It may be helpful to consider this week’s set of readings as exploring the question: How do we find ourselves dining at Wisdom’s table?
In various ways the readings all seem to touch on some aspect of this question:
- King Solomon chooses Wisdom as the gift of supreme worth. [1 Kings 3]
- Lady Wisdom builds a house, sets a feast and sends out the invitations. [Proverbs 9 – alternative reading]
- Christians are urged to be fill themselves with the Spirit rather than wine. [Ephesians 5]
- Jesus is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to all who eat it. [John 6]
First Reading: Solomon succeeds David
At one level the RCL first reading simply tells of the succession as Solomon assumes power following the death of David.
When the historical questions are considered, we realise that there are many unanswered questions. Despite extensive and well-funded Israeli excavations around the City of David site in Jerusalem, archaeologists have not found any evidence of the kind of urban development presupposed by the biblical legends of David and Solomon. At sites beyond Jerusalem (such as Meggido in the north), substantial building projects and fortifications that were once readily ascribed to Solomon have now been re-dated to much later periods. Like the description of his harem comprising 700 princesses and 300 concubines, Solomon’s geopolitical significance may have been exaggerated by the biblical story-teller.
The theological questions in this story deal with the issue of what kind of disposition is appropriate for someone chosen to lead the community of God’s people. The description of the young ruler is a little surprising. He goes to the major shrine of the time, at Gibeon (in the tribal territory of Benjamin), whereas we might have expected him to go to the temporary shrine housing the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem.
Gibeon was also a traditional Israelite (northern) site, and not a place with strong attachments to the southern tribes most associated with David:
- Josh 9:3-27 The Bible knows a tradition that this stronghold was subdued without conquest, and that the people there provided timber and water for Israel.
- Josh 10:1-43 Gibeon is the site of famous battle where God makes the sun stand still in the sky. (Interestingly, some people are more concerned to explain how such a thing can happen rather than to address the issues of genocide and ethnic cleansing implicit in such tales.)
- Josh 18:25; 21:17 Gibeon is listed in the tribal territory of Benjamin and was identified as a Levitical city .
- 2 Sam 2:12-28; 3:30 The famous pool of Gibeon features in a contest between twelve young champions from North and South.
From the perspective of the story-teller, what was most needed was not a ruler with priestly inclinations (although Solomon would come to be remembered as the patron of the Temple) or even with a willingness to take advice from the prophetic texts (as asserted in Deut 17:18f). Rather, what is needed is the gift of wisdom. The one who chooses wisdom will also then receive everything else, since only a truly wise person can both acquire and profitably use power, wealth, etc.
If, as many NT scholars believe, Jesus consciously drew on the wisdom traditions of ancient Israel, we may have an echo this principle in the following Kingdom saying from the Sayings Gospel Q: “Seek <first> God’s Empire, then everything else will be granted you.”
Ancient Israel’s wisdom tradition comes into sight in a story such as this. The location within an ancient society where the wisdom tradition is to be found is precisely in the retainers who depend upon the king for their livelihood and whose services were in turn needed by the ruler. The court was a patron for learning, and stories such as this tale of Solomon choosing wisdom provided an excellent training module for sages in the ancient equivalent of a Humanities program. Not surprisingly, the wisdom writings in the Bible are the most international of the Bible’s texts and also the least interested in distinctively Israelite traditions such as the covenant. In those same circles, Solomon (the most “oriental” of Judah’s rulers) becomes the “patron saint” of wisdom, with several biblical and post-biblical works attributed to him: Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, Psalms of Solomon, and the Odes of Solomon.
The alternative first reading from Proverbs 9 picks up the image of Lady Wisdom known to us from several biblical passages.
In this passage Lady Sophia is portrayed as a wealthy householder. She has built a substantial house with seven strong pillars, slaughtered the animals for a feast, prepared the drinks, and dispatched her slave girls to summon the guests. Like the unwilling host in Jesus’ parable of the Feast, but in her case willingly, Lady Wisdom hosts a banquet to which all are welcome. This is very strong portrayal of a female character for a biblical text, and suggests that at least some women could be imagined as persons of wealth and influence.
Second Reading: Drink the wine that God provides
The Ephesians passage represents another theme within the Wisdom literature: sobriety and decorum in public conduct. In this case we have an implicit contrast between the excessive drinking that is a hallmark of a grand party, and the religious ideal of a more sober person whose satisfaction comes from the overwhelming presence of the Spirit. Interestingly, given the wisdom genre of the OT texts, Eph 5:15 begins with the classic call to wise living.
One of the characteristic differences between Torah-centric Jewish wisdom texts (such as Sirach 24) and the Christian texts is that Jesus has now replaced the Torah as the embodiment of the divine wisdom.
Gospel: Eat my flesh, drink my blood
In traditional theology, this week’s passage from John 6 has been understood as the Johannine version of the words of institution (found embedded in the Last Supper story in the Synoptics and also attested in 1Cor 11:23-26).
When read through the lens of an early Christian community that understood Jesus as divine Wisdom (Logos) in human form, this passage can perhaps be understood as a midrash that combines traditional Exodus traditions (the manna in the wilderness) with a view of Jesus as the new embodiment of the same divine Wisdom that was believed by Jewish writers of the time to have journeyed with the Israelites in the wilderness:
Wisdom prospered their works by the hand of a holy prophet.
2They journeyed through an uninhabited wilderness,
and pitched their tents in untrodden places.
3They withstood their enemies and fought off their foes.
4When they were thirsty, they called upon you,
and water was given them out of flinty rock,
and from hard stone a remedy for their thirst. [WisSol 11:1-4]
John 6:51-58 can be understood as a Christological reinterpretation of the ancient motif of Lady Wisdom setting a banquet and calling any who seek life to come and join the feast. As such it may represent a creative blending of a historical memory of Jesus’ practice of open commensality with early Christian Sophia Christology.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.