Israel’s wisdom tradition offers a third source of revelation.
Whenever I have read the Old Testament, I have sailed hastily through the Book of Proverbs. It didn’t seem to offer much beyond strange musings about Lady Wisdom and then a chaotic collection of proverbs. Nothing tied together for me. I decided it was not worth much of my study time.
Then I read the newly published book, A Life that Is Good: The Message of Proverbs in a World Wanting Wisdom by Biblical scholar Glenn Pemberton (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018). He turned my attitude about Proverbs around 180 degrees. For one, he illuminates some of the repeated themes that weave through the book, themes that deal with living the good life as understood by ancient Israel’s sages.
Israel’s wisdom traditions were not primarily speculations about God, but reflections on what it means to live the good life. The good life is understood as more than a moral life. It is also a life that is healthy, stable, and successful. It is much more concerned with what we today would say are secular matters than religious, although the sages always see the good life grounded in a fundamental fear or reverence for God (see Proverbs 1:7and 9:10).
The source of their reflections is not the revealed word of God in Israel’s scriptures, but insights gained from observations of daily life and experience. Israel’s sages are also highly sensitive to wisdom coming from cultures and peoples outside of Israel. For example, scholars have noted that one section of the Book of Proverbs (22:17-24:22 ) draws extensively from the Instruction of Amenemope, a literary work of wisdom sayings from ancient 13thcentury B.C. Egypt.*
Three Sources of Authority
Pemberton offers one insight that was particularly striking to me. He says that in ancient Israel three sources of authority were recognized when talking about God and life with God. They held equal positions in Israel’s theological discussions.
The first source was what we might label the written word of God, contained in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The Torah told the origin stories that constituted Israel’s identity. They also held the laws and regulations that governed Israelite behavior and worship.
The authorized interpreters of Torah in ancient Israel were the priests. They had responsibility for teaching Torah to Israelites. By the time of Jesus the scribes had largely supplanted the priests in this role, while the priests concentrated on ritual.
The important matter is to note that when an ancient Israelite asked how he or she should behave, the priest would point to the revealed Torah for answers.
The second source was what we might label the oral word of God. It was the word of God that came through dreams, visions, inspirations, or even the direct voice of God. It was the special province of Israel’s prophets.
Pemberton describes the prophets as resembling prosecuting attorneys. They were primarily concerned with challenging Israel for its failures in keeping God’s covenant, especially in fulfilling the two great commandments to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Their favored way of delivering their word was through oral sermons, oracles, and enacted parables.
The third source was what we might label the observed word of God. This was received through a careful study of God’s creation and especially the ways human beings lived in that creation. It was the special province of Israel’s sages.
Pemberton says that this wisdom coming from the sages was also regarded as part of God’s revealed word. “They accept these insights [coming from their observation] as normative and God-given, just as the prophet regards a vision and a priest regards Torah to be God’s message.” [Pemberton, page 9]
What this means is that theological discussion in Israel appeals to three and equal sources of authority: the written word of God, the oral word of God, and the observed word of God. The three supported, counter-balanced, and supplemented each other.
Attestation of the Three Authorities in Scripture
As evidence for this, Pemberton appeals to three passages in the Old and New Testaments. The first comes from Jeremiah. The prophet has offended the public with his largely negative message that Jerusalem will indeed fall to the Babylonians. In reaction some of the populace plots to silence him. He will not be missed, they say:
“Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah—for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words.” [Jeremiah 18:18]
What Pemberton notes in this passage is the combination of priests, wise men, and prophets as sources of God’s word. None is given priority over the other.
This same linkage comes in a passage in the prophet Ezekiel. It likewise denounces the complacency of the Judahites as they face disaster before the Babylonians. Says Ezekiel:
Disaster comes upon disaster,
rumor follows rumor;
they shall keep seeking a vision from the prophet;
instruction shall perish from the priest,
and counsel from the elders. [Ezekiel 7:26]
Here again we see priest, prophet, and sage as equal sources for guidance from God.
Lest we think this is a purely Old Testament perspective, Pemberton then quotes Jesus in his denunciation of the hypocrisy of Pharisees, saying:
Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth….[Matthew 23:34-35]**
Commenting on this tri-fold division in Israel’s mindset, Pemberton concludes: “The prophets, priests, and sages of Israel all served the same God. The Lord simply used them to provide a more robust theology, a fuller picture of the life of faith, and a sharper image of the God who is larger than any one portrait.” [Pemberton, page 14]
A Christian Application?
Pemberton goes on, however, to suggest that this three-fold source of authority may also provide a fruitful pattern for theological thinking among Christians. Who among persons or groups today most resemble each of the three ancient interpreters? For successors to the priests, he suggests pastors and preachers who look to Scripture for God’s word and guidance.
As for successors to the prophets, it becomes a bit trickier. Most Christians today do not generally trust persons who claim to see God or hear God speak directly to them. Rather he suggests we see the prophets’ successors as those who speak out on the prophets’ chief concerns which center on faithfulness to God and justice issues in society.
Lastly as successors to the sages, he suggests we might turn to counselors, therapists, and scientists who rely primarily upon personal experience, careful observation, and accumulated knowledge for their insights.
This last suggestion raises an important question for most Protestants. With our fundamentally Protestant conviction that all authority for theology rests in the Bible and in the Bible alone, Pemberton asks, how will we respond when modern-day sages show up at our doors? “Would we toss them aside as secular and irrelevant advocates of situational ethics? Or would we welcome them to the table? I regret to inform you that Proverbs will not let this question go unanswered.” [Pemberton, pages 13-14, italics his]
I will admit this is a question that I have seldom thought about before. Yet I can see that how we respond will indeed have a deep impact on how we do our theological thinking and preaching.
* It is also worth noting that another piece of Old Testament wisdom literature is the Book of Job. It tells the story of a righteous man living in Uz. He is not an Israelite. Yet the issue under discussion in the book–why do the righteous suffer?–is one of the most troubling and profound not only in Jewish thought, but also in all human experience.
** As I read these passages I was reminded of the canonical structure of the Hebrew Bible. It is divided into three portions:
- The Torah: The five books of Moses
- The Nevi’im: The prophets (consisting of the historical books and the classic prophets),
- The Ketubim: The writings where we find Israel’s literary works of wisdom (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) along with the Psalms and other assorted writings of the Hebrew Bible.