Sunday, July 27, 2014

Wisdom and Waiting

Only one big story and dozens of little ones remains to be told before the Old Testament period is closed. First is the story of the Maccabees, second are the stories of the broad wisdom literature toward the end of the OT.


The four books of Maccabees (also rendered as Machabees) are essentially about the struggle to be a faithful Jew in a Hellenized world.

The context is the period that begins with Alexander the Great, who in the 330s BCE set out to “the ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea,” which meant defeating Persia and Egypt and pressing all the way to India. This empire broke up into three, four and sometimes five parts after his death, with Palestine as part of the Greek Seleucid kingdom. In the middle of this period there is also the Jewish theocratic Hasmonean kingdom. The period ends with the conquest of southern Palestine (Judea) by the Romans in 63 BCE.

Scholars are divided on whether the Maccabees represent a story of the intramural Jewish struggle between Hellenizers and Judaizers, or whether they represent a struggle between Jews and Greeks—thus a story that would foretell the conflict between Jews and Romans.

There were two responses to the essential problem of faithfulness—or how to remain faithful to religious tradition in a social context that pulls, or tempts, the believer away—underlying either reading. One was Hellenization, which included Jews cosmetically hiding their circumcision in the Olympic games, back then played in the nude. The other was traditionalist rebellion, ranging from separation from Hellenized society to establishment of a Jewish theocratic state.

The struggle of the Maccabees to protect Judaism as a faith from assimilation has historical and modern resonance, both in the problem and the solutions, for all the three Semitic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

None of the four books of Maccabees are in the Protestant or Hebrew biblical canons, two are in the Catholic Bible and all four are in the Orthodox. The Orthodox even celebrate the Holy Maccabean Martyrs on Aug. 1 and until the 1960s the Catholic Church commemorated them the same day as part of the St. Peter in Chains feats.

One other modern significance of these books, is their reference (1 Maccabees 4:36 and 2 Maccabees 1:18) to the events leading to the Feast of Lights, also known as Hanukkah, the decidedly minor Jewish feast that occurs more or less at the time of Christmas.


Lastly, as pointer for reading, one would not want to miss the third part of the Hebrew Bible, known as the wisdom literature. These include (in all Bibles) the Book of Job, Psalms, the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs.

More disputed are the pseudoepigraphia or apocryphal books, not found in Protestant or Hebrew Bibles, which were included in the Septuagint Greek Bible: Tobit, Judith, the Book of Wisdom (also known as Wisdom of Solomon) and Sirach (also known as Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus).

Each handles problems of the believer in a way that can be useful or inspiring.

A few merit a quick reading and are short enough for completing in one sitting. Quick takes:
  • Job: essentially about the problem of evil befalling a moral man, it includes the instructive final speech of God in which Job is asked where he was when the world was created.
  • Ecclesiastes: a short poetic essay and the one biblical book to explore doubt or disbelief as other than merely foolishness and has memorable passages that have been put into song.
  • The Song of Songs: a surprisingly erotic love poem.
  • Tobit: a short narrative with profoundly advanced psychological insights into the relationship of couples and the role of angels, in addition to offering models of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, filial piety and respect for the dead.
  • Judith: a brave woman defends her faith fiercely.
The 150 psalms offer a ready made prayer book. The psalms offer useful drafts for prayer covering almost every occasion one might wish to address the Almighty.

The literary conceit is that these are all poems of King David, when he went into the hills to meditate on the killing of Bathsheba's husband. In reality, we do not know precisely which ones were written by David and we can surmise that most were not.

Another caution, there are two numbering systems for the Psalms. The most common in the English-speaking world is the Hebrew or Masoretic, found in Protestant Bibles. The Septuagint or Greek numbering deems the Psalms 9 and 10 in Hebrew numbering, as one Psalm 9; the reverse occurs with Hebrew 147, which is split into 146 and 147 in the Greek.

As a sample for your prayer, try Psalm 51 (Hebrew, or Protestant; but Psalm 50, Greek or Catholic) for when you feel you have done wrong or Psalm 23 to express confidence and hope. In moments of despair, try Psalm 22 and be sure not to stop at the first verse, which is widely known and you will likely recognize; go to the very end.

Finally, Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus offer collections of epigraphs and reflections on a broad variety of subjects. Along with the Psalms, these are beyond a one-sitting read.