WISDOM: THE MISSING AGENCY OF FOREIGN POLICY

“Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” Albert Einstein

waiting to changeWisdom: The Missing Agency of Foreign Policy
by Charles Strohmer

In The Mighty and the Almighty, Madeleine Albright writes that in university she was taught that religion had no part in shaping the world of foreign policy. Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Dean Acheson, she writes, theorized in almost exclusively secular terms. Religion wasn’t rational. To talk about it invited trouble and diplomats were taught not to invite trouble. “This was the understanding that guided me while I was serving as President Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of state.” Because of the events of September 11, 2001, however, “I have had to adjust the lens through which I view the world.”

Wisdom has suffered a fate similar to that of religion, and an adjustment is needed. The seeking of wisdom for foreign policy decision making often gets been trumped by rigid a priori reliance on forms of ideological thinking, such as American exceptionalism or political realism, idealism, or neoconservatism. Wisdom is often the first casualty when an ideological frame becomes the only grid through which leaders and their advisers analyze events and take decisions.

Part of the reason why wisdom gets such short shrift can be found in the universities. The philosophical starting point for studies in international relations and foreign policy can be traced historically to the roughly one-hundred-and-fifty-year period of classical Greek philosophy and its highly abstract thinking during the fifth and fourth centuries before the time of Christ. From this period, IR scholarship relies heavily on Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle, especially Plato. As Alfred North Whitehead once quipped, “All Western philosophical thinking consists of footnotes to Plato.”

This starting point is understandable given the foundational indebtedness that Western intellectual life owes to Plato’s theory of Forms, or Ideas, as archetypal ideals, including the array of Western political ideologies for shaping the state, for instance, or for what justice should be. Political ideologies affect analyses and decisions in many areas, such as the way leaders make sense of international relations and forge relationships with one another; the way one nation perceives another; the way states act toward one another; the momentum, or lack of it, in negotiations; and much more besides, including decisions about peace and war.

But IR studies do not go back far enough. There is much insight to be gained by going back to the wisdom tradition of the Ancient Near East, to a time when royal court officials were educated in the wisdom tradition and the agency of wisdom played a vital diplomatic role in creating and sustaining peaceable international periods. This area of research has been sorely neglected by IR scholarship. Even impressive works such as Amarna Diplomacy and Brotherhood of Kings do not consider the vital role of wisdom in ANE diplomacy. That role, however, is seen in many of the political narratives of the Bible and in its wisdom literature, as well as in the wisdom literature of other ANE cultures.

Granted, the Bible frequently shows ancient Israel and her neighbors at war with one another, and the prophets often criticize Israel and its kings for their failures to do justice. Also, the nations of the ANE were no less religiously ideological, for instance, than those of today’s Middle East. Nevertheless, in the wisdom literature, and in some of the Psalms, and in numerous political narratives elsewhere in the Bible, there is preserved for us evidence of the peaceable counsel of wisdom that rulers, their advisers, and the peoples should heed.

This has been the focus of my research on The Wisdom Project, part of which has included trying to approximate the sages’ wisdom-based way of reasoning about life, which is not the same as ancient Israel’s priestly or prophetic actors. One of the most remarkable discoveries has been to find that wisdom is not abstract, ideological, or theoretical, nor is it sectarian. Instead, the agency of wisdom is personal (relational), peaceable, and committed to the mutual good of all humankind within its diversity.

In the second article of this 2-part series, I want to consider three norms of the wisdom tradition: personalness, peaceableness, and mutuality. These norms were vital to the diplomatic skills of royal court officials who had been educated in the wisdom tradition, and they offer insight into an historically sound, realistic, and non-ideological way of reasoning for analyzing and potentially resolving our thorny IR conflicts.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

This article was first published in Capital Commentary, here.

SYMPHONIC JUSTICE

sparrow symphony“If we shall not have two states we shall have one conflict. And neither them or us should condemn our children to fight all their lives.” Recent words from Israel’s outgoing president Shimon Peres, who is leaving office at the end of this month. He was speaking to television journalist Charlie Rose at a synagogue in New York City, during an emotion-packed trip last week to the United States.

