Occasionally, one will hear the biblical book of Ecclesiastes described as anti-wisdom literature, the idea being that, though the book of Ecclesiastes shares much of its vocabulary and other generic conventions with the book of Proverbs, the overall message is largely at odds with Proverbs and the “wisdom psalms.”
As an example, here is Proverbs 10:2:
Ill-gotten treasures have no lasting value,
but righteousness delivers from death.
Many proverbs share what could be called a moral economy, wherein one receives rewards for good works and some sort of punishment for misbehavior. By contrast, here is a proverb from Ecclesiastes 1:3:
What does anyone gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
It is a rhetorical question. The answer, based on the context of the passage, is “nothing,” for in 1:2 the author declares that “everything is meaningless,” “illusory,” or, at the very most “ephemeral”—the gains are temporary but do not last.
I was trying to explain the relationship between wisdom and anti-wisdom to my Hebrew class yesterday (we are working on Ecclesiastes after spending last week on Proverbs), when one of my students said, “Isn’t this backwards? Ecclesiastes seems to exhibit true wisdom while Proverbs doesn’t seem that wise to me.”
I explained that the distinction is generic—that is, Wisdom Literature is a name for a type of literature and not necessarily a description of the actual value of the text—but I got his point. After all, though both books purport to gain their “wisdom” or “anti-wisdom” through similar methods—observation of the natural world—their conclusions are at odds and Ecclesiastes seems to “say it how it [really] is” without sugarcoating.
I bring this up as a follow-up to my previous blog post wherein I go through Deuteronomy 24 as a text that, while ostensibly hopeful about moral and ethical behavior, does not seem to have its pulse on the real world, where someone can and has violated everyone of the principles over and over again and yet has been rewarded with the position of the most powerful person on the planet.
The post is kind of bleak and maybe even void of much hope, but I decided to leave it there for a while with no response as a model of what the Bible seems to encourage, though few Christians feel comfortable enacting. That is, I wanted to sit in a space of lamentation, questioning the justice of the way of the world.
Deuteronomy shares a lot in common with Proverbs. Deuteronomy is not Wisdom Literature, in that it does not gain its insight through observation of the natural world and doesn’t express its insight through proverbial couplets, but its vision of the moral economy is, for the most part, the same. Do the right thing and things will go well for you; do the wrong thing and they won’t.
I should be clear that the moral economy of the Bible as a whole does not challenge that of Deuteronomy or Proverbs, really. That is, the Bible without Deuteronomy or Proverbs in its canon would still maintain a similar moral vision wherein there are rewards and punishments for right and wrong behavior, respectively. However, the other books in the canon make Deuteronomy and Proverbs tolerable to read while actually living in the real world.
As an example of a “real world” enactment of Deuteronomy, let me give a quick reading of the book of Ruth. While Ruth is likely not a part of what is called “deuteronomistic history” it is difficult to read it without being reminded of Deuteronomy and the historical books in its orbit. For instance, it opens describing the setting as the time when the Judges judged (Judges being a deuteronomical book), and Boaz is described with similar language as the Judges are described—particularly Jephthah (see Judges 11:1 and Ruth 2:1, where each man is described as a gibbor chayil, though that phrase is translated quite differently in different English versions of their respective books).
Consider also Deuteronomy 24-25, which describes rules on allowing widows and refugees to glean in fields as well as the procedure of “levirate marriage” which protects widows from destitution. Ruth, a widow from Moab—thus included in two groups of the most vulnerable—fulfills her rights of levirate marriage through gleaning the fields of Boaz, Boaz being a relative of her husband and her future groom.
Contemporary relevance concerning the book of Ruth, particularly as it fulfills Deuteronomy 24-25 and the blessings promised therein can be found in the way time is gapped in the very short book. For instance, more than 10 years pass in the first 5 verses alone. In this time, a man named Elimelek moves from Judah to Moab because of a famine, Elimelek dies in Moab, Ruth is married to Mahlon for 10 years and Mahlon then dies. Importantly for the story is that Ruth is married for 10 years without having children, which would be a devastating situation to find herself in at that time and place in history. She is widowed and has no male child to take care of her, which means that she can really only survive through the generosity of others.
