Desirability of wisdom in the Old Testament

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Judaism by Alex L. on March 26, 2009

During Great Lent, the Eastern Orthodox Church reads the books of Isaiah, Genesis and Proverbs. Why those books? I think the daily readings on March 4 and 5 suggest an answer (Isa 2:3-11; Gen 1:24-2:3; Prov 2:1-22; Isa 3:1-15; Gen 2:20-3:20; Prov 3:19-34). The three books are trying to illustrate God’s relationship to His people from three different perspectives. Genesis narrates the creation of God’s people. Conversely, Isaiah describes the destruction of God’s city because of her disobedience. Proverbs serves as a commentary on both the creation and destruction stories by arguing that seeking after wisdom is the saving grace of God’s people, that wisdom preserves God’s city. While Jerusalem has grown rich with silver, gold, and other material treasures (Isa 2:7), it has neglected the true silver and spiritual treasures of wisdom (Prov 2:4-5).

So if wisdom is to be desired above all else (according to Proverbs) and lack of wisdom caused Jerusalem’s downfall (according to Isaiah), then wisdom looks like a pretty good thing according to the Bible. Why, then, does the account of the Fall of Adam and Eve describe the desire for wisdom as evil? “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” (Gen 3:6; emphasis added). Why is desiring wisdom considered evil before the Fall but the highest good after it?

4 Responses

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  1. Katya said, on March 26, 2009 at 1:14 am

    I think this is an illustration of the limitation of human language rather than a theological paradox. What is the intended meaning of the word ‘wisdom’ in each of these contexts? In my (admittedly uninformed) opinion, the essence of the meaning differs in these different situations.

  2. RichB said, on March 30, 2009 at 11:35 am

    I think they fit together ok. I see a significant distinction between the Prov & Isa texts, over and against the Genesis text. Eve took the fruit to become wise *in spite of direct disobedience to God.* True wisdom only comes via obedience to God (Prov 1:7, 29; 2:5; 8:13; 9:10; etc; Isa 8:12-14; 11:2-3; etc). Once one decides to act without obedience, wisdom and knowledge are already out of reach.

  3. RichB said, on April 1, 2009 at 11:30 am

    My comment didn’t get posted 😦

  4. historyjournalblog said, on April 1, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    Good points, Katya and Rich. Perhaps there is a linguistic difference between the passages in Genesis and Isaiah/Proverbs. I quoted the NRSV translation: is Gen 3:6 in earlier versions translated as ‘possessing knowledge of good and evil’ rather than ‘wise’?

    Rich, thanks for clarifying that distinction. I agree with you: that is the difference between the two types of wisdom. Interestingly, I was reading a commentary on Plato’s Republic today and your comment helped to clarify a question that I had. I was wondering why the Republic, which is also sometimes called “On Justice” after its theme, never once talks about mercy. The commentary (Leo Strauss’s “The City and Man”) noted that after the first few definitions of justice proposed by the first speaker, all subsequent definitions of justice were divorced from the idea of piety (in other words, the gods were left out of future considerations of justice). Books II-X of the Republic deal with justice in purely human terms. Why would Plato – who was so conscious of the interrelatedness of justice, piety, beauty, and all virtues – do this? Regardless, since the gods were left out of his discussion, it does explain why Plato fails to bring up the topic of mercy.

    Anyway, sorry to digress. Thanks for your posts and I will try to more speedily “approve” (I have turned this feature on in wordpress to filter out spam) your future replies.

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