Peres is 90. His service to Israel spans the entire 66 years of the state’s history. He has worked with 10 U.S. presidents, labored for 40 years for a peace deal with the Palestinians, and seen Israel sign peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. “I am leaving office,” he said in Jerusalem before he left for the U.S. “But I am not leaving the battle for peace.” Nor should we.

We have been looking into the distant past of the old-world Middle East (the story of Moses and Jethro), to consider the wisdom of impartial justice as vital to peacemaking. Peres’s remarks gives us a moment to pause and reflect on the current Middle East, specifically on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

A gut-wrenching sense of impartial justice has for decades gripped the majority of both domestic populations. Both have recognized that neither side is going to attain perfect justice in a peace deal. Both have been willing, against great odds, to compromise and to show an inordinate amount of collective patience to reach an equitable solution. Both have absorbed acute pain and suffering, hope deferred, and tragedies of death as a witness to their strong, common commitment to a negotiated settlement. There may be a more poignant present-day illustration of two peoples seeking peace with each other, but perhaps not.

“A two state solution is not an empty desire,” Peres told Rose, as he then immediately reminded the synagogue audience about Moses. Moses, Peres noted, said that all people are equal and that nobody is superior or inferior because all are made in the image of God.

soul symphonyThe perennial drive for a negotiated peace in the Middle East is truly remarkable. I believe we can find a lot of wisdom about it in what James Skillen calls “symphonic justice.” Skillen, president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice, has been a public theologian and a policy adviser for more than thirty years, working with elected officials, advisers, and others on both sides of the aisle in Washington DC to create and implement just policies and agreements for the common good. Some years ago, during some conversations we had about justice in this world, Skillen explained that he had been thinking about justice as symphonic.

“I was trying to find an image,” Skillen said, “to capture the sense of a larger communal whole. When a maestro conducts a symphony, which of course the composer ‘heard’ in his or her head first, the symphony depends on each instrument doing its own work in keeping with its own distinctive character, and as close to a perfected art as possible. There can be no reduction of all instruments to some homogeneous totality. The very nature of musical meaning is that it is precisely many distinctive sounds (on the scale) and many distinctive kinds of instruments (playing with each other), blending, doing counterpoint, and all the rest to produce something greater than the sum of the parts.”

Picking up on Skillen’s analogy, Gideon Strauss, executive director of the DePree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary, wrote that before we vote for political candidates we ought to ask whether they are committed to helping our communities and institutions toward a more symphonic justice. “In a symphony orchestra, there are a multitude of instruments, each with its own tone and timbre. The conductor, working off a common score, makes room for and sets limits to the unique contribution of each section of instruments so that the variety of voices and melodies, rhythms and tones do not result in either an anarchic cacophony or a monotonous conformity, but instead produce a rich and beautiful harmony.”

Strauss, an adviser to portions of the 1996 South African constitution, goes on to argue that a “government has a responsibility to make room for and set limits to the great variety of persons, communities and institutions subject to its authority, so that each can flourish according to its inherent and unique potential, while interacting in peaceful and mutually beneficial harmony.”

Symphonic justice is what Jethro, a non-Israelite, counseled Moses to teach the diverse, exodus orchestra to play in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula. And play it they did. Symphonic justice is what the majorities of Palestinians and Israelis desire and work hard at to play today, despite the region’s political cacophony.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by stevehdc & Temari 09, respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

THE WISDOM OF THE DESERT: PEACE AND JUSTICE part 3 of 3

Continued from the previous post.

blue water ccence4) Yahweh affirms Jethro’s judicial wisdom. Whatever his reason, Moses, in his long speech to the Israelites, does not attribute Jethro as a key source of wisdom for establishing the desert society’s judicial system. But Yahweh does. How so?

Let’s begin with this. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, is is an outlier. He is not even part of the non-Israelites who joined with the Israelites on the march out of Egypt to escape pharaoh’s oppression. He is a Midianite priest who, having heard about the great exodus from Egypt, has traveled from Midian to see his son-in-law. Nevertheless, wisdom for the judicial body that Moses establishes comes from this Midianite priest. This is doubly noteworthy because Moses has been commissioned by Yahweh, whom we would think has a pretty clear gripe against “pagans” like the Midianites. After all, the Midianties were one of the peoples that were to be exterminated in the “Promised Land.”

