©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Among non-Christians, “Blessed are the peacemakers” may be the most well-known of Jesus’ sayings. What is not so well-known, even among Christians, is that Jesus was a teacher of wisdom and that he would have been drawing on an understanding of “peace” known as shalom. This post and the next one will explore that idea.
I mentioned in the two previous posts that there’s much more to the wisdom tradition than books such as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Job. One way that has helped me immensely to start seeing that “much more” has been a continual wonder about what was going on in the minds of the sages who gave us the views of life that we find in the wisdom writings. They were not thinking like priests or prophets. So what were you guys thinking about? And why were you thinking that way? And what’s the point of it for today?
It’s not possible to know such a subjective reality infallibly, of course. After all, what we have today are written texts, redacted ones at that, sourced in what was originally an oral tradition of the sages that goes way back. Nevertheless, we can at least approximate the mind of the sages by a close engagement with the texts over a period of time, as well as by standing on the shoulders of good wisdom scholarship. I’m not asking you spend years doing this yourself. That’s not the point of this series of blog posts. I’m just saying how I got here, and I’m sharing some of my homework with you in this series of posts.
From my own close engagements I’ve seen that the sages had a peaceable way of reasoning about human relationships, diversity, and activities across the spectrum of life. This seems to be a core, but an often missed, feature when it comes to understanding the wisdom tradition. This post and the next one will open up some ideas on this wisdom’s peaceable way of reasoning about life and suggest why it is vital for wisdom in today’s increasingly diverse relationships and communities.
We can begin simply by noting two wisdom texts, Proverbs 3:17 and James 3:17. The former states that all of the paths of wisdom are paths of peace (NIV translation); the latter states that the wisdom that comes from above is peaceable (AV translation). In short, the literature itself seems to indicate that wisdom is fundamentally about peace.
But this is where things get interesting. A close look reveals that this “peace” is not about ambitions such as the attainment of personal peace and affluence, or even shelter from life’s vicissitudes. Neither can the meaning be reduced to the absence of conflict or to balance of power arrangements (as “peace” is often understood in international relations). It does not even indicate the so-called Pax Americana of today’s world, any more than it would the Pax Romana of Jesus’ time.
The word for “peace” in Proverbs 3:17 in the Hebrew Bible is shalom (the paths of wisdom are paths of shalom). But even that Hebrew word today, like our English word “peace,” has lost its depth and richness with some of us, having been reduced to a greeting of good wishes, for instance. Nothing wrong with that greeting per se. Others, myself included, occasionally sign their emails with shalom as general blessing. Nothing wrong with that either. In fact, that kind of sentiment begins many of New Testament epistles, such as the apostle Paul’s formulaic greeting, “Grace and peace to you.” The word shalom, however, points beyond mere greetings to a depth and a richness, and to a challenge.
For one thing, shalom has something of an Arabic equivalent in the word salam (sometime spelled as salaam). Both Hebrew and Arabic trace back to a Semitic language in which slm is the root word for both shalom and salam (vowels are added to help with pronunciations and nuances of meaning). In the English Bible and the English Qur’an, shalom and salam, respectively, are typically translated “peace.” And both words are heard today in common greetings such as “Peace be upon you,” as in the Hebrew shalom aleichem and in the Arabic salamu alaykum. (For those who like interesting rabbit trails, slm appears in transliterations of the English Bible, as in “king of Salem,” to describe Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18, a priest mentioned in Hebrews 7:1-2 as “king of peace.” Slm is also found in “Salem” in Psalm 76:2, where it is an early word for Jerusalem, and in the names “Solomon” and “Absalom.”)
Still, this does not enter us into the depth and the richness shalom. To say it another way, the word on our lips only as good wishes, or greeting, or general blessing can act as a kind of religious conceit that gives us permission to escape grappling with ways in which shalom challenges what we may think of as wisdom today. For shalom denotes well-being, wholeness, and flourishing, including economically, socially, and politically. We’ll pick this up in the next post.