Deconstructing Wisdom

The "deconstructionist" challenge to the complacent orthodoxy of Proverbs came about evidently because over the course of time, some of those who pursued the optimistic formulas for attaining the good life and its benefits presented in Proverbs, began to notice some major discrepancies between these proverbial texts and their lives.

One powerful voice of these sobering second thoughts was the author of Ecclesiastes, who is known to us as Koheleth, or the Preacher, or in the Today's English Version (TEV) translation, the Philosopher. In his experience, life didn't always turn out swimmingly for the righteous. The basis of his observations is summed up in 9:11, one of those verses which the King James Version (KJV) expresses the best:

``I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race it not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.''
Or, as the TEV more frankly puts the conclusion: ``Bad luck happens to everyone.''

But bad luck was not the worst of what Koheleth saw ``under the sun.'' Consider carefully 8:11-14, which the TEV renders most tellingly:

``Why do people commit crimes so readily? Because crime is not punished quickly enough. A sinner may commit a hundred crimes and still live. Oh yes, I know what they say: `If you obey God, everything will be all right, but it will not go well for the wicked. Their life is like a shadow and they will die young, because they do not obey God.' But this is nonsense. Look at what happens in the world: sometimes righteous men get the punishment of the wicked, and wicked men get the reward of the righteous. I say it is useless.''

This is an extraordinary passage, not least because what is called "nonsense" here is what Proverbs was full of, presented as God's guarantee. In this case I think the TEV serves us far better than most other translations, because it highlights the confrontational character of Ecclesiastes. This writer is not, in my view, simply offering some friendly constructive criticism, pointing up some loose ends in Proverbs and its Dress for Success self-assurance.

No, Koheleth is going for the jugular; he even takes on theology, and the sages who expounded it, a few verses further on. Again the TEV does the most justice to his radicalism:

``Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day and never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. Wise men may claim to know, but they don't.'' (8:16-17)

Astonishingly, in Ecclesiastes we have nothing less than an all-out, fundamental challenge to the view of life, and Wisdom, presented in the biblical book immediately preceding it. Nor is it a polite debate; as the TEV's renderings show, it is more like a brawl. Much of this book could be summed in the words of a vulgar slogan I've seen on more than a few bumpers: ``Life's a bitch and then you die.''

This challenge to the confidence of Proverbs is deepened in the text that many Bible students consider to be the crown of the Hebrew scriptures, if not the entire Bible, the Book of Job.

We'll take a look at Job next time.

Note: the views expressed here are solely my own. Copyright 1996 by C. Fager. All rights reserved; fair use OK.