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In Search of Wisdom
Faith Formation in the Black Church
By Anne E. Streaty Wimberly, Evelyn L. Parker
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2002 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Forming Wisdom: Biblical and African Guides
Temba L. J. Mafico
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: "To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live." —Proverbs 8:1-4
There is much that challenges us in our third millennium world. Struggles abound in our families, in and across our churches and denominations, within and between class and cultural groups, and in the wider global community. There is a hunger among us for answers to the trials and tribulations of life, and to questions about hope in the midst of oppression and even under the threat of untimely death. The quest in our communities is also for responses to deep wonderment about the activity of God in the midst of life's realities. The concerns resound: Where may wisdom be found to address the challenges of our day? How may we act wisely along the journey of life we are set upon? What do we say to our young to inspire their wisdom formation?
The queries of our communities today parallel those raised in traditional Israelite and African culture. And there is much from both traditions that can enliven the discussion on wisdom and the formation of wisdom of Africans and Africans in the Diaspora. In this opening chapter, we will explore the Israelite and African conceptualization of wisdom by giving several examples from the Israelite and African religiocultural lives. The Israelite perspective will be based primarily on Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The African perspective will be based on the general African practice of eldership and its relationship to wisdom. The chapter will end with a summary of the striking similarities that exist between the Israelite and African concept of wisdom and knowledge.
Israelite Concepts of Wisdom and Wisdom Formation
Four books of the Bible present the essence of the Israelite concept of wisdom: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and the apocryphal book of Sirach. The wisdom that these books present is most particularly a practical capacity for coping with life, and the pursuit of a principled life. Moreover, wisdom's source is God. The wisdom found in these books contrasts with the strong emphasis on knowledge that often pervades current-day conceptions of wisdom. Indeed, Lawrence O. Richards makes the pointed statement that "the scriptures do not make the mistake of confusing wisdom with other mental capacities or of giving wisdom less than its central place." role of the sage is important. According to Hebrew tradition, the sage's purpose is to communicate the messages of wisdom gleaned from experience in order that the receivers will gain insights for coping with life.
The most striking aspect of wisdom in the ancient Middle East is its universalism. It is for this reason that biblical Wisdom Literature is devoid of important biblical concepts such as covenant, commandments, the Exodus, or even the patriarchs. Wisdom, as Roland E. Murphy noticed, "is an international heritage in which Israel had a share." The book of Proverbs regards wisdom as God's greatest attribute. It is by wisdom that God created the world (Proverbs 3:19). The equation of wisdom and God led the Israelites to affirm that "the fear of the LORD is the beginning of [wisdom]" (Proverbs 1:7). Proverbs indicates further that the person who finds wisdom and has understanding is very blessed and happy (Proverbs 3:13-14). Indeed, wisdom is not simply identified as a person, but as one with feminine qualities. Wisdom, like the earth, is portrayed as a woman who is desired because, like the earth, wisdom sustains life. This feminine quality of sustenance or of being the lifeline for human existence is pivotal to views on both understanding and wisdom. Thus, understanding (Heb., binah) and wisdom (Heb., hokmah), are feminine.
Promotion of Wisdom Formation in the Young
An important emphasis in Israelite culture regards the teaching of wisdom to the young. The book of Proverbs is replete with short stories, proverbs, observations, and the elder's instructions given to the youth through pithy statements. In Proverbs 4:1-9, for example, we read of a father's instructions to his child. Instead of telling the child to sit and listen to orders, the father asked the child to listen to a story pertaining to the father's childhood and what his own father said to him:
When I was a son with my father, tender, and my mother's favorite, he taught me, and said to me, "Let your heart hold fast my words; Keep my commandments, and live. Get wisdom; get insight: do not forget, nor turn away from the words of my mouth. Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her. She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown." (Proverbs 4:3-9)
This didactic discourse story is very revealing of the Israelite transmission of wisdom to children. By this short biographical sketch, the parent enabled the child to learn wisdom through a powerfully engaging dual narrative approach: storytelling/story-listening and visualization. The storytelling enabled the children to hear the story of their parent's past and to construct a "picture" wherein they could "see" that their parents were also once children of their own parents. The storytelling /story-listening and visualization were channels for the children's wisdom formation.
There are texts in Proverbs that explicitly emphasize that children should observe natural phenomena in order to form wisdom. For example, in Proverbs 6:6-9 we read:
Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider [her] ways, and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, [she] prepares [her] food in summer, and gathers [her] sustenance in harvest. How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep?
As in the biographical sketch appearing in Proverbs 4:3-9, the method for bringing about the children's wisdom formation was that of storytelling/story-listening and visualization. There is one addition, however. The question that appears in verse 9 is a logical corollary to the verses that precede it. Verse 9 actually presents both challenge and motivation to observe the ant. In this case, the expectation was for the children to act on their visualization of the narrative that was being shared with them. The insertion of this verse suggests that lecturing about the ant or simply telling the story about the ant's ways was not sufficient to engender the children's wisdom formation. Wisdom formation requires an actual experience with which the children can identify and from which they can gain critical insights. Consequently, the story in which an ant is the central character reflects the context and time when the requirements for success were in terms of agricultural skills, hunting, and raising livestock—logical settings for viewing the ways of an ant. More important, the story of the ant was followed by words to underscore not simply the primacy of the wisdom gained by observing the ant, but the consequences of failing to do so as indicated in the following:
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior. (Proverbs 6:10-11)
The parent reinforces the wisdom-directed pedagogy by telling two more short stories. These stories extend beyond the contrasting theme of consequences of failing to seek wisdom (vv. 10-11). Emphasis lies on the villainous character and calamitous fate of persons who are void of wisdom (vv. 12-15), and character flaws that God hates as well as that become an abomination (vv. 16-19). The abhorrent character traits include haughty eyes, a lying tongue, murder, evil heart, false testimony, and propensity to foster discord.