She decides that her only recourse is to move back to Judah with her mother-in-law Naomi, who is also a widow and childless. However, in Judah Ruth has the opportunity to glean the grain fields for food (see Deut. 24:19-20). The story as told moves quickly from Ruth gleaning the fields to getting married to Boaz, but the text reminds us to slow down things in our mind’s narrative again. When she arrives in Judah, the barley harvest was just beginning (Ruth 1:22) but her betrothal doesn’t occur until the winnowing of the barley (3:3) around 5 months later. She does finally have a child and that happens quickly after her marriage, but one of the points of the book of Ruth (I would argue) is to show how the promises of Deuteronomy, as enacted by Ruth and Boaz, lead to fulfilled blessing of the nation of Israel and tribe of Judah through Ruth’s great-grandson David. In other words, the delay in fulfilled promises not only includes 10 years in Moab, but three more generations before the birth of the future King.
One can imagine that those blessings were far from the principals’ minds as the story was lurching through time. Ruth was likely motivated by survival and not the laws of Moses. Boaz, though likely prodded by duty, perhaps followed the laws due to his empathy and, perhaps a little romantic love.
Which leads me to one of my favorite scenes in Ruth, which is Boaz working the legal conventions of the time in his favor. Though Boaz would like to marry Ruth, he is aware that there is another relative who has the legal right of first refusal, as it were. We do not know his name, and that is key to understanding the resolution of Ruth. It’s not that his name was never known, but just that it has been erased from history. Boaz calls out to the legal redeemer in 4:1:
Turn around and sit here Peloni Almoni.
The King James Version calls him “Such a one!” and the Jewish Publication Society calls him “So-and-so,” both of which are much better than the NIV and NRSV, which have “my friend.” When I teach Ruth in Introductory Hebrew, I describe the scene in Ruth 4:1 as similar to the scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1 when the Bride reveals her name but it is bleeped out. Whatever the case, Peloni Almoni is not a real name, but a place holder for a real name.
The reason this is such a great scene is that Peloni Almoni‘s motivation for turning down the opportunity to marry Ruth the Moabite is that he is afraid it will ruin his own estate. How does Boaz provoke him to turn it down? By claiming that the purpose of the levirate marriage in question is to “maintain the name of the dead with his property” (Ruth 4:5). In other words, Peloni Almoni will acquire the property of Mahlon, including his wife, for the sake of Mahlon and not himself.
Peloni Almoni turns it down and likely didn’t put much thought into it once the transaction was complete. He goes back to his life as a property owner, thinking that he did the right thing for him and his family. Only centuries later do we find out that the decision had the opposite effect on his estate. We do not know his name. To us, he is Mr. ______, “Peloni Almoni.” Meanwhile, Mahlon’s name lives on. More importantly, Boaz, who performed the selfless act of providing Ruth with as much grain (literal seed) as she could carry to sustain her in her times of need and a lineage (figurative seed) that redeemed Israel in its time of need, has a name that continues to live on in the Bible and its readers.
As Christians living in dark times it is right to remember the arcs of these stories. Ruth’s and Boaz’s names live on because of their generosity (chesed). David’s name lives on because of Boaz and Ruth. And Jesus is also in the same lineage. But it’s perhaps equally important to remember that Ruth was barren for a decade. That David comes several decades later. That the fissure in the Kingdom, the destruction of Jerusalem, the Exile, the abomination that causes desolation, etc. come between David and Jesus and that Jesus dies, and that though he already has instituted the glorious eschaton through his resurrection, has also not yet fully implemented it.
And so here we are. We need not list all the terrible things people suffer throughout the world. And I dare not equate the embarrassment of having a fraud as head of state while others suffer much worse fates (especially before any real damage is done). But I do not want to live as if there is no hope (for the economy, the environment, the immigrant, women, etc.). For we need hope. And perhaps this is an overlooked gift of the Bible. We can read Psalms 88 and 89, knowing that Psalm 150 is coming. But we must read Psalms 88 and 89, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Job, Jeremiah, because we do everyone a disservice when we neglect the real pain they express.