Yahweh, however, makes not a peep of protest about the “pagan” source of wisdom that, as indicated in Exodus 18, inspires the judicial system for the desert society.

What are we to make of this? Partly, it seems to have something to do with the “internationality” of wisdom. This does not mean that there was one common wisdom tradition throughout the ancient empires. It means that, ultimately, there is one source for wisdom, God, and that it is a wisdom that is available for all humankind, available to anyone and everyone. Of course this does not mean that everyone will avail themselves of it; after all, the wisdom literature speaks very candidly about “fools.” Also, the biblical narrative from cover to cover, beginning with the Eden incident, indicates that God’s wisdom can be and often is distorted by people. Nevertheless, the book of Proverbs, the apostle James, and even Jesus himself, explains that God’s wisdom is available to all. (Three consecutive posts, beginning with this one, explore these biblical themes.)

With that as a biblical backdrop, I believe that, concerning the creation of the courts, Jethro the Midianite priest had God’s wisdom for Moses the Israelite leader. This conclusion seems to be pretty clearly supported by the ideas mentioned in the previous paragraph, and by the Exodus 18 narrative (the primary text we are focusing on in these three posts), and by other biblical passages.

We also have Jethro’s attitude. Unlike Balaam, who tries to get Israel cursed into oblivion, Jethro is not mischievously hoping to get his son-in-law in Dutch with Yahweh. Nor is Jethro haughty or dictatorial. He is a humble man who fears God.

Look, he says to Moses, don’t take my words for it; let’s submit my proposal for the judicial body to God to see if its any good. If God will bless it, make it happen. That will be good for you and for all these people. You will be under less of a strain and they will have their cases settled quickly. Instead of queuing up at your tent in the hot sun, they “will go home satisfied” (Exodus 18:23). Now the Hebrew word translated as “satisfied,” here in the NIV translation, is the word is shalom, whose core meanings are about the kind of peace that produces community-wide well-being, wholeness, and flourishing. (See this post and also this one for a discussion of the close relationship of wisdom and shalom.)

red leaves old doorConsider also the principle of impartial justice, which was a vital part of Jethro’s wisdom to Moses. It is being instituted at the heart of the new society of Israel, here in the desert, before the giving of the Law. Further, impartial justice was then, later, taken up, as it were, and made an imperative in the social legislation of the nation of Israel after the giving of the Ten Commandments. To cite just one example, the judicial nature of a law given in Leviticus 19:33-34 is stated in a way that makes it doubly-edged, in that it is both negative and positive: A foreigner must not be oppressed or disrespected; the person must be treated as an Israelite. “Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” This law extends to non-Israelites the reach of a law stated in verse 18, which commands fellow Israelites to love one another.

We are also given to understand that the principle of impartial justice and its close relationship to wisdom makes its way solidly into Israel’s wisdom tradition. The prologue in the book of Proverbs includes the attainment of wisdom as a necessary attribute for judging “what is right and just and fair” (Proverbs 1:1-3). Further, wisdom sought in the context of “the fear of the Lord” is said to bring insight to “understand what is right and just and fair – every good path” (Proverb 2:1-9). Lady Wisdom also takes up the theme: “By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just” (Proverbs 8:15). And near the end Proverbs, in a section introduced as “These also are the sayings of the wise,” the principle is briefly stated in the negative: “To show partiality in judging is not good” (Proverbs 24:23; see also 28:21).

And there is this. William McKane discovered that impartiality in justice was required in the political wisdom of Egyptian state officials, who were not to wield their considerable power nakedly or arbitrarily. McKane determined that in Egyptian wisdom instruction, power “was regulated by the religious concept of Maat,” which put clear ethical constraints on the officials. For instance, an Egyptian official “cannot exercise power in the context of the Egyptian state unless he respects at all times the demands of equity, and endeavors scrupulously to act fairly without respect of persons… [Thus] a passion for [impartial] justice was an important ingredient of power and … whoever did not have this capacity for probity and fair dealing in public affairs was disqualified from holding office by a self-regulating process of selection” (Prophets and Wise Men, p. 63).

