By James Bishop (35333), 17 August 2015. (Subject: Old Testament Studies.)
Robert Stegmann, along with some authoritative scholars he cites, is excellent in his exploration of wisdom. Wisdom, especially in the context of ancient Israel, is of a rich tradition that contains multiple voices, and is highly reflective of Israelite experience. It is part of Israelite history to bring lived experiences to speech, hence the birth of wisdom traditions. According to Gottwald, wisdom is an “individual’s experience with the perceived order of the world,” and with the “teachable human observer and social factor” at its center (1985, 566).
Gottwald, cited by Stegmann, tells us that ancient Israel’s wisdom traditions manifests from “the natural environment, historical events, social relations, political order, family affairs, daily work, and religious belief and practice” (1985, 566). These voices are in competition with each other, and reflect specific socio-historical settings. For example, wisdom traditions materialize from family, and tribal settings (Proverbs 13:24; 22:15), as well as in Israel’s post-exilic period where pluralism was encountered, pluralism that was in conflict with the older Mosaic tradition.
These voices are evident in the wisdom dogmatism of Proverbs (6:6-11). Here two voices compete: the marginal versus the central. However, it is the marginal voice that is silenced by those at the center. The sage (central voice) compares the poor person (marginal voice) to a robber and a “lazybones.” The prosperous are represented as diligent and self-motivated, whereas the poor are lazy, and dangerous. This wisdom tradition is suggestive of a certain social stratum, as Borg writes that the “lazy person is one of the villains of Proverbs.” (2001: 156) However, Proverbs also presents the poor as valuable to God (14:31; 17:5 19:17).
Ancient Israel’s wisdom comes from a few sources, according to Gottwald, the “scribal-legal schools, and the wisdom of advisors in Israelite royal courts” (1985: 567). This is rightfully important since it reflects the power dynamics behind the voices. Some voices come from places more powerful, and prominent than others, as Rynkiewich illustrates that power of wisdom is dependent on “one’s position in society and one’s society’s position in the world order.” (Rynkiewich, 2007: 52)
As in ancient Israel, contemporary theology is settled by those in the center, such as professors, pastors and theologians. Further, the church itself evidences, as Brueggemann appropriately terms “settled traditionalism” (1997:686). This means that much of the church is resistant to change, even if experience, or evidence demands it. Thus, unfortunately, old traditionalism is held even in the face of challenges that suggest change is needed.
Furthermore, I agree with the Stegmann’s insight that local, marginalized wisdom offers unique contributions to theology, however it can also be seen to challenge the central, dominant voices, and thus is marginalized. As Robert Stegmann aptly writes that “This calls for communities to identify with the voiceless” (Stegmann, 2011: 190). I find that this affords the opportunity to study, and read the Bible with the marginalized, such as the poor, and illiterate. Thus reading from the margins is taking God to the oppressed; such is our duty as Christians.
In further personal agreement with Stegmann, a parallel can be established between the church and ancient Israel’s wisdom. Like ancient Israel in their post-exilic period, the church now faces pluralism in our post modern setting. This is where, as Stegmann writes, that “theological flexibility” must be shown (2011: 189). Although we may maintain older traditions, we must still be willing to dialogue with competing views. We must not silence the marginal voices but rather understand them. Just as ancient Israel’s wisdom traditions were multilayered, so must our contemporary church be theologically flexible. We are to listen, and provide “a space for the marginalized to have a voice.” (2011: 190)
Stegmann has provided great insight into ancient Israel’s multilayered wisdom traditions and voices with emphasis on their parallels to the contemporary church. He successfully illustrates that being theologically flexible, and willing to read from the margins is crucial in our modern context, and especially for taking God to the marginalized.
Borg, MJ 2001. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. New York: HarperCollins.
Brueggeman W 1997. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Gottwald, NK 1985. The Hebrew Bible: A Socia-Literary Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress.
Rynkiewich MA 2007. Mission, Hermeneutics, and the Local Church. Journal of Theological Interpretation 1/1: 47 – 60.
Stegmann, R. Re-appropriating Israel’s Wisdom Tradition: The Place of Local Wisdom in Theological Discourse. The South African Baptist Journal of Theology 20: 181-192.