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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon

Proverbs is a difficult book to read, no sense pretending otherwise. It is repetitive, and its lectures and pithy proverbs alike too often sound like tired cliches. Nonetheless it is worth mining for some striking images; I particularly enjoy the scoundrel who goes around "winking the eyes, shuffling the feet"! (6:12-13) And beginning in chapter 8, we find a wonderful personification of wisdom as a feminine aspect of the divine, created by God in the beginning: "before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth." (8:25) The opening of John's gospel, with its invocation of the Word, is clearly modeled on this section.

While skimming through the rest of Proverbs, take particular note of the "antithetic parallelism" that is found in chapters 10-15 and compare this inversion of the standard form of Hebrew poetry to what we have been seeing in the psalms. The oppositional nature of the images can be quite striking. And don't miss the close of the book, 31:10-31, the hymn in praise of the perfect wife – while the feminine role is carefully circumscribed by societal (male) strictures, this image also points to a woman who develops as much independence as the constraints permit. This tension between gender roles in a patriarchal society has already informed such readings as the stories of Sarah and Hagar, and the Book of Esther.

Ecclesiastes is known as a "cynical" book for its refrain that "all is vanity," yet it is perhaps more of a resigned faith: we are all to die, nothing will change that, but "this is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot." (5:18) And I defy you to read the opening of chapter 3 without the Byrds' song, "Turn, Turn, Turn," bouncing through your head (if you're of a certain age, that is…).

As to the Song of Solomon, this collection of gorgeous and erotic love poetry has been explained away by those shocked by its imagery for two-and-a-half millennia now. This is the other book, after Esther, that never mentions God; Christians have tried to turn it into a love story between Christ and the Church; I think we should relax and enjoy the imagery and the passion. Don't try to make the dialogue between lovers make sense or fit together in a schematic way, just let the poems wash over you as a celebration of the beauty and pleasure and pain of human love.

As with all things Biblical, there is always more to it than there seems!