Conclusion. Moses obtains Yahweh’s blessing to follow Jethro’s detailed counsel for instituting a system of courts for the new desert society. Perhaps this judicial system was not unlike today’s structure of family courts, civil courts, criminal courts, and appeals courts, with Moses as the supreme court. But whatever that court system was like, the principle of impartial justice for everyone was normative, and the agency of wisdom played a central role in that normativity. This was then taken up into Israel’s legislation as a nation and in its wisdom tradition as well. The principle of impartial justice existed in Egypt, and it must have been part of Jethro’s Midianite wisdom and society.

Human nature being what it is, however, this is not to suggest that every case on the docket was judged equitably in ancient Israel. I am merely calling attention to the norm of impartial justice and its close relation to wisdom, which, incidentally, Jesus took to soaring heights in his wisdom-based Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10).

(For modern day possibilities if this principle is applied in practice, see Symphonic Justice.)

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by nateb2 & Big Grey Mare, respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

THE WISDOM OF THE DESERT: PEACE AND JUSTICE part 2 of 3

desert waterIt is important to understand the implications of what is taking place here in the desert of Sinai, in the Moses/Jethro narrative. The excitement and solidarity that deliverance from Egypt created has worn off. The huge desert multitude now seems to be verging on anarchy, and Moses, the sole governing authority, is unable to stem the negative downward spiral. So a judicial system is now being established to bring order to the new society. Significantly, this system is being created before the giving of the Law and on the advice of a religious figure who is not an Israelite.

With the giving of the Law at Sinai later on, the new society will, in a sense, have its formal constitution. Meantime, here in the desert, the immediate need is to establish a system of social order. To move the mixed multitude in that direction, the principle of impartial justice is being instituted by Moses on the strength of Jethro’s detailed advice. But Jethro, Moses father-in-law, is not an Israelite.

What’s the deal with that? Why is Moses taking his cues, and such significant ones at that, from Jethro? Jethro is from the tribe of Midian, the fourth son of Abraham and his concubine Keturah. And like all of Abraham’s children by his concubines, Midian was sent by Abraham into the Arabian desert, where his family became ancestors of Arab tribes (Genesis 25:6). So the text confronts us with some interesting implications.

For the rest of this post and in the next one, I want us to get under the skin of this narrative to consider why Moses listened to Jethro and what Jethro’s ideas mean. Along the way we may discover some insight into the relationship of peace and justice to the role of wisdom. We will look briefly at four areas.

1) The new society is diverse, pluralist. This is not to say that it is an ancient variation of America’s melting-pot experiment. Not even close. But a typically, if not a conveniently, ignored fact is that the exodus community was a mixed multitude. Sure, the Israelites hugely outnumbered any other people group in this desert society – so much so that the wandering community became known regionally as “the Israelites.” But non-Israelites – usually referred to as aliens or foreigners in the larger biblical narrative – had joined the freedom march. Most likely, they included estranged and oppressed clans of various sizes who, having fled Egypt with the Israelites, were scattered here and there throughout the new desert society, and, like the Israelites, trying to get on with life as best they could.

2) Jethro’s wise judicial advice. We saw in the previous post that with the arrival of Jethro order begins to get restored to the new society. Here’s why.

Jethro advises Moses to establish a society-wide system of courts whereby disputants can appear before judges, appointed by Moses, and have their cases adjudicated fairly and impartially, and the most difficult cases will be brought to Moses. Importantly, Jethro explains that the rulings must be fair and impartial not only between Israelites but between an Israelite and a non-Israelite. This latter piece of wisdom was absolutely necessary amid the diversity if cooperative and peaceable relations were to prevail for the common good. Jethro further recommends the job qualifications of the judges: they must fear God and have a known history of refusing dishonest gain.

