Reading the Bible Again...
for the First Time

Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally
by Marcus Borg, HarperCollins:
New York, NY. 2001. 

Canon Jim Irvine


the Bible
Again for the
First Time



Coffee and Discussion


Emmaus Paradigm

Scripture and Communion

Get the Acrobat Reader to access resources on this site




Reading Lenses: The Bible and God

Reading Lenses: History and Metaphor

The Hebrew Testament

Reading the
Creation Stories

Reading the Pentateuch

Reading the Prophets

Israel’s Wisdom

The New Testament

Reading the Gospels


Reading the Revelation

Borg Study Index
Home Study Resources

Israel's Wisdom Again

1. Background

In Israel’s wisdom literature we encounter the dailiness of life in ancient Israel. The focus of this literature is more on the individual and the world of the everyday than what we encounter in the exodus and prophetic traditions. Its central concerns are the eminently practical questions, “How shall I live?” and “What is life about?” …


Israel’s wisdom books are found in the third and final division of the Hebrew Bible: the Writings. This is a miscellaneous collection dating primarily from the postexilic period.  (p. 145)

Israel’s wisdom literature is very different in content, tone, and form from the Pentateuch and the Prophets.

1.     [U]nlike the rest of the Hebrew Bible, it is not concerned with Israel’s sacred story as a people or with the criticism and reshaping of the social order.

2.    Unlike the laws of the Pentateuch, which are said to have come from God, and unlike the prophets, who claim to speak the “Word of the LORD” on God’s behalf, Israel’s wisdom does not claim to be revealed truth.

Proverbs is thus to a large extent “community wisdom.” Ecclesiastes and Job, on the other hand, are sustained reflections on experience from the vantage point of their particular authors.

Is life as simple as knowing the right things to do and doing them? Does everything work out if you live right? And if life is not so simple but much more mysterious, what does that say about the nature of God, the purpose of life, and how we are to live? (p. 148)

Is life as simple as knowing the right things to do and doing them?
Does everything work out if you live right?
And if life is not so simple but much more mysterious, what does that say about the nature of God, the purpose of life, and how we are to live?


2. Wisdom / Sophia

The beginning of wisdom lies in taking seriously that we are dealing with a reality that transcends the world of the everyday, even as that reality is known in the world of the everyday.

        These chapters also introduce us to the personification of “Wisdom” in female form, commonly called “the wisdom woman” or “Sophia.” “Sophia” is not only the Greek word for wisdom; as a woman’s name it better expresses the personification than the more abstract and neuter‑sounding “Wisdom.”  (p. 149)

Who comes from God, as Word and Breath?
Holy Wisdom.
Who holds the keys of life and death?
Mighty Wisdom.
Crafter and Creator too,
eldest, she makes all things new;
she ordains what God will do,
wisest one, radiant one,
welcome, Ho-ly Wis-dom / great Sophia!

Who lifts her voice for all to hear?
Joyful Wisdom.
Who shapes a thought and makes it clear?
Truthful Wisdom:
Teacher, drawing out our best,
magnifies what we invest,
names our truth, directs our quest.
Wisest one, radiant one,
welcome, Ho-ly Wisdom / great Sophia!

Whom should we seek with all our heart?
Loving Wisdom.
Who, once revealed, will not depart?
Faithful Wisdom.
Partner, Counselor, Comforter,
love has found none lovelier,
life is gladness lived with her.
Wisest one, radiant one,
welcome, Ho-ly Wisdom / great Sophia!

392 – Common Praise – Tune: Salve Regina Coelitum

What is the character of Wisdom / Sophia?
What scriptures come to mind?
John referred to Jesus as the Word of God in the Prolog to his gospel.
Paul referred to Jesus as the Wisdom of God in 1 Corinthians 1: 24.
How is our “image” of Jesus enlarged with this application?


Wisdom / Sophia is of inestimable worth. Following her is the wise way, and that way leads to life, riches, honor, peace, and happiness:

Happy are those who find wisdom,

        and those who get understanding.

Her income is better than silver,

        and her revenue better than gold.

She is more precious than jewels,

        and nothing you desire can compare with her.

Long life is in her right hand;

        in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are ways of pleasantness,

        and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;

        those who hold her fast are called happy.

So important is Wisdom / Sophia that she is spoken of as having been with God at the creation of the world:

The LORD created me at the beginning of God’s work,

        the first of God’s acts of long ago.

Ages ago I was set up at the first,

        before the beginning of the earth.

