Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Reading Israel's Wisdom Literature Missionally

Israel’s Wisdom traditions (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs) connect God’s people to the wider world’s interest and reflection on the nature of the good life. Wisdom literature is a common feature of the ancient Near East.[1] Like creation stories and flood narratives, wisdom was a transcultural phenomenon. There are extant extra-biblical Wisdom texts from Syria–Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. In fact, Israel’s Wisdom traditions draw from the well of this wider pool of wisdom. For example, in the Book of Proverbs, most scholars believe that “The Words of the Wise” (Prov 22:17—24:22) show the direct influence of an Egyptian text called Instruction of Amenemope.[2]
Of course, Israel’s Wisdom traditions are not mere imitations of older material. Instead, Israel’s wisdom offers a distinct perspective for God’s people. Wisdom literature serves to guide God’s people on how to live well and prosper in the world. A successful life is one that fulfills God’s will and mission. For God’s people, the foundation for wisdom is a resolute commitment to the Creator God, the LORD. The good life flows from a correct positioning of the self in relationship to the Creator God. This is the core biblical distinctive. Iconic texts such as Proverbs 1:7 “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline” and Ecclesiastes 11:13 “Fear God and keep his commands for this is all that humanity must do” summarize the key takeaways for the wise. Wisdom must be rooted in recognition of the Creator God as the source of all wisdom. Wisdom points to God, and a life rooted in God is the epitome of the good life. Thus, it follows that an unwise person is one who lives foolishly, i.e., failing to follow the wise instruction that comes from God.
A missional reading of wisdom traditions immediately sees the value of Israel’s wisdom. Wisdom is not only an ancient practice, but collections of the sayings of the wise as well as a burgeoning literature of success continues to this day. The Bible’s wisdom literature invites God’s people to interact with a world hungry for insight on how to make it through life, but to do this by listening to worldly wisdom through God-centered and Bible-centered lenses. God’s people have the opportunity to become the “go to” experts on living well.[3]
           A missional reading of the wisdom literature also sketches out an understanding of missional holiness. Wisdom is worldly in the sense that it teaches its readers how to live in this world. Life skills shaped by God are crucial. Living lives of excellence, ethical purity, virtue, and purpose serve as a potent witness to the watching world. The apostle Paul will remind Christ followers in Philippi that their true citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20), but this does not mean that God’s people are supposed to live lives detached from the surrounding culture. It simply means that God’s people are to live distinctively for God within the cultures of their day. Biblical wisdom is God’s gift to God’s people to guide them in this critical practice.

[1]Wisdom remains popular in the modern world. A simple perusal of any social media platform will reveal a flood of quotations about personal development, leadership, and the good life.
[2]E.g., Clifford, Proverbs, 17–19 and 199–216.
[3] 21st century missional communities are taking this possibility seriously by teaching life skills. Churches are helping people learn to manage finances and live debt free. They offer recovery ministries for people dealing with life traumas such as divorce and addiction.

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