The Bible speaks much of people who have wisdom in the hands as much as in the head. Those who crafted the furniture of the Temple, for example, are said to do so with wisdom. Indeed later Jewish writings would go so far as to say that even the animals that worked in the construction of the Temple did so with wisdom.
For the wisdom writers of the Bible the best way to obtain wisdom was by natural observation. Even King Solomon, who was considered the wisest man of all time, learnt wisdom from the world around him: `He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows on the wall; he would speak of animals and birds and reptiles and fish’ (1 Kings 4:33).
One of the insights of the Wisdom Books of the Bible is that we humans are creatures, part of nature. We are to accept our limitations and realize that we are not the be-all and end-all of creation. Even though in our time we have probed deeply into the mysteries of nature, we should have the wisdom to see that in reality we have only scratched the surface; there is so much more to know, maybe more than we can ever know.
Ecclesiastes reminds us that ‘we do not know the work of God who makes everything’ (Ec.11:5). In the creation story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis, reaching out to take from the Tree of Knowledge is a symbolic way of saying that humans have a tendency to reach beyond themselves without counting the cost of doing so.
Scientific exploration and technological discoveries should always be accompanied by careful analysis of what they will do to our fragile earth. There is a tradition that the Chinese discovered gunpowder long before Europe did but didn’t use it because they foresaw what it would do to society. We in the West have had no such qualms.
Wisdom in the Bible is seen as a bridge between the Creator and creation, and is often portrayed as a young woman, there beside God as the world was being created: ‘Then I was beside him like a master worker and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race’ (Prov.8:30-31).
The word that is translated as master worker could also be translated as young girl. So you get the image of wisdom skipping alongside God in the creation of the world. The translation could also include the word ‘bonding’. Wisdom is what binds us to God, to each other and to the world around us.
If we have the Wisdom of God as our companion we will rejoice in creation, in the wonderful creatures that inhabit the world – those we know and those yet to be discovered. Such wisdom is the first step in taking responsibility for what we are doing to the world, calling us to respond before it is too late.
The Psalms are part of the Wisdom Books. They give voice not only to humans in praise of God but also to the animals and all else that lives. Psalm 104, for example, speaks of the action of God in creation and how humans benefit from it. But it also shows how animals benefit from the same action:
‘You cause the grass to grow for the cattle and plants for people to use’ – where cattle and humans are in direct parallel with one another. In many of the Psalms, the whole of creation is like one great symphony of sound rising up in praise of its creator:
Praise God, all you on earth,
sea monsters and all deeps,
Fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy winds that obey God’s Word!
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
Beasts, wild and tame, reptiles and birds on the wing!
All earth’s rulers and peoples, leaders and those of renown!
Young men and women, the old together with children!
Let us praise your name, O God,
for your name alone is exalted;
Your glory above heaven and earth.
Let us all join in this great hymn of praise and have the wisdom to do whatever needs to be done to repair the damage we have done to this beautiful world of ours which speaks to us so eloquently of our God.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (November 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.