LATERAL VIEWS OF DIVERSITY
- How to read Esther, Ruth, Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs –
For many centuries, the Church had tried to see the Bible as the book that would bring unity of faith. Christians believed there was one continual chain of thoughts; ultimately reaching a consensus – one correct doctrine. However, after two thousand years we are discovering that is not possible. The churches are divided as ever. We must realize the Bible is a collection of diverse literature arranged laterally, like a drug store shelf displaying different brands of nutrition supplements. Linear approach to understand it does not work. The Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament is a good example where even opposing views are co-existing side by side.
* When the Hebrew word “wisdom” was translated into Greek, the feminine word “Sophia” was chosen. It introduces an image of God as a female figure. So, I believe in the fourth person of God, Wisdom, in addition to God the creator, Jesus the human, and the spirit the friend.
The Old Testament is normally divided into three categories of literature: Torah (Law) – Genesis to Deuteronomy, Prophets (history) – Samuel to Ezekiel and13 minor prophets, and Wisdom Literature. All of them refer extensively but often not factually, to the history of Hebrew people. In this paper, I propose to discuss the thirdt category, Wisdom Literature.
I bundle the following books into one category as Wisdom Literature: Esther, Ruth, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of songs (Song of Solomon.) Some Biblical scholars do it differently by including some prophets and history books as Writings such as Jonah and Daniel in this category because they are mostly fictitious and stand on thinner ice to claim historicity than other Torah and Prophets.
One thing that distinguish them from Torah and Prophet is its diversity of content. For one thing, it is impossible to find any unity of thoughts among them. Esther and Ruth for example. Esther is adamantly Hebrew nationalist, and Ruth is delightfully universalist: totally opposing views. In other words, it is impossible to find any co-relation between them to formulate one cohesive doctrine: Diversity prevents any simple and homogeneous description of one unified faith. In this sense, they are very appropriate to be quoted in our age of diversity and ecumenism (unity as humans, not of one faith as such). This is rather astonishing as we have long considered Judaism as the founding faith of monotheism (belief in one God), such as Christianity and Islam. It is ironical that the two religions are notorious in history for their intolerance and doctrinal conflicts and disputes. Wars have been fought over doctrinal differences and heretics were burned at the stake.
Also they include different types of literature. Psalms are hymns; Esther, Jonah, and Ruth are fictions; Proverbs are exactly that, “proverbs”; Lamentation and Song of Songs are poems; and Ecclesiastes is like a collection of succinct sayings of sages. In other words, they are not related to each other, and they lack of unity of thought. It means they were not compiled in one book in linear sequence but offer lateral thinking. They do not demand “either or” choice but rather “and also” inclusion.
I think there is a reason for this. They were written by people who were exposed to different cultures and the cosmopolitan way of living in a pluralistic society, like ours. All those books I mentioned the above as Wisdom Literature were included in the Hebrew holy books after traumatic experience of defeat and exile as captives in Babylon. ((Circa 600 – 400 B.C.E.) Up until then, the experiences of defeat had not caused to question their faith in their God, Yahweh. In fact, some of them strengthened it because of suffering and made them stronger in their resolve in their faith in one God. Liberation from slavery in Egypt gave them the nature of God as the Law, thus giving them a stronger self-consciousness as the God’s Chosen People. The secret of their strength after Holocaust is another example.
However, the exile in Babylon was different. Unlike enslavement of common masses of labourers by Egyptians, Babylonians selected and removed the Jewish elite; aristocrats, educated, priests, and scribes (scholars) away from the populous. It was a cultural and spiritual genocide, that left the masses without the caretakers of the spiritual foundation and the traditions. Many who remained in Palestine were uneducated and easily became acculturated into pagan spirituality, and intermarried racially and religiously. Furthermore those in captivity were also exposed to different cultures, and often forced to practice different religions. It was impossible not to be influenced by them. Wisdom literature was the result.
When they were liberated by Persian King Cyrus, and were allowed to return to the homeland on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, there were two different groups among the returnees: Nationalist Traditionalists and Cosmopolitan Universalists. The first was led by Ezra and Nehemiah, who gathered people in Jerusalem and read Torah known as the books of Moses in pubic squares. Esther is the fiction representing a typical example of this school of thought. The second group was pluralist who accepted the cultural and religious practices that the traditionalists adamantly rejected such as inter-racial and inter-religious marriages such as Samaritans. Ruth is a good example of that tolerant attitude. It’s intriguing to note that two opposing views are complied into one Holy Book as the Old Testament as we know it.
Also, because those captives were educated elite, they were able to observe foreign culture and spiritual practices of their captors. That experience was devastating, but also educative. Traditionalists rejected to heed the wisdom in those foreign sayings and poetic traditions; insisted on purity of race and spirituality; like Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. But cosmopolitan pluralist recognised the value of foreign traditions, and adopted lot of their wisdom and interracial marriage were valued. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Ruth are the examples. It is interesting to note that today among many religions the same dichotomy exists: Exclusivists and Universalists e.g. Fundamentalist and Liberal Christians; Orthodox and Reform Synagogues, Radical Jihadists and Muslim majority.