and people are saved by wisdom. Just as wisdom was present at creation (vv. 1–2), then, so too is wisdom continuously present to save human beings (vv. 18). Salvation is the theme that will dominate the remaining part of the book (10:4; 14:4–5; 16:7, 11; 18:5). Chapter 10 will follow wisdom’s role in saving the just ones in their trials from the time of Adam right up to Moses. Then in the last section of the book, the focus will be on the exodus events, the foundational saving event for Israel.
1. Wisdom is not the same as knowledge. Solomon’s recognition of his need for wisdom is a paradigm for humanity, particularly for our own time, when our technical knowledge has grown exponentially. There is a fundamental distinction in Solomon’s prayer between knowledge and wisdom. Solomon is acutely aware of both the limits and the strength of his knowledge. Knowledge represents the human familiarity with the world that enables people to move and act within it. It bestows the power to act. But how will Solomon act? How will he act out of both the limits and the strengths of his knowledge? How will he assess and judge rightly the tasks before him? How will he choose the good from the myriad possibilities open to him?
It is through the divine wisdom given as a gift and welcomed as a friend that Solomon hopes to use wisely the power entrusted to him. This wisdom is elusive, and the author has attempted to describe its many facets throughout the eulogy of wisdom. It is close to the human mind and heart. It is divine. Because humans have been "fashioned" by wisdom, it enables people to judge well and act for the good.
Our contemporary situation is not essentially different from that of Solomon, described in the prayer. Our knowledge in the areas of technology, medicine, and psychology is more extensive than at any time in history. At the same time, it has become evident that without the will to act wisely we leave behind a wake of turmoil in the environment and in the social fabric of life. Both our knowledge and our awareness of our limitations should propel us like the unnamed Solomon to seek with humility and with passion the wisdom that judges wisely and acts with respect for the world.
2. Divine wisdom is not set over and against human knowledge. It is not as if Solomon must deny his knowledge to embrace the wisdom that comes from God. The prayer affirms with a particular nuance the essential relationship between humans and God presented in the account of creation (see Gen 1:27). Humans were fashioned according to God’s wisdom (Wis 9:2). It is as if human energy is directed to being completed by the wisdom that comes from God. This means that without this wisdom, human knowledge becomes truncated from its divine source and will fail (Wis 9:6). But with the gift of wisdom that comes from God, human knowledge reaches its full potential (Wis 9:13–17).
3. Both human weakness and human strength lead to God. In the prayer, Solomon’s view of his own weakness and his strength supplements what was already treated in 7:1–7; 8:19–21. Together these passages form a contrast with the view of weakness and strength offered by the author through the perspective of the wicked (2:1–20). For the wicked, human weakness in all of its forms is a cause for despair, and human strength is an occasion for hubris and exploitation. The portrait of Solomon painted by the author offers the very antithesis to such an interpretation. Solomon viewed his limitations and weakness (9:5) from the perspective of his tasks in life and his relationship to God. Instead of collapsing in on himself, Solomon confesses his limitations and seeks wisdom to overcome his limitations. Similarly, Solomon recognizes the strengths of his standing before others and in his selection to be king and judge. This is no occasion for hubris. He recognizes that without right judgment and action these strengths will come to nothing (9:6). The interpretation we give to weakness and strength is a perennial gauge of our moral perspective.
4. The prayer’s enclosure of themes that relate creation and salvation reveals a synthetic theological panorama. God is the creator who has fashioned humans according to wisdom. And it is through the wisdom of God that humanity is continuously being saved. In some circles it has become customary to view creation theology and salvation theology as somewhat in opposition. Salvation theology emphasizes the unique interventions of God in history to liberate and redeem humanity from oppression and sin. Creation theology emphasizes the immanence of God’s presence through the structure of the universe and humanity as continuously calling humanity to its original dignity and harmony with God and the world.
In older biblical scholarship, it was thought that creation theology was a very late addition to Israelite faith. In more recent theological scholarship, it has been suggested that the salvation theology of the Bible has so dominated the last centuries of Christiandom that we need to recover the creational perspective. The two perspectives of creation and salvation are not in opposition in the Bible. Certainly, the author of Wisdom envisions a harmony between the God who has created the world and humanity through wisdom and the God who continuously saves humanity through wisdom. Precisely because God is the creator and fashioner of the human heart, this same God intervenes to bring humanity to freedom and liberation. In the last part of the book, which deals with the saving event of the exodus, for example, the author presents the exodus as a new creation (19:6, 18).
WISDOM 10:1–21, WISDOM ACCOMPANIES THE RIGHTEOUS
Most commentators understand the function of chap. 10 as a link that joins the eulogy of wisdom in chaps. 6–9 to the midrashic treatment of the exodus events in chaps. 11–12. This it does admirably well by continuing the praise of wisdom through examples of her accompanying the righteous of humanity from Adam to Moses and by introducing the final theme of the book: the exodus. Specifically, the concluding reference in the prayer to people’s being saved by wisdom is concretely exemplified through biblical support. Of the author’s three approaches to personified wisdom (7:22b–8:1; 8:2–8)—namely, to expound on her beauty, on her rootedness in God, and on her beneficial qualities for humanity—the latter is highlighted to conclude the eulogy on wisdom.
Seven loose sets of contrasts from personages in the Torah are brought forward to emphasize the positive function of wisdom in the lives of the just: (1) Adam/Cain (vv. 1–3); (2) Noah/the flooded earth (v. 4); (3) Abraham/the nations put to confusion (v. 5); (4) Lot/the five cities and Lot’s wife (vv. 6–8); (5) Jacob/Esau and Laban (vv. 9–12); (6) Joseph/Potiphar’s wife (vv. 13–14); (7) Israel-Moses/Pharaoh-enemies (vv. 15–21). In each case, wisdom is understood to have accompanied the righteous in their trials in order to protect them and bring them success. The contrasts are grouped into six sections (vv. 1, 5–6, 13, 15–16), each beginning with the pronoun "she" (αὕτη hautē). All the noble personages in the contrasts are described as "righteous," except for the first—Adam. The reason why the author does not describe him as righteous is likely that it was precisely from his transgression that wisdom had delivered him. The contrast between the righteous and their enemies or oppressors continues the contrast from the first section of the book, where the apparent fate of the righteous was contrasted with the fate of the wicked. At times, the contrast emphasizes the debilitating result of evading wisdom, as is the case with Cain, the enemies of Lot, and the Egyptians. Other contrasts focus on the positive guiding force of wisdom, as in the case of Jacob and Joseph especially.
The passage looks upon God’s interventions in history in typical sapiential fashion. In wisdom literature, God is seen to act in history from within creation, so to speak. Through wisdom, God works within historical events and within the cosmos to bring the plan of creation to completion. There is a difference of emphasis in the prophetic perspective, which tends to look upon God’s interventions as extraordinary acts of power that break into human history. In the prophetic view, we see God reaching out into the cosmos and into human history. In the sapiential view, we see the cosmos and humanity reaching out toward God with the aid of divine wisdom. Covenantal theology forms the backdrop for prophetic literature, whereas creation theology forms the backdrop for wisdom literature.
The form of writing in this chapter (and for a good part of the remainder of the book) is midrashic. Because of its loose style, it is difficult to call midrash a literary genre (it is a rabbinic term meaning "investigation"). In its broadest definition, a midrash is a type of literature that contains explicit allusions to the fixed canonical text. The author is presuming knowledge of the accepted text and interprets the events of the Torah in a manner that attributes them to the wisdom of God. (For other examples of midrashic praises of illustrious persons in the Bible, see Sirach 44–50; 1 Macc 2:49–64; Heb 11:4–40.)
10:1–3, Adam/Cain. Three details from the Genesis accounts of Adam are singled out to show wisdom’s protective role for all humanity: (1) he had been created alone, (2) he transgressed, (3) he received the strength to rule over all things. Adam’s "aloneness" alludes to the second creation account, in which the creation of humanity is described through a double process: First, Adam is created and then Eve, and together they constitute the beginning of humanity (Gen 2:4–24). The transgression alludes to Adam’s eating of the fruit in disobedience to the divine command (Gen 3:6). The third point reaches back to the first creation account, in which humanity is given the task of ruling over the living creatures (Gen 1:26, 28). Wisdom’s protective role encompasses both the weaknesses and the strengths of humanity.
Adam is called the father of the world (v. 1). Although an abundance of literature surrounding the figure of Adam had arisen in the mystery cults and in gnostic writings, it is unlikely that the Wisdom author is alluding to some "ideal man" or demiurge through whom the creation of the world took place. Adam is immediately described as the "first-formed" father of the world who was created alone. The term "world" (κόσμος kosmos) most likely refers to the world of humanity. As the father of Cain and Abel, Adam is called the father of humanity.
In contrast to Adam, Cain is described as having departed from wisdom in anger, and as a result he is said to have perished. When his sacrifice of the fruit of the ground was not accepted by God, Cain became exceedingly angry and plotted to kill his brother Abel (Gen 4:3–8). For the author, Cain is a figure of unrighteousness; consequently the tradition of God’s protective mark on Cain and his family is ignored (Gen 4:15–17).
10:4, Noah/the Flooded Earth. The author mentions Cain’s sin as the cause of wickedness that occasions the flood. Actually, in the Genesis narrative, Cain’s murder of Abel is treated only as the first expression of violence among humans, which eventually leads to the wickedness that occasions divine wrath in the form of a flood. The earth is described as being saved by wisdom, who steers Noah, a righteous man, on "a paltry piece of wood." The author singles out the fragility of "a piece of wood," referring to the ark, to highlight the directive quality of wisdom’s action for humanity (cf. Gen 7:17–24).
10:5, Abraham/the Nations. Three events from Abraham’s life are depicted as being directed by wisdom: the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1–9), Abraham’s righteousness (Gen 15:6), and the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22:1–19). The description of the nations that are put to confusion because of their wicked agreement refers to the episode at the tower of Babel (11:1–9). Although in the Genesis narrative there is no mention of Abraham’s being involved in those events, the genealogy that follows the episode leads up to Terah, the father of "Abram." The Rabbinic tradition, moreover, made Abraham contemporaneous to those events: "Abraham said to the men of the generation of the Tower of Babel: What do you seek from God? Has He said to you, "Come and provide for me?" He created and He provides; He made and He sustains."
Wisdom is said to have recognized Abraham’s righteousness and to have maintained his integrity before God. This is a reference to the covenant episode between God and Abram (Genesis 15), where Abram expresses hope in God’s promises and this action is reckoned to him as righteousness. With respect to the testing of Abraham (Genesis 22), the author explains how it was the wisdom of God that strengthened Abraham to follow God’s command in the face of sacrificing his own son Isaac. The author had described wisdom as a friend of humans who seeks out those who are just in order to guide them and to make them friends of God. The references to famous persons of the Torah are meant to be concrete examples of what the author has argued in general terms.
10:6–9, Lot/the Five Cities. Although Lot is not presented in exemplary fashion in the Genesis narrative, the Wisdom author attributes the divine intervention of the two angels who save him to the working of wisdom (cf. Gen 19:1–29). Two features from the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah are put into relief: the destruction of the cities by fire and the fateful glance backward of Lot’s wife, who turns into a pillar of salt. The Genesis narrative mentions only three cities of the plain by name, Sodom, Gomorrah, and Zoar (the city that was spared for Lot). In the previous battle between the two groups of five kings against four, all five cities are mentioned (Gen 14:1–2). Although the accepted tradition understands only four of the cities to have been destroyed (see Deut 29:23), other traditions generalize the destruction as affecting the five cities of the plain (cf. Gen 19:24–25).
The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah had become a proverbial epithet to characterize the ensuing devastation of wickedness (Deut 29:23; Isa 13:19; Jer 50:40; Amos 4:11; Matt 10:15; 2 Pet 2:6; Rev 11:8). It gives occasion for the author to elaborate the connection between devastation and wickedness. The desolate land around the southwestern part of the Dead Sea had given rise to many legends regarding its rocky, inhospitable terrain. The wisdom author refers to two of these legends: the destruction by fire, which renders the land hostile to cultivation, and the pillar of salt. The mention of the plant whose fruit does not ripen echoes the author’s earlier critique of the "brood of the ungodly" (4:3–5 NRSV). The pillar of salt refers to the legend of Lot’s wife, who was punished for her unbelieving gesture of turning back (Gen 19:26). This legend playfully explained the erosion in the salty rock around the Dead Sea that created all sorts of eerie forms, one of which resembles a human being and is called "the wife of Lot." The author uses these images to drive home the importance of collaborating with wisdom. Because these people passed wisdom by, they could not recognize the good (cf. 2:21–22). In contrast to the folly of the wicked, the passage concludes on a positive note, highlighting the manner in which those who serve wisdom are rescued from their troubles. This theme of wisdom’s protecting the righteous in their trials will be picked up in the examples of Jacob and Joseph.
10:10–12, Jacob/Esau and Laban. A series of events from the life of Jacob are picked up in order to illustrate the positive working of divine wisdom: Jacob’s flight from his brother, Esau (Gen 27:41–45); Jacob’s vision of the ladder at Bethel (Gen 28:10–17); Jacob’s growing prosperity despite Laban’s restrictions (Gen 30:25–31:54); Jacob’s wrestling with the divine at Peniel (Gen 32:22–32). In each instance, wisdom is shown to be working in the background to bring about success for Jacob against those who would have harmed him. Wisdom guides him; shows him the kingdom of God; helps him to prosper at the expense of Laban, who had been oppressing him; and even gives him the victory in his arduous contest with the "angel." Jacob’s vision at Bethel had been expanded in pseudepigraphal works to include explanations of divine plans. The emphasis in the Jacob/Esau contrast is not on the negative source of wickedness, as with Lot, but on the positive accompaniment of wisdom that brings success out of trying circumstances.
10:13–14, Joseph/Potiphar’s Wife. One might have expected Isaac to have been listed among the illustrious personages whom wisdom has aided. The author selected Joseph, perhaps, because the trials he faced in life were more amenable to showing wisdom’s creative power to transform situations of distress into occasions of divine blessing. Joseph was known for his sagacity in his interpretation of dreams and in his rising to great heights within the ranks of the Egyptian government. However, the author passes over the sapiential themes already present in the Genesis narrative (Genesis 37–50) and concentrates instead on two episodes: the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife, which eventually caused his imprisonment, and his rising out of prison to the heights of power in Egypt.
Wisdom did not abandon Joseph in his solitary position. Wisdom accompanied him to protect his righteousness and to be with him in the pit and in the dungeon. His resistance to the seduction of Potiphar’s wife is attributed to wisdom. Wisdom is described as staying with him right to the point of reversing his misfortune. He ends up having authority over his previous masters (his brothers), and his accusers (Potiphar and his wife) are shown to be false. As a result of wisdom’s accompanying presence, Joseph receives "everlasting honor." Wisdom was described by the unnamed speaker Solomon as one who leads people to a kingdom (6:20) and who confers an everlasting remembrance (8:13). Not only is this the case for Solomon, but also, according to the author, history itself has already exemplified wisdom’s creative role.
10:15–21, Israel-Moses/Pharaoh-Enemies. The final contrast is more complex than the previous one in that the righteous consist of the entire people Israel and their singular leader, Moses. By contrast, the enemies are the Egyptian oppressors and their leader, the pharaoh. The protagonist throughout the contrast is wisdom. Wisdom delivers Israel by entering into Moses to guide the people and bring them over the Red Sea. Likewise, wisdom is the protagonist in thwarting the resistance to Israel’s liberation. It is wisdom who drowned the enemies and cast them up. Wisdom is the one who inspires praise for God’s marvelous liberation from the mouths of mutes and infants.
10:15. The Israelites are called "holy and blameless" and later in the passage "righteous" (v. 20). This is not to say that the author is unaware of the memory of Israel’s own resistance to liberation, which is entrenched in the tradition. The book of Exodus insists on a triple source of resistance to God’s intervention: Moses (Exod 4:1–17), the people themselves (Exod 6:9; 14:11–12), and, of course, the pharaoh (Exod 14:5–9). Later in the book of Wisdom, the author alludes to Israel’s resistance in the desert and to the punishment inflicted on the people as a result of Korah’s rebellion (18:20–25; cf. Num 16:25–35; 17:1–13). But for the purpose of an effective contrast here, the author singles out Israel’s righteousness under Egyptian oppression.
10:16. Moses is designated the Lord’s servant, which is a much-used title for Moses in the Torah (Exod 4:10; 14:31; Num 11:11; 12:7–8; Deut 3:24; 34:5). The ancestors as well as Israel as a whole are referred to as God’s servants (Exod 32:13; Deut 9:27; Lev 25:42, 55). In Isa 63:11, God is described as the protagonist of liberation who put his Spirit into the people and raised up Moses. Similarly, the author of Wisdom attributes the power of the Spirit that enters into Moses to the workings of God’s wisdom.
10:17–19. Various events from the exodus narrative are attributed to the guiding and inspiring activity of wisdom: Moses and Aaron bargaining with Pharaoh using signs and wonders (Exodus 7–11); the acquisition/reception of goods from the Egyptians (Exod 11:2–3; 12:33–36); the remarkable journey from under Pharaoh’s power guided by the cloud by day and by fire at night (Exod 13:17–22); the crossing of the Red Sea (Exod 14:13–25); the destruction of the army in the waters (Exod 14:26–31; 15:19); the song of praise by Moses, the people, and Miriam (Exod 15:1–21).
10:20–21. Two details in the Wisdom account are based on later interpretations of the events surrounding the exodus: the plundering of the Egyptian army (v. 20) and the singing of praises to God by mutes and infants (v. 21). The first detail, the plundering of the Egyptian army, was developed to explain how the Israelites acquired arms to thwart Amalek’s attack at Rephidim (Exod 17:8–13). Josephus gives an account of this interpretation:
On the morrow, the arms of the Egyptians having been carried up to the Hebrews’ camp by the tide and the force of the wind setting in that direction, Moses, surmising that this too was due to the providence of God, to ensure that even in weapons they should not be wanting, collected them and, having accoutred the Hebrews therein led them forward to Mount Sinai.
The reference to wisdom’s opening the mouths of the mute may be the author’s clever reference to the song of Moses, which praises God’s liberation (Exod 15:1–18). When God called Moses forth to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, Moses resisted by claiming he did not know how to speak (Exod 4:10–16). The author thus attributes to wisdom God’s concrete intervention to give Moses the power of speech and the ability to sing spontaneous praise.
Even the infants are singled out as singing God’s praise under wisdom’s inspiration (v. 21). Inspired, perhaps, by Ps 8:2, "Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger" (NRSV), a very early rabbinic tradition attributes the singing of God’s praises to infants: "When the babe lying on its mother’s lap and the suckling at his mother’s breast saw the divine presence, the former raised his neck, and the latter let go of his mother’s breasts, and they all responded with a song of praise, saying, ‘This is my God, and I will glorify him.’ "90
1. Through wisdom God provides providential care for humanity. The sweeping survey of biblical figures from Adam to Moses is meant to expound on the saving role of wisdom. This saving role formulated the concluding remark of Solomon’s prayer: Through wisdom God has fashioned the human heart, and through wisdom God saves humanity continuously (cf. 9:1, 18). The author has chosen familiar biblical characters to illustrate how the difficult circumstances of their lives fell under the providential gaze of God. In each case the saving activity of God is attributed to God’s wisdom.
The providential care of God rests on the immanent workings of wisdom in creation. Providential care is at work in the forces of the cosmos, in the human heart, and in the history of human events. Where the standard biblical texts envisage God as intervening in the affairs of the ancestors, often dramatically and against the course of events, the sages understand God’s interventions to be implicit in the ordinary activities of human decisions for justice or for injustice.
The Wisdom author’s commentary on the ark that is guided by wisdom is a good case in point. The Genesis narrative highlights God’s majestic command for Noah to build the ark to save humanity and the various animal species (Gen 6:11–22). The Wisdom author emphasizes the implicit guiding hand of wisdom that "steers" the fragile piece of wood to safety. God’s providence need not be seen simply in the extraordinary events that bring liberation, but in the everyday circumstances that allow for injustice to be redressed as well.
2. Through wisdom, God reverses the misfortune of the just. The saving activity of wisdom not only intervenes on behalf of the righteous but also thwarts the plans of the unjust. The contrasts of righteous biblical figures and their wicked counterparts mirror the author’s treatment of the just and the wicked in the first part of the book (3:1–4:20). In each case, the author recalls the trying situations of the righteous to show how, in fact, through wisdom the lingering threat is transformed into fortune. Only in the first case, Adam, is the trying situation brought about by one’s own transgression. In this way, all of humanity, which originates from Adam, can be understood to be under the guiding providence of God’s wisdom.
Wisdom had already been associated with righteousness in the opening part of the book. So it comes as no surprise that the author argues for wisdom’s being God’s means of saving the just and hindering the wicked. Cain is described as having "departed from" wisdom (v. 3); the populations of the destroyed cities "passed wisdom by" (v. 8); wisdom had shown Joseph’s accusers to be false (v. 14), and to wisdom is ascribed the role of having drowned the enemies of the Hebrews at the Red Sea (v. 20).
3. History is a forum for discovering God’s action toward humanity. In the first part of the book, the author had argued out of principles. The reversal of fortune in the case of the righteous and the wicked was established through a series of declarations. The fortune of the wicked and the misfortune of the just were stripped of their appearances. In large part, the redress of injustice took place by the author’s postulation of an ultimate judgment. It is the ultimate judgment that reveals the true nature of the reward of the righteous and the moral vacuity of the wicked. But what is the author’s basis for postulating an ultimate judgment? In chap. 10s and throughout the rest of the book, history provides the data to argue for the merits of justice and the peril of injustice.
The series of incidents from the ancestral stories is presented to our imaginations with a particular intent. We see concrete examples of the righteous, who are rewarded by wisdom for justice during their own lifetime. These references to past incidents that are open to reflective scrutiny form the basis for contemplating the relationships between justice and wisdom and between wisdom and life. Contemplating the stories with the connections the author draws leads to an appreciation of wisdom and to a respect for justice. Since these connections are palpable in the illustrious persons of the tradition, there is hope that they are valid for the future.
The technique of recasting faith history to establish fundamental truths lies at the heart of the biblical narrative. The particular examples of recasting ancestral history, besides the Wisdom text, are few: Sirach 44–50; 1 Macc 2:49–64; Heb 11:4–40. Sirach, the most extensive of the ancestral eulogies, begins with Enoch and ends with Simon son of Onias. In 1 Maccabees, Mattathias recounts stories of ancestral heroes from Abraham to Daniel to show how they were rewarded or saved for their virtue. The eulogy of the ancestors in Hebrews is the closest parallel to Wisdom. Faith replaces personified wisdom as the architect of salvation. Hebrews begins with the sacrifice of Abel and concludes by mentioning Samuel and the prophets to show how they had all been protected and saved by faith.
