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On the Wisdom of Solomon, Part 24: The Root of All Evil
As we had noted in the first portion of our commentary on Wisdom chapter 15, when Solomon began his discourse on the subject of idolatry he used the example of a woodworker who in his spare time had made an idol from leftover and otherwise useless wood, and the result of his leisure was that he began to worship the works of his own hands. Now where we had left off in this chapter, Solomon had made a similar analogy of a potter, who purposely and deceitfully crafted and painted images of false gods for men to worship. As a result, men who worship the gods which are made in their own image, or in the images of other men, are led astray into all sorts of other sins which are much more grievous, and ultimately they are led to their own destruction.
So we had also noted that the will to commit idolatry is rooted in pride and arrogance, even when the motive is profit, but that true humility is a willingness to be obedient to God. So even before we began our commentary on chapter 15 of Wisdom, we had concluded that “… forsaking Yahweh we cannot help but sin, and we sin arrogantly as we have purposely forsaken God.” But now as we proceed with Wisdom chapter 15, we may see that even Solomon understood the Christian concept of humility which the apostles had also taught, which is to acknowledge one’s sin and seek forgiveness without imagining that one may escape the judgments of God.”
So now we shall take a short digression, as we ask ourselves a question: What was the humility of the apostles, which Solomon also understood? To answer that, we must understand the concept of patriarchy in antiquity, since we have not lived under such a construct for many centuries. It is through this same concept of patriarchy that even God asserts His rights over His children. While as a nation the children of Israel collectively were considered the wife or bride of Yahweh, individually they are each His children, and therefore they are subject to Him as their patriarch.
One place in Scripture that we see this is in Deuteronomy chapter 14: “1 Ye are the children of the LORD your God: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. 2 For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth. 3 Thou shalt not eat any abominable thing.” Of course, for that same reason they were also commanded to keep many other laws.
But the children of Israel were not chosen to be children of God. As Luke attests in his gospel, Adam was the son of God, and therefore all of his legitimate descendants would also be children of God. Paul attested that same thing to the Japhethite Athenians in Acts chapter 17. Rather, the children of Israel were chosen to be recognized as the children of God, as in ancient times a father had a right to choose which of his offspring would be recognized as sons, and even which of them would live. So Abraham had a right to sacrifice Isaac as Yahweh so demanded, and Isaac had a right to pass the blessings of Abraham on to Jacob as an inheritance, for reason that Esau was a fornicator.
So Jacob was chosen out of all of the Adamic families of the earth, so that his children alone would be given the position of sons, the Greek word υἱοθεσία unfortunately translated as adoption in most versions of the New Testament. So we read in Isaiah chapter 41: “8 But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend.” Then again in chapter 44: “2 Thus saith the LORD that made thee, and formed thee from the womb [thereby claiming Fatherhood], which will help thee; Fear not, O Jacob, my servant; and thou, Jesurun, whom I have chosen.”
Another place where it is evident that the children of Israel are the children of God is in Jeremiah chapter 31, where it also speaks in regard to the children of Israel long after they had been taken into captivity: “7 For thus saith the LORD; Sing with gladness for Jacob, and shout among the chief of the nations: publish ye, praise ye, and say, O LORD, save thy people, the remnant of Israel. 8 Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the coasts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travaileth with child together: a great company shall return thither. 9 They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn. 10 Hear the word of the LORD, O ye nations, and declare it in the isles afar off, and say, He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd doth his flock.”
The power of a father over his children is often evident in the Bible, and it certainly is practiced by God Himself. But even there, in reference to earthly fathers, it is not described quite as explicitly as it is later evidenced in ancient Roman law. So the following is from an Encyclopedia Britannica article on the subject of Patria Potestas, which is the Roman law preserving the rights of a father or grandfather over all of his descendants:
Patria potestas, (Latin: “power of a father”), in Roman family law, power that the male head of a family exercised over his children and his more remote descendants in the male line, whatever their age, as well as over those brought into the family by adoption. This power meant originally not only that he had control over the persons of his children, amounting even to a right to inflict capital punishment, but that he alone had any rights in private law. Thus, acquisitions of a child became the property of the father. The father might allow a child (as he might a slave) certain property to treat as his own, but in the eye of the law it continued to belong to the father.
Patria potestas ceased normally only with the death of the father; but the father might voluntarily free the child by emancipation, and a daughter ceased to be under the father’s potestas if upon her marriage she came under her husband’s manus (q.v.), a corresponding power of husband over wife.
