This is not for a traditional review, but represents internal dialogue that I am having with this book. You can follow along with the series by using the tags at the bottom of this post.
BW3 is one to lay a firm foundation before he moves in for the kill, it seems, as that is what he has been doing now for the past three sections of this book. I’m not saying that it is boring – just the opposite – but I want the main thrust of the argument! In this chapter, he is examining several things, namely the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. But, more importantly, he is examining the notion that context matters. He asserts from the start that the statements of wealth and money in Scripture must be taken in context of the when, where and who of the books. I am used to this line of reasoning by now, and fully support it.
I was telling a friend that BW3 seemed to slip into situational ethics in this chapter, but I need to revise that sentiment. He states, “proverbs and aphorisms are always situation specific.”(30) So, you see how I could state what I did. Instead, I think he meant the reverse what I thought he meant. Instead of situational ethics – which I am against – I think he is again talking about context. He is against “sound-biting” as he says, and instead wants the books to be read as a whole, and with the proper context in view. He helps to shed some light on this by exploring the what, who, and how Wisdom Literature was developed. It is standard fare, which if one is moderately knowledgeable about biblical criticism, then they will know the intellectual foundation here. Wisdom Literature was literature of the Scribe, at Court. Thus, Proverbs, a point the author makes as he describes it as a top-down view held by the social elite during a time of comfort (32). Ecclesiastes is wisdom “from the outside.” This is what he means about the situation (maybe he needed a better word choice), in that we have to understand the audience (the Court) and the time (pre-/post-/exile). He writes,
It follows from this that if we simply try to apply preexilic wisdom meant for Israelite society to modern Christian life, without taking into account the difference in social setting and orientation, we will likely misuse these proverbs and aphorisms. (33)
And that seems to be pretty much the goal of this chapter. I believe that he would be well paraphrased if I were to say that BW3 believes that neither Proverbs nor Ecclesiastes is a be-all, catch-all book and that we should simply quote from those books daily, in any given situation. I say this because he notes that during times of “social dysfunction” (and he lists a few of those times) that the Wisdom Literature becomes shallow platitudes. Aghast! The Bible not providing relevant data for each and every situation in each and every line! Well, not exactly. All of this, which seems to be about half of this chapter, is the introduction to reading Proverbs and Ecclesiastes against those who would abuse those two books for their own selfish desires.
BW3 tackles Proverbs first, noting that the author believed in a “moral structure to reality.” That’s simple enough. What’s not simple is understanding the concept of audience. We are told scant details about the audience of the Book of Proverbs, but we can assume that they are in a time of comfort, with ease and freedom from social upheavals. Proverbs, then, is about maintaining the status quo, in my opinion. On this book, BW3 writes,
Clearly enough, righteousness is seen as something to be inculcated and striven for, whereas wealth is merely a sometime bonus or by product of pious living and hard work. (37)
That’s about the sum of Proverbs. The audience was settled, with comfort around them, given by God, but needing to strive for righteousness. Not so much for the audience of Ecclesiastes.
For this next book, BW3 makes the comment that the cultural situation began to involve money. This is something which needs to be explored. What changed in society with the influx of the ‘gold standard’ or, rather, money.
If you ever sit down and actually read this book, you will note the absence of justice, equality and the after life. It is a book which notes the injustices caused by wealth and greed and sees no hope for anything, really.
So, Witherington summarizes:
…if we are going to use the Old Testament teachings about wealth and prosperity, then we must use it all and not extract out of context only those sound bites that appeal to us. (41)
Yeah, that’s about right. A lot of good food for thought in this chapter, but against, it seems only to be laying the foundation for something else. Further, the author seems to still be in dialogue against Prosperity preachers. Personally, I would like to see a study done on how that line of thinking contributed to the fiscal crisis or vice versa.