The Justice of God Revealed in the Exodus
The praise of wisdom’s role in the history of the ancestors leads to the reflection of the foundational saving event for Israel: the exodus. The events of the exodus, ranging from the plagues of Egypt to God’s providence for the Israelites in the desert, are presented as signs of God’s wisdom and commitment to justice. As different as this final section of the book appears on the surface from the first two parts, the inner cohesion is nonetheless striking as well. This is the most "Israelite" section of the book, focusing as it does on the foundational event of Israel’s consciousness. In it the author integrates God’s commitment to justice, from the first section of the book, and the wisdom of God working through creation to bring union between humans and God, from the second part of the book. In the first two parts, the dramatic personae are individuals: the just one who suffers unjustly and Solomon, the seeker of wisdom. This initial focus on individuals allows the author to generalize and to philosophize on the nature of justice, life, death, wisdom, and God. In the third part, the forum for the conflict between justice and injustice is the collective unity of Israel. In God’s action on behalf of the righteous in the exodus, the author draws out the confirmation of the principle of justice from the first part of the book and the sagacity of God’s interventions from the second part of the book.
Given the author’s tendency to organize literary units in dense forms, it is not surprising to see the further use of intricate concentric structures (chaps. 13–15). However, the major organizing device of the entire section is comparison and contrast, which is similar to the diptychs of the first part of the book. The various means of punishment of people who resist Israel’s liberation are set in relief to the ways God intervenes on behalf of the just. The similarity to the diptychs that compare the just and the wicked in the first part of the book is noticeable.
This form of writing shows remarkable similarities to the literary genre syncrisis, which involves a comparison and contrast of antitheses. In the classical forms of syncrisis, there are only two elements that are both compared and contrasted. The Wisdom author has adapted this Greek literary device to include a third party-namely, God, who intervenes in the case of the Egyptians and on behalf of the Israelites.
Since the basis for the author’s comparisons and contrast is the story of the exodus as presented in the Torah, the form of writing is midrashic. A midrash is an interpretation of a text that follows the contents and events of the narrative or poetic text explicitly or implicitly. In the book of Wisdom, the author follows carefully, though at times loosely, the events as related in the text of Exodus and interprets them as signs of God’s justice. The author has made use of the older Scripture in both previous parts of the book (part one relies on Isaiah 42–60; part 2, 1 Kings 3). However, these biblical references in the first half functioned more as allusions to authoritative figures than as the organizing basis for interpretation. Here, in the third part, the references to selected events of the exodus are sustained throughout the entire section.
Exegetes have noticed two organizing features for the author’s interpretation of the plagues associated with the exodus (see Fig. 1, 446). One is a system of antitheses that compare and contrast the Egyptian punishments with Israel’s blessings. This system follows a moral principle enunciated in 11:5, 13: The very means that God uses to punish the Egyptians are used to save the Israelites. Thus seven plagues are chosen for these diptychs; notice how these plagues compare loosely with the ten plagues and the final destruction of the army in Exodus.
The other system consists of five diptychs that draw a parallel between Egypt’s sins and the ensuing punishments of the plagues. This system follows the moral principle enunciated in 11:16: God punishes the Egyptians according to the very manner in which they sin. This principle is consistent with that of the first part of the book, where the author declares that the wicked are punished according to their false reasoning (3:10–13).
The contrasts within the first four diptychs are introduced by the adverb "instead" (ἀντί anti; 11:6; 16:2; 16:20; 18:3). The last diptych is more complex. Instead of there being a single punishment for one sin, there is a sin with two punishments. The sin of killing the Israelite infants elicits both the death of the Egyptian firstborn and the drowning in the sea of the Egyptian army. Both the first and the last diptychs concentrate on the identical sin of the Egyptians, the killing of the Israelite newborn.
The comparison and contrast within the diptychs afford the author the opportunity to reflect on and interpret the significance of the enemy’s sins, the blessings for Israel, and God’s actions. These reflections have been coined "digressions" whenever they are sustained for a longer period. Two major digressions occur within the second diptych, which treats the worship of animals. The first major digression deals with God’s grace and moderation (11:17–12:27). The second concentrates on the origins of false worship (chaps. 13–15). From within the five-diptych system, three other minor digressions can be noted: the digression on God’s power over life and death, derived from the episode of the brazen serpent (16:5–14); a digression on the death experienced also by the righteous, which Aaron stops (18:20–25); and a concluding digression on creation (19:6–21).
One of the reasons why a number of exegetes earlier had posited different authors for the three sections of the book is the absence of personified wisdom in the midrash on the exodus. Indeed, on the surface this absence appears rather striking. Wisdom is the protagonist in the sweeping review of the history of illustrious figures from the book of Genesis until Moses (10:1–11:1). Afterward (11:2–19:22), God alone is the protagonist who acts in favor of the righteous and in opposition to the enemies of the righteous. Moses and Aaron function as mediators, but it is always God who is presented as the actor who inspires even the mediators to act. Wisdom is mentioned only twice in the third part of the book in the reflection on the origin of idolatry (14:2, 5).
There remains the convenient explanation that the Wisdom author may very well have written the various sections of the book at different intervals. This distance in time, then, might account for the different focus in images and themes within a style of writing that bears striking consistency of vocabulary. However, there is a theological consistency in the relative silence on wisdom in the third part that should not be overlooked. For the author, personified wisdom is not a separate entity from the divine sphere. Wisdom is the particular outreach of God to humans in the cosmos. The purpose of wisdom for humans is to guide them to God. Wisdom is described as making people friends of God (7:27). Therefore, for the author to focus on God as the protagonist in the events of the exodus shows the transparency of personified wisdom. Wisdom recedes into the background, but it permeates the exodus events because of wisdom’s subdued role in the first two sections of the book. Philo likewise would alternate between speaking of personified wisdom or the Divine Mind as the outreach of God in the world and the personal God who acts immediately in the affairs of human history.
One of the unifying features throughout the diptychs on the plagues that relates the third part to the first is God’s justice and judgment. The author’s interpretation of the exodus event applies the principle of justice from the first part of the book to the foundational experience of Israel. God intervenes in Israel’s history to restore justice. Justice implies the restoration of life to the Israelites and the thwarting of the resistance to liberation in the case of the Egyptians. The Israelites are constantly named the righteous, whereas the Egyptians are often called the enemies. The polarity between the righteous and the enemies in the exodus interpretation parallels the polarity between the wicked/godless and the righteous in the first part.
In fact, there is a deliberate correlation between God’s ultimate judgment in the first part of Wisdom and the judgment of God against the enemies of the righteous and in behalf of Israel in the third part. In both cases, the cosmos acts in unison with God’s activity of justice. God makes use of the cosmos to bless and to punish. The author had posited an ultimate judgment that would reveal the true nature of the blessedness of the just and the empty hope of the wicked. The basis for positing such an ultimate judgment lies in Israel’s own history. Since God has acted to restore life and to thwart resistance to life in Israel’s history, then there is hope that this is the guiding principle of God’s justice in the present time and in the future.
Another theological consistency in the author’s unique interpretation of the exodus event and in the first two parts of Wisdom centers on the role of the cosmos in sustaining the creative activity of God. Salvation and creation become fused into a continuum of God’s activity. The unique saving event of Israel, the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, is portrayed as a new creation (19:9–22). God used the cosmos to thwart the resistance of the lawless in the apocalyptic judgment of the first part of the book. In the second part of the book, it is because of wisdom’s work in and through the cosmos at the time of creation that allows wisdom to save the righteous throughout history. Through wisdom, God is able to direct the positive force of creation to establish justice continuously. The author derives proof for such divine activity in the reflection on the episodes of the exodus drawn from the Torah.
WISDOM 11:1–5, THE WILDERNESS
11:1. The exposition on the role of personified wisdom in the lives of the righteous leads the author to the contemplation of the activity of God in the events of the exodus. Wisdom is said to be the one who prospers the activities of the righteous through the prophet Moses (v. 1). This verse brings to a conclusion the exposition of wisdom’s role in the lives of the righteous and introduces specifically the events of the exodus from Egypt and the wandering in the desert. The figure of Moses towers over the events of the exodus. The wisdom author, however, attributes the guiding hand of God for the entire people and for their mediators to personified wisdom.
11:2–4. Interestingly, the introduction to the exodus events focuses on the image of the wilderness, which actually follows those events as narrated in Exodus. After the extraordinary deliverance at the Red Sea, the Israelites face the antagonism of the desert. The wilderness refers to a space that is hostile to life and to a time that is volatile and unsure. It is described as being uninhabited and untrodden (v. 2). There is a threat to life not only from the natural circumstances of drought in the wilderness, but also from the deliberate hostility of enemies (v. 3). The combination of drought and enemies that the author employs to characterize Israel’s existence in the desert is more than likely a reference to Exodus 17, where the two episodes of thirsting in the desert and of waging war with Amalek are narrated side by side. However, the entire period of Israel’s life in the desert was characterized by thirst and hunger (Exod 15:22–27; 16:1–26; 17:1–7; Num 11:1–14; 11:31–35; 20:1–13) and by threat from enemies (Exod 17:8–16; 21:1–33; Deut 2:1–3:22). The threat to life in the wilderness actually highlights the extraordinary intervention of God for the benefit of the righteous. They call upon God because they are thirsty, and water is given through the flinty rock (v. 4).
11:5. The reflection on the source of water in the wilderness brings the author to one of the two key principles through which the exodus events will be interpreted. The very means of punishment against the Egyptians are the means of salvation for the Israelites. In this case, water was used to punish the enemies of the Israelites both when the Nile was turned to blood and when the Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea. But for the righteous, the gift of water in the wilderness brings the quenching of thirst and survival.
The use of identical means of blessing and punishment is rare in biblical literature. In Sirach we find a similar idea, although it is formulated differently. In a comparison between the gifts given to the righteous and the punishments given to sinners, the author notes: "All these are good for the godly, but for sinners they turn into evils" (Sir 39:27 NRSV). In a rabbinic source, the same idea is formulated much in the way the Wisdom author understands it: "The Holy One blessed be He heals by the same means whereby He smites."97
The principle implies that God is the Lord of both creation and history. The elements of creation are ambivalent. God can use them to bless and to punish. Creation itself, as noted in the first half of the book, is on the side of justice and the righteous. The events of the exodus, viewed from this perspective, become the author’s clinching proof for the judgment that justice and wisdom bring life.
1. The backdrop of the wilderness experience highlights the gift of life. No matter how much the Israelites may have struggled for survival against the harshness of the environment and against the threat of enemies, their memory records their survival as a gift and as an extraordinary deliverance. The Wisdom author introduces the exodus events by setting them in the context of this wilderness experience. Where the threat to life is extreme, so much more does the awareness of life and its gift become acute. The purpose of the comparisons between the acts of deliverance of the righteous and the acts of punishment of the enemies is to heighten the appreciation of the gift of life.
In the book of Deuteronomy we see how a tradition within Israel had idealized the wilderness experience as Israel’s privileged moment of faith and trust in God (see Deut 8:1–20). Exodus and Numbers record the "grumbling in the desert" and the acts of "faithlessness" even in the leadership of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The authors of Deuteronomy interpret the wilderness experience after the great acts of rebellion as the in-between time of learning trust and faith in God (Deuteronomy 1–3). The Wisdom author shares this perspective on the wilderness experience. To reflect on the difficulties and tragedies in life is not a morbid or depressing exercise. What is extracted from the memories of the threat to existence is the energy and the gift of life.
2. The principle enunciated by the author reinforces the positive function of the energies of the cosmos. Through the very elements in which the Egyptians experienced punishment, the righteous experienced benefit in their need. There is an inherent parallel between the apocalyptic judgment presented in the first part of the book and the continuous judgment exercised throughout the midrash on the exodus and wilderness episodes. Just as all of creation was understood to be armed by God to wage battle against lawlessness (Wis 5:15–23), so too are the elements of the cosmos used to bring punishment to the enemies and life to the righteous.
The ambiguity of the elements of the cosmos, as symbolized by water and fire, elicits a healthy respect for the environment. The forces of the cosmos cannot be possessed through knowledge or manipulation without regard to justice. Because creation is guided continuously by the wisdom of God, the relationship between justice and the forces of the cosmos remains dynamic. In the case of the exodus episodes, the captivity and enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt elicit even from the forces of the cosmos the redressing of injustice.
WISDOM 11:6–14, THE NILE DEFILED WITH BLOOD—ABUNDANT WATERS
The first diptych contrasts the thirst of the Egyptians due to the defilement of the Nile (Exod 7:14–24) with the abundant waters the righteous received in the wilderness (Exod 15:22–27; 17:1–7). The brief introduction to the diptychs prepares for the elaboration on the first plague with the reference to the Israelites’ calling out to God from their thirst (Wis 11:4).
11:6–7. An explanation is given for the specific punishment the Egyptians experience by means of the Nile’s defilement (v. 7). The Nile is defiled in rebuke to Pharaoh’s decree that the newborn males be drowned in the Nile (Exod 1:22). This explanation for the first plague inaugurates the author’s technique of relating the specific plague experienced by Egypt to a correlating sin. For the author, there is an inherent relationship between sin and punishment. This principle will be formally announced in the second diptych: "so that they might learn that one is punished by the very things by which one sins" (v. 16 NRSV). This correlation between sin and punishment was also present in the author’s argumentation in the first part of the book. The wicked, who had reasoned falsely, were said to have experienced punishment according to to their reasoning (3:10). Since they judged mortality to be meaningless and decided to subject the righteous to a shameful death, the wicked finally will experience an ultimate death as punishment.
11:8–10. One difficulty the author faces throughout the contrast between the righteous and their enemies is the experience of suffering on Israel’s part as well as that of Egypt. Whereas in the diptychs of the first part of the book the suffering of the righteous was not the result of their sin, the suffering of the Israelites in the wilderness at times was caused by their own rebellion. In the case of the first plague, the author notes how Israel also experienced thirst. But even here the author contrasts the thirst of the Israelites with that of the Egyptians. Israel’s thirst is meant to be disciplinary. The thirst of the enemies is punitive. The deuteronomic interpretation of Israel’s suffering in the wilderness is harnessed to appreciate the Israelites’ desert trials (Deuteronomy 8). Israel’s suffering is a time for learning God’s faithfulness and power. God tests the righteous as a parent does in warning, but the Lord tests the ungodly as a stern king in judgment (11:10; cf. Deut 8:5). This positive function of God’s testing the righteous is parallel to the author’s explanation of the suffering of the just in the first part (3:4–6). There, too, the righteous were tested by God as gold would be tested in fire. They were found to be worthy and acceptable as an offering to God.
11:11–13. The thirsting of the righteous gives them an appreciation of God’s judgment against Egypt. The anguish of the Egyptians’ punishment by thirst is twofold. In addition to the plague ruining the water supply while the Israelites were present in Egypt, the Egyptians suffer further from the realization that the Israelites receive abundant water in the desert. The author is telescoping the events of the exodus and the wilderness and imagining what the Egyptians would experience by realizing that blessings are bestowed on the righteous. The first principle is elaborated (vv. 5, 13). When the ungodly realize that the righteous are blessed through the very means by which the wicked are punished, their anguish doubly increases.
The turn to direct speech toward God (vv. 7–10) signals the quality of laudatory prayer. The entire midrash on the exodus is enclosed by the author’s direct praise of God (vv. 7–10; 19:22). Throughout the midrash, the author turns to God in praise of the marvelous interventions in Israel’s history.
11:14. The conclusion to the diptych focuses on Moses, on both his tenuous clinging to life at birth and his power as an adult. Moses had narrowly escaped the death sentence decreed by the pharaoh. Now, at the end, the Egyptians are forced to marvel at the events wrought by Moses both in Egypt and in the desert. The formulation of this scene is reminiscent of the scene of judgment in the first part of the book. In the final scene of judgment, the ungodly are amazed at the salvation of the righteous. With anguish they recognize that those whom they had held in derision are numbered among the children of God (5:1–5). Similarly with Moses, the Egyptians marvel at the one they had cast out and exposed to death.
1. The principle whereby one is punished by the very means by which one has sinned presumes an inner coherency between sin and punishment. This idea was introduced in the first part of the book when the author declared that the wicked are punished according to their reasoning (3:10). The author constantly applies this principle throughout the diptychs that deal with the plagues preceding the exodus. The Wisdom author is advocating a psychological truth. Often enough, both blessing and punishment are conceived of as being extraneous to the activities that are being rewarded or penalized. On many levels, this is an adequate representation. But in the case of both faithfulness and sinfulness, there is an internal consistency between acts of faithfulness and acts of sinfulness and their corresponding consequences. The author is stressing this consistency between the sin of injustice and the suffering that the Egyptians experience as a result of their sin. There is an internal reward for faithfulness that, in the long run, even against all appearances, reveals itself through abundance and joy. There is an internal destruction of the source of injustice that, in the long run, despite appearances to the contrary, reveals itself in despair and anguish. The very earth lets the blood of Abel cry out to God for a murder done in secret (Gen 4:10–11). The arguments the author labored to maintain in the first part of the book regarding the blessedness of the righteous and the wretchedness of the unjust are sustained through a reflection on Israel’s salvation history. An act of injustice, as small as it may appear, eventually finds a way of raising its head toward destruction. Even a small act of kindness, as unnoticeable as it may be, carries with it the expression of love.
2. God tests the righteous in order to bring discipline and knowledge to them (11:6–10). The author explains the suffering of the righteous, both deserved and undeserved, as a process of purification and learning. The model is that of a parent who disciplines children for their benefit, a procedure enshrined in the Torah (Deut 8:5). It is always difficult to attribute human suffering to God without making God appear to be a tyrant or a merciless taskmaster. The writer of the book of Job rebels against a rigid application of the laws of retribution to all forms of human suffering. But, at the same time, the God who speaks from the whirlwind does not shy away from praising Behemoth and Leviathan, the symbols of enduring chaos (Job 40:6–41:34). Perhaps the very function of chaos and human limitations within creation is that they constitute a condition for freedom and decision.
For the author of the book of Wisdom, human limitations are not the destroyer of value. Suffering and tragedy do not destroy the soul, but injustice does. On the contrary, the awareness of his limitations propels Solomon to seek God and wisdom. According to the book of Wisdom, the God who tries and tests the righteous is the God who out of love attempts to stir them to knowledge and discipline. The end result is that Solomon’s relationship to God is assured through wisdom—wisdom makes humans friends of God.
WISDOM 11:15–16:14, ANIMALS PUNISH EGYPT, AND QUAILS ARE FED TO THE RIGHTEOUS
The second diptych contrasts the plaguing of Egypt with various animals to the special foods provided the Israelites in the wilderness. Although in itself the contrast is quite brief, the entire diptych is rather lengthy. The image of animals in the plagues elicits the two major digressions or theological reflections of the last part of the book (the reflection on the moderation of God, 11:17–12:27; the reflection on false worship, chaps. 13–15), as well as a minor digression that treats God’s power over creation in the episode of the brazen serpent (16:5–14). The two major digressions are well composed and theologically dense. Therefore, an understanding of their structure will facilitate their interpretation.
The first reflection on the moderation of God toward both the enemies of Israel as well as Israel itself is elicited by the awareness of the progressive infliction of the plagues. God sent various plagues against Egypt. The author reasons that since God could have destroyed Egypt in a single show of might (11:17–21), then God’s reluctance to use the full force of power expresses the moderation and mercy of God (11:26–12:2). Through moderation and mercy, God provides room for human conversion.
The treatment of the moderation and mercy of God is composed in three parts: (1) God’s moderation in dealing with the Egyptians, 11:15–12:2; (2) God’s moderation in dealing with the Canaanites, 12:3–18; and (3) a double lesson for Israel, 12:19–27.
The first two sections, on the moderation of God with the Egyptians and the Canaanites, are parallel in theme and in structure.
By noticing how God treats the weak and the haughty from the examples of the exodus, the wilderness, and the conquest, the righteous are to learn and to appropriate the same compassion and mercy of God.
The second reflection or digression is more directly motivated by the central image of the second diptych. The main contrast of the diptych fluctuates between the animal worship of Egypt and the animals that become a source of food for Israel. Egypt’s sin of animal worship occasions a thoughtful critique of false worship in general. The entire critique progresses in three parts from the least blameworthy form of false worship to the most blameworthy: (1) philosophers incur slight blame, 13:1–9; (2) idol worship is condemned, 13:10–15:13; (3) both the idol worship and the animal worship of Egypt are severely condemned, 15:14–19.
The first critique centers on the various forms of nature worship, from worship of the elements of nature to worship of the heavenly bodies. Only slight blame, but blame nonetheless, is attributed to such persons who come to identify the divine with natural phenomena.
The most extensive part of the critique concentrates on the central section, which deals with idol worship. Here the critique attempts to explain the origins of the worship of idols and the dreadful moral consequences of such worship in life. The critique (13:10–15:13) is arranged concentrically:
In addition to the progressive blame attributed to forms of false worship within the overall structure of the critique (chaps. 13–15), we can notice a progression in the matter of the idols (13:10–15:13). The overall progression moves from the least blameworthy to the most blameworthy. The internal progression moves from precious metals, like gold and silver, to the common, lower-value substance clay.
In the third and final critique of animal worship, the author is at a loss to find a conceivable explanation or source of such worship. Therefore, the most severe condemnation is attributed to animal worship. This return to the image of animals, which occasioned the two reflections on God’s moderation and on false worship, continues the thread of the argument in the second diptych. Animals torment the enemies of Israel, yet animals provide sustenance to the righteous.
Wisdom 11:15–12:27, The Moderation of God
11:15–16. The second diptych contrasts the animals that were sent to punish Egypt with the quails that were sent to feed Israel in the desert (Wis 11:15–16; 16:1–4). Direct speech to God signals the quality of prayer that the reflection is taking for the author (11:15–17). The diptych continues to emphasize the relation between sin and its inherent punishment. In the case of the Egyptians, the worship of animals is perceived to be the cause of plagues of various animals. The author is conflating into a single diptych the several plagues of animals and insects from Exodus (frogs, gnats, flies, pestilence in livestock, locusts).
The author’s explanation that irrational animals were sent to plague Egypt for their sin of animal worship reinforces the inherent relationship between sin and punishment. Again, the author is exerting great effort to explain that punishment is not extrinsic to thought and action, but is implicit in the very structure of sin. Since for the author the worship of animals is irrational, then irrationality seizes the minds of the Egyptians as irrational animals plague the land.
