Wisdom Basics: The Two Women of Proverbs

Today is International Woman’s Day – a fitting day to consider how the book of Proverbs exalts and praises women, well, actually a certain kind of woman. Chapters 7 and 8 of Proverbs are an examination of two different women – The Wily Woman and Woman Wisdom. This is what your English teacher would call a juxtaposition. I encourage you to read those chapters closely and then, by examining these two ladies at once, we see certain similarities between them and also certain differences.

First, consider the similarities between these women. Both women stand at the street corners and in the marketplaces, making their presence known (7:12; 8:2-3). And both women are making their appeal to the same type of person – young, simple, and inexperienced men (7:7-8; 8:4-5). Both are advertisers – one is promoting care-free, sensual indulgence and the other promotes righteousness and the fear of God. And both women are loud (7:11; 8:1, 4).

The lies of demons ring out boldly in our society today, and meanwhile the truth of Christ booms on as well. Today, women around the world are striking, protesting and going public – much like these women in Proverbs who are vocal and active too. But active for what aim? Public for what point? It will become clear that the goals of these two women are completely opposed and on a day like today we would be wise to examine their message.

Next, consider the differences between these women. The Wily Woman is a literal prostitute – married but refusing to stay at home in the night (7:10-11). She comes to meet you with the purpose of persuading you into forbidden pleasure; and she is a manipulator, suggesting that if you fall for her there will be no consequences; but, of course, she is only working her angle (7:14-20). Woman Wisdom, however, is no physical woman – she is timeless, eternal and indeed, she is even Christ-like – she has always been with God even from the beginning (8:22-31). Her ways are true, noble, and righteous (8:20). Where the Wily Woman lies in wait like a predator – and indeed her victims are like hunted animals – Woman Wisdom waits to bless you and give to you; those who follow her turn into kings (8:15-16).

So, both of these women invite you to fall in love with them – both are looking for a relationship. But if you fall in love with the Wily Woman – as the masses do, with her cheap sexual thrills – the outcome is a tragic death (7:26-27). Fall in love with Woman Wisdom, however, and the outcome is life but also a whole lot more – wealth, joy, and wise decision-making (8:18-21).

Pursue wisdom and you get everything else thrown in – wealth, pleasure, honor. Pursue any one of those things apart from this Woman Wisdom, and they unravel in your hands, bringing about your ultimate demise.

Men, particularly young men, are meant to read these chapters and ask themselves, “which woman do I want to fall in love with?”

Women, particularly young women, are meant to read this and ask, “which woman do I want to become?”

And when young ladies seek to become like that woman – Woman Wisdom – they start to turn into the woman of Proverbs 31. And that woman is a queen. She is a woman who is worthy of praise and honor – a woman worthy of an International Women’s Day.

What characteristics are seen in that woman from Proverbs 31?

  • She is trustworthy and generous, especially to her family, who she has ensured are well-clothed and well-fed. But her work extends beyond her foundational concern for her family and is also a blessing to the poor (31:20).
  • She is efficient in managing her affairs and the affairs of her house (15). She works hard and is not too high-minded to do work with her hands – and they are strong (13, 17, 19, 25).
  • She has business-smarts; she is shrewd and makes wise investments and even buys businesses and hires employees (16). She knows how to make both purchases and sales (24).
  • She is wise and she looks to the future with courage – she is not afraid of changing seasons (21, 25). Her life brings honour, dignity, and praise, which overflows to both her husband and her family (23).

Those qualities are worth getting excited about, and vocal about. I can think of many women in my life who fit this description amazingly. I am reminded of my mother who often made us clothes as kids – and made them from scratch. I am reminded of a woman I used to work for who employed me out of her home – she was a genuine, old-school pioneer – a retired school teacher and the last of what is in many ways a dying breed of social and cultural builders – and she understood management and business and the practicalities of running what was really a small estate. I think of many of my different grandmas – always putting fine clothes on our backs and fine food on the table. I think of my wife and her incredible capacity not only as a competent and sharp health professional but also in our family she serves as a financial adviser, social planner, house manager, and child-development specialist. Many read about the woman of Proverbs 31 and think of her life as an impossible standard – I look at her and see many women in my life who all are prime examples of her dignity, her courage, her productivity, her generosity, her wisdom, and her love.

Young women need to grow up to be like her.

Young men need to grow up to be wise enough to identify her, fall in love with her, and then enable and encourage her.

And all of this growing up is only possible as we grow up into Christ, the fountain of wisdom, and who is indeed Wisdom Himself – the glorious figure who stands behind this metaphorical woman.

