Where did the Jewish knack for intellect come from? It probably began with the Torah itself, a work of considerable length and a fair amount of complexity. For its time, it was almost amazingly intricate, with its system of commandments, its complex histories, its vast variety of ideas, and its profound insight into the nature of man’s relationship with God. But even with all that, the stress on the intellectual isn’t all that obvious. Most of the commandments are about doing rather than thinking. The histories tend to be about tribal issues like war, leadership, and family matters. The ideas and the insights are deep, both for their own time and throughout Jewish history, but they aren’t overly cerebral. They are spiritual – focusing on God and on leading a better and more fulfilling life.
The intellectual angle is traditionally rooted in a figure from the glorious past. He represents the apex of the Israelite nation in terms of material and national success. He was the last king who ruled over the entire Israelite nation and the one who ruled when the kingdom reached its greatest extent. After he died, the kingdom split into two rival groups that were rarely allies and frequently enemies for the next few hundred years until first one and then the other was conquered and then sent to ignominious exile. He was Solomon, classically known as the wisest man who ever lived.
The origin of Solomon’s great wisdom lays a dream he had shortly after beginning his reign. In the dream God appears to him and tells him to ask for whatever he wishes to receive. Solomon, in a burst of humility that would be uncharacteristic of him in his later years, attributes everything he has to both God and to his father David, and then makes his fateful request (Kings 1:3:9-12):
‘Give Your servant a heart that can listen to judge Your people, to understand between good and evil, for who can judge this numerous people’. And the matter was good in the eyes of God that he asked for this thing. And God said to him, ‘Because you asked for this and didn’t request long life, nor did you request wealth, nor did you request the lives of your enemies, and you requested to understand to hear justice. I will do as you say, behold I will give you a wise and understanding heart the like of which never was and never will be.’
If you were granted one wish, what would you wish for? Would it be health? Good looks? Happiness? Money? Fame? Maybe you’re the altruistic type and you would ask for peace on earth or the end of death. Nobody thinks too seriously about this kind of question because we know it’s all a fairy tale and there’s no real point to it. But maybe we’re wrong about that. Maybe there is a point – to clarify what the most important thing in life is to you. What do you really want more than anything else? Well, the Bible has such a question, asked to a king at the height of Israelite glory. The answer he gave reveals much about him and about what is important to God.
He was requesting some sort of knowledge, but not just any old knowledge, like how to do math or build a building or design a new weapon for his army. He wanted to understand the difference between good and evil. This sounds like the Adam and Eve story all over again, except that instead of being warned by God to stay away from the Tree of Knowledge, Solomon was praised by God for wanting that knowledge. This is a little strange. Didn’t he know about Adam and Eve? Didn’t God know about Adam and Eve? There is a difference between them, however. The Tree gave knowledge – good and evil (see the essay of Adam and Eve), whereas Solomon was asking to understand the difference between good and evil. This type of knowledge, which centers on matters of morality, is more properly termed wisdom, and it is a treasure for which much of modern society has lost its appreciation.
Wisdom is the kind of thing you might read on boxes of herbal tea. It’s those little quips that sound so obvious when you hear them that you wonder why you didn’t think of them first. Wisdom is all too rarely gained in universities or on the Internet. It is more likely to be found buried in a passing statement in some deep novel or revealed in a heart-to-heart conversation with a dear friend. Wisdom may come in the form of a rather sudden insight into a thorny personal dilemma, but it could just as well arise from a long walk along the beach undisturbed by the barrage of distractions that floods our world. It is rooted in experience and it grows with reflection on experience, but it blossoms under challenge. Wisdom may not be power, and it may not be all that useful. It may not even be so brilliant or so fascinating. But if it lives up to its name, it will invariably be good and not evil.
Moral questions certainly make up a good deal of wisdom-related matters. In the case of Solomon, it concerned the governing of a large and complex people, whose needs and desires were extremely difficult to weigh and to discern. What is good to one is evil to another, so how is one to decide which the proper course is? Solomon’s wisdom is essential for anybody who wants help run a fair and just organization such as a country, a city, a business, a school, a house of worship, or a home. Is there anything more important than this? Is there anything more vital to human satisfaction, to individual and collective needs, to achieving a balance between the ever-growing growing demands of humanity with the silent voice of nature? It takes wisdom to steer a correct course in the storms of life. It takes wisdom to maintain the right course when necessary despite whatever opposition may arise, and to understand the need to change course when the evil it brings outweighs the good.
Good and evil are words that hearken back to Biblical times. They are no longer very ‘in’ in the modern world with all its moral relativism and pluralism. Not surprisingly, they have gone the way of wisdom – antiquated concerns of a bygone era that have long outlived their usefulness in the tech-savvy, morally neutral world that we have created. They seem like the kind of thing God gets all worked up about, but hardly make a ripple to us human beings who outgrew that parental figurehead decades ago. We work with machines, and machines don’t give a damn about good and evil. Either it works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t – make it work. Whither wisdom?
Solomon’s choice is very interesting. He chose something which is very personal but which was not for himself. He wanted to be able to judge his nation justly. Is there really anything more important than this? Few of us are in a position of ruling a nation, but we all do have to make moral decisions all the time. The world needs cell phones and DNA research and movie stars and politicians. We need cheaper and cleaner energy sources and better ways of getting food and medicine to people who really could use it. But we also need some way of deciding what course is correct for our future, on a personal level, on a communal level, and on a national and international level. We need some way of gauging this for right now and we need it for the near and distant future. This is why we need wisdom.
Our minds are not only meant to design newer and better gadgets, or even newer and better cures. They were also meant for figuring out those really tough good and evil questions that hit us every day and linger while we dilly dally until they can no longer be pushed off any more. Having to decide between good and evil is the hand that God dealt us. But in addition to being a heavy responsibility, it is also a tremendous opportunity. We have been given a chance to really matter. This choice, this constant, annoying, weighty choice, is our chance to be meaningful.
We tend to look forward to moral dilemmas with the same enthusiasm as taking out the garbage. They are necessary evils – unavoidable interruptions from the real business of life. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A moral decision need not be a dilemma. Moral decisions are magnificent opportunities for personal growth. Each time a person faces a moral challenge he or she becomes a slightly different person, for better or for worse. The choices are like the hammer and chisel of a sculptor as they shape who we are. Don’t you want to make a sculpture worthy of a master?
When desperate for some wisdom, one can always fall back on Solomon’s trick – ask God for the wisdom to solve the dilemma. It may seem like a cop out, but as we have seen from this story, it’s what God really wants us to be doing. What is God there for if not to guide us along the path of wisdom? God’s guidance may not be so obvious even if one asks for it. Usually it is so hidden that the receiver would swear they did it all on their own. A problem comes up; there is no solution in sight; you think about it, talk about it, think about it some more; somehow a solution emerges. Who came up with the answer? It’s frequently not really all that clear who did, but it just happened. You can call it whatever you want – luck, brainpower, wisdom from experience, divine help. What really matters is that you managed to use this God-given power that we all possess to track your way through the minefield of good and evil.
Food for Thought
Solomon asked God for wisdom and earned a reputation of being the wisest of men. Wouldn’t it have been better if he could just have done it on his own without asking or needing ‘outside’ help? Who is better off – the person who decides his or her own morality or the person who relies of God to grant them this wisdom?
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