Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The fear of the Lord

With September comes the start of a new academic year. This term, I am again teaching on the ‘Wisdom Literature’ of the Old Testament, as an investment in women and men who have, among other things, been called to help local communities grow together in wisdom.

There is a recurring phrase in the Bible — focused on, but not restricted to, the Wisdom Literature — that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This is almost always understood as meaning that piety, reverent respect for God, is the prerequisite starting-point if we want to be wise. But that does not make sense, grammatically, or theologically.

It does not make sense grammatically, because the fear of the Lord is a construct pair of nouns, and these follow a rule that the ‘construct’ (in this case, ‘the fear’) belongs to (‘of’) the ‘absolute’ (in this case, ‘the Lord’). In other words, the fear is the Lord’s, not ours, not our piety or disposition towards the Lord.

Moreover, the traditional interpretation does not make sense theologically, because it makes human beings the origin or source of wisdom; which makes perfect sense from the perspective of humanism, but not from a Christian perspective.

There are many other construct pairs we have no difficulty reading, rightly, as belonging to the Lord: the name of the Lord; the arm of the Lord; the eyes of the Lord; the word of the Lord [1]; the spirit of the Lord; the angel of the Lord; the mountain of the Lord…but we baulk at the fear of the Lord, because it stretches us too far.

There is debate as to how best to understand the Hebrew word translated ‘fear’. We slip and slide around it, not least depending on the context in which we find it. Some argue for reverence or awe while others argue for gut-wrenching fear in the ‘plain’ sense of being afraid. Neither seem appropriate for God: of whom would the King of the Universe stand in awe? Of whom or what would he be afraid? Yet I would suggest that both make sense.

There is a school of thought in biblical interpretation that says that, where a word might be understood in two ways, we ought to hold both in creative tension. If we go with awe, we might understand the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom as telling us that the source of all wisdom is the reverence with which the Creator holds creation; the awe God experiences in watching how everything unfolds in response to the divine command ‘Let there be…’ or, to paraphrase, ‘Go, explore!’ This would fit well with the Lord’s extended speech on the theme of creation, from divine and human perspectives, in response to Job. It would also fit with the spontaneous speech of Lady Wisdom on creation in Proverbs 8. In this sense, we grow in wisdom when we enter-into what God has already initiated, flowing not from human posture but divine posture. In this sense, we might work back from creation to Creator, and discover that awe for God is not the beginning for human wisdom, but the end, the goal.

But there is another school of thought in biblical interpretation that says that, where a word might be understood in two ways, we should go with the harder saying, the one that stretches us more. And if the idea that God has awe for creation is stretching enough, the idea that God might experience fear is even stretchier. We don’t like the idea that God might experience fear. After all, if God is afraid, how can God rescue us when we are afraid? On the other hand, in what sense is a God who cannot identify with the human experience of being afraid good news?

As we look at the references to the fear of the Lord in context, we discover that the Lord experiences fear in relation to two things in particular: evil (expressed in a variety of ways, including injustice), and death. Why would the Lord fear evil and death? Because of the carnage they cause in the world, and to the people to whom God is a parent, both father and mother [2]. What is striking is the Lord’s response to experiencing fear: not cringing or cowering or trying to secure a compromise agreement, but wisdom — that is, concrete instruction in concrete justice. Not lashing out but reaching out; calling people into partnership in standing against evil. This is seen in the torah and the prophets, in the interpretation of the Wisdom Literature, and, ultimately — for Christians — it is embodied in the person of Jesus. And any Christian who thinks that God cannot be afraid of evil and death needs to square what it means to believe that God is fully revealed in the man Jesus who cried out in the garden of betrayal and from the cross of execution (and who taught his disciples to pray that they be delivered from evil). God knows fear first hand: and, at the right time, moves towards that of which he is afraid [3], trusting that it will not have the final word. This is, as the New Testament describes it, the wisdom of God, foolishness from a worldly perspective.

Perhaps it is time to meet, and learn from, God who knows both awe and fear?

[1] Right about here, you see the penny drop, and the lights go on behind students’ eyes. It is a moment that teachers live for.

[2] Indeed, this entirely reasonable parental fear of what could happen to their daughter or son is, in my pastoral experience, a recurring motivation in parents bringing their children to be christened. If we can embrace the idea that God experiences fear, we can say to such parents, God shares your fears of what can happen, and so God has given wisdom and calls us to choose life: this ritual is not a magic talisman to ward off evil, but a commitment — between God, the church community, the parents and god-parents — to shaping the world for the good, for justice.

[3] Not every time is the right time to move towards evil and death. There are times Jesus moves away, evades them, just as some of the records of the fear of the Lord in the Old Testament speak of avoiding evil while others speak of extending justice.

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