There are other and more extensive articles available freely on these Roman patriarchal laws, such as the article by George Long on Patria Potestas from William Smith’s 1875 Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the Lacus Curtius website maintained by the University of Chicago. Another article on the subject which is hostile to the Biblical concept of patriarchy but which nevertheless describes the Roman law accurately says in part: “The patricians who ruled Rome were named after their male supremacist culture. The elite landholding class built Roman law on the base of patria potestas, the life-and-death power of the father over his wife, children and slaves. This privilege was enshrined in the Twelve Tables of the Law, not to be rescinded until the 2nd century CE.” But as the historian Livy explained in Book 3 of his History of Rome, describing events of the 5th century before Christ, in the formation of the Republic the Romans had used the laws of Solon and the Athenians, as well as other Greek states, as a model for their so-called Twelve Tables, which were originally Ten.
The right of Patria potestas only belonged to the eldest male ancestor, regardless of the age of his sons. A son could only acquire this right if his parents had been lawfully married according to the Roman law of connubium, and once his own male ancestors had all died. So the right of the Patria potestas belonged only to the patriarch of the family. He was the paterfamilias, the head of the entire family or clan. He held ownership rights to all of the family’s property and he alone had any rights in private contract law.
There are records from Roman antiquity showing that the right of a father to have his own children executed, sons for rebellion or treachery and daughters for adultery, certainly were asserted. When a son married, the rights of his own father, or his grandfather if he still lived, were extended to his daughter-in-law, who through marriage was free from the rights of her own father, and became the property of the patriarch of her husband’s family. In ancient Rome, there were similar laws governing the rights of a man over his wife and also his slaves, if he had any.
The Patria potestas became diluted, and certain powers assumed by the State, by the time of the Classical period and especially in the time of the Empire, although many aspects of it remained in Byzantine law even in the time of Justinian. But understanding this ancient Roman law, and the fact that Roman law itself had originated in the older societies of the east, we can better understand many aspects of Scripture. Historians today claim that Patria potestas was unique to Rome, but that is not true, as many elements of it are found throughout Scripture.
For example, there is the authority of Abraham to place his adult son Isaac on the altar in order to sacrifice him to God, so Abraham had the power of life and death over Isaac, and Isaac complied, accepting his father’s authority. There is also the authority which Judah had exercised over his daughter-in-law Tamar, even though her husband was dead, and how he asserted the right to bring her to trial for adultery, where he himself sat as her judge. We also see later in Scripture, in Numbers chapter 30, that a wife or daughter is not even allowed to make an agreement or contract, which is a form of oath, without the approval of her father or husband, as he had the right to invalidate her oath.
In relation to the patriarchy, Roman law was not much different than the laws of God. Like Roman law, the laws of Yahweh also insist that sons obey their parents, and especially their fathers, or that they may be liable even to death, as we see in Deuteronomy chapter 21: “18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: 19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; 20 And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard [or whatever other sound reason they may have had]. 21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”
So once we understand that these circumstances reflected the culture of the time and the environment in which children were raised, where children had no alternative but to be obedient to the family patriarch, and especially to their own father, perhaps we may better understand the example of Christian humility taught by Christ to His apostles. This example is found in Matthew chapter 18, where immediately after Christ had told Peter how he should pay a tax so that they did not offend the Romans, we then read: “1 At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? 2 And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, 3 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.”
In the opening chapter of the epistle of James we see a further exhibition of such humility, as it should apply to adults, where we read: “5 Now if one of you wants wisdom, he must ask from Yahweh, who gives to all sincerely and without reproaching, and it shall be given to him. 6 But he must ask with faith doubting nothing. For he who doubts is like a wave of the sea being driven and blown about by the wind. 7 For that man must not suppose that he shall receive anything from the Prince [or Lord], 8 a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
A little child is blindly obedient to his father, learns from his father, and adores his father. A little child had no other choice but to be devoted to his father, and that devotion was expected so long as the father lived. If a man being a father takes himself seriously and answers his child honestly and with integrity, the child will also learn to doubt nothing from his father. A son who asks, but also doubts, is indeed double-minded because if he would doubt then he should not ask at all. That is how the children of Israel should treat Yahweh their God, their collective Father and their ultimate patriarch, or as the Romans would say, their paterfamilias, He who has the power of life and death over them all.
