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. Continue reading