This principle is both similar to and distinct from the longstanding principle of taliation (lex talionis, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"). In the law of talion, the damage to or injury of the claimant is equated with the punishment of the culprit (see Exod 21:23–25; Deut 19:18–21). For the author of Wisdom, the principle of retaliation equates the means of punishment to the sin. The idea of the similarity of the means of punishment to the means of the injury emphasizes the inherent relationship between sin and its consequences. As a clearly enunciated principle, it is an idea that is seen infrequently in ancient texts. Perhaps the closest parallel to the author’s principle can be found in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs: "For by whatever capacity anyone transgresses, by that also is he chastised."
11:17–12:2, Moderation Toward the Egyptians. This brief introduction to the second diptych elicits a reflection on God’s treatment of the Egyptians in the plague episodes. The author focuses on God’s moderation. The progressive harshness of the plagues reveals God’s attempt to teach the Egyptians through the experience of lack and suffering that their injustice brings. To highlight God’s moderation, the author notes that the enemies of Israel could have been destroyed by a single show of force (11:20) and by horrendous and unimaginable animals. Instead, they are tormented by rather insignificant pests.
11:17–20. God’s reign over the universe through creation is one of moderation and balance. The author employs a platonic term to paraphrase God’s creation of the heavens and the earth in Genesis. The image of "formless matter" (11:17) corresponds to the "formless void" of Gen 1:2. This image, which opens the reflection, is parallel to another platonic idea that closes the unit before the contemplation of God’s mercy. As if to summarize the moderation of God’s reign, the author in 11:20 harnesses the popular platonic triad of "measure, number and weight." These references to elements of physics were employed by many classical writers to denote the harmony and balance of the universe. In Scripture, similar terms were used to indicate the harmony and balance of God’s creation (weight, measure, decree, way, Job 28:25–26; measured, weighed, Isa 40:12).
11:21–12:2. The contemplation of God’s moderation combines the two poles of God’s power and mercy. God is powerful yet merciful. The two poetic images that contrast the smallness of the world with the majesty of God are reminiscent of Solomon’s description of his own transience (7:1–6). Just as Solomon’s reflection on his insignificant stature propelled him to seek God and wisdom, so too the author’s reflection on the smallness of the universe elicits the contemplation of God’s mercy and compassion. The world is compared to a speck that tips the scales and to a drop of morning dew. Both images point out the smallness and insignificance of the universe in comparison to the majesty of God. Similar images are used in Isaiah to illustrate the smallness of the nations ("a drop from a bucket, dust on the scales" [Isa 40:15 NRSV]).
The power and majesty of God highlight the Lord’s compassion and mercy (11:23). The purpose of the moderation of God is to give space for conversion and repentance. The author recalls the relationship between God and the universe, enunciated in the beginning of the book. God loves all that exists and does not detest anything that has been created (11:24–26; cf. 1:14). The earlier reflection on the irrationality of animals has probably elicited this reaffirmation of the positive qualities of creation. It is not the animals that are detested by the author, even if their appearance may be repulsive (15:18–19); rather, the author abhors the falsity of animal worship.
The passage 11:21–12:2 is stamped through and through with the value of universalism, which characterizes sapiential literature in general. God is merciful to all, loves all things that exist, and spares all things. The universal goodness of God is affirmed within the polemic against Israel’s opponents. The power and mercy of God extend to all of creation. This is quite remarkable for a work that clearly is marked with polemics against the injustice suffered by the Jewish community in the diaspora.
God’s mercy is expressed in moderation. As harsh as the polemic appears in the midrashic treatment of the narrative of the plagues in Exodus, the author of Wisdom interprets the punishments within the context of God’s compassion and moderation. The unit closes with the purpose of God’s moderation in the administration of punishment. Punishments are meant to elicit conversion. Those who sin are reminded of their sin precisely in order that they may be freed from sin (12:2).
12:3–18, Moderation Toward the Canaanites. The same principle of moderation is applied to God’s treatment of the Canaanites. Here the author is interpreting the events of the conquest and the infiltration of the promised land as predicted in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The idea of God’s punishing the Canaanites for their sins gradually and in stages, sending "wasps" as forerunners, is an interpretation of Exod 23:20–33. The description of the various forms of the sins of the Canaanites that result in their losing the land in favor of the Israelites is an interpretation of Deut 18:9–14 (cf. Deut 9:5). Their sins include child sacrifice, divination, and sorcery (cf. Wis 12:3–6). Although the author is evidently making reference to human sacrifices in the cult of Moloch, as described in the biblical texts (Lev 18:21; Deut 12:31; Jer 32:35), it is also true that human sacrifice extended well into the Roman period, at least among some groups, even in Egypt.
The author’s purpose in recalling the destruction of the pre-Israelite dwellers of the land is to highlight the moderation and mercy of God. As with the Egyptians, God could have destroyed them in one blow (v. 9). Instead, they were judged little by little, precisely to give them an opportunity to repent (v. 10). The author appeals to the very same image of wasps or hornets being sent out before the invading Israelites to weaken the enemies of Israel as related in Exod 23:28 (cf. Deut 7:20; Josh 24:12). The Hebrew word for "hornets" or "wasps" is unclear, and it could very well refer to disease or pestilence, as the root meaning would suggest. The LXX translates the Hebrew by the Greek wordσφήξ (sphēx), which means "wasps" or "hornets." Interestingly, a difference in the comparison between the Egyptians and the Canaanites is that the suppression of the means of punishment is equal to the means of their sin. The author is content to stress that the reason for the Canaanites’ loss of the land is their sin. Perhaps the author could not think of an immediate correlation between the forms of sin and the punishment of the loss of land.
The reflection on the plight of the first dwellers of the land serves to underscore the sovereignty of God (vv. 12–18). God cannot be accused of acting unjustly, since no one is condemned without recognition of his or her sin (v. 15). But precisely because God is sovereign over creation and history, God acts with care, mildness, and forbearance. God’s motive for such moderation is love for all people. The universal aspect of God’s love for what exists (11:24–26) is reiterated in the reflection on the treatment of the Canaanites (vv. 15–18).
Just as the reflection on the destruction of Egypt elicited the author’s praise of God’s power and mercy, so too the reflection on the destruction of the Canaanites elicits the praise of God’s sovereignty and compassion (vv. 12–18). The two sections stand parallel, 11:21–12:2 = 12:12–18. In both cases, the reflection on God’s treatment of Israel’s enemies leads to the perception of God’s universal love and moderation.
12:19–27, A Double Lesson for Israel. 12:19–22. What the righteous are to learn from the meditation on the plight of the unrighteous is summarized succinctly in v. 22. They are to learn to be compassionate and moderate, and they are to trust in the mercy of God. The double lesson touches upon their relationship to God and their relationship to enemies. The points in the argument the author has constructed regarding the treatment of the unrighteous are now applied to the righteous as well. The main issue the author holds up for consideration is the moderation of God (vv. 19–21). God provides repentance for sinners and gives time and space for the unrighteous to turn from their injustice.
12:23–27. The concluding section of the first reflection on the moderation of God returns to the punishment of the Egyptians. In its context, this unit returns to the theme of the opening section of the digression and prepares for the second digression on false worship. In itself, it continues the theme of the second diptych—namely, the animals that torment Egypt are understood as a punishment in accord with the sin of animal worship. This section could very well have been a part of the second diptych before the two major theological reflections were inserted into the text (11:15–16; 12:23–27; 16:1–14).
The language applied to the Egyptians is reminiscent of the language applied to the wicked in the scene of judgment in the first part of Wisdom. Just as the wicked recognized that they had strayed from the way of truth and had taken their fill of the paths of lawlessness (5:6–7), so too are the Egyptians described as straying onto the paths of error (12:24). Just as the wicked reproached themselves for their folly (5:4), so too are the Egyptians accused of living unjustly in a life of folly (v. 23). Just as the wicked recognized the blessed end of the just (5:5), so too do the Egyptians finally recognize the true God, whom they hitherto refused to acknowledge (v. 27). The final verse, which introduces the idea of recognizing the true God, allows the argument of the author to pass smoothly onto the next major digression on false worship.
1. There is an ethical difficulty in reflecting on the fall of one’s enemy. How does one reflect on the demise of anyone, even one’s enemies or opponents, without gloating over their fall in such a manner as to take on their very attributes and values? The oppressed only too easily become the oppressor, the victim the victimizer. How does one face injustice without falling into the pitfalls of destructive anger and revenge? The difficulties inherent in this reflection are similar to those found in the psalms of complaint, in which the just lament over the power of the enemies and plead with God for salvation and vindication (e.g. Psalms 5; 10; 17; 35; 58; 59). Only a fine line, indeed, separates the righteous anger of the oppressed from destructive thoughts and desires for revenge. Throughout the latter part of Wisdom, the author reflects on the demise of Israel’s enemies. But instead of this reflection building up a sense of arrogance and self-righteousness over their demise, it leads to an appreciation of God’s sovereignty and mercy. The reflection on the power and tolerance of God provides a necessary context for pondering the power and folly of the unjust.
It should be borne in mind that the polemical character of the latter part of Wisdom reflects the situation of a Jewish community under siege in the diaspora. Although at times Jewish communities achieved great autonomy and flourished in the fields of philosophy, art, and commerce, especially in Alexandria, they often fell prey to the jealousy of local centers of power. The careful reflection the author is offering over the demise of the unjust powerful is not meant to foster gloating over the fall of one’s enemies. Rather, the examples of an unjust and unfair use of power from Israel’s history are brought to the fore in order to bolster commitment to and trust in justice. The example of the exodus is set forth by the author as historical proof for the vindication of justice over the appearance of the power and might of injustice. What had been argued in the first part of Wisdom regarding the folly of injustice and the strength of virtue is now bolstered by examples from Israel’s history. Injustice does lead to death. Justice does lead to life. The exodus is the author’s supreme example that constitutes Israel’s hope in virtue and justice for the present and the future.
2. Ironically, perhaps, the examples of the demise of Egyptian and Canaanite power are used to foster compassion and mercy. The focus is not so much on the fall of Egypt and Canaan as it is on God’s treatment of the just and the unjust. Using the example of the punishment of the wicked, the author continuously asserts the inner dynamic of the self-destruction of injustice. The unjust are punished by the very means by which they sin. From the example of God’s treatment of those who wield power unjustly, the author derives the tolerance and mercy of God. Like Ezekiel, the author interprets the activity of God toward sinners as a call to conversion: "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?" (Ezek 18:23 NRSV; cf. 33:11–16).
3. The moderation of God toward Egypt and Canaan teaches the Israelites to be tolerant. Israel is to be compassionate and kind because that is God’s approach, even to Israel’s enemies. The author’s reflection on the universal love of God instills an ethical imperative toward one’s opponents. The author may very well have had in mind the extraordinary extension of God’s blessing to Israel’s traditional enemies, Egypt and Assyria, as narrated in Isa 19:18–25, "Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage" (NRSV). This openness to opponents, or at least to the stranger in one’s midst, is also consistent with the deuteronomic call to be kind to the sojourner in the midst of Israel because the Israelites were sojourners in the land of Egypt (Deut 10:18–19; 23:7; 24:21).
The way one treats one’s opponents in life reveals a great deal about one’s appropriation of the virtue of justice. The tolerance and moderation proposed by God’s treatment of Egypt and Canaan is similar to the tolerance proclaimed by Christ. Tolerance is not a sign of weakness, but of strength and compassion. In the parable of weeds among the wheat, there is the concern of uprooting the wheat along with the weeds, the good along with the bad (Matt 13:24–30). Although the parable is more directly concerned with the final judgment, which separates the weeds from the wheat, it also gives space to the coexistence of good and evil. In this in-between time, the wicked subsist along with the good and are not to be eliminated but tolerated. The Wisdom author’s explanation for God’s tolerance is the desire for conversion, as is the case with Ezekiel (Ezek 18:23). The parable’s explanation for tolerance is the protection of the good. Both, of course, recognize the final judgment as a time of reckoning.
The theme that true power is sublimely expressed through love or mercy has been cast into the cinematic form. In Schindler’s List, the ruthless commanding officer at Plaszow boasts to Oscar Schindler that power is control. Schindler, the business tycoon who feels compelled to save the Jews who had worked for him, responds with a story. He relates how a common thief who was unmistakably guilty was given the death sentence. But the emperor, who had every right and all the power to confirm the sentence, for no apparent gain acquitted the thief out of mercy toward him. "Now that is power," ruminates Schindler to the officer.
Wisdom 13:1–15:19, Critique of Pagan Cults
The principle of the means of punishment being equal to the form of sin generates a second major theological reflection in the second diptych: a critique of pagan cults. Egypt is punished by animals for the sin of worshiping animals. The theme of Egypt’s animal cult elicits the critique of pagan cults in general. The critique is carefully balanced into three parts, the largest of which deals with idolatry in the very center. There is a qualitative progression from the least blameworthy (the foolish, who cannot recognize God, 13:1), to the more blameworthy (the miserable, who put their hope in dead idols, 13:10), finally to the most blameworthy (the most foolish, who go further and, in addition to dead idols, worship the most hateful animals, 15:14). The Letter of Aristeas (134–141) from the second century bce (c. 150–100) also contrasts two forms of worship—namely, idol worship, attributed to the Greeks, and animal worship, attributed to the Egyptians.
The division of various forms of cultic worship into two or three types is also well-known within Hellenistic/Jewish writings contemporaneous to the book of Wisdom. Philo makes a distinction between the worship of natural elements or celestial bodies and the worship of idols or animals. The Stoics made a threefold distinction in forms of worship: the mythical type, the philosophical type, and the legislative type.
Wisdom 13:1–9, Nature Worship
The author’s main argument against nature worship rests on the failure to recognize God, the creator, in the beauty of creation. The prime metaphor used throughout the argument is the image of the artist and the artifact. One may recognize the artist in the quality of the work of art (vv. 1, 5). This critique is done with a great deal of sympathy for the natural desire to search for God in the forces of creation (vv. 6–7). Since creation itself is the work of God, the author acknowledges the naturalness of recognizing the beauty of creation inherent in the various forms of nature worship. The fault in nature worship is the failure to recognize the creator behind the works of creation. In contrast to this failure, the believer moves easily from the contemplation of the beauty of nature to the personal God who is the creator (v. 9; cf. Psalm 8).
The relationship between the artist and the artifact was a frequent metaphor in Greek philosophical circles: "Assuredly from the very structure of all made objects we are accustomed to prove that the work is certainly the product of some artificer and has not been constructed at random." Similarly, as a work of art, the universe was the workplace of the divine artist for Stoic philosophers.105
God is explicitly called the artisan (τεχνίτης technitēs, v. 1), the same term the author had used earlier for personified wisdom (7:22; 8:6). Wisdom will be called the artisan who builds the vessels in which people put their trust on the raging waters of the sea (14:2). The term used for God as artisan in the first half of the unit is parallel to "Creator" (v. 5), "God" (v. 6), and "the Lord" (v. 9) in the second half. Otherwise, God is never referred to as artisan in Scripture. Applying the term "artisan" to God is another sign of the author’s deliberate joining together of the role of wisdom in human affairs to that of God in the exodus in the final part of the book of Wisdom.
The two general forms of nature worship that are singled out are those of the natural forces (fire, wind, air, water) and that of celestial bodies (circle of the stars and luminaries of heaven, v. 2). The author is combining the traditional biblical critique of luminary cults (cf. Deut 17:3; Job 31:26–28; Jer 8:2; 19:13; Ezek 8:16) to the particular critique of the deification of natural forces, associated loosely with Stoic tenets. In particular, the author of Wisdom pays attention to the polyvalent understanding of the pneuma in Stoic writings. In Stoic philosophy, the pneuma is the unifying principle of the universe. For the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus, pneuma consists of fire and air, which on occasion appear to be deified. All three elements that focus on the concept of pneuma in Stoic philosophy—fire, wind, and air-are represented in v. 2.
The fundamental argument of the author is that if people are swayed by the beauty of the created universe, so much more should they come to appreciate the creator who stands behind it (vv. 3–9). The search for the divine reality in the universe among peoples who worship natural phenomena, therefore, receives the author’s sympathy and approbation (vv. 6–7). Philo likewise apportions less blame to those who magnify the subject above the ruler in nature worship than to those who worship dead idols. What is lacking in the many forms of nature worship is the further step of recognizing the personal creator God behind the beauty of the universe (13:8–9).
1. The reason for the author’s reticent and limited critique against adherents of nature cults resides in their implicit desire to seek God in creation. Behind this reticence we can recognize the author’s admiration for some of the noble features of Greek philosophy and religious tenets: the relentless search for truth, the desire to understand human society and the universe, and the respect for principles and laws in nature. While the author does not exculpate them for their failure to take the final step and recognize the creator of the universe, there is strong recognition of the inherent goodness and appropriateness of groups who genuinely seek God and meaning in life (13:7).
The author recognizes a certain affinity to biblical faith in the search for God manifested among the Greeks. This restrained attitude on the part of the author, even within criticism, can serve as a good reminder of the fact that faith in an ultimate being is based on a search for meaning and desire. Faith involves a journey, a search, and a willingness to find God. The author lauds the desire to search for God in creation, but criticizes the failure of adherents of nature cults for being satisfied with the gifts of the giver and not reaching the beauty of the creator.
2. The author’s metaphor of the artisan, in which the artist is recognized in an admired artifact, is a powerful analogy for the process of recognizing the creator behind the beauty of the universe. God is understood inherently as the artist who has fashioned a great work of art in the universe. Aesthetics and faith have been allies for a long time. Take the covenant with Abram. To assure Abram that the promise of progeny would be fulfilled, God called Abram to contemplate the heavens and the stars, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them" (Gen 15:5 NRSV). Even more to the point is the contemplation of God’s love for humanity through a reflection on the beauty of the heavens: "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?" (Ps 8:3–4 NRSV). Even in the NT, which is more prone to advancing the "cross of Christ" as the privileged moment of encounter between humans and God, the contemplation of the beauty of nature elicits wonder in God’s care for humanity:
"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." (Matt 6:28–29 NRSV)
It was quite fashionable until recently, perhaps, for many scientists and artists to declare their agnosticism (if not direct hostility) with respect to belief in an ultimate being guiding the universe. Yet, many scientists who face the beauty and intricacy of the universe every day in their routine experimentation, from analyzing the constellations of the stars to the mapping of the genetic code, are led to a mystery behind the universe that cannot be denied. The sheer majesty of the universe continues to evoke questions of faith and ultimate meaning.
3. Perhaps the closest parallel in our own time to the author’s ambivalent critique of nature cults is the Christian response to secular humanism. Although many of the values promoted by secular humanism are based on Judeo-Christian values—such as the dignity of the person, the right to education and health, and social justice—there remains a fundamental antagonism between the two approaches on the issue of belief and commitment to a personal divine being. Extremists on both sides have argued that the respective approaches of each side belittle humanity. On the one hand, for some secular humanists, positing a divine being unnecessarily reduces human beings to the category of servants or slaves. On the other hand, Christian critics have argued that if the authority of a divine being is not acknowledged, human beings are easily discounted and subjected to the whims of the majority and the powerful.
The author of Wisdom is not willing to compromise the values that the nature cults and Israelite faith have in common—namely, respect and admiration for the universe. At the same time, the critique is a challenge to anyone who may be tempted to remain within the sphere of the natural and, in the author’s words, "fail to find sooner the Lord of these things" (13:9). Similarly, in the debate between secular humanism and the Judeo-Christian tradition, the antagonisms should not blind us to the values shared in common. The mysterious and beautiful voice of creation should be allowed to speak of the artist behind the great works.
Wisdom 13:10–15:13, Origin and Consequences of Idolatry
WISDOM 13:10–19, THE CARPENTER AND IDOLS
The more serious nature of idol worship is signaled at the outset of the critique. Miserable are those who worship "dead things" (v. 10). This critique against idol worship continues a long tradition in the biblical writings. The making of idols counters the supreme prohibition against creating a graven image of God (Deut 5:8, "You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" [NRSV]; cf. Lev 26:1). The author’s ridicule of the making and worshiping of idols is formulated in a manner similar to that found in several other scriptural passages (e.g., Pss 97:7; 115:3–8; 135:15–18; Isa 2:8–20; 40:18–20; 44:9–20; 45:16–20; 46:5–7; Jer 10:1–16; Hab 2:18; Bar 6:8–73).
What is emphasized throughout the author’s sustained critique is the origin behind the practice of making and worshiping idols. Just as the author attempted to portray the process whereby humans came to deify the elements of the universe, so too is there an attempt to understand the process whereby idol worship came into practice.
The language applied to the creators of idols is reminiscent of the language applied to the wicked in the first part of Wisdom. The points of contact focus on the origin of idol worship, the moral depravity associated with idol worship, the deserved punishment for idol worshipers, and the judgment against both idol makers and the idols.
The author is deliberately drawing parallels between the perpetrators of injustice in the first part and the idol makers and worshipers in the second part. For instance, death was said to have entered the world through the adversary’s envy (2:24). Here it is said that idols have entered the world through human vanity (14:14). The wicked’s project in life was described through images of moral corruption and injustice (2:6–20). Even more so are the consequences of idol worship presented through images of moral depravity and licentiousness (14:22–29). The wicked were described as being fit to belong to the company of death (1:16). The idol worshipers are said to be fit for the dead objects they worship (15:6). The day of reckoning for the wicked was presented vividly, where the righteous were rewarded with royal dignity, whereas wickedness was utterly demolished through a cosmic upheaval (4:18–5:14). Similarly in the critique against idolatry, a day of divine reckoning is assured for both idol makers and their idols (14:8–11).
The pejorative language used to speak of the cult of idols is highlighted at the outset with the emphasis on the lifeless quality of idols. At least in nature worship the human mind is taken up with the beauty of God’s creation. In idol worship, the human mind is mesmerized by the lifeless works of human hands, works of gold, silver, stone, and wood (vv. 10–11). The progression from quality metals to less valuable materials used in fashioning idols accentuates the author’s criticism. Idol worship represents for the author a movement of degradation. To worship idols made of precious metals like gold and silver or made of valuable stone is deplorable, but to worship items made of useless bits of wood and of odd pieces of clay reveals the moral vacuity of such worship.
The focus of the critique rests on the carpenter who from the less valuable commodity of wood makes all sorts of useful utensils with artistry. The ridicule is based on the distance between the useful tools made from wood for daily needs and the "cast-off" pieces of wood chosen for idols. Not being useful for anything practical, such crooked and knotted blocks of wood are then carefully shaped into human or animal form, their blemishes are covered with paint, and they are set in a niche in the wall.
