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Politics of Scripture

Wise Religion

Nowadays, people often measure the authenticity of religious practice by how much it flies in the face of broader society. In Deuteronomy, Moses offers a different vision for how religion might relate to the public realm.

So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the LORD your God with which I am charging you. . . . You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today? But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.

Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–9

What is the proper relationship between religion and public life? This is one of the animating questions of political theology. It’s also one of the animating questions of modernity itself. As numerous historians, philosophers, and scholars of religion have shown, the very condition of the “modern” can in many ways be traced to the Protestant relocation of religious experience to the private realm—opening up, by definition, a public, secular realm. For religious traditions that don’t divide easily along these lines—Judaism, Islam, and Catholicism, for instance—negotiating this bifurcation requires constant effort.

It might seem unintuitive to look to the Hebrew Bible for guidance on this dynamic. For one, the Hebrew Bible is, of course, not a modern text. Moreover, most of it unfolds under an imagined condition of Israelite sovereignty (broadly defined), in which biblical religion is the public realm itself.

We might therefore justifiably be surprised when, on the cusp of bringing the people of Israel into the promised land, Moses urges fidelity to the covenant as follows: “You must observe [the commandments] diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people! . . . What other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law (torah) that I am setting before you today?’” (Deut 4:6, 8). Who are these “peoples?” And, why should the Israelites care what they think?

In order to answer these questions, we need to understand the significance of ascribing “wisdom” to Israel’s covenantal observance. “Wisdom” is one of those Bible words—like “faith,” “grace,” or “covenant,” to name a few—that readers of scripture tend to gloss over because of their familiarity and self-evident positivity. We all know that wisdom is a good thing. Solomon was its champion. Proverbs sings its praises. No surprise, then, that observing God’s law should be deemed wise. Move along, nothing to see here!

However, when we situate this ascription of wisdom within the broader context of the ancient Near East, the picture becomes considerably more interesting. “Wisdom,” it turns out, is not an insipid cliché—not just a synonym for “goodness.” Rather, it is a specific mode of ancient literature: “wisdom literature.” To be sure, the notion of a rigidly bound wisdom genre or corpus has recently fallen out of scholarly favor, and with good reason. Nevertheless, it’s fair to speak generally of wisdom as one valid rubric for thinking about a group of ancient texts that share a cluster of themes and ideals. These themes and ideals are the framework for Moses’s assertion that covenantal observance is “wise.”

Most wisdom literature presents wisdom as a mode of living defined by practical knowledge, ethical integrity, and intergenerational learning. Some of its key traits are moderation, even-headedness, and a concern for justice. Living wisely yields “life”—i.e., material and bodily prosperity, especially in the forms of longevity, numerous progeny, security, and bountiful sustenance. However, should abundance and good behavior come into conflict, the latter is always to be preferred.

On a more abstract level, a crucial feature of wisdom is its universality or cosmopolitanism. Wisdom is accessible to all human beings as human beings, through their own intellectual and moral faculties—not through membership in a particular group that is privy to a particular divine revelation or historical experience. Wisdom literature tends to eschew communal particularities and to speak instead in human generalities. The book of Proverbs, for instance, mentions Israel only in the superscription and doesn’t present God as the covenantal deity of a specific national story. It’s therefore no surprise that wisdom literature from across the ancient world—including the Bible, Egypt, Greece, and Mesopotamia—often sounds and feels substantially similar. Wisdom was a broad, international discourse.

Bible scholars have long recognized that Deuteronomy adopts wisdom tropes and themes in its presentation of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. Like wisdom, God’s laws are sources of “life”—material prosperity—if Israel observes them faithfully. Certain laws in Deuteronomy, such as the prohibition on moving boundary stones, appear nowhere else in the Pentateuch—but do appear in Proverbs and other wisdom texts! Moses’s posture of teaching the covenantal history and laws to Israel strongly resembles the stereotypical sage educating a pupil. In fact, the Deuteronomic word for the sum total of God’s covenantal content, torah, means, literally, “teaching.” The word is well attested in this pedagogical sense in Proverbs.

