Lesson 31: “Happy is the Man that Findeth Wisdom” #BCCSundaySchool2018

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“Give me Shelter” by Kate Langlois

Lesson Objective: To appreciate and comprehend the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

Scriptures: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes

What are these books and where do they come from?
Proverbs is a compilation of folk wisdom passed down for many generations, recorded and compiled by various authors, but generally attributed to King Solomon, the son of King David and Bathsheba (who may have said many of these proverbs, but whose name is attached to the book in large part to establish the text’s authority, and not necessarily because King Solomon said or wrote all of the proverbs). The New Oxford Annotated Bible presents the Book of Proverbs as “essentially a collection of collections,” and scholars have roughly estimated the following timeline and authorship of this collected text:

  1. Proverbs 1–9 are probably the last to be added to the collection, because the theology contained in these chapters are more sophisticated than the rest of the book. Scholars tend to think that these chapters were written in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.
  2. Proverbs 10–22:16 are likely the oldest part of the collection, known as “The proverbs of Solomon.” It is the considered the beef of the Book of Proverbs—the main dish.
  3. Proverbs 22:17–24:34 are called “the words of the wise.” These proverbs likely come from the Egyptian educational text from around 1100 B.C., “The Instruction of Amenemope,” which was frequently copied by schoolchildren learning how to read and write.[1]
  4. Proverbs 25–29 are referred to as “Proverbs of Solomon that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied,” and there are some repeats here from Proverbs 10–22 (compare, for example, Proverbs 21:9 and 25:24, which both read: “It is better to dwell in the corner of the housetop than with a brawling woman and in a wide house.” It’s, uh, by the way, not my all-time favorite proverb. But we do get it twice!).
  5. Proverbs 30 is stated in the first verse as coming from “Agur, son of Jakeh.”
  6. Proverbs 31 is stated in the first verse as coming from King Lemuel (“an oracle that his mother taught him”).

Ecclesiastes carries a title that is a bit of a mistranslation, according to some scholars. It’s supposed to be a Latin transliteration of the Greek pen-name of the author, Qohelet (I’ve also seen it written, Kohelet), which means “Gatherer” or “Acquirer.” While Ecclesiastesseems to mean “one who gathers the assembly” or “preacher,” Qohelet’s true meaning is more like the “gatherer” of wisdom, or wealth, or pleasure. Many scholars view Qohelet as a teacherrather than a preacher. The first verse establishes Qohelet as the “son of David, king in Jerusalem,” suggesting that perhaps Solomon authored Ecclesiastes, but there are some problems with this suggestion. First, the speaker in Ecclesiastes never speaks as a king, and the perspective doesn’t seem to come from someone who is an insider to the royal court—the contrary, the speaker seems to be someone from outside of the royalty altogether (in instances like Ecclesiastes 8:1-6 and 10:16-20, the speaker writes abouta king, not as a king). Ecclesiastes signs off in 12:9–14 not as a king and a ruler but as a “preacher” or a teacher. It’s more likely that King David is named and Solomon alluded to in order to add credibility and authority to the text. Consequently, the sacred nature of Ecclesiastes has been contested for many centuries, and not everyone considers it canonical.

The Aramaic “loan words” and constructions as well as the emphasis on money and economics in Ecclesiastes leads most scholars to conclude that the book was written somewhere between 450 and 330 B.C. Ecclesiastes seems to complicate and, at times, contradict the simpler teachings and advice from the Book of Proverbs.

Biblical scholar Choon-Leong Seow of Vanderbilt University recommends that Ecclesiastes be read in a single sitting, and that the reader should pay attention to the different tensions from contradictions and multiple perspectives included in the book’s verses. He describes a “rough structure” that organizes the book in a way that I find helpful:

  • Ecclesiastes 1:1 is the superscription; 12:9–14 is the epilogue.
  • The motto of the book, “vanity of vanities,” appears for the first time in 1:2 and the last time in 12:8.
  • 1:3-11 is “the opening poem” that corresponds with a “concluding poem” in 12:1-7.
  • Between the opening and concluding poems, the book is divided into two halves: 1:12–6:9 and 6:10–11:10. The first part of each half sets up a problematic situation (1:12–4:16; 6:10–8:17), which is followed by a second part that gives advice on how to resolve or deal with the problem (5:1–6:9; 9:1–11:10).

Antithetical/Synonymous Proverbs
Katharine Dell, Old Testament scholar at Cambridge University, points out that proverbs can be organized into two types: antitheticaland synonymous. Antithetical proverbs provide a contrast in the second line, but the second lines of synonymous proverbs further the thought of the first line. Proverbs 10–15 have a lot of antithetical proverbs, and Proverbs 16–onward contain a lot of synonymous proverbs. Appreciating opposition is key when you explore Proverbs, and dichotomies appear to be a language of instruction: righteousness vs. wickedness, rich vs. poor, diligence vs. laziness, patience vs. anger, speaking with restraint vs. gossip.

Contradictions and oppositions are not errors in the text—to the contrary, the tension among the contradictions are highlighted in Proverbs, and sometimes verses right next to each other seem to say the complete opposite of each other:

“He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit.”

vs.

“Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.”  (Proverbs 17:27-28)

So is the silent, reserved person “a man of understanding” or a “fool”? Apparently, he could be either. Or both?

“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.”

vs.

“Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” (Proverbs 26:4–5)

So, should we answer a fool or not? In other words, would responding to a fool make it seem like we are on even playing ground (like the problems involved with a scientist publicly debating the earth’s age with a creationist)? Or would not responding to a fool make the fool believe that they have outwitted us (like the creationist who argues that because no scientist has ever publicly debated him or her, it is because no counterargument exists)? Well, it could be both. The power in the proverb lies in the tension between the competing claims. It’s less advice so much as a thought puzzle that provides wisdom from the energy we use in trying to wrap our minds around the truthfulness of both claims.