The author highlights the helplessness and lifelessness of the idol, which sets up the irony of praying for human values and needs to a lifeless thing. The idol cannot walk or stand by itself and must be fastened in the niche. To such a helpless image the idol worshiper entrusts things of great value: marriage and children, health, life, a safe journey, a prosperous business transaction (vv. 16–19). The final statement clinches the essential argument: Idol worshipers ask for strength from something whose hands have no strength at all.
The author is adapting at least two biblical arguments against idols into a unified argument: the process of making the idol and the lifeless qualities of the idol. In Isa 44:9–20 is a critique of ironsmiths and carpenters who make practical objects from the same substance from which they make idols. The prophet concentrates on the same process used in the book of Wisdom whereby a carpenter fashions both practical utensils and lifeless idols from the same block of wood (see also Isa 40:18–20; Jer 10:3–5). Psalm 115:3–8 is a poetic analysis of the lifelessness of idols made of silver and gold. They have a mouth that cannot speak, eyes that cannot see, ears that cannot hear, a nose that cannot smell, hands that cannot grasp, and feet that cannot walk (see also Deut 4:27–28; Ps 135:15–18; Bar 6:8–16, 53–59). These idols need to be fixed into a niche and fastened so that they will not topple over (vv. 15–16; cf. Isa 40:18–20).
The author of Wisdom highlights, in a similar manner, the lifeless qualities of the statue. At this point, however, instead of using the metaphor of the bodily senses (as will be done in 15:15), the author juxtaposes the prayers for human needs against the lack of human vitality in idols. The prayer for possessions, marriage, and children is juxtaposed to the lifelessness of an idol; praying for health is juxtaposed to the weakness of an idol; praying for life to the "deadness" of an idol; praying for help in life to the utter inexperience of idols; praying for a prosperous journey to an idol that cannot move; praying for success in business and work to an image whose hands have no strength (vv. 17–19).
It should be pointed out that in Greek and Hellenistic circles there was both a critique of the naiveté of idol worship and a defense for a more sophisticated view of an idol’s function in prayer. The author’s critique presumed a parody of idol worship. The lifeless quality of images and statues of worship was a subject of scorn for Heraclitus and Timaeus of Tauromenium. But Plato defended the use of idols to remind humans of the living gods. The idol is to the living god what the shadow is to the object in Plato’s allegory of the shadows in the cave: "The ancient laws of all men concerning the gods are two-fold: some of the gods whom we honor we see clearly, but of others we set up statues as images, and we believe that when we worship these, lifeless though they be, the living gods beyond feel great good-will towards us and gratitude."109
In terms of the author’s overall argument, it should be noted that the image of wood continues to be used in the next part of the critique (14:1–10), when the fearful sailor prays to a wooden idol for protection aboard the wooden vessel. The theme of the carpenter who fashions idols is matched at the outer level of the concentric structure with the theme of the potter who gives shape to statues from clay (15:7–13).
The author gives a name to a disorder that stifles human growth: idolatry. This disorder, which can be described in so many different ways, essentially seeks life where in fact there is no life. Appropriately, at the beginning of the critique the idol is described as "dead" (13:10). At the end of the critique what is highlighted is the discrepancy between the worshiper’s attempt to secure values of life through idols and the "lifeless" quality of the idols themselves (13:17–19). Idolatry rests on a false hope, much as the wicked’s reckless purposes and projects in life in the earlier chapters of the work rest on their false understanding of power and might (2:1–24).
With respect to the idol worshiper, the idol is described as the work of "human hands" (13:10). Herein lies the author’s essential criticism of idolatry. It involves a lifeless absorption with the "self." Those who worship an idol made of human hands are locked into a preoccupation with the self that stifles transcendence. In the author’s argument, there is in nature worship at least the minimal amount of transcendence involved because of its appreciation of the beautiful works of creation. But in the worship of idols made by human hands, the focus of the worshiper is drawn more and more toward the self.
Although it would be rather difficult to find idol worshipers in the strict sense in our contemporary societies and cultures, the essential function of idol worship still abounds. The idols of our own time may not be ones fashioned into images of gold, silver, or wood. There are the idols of consumerism with their many faces through which an entire generation has been trained to focus on the self. The resulting alienation and purposelessness that arise from not living out one’s life for another are as lifeless as the helpless idols the author of Wisdom holds up for ridicule.
WISDOM 14:1–10, THE NAVIGATOR AND IDOLS
The critique of worshiping a wooden idol focuses on the contrast between entrusting one’s survival on the sea to a piece of wood and calling upon an idol made of wood that is more fragile than the ship itself. Entrusting one’s life to the forces of creation and to one’s knowledge of them is rooted in the goodness of creation. The artistry involved in the fashioning of the ship is praised as the work of wisdom, the artisan (v. 2). It is God’s providence that steers the the ship through the laws governing the winds and the currents.
As an example of genuine human trust in the forces of creation, the author presents the ark of Noah, which provided a saving benefit to all humanity (vv. 3–7). Trust in this piece of wood was rooted in God’s providence. God supplements the natural disposition of human intelligence with a providence that brings to completion the desired goal of safety (v. 5). By highlighting the wood in the ark as a means of rescue, the author is drawing a distinction between the goodness of the materials of creation and the corruption of misusing those materials to make idols. God is being praised for the gift of wood that sustains human beings in precarious moments on the sea. The reflection takes on the quality of thankful praise to God for the wonders of creation and for God’s providential care in and through creation.
The praise to God ends in a statement of beatitude reminiscent of the declaration of blessedness for the virtuous sterile woman and the eunuch (3:13–14, different Greek words for "blessedness" are used in each passage). The very wood by which the righteousness of Noah brought salvation to humanity is proclaimed blessed.
It is quite understandable how the early church, which on occasion favored an allegorical interpretation of Scripture as exemplified in Origen of Alexandria, recognized in this statement a reference to the blessedness of the cross of Christ. Ambrose comments on Wis 14:7–8 by juxtaposing the matter that is considered blessed with matter that is considered accursed. He explains the reference to wood as representing the cross of Christ and the reference to the work of human hands as representing wooden idols.
The NT employed the same Greek word to designate "cross" that can be translated as "wood" in general or even "tree" (ξύλον xylon; Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal 3:13; 1 Pet 2:24). The tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are represented by the same Greek word in the creation text (Gen 2:9). The book of Revelation also employs the same word for references to the tree of life (Rev 2:7; 22:2; 22:14, 19). The Wisdom author had already employed the same word in an evident reference to the ark of Noah ("wisdom again saved it, steering the righteous man by a paltry piece of wood" [Wis 10:4 NRSV]). Since there was an evident interpolation to the cross in Ps 96:10 LXX, "The Lord reigns from the wood," which the oldest Greek mss (B, S, and A) had already expunged, it was thought that perhaps the text of Wis 14:7 was also a Christian insert. The Muratori Canon (c. 180–190 ce) includes the Wisdom of Solomon in its list of NT writings, and this could very well have been the verse that caused the compiler to include it on the oldest list of NT writings that we have. However, as reflecting a reference to the ark of Noah, the verse fits well into the argument of the author, which lauds the matter through which human beings come to salvation and to justice. The author’s firm assertion of the health and beauty of creation perhaps elicited this emphasis on the integrity of matter itself to distinguish the matter of wood from the idols made of wood that are accursed (vv. 8–11).
The turn to direct speech (vv. 3–7), which is found throughout the midrashic treatment of the exodus, points to the contemplative nature of the reflection. God is invoked directly as Father (v. 3). Although the image of father is used for God throughout Scripture, the address to God as Father in direct prayer is very late. God is described through various images as a father (as father of orphans, Ps 68:5; as a father who has compassion or provides discipline, Ps 103:13; Prov 3:12; cf. Deut 8:5). At times God wishes that Israel would call upon the Lord as a father (Jer 3:4; 3:19; 31:9; Mal 1:6; 2:10).
There are occurrences of God’s being addressed directly as a father in the texts representing the Davidic covenant (Ps 89:26), whereby the king is understood to be the adopted son of God (2 Sam 7:14). The closest parallels to the Wisdom text to God’s being called father in direct speech is in Isa 63:16: "For you are our father … you O Lord are our father; our Redeemer from of old is your name" (NRSV; cf. Isa 64:8), and in Sir 23:1, "O Lord, Father and Master of my life" (NRSV; cf. Sir 23:4). It was common in rabbinical stories for God to be addressed as a father, "Hanin ha-Nehba was the son of the daughter of Honi the Circle-drawer. When the world needed rain, the Rabbis would send schoolchildren to him, who would pull him by the corners of his garments, and say to him: ‘Father, Father! Give us rain!’ Said Hanin: ‘Master of the world! Do it for the sake of these who do not distinguish between the Father who gives rain and a father who does not give rain.’ And the rain came."
Philo and Josephus employ the metaphor of father for God in a universal manner, as does the author of Wisdom. The ambiance, therefore, was already very fertile indeed for Jesus of Nazareth to address God through the personal designation of God as "Abba, father" (Matt 5:16; 6:1–32; Mark 14:36).
In contrast to the blessedness of the wood that saves, the author declares the idols made by human hands to be accursed (vv. 8–10). Both the makers of idols and the idols themselves fall under the disapproval of God. Since the author had declared that all creatures stand under God’s providential care (1:14; 11:24–26), a distinction is made between the material of the idol and its function of "snaring" human souls and "trapping" the feet of the gullible (v. 11). Human beings, through their deliberate choices, have transformed a material that is part of God’s creation into something that is not. Just as the responsibility for bringing on death lies squarely on the shoulders of human beings, according to the first part of the book, so too does the responsibility for transforming something blessed into a thing accursed rest on the idol makers.
1. The author’s critique of sailors who beseech for safety a wooden idol more fragile than the ship that carries them elicits the author’s contrasting admiration of God’s providence. This admiration is occasioned by the juxtaposition of the groundless trust in a wooden idol and the marvelous trust exemplified by Noah, who entrusted the future of the living also to a "piece of wood" (14:5). The piece of wood is one of God’s "many works of wisdom" through which human beings can develop their potential for life. The author recognizes the providential care of God within the works of creation that are placed at the service of human beings. Creation itself is there for human beings to find sustenance and security. The author’s positive view of the forces of creation that stand under God’s providence surfaces again and again throughout the work. The reflection ends in a declaration of praise of the very material of creation, "Blessed is the wood by which righteousness comes" (14:7 NRSV).
2. But the positive forces of creation are open to abuse from human manipulation. The idol symbolizes the human abuse of the created material of the universe. Instead of using wood for its many positive functions, the idol makers transform it into objects that misguide and ensnare human beings so that they do not perceive the originator of the universe. The particular nuance of this critique against idol makers highlights the importance of reflecting on our use of material goods, of the environment, and of the earth itself.
WISDOM 14:11–31, ORIGINS AND EVILS OF IDOLATRY
14:11–14. The idols fashioned by human hands fall under the same judgment as their makers and worshipers. This argument, which relies on a distinction between the function of the idol and the material of the idol itself, is similar to that found in the first part of the book. Human beings have been made for immortality. Their rightful destiny is to be in union with God. But they can choose a life of justice that brings immortality or a life of injustice that brings death. The case with idols is similar. From their very material they are part of what God had created. Yet through human choice they have become an abomination because they have led people astray. The final judgment includes God’s visitation not only on the makers and worshipers of idols, but also on the idols themselves.
Nonetheless, the argument appears somewhat forced and awkward. It would appear that the author is including the idols under the judgment of God in continuity with the prohibition against idols that arose during the prophetic period. One of the arguments for the validity of the idol is that it endures in time and space. Judgment against the false worship of idolatry includes the revelation of the idol’s worthlessness or ineffectiveness. The story of the statue of Dagon that stood beside the ark in captivity is a case in point. Twice it had fallen before the ark as a judgment against its worshipers (1 Sam 5:1–5).
An interesting reflection on the problem of the endurance of idols occurs in the Mishnah, where some Romans questioned the rabbis about idols: "The elders in Rome were asked, ‘If your God has no pleasure in the worship of idols, why does he not destroy them?’ They replied, ‘If men had worshiped the things which the world does not need, He would have destroyed them. But, they worship sun, moon, stars and planets; is He to destroy His world because of the fools?’ " God spares the wicked, providing a time for conversion (Wis 11:26–12:1–2, 10). The idols belong to their worshipers and fall under the cloud of the final judgment along with them.
The explanation for the origin of idolatry (vv. 12–21) continues the author’s tendency to probe under the surface to arrive at the causes of injustice and death. In the first part of the book, the author provided an explanation for the origin of sin and death. Human beings bring on death through living unjustly (1:12–15). Through the envy of the adversary, death had entered the cosmos (2:24). In the critique of nature worship, the author probed the origins of identifying the forces of creation with divine reality (13:1–9). The critique of the carpenter ridiculed the idol-making process, but it did not offer an explanation for idolatry. In the very center of the concentric structure, the author attempts to enter into the mind-set of those who have come to worship an idol made by human hands.
The language that introduces the explanation for idol worship reflects the author’s previous concerns and explanations: the essential goodness of all that exists and the entrance of idol worship into the world. Since God loves all that exists, the author reiterates how idols did not exist at the beginning. God is not their creator. They entered the cosmos through human vanity (v. 14); therefore, their end is assured (cf. Isa 45:16; Jer 16:19–21).
The relationship between idol worship and fornication (v. 12) is one that the author adapts primarily from prophetic teaching. The Greek word representing "fornication" (πορνεία porneia) refers to various forms of sexual disorders. The corresponding Hebrew term is often used to designate more precisely the worship of false gods, as is the case with the Wisdom author. The image of marital infidelity is implied in the prophetic use of the metaphor of fornication with idols (Jer 3:6–8; Ezek 16:15–43; Hosea 1–2; 4:11–19; cf. Exod 34:15–17; Judg 2:16–23). Infidelity to the faithful God of the covenant is understood as a breach of the covenant agreement. The author is adapting the uniquely Israelite understanding of fidelity to the One God for its application to all humanity in the explanation of the origin of idol worship.
14:15–21. Two brief examples of the origin of idol worship are presented in the story of a father who is bereft over the sudden death of a child (vv. 15–16) and the monarch who commands the worship of carved images (vv. 16–17). The latter example is further developed with the illustration of the artisan who, perhaps not even having known the monarch, embellishes the likeness with a charm that attracts a multitude (vv. 18–21). Neither example is attested in Scripture as an explanation for the cult of idols, but each relates to general practice in the Greco-Roman age of setting up images of either one’s beloved or monarchs.
Many of the clear examples of the Greco-Roman practice of idol worship are posterior to the book of Wisdom. For example, there is the cult of Antinoos, which the Emperor Hadrian set up in memory of his young friend who drowned tragically in Egypt (c. 130 ce). There is a story from the fourth century ce that explains how a statue became an idol that is very similar to the case envisaged in Wisdom. In that story, an Egyptian named Syropahnes sets up a statue of his dead son in his house in order to ease the family’s grief at their loss. The family members decorate the statue to please the father, and eventually the household slaves begin to flee to it for protection. In this way, a statue honoring the memory of a son was understood to have become eventually the object of cultic worship.
The author adds to the critique of the origin of such idol worship the falsity of the artist’s embellishment of the idol. Plato had expressed a certain ambivalence toward art that was motivated primarily by the tendency of artists to embellish their subjects. For Plato such a tendency led to a falsification of the true form and represented an aberration from true art itself. Philo added the same argument found in Wisdom, which ridicules the artist’s embellishment of the subject, in his critique of idol worship, "Further, too, they have brought in sculpture and painting to cooperate in the deception, in order that with the colors and shapes and artistic qualities wrought by their fine workmanship they may enthrall the spectators and so beguile the two leading senses, sight and hearing."116 The attraction to works of art is viewed as a snare that entraps humans to worship idols made of stone or wood (v. 21).
14:22–26. What follows is a list of vices that arise from not having knowledge of God. The passage is reminiscent of the speech of the wicked, in the first part of the book, who perpetrated injustice against the just one (chap. 2). The wicked have no knowledge of God, and this lack of knowledge blinds them to the gifts of justice and wisdom. Whereas the author’s presentation of the wicked’s aberration to injustice was subtle, with a progressive and sinister momentum, the author’s invectives are unrestrained with respect to idol worshipers.
The list of vices follows a much-used literary device in which disorders and aberrations are accumulated to highlight the perversions that stem from a single cause. In the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch is a series of disorders attributed to the fall and to drunkenness, "Brother does not have mercy on brother, nor father on son, nor children on parents, but by means of the Fall through wine come forth all (these): murder, adultery, fornication, perjury, theft, and similar things.
The combination of blood, murder, theft, and deceit in v. 25 is a reference to Hos 4:1–2, where the list of vices follows the similar declaration of a lack of knowledge of God: "There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed" (NRSV). The list of vices, in the Greek translation of Hosea especially, appears to be structured according to a section of the decalogue in Exod 20:13–16 (LXX): "You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (cf. Matt 15:19; Mark 7:21–22). Paul made frequent use of a list of vices in his letters (Rom 1:24–32; 1 Cor 5:9–11; 2 Cor 12:20–21; Gal 5:19–21; Col 3:5–9; 1 Tim 1:9–10), at times juxtaposing them to a list of virtues (Gal 5:22–23; Col 3:11–17).
At the outset of the list of vices, the author highlights one particular feature that had surfaced earlier in the book: The lack of virtue confuses the perspective on the good (vv. 22b, 26). In the concluding summary, regarding the reasoning of the wicked (2:21–24), the author explained how the injustice of the wicked blinded them to the purposes of God, the wages of holiness, and the prize for blameless souls. When the figure of Solomon speaks in the second part of Wisdom, emphasis is placed on the openness of wisdom and on the revelatory character of Solomon’s teaching (6:22–23). All good things came to Solomon through wisdom, who makes people friends with God (7:11, 27). In the criticism of idol worship, the author postulates that the lack of knowledge of the true God confuses the perception of the good and devolves into secrecy and disorder.
The theme of mistaking war for peace was immortalized in the famous epithet of Tacitus (c. 55–117 ce): "To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire; they make a desolation and they call it peace." Tacitus was criticizing the Pax Romana, which was often achieved through a brutal exercising of power through violence. For the victors, the outcome is called peace, but for the victims it is sheer desolation. Just as injustice blinds the wicked from perceiving the plan of God, so also the lack of knowledge of God in idol worship confuses the perception of the good (v. 26). Idol worshipers consider the internal and external disorders that throw them into great strife as peace (v. 22).
The critique of idolatry includes an attack on the secret mystery cults (v. 23). In the second part of the book, the author implied a critique of the mystery cults by deliberately presenting personified wisdom as transparent and open (7:22–8:1). Likewise, Solomon was presented as having transmitted his knowledge acquired through friendship with wisdom openly, ungrudgingly, and without restriction (6:22–23; 7:13–14). This open style of pedagogy on the part of personified wisdom and exemplified in the persona of Solomon stands in stark contrast to the secretive initiation rites common to mystery cults in the Greco-Roman world.
14:27–31. The concluding section on the origin and evils of idolatry focuses on the cause of disorders and the accompanying judgment against idolatry. In this way, we are brought back to the themes in the beginning of the unit by the repetition of the image of the origin of evils (v. 12 = v. 27), and the image of judgment and punishment for idol worshipers (v. 11 = vv. 30–31). The unit begins with the declaration of the punishment of the idols themselves and the connection between the origin of evil and the making of idols. The unit concludes with the declaration of the origin of every evil residing in idolatry and the punishment of idol worshipers.
One of the criticisms of idol worship in this unit focuses on the Israelite prohibition of the naming of idols and swearing oaths by them (cf. Exod 23:13; Josh 23:7; Ps 16:4). But the particular nuance that the Wisdom author emphasizes in this critique is the loss of moral direction that results from the worshiping of false gods made by human hands.
In effect, the worship of idols brings about a life of injustice (v. 28). Without moral direction, the idolater’s life is easily caught in false "exultation," "prophesying lies," "living unrighteously," "committing perjury," "swearing unjust oaths" without realizing the destructive consequences of such actions (vv. 28–29). The tension between justice and injustice is brought to the fore with six words in the Greek text: "unrighteously" (ἀδίκως adikōs, v. 28), "wicked oaths" (κακῶς ὀμόσαντες kakōs omosantes, v. 29), "just penalties" (δίκαια dikaia, v. 30), "unrighteously" (ἀδίκως adikōs, v. 30), "just penalty" (δίκη dikē, v. 31), and "unrighteous" (ἄδικοι adikoi, v. 31).
The generalization whereby the origin of every evil is said to reside in idolatry (v. 27) parallels the generalization in the first part of the book whereby injustice is described as being the cause of death (1:12–16). More immediately, the phrase parallels the opening volley against the making of idols in v. 12, "For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life." The generalizations are not meant to exclude each other. Rather, they intensify the level of disorder that the author judges injustice and idolatry to cause.
1. The declaration of divine judgment against idols and their worshipers (14:11) recalls the author’s assertion of divine judgment against the wicked in the first part of the book. The wicked had placed their hope in the apparent "fruit" of their injustice. But on the day of judgment the very fruit of the wicked accuses them and, therefore, does not bring its hoped-for strength (3:13–4:9). The idols that entrap and snare human beings fall under the same divine judgment (14:11). Whatever prevents human beings from realizing their relationship with God and with one another is to be destroyed.
The severity of the judgment the author extends to the idols is based on their continuous entrapping function. Idols are like structures of injustice. They have become somewhat independent from their originators, the hands that crafted them; yet they continue to be a snare and a trap that hinder people from achieving a more just and equitable balance in society.
2. The aberration of idol worship produces a confusion over what is good: "They call such great evils peace" (14:22 NRSV); "and all is … confusion over what is good" (14:25–26 NRSV). The author offers insight into the moral confusion that results from the sin of idolatry. Sin brings about a confusion over what is good and what is evil. This same misdirection was evident in the author’s critique of the reasoning of the wicked in the first part of the book. The wicked’s judgment, that mortality renders life arbitrary, caused them to value power and might and to despise weakness and frailty (2:11). As a result, they perceived death in weakness when in fact the weakness of the virtuous is transformed into life; they perceived life in their exercise of unjust power when, in fact, the power of the wicked is revealed as being groundless and empty of virtue.
A similar understanding of the confusion over good and evil, and life and death, that results from unfaithfulness to God is presented in the book of Deuteronomy. When the spies had returned from reconnoitering the promised land, they announced that the land God was giving them was a good land (Deut 1:25). But instead of perceiving life in the new land as good, the people thought only of death: "It is because the Lord hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us" (Deut 1:27 NRSV). The nonsequitur that stands between the spies’ positive assessment of the land and the people’s interpretation of the divine motive can be explained only by the blindness and confusion caused by their sin of faithlessness.