However asking of Yahweh, one must search the Scriptures for the answers, which is another example that Christ Himself had left to men. Men should not seek answers from God from their feelings, but from Scripture. For that Paul had commended Timothy, as he wrote in the final verses of his second epistle to Timothy: “14 But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; 15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction [as a child], for instruction in righteousness: 17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”
Rather than living by and teaching their children from the Scriptures, most men today are idolaters and they teach their children idolatry. Even if they consider themselves Christians in name, they are idolaters by example. So today, once children come to think for themselves and realize that the idols of their fathers are not real, or perhaps they were only men playing games for hire, they no longer believe their fathers and they no longer seek to learn from them. That is no wonder, as parents, even supposedly Christian parents, begin to teach their children idolatry even before they are weaned. So young children are taught about such fables as the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, and when they attain an age where they realize that they have been lied to concerning those things, it is no wonder that they no longer respect their parents, and it is only natural that they would rebel. Then by the time they are adolescents they are rebellious not only towards their own parents, but often towards all other forms of authority, and even against God.
Only a fool would teach children to believe in images which they may see but which represent things that do not really exist, and still expect those children to believe in a God whose image they cannot actually see but who does really exist. How could they believe in a God they cannot see if they were lied to about things which they were shown, but which they discovered were not real? So the parents who teach their children such lies ultimately defeat themselves by their own folly. In my own opinion, this form of idolatry is one of the most fundamental problems in our society today, as it causes adolescent children to distrust their parents and dispute their authority as soon as they begin to come of age.
Where we had left off in Wisdom chapter 15, Solomon was engaged in explaining how the potter had manufactured idols for his own gain, and competed in their manufacture with other craftsmen. So doing that, he made his own life to be of no value, having spent it in the promotion of idolatry, where we read: “10 His heart is ashes, his hope is more vile than earth, and his life of less value than clay: 11 Forasmuch as he knew not his Maker, and him that inspired into him an active soul, and breathed in a living spirit.” Men should adore and obey Yahweh, their Father, Maker and Patriarch like a little child, rather than try to make gods in their own image, or worship the gods which others have made for their own purposes.
The spiritual forces behind the idolatry of modern consumerism are no different than the motives and inspiration of Solomon’s potter, as concepts such as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are also mere representatives of modern covetousness, materialism and mercantilism. Therefore the love of money is the root of all evil, as the modern concept of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are the inventions of the merchants who wish to sell products, and even idols. So as we commence with this chapter of Wisdom, Solomon explains that same thing in his own assessment of the vanity of idolatry:
12 But they counted our life a pastime, and our time here a market for gain: for, say they, we must be getting every way, though it be by evil means.
The word for pastime, παίγνιον, is more literally a plaything or a toy. The word for life in the first clause is ζωή, so the translators rendered a near synonym, βίος, as time. This is appropriate as Liddell & Scott explain that ζωή describes a life but βίος as the course of life, livelihood or manner or means of living. Both of these words have taken modern forms in English. However the word πανηγυρισμός, which is market here, refers to the celebration of a πανήγυρις, which was a general assembly but also and especially a festal assembly in honour of a national god, according to Liddell & Scott. This word has also come into English, as panegyric, a public speech made in praise of a person, which is also a subtle form of idolatry. And while Santa Claus is seasonal, he certainly represents an idol as well as a sort of national god, at least here in America. The word ἐπικερδής, which is gain here, is an adjective which describes something that is profitable, especially from usury or through trade. So likewise the verb πορίζω, getting here, is to furnish, provide or acquire, usually through trade, among other possibilities.
Because of the archaic language of the second half of the verse, we shall offer our own translation:
12 But our life they reckoned to be a plaything [ἀλλ᾽ ἐλογίσαντο παίγνιον εἶναι τὴν ζωὴν ἡμῶν] and our time here a profitable festival [καὶ τὸν βίον πανηγυρισμὸν ἐπικερδῆ]. For it is necessary, they say [δεῖν γάρ φησιν], to acquire from anything, even if from of evil [ὅθεν δή κἂν ἐκ κακοῦ πορίζειν].
So essentially Solomon is explaining that the manufacturers and merchants of idols only care about making money, even if it is from evil activities. Here we should take serious note, that the idolatry and materialism of the modern world are nothing new, and that behind the idolatry of the ancient world were all the same motives for profit from greed by which we suffer idolatry today. Now Solomon describes its authors as the foremost of sinners, making idols for profit, once again employing a woodworker as his example:
13 For this man, that of earthly matter maketh brittle vessels and graven images, knoweth himself to offend above all others.
We would translate this verse to read, more faithfully to its meaning and its original word order:
13 For this man knows that he sins beyond all [οὗτος γὰρ παρὰ πάντας οἶδεν ὅτι ἁμαρτάνει], fabricating of earthy wood an easily broken and carved vessel [ὕλης γεώδους εὔθραυστα σκεύη καὶ γλυπτὰ δημιουργῶν].
