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)

IN AND OUT OF LOVE WITH THEOLOGY

wisdom traditionI have a love-hate relationship with theology. I understand its importance, but I’ve seen and experienced too many ways in which it has be used to injure rather than to heal. For instance, people may treat the Bible as if it were a book of theology. Or they may fold up life, and their own lives, and that of others too, to fit inside their theology. I’ve witnessed others, and I’ve been guilty of this too, hauling out theological views like Job’s counselors – as if they answered the mysteries of life’s irregularities, human suffering, theodicy, and the sovereignty of God.

More personally still, it’s probably due to being born a wisdom guy. Hey, I couldn’t help that. You’ll have to take that up with my Maker. Also, wisdom has a family resemblance closer to philosophy than to theology, and my interests and reading have always been strongly more inclined to the former. You may imagine, then, how much I felt confirmed in my existence the day I discovered that a prominent meaning of “philosophy” is “love of wisdom” (in Greek, philos refers to “love” and sophia to “wisdom”).

I don’t want to push wisdom and theology into a dichotomy, nor do I mean that the two disciplines don’t influence each other. But I do find some distinctions helpful, which I share here because this is, after all, a blog dedicated to wisdom and to what may be called the diplomacy of wisdom.

For one thing, whereas wisdom is an agency for motivating diverse peoples to build cooperative and peaceable relations, a theology, because it falls within the purview of a particular religious community, unites only those who believe its particular dogmas. And some theologies make enemies of believers of different religious traditions.

Also, when confronted by a problem, whereas theology tends to bring ready-made answers to the discussion, as did Job’s friends, wisdom tends to arrive with questions seeking insight, as we noted in recent posts. I like the way Abraham Joshua Heschel put the distinction: “Theology starts with dogmas, philosophy begins with problems. Philosophy sees the problem first, theology has the answer in advance” (God in Search of Man, 4).

Further, theological studies (like traditional apologetics) make wide the gulf of dissimilarities between different religions and the peoples who hold to them; wisdom seeks to bring even different religious people together on common ground for mutual good. Immediately we see a great problem that theology presents to the diplomatic corps. Theology in its dogmatic role and wisdom in its diplomatic role have contrasting starting points when approaching problems of international relations and foreign policy.

I have been known to joke with Christian friends that you won’t find the word “theology” in the Bible, but you will find “wisdom” hundreds of times. Scripture explains that God founded the world on wisdom, and it advises us not only to seek wisdom but that wisdom is more precious than gems, silver, and gold, and that nothing we desire can compare with her (Proverbs 3:14-15; 4:5-7). Further, according to the Bible, and as we are considering on this blog, it is in the historic wisdom tradition that we find tremendous resources for discovering how to ease adversarial tensions, prevent violence and wars, and build more cooperative peaceable foreign relations.

The differences between theology and wisdom that I am suggesting come into sharp relief if we consider how some Christians approach the problem of peace in the Middle East. Rather than taking their cues from the biblical emphasis on wisdom, they have relied on a theology called Christian Zionism. In the next post I want us to look at how serious a category mistake that is.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

PERSPECTIVES: THE WISDOM OF TURNING THE HEAD

perspectivesI was recently with a group of friends and we were talking about how our perspectives limit our understanding of what we see going on around us everyday and in the news. Everyone in this room can experience the same event, one lady said, but we will all see it somewhat differently because of where we’re coming from. I will see something that “Tim” doesn’t see and he will see something that “Rick” doesn’t see. And I probably need to see what they see and listen to it, because I don’t see it all.

This of course is a fact of life that we are all aware of – just think of a traffic cop taking an accident report! But just as commonly we may not be aware of how much our individual perspective limits what we can imagine to be true. So someone says, You won’t believe what happened to me! And we may not believe it. Even if it’s true.

