WISDOM AND HUMAN MUTUALITY part 3 of 5

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

wisdom traditionWhen it is thinking of humanity as a whole or human beings in general, the Hebrew Bible uses words such as bene ‘adam and banim ‘adam or sometimes just ‘adam. Traditionally, those words have been translated into English Bibles as “children of men,” “sons of men,” “all mankind,” or just “mankind.” More recent translations have been trending toward “humankind” or “humanity.” But back to the Hebrew, and their meaning as “humanity as a whole” in the wisdom literature. Two instances in Proverbs 8 are particularly noteworthy for understanding the wisdom norm of mutuality, and they raise urgent questions about why we may limit the reach of wisdom to some people but not to others.

In Proverbs 8:4, wisdom, speaking in the first person, says, “I raise my voice to all mankind.” The context is significant. In the two preceding verses, prominent multicultural public meeting places in the old-world Middle East are singled out: “the heights along the way,” “where the paths meet” [the crossroads], and “the gates leading into the city.” In the first two, wisdom “takes her stand.” In the third, “she cries aloud.”

Her appearance in these multicultural meeting places is significant, and “the gates” provide clues as to why. In the old-world Middle East, various city gates were established and respected places of authority where people of all sorts, including from different cultures, met to discuss or debate issues and situations or hammer out agreements amidst their competing interests. Somewhat analogous to today’s public squares and civil courts, the gates were where merchants could conduct commerce, elders could hear and settle disputes, and judges could administer justice (see, e.g., the book of Joshua 20:4-6 and Ruth chapter 4). Kings might even meet with their subjects there.

At these places of authority amid mixed multitudes, wisdom says, “To you, gentle ones, I call; my voice is for all humankind [bene ‘adam].” This is the compressed, literal way Kravitz and Olitzky translate Proverbs 8:4 in Misheli, their modern commentary on the book of Proverbs (p. 80). On other words, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from, I, wisdom, am speaking to you. This is at one and the same time wisdom’s affirmation of and participation in human mutuality as well as her protest against factionalism and sectarianism.

The text was certainly meant to communicate to ancient Israel that, even at the gates of a thoroughly monotheistic city such as Jerusalem, a wisdom-based way of reasoning provided a morally responsible means for peoples of different faiths not only to meet and greet but to hammer out cooperative and peaceable agreements across all sorts of otherwise perhaps unnegotiable boundaries.

All of this, of course, assumes that it would take persons (elders, counselors, judges, et al.) known for their wisdom to justly oversee such areas. Those who met to negotiate agreements would take that for granted. Apparently, the premium that was placed on this gave rise to the proverb: “Wisdom is too high for a fool; in the assembly at the gate he has nothing to say” (24:7).

Notice, too, that this is not about converting someone to your own faith before cooperative agreements can be reached. (The tragic histories of Christianity in seventeenth century Europe and Islam in the Middle East today disprove that principle anyway.) Instead, just as commercial and legal transactions take place today among all sorts of different people, the text indicates what we could call the internationality of wisdom – she is available to all humankind as they are, rather than, to use a Christian expression, what by the grace of God they may become.

I promised you that we would look at two instances in Proverbs 8 that are noteworthy for understanding the wisdom norm of mutuality, and that raise urgent questions about why we limit the reach of wisdom to some people but not to others. We’ll look at the second instance in the next post.

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