Moses bulrush3) The role of wisdom in the judicial system. The role that wisdom played in principle of impartial justice and in the establishing of the system of courts is not obvious in the Exodus 18 narrative, but it is made obvious by Moses decades later. At the beginning of a long speech that opens the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reflects to the Israelites their history as they stand poised to finally enter the land of Canaan. Moses is reminding the mixed multitude that its judicial system, including its principle of impartial justice, has served them well, and in doing so he reveals the place of wisdom in its creation.

“At that time I said to you …. Choose some wise … men … and I will set them over you…. So I took the leading men of your tribes, wise and respected men, and appointed them to have authority over you.” These wise men, he continues, he commissioned as their “judges.” They would “hear the disputes … and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien. Do not show partiality in judging …, for judgement belongs to God. Bring me any case that is too hard for you, and I will hear it” (Deuteronomy 1:9-17). (The “wise men” being mentioned by Moses are known as “hakamim” in the Hebrew. Elsewhere in the Bible they are sometimes just referred to as “the wise.” The word comes from hokma, the primary word for “wisdom” in the Hebrew Bible. For a brief introduction to who they are and to the essential governmental roles they played in Israel’s history, see this post and this one.)

Here, Moses, among other things, is identifying the agency of wisdom as instrumental in the impartial justice that was adjudicated by Israel’s judges not only in disputes between Israelites but between an Israelite and a non-Israelite.

Continued in the next post . . . . . .

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Mike.D.Green & byronV2, respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

THE WISDOM OF THE DESERT: PEACE AND JUSTICE part 1 of 3

The desert, at least to Westerners, may seem an unlikely place for wisdom. Yet the often ignored, and somewhat humorous, biblical story that I call “Moses and the Father-in-Law” suggests otherwise. There, in the burning sun of the Sinai Peninsula, we find a mutuality between justice and wisdom that plays a crucial role in negotiations to end adversarial relations with an equitable peace.

Arabian desertOur text is Exodus chapter eighteen. Moses and the huge multitude he led out of Egypt are now camped somewhere in the Sinai Dessert of the Arabian Peninsula (possibly within sight of Mount Sinai/Horeb). It is before the giving of the Law, and the new society is becoming lawless. You’ve got to imagine the scene. Here are 1,000,000+ former slaves and their families stuck in the burning sun amidst a rising congestion of social disputes and wrongs among themselves that require immediate attention. But there are no governing structures or courts for the disputants to go to for resolving the strife. Well, there is Moses. But that is the problem. Whatever his rationale was for it, he decided to try to adjudicate all the disputes alone, by himself. This is not only overwhelming Moses, it is adding to the problems.

Although Israelites, by far, comprised the largest people group, it was nevertheless a mixed multitude that had hit the road with Moses out of Egypt. So I’m imagining an endless supply of disgruntled and angry Israelites, Egyptians, and aggrieved others queuing in the hot sun day after day at Moses’ tent, awaiting their turn for him to settle their feuds. But the heavy case load is killing Moses. It seems evident from the text that Moses is burnt out. He has lead a long and exhausting campaign against pharaoh and then marched a million ornery adult Israelite slaves, plus other oppressed and disaffected peoples, out of Egypt and across the Red Sea into the desert. Has this guy even had a day off since his life-changing Burning Bush incident?

The excitement and solidarity of deliverance has worn off. The huge throng has looked around and realized just how on its own it is. They see limited resources, a vast desert, and no governing structure. Accusations are flying, personal wrongs are increasing, tempers are flaring. The situation is in the early stages of neighbor-against-neighbor disintegration. People are either taking matters into their own hands or queuing in the sun awaiting their turn in the court of Moses to have their disputes settled

It seems likely, also, that both a complainant and a defendant would be queuing up in pretty close proximity to one another, to ensure that each gets his say before Moses when the time comes. After all, Moses is a busy guy. He might dismiss your case if you are not there to tell your side of the story. So I am imaging that that proximity of adversaries to one other increased the friction for further quarrels between them to erupt, adding to the social breakdown. And the only way hope of stopping the downward spiral is Moses. But the poor guy he is burnt out.