The same lack of trust prompted the people to announce their preference for life as slaves in Egypt to the tenuous existence in the wilderness, where they perceived death. At the imminent moment of deliverance the people accused Moses of bringing them to the desert to die (Exod 14:10–14). The author of Wisdom attributes the same confusion over the good to the idolatry that focuses on the self, symbolized in the idol, "the work of human hands." Those caught in idolatry perceive the turmoil of misdirection as peace. Sin carries with it the consequence of a moral blindness that induces a misinterpretation of what is good and brings life in the long term and of what is evil and brings death in the long run. Only the shock of a tragedy or an amazing expression of love and respect can jolt the one who is blind into reexamining the moral consequences of his or her actions.
3. A just punishment pursues those who devote themselves to idolatry (14:30). This idea affirms the author’s particular understanding that punishment arises from seeds of destruction inherent in the paths of injustice or untruth. It is not as if the punishment comes from the outside and somehow could be avoided if the perpetrators of injustice or followers of untruth go unseen or are not caught by the legal authorities. The seeds of turmoil are inherent in a path of life that focuses on the self (on the works of human hands). Such a life excludes the transcendence (going beyond oneself) that brings human beings into communion with one another. As in the case of an addiction, whatever semblance of human fulfillment may appear to be in the beginning, eventually the relentlessness of the addiction brings about the evident signs of destruction.
WISDOM 15:1–6, REFLECTION ON GOD’S MERCY AND POWER
Within the concentric structure of the critique of idolatry, the author turns briefly to praise God for the mercy and power shown to the righteous. The unit stands parallel to the prayerful reflection on God’s providential care in the treatment of the sailor who prays to a wooden idol (14:1–10). The difference in tone is noted immediately by the use of direct speech. God is addressed directly in the second person and is praised for the merciful sovereignty exercised over creation.
15:1–3. One notable difference in the language of this reflection from that on God’s providence is the author’s explicit identification with the people of God. This sense of identification with the community under divine protection is inaugurated in v. 1 with the image of "our God," and it continues with the persistent use of the first-person plural in v. 2: "even if we sin, we are yours … but we will not sin, because we know that you acknowledge us as yours" (italics added). The vocabulary depicting this personal bond between the righteous and God is reminiscent of the terms describing the bond between Israel and God in covenantal language:
They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord God. (Ezek 34:30–31 NRSV; cf. Ezek 11:20; 14:11; 37:27; 39:7)
The bond between the righteous and God is highlighted and intensified by the contrast to the relationship between idolaters and their lifeless idols (vv. 4–6). The God of the righteous is full of power and mercy (v. 1); the many gods of the idolatrous are powerless (13:17–19).
The opening phrase of the unit, "But you, our God," contrasts the personal God of the righteous to the previously described lifeless idols of the unrighteous. A series of four descriptive words and phrases characterizes the mercy and power God exercises over creation and the righteous. God is depicted as kind, true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy. Verse 1 evidently was inspired by the poetic vocabulary of God’s declaration to Moses in the giving of the second set of tablets. As God passed before Moses,
"The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love
keeping steadfast love for the
(Exod 34:6–7 NRSV)
Three of the four descriptive expressions in the Wisdom text are found in the Greek text of the Exodus source: "true" = "faithfulness" (Exod 34:6) "patient" = "slow to anger" (Exod 34:6), "ruling all things in mercy" = "merciful" (Exod 34:6). The first adjective, "kind" (χρηστός chrēstos) is not found in Exod 34:6, but it is frequently used in the psalms as a translation of the Hebrew word for "good" (טוב ṭôb; Pss 25:8; 34:9; 86:5; 100:5; 106:1). Moreover, the same root in the adverbial form was used by the Wisdom author to describe the manner in which wisdom guides the cosmos, wisdom "guides" all things well (8:1).
The phrase "ruling all things" (v. 1), had already been employed by the author in 8:1, where personified wisdom was described as "guiding all things well." The Greek phrase was particularly in common use among the Stoics. The Wisdom author is applying the coined phrase to the gracious manner in which God guides the cosmos without the pantheistic and materialistic overtones of Stoic philosophy. The covenantal language of the verse maintains the tension between God’s transcendence and God’s care for all things.
This tension was maintained by the author in several previous passages in which God’s mercy and power are held together to portray the marvelous manner in which God guides the cosmos. In 8:1, personified wisdom is described as "reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other" as well as "ordering all things well." In 11:21–24, both God’s power and God’s mercy are praised as giving expression to God’s love for all things that exist. In 12:15–18, the description of God’s justice concentrates on the consistency between God’s righteousness and God’s power: "You rule all things righteously, deeming it alien to your power to condemn anyone who does not deserve to be punished" (12:15 NRSV). The sovereignty of God is described as combining strength and mildness, power and forbearance.
The bond between God and the righteous is said to be stronger than sin itself (v. 2). Even if the righteous sin, they still belong to God. This awareness of the indissoluble covenantal bond prompts the author’s declaration that the righteous will not sin. It is rare in the book of Wisdom for the author to treat the sin of the righteous. Of course, the biblical traditions from which the author heavily draws support, particularly Isaiah and Deuteronomy, are filled with an explicit awareness of the sin of Israel. In the diptychs of the first part of Wisdom, which contrasted the righteous and the wicked, the author employed Isaiah’s image of the suffering servant. Yet the feature of the vicarious suffering of the servant in Isaiah was suppressed by the Wisdom author. The reason for this suppression is evident when one considers that the author is contrasting the righteous one who suffers unjustly with the powerful wicked who oppress. In Isaiah the servant suffers for the sake of Israel. The themes of conversion and reconciliation associated with the suffering servant are replaced with themes of judgment against the wicked and the integrity of the righteous by the Wisdom author. The issue of the righteous person’s also experiencing punishment for infidelity will surface again later in the diptychs. The author will have to face the possible objections or protests that naturally arise in the contrast between the enemies of Israel and the righteous. Not only the enemies of the Israelites but also the righteous themselves experience the tragic consequences of injustice (16:5–6; 18:20–25).
The reference to the sin of the righteous was more than likely prompted by the same source (Exod 34:6–7) that was used for the image of God’s mercy and compassion in v. 1. The merciful and gracious God of Moses is also a forgiving God who pardons iniquity, transgression, and sin (Exod 34:7). Israel had committed the sin of idolatry by worhiping the golden calf immediately after the giving of the law to Moses at Sinai. Yet, this sin did not eradicate their belonging to God. Because of God’s mercy and faithfulness, Israel remained God’s special people before whom great wonders would be done (Exod 34:8–10).
Since the author of Wisdom is criticizing the worship of false gods in the broader context of the argument, the particular sin being alluded to is probably idolatry. The supreme demand of the covenantal bond for Israel is to worship the Lord alone and not bow down to false gods (Exod 20:2; 34:11–17; Deut 5:6–11). The prophetic voice that continually reprimands Israel for apostasy and idolatry testifies to the tenacious rootedness that idolatry had in ancient Israel.
The author’s confidence that the righteous will not fall into the sin of idolatry stems from the general belief in the eradication of idolatry among the Jews at the time of the author’s writing. This belief was voiced in the book of Judith: "For never in our generation, nor in these present days, has there been any tribe or family or people or town of ours that worships gods made with hands, as was done in days gone by" (Jdt 8:18 NRSV). Even Tacitus (55–117 ce) acknowledges that the Jewish cult showed no signs whatsoever of tolerating idolatry as an expression of faith: "The Jews conceive of one god only, and that with the mind alone: they regard as impious those who make from perishable materials representations of god in man’s image; that supreme and eternal being is to them incapable of representation and without end." The tone of confidence is not one of arrogance arising from merit on the side of Israel, but is one of humility arising from the realization of God’s continuous expression of mercy and forgiveness.
The effective result of the covenantal bond between the righteous and their merciful God is perfect justice and possession of the root of immortality. The verse expresses its thought through complete parallelism. To know God is righteousness; to know God’s sovereignty is the root of immortality. As in the first part of Wisdom, justice and immortality meet once again (3:1–4; 4:1; 6:17–20).
The nuance that the verb "to know" (εἴδω eidō) carries in the verse is twofold, "to be intimate with" and "to acknowledge." In v. 2b the force of the verb "to know" in the phrase "knowing your power" is that of acknowledging or recognizing the power and sovereignty of God. Even if they sin, the righteous still will acknowledge and recognize the dominion of God. This acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty follows from knowing that God claims them.
The author has made frequent use of the verb "to know" in the triple relationship among Solomon, wisdom, and God in the second part of Wisdom. Personified wisdom is described as an initiate in the ways of God (8:2–8). Solomon prays to God for the gift of wisdom, who knows the works of God and, therefore, can guide him wisely in his actions (9:9–12). In effect, one sees in the prayerful reflection on God’s mercy and power the results of Solomon’s prayer for the wisdom that comes from God. Wisdom brings a knowledge of God that makes one an intimate friend of God and enables one to acknowledge God’s dominion.
Acknowledging the sovereignty of God is the root of immortality. The gift of immortality is as inchoate as a tree with its root growing in the soil. Eventually the tree will come to full maturity. Whereas in the first part of the book immortality was presented more as a gift in response to the fidelity of the righteous, here the inchoate presence of immortality is more explicitly seen to exist as a root that will come to a complete fullness of union with God. In the case of the barren woman and the faithful eunuch, a similar image was employed to show the eventual fruitfulness of virtue: "The root of understanding does not fail" (3:15 NRSV). It is not simply the sovereignty of God that assures immortality; rather, the acknowledgment of God’s dominion is the root of immortality.
A different line of interpretation of the expression "to know your power is the root of immortality" would understand the force of meaning to be that God is the one who has power over death. In this case, God’s power over death is the source of immortality. God’s power, of course, is open to signifying either a concrete expression of God’s sovereignty or the general dominion of God. Interpreting the verb "to know" as "to acknowledge" would suggest that God’s power refers to the general dominion of God over all creation. It is not simply God’s power that is the root of immortality. Rather, God’s dominion is the context, the soil for the root of immortality. Those who acknowledge God’s sovereignty and who have come to experience the fidelity of God even in the face of their own resistance have the root of immortality.
15:4–6. The concluding part of the unit contrasts the root of immortality, which the righteous have in recognizing the true God, with the hopeless situation of idolaters. The righteous have not been led into idolatry by the misguided attempts of artistry that embellishes the lifelessness of the idols (v. 4).
The author has already criticized the duplicity of artists who embellish the surface of idols (13:13–15; 14:18–21). The author’s own critique in this regard parallels the criticism of such practices by Plato and the Stoics. At this point the author focuses briefly on the sexual aberrations associated with idolatry. The embellishment of the idols goes so far as to bring about an aberrant yearning for the lifeless idol. Stories and legends were in circulation at the author’s time regarding such behavior. One such story, that of Pygmalion, was known in several versions. This legendary king of Cyprus had a statue of a woman made from ivory whose form was so real and beautiful that he fell in love with it.122
The author stresses the lifeless and dead qualities of the idol that become the source of affection in the idolater: "they desire the lifeless form of a dead image" (v. 5). The idolater is called a "lover of evil things" who is worthy of the object that is loved. The parallel to the wicked in the opening part of the book is unmistakable. There the wicked were described as the friends of death who pined away and made a covenant with death (1:16). In turn, this passage contrasts the "lovers of evil things" (v. 6) and Solomon’s love for wisdom (8:2; cf. Prov 8:36, "all who hate me love death" [NRSV]). Just as the wicked are said to be worthy of death, so too are idolaters worthy of the lifeless idols in which they base their hopes (v. 6).
1. Four descriptive terms for "God" initiate the author’s praise of God for the mercy and kindness shown to the righteous. God is kind, true, and patient, ruling all things in mercy (15:1). God’s transcendent power and immanent compassion are held together in these descriptive images. The power of God is balanced by compassion and mercy. The compassion of God is expressed through God’s ruling all things in mercy. What a contrast to the idols, which have no power! They cannot even stand up on their own, but have to be fastened to a niche in the wall (13:15–16). Neither do they afford mercy and kindness, because they are lifeless, weak, inexperienced, and dead (13:17–18).
2. The praise of the powerful and merciful God of the righteous conveys a sense of communal pride. God’s power and mercy created a people and sustains them even in their rising and falling fortunes. The turn to the first-person plural in the verbal forms points to the author’s being caught up in the praise of God’s mercy and compassion shown to the righteous. This is one of the few occurrences in the entire book in which the author formally identifies with the righteous through the first-person plural form of "we" and "us." In the first part of the book, the author as narrator has an objective viewpoint. In the second part of the book, the subjective viewpoint takes over as the author identifies with the figure of Solomon and speaks in the first person. In the third part of the book, the author speaks through both the objective viewpoint of a narrator and the subjective viewpoint in the first-person singular. Only rarely, as in this brief unit, does the author’s identification with the righteous surface explicitly (cf. 12:18–22; 18:8).
The communal sense of pride in the God of power and mercy that the author expresses in this passage has parallels in the book of Deuteronomy. The reflection on the history that brought the people to the land of Moab elicits from the figure of Moses the praise of God for the gift of the Torah and for the extraordinary interventions of mercy and power: "For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?" (Deut 4:7–8 NRSV; cf. Deut 4:32–40). If we are correct in locating the time of composition of this passage from Deuteronomy during the exile, then the similarity of the function of praise here is like that in the book of Wisdom. A community under siege, feeling weak and threatened, becomes cognizant of the great strength of its tradition. A reflection on the living tradition becomes a source of strength and pride. Although the author of Wisdom is sympathetic to the best of Hellenistic contributions to literature and culture, and incorporates terminology and philosophical arguments from them, the author is attempting here to strengthen the Jewish community in the diaspora. It is a community under siege and weakened both from without and from within, not unlike the community in exile. The sense of pride the author expresses in belonging to a special people is based on a reflection of history and the quality of faith. Thus the author offers this reflection to strengthen the community’s faith. The values that accrue from being faithful to the true God overshadow the dismal facade of trust in idols.
3. We receive what we love. In contrast to the sure hope of immortality for the righteous, the idolaters receive what they love in idolatry: lifeless hope. Again, the author’s understanding of punishment comes to the foreground. The form of punishment is intimately connected to the false hope in which the idolater trusts. On one side, we have Solomon, who loves wisdom; wisdom makes one a friend of God and brings the assurance of immortality (6:18–19; 7:27; 8:2). On the other side, we have idolaters, who desire "the lifeless form of a dead image" (15:5). Such lovers of evil things are fit for the lifelessness that idols represent. The author uses the similar phrase that was employed for the wicked in the first part of the book, describing them as being fit for death, with which they make a covenant, pining away for it as for a friend (1:16).
The idea that one receives what one loves is taken up in several forms in the teaching of Christ. In the teaching concerning treasures, Jesus contrasts the treasures of earth, which can be stolen or consumed by moths or rust, to the treasures of heaven. Wherever people place their treasure, they will find that their heart is there as well (Matt 6:19–21; Luke 12:33–34). They receive what, in fact, they love. In one case they receive something perishable; in the other, they receive something enduring.
The parables regarding the talents to be invested (Matt 25:14–30; Luke 19:11–27) and stories about the measure that is given out (Matt 7:1–5; Mark 4:21–25; Luke 6:37–38) make a direct correlation between what one gives and what one receives. Here as well there is a continuity between what one actually receives and what one has given or invested. The reward or punishment does not come from the outside, but is a direct consequence of the fruit of one’s own decisions and actions. Giving and investing are the themes that replace "loving." But in all three cases, a direct correlation is made between the fruit of one’s actions and the intention behind the decision to love, to give, or to invest.
For the author of Wisdom, it is important to pay attention to what one seeks and loves. If one seeks and loves, like Solomon, the wisdom that makes one close to God, then the gift of immortality is assured. If one seeks and loves the lifeless security of idolatry, then one’s own hope becomes as lifeless and dead as idols.
WISDOM 15:7–13, THE POTTER AND CLAY IDOLS
Within the concentric structure of the author’s treatment of idolatry, the judgment of the potter stands parallel to the critique of the carpenter (13:10–19). Both the carpenter and the potter form a natural substance into many shapes, including ones that eventually become objects of worship. The author moves from gold, silver, stone, and wood in the critique of the carpenter to the less valuable clay in the critique of the potter. As a result of this progression of blameworthiness, the critique of the clay idols and the potter is more severe than that of the carpenter. The author offered no motives for the carpenter’s slipping into the fabrication of idols. But in the case of the potters, they are described as forging counterfeits, motivated by greed and profit (v. 12).
The unit is enclosed by images that capture the theme of the critique: "earth," "earthy" (vv. 7, 13); "vessels," "vessel" (vv. 7, 13). The very substance of these idols as "earthy vessels" is the same matter from which humans were formed and to which they return (v. 8). Several of the themes from the critique of idolatry and even the critique of the wicked from the first part of the book are condensed in this judgment of the potter: the motive of profit, the idols as counterfeit, the distinction between useful vessels and useless idols, the contrast between the lifeless clay idol and the dignity of the human being who is made of clay. A contrast is developed between the duplicitous creativity of the potter and the creativity of God, who has molded human beings out of the earth. There is a clear emphasis on the personal responsibility of the makers of clay idols. Because of their full knowledge of the process of deception, these idol makers know what they are doing in setting up works of clay as idols.
The opening description of the technique of molding clay is as innocuous as the opening description of the technique of carpentry (13:11–12 = 15:7). Of itself, the description betrays no signs of criticism at first. Only when the ordinary labor of fashioning utensils is applied to idols does the discrepancy between useful tools and deified objects leap into view. Elsewhere in Scripture, the technique of the potter is used positively to describe God’s care for Israel or to highlight Israel’s unfaithfulness to such care (e.g., Jer 18:1–11; cf. Gen 2:7; Isa 64:8; Job 10:9; Sir 33:13). The carpenter and the potter alike give shape to useful vessels for noble and necessary needs. However, both become misguided when they use their skill to form idols.
In the case of clay idols, the author draws attention to the existence of the same earthly substance in the clay idol and in the human being who fashions it. In fashioning clay idols, the potter is falsely imitating the work of the Creator. Potters make idols from earth, the very substance from which they have been made and to which they will return upon death.
The moment of death is described through an image that appears in only late canonical texts. The soul is described as being on lease and as returning to the Creator at death (v. 8b; cf. v. 16). In the famous passage on death in Ecclesiastes, the moment of death is depicted through the double movement of the body’s returning to the earth and the spirit’s returning to God, who had originally given it (Eccl 12:6–7; cf. 3:20–21). The Wisdom text describes death as the body returning to the earth (from which it was taken) when the time comes for the soul that was borrowed to be returned. The obvious source for such imagery is the Yahwist version of the creation of Adam. Adam was formed from the earth, and the breath of life was breathed into his nostrils so that he became a living being (Gen 2:7). But in the account of the punishment for his and Eve’s disobedience, the Genesis text speaks only of the return of Adam to the earth. Nothing is said of the living breath returning to God. In the Gospel of Luke, such an image sways in the background when the rich fool is reprimanded: "This very night your life is being demanded of you" (Luke 12:20 NRSV). Only in v. 8 do we have the explicit comparison of death to the return on a lease.
The idea that life is borrowed and that death constitutes the return of life to the proprietor was known in both Greek and Roman literature as well. "Life is granted to no one as formal possession, but to all on lease." Philo employs the same idea on several occasions: "Now, the creator of life has given you on loan life, speech and sensation."124 Josephus appeals to the same idea when he explains to his fellow Jews why he did not commit suicide and, as a result, was captured by the Romans: "Those who die at the time when the Creator demands it by following the natural law and give back to God the loan they had received, they will obtain immortal glory."
The author criticizes the clay-idol makers for not recognizing the limits of the span of human life (v. 9a). The clay should be a reminder to the potter that human beings are made of clay, to which they return at death. From the very substance that defines human mortality, the idol makers conceive idols that are but pale imitations of those made of gold, silver, and copper (v. 9b). The counterfeit is doublefold; not only are the clay idols false in themselves, but also they are doubly so as imitations of idols made of precious metals.
The author juxtaposes three images of clay to three images of the interior life in order to highlight the lack of life in the clay idol makers: Their hearts are ashes, their hope is dirt, their lives are clay. By choosing the very image through which the idol makers sin to characterize their moral bankruptcy, the author continues to draw a link between sin and the lifelessness that ensues from it.
The guilt of the idol makers is highlighted by their failure to recognize in their work and skill the Creator (cf. 13:9), who like a potter fashioned human beings from clay and breathed a living spirit into them. Instead, they consider human existence to be an "idle game" in which one must gain profit through whatever means possible. The imagery contains allusions to the wicked in the first part of the book. Since they had declared that human beings come into the world by mere chance (2:2), their project in life took on the form of a festival (2:6–9), which in turn led to the conclusion that their might makes them right (2:11).
The motive of might is transformed in the case of the clay-idol makers into the motive of gain and money. The author is attributing to the clay idol makers the motive of gain and profit regardless of the source (v. 12b). The theme regarding dishonorable gain appears quite frequently in Greek and Roman literature. Creon declares that it is "not well to love gain from every source." Horace argues for the merit of virtue over the gain of those who say, "Make money, money by fair means if you can, if not, by any means money."127
The author attributes greater responsibility for sin to the clay idol makers (v. 13). Since they know very well that the objects they fashion are made from clay and perishable materials, they bear greater responsibility for the counterfeit than do those who worship the lifeless objects.
1. Most of the author’s arguments regarding idol creation and idol worship have already been covered in the treatment of the carpenter (13:10–14:10) and in the explorations of the origin of idolatry (14:11–31). Essentially, the arguments revolve around the inexplicable tendency of those who practice idolatry to deify a lifeless object that is less valuable than the human being, who has received the gift of life. The author continually highlights the discrepancy between the lifeless object and its worshiper, who is alive. In the case of the carpenter, the idol was described through the very antitheses to the prayers of the idolater—prayers for family, health, life, help, a prosperous journey, success, and strength. The misguided sailor puts trust in a wooden idol more fragile than the marvelous piece of wood crafted by wisdom that keeps the sailor afloat. The clay idol makers fashion images from the earth, the very substance God had used to fashion Adam. But God has breathed into humans the gift of life, something the potter cannot do for the idol.
