Jerry and I were reading to our second graders one time and they were excited to tell us about the newest word they had learned: “genre.”
Back when you and I were in the second grade, even if we didn’t know the term “genre,” we still knew that there were different categories of the things we were reading. We knew the difference between comic books and history books and biographies; we learned how fiction, non-fiction and science fiction works.
The ability to discern between different genres still comes in handy for adults. For example, we know how important it is to notice the difference between objective news reporting and commentary or opinions; between science and poetry; between history with documentable facts and the stories that interpret and make meaning of facts.
This is not to say that some genres are better than others; that some categories are necessarily “truer” than others. But it is to say that finding meaning and discerning what is “true” requires understanding a big picture, not just one small piece of reality.
Look at our music, for example. We wouldn’t say that only classical music is “right;” or country or rock or bluegrass. We see all those different genres of music as rich and interesting and beneficial as we seek to experience life more fully. All this variety makes us better and bigger as we share life together with all our different tastes and preferences.
In much the same way, we appreciate the numerous genres of Scripture. In this complex book we call the Bible, we recognize that it is really more than one book; it is an entire library of books written by a variety of authors with a range of understandings over a number of centuries. And we come to see that the Bible contains numerous genres: Poetry, Prophecy, Parables, Narrative, Apocalyptic (visions) and Wisdom – to name just a few.
Considering these various genres of Scripture is an important way to read and re-read our Bible. It’s helpful to recognize how they work together to create understanding and to reveal meaning.
As we read, it’s also important to see how a variety of perspectives, how various streams of thought come together, intersect and inform one another in the big picture of the Bible.
For example, the narrative of the story of Israel can sometimes be pretty raw and violent and even hopeless. “What goes around comes around,” is how it looks in some of these stories. People seem to be stuck in vicious cycles that keep showing up in generation after generation of broken humanity.
But then the prophetic tradition informs and critiques the narrative tradition. We hear a different melody, an alternative refrain that infuses Israel with hope. It is the prophets who hold forth a new vision: a hope that things will not always be as they are now. That humanity will not stay stuck. That God will not stay hidden but – in God’s own time – will be faithful to intersect human history and accomplish the divine purposes for goodness and wholeness.
Or another example: remember when we were reading Leviticus and Deuteronomy recently, we also were reading the New Testament book of Hebrews. In Hebrews we discovered how a theological reflection from the perspective of the Christ event can give us freedom to re-interpret ancient understandings about the priestly system or the sacrificial system or the ethics and morals of a people in another time and place.
When we are reading the Bible and asking: ‘what does this mean?’ it’s important to see the big picture of the writings within an overarching balance and counterbalance.
Wisdom is one such tradition that stands in tension with the covenantal narrative of the Law. When the Law offers “thou shalt’s” and “thou shalt not’s” as the Word of the Lord delivered from the mountain top and set in stone, Wisdom says: Yes-And; the “word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart…” (Deuteronomy 30:14).
When the Law’s deuteronomistic understandings say: “you get what you deserve,” Wisdom argues: “Yes-But … Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes life doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to work.”
When the Law thunders: “thus saith the Lord…” Wisdom hears the voice of God in the whispers, in the silences, in the still small voice. Wisdom trusts that “when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” (Isaiah 30:21).
When the Law reveals the will of God in the offering of the sacrifices and the repetitions of the priests and the practices of the Temple, Wisdom discovers the will of God also in a mother’s love and a father’s devotion and the faithfulness of a friend.
Within the sweep of the biblical story, all the various voices must be heard and respected. But I think we modern church folks especially need to listen more carefully and more attentively to this voice of Wisdom.
Because wisdom traditions are the deep wisdom of lived experience. This is the knowing that comes from the doing, from actually living our lives with compassion and grace, with love and mercy. Lessons learned and truth discerned – this too is a way of knowing – not just “what does the Bible say.”
The practical theology of our living helps us to discover something about the God who is; the God who creates and redeems and sustains.
The Wisdom Tradition of Israel is grounded in creation and the Wisdom of the creation teaches that all things are made for God’s purposes and God’s glory.
All things are made to be good and to work together for good.
All things are connected and inter-connected, intimately woven together into an harmonic wholeness.
Wisdom teaches us that even though we are an important part of God’s ultimate plan and purposes, we are not the center of this universe.
Wisdom teaches that we are part of a whole.
That we need not be fragmented.
That we are created in God’s image.
That we are always in the process of being re-shaped and re-created into the image of the one true God and the Creating Christ.
The Wisdom Tradition of Israel teaches that there are two fundamental ways: a way that is the Way of the Creator, the way of life, the way of the wise. And a way that is the way of death, the way of the fool.
Wisdom says as Walter Brueggemann says: “God will be God! It is profound stupidity to think or to live otherwise”
If you have read Proverbs 8 recently, maybe you will recall the lovely image of Woman Wisdom calling out to humanity, enticing us to come, to learn, to walk in her way, the way of the Creator, the way of life.
Does not wisdom call; does not understanding raise her voice? …
The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of God’s acts long ago…
When the Lord established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in humanity.
Wisdom in the Old Testament is always “Sophia” – a divine female figure.
And so it is fascinating to see in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, John’s brilliant re-working of the Sophia/Wisdom Tradition as he interpreted the Christ event. John re-read his own Scripture, recognized the Creating Wisdom of Sophia and then re-wrote the creation story to include the Creating Christ, the Logos.
This Logos was – like Sophia – “in the beginning with God; the One through whom all things were created.”
“If the Christian movement is anything,” Brueggemann says, “it is an ongoing interpretive reflection on the tradition…”
And so the Gospel of John, steeped in the Wisdom Tradition, is an interpretive reflection that ponders and celebrates unknowable mysteries that have been made known by God through this One: Jesus the Christ.
Jesus the Christ: the Wisdom of God embodied, incarnate.
Jesus the Christ: truly God – who has come to make God known; who has come to show us what love and grace and compassion and fidelity actually look like.
And the Spirit of the Risen Christ – for us here and now – constantly teaching and guiding and leading and surrounding and nudging and correcting and comforting and encouraging and helping us to become truly human. To become who we are created and called to be.
“Wisdom Sophia” by Mirta Toledo
Icon: Creation of the Cosmos | by bobosh_t
Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Fortress Press, 1997).