At the risk of oversimplifying this, let me say that our individual perspectives affect the way we relate to others and how we make decisions about things across the spectrum of life. How we vote. Where our children are schooled. What we think about the economy and our political leaders. The kind of entertainment we permit ourselves to enjoy. Who we turn to for counseling in crisis. Our views on spending and saving. What we think about climate change our nation’s foreign policy. The kind of church we attend, or why we don’t attend. What we drive, where we live, who our friends are. You get the picture. It’s your perspective on life and you are working it out all the time daily in the decisions you make.

The same principle holds true for how we experience the Bible and tell others about it. Just as I would tell that cop how I, myself, witnessed the car wreck, my perspective will also determine how I answer if someone asks What is the meaning of that Bible story? Of course, many people don’t experience the Bible at all. But even so, that is still a perspective. (A friend once told me that he had been talking to a guy who had never heard of Adam and Eve.)

For the past several weeks, we have been exploring the first half of the book of Daniel (chapters 1-6) through the perspective of the wisdom tradition. And here’s an important thing about that. That kind of engagement with the text has helped us to see a Daniel we may not have noticed before. Seeing Daniel through the lens of wisdom made possible insights into Daniel as a statesman/diplomat. Such insights do not emerge, in my experience, when one’s perspective is that of “Daniel the prophet.” You have to turn your head from looking at Daniel the prophet to see Daniel the diplomat.

As one recent commentator aptly said about the Daniel posts: They have “given me a great opportunity to look at him from a perspective that I have not considered. Our society and leaders could find a lot of value in the wise approach of Daniel.” To this I would just add that I hope it will also be of value to us lesser mortals every day, as we make decisions across the spectrum of life.

There is much more that can be said about Daniel the diplomat. But I want to move on now, to look further at what I often call “the diplomacy of wisdom,” as it is seen in other, perhaps surprising, places in Scripture. So let’s now turn our heads from “Ezra the priest” to see “Ezra the shuttle diplomat.”

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Aphrodite (permission via Creative Commons)

A Meditation on Wisdom and Shalom

wisdom and shalomA Meditation on Wisdom and Shalom
“Blessed is the man who finds wisdom. All her paths are peace.”
Proverbs 3:13, 17

The peace spoken of here is the venerable Hebrew word “shalom,” the opposite of which is not violence and war but brokenness. It is the peace God offers our world, and it is quite different than the mere absence of war. Shalom is about the healing of personal, political, social, and economic brokenness. The Hebrew sages used the word deliberately in their proverbs, knowing its meaning, its promise, and its Source.

Jesus, the agent of God’s wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24), also knew its Source, and he called any and all to become agents of shalom. Day after day Jesus modeled the paths of shalom and taught the ornery crowds how to follow his lead. It’s quite amazing, really. They were being shown how to put it into practice in the here and now. They were to become agents of shalom amid the rough and tumble pluralism of Palestine – despite their religious and ideological differences.

Jesus never said, “Wait until heaven.” He never said that you first had to become a Sadducee or a Pharisee or a Roman citizen, or even a Jew or a Christian, before you could help heal the brokenness. You just needed God’s wisdom.

Prayer: May your wisdom, O Lord, increasingly flourish among us. And may you daily guide me in those paths.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Rob Stalnaker (permission via Creative Commons)

ENDURING STICKING POINTS part 2 of 4

sunsetWhen I talk about wisdom-based diplomacy and negotiations, questions may arise about the approach that wisdom would take toward militants whose core religious-political position is to put a gun to your head and say, “Submit or die.” Although the number of submit-or-die militants is small, everyone today knows what kinds of organized violence and murder they are capable of, on both large and small scales. So let me state categorically that there is no negotiating with submit-or-die ideologues. That, I believe, is a basic principle of the agency of wisdom.

On the other hand, if you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends but to your adversaries or enemies. This is where wisdom-based negotiations can excel, even in such contexts as, for instance, U.S. talks with the Iranian regime, or even with Hamas or leaders of the Taliban who are sincerely open to seeking a negotiated peace. I believe that the agency of wisdom not only accepts this principle but is more than able to meet the challenge, to those who are open to it.

