October 21, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: The Book of Wisdom

John F. FinkParts of the first 12 chapters of the Book of Wisdom are read in the Office of Readings next week, the 30th week in Ordinary Time.

Wisdom, somewhat obviously, is one of the “wisdom” books in the Old Testament. The others are the books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach and the Song of Songs.

Generally, these books try to interpret the meaning and experiences of life by means of human reason. They concentrate on how to live life well. Besides those books, advice about wisdom is also in other books, such as Tobit, Psalms and the wisdom poem in Baruch that I wrote about last week.

The Book of Wisdom was the last of the wisdom literature to be written. Its author may have lived in the academic climate of Alexandria, Egypt, during the first century B.C. This was after that part of the world was Hellenized by the Greeks, and also after the oppression of the Jews that led to the Maccabean revolt.

The common language by that time was Greek. Therefore, this book was originally written in Greek, and only later translated into Hebrew. For that reason, the Jews do not include it in their canon of Scriptures.

Nevertheless, the book’s purpose is to defend Jewish culture. It argues that God communicated to the Jews a wisdom that far surpassed the philosophies of other cultures in the world, including that of the Greeks. It was aimed at those Hellenized Jews who had become enthralled with Greek culture and away from the teachings of Judaism, much as many Christians today have embraced American secularism and have rejected the teaching of Catholicism.

The book is divided into three parts titled “The Reward of Justice,” “Praise of Wisdom by Solomon” and “The Special Providence of God during the Exodus.” The Office of Readings has selections from each part, but only a little from the last part.

“The Reward of Justice” is sometimes referred to as “The Book of Eschatology.” That means that it refers to last things—death, judgment, reward and punishment. The just are not always rewarded in this life, it says, nor is evil punished.

For the first time in Jewish Scripture, the author introduces the idea of life after death. We hear words like “soul,” “immortality” and “incorruptibility.” However, he doesn’t go so far as to speak of an “immortal soul.”

In the second part, the author speaks in the person of Solomon, who was known for his great wisdom. He entreats his listeners to seek wisdom, which he calls “the refulgence of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of his goodness” (Wis 7:26).

The third part, about God’s Providence during the Exodus, contains nine chapters, but the Office of Readings includes only a little of it.

Many passages from the Book of Wisdom are used by the Church in its liturgy, especially Wis 3:1-8, a popular reading at funerals. That is the passage that begins, “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them” (Wis 3:1). †

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