Wisdom Actors, part 1

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This article identifies several prominent classes of domestic and international government officials in the royal courts old-world Middle East and highlights the political careers of several individuals who held high-level positions in those offices. It is written at an intermediate level and assumes some basic knowledge of the Christian Old Testament and its wisdom tradition, but it also includes some discussion of officials from Egypt, Assyria, and Persia.

I have studied such narratives through the lens of wisdom over many years of research, teaching, and writing. These stories and their political actors are vitally instructive for our pluralist situations today. I wish I had been taught this as a young Christian. Instead, I was raised in the faith to see such narratives, indeed all of Scripture, merely as illustrations from which to draw “private religious devotion and personal moral instruction.” And when it came to ancient Israel, I was taught to see only the gulf of dissimilarities between Israel and all other nations. I don’t want to knock that up-bringing too much, because I learned a lot during those years from my pastors and Bible teachers, but the more I engaged in close readings of Scripture, the more the wisdom tradition began to speak to me, and the more I understood that my earlier way of seeing had unnecessarily limited what Scripture offers. I hope some of this comes alive for you as it has for me.

Caveat: I use the words “the state” and “politics” in this article in a general and loose sense, simply as a shorthand for the organizing and governing that must take place among a large group of people, even in ancient times, if there is to be domestic order not chaos. In other words, I do not mean the modern inventions of the state and politics that have been with us in the West since fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe.

This article is meant to be used with The Wisdom Tradition – See With New Eyes and Wisdom Actors Part 2, as well as Wisdom Words.

Political Actors of the Old-world Middle East

Learning wisdom from the ancients

by Charles Strohmer

Hundreds of years after Sinai, the people of Israel demand of the prophet Samuel that he should appoint a king to lead them, “such as all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5). However much that demand may indicate their rejection of Yahweh’s governance over them through their system of judges (appointed since the time of Moses and Joshua), that is not our topic, here. Instead, I am pointing out this particular narrative because it is the moment in Israel’s already storied history when a process was set in motion whereby Israel would become a formal monarchy like the surrounding nations. Today we would say Israel was on the path to statehood.

In the Christian tradition, this turning point period with all its multi-faceted opening up has suffered from being reduced to theological meanings surrounding the people’s demand. This reductionism of the narrative has meant ignoring just about anything else than may be learned from the ensuing history. The area of focus on that history in this article will be that of the wisdom tradition’s role in the lives of some of the prominent political actors during this transformative period, which entailed numerous political transitions, such as establishing a capital, enthroning a king, picking a cabinet, growing a bureaucracy, creating and institutionalizing national laws, raising an army, collecting taxes, and so on.

What has fascinated me in my research for The Wisdom Project is that as new state, Israel now had formalized its relations with existing regional states (other monarchies). It is not that international relations suddenly began for Israel, for the nation had had dealings of all sorts with other nations. Instead, it was a time when Israel secured for itself equal footing as a nation among nations, which seems to be what the people were interested in, being somewhat comparable to what occurs today when a new nation-state joins the United Nations.Solomon modeled “the Israelite state … on the great states of the ancient Near East,” so that it “acquired a structure similar to that of Egypt.”

Saul became Israel’s first king, and after having fledged for forty years under Saul, the state was reorganized under David and Solomon, its second and third kings, who each reigned for forty years. Of this transformative period, William McKane writes that “Israel became a state with a new political structure which demanded the creation of a cadre of royal officials through whom the king governed this people.” Solomon, in fact, not only added a huge bureaucracy, which increased the political structure in all directions. Much more than Saul or David had done, Solomon modeled “the Israelite state … on the great states of the ancient Near East,” so that it “acquired a structure similar to that of Egypt.” (McKane, Prophets and Wise Men, 1965, p. 42.)

More significantly for us, here, however, is the obvious but often overlooked fact that the creation of the new state was not the work of the king alone. McKane, who was a professor of Hebrew and Oriental languages at St. Andrews until his death, reminds us that “with the king in this new political structure there was associated a class of royal officials who had to do with the army, finance, foreign embassies and administration. Such officials were a ‘people of the king’ and had a common interest with him in maintaining the regime and suppressing popular resistance and discontent.” (Prophets and Wise Men, p. 43.)

Here, then, was a long period of dramatic political change for Israel, in which the nation’s government formalized as a state, grew tremendously, and joined the community of nations. It is the latter area that concerns us in this article, especially the various political actors in it. For now as a member of the international community, Israel fell within the long established regional tradition for conducting international relations. And this was the wisdom tradition. There is ample evidence from the biblical literature and from the religious and other literature of other old-world nations that foreign ministers, ambassadors, secretaries of state, diplomats, and so on were formally trained in the wisdom tradition.