Wisdom / Sophia offers food and drink. She hosts a banquet of bread and wine to which she invites all who will come:

You who are simple, turn in here!

Come, cat of my bread,

        and drink of the wine I have mixed.

Lay aside immaturity, and live,

        and walk in the way of insight.

This personification is the first stage of a process whereby Wisdom / Sophia becomes a female image for God in Jewish wisdom literature. This development is the background for the New Testament’s use of Sophia imagery to speak about Jesus as prophet of Sophia and as incarnation of Sophia. It is also the basis for the increasing attention paid to Sophia in recent Christian theology.  (p. 149f.)

“Following her is the wise way, and that way leads to life, riches, honor, peace, and happiness.”
The “way” is a recurring thread, an exodus that leads from… and to…
The Law and the Prophets present the “way”.  How is the “way” presented in the Wisdom writings?


To avoid a possible misunderstanding, it is important to emphasize that the Jewish tradition did not yet affirm an afterlife. Belief in a heaven and hell beyond death was still two or three centuries in the future.  Thus the two ways – one leading to life, the other leading to death – are not about eternity (about heaven and hell), but about two different ways of living this side of physical death.  (p. 151)

If the “way” is not (yet) a path to heaven or hell, how do we see the journey?
What is the value in the journey?
What do we discover about our relationship with God “this side of physical death”?


3. Ecclesiastes

The Righteous Sometimes Do Not Prosper

Solomon’s speech is the first stage in Qoheleth’s indictment of conventional wisdom. The next step is the rejection of conventional wisdom's central claim: if you follow the path of righteousness – the wise way – you will do well and be rewarded.  (p. 163)

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
                                                                                                                                                Robert Frost

 Conventional wisdom has its own attraction.
What does the “road less taken” look like?
Is it a path Qoheleth might have taken? How worn is the path?
How can we be sure we have made the right choice?


For Qoheleth, the certainty and randomness of death drive an arrow into the heart of conventional wisdom. Nothing that we do or have – none of what we spend our lives seeking to achieve, possess, and control – can forestall death, can alter its inevitability or timing. Moreover, when death comes, it takes away everything we have acquired: wisdom, wealth, honor, a good name, family, possessions.  (p. 165)

What is the prevailing question today?
Are we answering questions that aren’t being asked?


Reading Ecclesiastes and Hearing Qoheleth

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter

        under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn., and a time to dance ...

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing

a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace.

1          First scenario. Because the words of this passage became the lyrics of a popular folksong, most of us have heard them sung. I can remember some performances that gave the text a moral meaning, expressing a preference for one‑half of each set of opposites: this, not that. The inflection made it clear that this time (our time) is a time for peace, not war; a time for love, not hate; a time to heal, not kill; a time to dance, not mourn. However, I do not imagine that Qoheleth meant this.

2        Second scenario. Imagine this passage as read by a depressed Swedish Lutheran pastor in an Ingmar Bergman movie. The church is almost empty, the cold light of a gray winter morning makes everything pale and colorless, the voice is flat with despair, and there is virtually no one to hear it. Life is bleak – unbearably so – an endless cycle of meaningless repetition. This is an exaggerated form of some scholarly ways of reading Ecclesiastes.

3         Third scenario. Imagine these same words as read by the Dalai Lama. The meaning would be very different. Not “this versus that,” and not “everything is meaningless.”  Rather: live fully, whatever time it is. Be present to what is. (p. 167f.)

With what lenses do we read these familiar words:
With discriminating judgement?  With fatalistic cynicism?
With courage to seize the day?  Reflect and discuss.


Qoheleth’s claim that we cannot make straight what God has made crooked points to the Mystery of the sacred. For Qoheleth, God is not absent; God is simply beyond all of our attempts to domesticate the divine.  (p. 168)

“We cannot make straight what God has made crooked.”  Reflect and discuss.  How do we understand God is with us and beyond us?


      The wisdom of Qoheleth is thus a subversive wisdom. His teaching undermines and subverts “the way” taught by conven­tional wisdom. It is also an alternative wisdom, for it points to another way, one that leads beyond convention. To use a familiar phrase from Robert Frost, the subversive and alternative wisdom of Qoheleth is “the road less traveled.” (p. 170)

The Pentateuch presented “a way” that is remembered in every generation.  The Prophets remind us to repent – to return – and follow “a way”.  Qoheleth points to “another way, one that leads beyond convention”.  How is the wisdom of Qoheleth subversive?

PDF file of this material

Next Reading the Gospels Again