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  We usually think of a proverb as a short, pithy saying making a point. And we do find some of these in the book of Proverbs, but that is not the entirety of the book.  There are longer passages that give advice in a more straightforward way.

Proverbs is what we call wisdom literature, as is Ecclesiastes.  It is in some ways analogous to Greek philosophy.  Greek philosophy had three main branches:

  1. Logos - logic.  The rules of reasoning.
  2. Physis - physics.  The study of nature.
  3. Ethos - ethics.  The study of moral behavior.

The book of Proverbs is most similar to the ethical writings in Greek philosophy.  It lacks the speculation of the other branches of philosophy. 

The conceit of Proverbs is that the speaker is a father and the addressee is his son.  The book paints a picture of two types of ignorance:

  1. The son.  He has the type of ignorance that is the absence of knowledge.  It can hopefully be fixed by the liberal application of fatherly advice.  The son knows he is not wise and is willing to gain that wisdom.
  2. The fool. He has an arrogant form of ignorance which rejects all wisdom he doesn't want to believe.  It is an active rejection of and hostility toward wisdom.  The fool thinks he is already wise and resents the meddling of old fuddy-duddies.  My own father had a saying about this type of ignorance: "The fool changed against his will is of the same mind still."  I'm not sure why he was telling me that.

Proverbs gives advice in a number of areas:

  1. Religion.  "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom."  Ethical systems have starting points that lead out to the other areas of ethics.  For Aristotle, ethics are grounded in the city, the community.  For Confusius, they are grounded in reverence for ones parents.  For Proverbs, the starting place is fear of God.
  2. Friends.  The book is full of warnings against the bad influence of the wrong friend, both male and female.  Human adolescents are particularly dangerous to themselves and others.  Their bodies have developed as well as parts of their brains.  But the pre-frontal cortex is undeveloped, leading them to risky behavior.  The new flood of carbonated hormones coursing through their bodies and brains don't help, either.  Add to that the influence of peers and sex partners pushing them to do the wrong thing, and you have a real mess.
  3. Work.  The book has a lot of advice focused on getting ahead through hard work and warnings against sloth.  It also gives warnings against wasteful spending.
  4. Dealing justly with others.  There is a lot on honesty and reliability in ones dealings.


Ecclesiastes is also wisdom literature in the Judaic tradition.  It has a very different feel from Proverbs, however.  Proverbs is written from the perspective of a father talking to his adolescent son.  Ecclesiastes is written from the perspective of an old man who seems to be talking to himself.  Like many old men, he has become pessimistic about life and pretty much everything in it.  The speaker doesn't view suffering highly, but pleasure has left him empty as well.  Wealth, accomplishments, power, popularity, even wisdom itself -- they are all in vain.  The biggest fool in the world lies in a grave along with the wisest man in the world.  He finally comes down in favor of fearing God and keeping his commandments as the one thing that is not in vain. 


Daniel is a new genre in the Hebrew scriptures: apocalyptic.  The Greek word ἀποκαλύπτω (apokaluptō) means to uncover or reveal.  That doesn't really describe what is happening in such literature.  What is new in Daniel compared to the earlier scriptures is the idea of the cosmic war between good and evil.  This was a concept imported into Judaism from Manichaeism; earlier scriptures have God firmly in control of history; now history hangs in the balance in the war between good and evil, and God's people are under attack because of their devotion by his enemies. Daniel presents us with several conflicts between the two sides in this warfare;  equally significant are the various visions that give us insight into the unseen nature of the universe and the battle that rages around us. 

It's hard to overestimate the importance of Daniel's influence since it was written.  Apocalyptic thought has spread from Daniel through strains of Judaism, Christianity (which began as an apocalyptic offshoot of Judaism), Islam, and popular culture.  It pops up almost everywhere in American politics and culture, from the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to the conflict between the light and dark sides of the Force in Star Wars. A more pernicious influence on American political culture has been identified by theologian and culture critic Robert Jewett: he calls it the American monomyth:

A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil: normal institutions fail to contend with this threat: a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task: aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisal condition: the superhero then recedes into obscurity. (Jewett, The American Monomyth xxii)

This is the basic plot struture underlying the classic cowboy story, as well as pretty much all super-heroes in comic books and movies.   One problem with this system is that is makes us despise our own institutions because we have a pre-set belief that they will always fail. Unfortunately, it is also the basis of much of our foreign policy.  The more blindly we follow the monomyth, the more likely we are to make massive blunders in geopolitics.  Also, our belief that we are somehow by nature the good guys and the other people are the bad guys releases us from any need to behave ourselves in the conflict.  For example, in a thousand movies, the cowboy has a final showdown with the bad guys and then rode off into the sunset.  Under this mythic thinking, we invaded Iraq and took out Sadaam Hussein under the belief we could then ride off into the sunset, Iraq would be a stable Middle Eastern democracy, and we'd all live happily ever after.  So how'd that work out?

The stories of Susanna and Bel and the Dragon are another new kind of story: the mystery or detective story.  They are in the version of Daniel that is the LXX (Septuagint) but not the MT (Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Scriptures).  These passages and books are called the Old Testament Apocrapha.  Because Christians widely used the LXX as its scriptures (the Old Testament quotes in the New Testament are largely from the LXX), 1st century Judaism rejected it and began using the Hebrew scriptures exclusively.  So you won't find these stories in the Hebrew scriptures.  Later on, Protestants sought to distinguish themselves from Catholics, so they took out the Apocrapha as well. 

The main difference in these stories from the rest of Daniel is that we don't see a direct miraculous intervention to solve the problem, no visions, no dreams -- instead we see a reliance on Daniel to solve it using his mind and and empirical investigative tools; an early use of the scientific method.  Detective stories are quite rare in ancient literature; The Homeric Hymn to Hermes has Apollo solving a theft without relying on his supernatural powers.  The play Oedipus Rex has a mix of natural and supernatural evidence.  But the genre was re-discovered by Edgar Allen Poe in the 19th century when he wrote the three Dupin stories.  It really became popular with Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.  Now it's reached the point that book stores have whole aisles for detective stories,  and if you have cable, you can pretty much find at least one detective  story on any time of day.

All detective stories share a dual plot structure:

  1. the mystery/crime
  2. the solution. 

The solution part of the plot brings the returning cast -- the detective(s) & helpers -- who give continuity; the crime provides novelty to the audience.

Detective stories also have two other important categories:

  1. Open.  The solution to the crime is revealed to the reader early on.  We know who committed the crime, so the interest is in seeing how the detective will solve it.  The story Susanna is an open crime.
  2. Closed. We do not know how the crime was committed until the detective solves it.  Thus we are interested both in seeing the detective solve the crime and in the solution itself.  The "Bel" story is a closed crime; we don't know the solution until the ashes reveal the foot prints.
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