2. The critique of the potters marks an intensification of responsibility through the potter’s obvious motive of gain and profit. It is out of personal gain that the potter fashions counterfeit images. With respect to the carpenter and to the explanations of the origin of idolatry, ordinary human needs and tragedies formed the basis of the misguided deification of images and statues. But in the case of those who make clay idols, the author draws attention to the willful and deliberate fashioning of counterfeit objects for personal profit and gain. Greater responsibility rests on those who deliberately misguide people into placing their hope on unfounded principles. Consequently, greater guilt resides with them as well. Their own hope is less than the very substance they use to fashion the counterfeit image. They are not unlike the ungodly in the first part of the book whose hope is compared to dust carried by the wind or to frost driven away by a storm (5:14).
Wisdom 15:14–19, Idolatry and Animal Worship in Egypt
In all its brevity, this passage brings to a close the author’s critique of idolatry. The particular idolaters under discussion are identified as the enemies of God’s people (v. 14). This is the typical designation for the Egyptians throughout the midrashic treatment of the exodus from Egypt (e.g., 11:5; 12:20; 16:8; 18:1). Other designations for the Egyptians link the oppressors of Israel to the wicked in the first part of the book ("wicked," 12:10–11; "ungodly," 16:16; "unjust," 12:23; "foolish," 15:14; 19:3).
The quality of the false worship exhibited by the enemies of God’s people elicits the most severe reprimand from the author of Wisdom. Within the concentric structure of the passage on idolatry (chaps. 13–15), the worship of the Egyptian gods and goddesses is contrasted with the worship of the elements of nature and the heavenly bodies (13:1–9). This contrast intensifies the reprehensible form of zoolatry. Those who deify the elements of creation are at least making divine the great works of God. But those who deify the visually abhorrent species have lost touch even with the aesthetics of creation. The intensification of the reprimand is noticeable also in the progression throughout the entire critique: the worship of nature and heavenly bodies made by God, counterfeit images of God’s creation made by humans (gold, silver, copper, clay), and finally the inexplicable deification of animals.
The return to the image of animal worship brings the author’s argument right back to the punishment of the Egyptians through animals, which occasioned the two major digressions on God’s power (11:17–12:27) and false worship (chaps. 13–15). This return at the end of the critique against false worship also allows for the continuation of the second diptych, which deals with the animals that punish the Egyptians and the animals that help sustain the righteous (16:1–14).
The critique against the Egyptians’ false worship focuses on two forms: syncretistic idolatry (15:14–17) and zoolatry (15:18–19). The acceptance of all the idols of the nations, and not merely one’s own, condenses the author’s critique of idolatry. Various arguments already alluded to in the earlier treatment of idolatry provide proof for the most severe judgment reserved to the Egyptians (13:10–19; 14:4–5; 15:7–8). This tendency to attribute divine status to the various idols was particularly acute in Hellenism. It was especially predominant in Ptolemaic Egypt. The lifelessness of all such idols is again recounted in traditional fashion. Although the idols may appear in bodily form, they have no organs of sight, smell, hearing, or touch. They are not able even to walk (cf. Pss 115:3–8; 135:15–18; Isa 44:18).
More important, the author concentrates on the discrepancy between the life of the human being who makes an idol and the lifelessness of the idol (v. 16). The idol maker has a spirit that is borrowed (cf. v. 8), but he or she cannot give the gift of life to the idol. The author’s perplexity revolves around the obvious irony that is present in idolatry. The idol makers are human beings—that is, they are alive and have been given the gift of life and thus are more valuable than the lifeless objects they create. Philo is perplexed by the same inconsistency in idolatry, "In their general ignorance they have failed to perceive even that most obvious truth which even ‘a witless infant knows,’ that the craftsman is superior to the product of his craft both in time, since he is older than what he makes and in a sense its father, and in value, since the efficient element is held in higher esteem than the passive effect."
The final two verses of the critique focus on a particular form of idolatry—namely, animal worship (vv. 18–19). As mentioned at the outset, the theme of animal worship occasioned the major digressions within the second diptych. These two verses refer to 11:15, where the enemies are described as being led astray to worship irrational serpents and worthless animals, and to 12:27, where it is recalled how the Egyptians were punished by the very animals they thought to be gods.
The idea that these animals worshiped as deity are so abhorrent that they have escaped divine blessing (v. 19b) appears to go against much of what the author has previously stated on the essential dignity of all creation (1:14; 11:24). In Zoroastrianism, which presumes a radical dualism between good and evil, certain animals, such as reptiles and dangerous insects, along with poisonous plants were considered evil creatures. To destroy such creatures was the equivalent of destroying evil and wickedness. Although the author does not adhere to such a dualism of good and evil as that of Zoroastrianism, it is possible that some of the formulations of its ideas have influenced the author’s argument.
For an explanation of this judgment against the deified reptiles, it is helpful to recognize the parallel the author is drawing between idols and deified animals. In the critique against the carpenter and the sailor who worships a wooden idol, the author concluded with the divine judgment against idols. Although they are a part of God’s creation, they have become an abomination through their deliberate fabrication by human beings (14:8–11). The author’s purpose in highlighting the lack of intelligence of the animals worshiped in Egypt’s zoolatry is to put into relief the misguided nature of false worship. Like the idols, the sacred animals stand under God’s judgment. But instead of turning to the judgment against such animals, the author focuses on the inexplicable choice of human beings to deify the lesser animals of God’s creation.
1. The author’s rather lengthy digression, which offers a severe critique of false worship, concludes with the utter foolishness of idolatry. The brevity of this final passage within the entire concentric structure (chaps. 13–15) reveals the author to be at a loss to explain the aberration of syncretistic idolatry and zoolatry. The progression from the least blameworthy form of false worship of natural phenomena to the most blameworthy—namely, zoolatry—reflects a similar progression as that found in the wicked’s reflection on their project in life (2:1–20). What had begun in the wicked as a rather innocuous reflection on human mortality ended in the blatant and sinister plot to humiliate and destroy the just one. In a similar manner, the author presents the tendency of false worship to move from the beautiful works of God’s creation to the inexplicable adoration of the strangest and most dangerous animals.
2. The opposite side of the critique highlights the importance of being rooted in the worship of the true God. Just as the practice of justice through the gift of wisdom in the first part of the book brings the assurance of immortality, so also the worship of the true God brings protection in danger and immortality to the righteous (14:2–7; 15:1–4). The author’s critique of the seduction of injustice and of false worship is meant to present before the imagination of the reader the compelling attraction of justice and the true God. The incoherence of idolatry and the aesthetic repugnance of zoolatry render the worshiping of the true God much more plausible.
Wisdom 16:1–14, The Plague of Animals and Delicacies for the Righteous
16:1–4. The final critique of zoolatry brings the argument back to the second diptych, which had begun in 11:15. The diptych contrasts the plagues of the various animals upon Egypt with the marvelous gift of quails for the righteous in the desert. The argument of the diptych picks up exactly where it left off regarding the principle of punishment through the very means of one’s sin (11:5, 16). Since the enemies of the righteous reached the extreme form of idolatry and worshiped animals, it is only to be expected that through animals they will experience the consequences of their sin. The short unit that focuses the diptych on the hunger of the Egyptians is enclosed by the image of torment: They "were tormented by a multitude of animals" (v. 1); "their enemies were being tormented" (v. 4).
The turn in the diptych contrasts the torment of the enemies by animals with the marvelous gift of quails provided to the righteous in the desert (v. 2). The author is condensing the several plague episodes of the exodus that deal with animals into a single diptych (v. 2, frogs; v. 3, gnats; v. 4, flies; v. 5, diseased livestock; v. 8, locusts). In order to provide a contrast with the gift of quails in the desert, the author adds one particular element to the Exodus narrative—namely, that of the Egyptians’ hunger. Although in the plague narratives Egypt’s sources of water, food, and livestock had been destroyed by the plagues, nowhere does the book of Exodus mention that the Egyptians actually hungered. However, this is a reasonable assumption the Wisdom author is making in condensing the stories of the plagues in Exodus 8:1–9:7.
In response to the Israelites’ hunger, God provides them with quails. The author is following episodes from the narrative of the Israelites in the desert from Exod 16:1–13 and from Num 11:4–35. In both sources, the meager signs of food and water in the desert contrast sharply with the abundance of food in Egypt (Exod 16:3; Num 11:5). The people complain. They demand food, and they are given the extraordinary gift of manna and quails.
The motif of the people’s grumbling and complaining in the desert is suppressed in the author’s contrast of the Egyptians’ hunger with that of the righteous. The suppression of the theme of Israel’s sin and need for repentance regarding the desert wandering is consistent with the author’s suppression of the theme of the vicarious suffering of God’s servant in the wicked’s plan to kill the just one (2:12–24). But the theme of Israel’s resistance to God’s law will emerge in a subtle manner through the experience of punishment and death that the author feels compelled to address later in the diptychs (16:5–6; 18:20–25). The righteous will hunger for a short while to enable them to appreciate the depth of hunger their enemies will experience.
16:5–14. This reflection on the hunger of the righteous moves the author to another digression within the diptych on animals. The author is reminded of the threat to life that the Israelites experienced in the desert, as recounted in Num 21:6–9. The reflection of Israel’s salvation from the venomous serpents occasions the author’s praise of God’s power over life and death. Some exegetes understand the unit to be another comparison or antithesis that contrasts the killing of the Egyptians through the bites of locusts and flies with the saving symbol of the brazen serpent for the righteous. But the author does not use the word "instead" (ἀντί anti), which introduces the contrast. A type of antithesis is introduced in a negative form in v. 10, "But your children were not conquered even by the fangs of venomous serpents." Instead of considering the passage a full diptych, A. G. Wright perceives the unit’s digressional form of reflection and praise within the second diptych.
In the book of Numbers, the episode of the poisonous serpents in the desert is narrated as God’s response to the people’s continuous complaints: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food" (Num 21:5 NRSV). After many Israelites had died from the bites of venomous snakes, the people confessed their sin and pleaded with Moses to beseech God for healing. In response to God’s command, Moses formed a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and whoever looked upon it was healed. We come across the bronze serpent again far later in the historical books, where Hezekiah is noted to have broken in pieces the bronze serpent Moses had made (2 Kgs 18:4).
The author of Wisdom is interpreting this event within the second diptych from two points of view: The people’s suffering in the desert is a warning that is meant to prevent them from being unresponsive to God’s kindness, and the extraordinary healing of the people is a sign of the power of God’s healing word.
The author does not focus directly on the sin of the righteous that evoked the punishment by the serpents in the desert. To focus on Israel’s sin in a work that contrasts the righteous and the wicked on the one hand, and Israel and Egypt, on the other, would be out of place within the style of the diptychs. But the author alludes to the wrath of God and interprets its beneficial results for the righteous (v. 5). Instead of continuing to the end, God’s wrath provides punishment, which serves as a warning (v. 6). The bronze serpent is interpreted as a symbol of deliverance that is meant to remind the Israelites of the command of the law. Similarly, the punishment is meant to remind them of God’s commands and word (v. 11; cf. 12:2).
Since the image of the bronze serpent comes very close to that of the idols the author has just criticized, an explanation for the serpent is provided. The author draws attention to the power of God’s Word. The people were not healed by the image they had beheld but by God, the savior of all (v. 7; cf. 9:18, where wisdom is the one who saves). It was God’s mercy that came to help them and heal them. The bronze serpent does not contain in itself a cure for sickness. Medicine was not applied to the bite wounds (neither herb nor poultice cured them, v. 12). Rather, God cured them through the Word, "It was your word, O Lord, that heals all people" (v. 12; cf. Exod 15:26).
Both Philo and the Mishnah interpret the healing of the Israelites as recounted in Num 21:6–9 in a spiritual manner, like that of the author of Wisdom: "He, then, who has looked with fixed gaze on the form of patient endurance, even though he should perchance have been previously bitten by the wiles of pleasure, cannot but live; for, whereas pleasure menaces the soul with inevitable death, self-control holds out to it health and safety for life." "But could the serpent kill or could the serpent keep alive? But rather, whenever Israel looked on high and subjected their heart to their Father in heaven were they healed, but if not, they perished."134 Targums Pseudo-Jonathan and Neophyti I on Num 21:8 also add to the canonical text the idea that all those who looked upon the bronze serpent also lifted their hearts to God in heaven and lived. The entire reflection focuses finally on the merciful power of God. God alone has power over life and death, to bring people to Hades and back again (v. 13). The author is alluding to a traditional formulation regarding God’s power over life and death (cf. Deut 32:39; 1 Sam 2:6; Ps 49:15; Hos 6:1–2; Tob 13:2). The power of God is contrasted with the human powerlessness to bring people to life. Although human beings can kill others, they cannot bring them back to life (v. 14).
1. The author’s reflection on the plague narratives focuses on discernment between good and evil. The source of evil is concentrated in the enemies of the righteous. The source of good is concentrated in the hand of God, who intervenes constantly to direct events in favor of the righteous. By holding up before the imagination of the reader the conflict between good and evil in the plague episodes, the author is laying bare the ultimate tragedy of injustice and the eventual success of integrity. Oppression leads to the loss of one’s own source of life, as in the case of the oppressing Egyptians. Integrity leads to unexpected sources of life, as in the case of the faithful righteous. The author uses the episodes from Israel’s distant history, as recorded in the Torah, as the basis for learning the consequences of injustice and the success of integrity. What was argued from a more philosophical position in the first part of the book is confirmed in the reflection of Israel’s foundational history.
2. The righteous are called to learn from their suffering. Although the author does not touch directly upon the sin of the righteous, the suffering that results from the wrath of God in response to their sin is addressed (16:5–6). The righteous also experienced hunger, and they were ravaged by venomous serpents. What the author asks the reader to conclude from this experience is the purpose of God’s punishment to bring back and to heal ("they were troubled for a little while as a warning" [16:6 NRSV]; "To remind them of your oracles they were bitten, and then were quickly delivered" [16:11 NRSV]; cf. 11:21–24; 12:2; 12:10).
Human suffering is paradoxical and ambiguous at best. Much of the pain and injustice people endure results from others’ disregard for life or unscrupulous desire for gain. It is not easy to differentiate the suffering that comes from outside from the suffering that results from one’s own injustice or failure. Still, so much pain is associated with the mere fact of living, of growing, and of dying. Yet, the suffering that the righteous are said to experience is meant to be a source of learning. They are asked to learn from the consequences of their resistance to God’s ways with the assurance of God’s mercy and power.
The author’s perspective on the suffering of the righteous is consistent with that of the writers of Deuteronomy. The curses of the covenant are meant to be a source of conversion:
When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you. (Deut 30:1–3 NRSV)
Similarly, from the perspective of Deuteronomy, the period of wandering in the desert is the privileged moment of learning God’s ways. Where resources for life are so feeble, the perception of life is intensified (Deuteronomy 8).
For the author of Wisdom, the reflection on the suffering of the righteous, which is due to their own resistance, leads to a reminder of the purpose of God’s interventions. God is powerful and merciful. Even in the midst of trying situations, such as those of the Israelites in the desert, the unexpected can occur to bring healing and sustenance.
WISDOM 16:15–29, THE PLAGUE OF STORMS AND MANNA FROM HEAVEN
This third diptych is located centrally within the diptych system of the midrashic commentary. Its theological import matches its centrality. The author’s positive view of the forces of the universe, which had been touched upon earlier (1:14; 5:17–23; 7:15–22; 9:1–3, 9), reaches its sharpest focus. The forces of the cosmos reside under the sway of divine providence in order to save the just and to thwart the wicked. Essentially, the author contrasts the plague of storms against the Egyptians with the extraordinary rain of manna for the Israelites in the desert. The sources for this contrast are the seventh plague of thunder and hail from Exod 9:13–35 and the episode of the manna’s being provided to the people from Exod 16:1–36 and Num 11:4–9.
16:15–23. All three principles that the author employs throughout the interpretation of the plague narratives coalesce into a unified argument in the third diptych: (1) the source of one’s sin becomes the source of one’s punishment; (2) the very means by which the ungodly are punished are the means of salvation for the just; (3) the cosmos exerts itself on behalf of the righteous and against the ungodly. The main principle being applied in the contrast is that of 11:5; the very source of punishment for the Egyptians becomes the source of blessing for the Israelites. The density of the theological perspective is achieved in the joining of this principle to that of the positive view of creation and the cosmos. Creation itself labors to bring life to the just and justice to the wicked. Finally, the justice of God, which wreaks havoc from the heavens upon the ungodly, is a response to their refusal to recognize God (v. 16).
The particular elements of the cosmos that the author adapts for the plague and manna episodes are those of fire and water. The author interprets these episodes to show how the forces of creation become transformed in order to bring about salvation for the Israelites. Against the ungodly, fire is transformed so that in one case water cannot extinguish it (v. 17); yet in another story water actually intensifies the fire’s heat and destructive power (v. 19). In favor of God’s people, water (snow and ice) withstands the fire (v. 22), and fire itself, even as it is destroying the crops of the ungodly, forgets its natural destructive power regarding the food sent from heaven (v. 23). Some of the Stoic theories contemporary to the author of Wisdom regarding the transforming qualities of the elements are joined to the traditional theme of God’s overriding providence in creation and history.
The opening phrase of the diptych actually links the unit to the preceding reflection of the power of God (v. 15). The idea that it is impossible to escape from God’s hand alludes to Deut 32:39, "no one can deliver from my hand" (NRSV), and to Tob 13:2, "there is nothing that can escape his hand" (NRSV).
In response to their sin of refusing to recognize God, the ungodly are pursued by the strength of God’s power from the heavens in the form of rain and fire. The author extracts two primal elements of the cosmos, water and fire, from the natural phenomenon of the storm with its rain and lightning in the seventh plague of Exodus. The unusual characteristic of these opposing forces is that they unite in destruction (v. 17). On the one hand, fire had an even greater effect within water, its very opposite. On the other hand, not even water could quench the fire so that it might not destroy the other creatures sent against Egypt. The author is supposing the punishments of animals and storms to be taking place contemporaneously, whereas in Exodus they occur sequentially.
The idea that the universe defends the righteous in the symbols of fire and water (v. 17b) is consistent with the positive view of the cosmos the author expounded in the first part of the work. The corollary statement that the universe punishes the unrighteous is made in the second half of the diptych (v. 24). In this way a careful balance is achieved: The ungodly are punished through the cosmos, for the universe defends the righteous (vv. 15–19); the ungodly know this is the judgment of God (v. 18). The righteous are sustained by the cosmos, for creation exerts itself to punish the unrighteous (vv. 20–24). The people of God know that the same destruction relaxed on their behalf that they might be fed (v. 23).
The turn in the diptych (v. 20) contrasts the ravaging storms sent against Egypt with the special food provided to God’s people in the desert. The author employs images of ease, abundance, and rest in association with the bread that came from heaven. They did not toil for it; it provided every pleasure suited to every taste; it was expressive of God’s kindness to them (cf. Deut 6:10–11; 8:3–10).
The contrast of the manna from heaven with the storms from the heavens continues with the images of water and fire. The manna is compared to snow and ice that would not melt in the face of burning fire. The author is exploiting the metaphor of frost, which is employed for the manna in Exod 16:14, "When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground" (NRSV). The comparison of manna to snow based on the metaphor of frost in Exodus is made by Philo and Josephus as well.135 The miraculous endurance of the manna in the threat of fire allows the righteous to know that the fire has relaxed (forgotten its own power) in order that they might survive (vv. 22–23). Just as the ungodly came to know that they were being pursued by the judgment of God (v. 18), so also the righteous came to know that fire was transformed so that they might live.
16:24–29. The final part of the diptych is a theological reflection on the transforming qualities of creation in the light of the gift of manna in the desert. The notion of creation’s exerting itself to punish the wicked is in direct continuity with the ultimate judgment recounted in the first part of Wisdom (5:17–23). There the image of an apocalyptic storm was the author’s vehicle for declaring the eventual demise of lawlessness and injustice. This image of the storm unites the plague diptych of storms and manna to the storm of destruction in the apocalyptic judgment.
A new feature that is articulated clearly in the function of the cosmos is that it actively labors on behalf of those who trust in God (v. 24). Although the idea is expressed in a new formation within the book, it is consistent with the author’s positive view of the universe. Moreover, the direct relationship that was drawn between personified wisdom and creation in the second part of the book (9:1–2, 9–11, 18) prepares for the transference of the positive function of wisdom from human beings to the cosmos. It was through wisdom that human beings were made; wisdom was present at the creation of the world. As a result of its relationship to creation, wisdom knows God’s works and can guide humans to set their paths straight so they may be saved. The wisdom of God and the forces of creation are intimately connected for the wisdom author. Creation is the work of God through wisdom, so that the forces of the cosmos stand on the side of the just and against the wicked (cf. 14:2–7).
The author’s background metaphor for the adaptation of creation to justice and injustice employs two verbs, "exert" (ἐπιτείνω epiteinō) and "release" (ἀνίημι aniēmi). Creation exerts or tenses itself against the unrighteous, but relaxes or releases itself on behalf of the just. These verbs connote the tension and release of a cord, whether for a bow or for a musical instrument. Tonal assonance and dissonance were used frequently in Greek philosophical circles. It was a favorite metaphor employed by the Stoics to describe the harmony or disharmony of the constitution of the pneuma. The right tension constituted health; the wrong tension involved sickness. The wisdom author will return to the metaphor of musical tones to describe the transforming qualities of creation that make a many-faceted harmony (19:18–21).
The author finally draws forth from the argument of the transformation of creation its intent and purpose, which the just will learn from their experience. The focus on the intent "to know" was already made within the diptych, both with respect to the unjust and to the righteous (vv. 18, 22). The just are to learn and take to heart the fact that the source of sustenance and life for human beings is the Word of God (v. 26).
The author’s turn of phrase is a more rigorous adaptation of the declaration in Deut 8:3 that human beings do not live on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (cf. Matt 4:4). Although the manna that is referred to in Deuteronomy did not come directly from the mouth of God, God’s Word commanded its presence. What is stated as a gradation in Deuteronomy is articulated through antithesis in Wisdom. It is not the production of crops that feeds humans, but the Word of God that sustains those who trust in God. Philo adapted the phrase in Deut 8:3 into a similar antithetical formulation, making a formal distinction between the body and the soul, which the Wisdom author presumes: "You see that the soul is fed not with things of earth that decay, but with such words as God shall have poured like rain out of that lofty and pure region of life to which the prophet has given the title ‘heaven.’ "
The author draws one final moral conclusion from observing the adapting qualities of the manna to fire and to the rays of the sun. It is important to be grateful to God for the marvelous interventions in one’s life. The manna could not be destroyed by fire, yet a single ray of sunlight would melt it at the appropriate time (v. 27). The mention of the rays of the sun melting the manna is an allusion to Exod 16:21. Moses commanded that the manna be collected by the Israelites in the morning, according to the need of each person, for when the sun grew hot the manna would melt. From this observation the author draws forth an exhortation to observe the pious practice expressed in the psalms: The faithful rise before the sun to express their prayer of thanksgiving or lament to God (Pss 5:3; 55:17; 57:8–9; 88:13).