This is not to say that this international dimension of the tradition was the only purpose of the tradition. It certainly was not, and I have discussed this at-length in The Historic Wisdom Tradition and Its Literature, a two part summary review exclusive to this site. But it is a dimension of the wisdom tradition that has been quite neglected by scholarship. This article, then, introduces some of the main political actors and some the narratives in which they appear in Israel. (In the two part summary review you will find their counterparts in other nations also discussed.)

The hakamim

During the process of its political development as a monarchy state, there rose to prominence within Israel a broad class of clearly recognized high-level officials known as the hakamim (chiefly men but some women). (The Hebrew word hakamim is from a primary word for “wise” and “wisdom,” hkm. Hakam is used for an individual in this class; hakamim for the class itself.) Among the hakamim were professionals who served as as what today we would call cabinet ministers, policymakers, statesmen, foreign ministers, secretaries of state, diplomats, and various other kinds of political advisors. Occasionally, military and ecclesiastical figures were included in the class. [Editor’s note: Hebrew words in in this article, such as hakamim and soperim (see below), are being spelled without their diacritical marks.]

In Israel, this class of officials is first heard from during the rudimentary forming of Israelite social governance and jurisprudence under Moses (see the two part summary review) and then into the period of Israel’s judges. Hundred of years before Israel’s flight from Egypt, however, the role of the hakamim in Egypt is hinted at in the Book of Genesis (41:33-40), when an Egyptian ruler calls the Hebrew slave Josepha as a hakam and appoints him to high-level political office akin to a secretary of commerce and a foreign minister with the authority to make and implement policy. Of Joseph, the pharaoh  acknowledges before all of his ministers that they will never find anyone in the land as wise as Joseph, who will now be handling Egypt’s economic policies to surrounding nations for many years to come.this class of officials is first heard from during the rudimentary forming of Israelite social governance and jurisprudence under Moses

Hints about the international role of officials trained in wisdom are also found in the government of another pharaoh, who, during an ominous crisis, summons his hakamim in hopes of thwarting a clear and present danger from a foreign power (Exodus 7:11). Centuries later in Persia, in a delicate political matter that will decide the fate of the Queen of Persia, King Xerxes of Persia sends for his hakamim to advise him on the legal issues (Esther 1:13). Even some Israelite kings became notable for having characteristics of “the wise,” such as David, praised for having “wisdom like that of an angel of God,” and the proverbial Solomon, known for his “wise and discerning” heart (2 Samuel 14:20; 1 Kings 3:12).

Other clues are also found in the biblical literature. Wise women, apparently, were occasionally numbered among the hakamim, such as in the fascinating narrative of Second Samuel 14, which describes the commission received an unnamed woman who is simply but profoundly remembered as “a wise woman” from Tekoa. She is persuaded by Joab, king David’s decorated commander-in-chief, to perform a dramatic scene before the king, who for years had been pining away over his third son, Absalom, whom David had exiled for committing fratricide to avenge a step-sister’s rape. For this, the king had banished Absalom from the capital, Jerusalem, but now Joab sought to change that situation.

Enter the wise woman from Tekoa, hired by Joab to perform a one act play he hopes will awaken David’s fatherly feeling toward the banished Absalom. Donning the hat of a playwright, script in hand, he has turned to a known hakam for help. That this hakam happens to be a woman I don’t think is accidental, for Joab knows that for his plan to succeed he needs to get through David’s masculine armor so that the king might act on his fatherly feelings and restore Absalom to Jerusalem.

The script, well-thought out and complete with choreography, calls for the woman from Tekoah to pretend she is in mourning, right down to the carefully chosen costume and lack of make-up. Her character is based on a fictitious family tragedy. After learning her lines, she appears before the king, who is quite moved by the performance. His fatherly instincts are awakened and acted on and Absalom is peaceably returned to the capital, albeit under stipulations that he cannot see the king, his father. Although the skillfully written and performed one-act play placed both Joab and the wise woman at great personal risk –the king could have had their heads off – it turned out to be the clever piece of politicking it was meant to be. However, it may not have had the political outcome Joab was hoping for in the end, for historians locate the narrative in a series of events culminating in a later political decision by Absalom that had grave consequences for the David’s government (see the subhead “Ahithophel,” below).

