Tomb of Itet, Meidum (Meidoum), museum of Cairo, scene: part of the frieze of geese. IVth dynasty.
Remove not the landmark on the boundaries of the sown,
nor shift the position of the measuring-cord;
covet not a cubit of land,
nor throw down the boundaries of the widow.
The rut of trampling(?), the wear of time,
he who wrongfully seizes it in the field,
if(?) he snare by false oaths,
is lassoed by the Power of the Moon.
(The Instruction of Amenemope, chapter 6, trans. Francis Llewellyn Griffith)
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
The author guidelines for Scholar’s Compass posts advise beginning with “a quotation from Scripture or a Christian writer”. The first quotation above is neither. It is an extract from the Instruction of Amenemope (variously named Amenophis, Amenemopet, or Amen-em-apt), an ancient Egyptian work of uncertain date giving advice of a practical and ethical kind from a father to a son. So why on earth am I starting with it? You may be reassured to know that it is not to “the power of the Moon” that I look to defend the vulnerable, and that I am not advocating the inclusion of Instruction of Amenemope in the canon of Scripture. However, if you look up Proverbs 23:10-11 you may spot some intriguing parallels, as well as at least one notable difference – the replacement of the Moon by the “Redeemer” of the poor who will plead their cause.
There is a widespread (though not universal) scholarly consensus in the field that parts of Proverbs, especially Proverbs 22:17-24:22 (the section that Proverbs 22:17 introduces as “the words of the wise”), borrow from the Instruction of Amenemope. You needn’t buy into this particular hypothesis, but it seems clear that Proverbs draws on a common stock of wisdom sayings found in cultures across the Ancient Near East, including the cultures of Mesopotamia as well as Egypt. This need not be any threat to a belief in the divine inspiration of Proverbs or its scriptural status. We are told in 1 Kings that “people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (4:34), and it is entirely possible that Solomon and the other named compilers of Proverbs (see 25:1; 30:1; 31:1) could be divinely inspired to incorporate and to adapt the wisdom of the nations.
But hang on a minute! Proverbs also tells us that “The fear of the Lord [YHWH] is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10; cf. Proverbs 1:7; Psalm 111:10). The name for God used here is God’s personal covenant name, which God revealed to Moses in connection with his saving act of bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt and into the promised land (Exodus 3:14). It is this particular covenant God of Israel, Proverbs tells us, whom we must know and revere for us to have access to true wisdom. So if we cannot even begin to be wise without a commitment to the covenant God of Israel revealed in salvation history, how can the wisdom of cultures that do not acknowledge this God be affirmed by Scripture as truly wise?
A similar tension arises in the New Testament, where the apostle Paul cites works by pagan Greek authors on at least three occasions – Aratus’s proto-scientific poem Phaenomena in Acts 17:28, Menander’s comedy Thais in 1 Corinthians 15:33, and Epimenides’ Cretica in Titus 1:12 (incidentally, the source of the infamous Cretan liar paradox). In the Acts 17 instance, Paul even applies words written about the Greek god Zeus to the unknown God he is proclaiming to the Athenian scholars. Yet, Paul’s desire for the Colossians is that they might attain “the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3), since “in him [Christ] all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
Perhaps the thinking of the nineteenth-century Dutch prime minister and theologian Abraham Kuyper may be helpful here. Kuyper founded a church, a political party, a newspaper, and a university, but his important contribution for our purposes is his conjunction of two principles which might initially seem opposed – that of “the antithesis” and of “common grace”. Kuyper’s antithesis was that between “regenerate” and “unregenerate” thought – there is an irreconcilable difference between the visions of reality stemming from faith and from unbelief, Kuyper taught, since commitment to the God revealed in salvation history is a prerequisite to seeing reality as it truly is. However, Kuyper’s principle of common grace asserts that God graciously gives to all human beings, whether or not believers, the unmerited privilege of being carriers of truth and goodness, and so there is much to affirm and celebrate in the thoughts, actions and cultural contributions even of unbelievers.
The model of Scripture (particularly the wisdom literature) and the insights of Kuyper suggest that we should see our fields from the vantage point of a distinctive and determinative faith commitment but should do so in constructive dialogue with others who do not share our faith. When teaching my students about different schools of literary theory (in a secular context), I suggest that they can find useful tools for their reading toolkit in many theoretical approaches without necessarily having to buy ideologically into the whole package on offer. I would say the same to Christian scholars engaging with secular perspectives. We should engage texts, ideas and schools of thought in a spirit of charitable discernment, alert to the distortions of fallen human perception (including our own) while seeking out the fragments of divine wisdom which are gifts of God’s common grace outside the community of believers. These fragments can serve to complement and at times to correct our own partial vision, as pieces of the mosaic of reality that ultimately holds together only in Christ.
- Where in my field can I find God’s truth in places I might not initially expect?
- Where is the thinking in my field distorted? Where might my own thinking be distorted?
- How can I partner with others who don’t share my faith in a shared quest for truth? How can I point my colleagues to the wisdom found in Christ?
Lord Jesus Christ, in you are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and all things hold together in you. Teach us to walk in your way of wisdom, to discern those insights which you have graciously given even to those who do not know you, and, if we turn aside to the right or the left, may we hear your voice saying, “This is the way. Walk in it.” Amen.
Richard J. Mouw, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans, 2001). A contemporary exploration of the idea of common grace and its relevance to Christian engagement with culture.
Richard J. Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans, 2011). Title fairly self-explanatory – see especially chapters on “The Antithesis” and on “God’s ‘Excellent Gifts’”.
John Calvin, Institutes, II.ii.12–17. Probably to the surprise of some, Calvin here attributes the cultural contributions of non-Christians, including the truthful insights of classical philosophers, to the Holy Spirit. (Various editions and translations available – I would recommend the 1960 McNeill and Battles edition, which is the standard scholarly edition in modern English, but Henry Beveridge’s nineteenth-century translation is freely accessible online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.html.)
Francis Llewellyn Griffith, “The Teaching of Amenophis the Son of Kanakht. Papyrus B.M. 10474”, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 12:3/4 (October 1926): 191–231. This article consists of a complete translation of The Instruction of Amenemope, along with textual commentary including parallels with Proverbs.
Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (Eerdmans, 1993/Fordham University Press, 1998). An example of constructive Christian engagement, finding elements of truth to affirm in seemingly anti-Christian thinkers.
Image: Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Plate I Frise des Oies, Peintures Égyptiennes, Orbis Pictus volume 30, Payot Lausanne. Printer: Hallwag S.A. Berne. 300 dpi scan. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Meidoum_-_Tomb_of_Itet_-_geese_300dpi.png