Chapters 12 – 15
The Book of History – Two Digressions
Having completed over half of the book of the Wisdom of Solomon, the direction, form, and structure of the book is becoming clearer. The author is not going to provide his readers with “wisdom”. This is not a list of sayings or good advice like Proverbs. It is not a challenging narrative/poem similar to Job, nor is it a series of reflections on the nature of the human condition like Ecclesiastes. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon appears to want to tell his readers “about” wisdom, its virtues, what wisdom can do for them, what wisdom has done for others, and perhaps how to attain wisdom. It is clearly a Jewish book written in a style characteristic of a Greek philosophical exhortation.
The introduction detailed a series of contrasts between the righteous and the unrighteous, in a style consistent with that of ancient Greek philosophy. Righteousness leads to immortality while unrighteousness leads to death. The author’s view of immortality is unique, borrowed partly from the Jewish tradition of covenantal retribution and partly from the Greek idea of the immortal soul (as separate from the body). Righteousness characterizes the relationship between humans and God. Since God is immortal, righteousness is also immortal. This is a different concept than either resurrection or the rejoining of the body and soul at some point after death. But neither is it an entirely Greek formulation.
The three major contrasts discussed in the introduction (suffering of the innocent, barrenness of women, and early death) all support the concept of immortality of the righteous, but they do not necessarily align well with conventional Jewish understanding. The Wisdom of Solomon, for instance tells the reader that sometimes it is a blessing for a woman to not produce children. This contrasts, for example, with the storyline of Hannah in the opening verses of I Samuel. The Old Testament tells us that it is the unrighteous who suffer and die young, but the Wisdom of Solomon explains that there are reasons why the righteous might suffer and die young as well. The Wisdom of Solomon does not take its readers down the well-worn path of traditional Jewish thought.
The second major section of the book extols the virtues of wisdom. The author provides an autobiographical narrative that tracks that of Solomon in I Kings – his mortal birth, his divine appointment as king, and his quest for Wisdom. He uses metaphor to describe Lady Wisdom as his bride. He explains all that she means to him, all that she can do for him, including teaching him the four cardinal virtues of Greek thought: self control, prudence, justice and courage. Finally, he discloses his humble prayer to God for Wisdom. If the introduction provided the reader with the motivation to achieve immortality of the righteous, the second section describes the means (prayer for wisdom).
In a transition to the final major section, the author provided a short lesson on what God (with the help of Wisdom) has done in biblical history to aid the righteous and punish the wicked. In chapter eleven, the author began a new series of seven contrasts in history. In a format reminiscent of that of the introduction, the author contrasts God’s punishment of the wicked (Egypt) and blessing of the righteous (Israel). The very things by which the Egyptians sinned often bring about Egypt’s punishment. The agent of Egypt’s punishment is also the agent of Israel’s blessing so that the symmetry of the contrast is complete.
The first historical contrast pitted the plague of the blood-polluted Nile with life-saving water from a rock in the desert. The second contrast began with the plague of small animals (in response to Egypt’s worship of serpents and small animals). It was interrupted by a digression on God’s power and mercy (Wisdom 11:17 – 12:2). God could have sent fire-breathing dragons to punish the Egyptians, but he only sent small animals. He is merciful and wanted to give Egypt the opportunity to repent.
Session Four’s readings began with part two of this first digression (Wisdom 12:3–18). The Canaanites, uprooted when Israel conquered the “promised land”, were punished by God for their heinous sins. God also showed them mercy and gave them the opportunity for repentance, for this is a God who cares for all people. God judges in mildness and with great forbearance. But if repentance is available to the wicked (Egypt and Canaan), it is even more available to the righteous heirs of God’s promise. When the people of Israel are judged, they expect mercy (Wisdom 12:19 – 22). Those who strayed on the paths of error and worshiped animals are condemned (Wisdom 12:23–27). Those who don’t respond to mild rebukes will be punished by the animals they worshiped. Judgment forces them to worship the true God.
The second digression is divided into two groups: the shorter “worship of the natural world and animals”, and the longer “worship of idols”. The ignorant people who did not know God the Creator, were worshiping his works of nature: stars, water, and natural beauty (Wisdom 13:1–9). The Greeks had a god of the sky, a god of the sea, a god of agriculture, etc. Since the readers of Pseudo-Solomon’s book were surrounded by Hellenistic culture, it may be understandable that they would worship the beauty of nature, but they still were not excused. They had the power to investigate the world and find the true God.
In the second grouping of this digression, the author continued with a quite reasonable scenario by which a skilled woodcutter might drift from cutting useful implements to carving animal or human figures (Wisdom 13:10–14). Over time those innocent wooden figures became objects of worship (Wisdom 13:15–14:2). Praying to a piece of wood however, is of no value. The ineffective prayer of the idolater is contrasted with the Prayer of Solomon from chapter nine. Safety and salvation come from God, not from idols (Wisdom 14:3–6). The worshiper takes on the status of what is worshiped so that both the idol and the idolater are cursed (Wisdom 14:7–14).
Euhemerus, a Greek mythographer living in the fourth and third century b.c.e., hypothesized that many mythological tales can be attributed to historical persons and events which have been exaggerated over time. Humans in the far past become gods. The author of Wisdom of Solomon, perhaps drew on this as he wrote another scenario of dead human beings memorialized, first as images, then gradually as gods (Wisdom 14:15–17). Images of kings who lived far away from their subjects were first honored, and then worshiped (Wisdom 14:18–21). Ceremonies for idol worship including human sacrifice and strange initiations led to murder, adultery, theft, and deceit (Wisdom 14:22–31). It is bad enough to not worship God, but idolatry created far worse sin. It is not the power of idols that we should be concerned about, but the repercussions and penalties for those who sin by worshiping idols.
The author then turned to the benefits of true worship (Wisdom 15:1–6), the greatest of which is righteousness and immortality. The author introduced the potter kneading clay and creating not just useful vessels, but images of humans, which became idols (Wisdom 15:7–13). (The imagery of the potter and clay is found elsewhere in the bible, but normally God is the potter and humans the clay. For Solomon, it is the other way around. Man is the potter who creates gods.) The author points out how foolish these people are to worship pieces of clay or wood that have no life. The mortals who make these images are of far more value than the idols they worship (Wisdom 15:14–17). Most reprehensible of all was the Egyptian worship of animals (Wisdom 15:18–19).
Primary Text: The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha – New Revised Standard Version, (Revised Fourth Edition) Michael D. Coogan, Editor, Oxford University Press, 2010
Next Week: Chapters 16–19