Second Samuel 20, describes “a wise woman” (a hakam) in the besieged town of Abel Beth Maacah who negotiated a settlement with Joab that prevented his army division from destroying the town. For our purposes, here, there are a couple of revealing insights in this story. One is the deliberate prompting of Joab’s memory by this woman during her negotiations. She reminds Joab that Abel Beth Maacah had, even in the lore of the still young nation, become a celebrated source for those seeking wisdom. “Long ago they used to say,” the woman said to Joab, “get your answer at Abel, and that settled it.” Evidently, the saying itself, as some do, had risen to the status of a proverb throughout the land. It is after she reminds Joab that she successfully negotiates the deal. The other insight is implied in a concluding remark, that “the woman went to all the people with her wise advice,” or “in her wisdom,” as an older translation has it. This phrase seems to have been a specialized expression which “indicates that she was a recognized leader with professional standing, perhaps like the ‘wise women’ who were found in the Canaanite court, according to the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:29).” (Bernard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 1966, p. 492.) Too, this narrative shows the cooler heads of wisdom prevailing over the hotter councils of war. It reminds me of a sage’s poignant observation found in Ecclesiastes 9:13-16.

There is a wealth of narrative surrounding the hakamim in biblical literature. Here, I have  commented only on a few addresses to get the ball rolling. Yet even mere introductory remarks about Israel’s hakamim would be incomplete without noting their frequently strained relationships with Israel’s prophets, especially during the long period following Solomon’s reign, when the prophets had cause to condemn policies of the hakamim. In Isaiah 29:14-16, for instance, the statesmen of Judah are rebuked for creating policies as if they themselves were gods answerable to no one. Their polices, ironically shorthanded by the prophet as “the wisdom of the wise,” will perish. As McKane writes, their pretensions are absurd. “They use the grand terminology of wisdom in order to propagate their claims.” (Prophets and Wise Men, p. 70.) Isaiah, who functions as a statesman himself at times, also uses ironic criticism to inveigh against the Egyptian hakamim of his day, judging that the counsel they give pharaoh is “senseless advice,” yet they consider themselves “the cornerstones” of Egyptian society (Isaiah 19:11-13).

To note just one more, in a flight of sarcastic rhetoric known as a taunt-song, Isaiah 46 mocks the wise of Babylon, whose governing wisdom lacked any sort of humility and led the state to think and act as if it were God. This assessment is not unlike a remark made by another prophet, who had concluded that in its heyday Babylon’s military strength had become that nation’s god in which it trusted (Habakkuk 1:11). In fact, in virtually all of the prophetic books of the Bible, unjust policies of “the wise” are criticized or condemned.

The soperim

Equally indispensable to the running of domestic politics and international relations were the soperim, another prominent circle of high-officials who served in offices similar to those described above for the hakamim. (Soperim describes the class and is the plural of soper, which denotes a person in the class. The terms are from the Hebrew root word spr, for: count; number; declare; writing; secretary; master officer.) And from my research, it seems evident that the hakamim and the soperim were the two most prominent classes of civil and political advisors and officials in the old-world Middle East, though, here, I am using only the Hebrew language to denote those classes.

In the Christian tradition, the soperim have been singled out as “scribes” by English translators of the Bible, and they are typically understood according to their functions in religious contexts. There is good reason for this. A soper in the biblical literature may refer to a master secretary such as Baruch (Jeremiah 36), who figures prominently in Jeremiah’s life. And even outside biblical translation and exegesis, the word “scribes” in our time has come to signify – through films and books like The Name of the Rose – monks in monasteries leaning over stand-up desks translating or copying old manuscripts (good book, though).

Although many soperim (scribes) in the old-world Middle East did function as writers or secretaries in religious contexts, many other held careers as political secretaries, advisors, and officials in government, such as a prominent ruler’s master scribe or a royal secretary (e.g., 2 Samuel 20:25; 1 Kings 4:3; 2 Kings 18:37). The thing is, what one finds when digging into this, is not just run-of-the-mill writers, or even mere professional writers, but a class of officials trained in the kind of learning and writing requisite to careers such as a high-level political secretary would need.the hakamim and the soperim were the two most prominent classes of civil and political advisors and officials in the old-world Middle East

When referring, for instance, to Israel’s political reorganization under David and Solomon, McKane, discussing international negotiations and the council of kings, writes that a soper (scribe) “had to master foreign languages for the purposes of diplomacy, and that in doing so he acquired a knowledge of foreign literatures and assisted in their dissemination… [In both] Egypt and Babylonia wisdom is located in the circle of a high establishment which plays an important role in the political and cultural life of the time [and] these scribes have to be distinguished from mere writers. This seems to me to put the matter in the right perspective and it may not be going to far so say … that these men, although primarily statesmen and administrators, were “born middlemen in the international exchange of literature.” (Prophets and Wise Men, pp. 43-44.)