It was through a long series of difficult negotiations that apartheid ended in South Africa (1993). Likewise, a peace agreement among a diverse array of religious and political adversaries was reached in Northern Ireland and between the British and Irish governments (1998). Two stunning examples from the Middle East are the Israel-Egypt (1979) and the Israel-Jordan (1994) peace treaties. Many political ideologues in Israel (elsewhere, too) had been arguing that democracy in the Arab world was a necessary precondition for any normalization of relations between Israel (a democracy) and her neighbors. Yet adversaries talked and reached agreements.

Peaceable agreements, however, take place only around a table of adversaries who are willing to negotiate. So let me again state that there is no place at the table for submit-or-die militants. Wisdom is no fool.

Nevertheless, religious believers with strong core convictions can feel pretty nervous moving to this edge. I get that. I have found it helpful to talk about it in the context of “sticking points,” and here we can learn more from Daniel and his three Jewish colleagues (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah), who faced some extreme tests of conviction. For they were not wafflers or ungodly compromisers, nor did the play both ends against the middle. They were in fact willing to die for certain beliefs. And for that reason their sticking points provide insight.

For instance, although the four friends from Jerusalem were devoted Jews, when they were in Babylon they were not fussed about rising to positions of political power in what for them was a “pagan” nation. To enter that career entailed being put through a specialized course of studies that would scandalize many Christians. That is, their consciences were clear about something that would be a sticking point for many devout believers today.

lightThat it was not a sticking point for these four Yahwists probably seems odd to us because it does not square with what we think their obedience to the Mosaic law, on which their religious convictions were based, required. But that is our understanding of what was required of them as devout Jews. Clearly it was not their understanding. This, I suspect, was because the interplay of religion and politics was normative throughout the old-world Middle East. No one questioned it. For the peoples of those cultures it was a moot point.

In many of those cultures, but not in Israel, the kings were considered gods or demigods. Yet in Israel’s king-prophet-priest setup, religion did play something of a constitutional role in that nation. Daniel and his three Jewish colleagues were born and raised in this system. In other words, the basic questions that Americans quibble over today about the separation of church and state did not concern the peoples of the old-world Middle East, where secularism was unimaginable.

Religion and politics mixed like soup and water in Babylon. Neither the Chaldeans nor the four Yahwists thought it even remotely strange, never mind impossible, that officials with different core religious beliefs served alongside one another in the political decision making of the nation. They just got on with it. And in that sense it was not unlike the American political system and other Western governments today, but quite unlike governments in Muslim majority countries in the Middle East where those in office must hold to the same core religious belief.

Further, the religious-political edifice of Babylon was a legal construct backed by law, and government officials of any accepted religion were protected by that law. So much so that when Daniel’s political enemies go so far as to conspire to get him killed, they have to resort to getting a law passed to frame Daniel, for they want it to be seen publicly as a proper act of government (Daniel 6:1-24). (A similarly motivated political frame-up job is concocted against Naboth by the politically astute Jezebel, King Ahab’s consort; 1 Kings 21.)

One of the sticking points, then, that concerned the four Yahwists was not “should we enter Babylonian politics?” The question was “where should we draw the red line as insiders? Where will we dig in our heels and say This far but no farther.” So, as we have seen in previous posts, they would not eat from the king’s menu and they would not rely on “occult” practices as their source for interpreting dreams and visions.

In the next post, I will ask some awkward questions about why these devout Yahwists had dissimilar sticking points among themselves on some life-or-death issues.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

ENDURING STICKING POINTS part 1 of 4

sticking pointsThis series of posts on Daniel has been considering how Daniel’s education and tutoring in the wisdom tradition equipped him with the skills of a statesman/diplomat. We have been interested in puzzling out insights related to that role rather than to Daniel’s role as a prophet. So far, we have looked at several key narratives that show how Daniel gained and exercised exceptional diplomatic skill:

  • Daniel’s wisdom-based education in both Jerusalem and Babylon;
  • Daniel’s meteoric rise to renown in the Babylonian royal court as a devout Jew serving with distinction at the highest levels of government;
  • his irenic attitude and style of communication;
  • his respect not only for the king but for his Chaldean colleagues, including those advisers called astrologers;
  • and his esprit de corps with his Chaldean colleagues in government.

