Proverbs and the Playfulness of God
The Book of Proverbs is surely the most down-to-earth book in the Bible. It’s full of what one might call glorified common-sense on just the kind of subject that over two thousand years later people still want their children to get right, even if they didn’t get them right themselves—what sort of friends to choose, how important is money, how to behave in company, what’s the proper way to treat your elders, when to speak up and when to shut up, and so on.
But beyond that, in the midst of all this common sense, there is a recurring refrain, almost one might say a golden thread, running through it all. And this golden thread declares (so to speak, and mixing one’s metaphors horribly) that when all is said and done, useful and important though common sense may be, it is not finally common sense that is the beginning and foundation of wisdom but the fear of God (1.7, 2.5, 2.6, 9.10, 15.33, 21.30). And beyond even that, once, in chapter 8, this refrain itself blossoms into a passage of extraordinarily powerful theological imagination, wherein the Divine Wisdom herself, personified, calls to those who will hear her and speaks of her part in the creation of the world.
Let us file by certain title things that must be said. This is Israel’s Scripture not pagan mythology, so Wisdom is not a goddess and she is not a rival to the LORD. She is, indeed, the LORD’s creation. That granted, there is much about her that speaks of a special closeness with God. She was, she tells us, with God in the beginning, for God created her beyond and before all things (8:22-29). Not only that, but “then,” she says, at the creation of everything else,
I was beside him as his darling;[i]
and I was daily his delight,
playing before him always,
playing in his inhabited earth
and my delights were with humankind. (8:30-31)
In other words, the sage and poet of Proverbs, having used powerful poetic imagination to speak of the Divine Wisdom’s part in creation, now goes on to suggest that in and through that Divine Wisdom God has chosen from the beginning of creation to have a relationship with us His creatures, that is all about delight, and is even playful. This Divine Wisdom, God’s first creation, was, in the words of Gerhard von Rad, “playing in the world like a child; like a ‘favourite’, she was the delight of God and, even from the very beginning, she was turned toward humankind in cheerful and playful disposition.”[ii]
This is something that (as I have occasionally noticed with other theological truths) artists and poets have sometimes perceived and portrayed more easily and accurately than theologians. In C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe I recall the scene where Lucy and Susan play with Aslan, the Christ figure in Narnia, and He with them—indeed, they romp together, in pure fun and delight. Or, more subtly, we might point, as does Ellen Davis, to Michelangelo’s vision of Genesis and creation in the Sistine Chapel. We generally pay a lot of attention to the image of the hands, and the spark of life passing from God to Adam, and that is indeed a stunning image. But in some respects even more striking is the young woman on God’s left. She is definitely feminine, and beautiful: but beautiful in a special way. She is small, perky and alert. She looks as though she’d be fun to be with, and God has His arm protectively around her. Some have suggested that she is a portrait of Eve, but if so, as Davis points out, she is not at all like Eve as Michelangelo portrays her elsewhere (generally big and brawny). Davis doesn’t at all think she is Eve, and neither do I. I’m quite sure Michelangelo means us to see her as God’s darling, God’s favourite, the firstborn of all Creation, the Divine Wisdom.[iii]
This image of Divine Wisdom in the act of creation playing joyfully and even, we might even say (given the language) frivolously and dizzily before God is an important theological statement, and especially so for theologians and priests and religious people like myself, who are inclined to take ourselves and everything else rather seriously. This image reminds us that the creation is God’s free act. It is not something God has to do, it is God’s delight. But it surely goes further even than that. It implies that there is, and there is intended to be, something playful, frivolous, even slightly dizzy in God’s fundamental relationship with creation—a striking amplification of what God means by the declaration in Genesis that what has been made is “very good” (1.31)! It as if God were to have said, as we might say after any particularly delightful and joyful experience, “that was great!” or even “you were wonderful!” Which in turn may remind us that at least one book of the Bible, the Song of Songs, as interpreted in both rabbinic and patristic traditions, presents God’s relationship with God’s people as a happy love affair in which each side says to the other with delight, “I love you!” and the reply is, “I love you, too!”[iv]
There are, of course, elements of this playful element elsewhere in Scripture. Think what we are saying when we recite Psalm 104:
There go the ships,
and there is that Leviathan,
which you made for the sport of it. (Ps 104:27)
Throughout ancient tradition, including biblical tradition, Leviathan, the Canaanite monster, is a figure of terror, certainly no use to humanity, rather, a threat: but here the psalmist suggests that God created it for fun![v] Which leads me on to think of all those other beasts that God celebrates in Job 39 to 41—none of them, apart from the warhorse, is of the slightest apparent use to humanity, and many of them are evidently very dangerous. What they have in common, however, including the warhorse, is that they are all, in their different ways, spectacular. Apparently, as Amy Dillard puts it, “the creator loves pizzazz.”[vi] And pizzazz, of course, is fun. Pizzazz means play!