From his extensive research, McKane has concluded that translators who stress the “writing” aspect, and there are many of them, have missed helping us see the more overt political careers of many soperim. That is, we should not reduce the scribes of the Bible to mere writers or clerks, for when they make their appearances in royal courts from the time of David, as many time they do, they are much more than that. They are high political officials. (“Ezra the scribe” is a notable case in point in international politics and will be considered, below.)

McKane sheds light on the fuller training and careers of the soperim by examining influences upon Israel’s wisdom tradition from the Semitic language of the Akkadians, whose kingdom was part of Babylon toward the end of the third century bc. He writes that although the Akkadian words sap?ru and s?pirum (note their etymological relation to the Hebrew soper and soperim through the root spr) include the ideas of “communicate” and “write,” they also denote a strong notion of being entrusted with a mission, or commissioned. He continues: “The idea of ‘office’ or ‘managerial responsibility’ rather than that of ‘writing’ is primary…. A s?pirum is primarily a person who holds a responsible political or administrative office.” However, “mastery of the complicated system of cuneiform writing” was essential “for the man who would aspire to responsible office in the state.” McKane concludes that it “would have been impossible to discharge high political or administrative duties, whether executive or advisory, without this mastery of the involved art of written communication.” (Prophets and Wise Men, p 25.)

McKane also offer this enlightening description of how significant learning to write was for political officials in ancient Egyptian: “Through the Egyptian people from the earliest period there ran a deep cleavage which separated him who had enjoyed a higher education from the common mass. It came into existence when the Egyptians had invented their writing, for he who mastered it, however humble his position outwardly might be, at once gained a superiority over his fellows. Without the assistance of his scribes, even the ruler was of no account and it was not without good reason that the high officials of the Old Kingdom were so fond of having themselves represented in a writing posture; for that was the occupation to which they owed their rank and power. The road to every office lay open to him who had learnt writing and knew how to express himself in well-chosen terms, and all the other professions were literally under his control.” (Quoted in Prophets and Wise Men, p. 24).

Consequently, a distinction must be kept in mind between a soper who held a high political office, such as secretary of state, and a run-of-the-mill writer. I should also note that in many biblical narratives, overlapping government functions among the soperim and the hakamim seem to be normative – a feature of old-wold political life that precludes us from drawing too solid a line dividing their precise roles. McKane notes that “diversity of function is a characteristic which must be expected of” both classes, for both “belonged to an educated class whose mental habits were shaped by a common educational discipline … particularly oriented towards the needs of the state for higher civil servants…” He even goes so far as to say that it is probable to conclude that the hakamim and soperim mentioned in Jeremiah 8:8-9 “were wisdom teachers and that Jeremiah is pointing to what was for them a significant change of occupation.” (Prophets and Wise Men, p, 106.)

Although biblical narratives are not texts meant to detail the functions of thesoperim, they provide important clues about some of the roles of these government officials. Here are but a few. They are often included with military commanders and priests in lists of kings’ officials (2 Samuel 8:17; 20:25). Sometimes their office is indicated, such as in 2 Kings 12:10, where a “royal secretary” (soper hammelek) and the high priest cooperate in overseeing the economic aspect of major repairs to the Jerusalem temple. Similar are the descriptions in 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 24, where king Josiah’s soper has the title “royal secretary.”

Some soperim also appear to have held high military posts, such as overseeing a military draft, in passages where the relevant official could be paraphrased as the “secretary of state for war.” (Prophets and Wise Men, p. 22. See: 2 Kings 25:19; Jeremiah 52:25.) And the Song of Deborah, whose archaic language (from probably the twelfth century before Christ) comes though the translation, describes military soperim whose authority as commanders allowed them to recruit and assemble troops for battle (Judges 5:14. Confirming McKane’s point that Bible translators usually stress the meaning “write,” the still popular King James Bible (KJB), from the early seventeenth century, translates the Hebrew of Judges 5:14 as: “… out of Zebulun {came} they that handle the pen of the writer.” The New King James Bible (NKJB), however, from the late-1970s, more aptly has: “those who bear the recruiter’s staff,” which emphasizes the office, as does the NIV, with “those who bear commander’s staff.”)


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