In these next posts I want to wrap up our time with Daniel the statesman/diplomat by considering:

  • Daniel’s non-retaliatory actions toward his political enemies;
  • how his wisdom-based way of reasoning bore fruit in political-religious controversies within the royal court;
  • and the different, possibly contradictory, sticking points between Daniel and his three Jewish colleagues in the Babylonian system.

Over the years, I have found it helpful to talk about these three features in the context of “sticking points,” so I will do that here. Knowing what one’s sticking points are in a given situation, and honest and open talk about them with others, is actually quite crucial because there may arise the mistaken notion that with wisdom “anything goes.” Not so. At the other extreme, there may be present arise a very real nervousness in which the word such as “compromise” and  “accommodation” seem like swear words to people who don’t swear.

There are of course compromises that are not wise. On the other hand, a wise compromise may never see the light of day because one of the parties is overly nervous about seeking any sort of agreement with the other. I hope that insights we gained from Daniel’s attitude toward the king’s menu have shown that you can have your sticking point yet still negotiate an acceptable compromise agreement. But the Daniel narrative offers us even more challenging insights about sticking points, which we will consider beginning in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

DANIEL’S WISDOM EDUCATION IN JERUSALEM & BABYLON part 1 of 4

wisdom traditionDaniel, a devout Jew, held a highly distinguished political career in the nation of Babylonia. He served at the highest levels of that government throughout successive administrations and was numbered among an elite class of advisers to the king. These advisers were known as maskilim, which is the Chaldean-Babylonian equivalent of hakamim, a Hebrew word to designate “the wise.”

What I have seen in the book of Daniel is a Daniel with an advanced degree of skill in wisdom that enabled him to function consistently diplomatically with a peaceably relational approach to people and situations. This was true even when he faced political enemies and death threats. Here is a statesman / diplomat whose response to adversarial relations, injustice, and conflict was quite unlike what is typically heard in the polemics of a biblical prophet. It is certainly different than the polarizing rants, if not the demonizing of the other, that can be heard coming out of some quarters in America and the Middle East today. Daniel’s was a peaceable, albeit a personally challenging, wisdom. It gained him the respect and favor of the kings he served. And it was instrumental in effecting deep changes of mind in the kings and in some of their policies.

But Daniel did not become an elite adviser because someone waved a magic wand over him. He paid his dues. And what dues they were! They began with the privileged, wisdom-based education he received in the Babylonian royal court. Here are some facts about that, often glossed over or ignored because their implications are rather astounding.

In the opening scene of the book, Daniel and three other promising young Israelite scholars (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) are captives being taken into exile from Jerusalem to the city of Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. Immediately we learn that

The king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief officer, to bring some Israelites of royal descent and nobility – youths without blemish, handsome, proficient in all wisdom, knowledgeable and intelligent, and capable of serving in the royal palace – and teach them the writing and the language of the Chaldeans…. They were to be educated for three years, at the end of which they were to enter into the king’s service. (Daniel 1:4-5, Jewish Study Bible)

Here is my understanding of that text, starting with a word about “the Chaldeans.” Unlike the Jewish Study Bible, most contemporary English translations have “the Babylonians” in Daniel 1:4. This is unfortunate. Babylonia (the empire not the city) comprised a very heterogenous population, and the Chaldeans, like the Israelites and many others, had been absorbed by Babylonia when it was a regional superpower.