Then the father-in-law shows up! But this father-in-law’s arrival, as it turns out, seems  providential. Jethro is a Midianite priest and a wise man. It does not take him long to suss what is going on and express his disbelief at it.

Moses, what in the world do you think you’re doing? You can’t handle this heavy case load by yourself. It’s too much of a strain. You’re burnt out and losing control. Look around you, man. Have you been outside lately? Have you seen how long this queue is? People are taking the law into their own hands. You need to establish a system of social justice, to find some qualified help to lighten your load. Here’s what you need to do.

“Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you…. Select capable men from all the people – men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain – and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you…. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied” (Exodus18:19-23).

How Moses acts on his father-in-law’s advice to establish this justice system we will consider in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by cliff.hellis (permission via Creative Commons)

WISE WOMEN OF THE OLD-WORLD MIDDLE EAST

wise womanThe old-world Middle East, in the immortal words of James Brown, was man’s world. Maybe so, but women were noted for their wisdom. The book of Judges (5:29), for instance, mentions a wise [hakam] princess in attendance on Sisera’s mother, who advises her – incorrectly as it turns out – about her son’s whereabouts. But other texts call attention to women with some pretty outstanding wisdom.

In Proverbs, the “wise woman” who builds her house is contrasted with the foolish woman who tears her’s down (14:1). And Proverbs 31:10-31 seems to describe just such a wise woman. Also, significantly, the archetypal silhouette of wisdom in the book of Proverbs is feminine (chapters 1-9, especially chapter 8).

But wise women are also key figures in social and political intrigue. The book of Second Samuel (14:2) describes a “wise [hakam] woman” in the town of Tekoa. There, King David’s decorated general, Joab, needs help from her to pull off his elaborately devised negotiations concerning a particularly sensitive domestic political matter that revolves around the king and one of his sons. And Second Samuel (20:16) mentions another “wise woman.” She lived in the besieged town of Abel Beth Maacah and she negotiated a political settlement with Joab that prevented his army division from destroying the town. Her story, which shows the cooler heads of wisdom prevailing over the hotter councils of war, is reminiscent of “the poor but wise man” of Ecclesiastes who saved his town from war.

It is unlikely that these two female sages were formally educated in the wisdom tradition or that they held privileged status as royal court officials within the formally recognized hakamim. Such political careers seem to have been a bridge too far in the patriarchal structures of old-world Middle East. But I think we are safe to assume it unlikely that Joab would have sought the council of anyone, male or female, who was not widely known for having the kind of outstanding wisdom needed for the diplomatic skills required to resolve a crisis. In fact, the narratives of the wise women of Tekoa and Abel Beth Maach each suggest, in their own ways, that both women were reputed for reliable diplomatic wisdom at a high level of society and politics.

ancient scriptThe Tekoa narrative suggests this in a most fascination way, which elsewhere I have called the art of diplomacy, which is vital to wise negotiations. In the Tekoa narrative, Joab, who, mind you, is a general, shows considerable theatrical talent as a playwright. And the wise woman shows serious acting talent, not to mention great nerve, in the theater of the real. After all, not unlike the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12), she was going to the king with a fiction, in a role in which the king could have had her head off after the performance.

Joab’s script calls for her to perform a dramatic one-act play, a family tragedy, by which Joab hopes to evoke the king’s fatherly instincts and so bring his son Absalom peaceably back home from exile. She agrees to play the part, learns her lines, and appears in mourning before the king. Even her appearance is carefully scripted, right down to a lack of makeup. It was powerful performance art. The king is deeply moved by the drama. His imagination has been opened to new possibilities. This is the power of good art. My son Absalom, the king proclaims, albeit not without some conditions, is to be peaceably returned to the capital.

In the narrative of the wise woman at Abel Beth Maacah (the texts do not name either of these two women), Joab has his memory prompted about the town’s renown. He is reminded that, in the regional lore, Abel Beth Maacah had over the course of time become a celebrated source for those seeking wisdom. This appeals to Joab. It inspires him to keep negotiating with the woman, who is speaking for the whole town (again, reminiscent of the “poor but wise man” of Ecclesiastes).