The Woman Wisdom
This Sunday School post already feels long (this lesson covers a lot of ground!), but I’ll tell you where this feminist would be tempted to focus her Sunday School lesson if she were giving it: the women of Proverbs. The Book of Proverbs was probably mainly written for men, but, interestingly, there are a lot of examples of both men and women instructing both men and women in Proverbs: “Hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching; for they are a fair garland for your head and pendants for your neck” (Proverbs 1:8–9).[2]

But also, wisdom is personified as a woman:

“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’” (Proverbs 1:20–22).

Not only is Wisdom a female, but she is a prophet. She stands at the city gates and raises her voice to call her fellow comrades to repentance. She speaks with power and authority:

“I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.” (Proverbs 1:23–33)

Wisdom’s female voice is powerful, stern, serious. She does not speak in soft tones or a “Primary voice” (not that there is anything wrong with Primary voices—they have an important time and place). Wisdom speaks with confidence, and she suffers no fools.

Some women (like myself, I’ll admit) regret somewhat that there aren’t more strong female characters (or female characters at all) in the scriptures. And while not all Proverbs paint women in a positive light (it’s a contradictory text, don’t forget), Wisdom is an amazing female character to aspire toward. Listen to this description of her in chapter 3:

“Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.” (3:13–18)

I know Wisdom is not a real woman, but a metaphor for an abstract concept. But aren’t a lot of scriptural characters basically metaphors for abstract concepts? Nephi is obedience, Job is perseverance and endurance, Moroni is valiance and courage. Why can’t women aspire to be wise like Wisdom, with a confident, clear voice and an urgent message for both her brothers and her sisters?

Well, perhaps you won’t all agree with me. Still, make sure when you read these chapters in Proverbs spoken by Wisdom that, at the very least, the voice you give her in your head is female.

What can we learn from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes today? Some discussion ideas.

  • Perhaps the students in the class have favorite verses already from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes? Giving students some time to explore these texts and then going around the room sharing and talking about different verses would be a great way to involve contributions from the class (and there is certainly no dearth of interesting scriptures in these two texts!).
  • Considering how little we know about the authorship and creation of these texts, ought we to take all verses from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as “the Gospel Truth”? Or might we be able to pick and choose the verses that resonate with us, and leave behind the verses that do not personally inspire us to do good and act charitably to our neighbors? (Do I need to remind us of the “brawling woman” verses?)

From the BCC Archives

Sources Consulted

[1]Scholars have been able to isolate copyists’ errors that have made it into the King James’ translation of the Bible by comparing the text to Instruction of Amenemope. For example, Proverbs 22:20 says, in our text, “Have not I written to thee excellent things in counsels and knowledge,” except that in the Hebrew, the word shilshom, meaning “three days ago,” appears to have omitted from the verse, because it doesn’t quite make sense. In Amenemope, the word used is sheloshimor “thirty,” referring to the thirty numbered chapters in Amenemope. There, the translation of chapter 30, line 539 reads, “Look to these thirty chapters; they inform, they educate.” I’m grabbing this, btw, from the Wikipediaentry on The Instruction of Amenemope, which also handily lists several examples of textual comparisons, if you are interested to read more.

[2]Up until now, I’ve been citing the King James translation of Proverbs, but for this section I’m going to go with the New Revised Standard Version, because it is a little more accurate and a lot more artful, imho.

Comments

  1. This is fantastic. Almost thou persuadest me to volunteer to teach gospel doctrine for this lesson. But I’m already teaching relief society this week, so that seems excessive.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Great intro! Very well done.

    “Wisdom” in Proverbs can also sometimes be an allusion to the Goddess. Here for instance from a recent article I did at the Interpreter (taken from my Dialogue article on Mother in Heaven) is my take on the Proverbs passage you cite:

    An inclusio18 is a type of distant parallelism between material at the beginning of a section of text and that at the end of the section, thus framing or bracketing the material in the middle. For example, in an article on Mother in Heaven I identified an inclusio in Proverbs 3:13‒18, which happened to be chiastic in nature:

    A. happy [v. 13; ‘ashre]

    B. Wisdom [v. 13; chokmah]

    [Framed material in verses 14 through 17]

    B. a tree of life [v. 18; ‘ets chayyim]

    A. happy [v. 18; me’ushshar (same root as ‘ashre)]

    [Page 261]The word happy was often used to allude to the Goddess Asherah due to similarity of sound (especially during times in Israelite history unfavorable to the goddess). Lady Wisdom was one of the ways Asherah was reconceptualized over time, and the tree of life alludes to her worship.19

  3. Sidebottom says:

    The single sitting recommendation for Ecclesiastes is excellent – one of the thrills of the book is watching the author work through his own thoughts and opinions (“I used to think A but now I know B”). Our GD class got worked up over the interpretation of a single verse, specifically the phrase “money is a defence”. In context it’s clearly part of a larger compare/contrast exercise.

  4. Sidebottom says:

    It’s also ludicrous to lump these two books into a single lesson. They’re both arguably some form of wisdom literature but they could be more different in tone and content.

  5. I’m skipping out on GD today (I feel the teacher is pretty rude), and this is so much more edifying and thought-provoking than his lesson would have been. Thank you, Grover!

  6. I made use of this today. Thanks.

    (Well, to be honest, my preparation was largely parallel to rather than dependent on the OP, and used Kevin Barney material from the Dialogue article, not directly included in comments here but pointed to. But it’s all good stuff.)

    Not incidentally, my lesson skewed even more feminist than the OP suggests AND it went over very well. No fear!

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