Daniel 1:4 is not about the Babylonian population in general, with its mixed and conquered peoples, although that is the context in places such as Daniel 5:30 and 9:1, where “Babylonian” is the correct word. In Daniel 1:4, however, the context is an elite group of Chaldean officials in the royal court. Thus “Chaldean” is necessarily used for this more restrictive sense to qualify the phrase “the writing [literature] and the language” (of the Chaldeans). What is being referenced is a class of priests and learned (wise) men, or magi, in the Babylonian royal court.

In our text, Ashpenaz is tasked with examining the four young Hebrew men to see if they qualify for what we could call the “Chaldean Institute of King’s College.” If admitted, they would enter an elite tutoring program leading to prestigious positions as the king’s councilors. The four budding scholars met the admission requirements for that higher education.

Question: How were they able to meet the requirements? Apparently their education in wisdom did not start in Babylon. We will consider why in the next post in this series, where we look more closely at Daniel 1:4.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

WISDOM AND TIKKUN OLAM: HEALING BROKENNESS

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

tikun olamOne of the ways we learn wisdom is from other people. I’m a big believer in that. It happens to me so often I could write a book about it! Sometimes the received wisdom is so pertinent to something I am doing that it is utterly amazing. Fills in a huge blank in my thinking.

So, a story about one time. I occasionally have conversations about the wisdom tradition with Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a friend who is a gifted negotiator and mediator. During dinner a kosher deli in Washington DC, we were discussing shalom as human flourishing and the conversation came around to Rabbi Jesus as a teacher of wisdom who emphasized shalom. Later, back home, while writing a magazine article about Jesus and politics, I wanted to include some thoughts about shalom and tikkun olam (the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world”). But I was stuck. It’s never fun getting stuck when you are under a deadline!

Something was missing in my understanding of tikkun olam, so I shot off an email to Arnie. This led to a fascinating email conversation for a couple of days. The penny dropped for me when Arnie explained that the opposite of shalom is not violence or war but brokenness. “There is no shalom,” he said, “even if bullets are not flying, if hearts, minds, souls, or even dreams, are still broken. We, as God’s partners (according to Jewish theology) must help mend and repair the brokenness in the world.” That piece of wisdom helped me finish the article.

Tikkun olam (repairing the world) appears in many contexts in rabbinic literature and in Judaism for building Jewish societies of love, peace, justice, kindness, and generosity, and also for influencing the greater welfare of the world at large. (Some rabbis see the Sabbath as a kind of rehearsal for the coming for the messianic age of shalom, with the practice of tikkun olam during the preceding six days of the week as anticipating that future.)

I do not know if Jesus ever used the phrase tikkun olam, but its meaning sure seems to me to describe what he was on about as a teacher of wisdom during his itinerant ministry in the towns and on the hillsides of Galilee and Judea. You cannot read the Gospels without seeing Jesus continually urging his mixed audiences to get their act together> Jesus is frequently urging people to work more willingly and tirelessly to heal their relationships, love neighbor, and practice shalom in their communities. That might not repair the entire world, but it would repair the world around them. And that’s a pretty big deal.

Jesus was not being idealistic or utopian. Like the sages of old, he was realistic about human nature. He knew its limits and its penchant to turn ugly. Yet it is clear that Jesus’ gospel-shaped wisdom, even amid the highly-charged throes of the religious and political alchemy of Palestine under Roman rule, always meant putting away the sword. If there is any one first step toward the practice of shalom today, surely it is this.

Jesus oft-quote admonition to “put away the sword” came during his own end-times, just before his death on the cross. It hearkens back with perfect pitch to the beginning of his public ministry to what may be the most oft-quoted of Jesus’ words heard in the world today. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said to what may well have been the largest mixed multitude ever assembled to hear him (Matthew 5:9).

The peace he spoke of on that mountainside was not that of the Pax Romana. Neither would it square with the Pax Americana of our time. It is the peace of shalom. Of repairing the world around us.

The agency of wisdom urges us in the here and now, amid our own diversity, to seek to repair adversarial or broken relationships and situations. It seems to me that if there is any first step toward that today, it must begin by putting away our swords, figuratively and literally, and become blessed peacemakers.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

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