And that is surely a part of what our Lord is saying when he reminds us that “whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God as a child, shall by no means enter it!” (Mark 10:15). What, after all, are children definitely better at than adults? Playing, of course—until we train it out of them, and insist that they pay attention to what we call “the real world”. Proverbs and Our Lord suggest that on the contrary, the really real world is something that can only be attended to in freedom, in the joy of play. When one thinks about it joy, real joy, always has an element of fun in it.
A lovely illustration of this is, I believe, offered by the book of Job, especially at its conclusion. Job has been a good man throughout, and he has discovered (as many have) that bad things happen to good people, including him. He has complained to God, and has received a revelation which, while justifying his action in complaining, has also led him to “recant” or “dissolve” the complaint itself (42.6).[vii] (I think the word we would use would be “withdraw”). At the end of the story, all Job’s good things are restored, and far more. But things do not go on entirely as before, for Job himself has changed. The old Job, before the catastrophe, was very serious, and very pious. He even offered sacrifices for his sons just in case they had sinned! (1.5). The new Job has as many children as the old —seven sons and three daughters—something which in itself surely shows a generous measure of faith and hope, since he is living in a universe in which, as he now knows, even piety cannot protect him or his family. Surprisingly, we are told his daughters’ names, although we are not told the names of his sons. His daughters are all named after cosmetics: Dove, Cinnamon, and Eye-Shadow. What is more, they are to inherit equally with Job’s sons—something contrary to Israelite law, according to which daughters could only inherit if there were no sons (Num. 27:1-8). Why? We are offered no explanation, beyond the fact that the daughters are gorgeous: “in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters” (42:15). What shall we say to this frivolous ending to a book whose overall content cannot at all be described as frivolous? We might be struck by an increasing sense of justice in this man who was treated with horrible injustice. And that might explain the girls’ inheritances. But it hardly explains the frivolity of their names. The only explanation I can see is that Job’s experience has taught him how to have fun—how to play.
There is no joy without fun. And surely our seriousness, which leads us to try imagining joy without fun is one reason why most of our pictures of heaven are boring. God forbid we should joke with God or play with God! God forbid that in heaven we should play! Fortunately for us (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) the devil Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters has it right: God is
a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore’. Ugh![viii]
Freedom and delight, the essence of play, belong together for God and for us. God’s playfulness with us inevitably means divine closeness to us, even intimacy with us, for how can anyone, even God, play with someone from whom one is distant? There is therefore, I would argue, a clear line to be drawn from Proverbs’ awareness of the playfulness of the Divine Wisdom to Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
I’m going to end this little note with a story.
Once upon a time there was a man called George. In the fullness of time, George died. When he arrived in the after life, the first thing that happened was that his dog Gracie, whom he’d loved very much and who’d died some years earlier, came bounding up to him, tail wagging. That was a joyful reunion!
“I suppose,” George said to Gracie after a bit, “we ought to look for Heaven, and see if they’ll let me in.”
Gracie wagged her tail.
So they set off down the road.
After a bit, they saw off at the side of the road a great glittering city, all golden walls and jewelled gates, with wonderful organ music coming from it.
“That must be heaven,” George said. “Let’s try our luck!”
They got there and banged on the gate, and after a while it was opened by a tall and dignified person in a magnificent robe.
“Is this heaven, and can we can come in?” the man asked.
“This is indeed heaven, the Celestial City,” the dignified person in the magnificent robe said. “And you are welcome to enter. But you cannot bring that dog. Dogs are messy and untidy.”
“Well, yes, but—“
“NO DOGS!” the dignified person said firmly. “And especially not a mongrel like that. It’s not even a proper breed. Come again when you’ve got rid of it.”
Which said, the dignified person closed the gate.
George looked at Gracie. “Well Gracie, I suppose that means that heaven is not for us.”
Gracie wagged her tail, and the two of them set off again, away from the great golden city.
After a while, the sunshine began to get hot, and George could see that Gracie was getting thirsty. So he was pleased to notice a cottage by the road—an old cottage that looked as if it could do with a lick of paint, though it was clean and tidy and there was a nice garden with roses. An old man wearing a battered sports coat with leather patches on the sleeves was sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair, reading.
They went up to him.
“I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but my dog Gracie is getting a bit thirsty with walking, and I wondered whether perhaps she could have a drink of water?”
The old man looked up. His eyes twinkled and he smiled cheerfully.
“Of course she can!” he said, laying aside his book. “Look, there’s a full water bowl over there in the shade. Let Gracie drink as much as she likes. There’s plenty more. And take a seat yourself.” He pointed to the other rocking chair. “Would you like some lemonade? I’m going to have some.”
