A Brigand’s Wisdom

Job’s semi-climactic soliloquy on the hiddenness of wisdom in Job 28 reads interestingly alongside the Lukan passion narrative, particularly Luke’s description of the brigand who unexpectedly finds salvation in the hour of his death.

In Job 28, the search for wisdom is likened to humanity’s search for gold and precious jewels in the depths of the earth. “Man puts an end to darkness and searches out to the farthest limit the ore in gloom and deep darkness” (v. 3). The earth brings forth bread, and the birds and beasts search its surface for food, but man delves into its depths where fire turns up stones of sapphire and gold. But wisdom, whose value surpasses all such riches (vv. 13-19), is nowhere to be found.

A structuring feature in Job’s soliloquy is the repeated reference to a “place” (makom) where riches or wisdom may be sought—particularly the word’s occurrences in the second half of a parallelistic expression in verses 1, 12, 20, and 23. There is “a place for gold that they [humans] refine,” but “where is the place of understanding?” (repeated in vv. 12 and 20). Only “God understands the way to [wisdom], and he knows its place” (v. 23). Meanwhile, Job says, the realms of Destruction (abaddon) and Death (maveth) purportedly have heard a “rumor” of it (v. 22). The fact of mortality can point one in the direction of wisdom—a notion that Qohelet and the Psalmist would both affirm—and yet, they are not themselves the “place” where wisdom is to be found. But God, with whom it is found, reveals it to humanity in the last verse of the poem: “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding” (v. 28).

In the New Testament, however, Destruction and Death do become the “place” of wisdom and of fearing the Lord: outside Jerusalem, the Place of the Skull and a newly-hewn tomb become hosts to Israel’s Messiah, the incarnate Wisdom of Israel’s God, the rumor made flesh. And here it is no gold-seeking miner of treasures that finds this (soon-to-be) buried Wisdom, but a rather more unlikely figure: a crucified brigand. As his compatriot mocks Jesus, he replies, “Do you not fear God?” (Lk. 23:40) and, confessing his guilt and the justice of his punishment, turns away from the evil that landed him on a cross. About to plunge into Sheol where memory and plans perish (cf. Ps. 146:4; Eccl. 9:10), he asks that God’s Wisdom would remember him in his kingdom (Lk. 23:42). But Wisdom has come into the world precisely for this moment, to enter into the heart of darkness, into hell itself, and to spoil Satan of his folly-bound captives. And so, at the eleventh hour, the fool whose folly has carried him to the point of death finds the rumored Wisdom precisely in the place of death and destruction and, in Wisdom, finds paradise (v. 43).

The brigand’s response to his compatriot and to Jesus highlights the counter-intuitive nature of the wisdom revealed at the cross, which to natural human eyes looks like folly (cf. 1 Cor. 1–4). We are called willingly to embrace God’s judgment concerning our sin—to accept death as a path to eternal life, in repentance and faith—and only so do we find that Christ has already walked this path for us, and that we are gained admittance to paradise through sharing in his blameless death, in being “crucified with Christ” (cf. Gal. 2:19-20), the self-abasing, death-embracing Wisdom of God.

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