By applying wisdom imagery to Israel’s covenant, Deuteronomy effects a subversive refiguration: it uses a characteristically universalistic discourse to authorize a deeply particularistic vision of religion. Unlike wisdom, torah is not accessible to all human beings. It’s the property of one people, revealed by their one God and taught by their one prophet. How could any mere human wisdom possibly compete? In this account, then, torah supersedes wisdom—and, writing as a Jew, I don’t use the term “supersede” lightly.

Having traced this Deuteronomic transformation of wisdom into torah, we are now finally situated to appreciate the full, surprising significance of the lectionary selection with which we began. To recap, it promises that faithful observance of torah will constitute “wisdom and discernment to the peoples”—i.e., the surrounding non-Israelite peoples—who will subsequently praise torah as “just.” A cursory reading of this passage might suggest yet another confirmation of the superiority of torah. Even the other nations will assent to it! One’s mind is drawn naturally to depictions of the eschatological victory of biblical monotheism, such as Isaiah’s vision of the knowledge of God filling the earth like the seas.

However, a closer reading reveals that the reality is considerably more complex. The passage does not say that the nations will acknowledge that torah is, after all, true wisdom. It says that torah, and Israel’s observance thereof, will accord with the nations’ own understanding of wisdom; these things will count as wisdom as far as the nations are concerned. If this is so, then cosmopolitan, transnational wisdom must be an independently valid and valuable category. Otherwise, coordinating torah with it in this manner would make no sense.

To be clear, Moses doesn’t set aside the basic Deuteronomic idea that torah is in fact true wisdom, a privilege that God grants to a specific community. Rather, he clarifies that this torah-wisdom remains amenable—and accountable—to the broader category of wisdom itself. The nations’ assent serves as a constant benchmark for Israel’s covenantal observance. Israel is meant to practice torah in a manner that prompts others who have no commitment to torah to see it as an admirable way of life. If it does so, Israel is doing it right; if not, they are doing it wrong.

Now, one might object that this is an overly optimistic construal of public consensus. Indeed, wisdom literature as a whole has often come in for the critique that its belief in an ordered, just world is naïve. Why should the Israelites trust that the nations’ assessment of wisdom is a worthy standard? Where is the notion of religion as a prophetic rebuke of societal consensus, which too often enshrines expedience and comfort rather than justice and integrity? In a cruel and unjust society, making torah accountable to public consensus might well be a matter of stripping it of its ethical power and reducing it to mere cultural peculiarities. What “wisdom” is there in that?

These are reasonable concerns. However, I would respond that Moses is addressing the opposite danger: that of religious solipsism. All traditions that claim unique access to truth run the risk of dismissing those outside the tradition. When such a view is wedded to political power, the consequences can be deadly. Accordingly, Moses clarifies that participation in humanity’s shared wisdom is not opposed to authentic torah; on the contrary, it is part of authentic torah. In this way, his statement is “prophetic” after all. You are special, he tells the Israelites, only to the extent that you live out this special divine teaching in such a way that the rest of humanity deems it just. The privilege of torah is not a blank check.

What Moses offers in this passage is a vision of how a particular religious tradition stands in relation to the public realm. In so doing, he speaks to one of the basic religious questions of modernity. Regnant Protestant approaches to this question—binaries like “religious vs. secular” or “ritual vs. ethics”—divide religious traditions into those elements that are appropriate to the public realm and those that are not. Conspicuously, what’s left tends to look more or less like Protestantism itself. By contrast, the framework of wisdom is more holistic, seeing particular religious communities as participants in a shared human conversation. It’s not about distilling wisdom out of the particular. It’s about living the particular in such a way that speaks to and manifests wisdom.

One of the crises of multicultural liberal democracies today is that many religiously committed people have come to measure the authenticity of religious practice by how much it shocks, disturbs, or offends broader society. If religion is met with wide approval, so the theory goes, it must be mere pandering—nothing more than the prevailing culture dressed up in religious garb. In Deuteronomy, Moses offers a powerful corrective to this myopic nihilism. He reminds his audience that attention to what the rest of humanity thinks of them is a commitment, not a concession. He challenges them: even if your religion is true, it is still your responsibility to show its wisdom to the world.

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