The concluding remark in which the hopelessness of an ungrateful heart is compared to melting frost (v. 29) is occasioned by the previous image of the melting manna (v. 27). It recalls the language and imagery associated with the wicked in the first part of the book. The wicked had compared the evanescence of their lives to mist that is chased away by the rays of the sun (2:4). After their confession of guilt, the hope of the ungodly is compared to thistledown carried by the wind and to a frost driven away by a storm (5:14).
1. The particular virtue that the author expounds from the diptych on the plague of storms and the gift of manna is gratitude. Although gratitude has not been a particular focus throughout the arguments and presentations of the author, the author’s disposition of praising God throughout the midrashic treatment of the exodus is certainly marked by a pervading attitude of thanksgiving. It is out of thanksgiving that the author turns to God directly throughout the final part of Wisdom in order to express praise and wonder (10:20–21; 11:21–26; 12:15–16; 14:3–7; 15:1–3; 16:12–13; 19:9, 22). Reflection on Israel’s blessed history brings knowledge of the extraordinary interventions of God and the workings of creation on behalf of the faithful.
2. The forces of creation are on the side of justice. Even though this principle marks the entire book of Wisdom, nowhere is the author’s theological perspective on creation enunciated with greater clarity. Creation rests in service of God, who formed it by battling injustice and coming to the aid of the righteous (16:24). Assertions on the positive function of creation dominate all three parts of the book. It is one of the unifying themes of the three divergent sections (chaps. 1–6; 7–10; 11–19) that form the author’s argument into a coherent whole. The forces of creation are declared to be wholesome (1:14). Creation itself is armed by God to redress injustice (5:17–23). Personified wisdom is able to direct human beings on their paths because it was present at the creation of the universe and knows all of God’s works (9:9). Throughout the author’s presentation of the exodus events, the principle of the goodness of creation becomes the interpretative key for explaining the plight of the oppressors and the sustenance of the faithful.
3. Are natural phenomena an expression of moral integrity or dissolution? The third diptych presents the principle of the goodness of creation in terms of the punishment of the ungodly and the sustenance of the faithful through the natural phenomena of atmospheric storms and food. Does the author imply that all natural disasters are creation’s response to human moral bankruptcy? Conversely, are all forms of deliverance and sustenance creation’s response to human moral virtue? The answer must be an unequivocal no.
In the first part of Wisdom, the author argued vehemently against the apparent success of injustice and the apparent fruitlessness and failure of virtue. There the author argued that, in the long run, the moral vacuity of unjust people would be laid bare. In the long run, the moral fruitfulness of the virtuous would bring immortality. But tragedies, failures, and death itself befall all human beings. The experience of death for the just was tragic, like a holocaust and like gold tested in fire. Even Solomon recognizes the fragility of his life through the image of his cry at birth, which was like that of all human beings.
The emphasis on the author’s application of the principle of the goodness of creation is consistent with the argument in the first part of the book. Eventually, moral vacuity is laid bare for what it is. There are consequences to a life of injustice. Injustice bears within it the seeds of its own destruction. Similarly, there are consequences to a life of justice. Although appearances may be to the contrary, a life of justice contains within it the seeds that eventually will blossom into union with God. The author employs the exodus events as a sign of divine judgment from Israel’s foundational history. The interpretation of the plagues against the oppressors of Israel and the extraordinary interventions of God on behalf of the faithful are meant to assure the reader of the eventual consequences of injustice and justice.
WISDOM 17:1–18:4, PLAGUE OF DARKNESS AND A PILLAR OF FIRE
The fourth diptych contrasts the plague of darkness that engulfed the Egyptians during the ninth plague with the light that accompanied the Israelites in the desert. This diptych shows the author’s imaginative, interpretative, and poetic skills at their highest level. The source from Exodus regarding the ninth plague is brief, indeed (Exod 10:21–23). Yet, the fourth diptych, which is inspired by it, is of considerable length. The passage contains a varied vocabulary with more than fifty words occurring only in this unit within the entire book. Some words are familiar, but others are rare and carefully selected.
The author combines several literary and stylistic features that betray a complex style of Alexandrian writing. Often, it is difficult to recognize or appreciate these features in translation. Hebrew does not make extensive use of adjectives, but the author employs the Greek technique of using adjectival phrases throughout the diptych ("a dark curtain," 17:3; "the powerless night," 17:14; "the inescapable fate," 17:17; "a whistling wind," 17:18). Nouns are employed as qualities ("curtain of forgetfulness," 17:3; "power of fire," 17:5; "the rush of water," 17:18). Metaphors abound throughout the passage ("self-kindled fire," 17:6; "one chain of darkness," 17:17; "the heavy night," 17:21). Antitheses are used with dramatic effect ("lawless people"/"holy nation," 17:2; "brilliant flames"/"hateful night," 17:5). Use is made of a seven-part linked series of images of terror in 17:18–19, which is reminiscent of the six-part chain syllogism of the sorites employed in 6:17–20.
In addition, the relative brevity of the description of the ninth plague in Exodus invites the author to explore the symbolism and the psychological drama of the terror of darkness. This entrance into the symbolism and drama of the fear caused by the heavy darkness parallels the author’s entrance into the reasoning process and confession of the wicked in the first part of the book (5:2–14). The two passages are made parallel by the concentration of the dramatic result of terror and fear: "they will be shaken with dreadful fear" (5:2 NRSV); "they perished in trembling fear" (17:10). The author may very well have been familiar with the literary genre known as "descents into Hades," which at one point attempted to portray the terror and fear of those who are burdened with guilt.
Although this is the only diptych in which God or the Lord is not explicitly mentioned, the direct speech both at the beginning (17:1) and at the end of the unit (18:15) retains the quality of praise directed to God.
17:2–6. The sin of the oppressors, which elicits the punishment of the imprisoning night, is described through two images: the imprisonment of the holy nation and the hiding of their sin behind the dark curtain of forgetfulness (vv. 2–3). Again the author attempts to show how the particular punishment of the ninth plague corresponds to the manner in which the oppressors sinned against the righteous. Since the righteous have been imprisoned, the oppressors experience an imprisonment of paralyzing fear arising from darkness.
A considerable amount of effort is spent to dramatize the elusive form of terror that has stricken the Egyptians. The author makes up for the relative brevity of the ninth plague with a vivid imagination of the terrors of the night. But all of the images of fear and terror are interpreted by the author finally as metaphorical language. The terror of the night represents the burden of guilt the oppressors are to themselves (v. 21). The author displays a great deal of psychological dexterity in exploring the debilitating effects of fear and hopelessness caused by a guilty conscience.
The idea of the Egyptians’ hiding or concealing their oppression (v. 3) recalls Adam and Eve hiding in the garden after their disobedience (Gen 3:8; cf. Cain’s disclaimer of knowing the whereabouts of his brother, Gen 4:9). The terrible darkness that engulfs them cannot be illumined either by fire or by the shining stars (vv. 3–6). In this way the author continues the theme that the elements change their normal qualities and functions for the purpose of redressing injustice, from the third diptych. Their inner fear is described by the author as a "self-kindled fire" (v. 6), which emphasizes their personal responsibility for their punishment.
17:7–10. The idea that the magic art and wisdom of the Egyptians was humbled with their failure to dispel the darkness depends on a contrast between the first few plagues and the later ones. The Egyptian magicians were able to match the signs and wonders of the first two plagues of blood and frogs (Exod 7:22; 8:7; cf. Exod 7:11). But during the third plague, that of gnats, the magicians failed to reproduce the signs of Moses and Aaron and admitted that the finger of God was present (Exod 8:18–19). The magicians themselves would become helplessly covered with boils in the sixth plague (Exod 9:11).
17:11–15. The author enters into a quasi-philosophical presentation of the fear that pursued the oppressors in the darkness (vv. 11–13). The punishing fear is brought into moral perspective. It is the result of wickedness, which is condemned by its own testimony of cowardice. It is compared to the burden of conscience that exaggerates the difficulties at hand. Fear is defined as the abrogation of reason, which prefers the stupor of not knowing the cause of punishment.
Where exactly the author derives such reflections is unclear. The idea of the conscience is more at home in the Greek philosophical schools than in Hebrew thought. However, the reflection is consistent with the views the author has enunciated throughout the work regarding the responsibility of wickedness and the positive function of reason. The idea that wickedness is condemned by its own testimony parallels the author’s declaration regarding the fruit of the wicked, which will bear witness against the parents at the time of accounting (4:4–6). The idea that wickedness gives up on reason and prefers ignorance contrasts well with the positive function of wisdom, which is the source of understanding and virtue (7:7–14; 8:2–8).
The philosophical currents of Hellenism, particularly of the moralists, such as the Epicureans and the Stoics, gave considerable space to the anguish that a guilty conscience could exercise. The author of the book of Wisdom appears to be arguing that the resulting fear and cowardice of the oppressing conscience prefers ignorance, which actually compounds the torment of the one plagued by guilt. Plutarch relates a similar idea, "But fear alone, lacking no less in boldness than in power to reason, keeps its irrationality impotent, helpless and hopeless."140
17:16–17. The author continues with a series of images that are meant to describe and even mimic the perplexing and debilitating fear that resulted from the punishing darkness. Fear is described as an imprisoning power ("a prison not made of iron," v. 16), which contrasts with the power Egypt exercised over the holy nation (v. 2). It is all inclusive. The Exodus narrative insists on the general application of the plagues on humans, animals, and the land itself. Here the author chooses three specific walks of life to characterize the all-encompassing darkness. Darkness strikes farmers, shepherds, and laborers (v. 17). The qualification of the laborer who toils in the wilderness has led to several conjectures. What would a worker be doing in the wilderness? The Greek noun that signifies "wilderness" (ἐρημία erēmia) also refers to solitude. Thus it could very well refer to a qualitative aspect of laboring in solitude rather than to one of location, laboring in the desert. David Winston offers another possibility that could have arisen from the social conditions of Egypt in the first century ce. Due to heavy taxes levied on the inhabitants during the Ptolemaic period, but especially in the Roman period, workers escaped to the desert as a form of protest. In any event, the import of the author’s argument is that the chain of darkness bound all who were part of the oppression against the holy nation.
17:18–19. The seven-part linked series of images of terror describes through poetic imagery the paralysis of terror. Images from the animal world and from the elements of creation describe poetically a cause of terror that goes beyond all expectations: whistling wind, the sound of birds, rushing water, crash of rocks, leaping animals, roaring beasts, and the echo from mountains. This concentration of poetic imagery to convey the punishment of the wicked is reminiscent of the poetic imagery used by the wicked in the first part of the book. There the author employed poetic imagery from nature to describe the transience and the hopelessness of the wicked (2:1–5; 5:9–14).
17:20–21. The final reflection on the all-encompassing darkness contrasts the darkness that fell on the Egyptians with the light of the whole world. Everyone else goes about his or her work unhindered, whereas the Egyptians are plagued with the heaviness of darkness. As if to single out the personal responsibility of those who have oppressed the holy nation, the author emphasizes that on them alone the heavy night had spread. This is consistent with the events as described briefly in the ninth plague in Exod 10:21–23. Even heavier than this all-encompassing darkness are the guilty to themselves. This perception of personal guilt parallels the confession of the wicked in the first part of the book. After seeing the deliverance of the righteous, the wicked are tormented by a dreadful fear (5:2).
18:1–2. While the dreadful darkness plagued Egypt, the righteous experienced a very great light (v. 1). The reference to this light for Israel is the same as that mentioned in 17:20. While the Egyptians were experiencing darkness, the holy ones experienced a great light. The positive response of the Egyptians to the Israelites’ escape from the darkness (vv. 1–2) is an interpretation of Exod 11:2–3 and 12:33–36. After the tenth plague, the Egyptians themselves urged the Israelites to flee. They even gave the Israelites the silver and gold they asked for. The author interprets this external gesture as a brief sign of repentance before the foolish decision to pursue them once again is made (19:3).
18:3. The theme of light leads the author to reflect on the pillar of fire that accompanied Israel in the desert during the night and on the harmless sun during the day. The pillar of fire constitutes the prime antithesis to the plague of darkness. In this way, the righteous experience a blessing through the light in darkness just as the oppressors experience a punishment through the all-encompassing darkness. The source for the image of the pillar of fire is Exod 13:21–22. Only in this passage from Exodus in addition to the Wisdom text is the source of fire described as a "pillar." Elsewhere the source of light is described as a "cloud" or as a "fiery light" (Exod 40:38; Num 9:15–16; Ps 78:14, the fiery light is parallel to the cloud by day; cf. Ps 105:39).
The author makes no reference to the pillar of cloud by day (Exod 13:21), perhaps in order to sustain the theme of light. The sun was the source of light during the day, and it had no scorching or burning effect (cf. Isa 49:10).
18:4. The conclusion to the diptych reaffirms the connection between the oppressors’ sin of imprisoning the righteous and the ensuing punishment of imprisoning darkness. It illustrates one of the main principles the author has been expounding throughout the diptychs: One is punished in accordance with one’s sins. The very seed of punishment is contained in the sin. In this way, the diptych is enclosed by the inclusion of the theme of imprisoning darkness (17:2; 18:4).
The theme of light is reintroduced through the image of the universality of the law. The imprisoned people were the ones through whom the light of the law was to be given to the world. The author interprets the gift of the law as a light not only for Israel but also for the world. This understanding of the universality of the law follows that of Isaiah and Micah: "All nations shall stream to the holy mountain, for out of Zion shall go forth instruction" (Isa 2:2–3; Mic 4:1–4, author’s trans.). Philo likewise stressed the universal purpose of the law by describing it as "a law for the world." Earlier the author of Wisdom described the wicked as not walking in the light of justice (5:6). The light of the law will illuminate the paths of truth. The responsibility of the righteous, then, is to transmit the law of justice to the world.
1. The fourth diptych explores primarily the psychologically damaging effect of injustice as it is conveyed through fear and hopelessness. The antithesis regarding the pillar of light is treated briefly in comparison to the imprisoning darkness that engulfs the enemies. One of the interesting features the author picks up from the exodus narrative to emphasize the unguided nature of injustice is the absence of reason. Through fear the unjust give up the help of reason. The author is interpreting the resistance of Pharaoh from the exodus narrative as the absence of reason. Despite all the evidence accumulated from the plagues, and despite the advice of his own wise counselors, Pharaoh persists in a policy of injustice that leads to destruction. Whereas Exodus attributes this folly to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, the Wisdom author attributes this action on the part of the oppressors as resulting from the absence of reason (17:12–13). By refusing to read the signs of the times and interpret them with humility, the oppressors prefer ignorance. This ignorance begins to weigh heavily on them in the form of fear and guilt. In the Gospels, Christ also is said to interpret the refusal to read the signs of the times as a consequence of wickedness or moral blindness (Matt 16:1–4; Mark 8:11–13; Luke 12:54–56).
2. The theme of the first half of the diptych revolves around irony. The oppressors who imprison the righteous become imprisoned by terror and darkness themselves. This irony is reflective of the situation of the wicked in the first part of the book. There the wicked had formulated a plot whereby they would test the claims of the just by subjecting them to a "shameful death" (2:20). Yet in the end, at the time of accounting, the wicked experience terror and fear over their lack of virtue when they face the blessing of the righteous. They describe their state of anguish through images of death (5:9–14). They planned to subject the just one to a shameful death, yet they become subjected to the shame of their virtueless lives. Similarly, with the oppressors of the "holy nation," those who imprison the righteous are themselves in a prison of darkness. The master becomes enslaved in the process of enslaving others. The very form of one’s injustice determines one’s punishment.
3. Another side to this irony is the distance between the bravado and apparent strength of the oppressors and their cowardly behavior before seemingly innocent natural phenomena and harmless animals. This state also parallels the wicked in the first part of the book, whose apparent bravado with respect to the pleasures of life only masked the underlying despair and terror they finally revealed.
4. The extraordinary deliverance of the just through light parallels the deliverance of the just in the first part of the book. The author postulates firm hope in the promises of life for the just because of the great memories of deliverance of the righteous from the past. What takes place in history is seen to form a basis for imagining the unseen future. Although the author did not explain the where, when, and how of the deliverance of the just in the first part of the book, the firm belief in such a deliverance is postulated through a reflection on Israel’s foundational history.
WISDOM 18:5–19:12, DEATH OF THE ENEMIES AND ISRAEL’S DELIVERANCE
The fifth and final diptych contrasts the death of the Egyptians with the extraordinary deliverance of the Israelites. The antithesis is presented in two stages: (1) The death of the firstborn in Egypt contrasts with the deliverance of the Israelites at the hands of Aaron’s intercession in the desert (18:5–25); (2) the death of the ungodly in the sea contrasts with the extraordinary deliverance of the Israelites through the sea (19:1–12). The sin of the oppressors, which the author cites as the root for the double-pronged punishment, is the killing of the Hebrew children by drowning them in the Nile (18:5). The oppressors experience a punishment according to the manner in which they mete out injustice. For the killing of the children, they will lose their own children. For killing the children by drowning, they will experience punishment by drowning in the sea. The book of Jubilees draws the same connection between the killing of the Hebrew infants and the punishment by drowning in the sea:
And all of the people whom he brought out to pursue after Israel the Lord our God threw into the middle of the sea into the depths of the abyss beneath the children of Israel. Just as the men of Egypt cast their sons into the river he avenged one million. And one thousand strong and ardent men perished on account of one infant whom they threw into the midst of the river from the sons of your people. (Jub. 48:14)
Note the parallelism drawn between the first and the final diptych. Both diptychs deal with the same sin of the oppressors against the righteous. The sin the author cites as eliciting the punishment of water turning to blood is the decree that the infants be killed in the Nile (11:6–7). In this way, the entire series of diptychs (chaps. 11–19) is enclosed by the theme of water. The Nile itself became a source of punishment at the beginning of the cycle of plagues, and the sea turns into a source of punishment at the very end. Just as the righteous experienced a blessing through the gift of water in the desert, so too did they experience their foundational deliverance by a safe passage through the sea. Moreover, the theme of water returns the reader to the conclusion of the history of wisdom’s interventions on behalf of the just in chap. 10. It was the theme of the extraordinary deliverance at the Red Sea that occasioned the lengthy midrashic treatment of the exodus events (10:15–21).
18:5–19, Death of the Firstborn. At the very beginning of the diptych, the author brings together the double response of God’s punishment to Pharaoh’s decree regarding the Hebrew infants (v. 5). The first response refers to the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn among the Egyptians. The second response refers to the destruction of Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. The brief reference to the abandonment and rescue of the infant Moses provides a familiar link to Pharaoh’s decree (Exod 1:22; 2:1–10). The threat and deliverance of the infant Moses prefigure the threat and extraordinary deliverance of the entire people.
The theme of the ancestors’ foreknowledge of both the destruction of Egyptian oppression and their own deliverance underscores the continuous providence of God. In addition to the ancestors at the time of Moses, the author is alluding to the ancestors of the patriarchs. The ancestors’ foreknowledge (v. 6) alludes to the covenant with Abram during the terrifying darkness that descended upon him. The message given to Abram after the "fire pot" descends and passes between the animal parts offered for sacrifice includes the history of Israel’s four-hundred-year oppression. That period of oppression will be followed by judgment against the Egyptians and by the Israelites’ extraordinary deliverance (Gen 15:12–16).
The author contrasts the situations of the righteous and the oppressors just before the administration of the tenth plague. The reference to the offering of sacrifices by the holy children in accordance with the divine law alludes to the institution of the passover feast (Exod 12:1–28). The paschal meal is understood as an expression of the praise of God in anticipation of the blessings and dangers that all would share and witness (v. 9). The image of "holy children of good people" is a new formulation for designating the righteous.
In contrast to this sacrifice of praise on the part of the holy ones, the oppressors’ lament at the loss of their children passes throughout the land, from the greatest to the least. The universality of the tragedy is presented through word pairs, slave and master, commoner and king (vv. 10–12). The image of the tragedy’s being so massive that the oppressors can hardly bury their dead (v. 12) is not present in Exodus. It may very well have been inspired by Num 33:3–4: "the Israelites went out boldly in the sight of all the Egyptians, while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the Lord had struck down among them" (NRSV).
The particular wording the author employs to describe the release of God’s people after the experience of the tenth plague is reminiscent of the speech of the wicked. The oppressors acknowledged the just to be "God’s child" (v. 13). The author attributes the Egyptians’ reluctance to release the Hebrews to their magic arts. Only the death of their firstborn forced the Egyptians to recognize their slaves as "God’s children." In the first part of the book, the wicked had derided the just one for claiming God’s paternity (2:16). Moreover, they planned to subject the just one to a shameful death because of this claim (2:18–20). Just as the wicked had to acknowledge that the just are counted among the "children of God" (5:5), so too do the oppressors of God’s people acknowledge those whom they had oppressed to be "God’s child." The author’s use of this image in the tenth plague is facilitated by the reason given in Exodus for the release of the Hebrews: "Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me’ " (Exod 4:22–23 NRSV).
The parallel between the judgment of death in the fifth diptych and the judgment against the wicked in the first part of the book continues with the description of the "destroyer" from Exod 12:23 (5:17–23; 18:15–16). The destroyer is described as God’s "all-powerful word" and as "a stern warrior" stretching from heaven to earth (v. 15), who wields a sharp sword filling all things with death (v. 16; cf. 5:20). Wickedness undergoes a judgment of cosmic proportions in the first part of the book, just as the oppressors of the holy ones meet their judgment of death in the final part.
Finally, the author alludes to the previous plague of darkness in the fourth diptych. The purpose of this is to highlight the effect of judgment to reveal the purpose of the punishment. The same apparitions, dreadful dreams, and unexpected fears as in the plague of darkness came upon them to remind them of their function of forewarning. In this way they understood why death had touched them and why they suffered (vv. 18–19).
18:20–25, Aaron’s Intercession. The contrast to the destruction of the oppressors’ firstborn is markedly different from the previous contrasts of the four diptychs. The contrast ordinarily presents the principle that the very means used to punish the Egyptians are used in some manner to deliver the just. In this case, the punishment that befalls the destroyer will occur to the just for their rebellion in the desert. The contrast consists of the saving intervention on the part of Aaron.
