NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: WISDOM 1:13-15; 2:23-24
THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings here.
God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is not a destructive drug among them
nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,
for justice is undying.
For God formed man to be imperishable;
the image of his own nature he made him.
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
and they who belong to his company experience it.
All my sources place the composition of the Book of Wisdom at about 50 B.C. or just before the Christian Era. The work was composed in Greek, not Hebrew, even though the author sometimes speaks in the voice of Solomon, who lived a millennium earlier. Wisdom was written in Alexandria, Egypt, for Jews of the Diaspora or scattering that began at the end of the Babylonian Captivity in 539 B.C. when Jews did not all return to Jerusalem but began settling in other parts of the world.
It is hard to conceive of a city with greater academic riches than Alexandria at the time of Christ; situated in Egypt and energized after the conquest of Alexander the Great around 300 B.C., Alexandria became a universal learning center, remembered for its famous library, the largest in antiquity, established by the Ptolemy dynasty. Marc Antony, by some accounts, gave his bride Cleopatra 200,000 volumes as a wedding present for the library. The goals of its founder in the mid-third century B.C. included assembling a copy of every book in the world; estimates range from 40,000-400,000 volumes. The Romans burned the library probably during the struggle between Marc Antony and Octavian for the Roman emperorship, in about 30 B.C.
A sizeable community of Jews lived in Alexandria, and it was inevitable that their books of revelation and the thoughts of their scholars would fall under scrutiny and serve as the object of heated debate in the forums of discussion in this cosmopolitan setting of writing and research. What critics of Jewish belief attacked most strenuously was the Hebrew understanding of the workings of God. This was probably an extension of the debate over the nature of evil, which continues to the present day. The issue was the question of whether God created evil and suffering in the world.
The response of the Jewish community is the Book of Wisdom, from which our first reading of this weekend is taken. Reviewing the text again, we see the very strenuous assertion that “God did not create death.” In fact, the Wisdom authors are lavish in their praise of God the Creator, proclaiming that all of creation is wholesome and nothing was made to hurt a human being, not even a drug. Wisdom declares that God’s ultimate act was to make man like himself, imperishable.
Critics—then, and five centuries later when St. Augustine compiled a massive analysis of the question in his work on the Genesis creation account—could easily contend that there was plenty of evil in the world and that man was, claims to the contrary, destructible. Jewish and later Christian preachers and thinkers would have to square the circle, so to speak, and this is the purpose of Wisdom 2: 23-24. In Sunday’s concluding lines, the injection of evil into human existence is “the envy of the devil” who introduced death into the world. This model of anthropology is well established in Christian thought, for it removes God from the onus for sin and pain while at the same time making the cross of Christ a cosmic necessity.
When Augustine addressed this question as a Christian bishop in the fifth century A.D., he ran askew on some of the basic point in the Garden Narrative of creation. For our purposes here, I will cite just one. Genesis 3 is very clear on the introduction of evil chaos: “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.” Over the centuries interpreters—including my third-grade teacher—have approached this conundrum with the idea that the devil usurped the identity of an earthly creature to counter the perfect intentions of God. To follow the logic of this, one would have to accept the contention that from the beginning there was a being powerful enough to derail the creating Will of God.
The more disquieting attempt at an explanation is the assertion of Sunday’s reading is that God made man in his own nature, an assertion that humankind bears an incredible potency to create. And, looking around about us, we have not exercised it well.