I’m trying to provide more on Messianic Jewish Musings of a practical and educational nature. There are so many great things to learn about for Jews, Christians, Messianic Jews, and those interested in religion. I know I particularly enjoy writing about things like: biblical commentary, ethical wisdom, theological musing, historical insight, reasons for faith, tidbits from archaeology, insight into tradition and rabbinic literature, promoting Jewish books, and perhaps I will start a weekly series on learning Hebrew with the parasha.
The post combines a little of three of those interests: rabbinic literature, biblical commentary, and ethical wisdom. To come later this week: part 2 about Elisha ben Abuya and Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf, commentary on the biblical tithe laws, and more.
Mishlei or Proverbs is a book of great interest to many people. I wrote my first full-length book on Proverbs in 1998 and I’m pretty sure it has sold more copies than any of my other books (it is still available and still a practical tool for learning biblical wisdom, check amazon).
My own interest in Mishlei is being revived (and possible 2011 will see some writing again from me about it). I just ordered an expensive volume of Midrash Mishlei, a compilation of commentary on MIshlei from sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries (but with material from earlier times).
The wisdom literature of the Bible is unique, often practical, diverse from other forms in the Bible, and much beloved. Few people read Isaiah, even though, as prophets go, his book is pretty positive and inspiring. Most people who read the Bible read Proverbs regularly. Only Psalms is more beloved overall.
Wisdom Literature as an International Genre
James Crenshaw in his book Old Testament Wisdom gives an insightful summary of what is in the biblical wisdom writings. Those who are familiar with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job will recognize much here:
. . . advice, often from parents to children, in brief sayings and longer instructions; questions relating to pressing problems, particularly suffering and life’s meaning; numerical sayings, maledictions and benedictions, and existential observations aimed at labeling things and expressing judgments on types of character; praise of Wisdom as a poetic(?) figure mediating divine rationality and of exceptional humans in whom she actively worked; anecdotal accounts, royal fiction, and personal biography; debate and diatribe; lists or catalogs of items; prayer and poem.
An important facet of biblical wisdom is that it is written as part of an international movement of literature. As such, Proverbs contains only non-specific references to the covenant from Sinai. Torah is talked about only in terms that could be taken to refer to teaching in general (Torah means teaching, after all). God’s name is used plenty of times, but this would be more acceptable in an international genre of literature. Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom mention their gods and goddesses too.
I think of Proverbs as outreach literature in the Ancient Near East. I haven’t read enough recent scholarship to be able to quote any scholars in support of that claim. But those from other nations who read Proverbs, in my opinion, would possibly be attracted to this Israelite wisdom and, along with it, the God of the Israelites. That purpose and hope seems to me a part of the purpose of the book.
It is also inreach literature, that is, it calls Israelites to greater depth in their own tradition and scriptures.
The Rabbinic Reformulation of Wisdom as Torah
I do not think the rabbis are off base in reformulating wisdom as Torah. The book of Proverbs has as a sub-text the idea that wisdom is found in God and teachers who pass on his teachings.
But rabbinic interpretation in general is able to creatively misinterpret texts in service of a good purpose. One of the centers of work for the rabbis was reformulating Judaism from a religion of Temple to a religion of Torah study and practice. Just as Torah was a large part of Temple practice, it was a large part of biblical wisdom. But the rabbis see Torah behind every bush in Proverbs (much as Christian literature finds Jesus in obscure places in the Hebrew Bible).
So, for example, as innocuous a verse as Proverbs 27:18 (whoever tends a fig tree will eat [all] its fruit) can be interpreted as a reference to Torah study. In Yalkut Joshua, a late midrashic text, we read that this is about Torah:
Why is Torah likened to a fig tree? Because all other fruits contain inedible matter. Dates have pits, grapes have seeds, pomegranates have rinds. But the fig, all of it, is edible. Likewise words of Torah have no worthless matter in them.
Musing Over a Few of Rashi’s Early Comments in Proverbs
I like some of Rashi’s comments in the first part of Mishlei. I think the relationship between the original meaning and context in Mishlei itself, the reformulated meaning and context Rashi gives it, and the general idea of wisdom, knowledge, and ethics is good stuff.
If anything, the specification of wisdom as Torah is a practical way of looking at Mishlei and our lives would benefit from application at any level.
So, here are a few examples. I will put the Mishlei text in bold, Rashi’s comment in regular font, and if I have a comment, I will add it in italics:
1:1, The proverbs of Solomon . . .
All his words are illustrations and allegories. He compared the Torah to a good woman, and he compared idolatry to a prostitute.
Rashi goes on later to say that the literal meaning and the allegorical are both important. So, Mishlei certainly does intend us not to go to a prostitute or adulteress. But this meaning is so basic, Rashi assumes Solomon is teaching us something deeper.
1:2, To know wisdom and discipline . . .
He stated these proverbs to make known to people that they toil in the Torah, which is wisdom and discipline.
1:3, righteousness, justice, and equity . . .
Righteousness denotes charity from his money; justice means to judge honestly; and equity denotes compromise — the smooth and straight road, equal to this one and that one.
Rashi understands the biblical word for righteousness as referring to the practice of almsgiving, a meaning which the word came to have later, especially in rabbinic writing..
1:6, . . . the words of the wise and their riddles.
Those who interpret the Torah metaphorically, full verses and elliptical ones, allusions, comparisons, and riddles.
The wise, to Rashi, are the sages of Jewish antiquity.
1:8, Hearken, my son to the discipline of your father . . .
What the Holy One, blessed be He, gave Moses in writing and orally.
. . . and do not forsake the instruction of your mother.
These are the words of the Scribes, which they innovated and added and made safeguards for the Torah.
2:7, He lays up sound wisdom for the upright . . .
The Holy One, blessed by He, hid it [wisdom] with him twenty-six generations until he gave it to the generation of the desert.
The plain meaning of the biblical verse is that God has so much wisdom, he has extra to give to the upright in his time. Rashi gives a very specific interpretation based on Tanhuma, that this proverb means God stored the wisdom of Torah until the right time to give it at Sinai.
2:11, Discretion will watch over you.
The Torah shall watch over you.
3:2, . . . they shall add length of days . . . and peace.
The Torah and the commandments.
Here, Rashi interprets the parent speaking in 3:1 as God and the parental instruction as Torah.
3:5, Trust in the Lord . . .
And squander your money to seek for yourself a teacher from whom to learn, and do not lean on your own understanding.
Rashi creatively interprets the second part of the verse (“do not lean on your own understanding”) as relating to the rabbinic principle that it is a good deed to seek and pay a teacher of Torah.
3:14, . . . its commerce is better than silver.
In any exchange, when a person exchanges something for merchandise, this one takes this and that one takes that; but if one says to his friend [chevruta partner], “Teach me your chapter and I will teach you mine,” then both chapters are found in the hand of each of them.
The plain meaning is that wisdom is better than business. Rashi interprets this in a very specific manner, as referring to the practice commended by the rabbis, or partnership study of Torah. Both benefit from all of the transaction in partnership study while in business, there is a trade-off and not a double blessing.