“I would actually. Thank you very much.” For of course Gracie wasn’t the only one who was getting thirsty.
“So,” said the old man when they were all nicely settled with their drinks, “where are you two staying?”
“Well, I don’t know,” George said. “You see, I was hoping we might be accepted into Heaven, but we just tried at the Celestial City, and they won’t take dogs.”
The old man looked puzzled. “Where exactly have you been? Where is this city?”
“Just over there,”—he pointed the way that they’d come – “all golden towers and organ music.”
“Oh, that!” The old man laughed. “Did they say that was Heaven? Dear Lord, they are such awful liars! No, no, this is heaven. A bit scruffy and down-at-heel for some tastes, I fear, but dogs and all other pets welcome! Not to mention repentant sinners!“
“So what’s that other place?”
“The other place? Where they won’t take pets?” The old man sighed, and for the briefest minute the twinkle went out of his eyes.
“That place,” he said finally, “is hell.”
The rabbis said that God created the beasts to be our jesters and playfellows, and though I don’t think this is the only reason God created them—the beasts have their own mystery, and it is surely a great piece of human arrogance to suppose that we are the only creatures in the universe that God cares about or is interested in—still, these are roles that some beasts seem content to play for us, and I am sure God meant it so.
Our jesters and playfellows…
Jesters help us to laugh—sometimes at their jokes and antics, but very often, if they are good jesters, at ourselves.
Playfellows teach us to play, which Johan Huizinga has taught us is the foundation of all human civilization and civilized behaviour,[ix] and the Bible tells us is necessary if we are to know God.
My final word this morning is then this: beware of any group where they don’t like pets and disapprove of play and laughter. They will certainly turn out to have other bad habits.
[i] The NRSV rendering of the Hebrew as “master workman” (connecting it with Akkadian unmanu = craftsman) though it has ancient support (i.e. the LXX) seems ill to fit the context, which rather emphasizes playfulness and delight. Hence I prefer Aquila’s choice to point the Hebrew as ‘āmūn (= pet, nursling, or darling), which he rendered in Greek by τιθηνουμενη (= ward, or darling): see Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972) 152-57. Bernard U. Schipper, while admitting that the decision is difficult, disagrees, preferring to understand amun “as a qal infinitive absolute of the verb אמן (‘to be firm, constant’) and here used in an adverbial sense and to be translated as ‘constantly.'” His reason for this is that “if אָמוֹן is translated as ‘constantly, continually’ it stands in parallel with the temporal markers ‘day by day’ and ‘at all times’ in the second half of the verse” (Proverbs 1-15, Stephen Germany, transl. [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2019] 313). This is, of course, true as far as it goes. It fails, however, to convince me, since it appears ignore a much more striking contextual parallel that appears when אָמוֹן is translated “darling”: namely, the context’s emphasis on “delight” and “play” (8.30-31).
[ii] von Rad, Wisdom in Israel 157.
[iii] See C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1950) 133 (there have been many editions since, on both sides of the Atlantic); Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Songs of Songs (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2000) 67-69.
[iv] Some will regard this theological view of the Song of Songs as dated or contrary to modern scholarly investigation. There is no necessary contradiction: see Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Songs of Songs 231-38; cf. also Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., The Song of Songs (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990) esp. 103-105 and Robert W. Jenson’s brief but profound introduction to his commentary in Jenson, Song of Songs (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox 2005) 1-15.
[v] I here cite the Episcopal BCP 1979 Psalter rather than the more staid “to sport in it” of the NRSV. While the Hebrew is in itself somewhat ambiguous, so that the NRSV rendering is not impossible, God’s ironic question to Job, “will you sport with him [i.e. Leviathan] as with a bird?” (Job 40.29), surely leaves very little doubt as to what is intended by the similar expression here in the psalm (cf. Mitchel Dahood S.J, Psalms III [New York: Doubleday] 45; similarly Walter Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984] 32; Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs 68).
[vi] Amy Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper and Row, 1974) 137.
[vii] Pace the NRSV, but following NAB and JPS, this is probably the correct interpretation of Job 42:6. See Rabbi Dr Victor E. Reichert, Job (Hindhead, Surrey: Socino, 1946) 220; Marvin H. Pope, Job (New York: Doubleday, 1965) 348; E. Dhorme, A Commentary on the Book of Job, Harold Knight, transl. (London: Nelson, 1967 ) 646-47.
[viii] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1942) Letter XXII: there have been many editions since 1942, published in both Great Britain and the United States.
[ix] I refer of course to Johan Huizinga’s remarkable book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (London: Palladin, 1970): but again, there are numerous editions.