That is Wisdom!

Blake_Book_of_Job_Linell_set_5-ds wikipediaThe last passage considered by Walter Moberly in his excellent book Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture is Job 28 read in context with Job 1-2. We looked at this chapter earlier when working through the book of Job (Oh Where Wisdom? (Hint – Not in Science)). Moberly agrees with John Walton that Ch. 28 is a wisdom poem spoken by the narrator. Tremper Longman III, on the other hand, reads the poem as spoken by Job. Both choices have merit, and the precise context of the poem is difficult to place with certainty.

The book of Job is a thought experiment. No reading of Job is complete without consideration of the genre and setting for the speeches that comprise most of the book. First, Moberly agrees with Longman and Walton that this is not a historical account. It is “an example of narrative theology, in which the imaginative world of a story is used to explore and commend a particular understanding.” (p. 257) The book of Job is a parable of sorts designed to make a point, not a historical account of a wager between God and Satan.

We shouldn’t get hung up on the loss suffered by Job’s wife, the deaths of his children and servants, or by the (in)justice of it all. This simply isn’t the point of the story. Job’s family and wealth serves to indicate his situation in the story. Job’s family and servants are more akin to props in a play than to real persons. Job is portrayed as an exemplary human (“the most glowing and positive character depiction in the whole Hebrew Bible” (p. 245)) His wealth is fabulous and his piety exemplary. God himself commends him to the opponent and God makes no qualifications. His undeserved suffering set the stage for the speeches. The opponent (ha-sātān) should not be viewed as Satan; the appellation is not a proper name, but the description of a role. “[He is] an otherwise unknown member of the heavenly court – “the satan/opposer” – about whom we know only what we are told here: he gets around on earth so as to be familiar with its inhabitants (vv. 7, 8a), and, as we shall see, asks awkward questions.” (p. 248) Both Walton and Longman agree with this (see The Accuser is Not Satan).

Moberly suggests that the question at issue in Job is “Can a human relationship with God be anything other than self-serving, and if so, how could one tell?” (p. 257) In his commentary Tremper Longman phrases the question a little differently: “The main question addressed by the book of Job, is who is wise?” The answer according to Longman is that wisdom is found only with God and that the only appropriate human response is fear of the Lord. John Walton in his commentary sees the purpose of the book of Job as addressing the question of suffering in the world, with the conclusion that we must trust the wisdom of God.

Where is wisdom found? However one reads the rest of the book, the poem of chapter 28 is focused on wisdom. “The poem begins with an elaborate account of human ability to discover that which is widely held to be supremely precious: silver and gold.” (p. 263) Moberly uses the NRSV and I will follow suit:

Surely there is a mine for silver,
    and a place for gold to be refined.
Iron is taken out of the earth,
    and copper is smelted from ore.
Miners put an end to darkness,
    and search out to the farthest bound
    the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation;
    they are forgotten by travelers,
    they sway suspended, remote from people.
As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
    but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
Its stones are the place of sapphires,
    and its dust contains gold.

That path no bird of prey knows,
    and the falcon’s eye has not seen it.
The proud wild animals have not trodden it;
    the lion has not passed over it.

They put their hand to the flinty rock,
    and overturn mountains by the roots.
They cut out channels in the rocks,
    and their eyes see every precious thing.
The sources of the rivers they probe;
    hidden things they bring to light.

This is followed by a refrain:

But where shall wisdom be found?
    And where is the place of understanding?
Mortals do not know the way to it,
    and it is not found in the land of the living.
The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’
    and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’

Humans have a remarkable ability for reason and invention. In the ancient world the mining of silver and gold is an impressive example. In our day it might be something different connected with the limits of our science and technology. But the fact remains that human ingenuity and resourcefulness is not up to the task of obtaining and controlling wisdom. “In the places and by the means whereby they discover and get hold of other things, humans cannot get hold of wisdom.” (p. 263)

Nor can humans purchase wisdom.

It cannot be gotten for gold,
    and silver cannot be weighed out as its price.
It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
    in precious onyx or sapphire.
Gold and glass cannot equal it,
    nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.
No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
    the price of wisdom is above pearls.
The chrysolite of Ethiopia cannot compare with it,
    nor can it be valued in pure gold.

Wisdom cannot be bought, it is not that kind of thing. Even a king’s ransom is insufficient for the purchase of wisdom. All human resources, reason, ingenuity, wealth, and power are unable to locate and secure wisdom. Wisdom is not a resource of the earth. This passage is followed again by the refrain with variation:

Where then does wisdom come from?
    And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living,
    and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say,
    ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’

Where then is wisdom?

God understands the way to it,
    and he knows its place.
For he looks to the ends of the earth,
    and sees everything under the heavens.
When he gave to the wind its weight,
    and apportioned out the waters by measure;
when he made a decree for the rain,
    and a way for the thunderbolt;
then he saw it and declared it;
    he established it, and searched it out.
And he said to humankind,
‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
    and to depart from evil is understanding.’

Wisdom is established and known to God. God has revealed to “man” [᾽ādām] the way to wisdom: the fear of the Lord and departing from evil constitutes wisdom. “Job’s unswerving adherence to God in the midst of disaster and desolation represents true wisdom and understanding. Thus if we readers/hearers want to know what wisdom looks like, we should look at Job – and, in principle, emulate him.” (p. 265) The refrains shouldn’t be read as though wisdom is entirely outside the grasp of humans. Rather wisdom is not something obtained through ordinary human means. It is obtained through reliance on God.

Moberly works through a number of different readings of the chapter, and objections that are raised in other venues. First, this chapter is not a summary of the whole book of Job and there is more that can be learned from the speeches and epilogue. However, wisdom as the fear of the Lord is an answer, if not the only answer, to the question posed by the book. Second, it is interesting thing is that both skeptical scholars and some literalist Christians have a rather wooden approach to the text, failing to recognize the genre and sophistication of the book of Job in general and this poem in particular. Some skeptical scholars argue that the conclusion – wisdom is to fear the Lord and depart from evil – is dull, shallow, simplistic, boring, conventional piety.

Admittedly, piety can be dull and dim. But need it be so? People who bear great hardship with faithful patience and courage are deeply admirable if one has the privilege, usually a humbling privilege, of knowing them. Perhaps to some extent the issue is the age-old problem of how to make goodness appear imaginatively interesting. (p. 277)

In his epilogue Moberly outlines his reasons for choosing the eight passages we have worked through in his book. With respect to Job 28 he notes:

The wisdom that is in focus in Job is not, I argue, the wisdom for getting on well in life generally, such as is articulated in Proverbs. Rather it is the wisdom that arises when a person, like Job, has to walk uncomprehendingly through devastation and darkness. This wisdom, though it has an intellectual component, is primarily a matter of integrity and faithfulness, for Job (unlike the reader) never comes to understand the reason for his affliction. (p. 282)

We are called to faith and trust in God. The call to faith and trust, to wisdom, runs through the Old Testament. The fear of the Lord in the Old Testament is further shaped to faith in God and in Jesus his messiah in the New Testament. Christian faith follows on and learns from Job’s unswerving adherence to God.

Moberly’s book is an excellent and thought provoking ramble through key issues in Old Testament theology and the reading of the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed readings it (one of my top purchases this year). It was published in 2013 or it would be a top nomination for book of the year. This final chapter was no exception.

In what sense is wisdom the fear of the Lord? Does this need to be qualified?

Is wisdom as the fear of the Lord merely a banal platitude?

Is Job an illustration of this wisdom, one that we should emulate?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

If you would like to comment please see That is Wisdom! at Jesus Creed.

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