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Wisdom Basics: According to God’s Word

What is wisdom? It is the skill of knowing what to say and how to act when faced with all the challenging situations life brings – perhaps you face a hard, financial decision, a challenging work-place situation, or a conflict between two people whom you care deeply for. Wisdom is all about navigating these challenges with skill – it is about skill in living well.[1]

Many would affirm this definition of wisdom. But when we look at what God’s word says about wisdom, this basic definition of “skill in living” takes on a few important new qualities. According to the Bible, wisdom has three central components:

First, wisdom is tied to a Person.

According to God’s word, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7).[2]  The fear of God is what fuels wisdom. When you fear God, you live in a way that your daily life is captivated by His presence, His glory, and His holy hatred of sin. What this means is that wisdom is not simply making good decisions – wisdom is seeking to live before the face of the Holy God of the universe. Wisdom is first and foremost concerned with God’s assessment of any situation. What does this mean in practical terms? Fearing God means that He is big in your life – you tremble before Him. Interestingly, fearing God, when it is worked out in your experience, feels a lot like love for God. A man who loves his wife is attentive and aware of her preferences and desires – some astute husbands can even anticipate how their wife may respond in any given situation! Likewise, when we love God, we are focused, even fixated, on who He is and what He desires. Fear and love are two sides of the same coin.

Second, wisdom is tied to God’s creation.

Proverbs 3:19-20 says that God set up the universe through wisdom: “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew.” God programmed the world with wisdom. To use a computer analogy, wisdom is the operating system of the universe. Wisdom is installed into God’s world. For this reason, one of the central ways Scripture encourages us to learn wisdom is to consider how God has worked natural patterns and consequences into His creation. For example, Proverbs 6:6-8 says that ants gather food in the spring when the food is abundant – and even without anyone telling them too! We need to learn from them and, likewise, be diligent and take initiative. Ants are often more in touch with how God has made the world than humans are – and so part of learning wisdom then is to work with, and not against, the natural patterns that God has sown into His handiwork.

Third, wisdom is tied to God’s righteousness.

James teaches that there is a wisdom “from above” that leads to “peace” and “a harvest of righteousness” and then there is also an unspiritual wisdom “from below” that leads to “disorder and every vile practice” (3:15-18). The similarity between these two types of wisdom is that they both involve making skillful choices and taking shrewd action; the difference between the two is that the wisdom from above originates in God and is governed by His righteous commands. Worldy wisdom is like eating fast food every day – it works, but eventually it will catch up with you; wisdom from above is like feasting at the table of a king – it is nutritious fuel that leads to joy and a thriving life in the king’s service.

Grow in the fear of the Lord. Study God’s creation. Pursue righteousness. And marinate in God’s word – especially the books of Proverbs and James. Seek wisdom!

[1] I owe much of this definition to Tremper Longman III, How To Read Proverbs (Downers Grove, IL; InterVarsity Press, 2012), 14.

[2] All Scripture citations are from the English Standard Version.

Old Testament Shape Revisited

A day off, chillin’ contentedly in a clothing store as my wife tries on some clothes, with One Direction “Drag me Down” on the radio (great song) and my mind turns to the Old Testament…like it does so often these days…

One of my particular interests is to consider the original arrangement of the Old Testament and tease out any implications of that arrangement when it comes to “putting your Bible together” as they say. The standard order of books in basically every Christian Bible starts with the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and then moves into the Histories from Joshua to Esther with books like Ruth and Chronicles spliced in chronologically.

However, there is really good evidence, actually overwhelming evidence, that the Old Testament the early church inherited was arranged like this:

  1. Pentateuch
  2. (Former Prophets) Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings and then (Latter Peophets) Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve minor prophets.
  3. Then the collection finished with the Writings, which was something of a catch-all: Psalms, Proverbs, Ruth, Somg of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Job, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1-2 Chronicles.

The Hebrew collection (also called the Tanakh) was threefold – Law, Prophets, and Writings – and it was arranged with less of a strict chronology compared to our English order, which follows an order found in Septuagintal codices (compilations of Greek manuscripts). For example, in the Hebrew Bible, Ruth was lumped in with Psalms and Proverbs likely due to its connection to David (Boaz was David’s great grandpa) rather than after the Judges, even though it recounts events in the time period of the Judges. 

The books that made up the Writings probably were written on individual scrolls housed in a chest and so it’s best not to make too much of their specific arrangement within the third section. That said, these books do seem, by and large, to be organized thematically around King David and his son Solomon.

So what?

The first thing to say is that the books themselves are inspired, not their order in the collection. So any considerations of order and arrangement are questions of secondary importance. These matters have some consequence for how we put our Bibles together and how we do biblical theology, but they do not affect significant doctrines of the faith.