After the general and the diplomat conclude their negotiations, the narrator explains that “the woman went to all the people” of the town with her “wise advice.” Of this, Old Testament scholar Bernhard Anderson writes that in the Hebrew the phrase translated “wise advice” appears to be a kind of technical expression which “indicates that she was a recognized leader with professional standing, perhaps like the ‘wise women’ who were found in the Canaanite court, according to the Song of Deborah” (Understanding the Old Testament; p. 492).

In the next post we will consider the desert wisdom Jethro, Moses’ his father-in-law, and the importance of that governing wisdom upon Moses and the exodus community.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Stuck in Customs (permission via Creative Commons)

MOSES AND THE ROLE OF WISDOM

Moses BridgeCenturies after the Joseph narrative, along come Moses, an Israelite who, soon after birth, becomes the adopted son of a pharaoh’s daughter and is raised and educated in the Egyptian royal court. Commenting on Moses’ schooling in Egypt, the New Testament book of Acts explains that “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). This statement squares with the findings of modern scholarship, that Egypt’s royal court was where gifted and chosen young men were formally educated in Egypt’s  wisdom tradition. And such an educations would have included both religious and political instruction. (See this post and also this post, both about Daniel, for brief descriptions of the wisdom schools of the old-world middle East.)

Decades later, however, Moses has switched national allegiances. He is now a patriotic Israelite and, now also commissioned by Yahweh, he becomes a clear and present danger to Egypt’s national security (Exodus 2-12). In hopes of thwarting the looming existential threat, pharaoh summons his “wise men” [the Hebrew word is hakamim”] to seek advice (Exodus 7:11). You know the outcome. Pharaoh loses the war. Perhaps a million people or more, mostly Israelites but many non-Israelites as well, have been freed from oppression and slavery, while much of Egypt lies devastated and pharaoh’s army has been decimated.

Some months afterward, Moses appoints hakamim from each of the twelve tribes of Israel as advisers and judges to keep order over the roiling multitude, which is now stuck in a hot desert, where temperatures are flaring and arguments and fights are breaking out everywhere. These newly appointed officials, with Moses as the sort of Supreme Court Justice over them, become a defacto governing structure of the nascent society that is now in the process of being formed out of Egypt (Exodus 18; Deuteronomy 1). In a future post I want us to take some time with this absolutely fascinating narrative, but here I am merely continuing what we began in the previous post, which is to briefly acquaint us with some biblical addresses where the role of wisdom in the governments of the old-world Middle East, although clearly evident, has often been unseen by contemporary Christians.

To continue, then. In Persia, King Xerxes, in the delicate matter of deciding Queen Vashti’s fate, sends for his “wise men” [hakamim] for advice on the legal issues he will face when devising a policy to deal with this sensitive matter of the nation’s domestic life (Esther 1:13). The same language, hakamim, is also used in the book of Esther for the officials who advise Haman, King Xerxes treacherous courtier (Esther 6:13).

There are numerous other examples that could be cited of what we may call the diplomatic corps of the Middle East. For anyone seeking wisdom for international affairs and foreign policy, a close reading of these narratives will yield many gems. Women, too, were notable for their wisdom. In the next post we will look at two fascinating stories of women who were diplomatic figures.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by timtom.ch (permission via Creative Commons)

JOSEPH AS A WISE EGYPTIAN DIPLOMAT

ancient Egypt in Legos (Colin Keigher)The story of Joseph in Egypt is the first place in Scripture where the role of wisdom and foreign policy is clearly apparent in the politics of an old-world Middle East nation. Egypt is in fact a super power with an expanding empire. There, a young man named Joseph, an Israelite, serves as a high-level political and diplomatic official in pharaoh’s government. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this multi-dimensional story, which, as someone has aptly said, reads like a coherent novella, with a subtle a well-crafted plot (Genesis chapters 37; 39-50). Instead, I want to draw attention briefly to the roles of Joseph and wisdom in the Egyptian royal court.

