The God we wouldn’t expect (part 2)

There is one book in the writings of the Old Testament that lays out rather clearly the God we do expect, the God we were raised to believe in. The book of Proverbs lays out the basic rules of life, giving to us a framework of living that will lead to success, in all meanings of the term. If we work hard, we will succeed. If we are lazy, we will not. A good wife will be a tremendous blessing. Running around with prostitutes will lead to disaster. This is a book that explicitly lays out what wisdom is and what is folly.

Although much of the Old and New Testaments are either narrative or situational, here we have a document which clearly delineates the nature of what it means to be truly human as God intended. As such it can be said to be a “manual for humanity”, the instruction book that will show how we best function. This proper functioning is called wisdom.

Wisdom here is a many faceted thing. It is the ability to understand others who are wise, the ability to learn about how to improve one’s own abilities, attitudes, emotions, and character. It is insight it on the best way to go about life, both in acquiring knowledge and increasing in the application of the knowledge learned. It is most of all, however, an understanding of God and who we are before God. Beyond this it is not simply having this understanding but living it out in a way that reflects this knowledge. “Life,” says Roland Murphy in his analysis of the Proverbs, “was a great grace – it was all, and it depended upon one’s relationship to the living God.”

The Book of Proverbs relates to us how life should work, telling us the results of specific activities or attitudes on our life, both present and future. It contains both practical advice in day to day living, and general counsel on the broader meaning of wisdom in this world. Though there will be great dangers and temptations assailing us in this life, true wisdom will bring prosperity that will last. This is not simply material prosperity, but also a prosperity of relationship with God and others. If all of humanity followed this “manual” society would be running as it was meant to be running, and there would be true peace in this world.

Even in the midst of this book of what we expect of God and life, however, some interesting unexpected aspects arise. It should be noted that these proverbs are attributed mostly to Jewish kings or wise-men, but not all of them. In studying the surrounding cultures and comparable literature of the time, another interesting fact arises, namely that these proverbs are not all that unique. In the churches of which I have been a part, I was raised to believe in the uniqueness of God’s interaction with Israel and the church, that revelation was limited to these specific groups.

Here, though, we find the scribes freely borrowing to supplement their own material. Their own material in fact does not seem to be all that original itself, rather generally reflective of the popular wisdom of the day. Richard Bauckham states, “Like Solomon himself the sages of Israel belonged to a world of international learning. Because their wisdom was not, like the law and the prophets based on the special salvation history of God’s covenant people, but on common human experience, they readily borrowed from foreign wisdom literature.”

This is an unexpected feature which some try to deny. This idea suggests that God even works outside of the bounds he has set for his special revelation, giving insight and understanding to those who are not within the specific frameworks of his chosen people. Truth can be found outside of our specific traditions, and we can benefit from listening to the wisdom which is found in other cultures and traditions, because it is not necessarily wrong, but may in fact contain valuable insights indeed. What we know about life is not simply due to our special revelation, but rather Proverbs show “that there is an important element of continuity between special revelation and general human experience, whatever some theologians may claim to the contrary.” This is not what I was raised to expect.

For the most part the book of Proverbs follows our expectations, maybe especially because it is dependent more on “general human experience” than on special revelation. If we do the right things we can expect good things to happen for us, if we do bad things we will eventually suffer the consequences of our actions. This is a great guideline for life, and one can truly say that in general this is true. However, this is not always the case, and it is here we run into difficulties if we expect God to react exactly as he “should”.

Most of us encounter situations which strike at the heart of our expectations, piercing us because we feel we lived up to our part of the bargain, but God has not. God is often found not to act like we expect him to, thus damaging our “relationship” with him. The book of Proverbs is how life should be but it turns out that this is not always how life actually is.

With this in mind we find the book of Job.

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