We focused the past two weeks on Wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible, those often-abused or -ignored books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. They aren’t easy books – I could do a whole post about the numerous problems raised by Job’s portrayal of God, and Ecclesiastes is the hands-down winner of the Most Cynical Biblical Text Award – and I don’t think the way we’ve traditionally used them does these texts any favors.
I’m thinking specifically of Proverbs, which contains 31 chapters of allegories and maxims that pretty clearly should not be taken literally; rather, they give good advice and often speak of how things usually – but not always – work. In fact, I think most Christians would agree with this. After all, it’s hard to look at the subsequent, contradicting verses in Proverbs 26:4-5 without thinking perhaps these are not meant to be commandments:
Don’t answer fools according to their folly,
or you will become like them yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will deem themselves wise.
Yet I grew up being taught in the literalness of at least some proverbs, especially 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14 and 29:15:
Those who withhold the rod hate their children,
but the one who loves them applies discipline.
Folly is bound up in a child’s heart;
the rod of discipline removes it.
Don’t withhold instruction from children;
if you strike them with a rod, they won’t die.
Strike them with a rod,
and you will save their lives from the grave.
The rod and correction lead to wisdom,
but children out of control shame their mothers.
And then there’s the classic 14:34, the prooftext used for keeping prayer in schools, criminalizing abortion, prohibiting gay marriage and whatever else the speaker defines as “righteous.”
Righteousness dignifies a nation,
but sin disgraces a people.
Here’s the problem, though. As I was listening to the book of Proverbs last week – James Earl Jones’ dulcet tones keep me company on the commute to and from work and help me fulfill each week’s reading requirement for class – it struck me that if we are taking these verses literally, what’s to keep us from taking verses such as these literally?
I invited you, but you rejected me;
I stretched out my hand to you, but you paid no attention.
You ignored all my advice,
and you didn’t want me to correct you.
So I’ll laugh at your disaster;
I’ll make fun of you when dread comes over you,
when terror hits you like a hurricane,
and your disaster comes in like a tornado,
when distress and oppression overcome you.
Well, that’s not very nice. Technically, that’s Wisdom talking, but other passages in the Bible describe Wisdom as God’s first creation, present with him before the beginning of time. Further, Wisdom is clearly a rhetorical device in scripture for God’s own thoughts, feelings, advice and commandments. My NIV Study Bible, commenting on these verses in its typically conservative way, acts as if God himself is the speaker.
So if we can properly assume these words are essentially God’s – and all scripture is God-breathed, right? – what does it mean for us if God “laughs” at our disaster or “makes fun” of us when our mistakes come back to hurt us? Do we believe that’s true? Surely not.
You may argue some sections of Proverbs should be used more literally than others. I suppose that’s possible, though how we determine which ones are which is beyond me. After all, right after 13:24 (“Those who withhold the rod hate their children”) comes, “The righteous will eat their fill, but the wicked have empty stomachs,” which I think everyone, other than
Republican congressmen health-and-wealth pushers, would agree is not literally true.
Rather, I think we need to look at the entire book as a collection of well-worn advice that we should consider – but which is not always good, proper or practical for our context, culture or situation.
I was thinking about this because in my small Christian school growing up, we had an opening assembly in which the teacher would pick a proverb from the chapter corresponding to that day’s date – 31 chapters; how perfect is that? – and teaching on it for 5-10 minutes. I don’t remember much teaching about those verses above from Chapter 1. But I remember a whole lot about the advocacy of corporal punishment and school prayer, as authorized (mandated?) by chapters 13, 14, 22, 23 and 29.
The question I have is: Can we expect a child to understand the difference between literal interpretation of those verses and nonliteral interpretation of a verse in which God laughs at our calamity because we didn’t obey him? And if not, as I would argue, what does this do for their concept of God, even if it’s purely subconscious?
My view of God until a very short while ago was quite negative, focused overwhelmingly on judgment and disapproval. God was the guy who didn’t like my long hair or my music. Now, my relationship with my parents – who just so happened to believe long hair and secular rock music were, if not evil, then very, very wrong – played a far bigger role than any verses from Proverbs did. But when I heard those verses spoken in the car on my way to work, it struck me: Is this the image of God I believe in? Is this the God I want my daughters to see?
I think there’s a belief among biblical literalists that the “plain meaning” of the scriptures is so clear that anyone, including children, should be able to read and understand it. I think there’s a further belief that if you introduce the concept of nonliteral interpretation, you will weaken your child’s faith. That’s certainly possible if it’s done the wrong way, but I would argue the concept of literal interpretation is no less dangerous. A literal reading of the Old Testament gives us a God who would just as soon kill you for your sins as forgive you for them, a God whose response after your mistakes isn’t to stoop down and hold you but to stand back and laugh. After years of literal biblical inerrantism, the only reason I still had a faith was because I was too apathetic to actually reject it.
I think – I certainly hope – everyone reading this sentence believes God does not laugh at us when our own failures bring us heartache. I pray we will find a way to teach the Bible so that our children understand this.