|Michael Kolarcik, "Two Values in the Wisdom of Solomon: Justice and Creation," The Bible Today, 2002 pp.|
Two Values in the Wisdom of Solomon: Justice and Creation
The Wisdom of Solomon is a work of apologetics written most likely during the Roman Period of North Africa for the thriving Jewish community of Alexandria in Egypt. The book was clearly meant to bolster the faith of the Jewish community during times of tremendous cultural upheaval, religious persecution and political unrest. As such, the work presents us today with an extraordinary opportunity to appreciate the values which the Jewish community harnessed and put forward to meet the challenge of faith in times of persecution.
The author was well versed in Greek literature but at the same time
was thoroughly ensconced in the Jewish Biblical tradition. Ultimately the
author relied on the Biblical tradition of faith to meet the challenge
of adversity in a community that had embraced so much of the culture of
the Hellenistic world in Egypt including the Greek language. The
argumentation throughout the three main sections of the book (Wis 1-6,
7-10, 11-19) unfolds as a balanced but rigorous defense of Jewish faith.
Two Anchoring Values: Justice and Creation
The three main sections of the Wisdom of Solomon present such diverse themes that earlier interpreters of Scripture postulated seriously that the sections must have been written by different authors. In the first section we encounter the persecution and future vindication of the righteous (Wis 1-6). The focus then changes abruptly but adeptly to the praise of wisdom in creation (Wis 7-10), and finally the argumentation continues by referring back in history to God’s liberation of the righteous in a midrashic treatment of the exodus from Egypt (Wis 11-19). If the three sections seem to treat such diverse themes on the surface, it is interesting to note as well the consistent values which underlie all three sections. These diverse sections are rooted in a common juxtaposition of values. What binds the sections together so cohesively is the continuous use of the themes of justice and the positive role of creation. In the view of the Wisdom of Solomon, justice is the hallmark of the created world, and creation itself constantly labors for justice.
This unique perspective of the author is so persistent in the different
sections of the work that virtually no one who studies the book today postulates
different authorship. In all three sections, the author appeals to the
values of justice and creation as anchors for a common ground of hope.
The two values are obviously not an invention of the author. Nor are they
values exclusive to Biblical faith (i.e. justice is a key value in all
of Greek philosophy since Plato and Aristotle). However, the value of justice
belongs to the common heritage of the Torah and of the Covenant between
God and the people of Israel. The value of creation, understood here as
a positive divine force, is present in pivotal sections of Scripture such
as in Genesis 1. In the emergence of the Sapiential Writings (e.g. Job,
Proverbs, Qoheleth) creation theology takes on more and more significance
as a backdrop or context for theological thought. It will be worth our
effort to pay attention to the author’s use of these values of justice
and creation in forging a response to the crisis of faith in Alexandria.
Wis 1-6: Justice is the root of Immortality
It should not be surprising to find that the opening phrase of the author’s exhortation begins precisely with the value of justice (righteousness). “Love righteousness you rulers of the earth …” (Wis 1:1). It is evident that the context for the opening exhortation to justice is the threat of unjust persecution. In the face of religious persecution, when it appears more expedient to give up one’s faith in favor of the benefits of blending into the culture of the local communities, the author champions the long-term value of justice. Justice is presented as an indispensable virtue that leads to life. This exhortation to righteousness implies right conduct in one’s relationship to God, to the universe and to others including oneself and one’s enemies.
The traces of an unjust persecution can be seen in the reference to the just one who is opposed by the godless to the point of suffering a shameful death at their hands (Wis 2:20). The author feels compelled to defend the righteous because of their justice and integrity. Though it appears that they have suffered calamity, their virtue of justice is the root of immortality. “Righteousness is immortal” (Wis 1:15); “the hope of the righteous is full of immortality” (Wis 3:4); “the memory of virtue is immortality” (Wis 4:1); “giving heed to her (wisdom’s) laws is assurance of immortality” (Wis 6:18). For the righteous, the hope of immortality extends to all who appear to suffer calamity for the sake of justice. It extends to the virtuous who suffer all forms of need (Wis 3:13-15, 4:1-2), and even to the virtuous who die an early death (Wis 4:10-15).
On the contrary, a path of injustice, despite all appearances to the contrary, leads to judgment and death. There may be short-term benefits in a life of injustice, symbolized in wealth accrued through unjust means (Wis 5:8). But ultimately the hope of the unjust is like chaff or dust carried away by a storm (Wis 5:14). This unambiguous declaration of life in the virtue of justice will need some further evidence of support, but at this point in the argument, the author is content to employ images from nature to convince the persecuted that a virtuous life of justice leads to immortality.
We could expect the author to employ conflict imagery of nature and the cosmos to polarize even further the battle between justice and injustice. There could be forces of good and evil right in creation itself according to dualistic views current in the author’s world. These external forces could conveniently account for the persecution of the righteous. Here we have our first major surprise in the author’s extraordinary use of creation imagery in the service of justice. Not only does the author refuse to polarize justice and evil within creation itself, but rather the entire cosmos is declared unambiguously to be healthy and good. “The generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them and the dominion of Hades is not on earth” (Wis 1:14). The tempting force of injustice does not rest in some cosmic external force, but rather is located in the human heart itself where we must all decide between courage and fear in the face of justice (Wis 1:16, 2:21-24, 5:6-8).
The author champions the long-term benefit of justice by finally postulating
a future judgment of the just and the wicked (Wis 5:15-23). Here the righteous
receive from the Most High a royal reward. They live forever. But the wicked
face a cosmic battle where the Lord employs creation itself to fight against
injustice. Both the Lord and creation together fight against lawlessness.