In the Joseph narrative we have a kind of precursor, or Egyptian equivalent, to the stories of Daniel in Babylon and Ezra in Persia. In the book of Daniel we see diplomatic wisdom in the skill whereby Daniel handles, with grace and aplomb, severe personal threats from political enemies. In the book of Ezra we see the role of wisdom in Ezra’s role as a shuttle diplomat implementing a foreign policy of King Artaxerxes of Persia. In the book of Genesis we see Joseph appointed by pharaoh to a very high political office among the hakamim of his royal court.

Now a little wordplay before we continue.

(1) “Hakamim” appears many times in the Hebrew Bible to denote a respected class of high-level officials and advisers to a king. These were usually government officials whom today we would call ambassadors, diplomats, foreign ministers, secretaries of state, international negotiators and mediators, and so forth.

(2) The word “hakam” appears frequently in the Hebrew Bible to denote a wise and very skilled individual, often a high-level official in a royal court.

(3) “Hokma” is the principal Hebrew word for “wisdom.”

Note that these three words derive from the Hebrew root word “hkm,” which has meanings such as: be wise, become wise, act wisely. Vowels are added to hkm to help with pronunciations and to add nuances of meaning. The suffix “īm” is added to hakam to indicate the plural, the class, the group, in contrast to the individual hakam.

The earliest biblical clues about the hakamim and the role of wisdom in ancient Egypt are found in Joseph’s ascension from prison to politics. As described in Genesis 41:8, an unnamed pharaoh summons the “wise men” (hakamim) of Egypt to interpret an ominous dream he has had. But, as with king Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel, pharaoh’s elite court councilors cannot interpret the dream and pharaoh hears rumors of someone who may be able to. In a fit of desperation he summons this unlikely person, a Hebrew slave of his, who, having been framed for a crime he did not commit, is serving a lengthy prison term. Joseph is taken from prison, cleaned up, and brought before pharaoh, who is wasting no time over petty details. Joseph interprets the dream, and, like Daniel standing before Nebuchadnezzar, gives God the credit.

The dream forebodes a long and catastrophic economic period for Egypt that will have both domestic and international ramifications for the empire. In his back-and-forth with pharaoh about this, Joseph suggests that pharaoh find a discerning hakam (41:33) who can create and implement a policy that will preserve Egypt’s national interests during. Joseph even outlines a policy that pharaoh might want to follow.

Detail doorway to chapel of Amun - Temple of HatshepsutBoth pharaoh and his officials approve the policy, and pharaoh goes so far as to attribute the policy to the Spirit of God in Joseph – implying Joseph’s divine wisdom and insight – not unlike Nebuchadnezzar’s testimony about Daniel. Pharaoh then identifies Joseph as a gifted hakam, saying “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise [hkm] as you” (41:39). Pharaoh then caps it all off by appointing Joseph as second-in-command of the nation, giving Joseph carte blanche over the nation’s domestic and international economic policy.

The details of the policy, its implementation, and its domestic and international implications spanned more than a decade but do not concern us here. I only wanted to draw out the overlooked fact of Joseph’s role as a hakam among the hakamim of the Egyptian government. In that role Joseph was at times policy maker, diplomat, foreign minister, and negotiator. In other words, he was a high-level official in the diplomatic corps of the old-world Middle East. The policy was seen as a great success by many, including by Joseph, who implicates God in it and explains that its purpose was to save, or preserve, lives (Genesis 45:7). As we might say today, it was a policy for the common good, both domestically and internationally.

Aside: In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that not all theologians see the policy in a positive light. Walter Brueggmann, for one, is deeply critical of it. He considers pharaoh’s Egypt as “the paradigmatic enemy of the common good.” As such, he sees Joseph as administrating a policy designed to manipulate the Egyptian economy, increase its wealth, and thereby gain greater control over the Egyptians and further expand the tentacles of its empire. You will find this assessment in the early pages of Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good. The argument, however, is based on selected texts. Because of texts that he omits, such as Genesis 45:7, and because a negative view of wisdom in the story informs his comments, I cannot agree with him on this one.

In the next post I want us look briefly at two or three more Old Testament narratives about wisdom and diplomacy.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer