Tobit

Chapter 7


 
Wisdom 7:

1) I too am a mortal, the same as all the rest,

and a descendant of the first one formed of earth.

And in my mother’s womb I was molded into flesh


COMMENTARY:  The Book of Wisdom follows a popular convention of the time for collections of advice, of pretending to be from the viewpoint of Solomon: the archetype of all wise men.  The writer intended no deceit by this, but rather the humility of anonymity.

 

“First one” refers to Adam.  Throughout this work the author avoids naming any names, using allusions instead.  The message here is that everybody, whether peasant or king, wise man or fool, begins in the same humble way.

 

 

2) in a ten-month period—body and blood,

from the seed of a man, and the pleasure that accompanies marriage.


COMMENTARY:  Ten because the Jewish calendar goes by lunar months rather than the longer solar ones. “Seed” represents the masculine contribution to birth, and “pleasure” (edna in Hebrew) the feminine, as the word for sexual pleasure also meant menstruation, and thus by implication womanhood.  Although this is a Hebrew word, the Alexandrians would still have the association passed on, though they spoke mostly Greek.

 

 

3) And I too, when born, inhaled the common air,

and fell upon the kindred earth;

wailing, I uttered that first sound common to all.


COMMENTARY:  Women in Biblical times gave birth squatting, and the baby fell to the ground—a much more natural position which allows gravity to help.  The innovation of giving birth lying on one’s back came in the court of Louis the XIVth. This king had his physician convince all of the women of court that this was a healthier, less primitive way of doing it, so that Louis could watch the birth process from a slit in a curtain.  It fascinated him.  And since all the high folk of the most fashionable court in the western world did thus (fashionable because Louis set the social standard of ever-changing attire, so that his nobles would have to borrow money from him to keep up and he could thus control them) the notion soon spread everywhere.

It’s not healthy.  Not only does it put extra work on the woman, it compresses a major blood vessel to make birth even harder.  Yet to this day friends of mine have had to fight hospital staff for the right to give birth upright.

 

 

4) In swaddling clothes and with constant care I was nurtured.


COMMENTARY:  Swaddling clothes basically mummified a baby, often with salt in between the layers to help keep the baby dry.  But the humbling idea is the same—even the most exalted of human beings began life needing frequent diaper changes.

 

 

5) For no king has any different origin or birth;


COMMENTARY:  Even Jesus Christ began His incarnation this way.  We emphasize the sacrifice of His death, but we seldom contemplate the voluntary surrender to the everyday indignities of mortal life.

 

 

6) one is the entry into life for all,

and in one same way they leave it.


COMMENTARY:  All mortals, by definition, die, even Jesus when incarnate.  He just didn’t stay that way.

 

 

7) Therefore I prayed, and prudence was given me;

I pleaded and the spirit of Wisdom came to me.


COMMENTARY:  St. Paul urged everyone to pray for wisdom.  Many approve of this, but few actually do it.  They might pray for guidance for a special situation, but praying for wisdom in general can have a frighteningly powerful effect, and a deep bereavement for the loss of comfortable old prejudices, pleasurable hatreds and resentments, and especially the loss of a self-satisfying sense of superiority.  Wisdom demands room only for herself, and will crush or drive out anything in her way.  That’s the dark side that people don’t talk about, and the reason most who start on the path of wisdom don’t want to continue very far.

Is it still worth praying for?  Absolutely!  You will get more than double the value of anything you lose.  But nothing comes without a price.

 

 

8) I preferred her to scepter and throne,

And deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,


COMMENTARY:  Many start out wanting wisdom in order to feel superior, but the whole concept of superiority is the first thing to fall, which therefore becomes the first barrier to frighten people away.  You see your own shortcomings more clearly than you ever wanted to, and understand the reasons behind the shortcomings of those you previously looked down on.  You learn that much of what people admire comes at least as much from luck or privilege (the examples given above being inheritable) as from effort while the less-admired often exert still more effort with little result.  So you have to love wisdom more than feeling lordly over others.

 

 

9) nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;

Because all gold, in view of her, is a bit of sand,

and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.


COMMENTARY:  These precious materials largely have value only when wisdom transforms them.  They’re beautiful, but with wisdom you can make beauty from sand (glass) and mire (clay) as readily as rare minerals.  Nuggets of gold and silver are nice, but it takes wisdom to shape them into lovely jewelry.  Gemstones are just colored rocks until wisdom teaches us how to polish them.

 

 

10) Beyond health and beauty I loved her,

And I chose to have her rather than the light,

because her radiance never ceases.


COMMENTARY:  Health and beauty fade over time, and without wisdom they fade much, much faster.  Light we explore a bit more later.

 

 

11) Yet all good things together came to me with her,

and countless riches at her hands;


COMMENTARY:  When you let go of your unwise expectations of what the good life means, you get the real thing.  Wisdom shows you the best ways to get authentic authority and well-earned esteem instead of posturing and fickle fame, genuine prosperity instead of status symbols, the artistry that comes from effort and patient learning, the radiant beauty that can shine from a face of any configuration, and the health that comes from prudent habits.  Not that you won’t suffer unavoidable setbacks like anyone else, but at least you won’t be utterly helpless before them.

 

 

12) I rejoiced in them all, because Wisdom is their leader,

though I had not known that she is their mother.


COMMENTARY:  To seek out good things with an exploitive, selfish heart drives them far away, or else burdens one with fakeries.  But to love the mother of good things with an earnest heart, draws them to you as courting a beautiful widow draws to you her children.

The Catholic theologians commenting on this verse take care to point out that Wisdom comes from God; therefore all that comes from Wisdom comes from God.  Since the Jews of this chastened time were extra careful to avoid anything smacking of Paganism, after the hard experiences that they’d had under various conquerors, one can conclude that if it is not automatically Pagan to call Wisdom the Mother of good things, it is similarly not automatically Pagan to love Mother Earth.  One can know her as God’s creation, and still love her as a matriarch.

 

 

13) Sincerely I learned about her, and ungrudgingly do I share—

her riches I do not hide away;

14) For she is an unfailing treasure;

those who gain this treasure win the friendship of God,

being commended by the gifts that come from her discipline.


COMMENTARY:  One has no need to jealously guard the gifts of wisdom as though one had a limited supply, because Wisdom comes from God, who is infinite, and therefore won’t run out.  Furthermore, this creates an feedback loop—the more one seeks wisdom, the more one behaves in a way pleasing to God, the more God rewards this with still more wisdom.

 

 

15) Now God grant I speak suitably

and value these endowments at their worth:

For he is the guide of Wisdom

and the director of the wise.


COMMENTARY:  This is, essentially, a prayer to the Holy Spirit.

 

 

16) For both we and our words are in his hand,

as well as all prudence and knowledge of crafts.


COMMENTARY:  One would think of words and crafts as human inventions.  Yet creativity itself is a gift from the Creator, and humanity’s most distinguishing characteristic.  Even among the bones of hominids predating Homo Sapiens, paleontologists have found bone flutes, shell beads, and crayons of ochre-clay.  As JRR Tolkien said, we are made in the image of a Maker.

 

 

17) For he gave me sound knowledge of what exists,

that I might know the structure of the universe and the force of its elements,


COMMENTARY:  God also blesses the sciences, and Wisdom is mother to them, too.  Wisdom brings more than theology.

 

 

18) The beginning and the end and the midpoint of times,

the changes in the sun’s course and the variations of the seasons,

19) Cycles of years, positions of stars,


COMMENTARY:  The understanding of time itself was the most important technology of the ancient world, enabling farmers to know when to plant, herders to know where to lead their animals, merchants to know when it was safe to sail, and healers to know when to brace for seasonal epidemics.  Wives charted their fertility by the moon, generals planned their campaigns, and priests kept their rituals, all by this earliest of sciences, chronology.

 

 

20) natures of living things, tempers of beasts,

Powers of the winds and thoughts of human beings,

uses of plants and virtues of roots—


COMMENTARY:  Here we have biology, zoology, meteorology, psychology, botany and medicine, all blessed by God.

 

 

21Whatever is hidden or plain I learned,


COMMENTARY:  This can’t mean knowing everything in the universe, which is infinite and impossible for a single mortal to encompass, but more likely whatever one needs to know, hidden or plain.

 

 

22) for Wisdom, the artisan of all, taught me.j

For in her is a spirit

intelligent, holy, unique,

Manifold, subtle, agile,

clear, unstained, certain,

Never harmful, loving the good, keen,


COMMENTARY:  Let’s look at these attributes one by one, here and in the next verse.  I’ll try to compare true wisdom with false, using each of these attributes as a test.

 

INTELLIGENCE:  Intelligence shifts a lot more than originally thought, back in the day when people believed that an IQ test defined one’s capacity for thought for all time.  I’ve known people certified as geniuses at an early age, who lost it all, and people taken as sub-intelligent who developed everything they had and achieved results that astonished those who had dismissed them.

 

Folly malnourishes intelligence on false information, chosen by whether it supports the premises and prejudices of the pseudo-wise rather than accuracy.  The fraud would rather be “right” than truthful.  Intelligence misdirected in this way becomes worthless.  Brilliant chains of logic based on sought-out misinformation might as well be made of tissue-paper, however carefully constructed.

 

The wise desire truth.  They nourish their minds on careful research and exercise it on unflinchingly honest reasoning.  They have the courage to face challenges to their favorite prejudices and assumptions.
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HOLY:  There’s a pseudo-wisdom, often called “worldly-wise”, that tries to dispense with holiness as something not immediately practical in terms of supplying material necessities and luxuries.  Holiness might even get in the way of advancing oneself by unscrupulous means.  This attitude doesn't foresee the emptiness that this leads to, the moment when one looks at all of one’s acquisitions and asks, “Is that all there is?”

The wise know the importance of holiness in their lives, to believe in something beyond oneself, and to desire a life continually refreshed by living it in the holy context which this provides.  They realize that without this mere survival and self-indulgence is a meaningless scrabble after what one will eventually lose anyway.  Life passes too swiftly to live without purpose and awe.  And who better to teach that purpose and inspire that awe, than God?

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UNIQUE:  Some think themselves wise because they can spout the wisdom of others.  They will even attack anyone who has an original thought as not appreciating the teachings of their forebears. 

 

Yet true appreciation not only learns the words, but the reasoning behind them.  Anyone can memorize what others have said, but one grows when one strives to think about why they said these things, and what one can extrapolate from this, even to the point, if called for, of questioning the original premise.  True wisdom thinks for herself.

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MANIFOLD:    Those too satisfied with their own opinions to seek wisdom will say, “It’s true because that’s just the way it is,” or “It’s true because everybody knows that”.  Such people don’t bother to reason out the “why” of things, which leaves them vulnerable to gullibility.

 

Wisdom always sees or seeks the reasons for everything.  She wants a clear, logical trail pointing to a conclusion.  Her lessons are manifold not because everybody says so, but because she has put in the discipline to examine the facts and test her conclusions.

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SUBTLE:  False wisdom tries to oversimplify everything, often exaggerating or suppressing facts to fit.  Ever see one of those black and white underground comix that distorts everything to grotesqueness?  The unsubtle take on reality ultimately winds up as just such a parody.

 

Wisdom doesn’t see the world as black and white, but discerns the grays and the spectrum.  Having a fuller picture, she navigates the world more surely.

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AGILE:  False wisdom becomes rigid over time, clinging to one’s opinions or the established line against all evidence and alterations of circumstances, like the Victorians in the tropics who dutifully donned their winter woolens on schedule with an English calendar, and nearly died of the heat.  In a sense, this amounts to idolatry, investing blind faith in one’s own opinion and how one has always done things.

 

True wisdom has the ability to change her opinion as new information comes in or as circumstances alter.  She’s not afraid to admit that she was wrong or that her former opinion no longer applies, because she loves truth first and foremost. She knows that one can only advance by examining mistakes, not by shying away from acknowledging them.  She notices the flow of reality, that nothing ever stays the same except for God; even the mountains shift with time.

~~~

CLEAR:  Fraudulence masquerading as wisdom loves to muddy the waters of understanding as much as possible, so as to appear to know things that others cannot possibly comprehend.  More to the point, the fraud fears that if he speaks too clearly people will see that he doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about.

 

Wisdom loves clarity.  Without oversimplifying, Wisdom loves to break things down so that others can follow her train of thought.  She makes it seem easy.

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UNSTAINED:  In order to get ahead, the pseudo-wise will alter their judgments by appeasing the wicked, persecuting the unpopular, accepting bribes, and cowering from threats, till they have so little truth left that it becomes a worthless rag.

True wisdom despises corruption and will not deal in it.  Wisdom strives to judge fairly, regardless of who this offends or favors, and regardless of the personal outcome.  Wisdom has integrity.
~~~
CERTAIN:  While the falsely wise will claim certainty loudly, they build everything on shaky ground, because they test nothing, and so they’re often wrong.  Yet the wise can be certain, because they have given each opinion considerable thought, built it on accurate information, and tested it ruthlessly.
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NEVER HARMFUL, LOVING THE GOOD:  To the unwise, the end justifies the means.  They don’t care who they hurt so long as they get where they think they ought to go.  They convince themselves that it will all work out in the long run.

The truly wise know that inflicting harm on the innocent “for the greater good” brings nothing good at all, building as it does on a foundation of callousness and injustice.  Structures are only as strong as their foundations.
~~~
KEEN:  False wisdom often has a dry, stuffy quality about it, like some desiccated zombie shuffling around, unaware of having died.  True wisdom has a keen interest in everything, making her vividly alive.

 

 

23) unhampered, beneficent, kindly,

Firm, secure, tranquil,

all-powerful, all-seeing,

And pervading all spirits,

though they be intelligent, pure and very subtle.


COMMENTARY:  And the list goes on!

UNHAMPERED:  Those leading lives of folly create one entanglement after another.  They’re their own worst enemies.  Not only do they make their own lives (and often the lives of those associated with them) harder than necessary, the more they try to cover up their errors, the more errors they make.

 

Wisdom cuts through entanglements.  They admit when they’re wrong, stand up for what’s right, and get on with their lives.  They see a clear way through life’s difficulties because they won’t let tortuous knots of rationalizations get in the way of figuring out what’s actually going on and what part they themselves play in this.

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BENEFICENT:  False wisdom thinks it practical to think only of one’s own benefit, but in fact this leads to ruin.  They can only stay on top so long, and when they stumble nobody feels like catching them.  When they have needs others ask, “Where were you when I needed you?”

True wisdom delights in benefiting others.  It gives her a deep pleasure enjoyable for its own sake.  And when she stumbles many hands reach to catch her before she falls.  When she has needs people rush to her aid. For they remember that she was there for them when they needed her.
~~~
KINDLY:  Fools think that cruelty shows off their power over others, that this makes them great and influential.  Yet bullies always come to a bad end.  Nobody stays cowed forever; the bully must kick them down again and again, and then do so to the allies of their victims, and make the punishments harsher and harsher as their opponents grow in courage and wrath.  Each time the victims become stronger and more numerous and the bully becomes weaker, wearier, and with fewer and fewer allies, till he just can’t do it anymore.  The enemies that he made for himself will ultimately overwhelm him and rejoice in his destruction.

The wise extend kindness liberally wherever they can reasonably do so, for no other reason than the fact that they can.  But without angling for advantage, everyone wants to freely give to them, and defend their rights.  Who wants to cut down a flowering tree?  The wise never lack for allies and advocates.
~~~
FIRM:  This might seem the opposite of agile, but it in fact provides a natural complement and consequence to mental agility.  The difference between firmness and rigidness is the degree of truth.  One becomes rigid from fearing to look at any truth that might reveal exceptions to what one thinks one knows; one becomes firm by testing everything fearlessly until one can confidently rely on whatever has survived the test.

 

Rigidity becomes brittle, expending all of its energy to shoring up its image, as everything behind the facade secretly erodes till the whole structure falls down.  But those grounded solidly in a love of facts can hold up under pressure.

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SECURE:  Security grows naturally from the firmness of wisdom.  Once you discern what you can rely on, you can chart a course for your life that can brace you against the buffeting of chance.  While it doesn’t bring perfect safety from all harm, it vastly reduces or mitigates harm, while increasing the odds of prosperity.  False wisdom, on the other hand, always has to try and protect itself, having many fears and many enemies to its clandestine agendas, and many different ways of self-destructing.

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TRANQUIL:  The pseudo-wise never know tranquility.  Every scheme that they thought so clever leads to complications which leads to complications, and the more they try to fix these things with further dishonesty the more tangled their situation becomes, till their entire life is booby-trapped and they must take every step in a sweat of anxiety, wondering what long-awaiting consequence they’re going to trip off next.

 

The wise, in contrast, can afford tranquility because of the security that wise courses bring.  By avoiding dishonesty and trickery, they needn’t worry about anything catching up with them or dreadful secrets coming to light.  Additionally, they have provided for all known contingencies and know how to adapt to unforeseeable events as well.

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ALL-POWERFUL:  Wisdom is all-powerful, rather than wise human-beings.  Wisdom is an attribute of God and the method by which God guides His power.  And so she can be said, in a sense, to be his power.  False-wisdom seeks power through dishonest means, but true wisdom always surpasses and overpowers it.

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ALL-SEEING:  God sees all things, and this capacity to observe the entire universe continually feeds His wisdom.  Those who pursue fake wisdom, on the other hand, think that they know more than they do, and make calculations with no awareness of what data they’ve left out, leaving them frequently blindsided by disaster.  The truly wise know that God knows more than they do, and pray for divine guidance to fill in for whatever they might have missed.

~~~

“And pervading all spirits,

though they be intelligent, pure and very subtle.”

The final part of this verse reflects Jewish thinking of the time that all spirits emanate from God inseparably; the notion that angels could fall doesn’t come up until the Books of Enoch, which are neither in the Protestant nor the Catholic Bible, though they are in the Orthodox ones, because the Jews rejected them—precisely on the grounds that these books said that angels could fall, which to the Jew is heresy. 

 

In any case, what this phrase says is that even the most intelligent, pure and subtle angel or other spirit cannot stand alone but must turn to God.  And all of us, everyone and every thing in which God has breathed spirit, has a spark of something not-us, something pervading us directly from God, a guiding wisdom if only we would listen to it.

 

 

24) For Wisdom is mobile beyond all motion,

and she penetrates and pervades all things by reason of her purity.

 


COMMENTARY:  Wisdom is not some dead, static object, but a living, moving force that flows from a living, moving God, adapting to every circumstance, fitting every situation.  Wisdom soaks in like pure, unclogged water.  One can always learn something new about anything and in all circumstances.

 

 

25) For she is a breath of the might of God

and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;

therefore nothing defiled can enter into her.


COMMENTARY:  The writer personifies but does not deify Wisdom.  Wisdom comes purely from God and therefore can no more be defiled than God can be.

 

 

26) For she is the reflection of eternal light,

the spotless mirror of the power of God,

the image of his goodness.


COMMENTARY:  It stands to reason that if God created all of reality, then knowledge and understanding of reality would naturally reflect God and His goodness.  The modern view that science and scholarship are suspect, competition with God and threats to religion, shows a colossal lack of faith.

 

 

27) Although she is one, she can do all things,

and she renews everything while herself perduring;

Passing into holy souls from age to age,

she produces friends of God and prophets.


COMMENTARY:  All different kinds of wisdom have one common root and that is the integration of all things into and from the will of God.  And since the will of God, is immortal, so to is the quality of Wisdom.  All who welcome true wisdom are, knowingly or unknowingly, friends of God.

 

 

28)  For God loves nothing so much as the one who dwells with Wisdom.


COMMENTARY:  Love is the root of all virtue, Integrity is the matrix in which that root grows, but Wisdom cultivates it.

 

 

29) For she is fairer than the sun

and surpasses every constellation of the stars.

Compared to light, she is found more radiant;


COMMENTARY:  Most cultures consider light a symbol of wisdom, and call those who have it “enlightened”, because light reveals whatever night has obscured.

 

 

30) though night supplants light,

wickedness does not prevail over Wisdom.

 

COMMENTARY:  Nevertheless, wisdom surpasses ordinary light, in that night doesn’t fall on it.  Once you know something, you can’t unknow it.  Granted, brain damage can occur and your brain can forget things, but wisdom that reaches the soul surpasses the knowledge that our brains encode.



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