©2014 by Charles Strohmer
The previous post set the stage to say that when the wisdom literature talks about shalom (see Proverbs 3:17), it is saying more to us that just “peace” as it is commonly understood today. Shalom refers to collective well-being and wholeness, including in economic, social, and political life. “Flourishing” seems to be entering into the English lexicon as a synonym for this deeper meaning of shalom. Its force can be felt in the second half Psalm 34, which many scholars agree has an affinity to the wisdom tradition. In a Proverbs-like passage in the middle of the psalm (34:14), the people are exhorted (collectively) to seek shalom (well-being, wholeness, flourishing) and to pursue it (for the entire community).
Texts such as Proverbs 3:17 and Psalm 34:14, I believe, indicate the kind of peaceableness – shalom – that is normative to the wisdom tradition. It points to what I call the wisdom norm of peaceableness. (In the previous post we saw that the meaning of shalom is distinct from typical contemporary notions of peace.)
Identifying it as a “norm” is a significant, because norms, of course, can be broken. A norm is not like a physical law, which cannot be broken, and if you try to break it, immediate consequences result. Take, for instance, the law of gravity. Anyone jumping from the roof of a twenty-story building will suffer an immediate consequence. Break a norm, however, and the consequences may not be evident for quite some time.
The force of this can be felt in the prophetic literature when the scarcity of shalom is being lamented due to rampant injustice. For instance, in Jeremiah’s time both the prophets and priests do not seem to have taken seriously repairing what had become an utterly broken society, including economically and politically – a brokenness that the nation’s leadership bore a huge responsibility for, but was in denial about. These leaders superficially treated what the prophet calls “the [deep] wound” of society. Also, the nation’s leaders, apparently, had a history of collaborating among themselves in the royal court to enact policies designed to line their own pockets rather than to foster justice. Their goal was not the good of society but to increase their own comfort and affluence and to build more resilient shelters for themselves from life’s vicissitudes.
How’s that been working out for them? Quite well for a long time, evidently. Never mind that the larger society has fallen into conspicuously bad disrepair. Having fattened their portfolios and their standard of living, they are not going to stop now, just because a major city (Detroit?), is going down the tubes. So they (foolishly) reassure the nation. Shalom, shalom, they proclaim. All is well; all is well. The message from the royal court to its subjects couldn’t have been clearer: Don’t expect anything better for yourselves. But to this Jeremiah replies, There is no shalom. No well-being, no wholeness, no flourishing. Society is broken.
This narrative in Jeremiah chapters six and eight, in which the vital role of shalom plays a large role, is clear enough. It seeks to compel us to go beyond just saying “peace, peace” to the work of establishing shalom. (There may be a some subtext at play too: a tragic irony or a superficial blessing. That is, are the leaders saying of themselves “We are flourishing,” and to that the prophet is replying, “No, you’re not.” Or are the leaders saying to the people, “Be well; keep warm and well-fed,” to which the prophet is replying, “That’s no policy of shalom.”)
Working toward shalom should have been prominent in the wisdom of the Jerusalem leadership, but instead the leaders have a long history of breaking the norm of peaceableness. Perhaps it is because of this long history that they are chided for being worse off than animals. The force of this can be felt in Jeremiah 8:4-12, a section that would be at home in the wisdom literature. There, prophetic rebuke moves seamlessly into a wisdom-based way of reasoning with the leaders. This is done two ways. Once by invoking a lesson from creational order, which is typical of instruction found in Proverbs: Even though the stork, turtledove, swift, and crane know their own times and respond to them properly, these leaders do not (verse 7). And once by implicating “the wise” and their policies as hugely responsible for the society’s brokenness: Lacking even bird-sense, “their wisdom amounts to nothing” (verses 8-9; The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh Translation).
Having a long history in which they broke the wisdom norm of peaceableness, seemingly without consequences for them, the consequences are now at the door. Not many years later, it must have been shocking for the leaders who were left alive after the destruction of Jerusalem and exiled in Babylon, to receive a letter from Jeremiah instructing them to “seek the shalom” of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7). That would have been an especially hard pill for the exiled Jews to swallow: working for the well-being of a city filled with non-Jews.
An equivalent today might be the challenge to Christians, Muslims, and Jews to pull together to work for the good of the “secular” city. Yet if that is the reality, the wisdom norm of peaceableness would insist on nothing less. We will look at that the next post in this series.