Not only is the cosmos perceived as beneficial and wholesome, but the forces
of creation stand clearly on the side of God and justice. To be righteous
then implies to move alongside the forces of creation. To be unjust implies
to move against the forces of the cosmos.
Wis 7-10: Creation was made through the Word and Wisdom of God
The second section of the book moves abruptly into a eulogy of wisdom. The author has concluded that it is the wisdom of God which enables humans to love justice. Only at this point do we as readers begin to identify the unnamed speaker as the figure of King Solomon who came to the throne at a young age and who was in desperate need of wisdom to govern (Wis 7:1-7). The author picks out the dream sequence from 1 Kings 3:3-9 where Solomon asks for a discerning mind instead of riches or power. The dream sequence here is transformed into a deliberate prayer for the wisdom of God to be given and received as a gift (Wis 9). Throughout this entire section, the unnamed Solomon speaks as though he is courting wisdom to be his wife and to live and toil with him. The marriage metaphor is employed to emphasize the profound symbiosis that exists between the wisdom of God and the cosmos itself which includes all human beings.
What is emphasized throughout this section is the abiding presence of the wisdom of God in the cosmos and its beneficial stance toward the just. The prayer for wisdom itself (Wis 9) contains the pivotal explanation for the author’s rather positive value of creation in the first exhortation to justice. All of the cosmos is on the side of God and justice because God has created the universe through wisdom (Wis 9:1-2, 9-11, 17-18). The wisdom of God is its guiding force as it permeates all creation (Wis 7:22-26). In this fundamental assesertion the Wisdom author is not being completely innovative but rather is applying and adapting the implications of the Personification of Wisdom set forth in Proverbs 8 and Sirach 24.
As concrete proof of the beneficial role of wisdom and creation for
the righteous, the author looks back to stories in Genesis to convince
the reader why righteousness leads to life. Beginning with Adam and continuing
right through to Joseph, the author attributes the salvation of the just
in times of crisis to the guiding role of wisdom in creation. It is wisdom
who guides the just in their difficulties. The wicked pass wisdom by and
perish. The very last example of the righteous being accompanied by wisdom
actually moves into the book of Exodus and introduces the author’s strategy
for the last section of the book. Moses was guided directly by God through
the cosmos to protect the righteous and oppose the wicked.
Wis 11-19: God saves the just and thwarts the wicked through the forces of creation
In this final section of the book, which is often understood as a midrashic treatment of the exodus narrative, the paralleling values of justice and creation are most evident. In the first part of the book, the author posited a future divine judgment as clinching evidence for hope that the virtue of justice is a source of life. Here in the final section, the author poses the foundational story of Israel’s liberation from Egypt as concrete evidence from the past that the path of justice leads to life.
The story of the ten plagues readily lends itself to the author’s emphasis of the value of justice and the positive role of creation in the service of justice. Throughout a rather playful interpretation of the plague narratives, the author highlights a principle which states how God employed the very same forces of creation to help the righteous and also to thwart the wicked (Wis 11:5). Examples singled out are: non-drinkable water – water in the desert; animals suppress the appetite – delicious animals (quails); animals that kill – the saving brazen serpent; captivity by darkness – pillar of fire by night; death of the first born – Aaron stops the destroyer; the army drowning in the sea – the righteous pass through the sea.
Furthermore, another principle the author employs in rereading the plagues confirms the close parallel envisaged between justice and creation. The misuse of the forces of creation for unjust purposes unleashes a reaction in like form (Wis 11:16). Examples the author singles out are: killing of Hebrew infants in the Nile – the Nile becomes polluted; animals are adored – animals suppress the appetite and kill; refusal to recognize the God of Heaven – rain and hail destroy from Heaven; enslaving the Hebrews – captivity by darkness.
It is interesting to note that in this midrashic section of the book it is no longer wisdom who is said to be the guiding force behind the cosmos as in chapter 10, but God alone. Perhaps wisdom’s function as mediator (Wis 7:7-28) is so complete that she resides imperceptibly in the background like a glass lens and God is understood to interact directly through the cosmos.
Application: Justice, not revenge
In the context of persecution, the Jewish community of Alexandria, at least as reflected in the Wisdom of Solomon, refrained from engaging in revengeful polemics. By focusing on the value of justice rooted in the Biblical tradition, the community was able to resist the trappings of injustice while at the same time engage in vigorous renewal of faith. The value of justice is particularly important for a community under attack. In the wake of September 11, the temptation to vengeful action is very strong. An unambiguous commitment to justice can bridge the gap between vengeful action and paralyzing non-action both of which are self defeating. Justice toward everyone holds up the value and dignity of persons while at the same time demands rigorous and clear commitment to action.
Application: Ecological care, not exploitation
The Wisdom of Solomon does not present a campaign for environmental or ecological concern. Those concerns simply had not yet emerged. But the respect for the positive forces of creation that are a deep rooted value in the book provides us today with a motivation to act effectively within the growing world-wide concern for the environment. For the Wisdom of Solomon, the forces of the cosmos are wholesome and healthy because God is the creator, and the wisdom of God abides within creation. The cosmos itself is seen to labor on the side of justice and exerts itself to thwart injustice. The long-lasting effects of indiscriminate exploitation of nature will come back to haunt humanity, not unlike the natural forces of the plagues which came back to haunt the injustice perpetrated against the righteous in Egypt. The love and respect for the cosmos which the Wisdom of Solomon exudes can provide us with a means to rekindle our own love and respect for the earth since God is the creator of all.
Michael Kolarcik, S.J.
Regis College, Toronto
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|Michael Kolarcik, "Two Values in the Wisdom of Solomon: Justice and Creation," The Bible Today, 2002 pp.|