It would appear that the author is addressing a possible objection that might arise in the mind of the reader. It is true that Israel experienced extraordinary acts of deliverance in the desert. However, the Israelites also experienced death and destruction in response to their stubbornness and rebellious spirits. The author addresses their punishment without dwelling on the spirit of rebellion. The situation of the righteous differs from that of the oppressors in that the punishment of the righteous was not total. Because of the intercession of Aaron, the hand of the destroyer was stayed.
The episode being addressed is the punishment of the plague, which the Israelites experienced in the desert (Num 16:1–50). In response to the punishment meted out for the levitical rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, the people assembled against Moses and Aaron. The plague destroyed 14,700 people before Aaron stopped it by making atonement for the people.
This episode picked up by the author in the fifth diptych is similar to the episode of the venomous serpents, treated as a digression in the second diptych. In both cases, the punishment of the just, which is only temporary, is a response to their rebellion. It was stopped by the intercession of Moses (through the brazen serpent) and Aaron. Similarly, in both cases, the punishment is addressed without stressing the sinfulness of the people that had given rise to the experience of death. The reason for this is probably that the author judged it unfitting to be overtly critical of the righteous while contrasting their plight to that of their oppressors. Nonetheless, the recognition of the punishment in the episode of the venomous serpents and the plague in the desert reaffirms the author’s judgment from the first part of the book: Punishment and ultimate death are brought upon people through their unjust decisions and actions.
The author employs a number of images for the plague that struck the righteous to make it parallel to the tenth plague against the Egyptians. The plague is referred to as "the experience of death" (v. 20; cf. 2:24). In both cases, the end result of the plague was numerous dead ("corpses too many to count," v. 12; "when the dead had already fallen on one another in heaps," v. 23).
The contrast between the punishment of the oppressors and the punishment of the righteous also is related through similar imagery. Whereas God’s word against the oppressors was described as a "stern warrior" who carried a "sharp sword" (vv. 15–16), Aaron’s intercession is described as a "shield" that subdued "the avenger" through his "word" (vv. 21–22).
To supplement the brief description of Aaron’s atonement with the censer of atonement from Num 16:47, the author describes Aaron’s intervention as an appeal to God’s oaths and promises. In Numbers, Aaron does not intercede for the people. Rather, in response to Moses’ command, he conducts a ritual of atonement with the censer for the people. The idea of intercession is borrowed from the intercessory interventions of Moses to save the people from God’s wrath. In order to stave off the wrath of God against the people, Moses appeals to the promises of God sworn to the ancestors (Exod 32:11–14; cf. Num 14:13–24).
Finally, the author alludes to the priestly robe of Aaron, with its ephod, and the diadem before which the destroyer yielded (vv. 24–25). The ephod, which was placed on Aaron’s priestly robe, was to contain two onyx stones on which "all the names of the sons of Israel" were to be engraved (Exod 28:6–14). The idea that the robe contained a depiction of the world (v. 24) expresses the author’s universalistic perception of God’s rule. The cosmos is on the side of God, for God is its creator. Philo makes a similar point with allegorical overtones that the Wisdom author is less prone to make. The robe of the high priest is described as a likeness and copy of the entire universe. Its dark blue color symbolizes the air, its full length symbolizing the recesses of the earth; its breastplate symbolizes heaven; the twelve precious stones arranged in four rows symbolize the twelve signs of the zodiac.
19:1–5, The Strange Death. In contrast to the temporary anger of God against the righteous, the oppressors experienced the pitiless anger of God to the end (v. 1). The author alludes to Pharaoh’s foolish decision to change his mind despite the release granted to the Israelites. The underlying dynamic here is that the oppressors’ injustice is to reach completion in their punishment (v. 4). This idea is consistent with the author’s emphasis throughout the work that injustice bears the seeds of its own destruction. Very little is said regarding the final judgment against the oppressors. It is summarized in the concise image of "a strange death." In contrast to the strange death of the oppressors, the righteous experience an incredible journey.
19:6–12, Creation Is Fashioned Anew. The contrast with the strange death of the oppressors is dramatized through the extraordinary moment of deliverance at the Red Sea. The author harnesses the positive function of the cosmos to highlight the final moment of salvation for God’s people. Creation itself was transformed in order to redress injustice (cf. 16:24). It is as if the crossing of the sea unhindered on "a grassy plain" summarizes succinctly both the punishments of the oppressors and all the acts of deliverance recounted in the diptychs. Just as the sea was the means of the ultimate judgment against the oppressors (18:5), so too is the sea the means of the ultimate deliverance of the righteous (v. 7).
The praise of God expressed through images of ranging horses and leaping lambs (v. 9) recalls the joy expressed for deliverance in the Song of Moses (Exod 15:1–18) and in the Song of Miriam (Exod 15:20–21). Psalm 114 employs the image of skipping rams and lambs (Ps 114:4–6) to express the joy of creation at the deliverance of Israel. The comparison of the joyful righteous to ranging horses may be a contrast to the traditional image of the destruction of the "horse and rider" (Exod 15:1, 21 NRSV). Isaiah speaks of Israel’s passing through the depths like "a horse in a desert" (Isa 63:13 NRSV).
In experiencing the extraordinary deliverance through the sea, the righteous remember the manner in which creation had come continuously to their aid against the unjust (v. 10). Against the unrighteous, the earth produced gnats and the river spewed forth frogs instead of fish, recalling the third (Exod 8:16) and second plagues (Exod 8:1–6). In favor of the righteous, a new kind of bird came up from the sea to give them relief when they desire food (v. 12; cf. Num 11:31). The creation of animals, as recounted in Gen 1:20–25, undergoes a metamorphosis in the exodus event in favor of the righteous.
1. The author has been drawing a parallel between the wicked in the first part of the book and the Egyptian oppressors in the latter half of the book. That parallel is all the more evident in the final diptych with the judgment of the final plague and the strange death at the Red Sea. Just as the judgment against wickedness is exercised through the arming of creation, so too is the final judgment against the oppressors of God’s people exercised through the transformation of creation itself. The images that highlight the parallelism in the two sections are the following: creation’s being armed to repel the enemies (5:17); "stern wrath for a sword" (5:20 NRSV); "the water of the sea" (5:22 NRSV); "the whole creation in its nature was fashioned anew" (19:6 NRSV); "a stern warrior carrying the sharp sword" (18:15–16 NRSV); "you destroyed them all together by a mighty flood" (18:5 NRSV).
Note the pedagogical function of the author’s interpretation of the final plague. In the first part of the book, the author labored to defend a life of virtue and justice in the face of apparent failure and weakness. The virtue and justice of the righteous appeared to be weak and fruitless compared with the apparent strength of the unjust. Death, in its many expressions of mortality, punishment, and ultimate judgment, was uncovered as being an obstacle to the exercise of justice. The wicked feared and despised a life stamped by mortality and weakness. By postulating an ultimate judgment, the author strips away the apparent weakness of the just as well as the facade of the wicked’s power. The entire midrashic treatment of the exodus interprets the foundational experience of Israel’s liberation as the basis for postulating the final judgment. Just as creation labors on the side of the just to bring salvation and judgment to the righteous and to the wicked, as seen throughout the exodus narrative, so also then will there be an ultimate judgment that reveals the ultimate power and fruitfulness of a virtuous and just life.
2. A further parallelism is drawn between the Word of God in the final diptych and personified wisdom in the center of the book. Wisdom was described as residing beside the throne of God (9:10), as being all powerful (7:22). In the final diptych, God’s all-powerful word leaps from heaven, from the royal throne (18:15). Although wisdom by name does not play a crucial role in the final part of the book, the saving activity of wisdom continues to be present. The activity of wisdom is to guide, to protect, and to rescue human beings on their paths in life (7:27; 8:2–8; 9:18; 10:1–21). In the final diptych, the activity of wisdom is fulfilled through God’s Word and in the forces of creation, which were made through wisdom. The forces of the cosmos fulfill the function of wisdom, and wisdom becomes transparent in the struggle for justice between the righteous and their oppressors.
3. The experience of death touches the righteous as well as the wicked (18:20). The author does not develop to a great extent the theme of conversion. Perhaps the literary technique of comparing and contrasting the wicked and the righteous did not lend itself to developing the theme of conversion. In the digression on God’s power and mercy, the issue of conversion was addressed at least in part. The experiences of punishment are interpreted as providing an opportunity for a change of heart and for conversion in one’s life (11:23; 12:2, 10, 20). However, the recognition that the righteous experience punishment underscores the life-and-death consequences of decisions and actions. Even the righteous, treated collectively, rebelled against God and experienced the consequences of their actions. But it was a punishment that did not lead to an ultimate, tragic judgment. Aaron’s intercession is a sign of the people’s conversion. Just to test the wrath of God was enough (18:25).
4. The theme of creation’s being fashioned anew highlights the author’s positive view of the forces of creation. This reflection has accompanied the reader throughout the midrashic treatment of the exodus narrative. It is one of the unitive themes that weave a thread throughout the three diverse parts of the book. The elements of creation that served to thwart the resistance of the oppressors are transformed continuously to guide and protect the righteous in their struggle for life. The locus for evil and tragedy is not to be found in the forces of creation. Rather, tragedy resides in the decisions and actions of human beings. Creation itself is a creature of God whose energies are ultimately directed to bringing life to completion. The function of wisdom to guide, to protect, and to save is exercised by creation, which was made according to God’s wisdom.
WISDOM 19:13–22, FINAL REFLECTIONS
The final reflections of the author can be divided into three brief sections: (1) vv. 13–17, the punishment of the Egyptians; (2) vv. 18–21, the transformation of creation; and (3) v. 22, a concluding summary of praise to God. The author is distilling the essential features from the reflections of the extraordinary deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. The oppressors suffered justly because of their wickedness toward the righteous (v. 13). The elements of the cosmos underwent a transformation in order to maintain harmony (v. 18). God’s faithfulness has exalted and glorified the righteous (v. 22). Although the author is bringing the reflection on the exodus to a close, new themes are introduced to emphasize the extraordinary salvation of the just.
The statement that declares the punishment of the oppressors to be just corresponds to the ethical perspective the author has been pursuing throughout the book. There were signs that warned the wicked of the sinister results of their actions (v. 13; cf. 12:1–2, 10; 14:30–31). The successive plagues in the exodus narrative were meant to warn the oppressors of the inherent tragedy of their injustice.
19:13–17. A new argument for the just punishment of the oppressors is introduced with the theme of hospitality to guests and strangers (vv. 13d–14). The author interprets the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt as their being strangers and guests who originally were welcome benefactors, yet became enslaved. The background detail for the author’s observation on hospitality is the story of Joseph and his brothers, who were welcomed in Egypt as strangers. The children of these strangers became the benefactors of the Egyptians in the governorship of Joseph. They became enslaved, however, by the very people who had benefited from his services (Genesis 41–42; 46–47; Exodus 1). The reference covers a large span of history. The book of Exodus recounts how after Jacob’s family had multiplied and grown strong in Egypt, a pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph. This pharaoh set a policy in motion that treated the Hebrews as slaves.
The guilt of the Egyptian oppressors is highlighted by the comparison between those who did not welcome guests in the first place and those who welcome them only to enslave them. The author is alluding to the inhabitants of Sodom who wanted to abuse the guests of Lot (Gen 19:1–11). The punishment of the inhabitants of Sodom became a paradigmatic motif of sin and punishment in Scripture (cf. Deut 29:23; 32:32; Isa 1:9; 3:9; 13:19; Jer 23:14; 50:40; Lam 4:6; Ezek 16:48–56; Matt 10:15; 11:23; Luke 17:29; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7). Often the comparison of a contemporary sin to that of Sodom is made in order to highlight the greater culpability of the contemporary generation (cf. Lam 4:6; Matt 10:15). This greater seriousness and culpability of the sin of Egypt is exactly what the Wisdom author wishes to emphasize by comparing Egypt to Sodom. If it is a great sin not to receive a stranger with hospitality, as in the case of the inhabitants of Sodom, so much greater is the sin of receiving strangers only to enslave them, as in the case of Egypt.
Corresponding to the sins of both Sodom and Egypt is the punishment of darkness. The author draws a comparison between the form of punishment for the sins of inhospitality and slavery. The Egyptians were stricken with the loss of sight in the ninth plague (Exod 10:21–23; cf. Wis 17:1–21). The aggressors against Lot were struck by blindness so that they could not find the entrance to the door (Gen 19:11).
Two details in the author’s treatment of the hostility of Sodom and Egypt toward strangers possibly relate to the contemporary situation of the author. These details consist of the theme of hospitality to strangers (vv. 13–14) and the notice of someone’s being enslaved who had shared the same rights as those who enslave him (v. 16).
Reference to the inhospitality of Egypt to the ancestors may be the author’s reversal of the polemic levied against Jews by contemporary pagans. The Jews were often accused of secluding themselves from people of other nationalities and fostering a hatred of aliens. Philo vehemently attacked such false accusations and interpreted the slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt in the same manner as did the Wisdom author:
"So, then, these strangers, who had left their own country and came to Egypt hoping to live there in safety as in a second fatherland, were made slaves by the ruler of the country.… And in thus making serfs of men who were not only free but guests, suppliants, and settlers, he showed no shame or fear of the God of liberty and hospitality and of justice to guests and suppliants."
The reference to the Hebrews’ being reduced to slavery after having shared equal rights (v. 16) possibly alludes to the polemic for equal rights and citizenship that Alexandrian Jews waged under Roman rule. Originally, the Jews welcomed Roman authority, to the consternation of the Egyptian natives and Greeks alike. According to Philo, Augustus confirmed the right for the Jewish community in Alexandria to maintain its autonomous status.
Between the death of Augustus in 14 ce and the letter of Claudius (41–54 ce) to the Alexandrians, confirming the status quo, the Jewish community was in serious conflict with the Greek population in Alexandria. Not only was a special tax imposed on all non-Greek citizens by the Romans in 24 bce, but also Emperor Caligula (37–41 ce) demanded divine status for himself. Both burdens were rejected by the faithful within the Jewish community. This put them into conflict with the Greeks, who successfully barred those who were demanding access to the gymnasia from attaining Greek citizenship. Philo headed the delegation sent to Caligula to reestablish equal rights, but without success. Caligula’s successor, Claudius, finally intervened to stop the arguments and mutual recrimination in Alexandria by imposing the status quo.
It is possible that the Wisdom author is not limiting the reference of "sharing the same rights" to the equal status enjoyed by the Hebrews under Joseph in ancient Egypt. The reference could equally apply to the autonomous status of the Jews in Ptolemaic Egypt who then subsequently became the object of attack by an aggressive Hellenism.
19:18–21. The second reflection in the concluding remarks picks up the theme of the metamorphosis of the elements. Creation is transformed for the benefit of the righteous. The metaphor the author uses to convey the quasi-mystical harmony of the exodus event is the symphony of sound. The elements of nature are compared to the varying notes played on a harp. Although the sound of a musical instrument is a new metaphor in the work, there was a fleeting reference to the same idea of creation’s adjusting itself for different effects. In the third diptych, the author appealed to the transforming elements of creation to explain the paradoxical food of manna from heaven. Creation was described as tensing and relaxing itself to punish the unjust and to help those who trust in God (16:24). The author wishes to account for the transformation of the permanent elements of creation using the metaphor of a symphonic melody. Just as the notes of a melody may vary or stay the same to give shape to a harmonious tune, so too does creation exert itself to bring about a harmony of creation and salvation.
The various schools of Greek philosophy habitually spoke of four elements of nature: water, earth, fire, and air. The author’s subsequent explanation of the transforming elements in the exodus deals with only three of these: land, water, and fire (vv. 19–21). Although the author may appear to be using technical language from physics and music to forge harmony, the argument is essentially a poetic one lacking the precision of both physics and musical science.
In order to present an account of permanence and variation for the "miracle stories" of the exodus, the author appeals to an ancient Greek tradition. Under the influence of the Pythagoreans, various Greek philosophical schools would use the analogy of musical harmony to explain or to present the order of the universe. Although the author may lack detail and precision in presenting the metaphor, the choice of the concept of a musical harmony is a felicitous one. The author makes use of the analogy of music to explain the creativity of divine action. Through the metaphor of music, God is imagined as an instrumentalist (or even a composer) who plays the various components and multiple variations of human history into a unity and a harmony. The entire midrashic treatment of the exodus is transformed before our eyes into a perspective on a new creation. Harmony is achieved through the transformation of notes in melodies and tones. Injustice is redressed through the salvation of the righteous, which is presented through the lens of a new creation.
The various images the author holds up briefly as a sign of the transforming qualities of creation are taken from the previous diptychs. They are all paradoxical images that deal with land, water, and fire to express punishment of the oppressors and salvation of the righteous. The image of land animals who are transformed into water creatures is a clever description of the passage of the Israelites through the sea (v. 19a). The swimming creatures that moved over to land refer to the plague of frogs that invaded all the land of Egypt (v. 19b).
The following two verses contain images that highlight the transformed functions of fire and water (vv. 20–21). These images are all taken from the third diptych, which contrasted the plague of rains, storm, and hail to the gift of manna in the desert (16:18–27). Fire burned more strongly in the hail, which rained down upon the crops of the oppressors (16:22); the function of water to quench fire was transformed so that the fire would burn even more strongly (16:17). On the contrary, in favor of the righteous, flames did not consume the flesh of the animals that were sent to plague the oppressors (16:18), nor did the rays of the sun melt the special gift of manna (16:23).
Note that the author concludes the images of the metamorphosis of creation with that of the gift of "heavenly food" (lit., "food of ambrosia"). The author used two different metaphors for the gift of manna in 16:20, "food of angels" and "bread from heaven" (NAB). In this final image, the "ambrosia" is employed (the food of the gods that brings immortality). The sixth day of creation came to completion with the gift of food to humans and to animals alike: "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food" (Gen 1:29 NRSV). In Wisdom, the gift of manna as "heavenly food" occurs also after the transformation of creation through water, land, and animals. This situation of the gift of food parallels the situation in Genesis where God’s generous gift of vegetation to humanity for food takes place at the end of creation, on the sixth day, after the separation of light and darkness, earth and waters, and the creation of the animals. By mentioning the gift of the manna as the culmination of the reflection on the exodus, the author places the exodus into the context of a new creation. Just as a life of justice achieved through the gift of wisdom brings immortality, so also divine intervention on behalf of the righteous brings the gift of immortality.
19:22. The author’s final word is directed personally to God as a final hymn of praise. The doxology is formulated through a double, antithetical statement. The first half states the praise of God positively, "you have exalted and glorified your people." The second half states the praise of God negatively, "and you have not neglected to help them at all times and in all places." This final doxology forms a great inclusion to the doxology that was begun at the outset of the re-reading of the exodus narrative (10:20–21). It is an apt ending that focuses on the fidelity of God to a people who have experienced trials and hardship. The doxology is a confirmation of the validity of the opening exhortation of the entire work: "Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth … and seek the Lord with uprightness of heart" (1:1, author’s trans.). The author’s praise of God at the end of the book does not refer only to the divine interventions throughout the exodus (chaps. 11–19). Since the midrashic treatment of the exodus is meant to be a concrete example of the author’s argument supporting God’s fidelity to the just and of the author’s praise of divine wisdom, the doxology refers to God’s fidelity, expressed in all three parts of the book. It includes the praise of God’s fidelity to the just who suffer unjustly throughout history (chaps. 1–6). And it includes the praise of God’s wisdom, which continuously accompanies humanity (chaps. 6–10). The midrashic treatment of the exodus confirms God’s fidelity to the just and reveals the wisdom of God that forges a harmony of creation and salvation. What begins as an exhortation to seek God and love justice ends with a personal dialogue of praise to God.
1. The author describes the extraordinary deliverance of the Israelites in the exodus through the imagery of a new creation. The very elements and creatures of the universe undergo transformation to effect a harmony of justice. Although this is not necessarily an innovation on the part of the author (cf. God as creator and redeemer, Isaiah 48; a new creation, Isa 65:17–25; the valley of dry bones, Ezek 37:1–14), this idea has followed the author’s reflection throughout the work. There is a continuity in the mind of the author between the positive forces of God’s creation and the extraordinary interventions of salvation.
This continuity, perhaps, has not been so boldly depicted in any other biblical work. Moments of salvation and deliverance are understood as being rooted in the positive forces of creation itself. Creation wages a battle against injustice and strives to support the efforts of the just. The explanation for the positive role of the universe is provided in the first two parts of the book. The universe is God’s creature, and there is no "destructive poison" in its forces (1:14). It has been fashioned according to God’s Word and divine wisdom (9:1–2). The author’s tangible example of the world’s positive forces is the foundational experience of the exodus. From a reflection on God’s fidelity to the righteous in history, the author formulates a paradigm of creation and salvation for the present and the future.
One concrete effect that this continuity of creation and salvation offers is a set of criteria for assessing perspectives of theology. It is relatively easy to truncate creation from salvation, and vice versa, in our visions and theologies of life. A theological perspective that is one-sided in favor of salvation and redemption may offer a pessimistic and derogatory view of the natural forces of creation, and even of the human spirit. Creation and humanity become crushed at the expense of maintaining the extraordinary signs of God’s redemption. On the contrary, a theological perspective that is one-sided in favor of creation and the harmonious force of the human spirit may neglect to assess the horrors of injustice. The book of Wisdom has an extraordinary coherence that allows the reader to view the horrors of injustice in the context of a world that is marked through and through with the beauty and wisdom of God.
2. The image of the symphonic harmony at the end of the book is an invitation to contemplate the extraordinary fidelity of God. Where the author has earlier provided somewhat philosophical arguments for the defense of virtue and the critique of injustice, the author now moves to the level of quasi-mystical language. Music has that capacity of suppressing one level of thought in order to heighten another level. The image of the symphonic harmony that God achieves in orchestrating the universe is an image that raises us to the level of contemplating God’s fidelity tangibly in our lives. God’s fidelity engulfs the paradoxes involved in life and death, in virtue and injustice, in apparent strength and weakness.
3. The final doxology bolsters the hope of those who suffer unjustly. The entire series of reflections in the book is brought to a conclusion that focuses on the enduring relationship between God and the righteous. God is the faithful one. God has not abandoned the just who suffered an ignoble death at the hands of the wicked. God has not abandoned the righteous in the course of their tenuous journey through the wilderness. Through the wisdom of God, which directs the forces of creation (7:7–8:21) and illumines the paths of humans (9:9–18), people are taught to trust in the path of justice. Despite weakness, despite the apparent power of injustice, people who follow the path of justice are not abandoned to the despair of death. Instead of ultimate death, the just will find themselves giving thanks to God in the community of the faithful.
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