With that caveat, the significance of the threefold structure of the collection is that the Pentateuch is the primary foundation of the entire Bible – it is God’s foundational disclosure of himself and his will; the Prophets are an extended commentary on the Law, meant to drive home the implications of that Law in the society and the governance of the nation; finally, the third section – the Writings aka “Hagiographa” – are all an extended meditation about the Messiah and “the good life” – the life of wisdom lived under the Law. This third collection is meant to show us what it means to have a heart that is governed by the good and gracious rule of God.

That is why this arrangement is such a beautiful thing. Sometimes a chronological preoccupation can obscure a rich thematic arrangement. The Law is primary and then it gets driven into politics and then driven into the heart.

Your thoughts? Comment below.

“Nobody nobody – with your love nobody’s gonna drag me down.”

Assisted Suicide and Boiling Goats

I recently read an article by CNN that said approximately 13 medically-assisted deaths are happening in Ontario every week. The same article said that Canada is one of the few countries, along with Switzerland and Germany, that have a legal provision for assisted suicide or physician-assisted dying.

This is a big topic and when it comes to ethics I follow an old approach, oft-mocked in academic circles: divine command theory. What does God have to say about such matters? If men and women are merely clumps of evolved goo devoid of any intrinsic value or significance then the ethics of assisted suicide are significantly altered. But I have come to believe that men and women are made with a value and significance that comes from the Living God – we are all stamped with the imago dei. 

I also believe that God revealed himself in the Scriptures – his words. Really the foundational, written aspect of that self-revelation is the Torah, or what Christians refer to as the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. In that Torah we find a very fascinating, but hard-to-understand verse which, I believe, has great relevance for this discussion today – there is a divine command here to recon with.

The verse comes up in Exodus 23:19 and then again in Exodus 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21 and in each case the wording is the same: “you shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

The obscure reference has been variously understood, as J.I. Durham writes: “The prohibition of cooking a kid in the milk of its own mother has been variously explained on magical grounds…or as a reaction against Dionysian…or Canaanite…religious practices” (Exodus – Vol 3, p.334, Word Biblical Commentary, 1998). In some Jewish writing they have used this passage to argue that you should not eat meat at the same time as you drink milk.

That might be true. But I don’t see any explicit warrant to understand the verse this way emerging from the text in question. I think there is a more straightforward interpretation:

Don’t use what is meant for life as an instrument of death. 

Milk is meant for the nourishment of the young goat. That is the goat’s primary source of life and growth. To boil that goat in the very nutrients meant to give it life is sick and twisted. So the Old Testament people of God were not to violate the natural order in this way – it’s cruel and unusual.

A parallel in modern times would be something like this:

  • In Somalia, for instance, don’t confiscate the humanitarian food drop intended for the starving people to gain leverage for your tribal war.
  • Or similarly, don’t use your foster-parent income to pay for your cocaine addiction.

Don’t use what is intended for life, as an instrument of death.

We need to consider this principle afresh today, especially in the ongoing cultural discussion regarding assisted suicide. Some of my readers might object and say “but that is the Old Testament and we are not obligated to follow that anymore!” No – the Old Testament is God’s wisdom and God’s revelation and even though, as I believe, the Christian is no longer bound underneath this covenant, or this package of laws, there is still much good to be gained here – for all Scripture is exhaled from God, including this obscure little verse (2 Tim 3:16).

In Canada, assisted suicide, also known as physician-assisted dying, or medically-assisted suicide, is becoming increasingly popular socially and also, by extension, legally.

What we need to recognize, based on this verse, is that medicine is intended for life. Medicine ought never to be used as a means of death. That is twisting its natural use.

Likewise, physicians are meant to encourage life. Don’t use physicians as instruments of death – that is not why they exist.

Moreover, a publicly-funded medical system is for the welfare of its citizens – don’t use this public welfare as an instrument to remove Canadian citizens.

In all of this the standard God wants us to acknowledge is that He has created the world in an ordered and structured fashion. Milk is for life. Medicine is for health. We do a great injustice, not only to one another, but even to God’s natural order established in creation, when we subvert that structure and use what is intended for life as a means of death.

And, by the way, the glory of the cross of Jesus, the Son of God, is that He used a means of death as an instrument of life. He defeated death on a bloody Roman gibbet and rose to life after three days. That is what we celebrate on Easter, or Resurrection, Sunday and it is the heartbeat of Christianity (and reality). That is the better path – and repentance means following his path to life, and everlasting life, personally, socially, and legally.