The Primacy of Experience in Wisdom Formation
Earlier attention was given to the parental storyteller's expectation that the young story- listeners will actually experience that which they hear and visualize. This emphasis in Hebrew biblical literature is a pivotal pedagogical approach in wisdom formation endeavors. Consequently, it is important to give additional attention to it.
With regard to historical events, wisdom was acquired not so much by listening to the accounts, but by reenacting the events themselves. By so doing, persons at any age reenact the events in ritual performances that are intended to reactivate the potency of wisdom. This emphasis of the Israelites derived from their view of history as a series of experiences through which indispensable insights could form in people. Although our primary focus here is on the four books of the Bible that best disclose the Israelite concept of wisdom and wisdom formation, it is instructive that the book of Genesis does not give lessons about God or other theological concepts. The book simply relates some stories about the patriarchs and their families. In a communal-oriented society, persons removed as far as the fourth generation were not to regard themselves as separate from their progenitors. What the ancestors experienced, they too experience, if not vicariously, then ritually. The reader is expected to visualize the events of the patriarchs and to acquire wisdom by reciting in a sanctuary their situations and circumstances. One example of this is found in Deuteronomy 26:5b-10a:
"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me."
Scholars attribute the book of Deuteronomy to the period between the mid-seventh and sixth century B.C.E. This period was a lengthy time after the Exodus. Gerhard von Rad believes that the text presented above is the first creed that was recited by people of later generations in order to tie them covenantally with the people of the Exodus, in this case Jacob. But we should notice that the worshiper is made to identify, in a dramatic way, with the ancestors who experienced the Exodus. First, he or she must affirm that the first patriarch, who in this case is most likely Jacob, was his or her real father. Following this acknowledgment, the worshiper must recite the parent's experiences in the land and the sojourn to Egypt. Up to this point, the worshiper is relating the story that has been heard. But in verse 6, he or she must identify with the most painful portion of the history by reciting the slavery and oppression in Egypt as a personal experience in the following way:
The Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land. (Deuteronomy 26:6-9a; italics added)
The reciter is no longer a spectator or observer of a historical episode that took place so many years before his or her time; rather, the reciter sees himself or herself as a participant in a contemporary episode in which God is active. By identifying with one's historical past, the reciter becomes more historically rooted and concludes, "So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me." The creed shifts from the retelling of history to the reciter's participation into that history, which can lead to self-realization and identity, a centerpiece in the formation of wisdom.
The Wisdom Literature does not provide an unvarying account of the results of the search for wisdom derived from experience. The book of Ecclesiastes more than Proverbs is replete with stories and observations that disclose the distinctive pessimistic worldview of Qoheleth, the disputed acronym for Ecclesiastes or the one whom some Bible commentators regard as an assembly speaker. The stories and observations of Qoheleth show evidence of a search for wisdom; but the results of Qoheleth's reflections on life's journey convey a stark denial of wisdom's power to provide a sure anchor for one's existence. Because of the monotonous circularity of life, Qoheleth concludes that life is boring because there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Qoheleth questions the value of drawing on insights from past experiences since choices confound one's knowing the road yet to be taken (Ecclesiastes 4:4-6). Life's experiences of dissatisfaction, disappointment, wisdom's mysteries, overlooked wisdom, risk, predictability, and futility that unfold over the chapters of the book result in the conclusion that whatever human beings do under the sun is vanity, like chasing after the wind. What appears in the book has the effect of highlighting blocks along the journey of life with which the reader/listener may identify. And what is noteworthy in this Israelite Wisdom Literature is that the elder, presumably Solomon now in his old age, grants to the reader/listener what some call a "painful education" or wisdom through his reflection on his observations and experiences of life.
The Distinctive Wisdom of the Book of Job
An earlier reference pointed to Qoheleth's observations and experiences that provide a "painful education" or wisdom through focusing on life's unpleasant realities. In the book of Job, a similar plot unfolds, though in this case God heaps disaster on Job, who seemingly has done nothing to deserve it. However, in contrast to Qoheleth's stark denial of wisdom's power to provide a sure anchor for one's existence, Job enters into fervent lament and conversation with God; and even in the midst of his torment he declares,
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:25-27)
This declaration of Job also highlights the kind of wisdom formation identified in the introduction of this book. This wisdom is reflected in one's coming to honest personal awareness that there are some questions in the midst of the hard trials of life for which no answer will suffice, except "Continue in faith."
There is an additional aspect of the book of Job that merits mention here, and that feature regards the connection between wisdom and age. In Job 32:4-6 Elihu, a young man, had not talked during the earlier discourses. He was waiting for his turn after the elders had stopped talking. It is for this reason that the text reads:
Now Elihu had waited to speak to Job, because they were older than he. But when Elihu saw that there was no answer in the mouths of these three men, he became angry. Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite answered:
"I am young in years,
and you are aged;
therefore I was timid and afraid
to declare my opinion to you.
I said, 'Let days speak,
and many years teach wisdom.'"
Elihu's silence before the elders is also typical of Africans, as seen below in the opening story on African wisdom.
Excerpted from In Search of Wisdom by Anne E. Streaty Wimberly, Evelyn L. Parker. Copyright © 2002 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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