If idolatry is promoted for the sake of profit for craftsmen and merchants, as the record of the silversmiths in Acts chapter 19 also attests, and if it is idolatry that leads to all other much more horrible sins, even things such as adultery, race-mixing and infanticide, as Solomon has explained throughout this discourse on idolatry, then perhaps we see that while idolatry is the vehicle for such profit, it really is the love of money which is the root of all evil.
Thus Paul of Tarsus had written in chapter 6 of his first epistle to Timothy: “7 For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. 8 And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. 9 But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. 10 For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.”
The apostle John had ended his first epistle with a simple admonition, in 1 John chapter 5: “21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” So as men we must ask ourselves whether it is worth the actual sacrifice of one’s own people in order to live life as a party for one’s own profit, even being willing to profit from evil, as Solomon has described here in verse 12. But now, consistent with his own historical context, he ascribes such behavior to the enemies of Israel:
14 And all the enemies of thy people, that hold them in subjection, are most foolish, and are more miserable than very babes.
I will offer my own translation of this passage also, even if it is only for the sake of clarity:
14 But all the most foolish [πάντες δὲ ἀφρονέστατοι], even suffering beyond the life of an infant [καὶ τάλανες ὑπὲρ ψυχὴν νηπίου], are the enemies of Your people [οἱ ἐχθροὶ τοῦ λαοῦ σου] who have oppressed them [καταδυναστεύσαντες αὐτόν].
During the four hundred year period leading up to the time of David and Solomon, it is evident in the Book of Judges and until the time of Saul that the children of Israel had at diverse times been ruled over and oppressed by the Moabites, Philistines, Amorites and others. This, in turn, was on account of the sins of the Israelites themselves, and although during the Judges period the sins of Israel are usually described only in a general sense, we read in both chapters 17 and 21 of the Book of Judges that “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” However whenever they had returned to Yahweh their God and repented, He delivered them from their oppression. But they never repented for long, so they became oppressed once again, following this cycle until they finally forsook Yahweh by demanding an earthly king. So under earthly kings, their condition had often been even worse than it was under the Philistines.
So this is the perspective from which Solomon had written here in Wisdom, in a time when the children of Israel had often and recently been ruled over by the surrounding nations, while as he writes the kingdom had only recently been assured to David his father and Solomon himself did not live in fear of being oppressed by those other nations. However after the time of Solomon, it is apparent that the children of Israel themselves, who had adopted the ways of the heathen and had turned back to idolatry and following the gods of the Canaanites, sinned in like manner and began to oppress the poor for themselves.
This we read in Amos chapter 2, which was evidently written about two hundred and fifty or so years after Solomon’s time: “4 Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have despised the law of the LORD, and have not kept his commandments, and their lies caused them to err, after the which their fathers have walked: 5 But I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem. 6 Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; 7 That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the meek: and a man and his father will go in unto the same maid, to profane my holy name: 8 And they lay themselves down upon clothes laid to pledge by every altar, and they drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god.” But Solomon in his time did not imagine, at least by this point, that the children of Israel were going to adopt the ways of the heathens, so he speaks only in reference to the other nations.
While it is evident that principle men among the children of Israel were oppressing their own people in those later years of the kingdom, Solomon did warn against such behavior on a more personal level, in Proverbs chapter 22: “16 He that oppresseth the poor to increase his riches, and he that giveth to the rich, shall surely come to want. 17 Bow down thine ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply thine heart unto my knowledge. 18 For it is a pleasant thing if thou keep them within thee; they shall withal be fitted in thy lips. 19 That thy trust may be in the LORD, I have made known to thee this day, even to thee. 20 Have not I written to thee excellent things in counsels and knowledge, 21 That I might make thee know the certainty of the words of truth; that thou mightest answer the words of truth to them that send unto thee? 22 Rob not the poor, because he is poor: neither oppress the afflicted in the gate [where trials were heard and judgments were made by the elders, usually by the market gate]: 23 For the LORD will plead their cause, and spoil the soul of those that spoiled them.”
Perhaps not being able to foresee the degree to which Israel would fall into idolatry after his passing, Solomon continues by speaking of the idolatry of the surrounding nations, who were the enemies of Israel, and as chapter 16 commences, he even contrasts the fate of Israel and their enemies when they are punished:
15 For they [the enemies of Israel are still the subject] counted all the idols of the heathen [or properly, nations] to be gods: which neither have the use of eyes to see, nor noses to draw breath, nor ears to hear, nor fingers of hands to handle; and as for their feet, they are slow to go.
The last clause may have been rendered more accurately: “… and as for their feet, they are idle for motion.” Solomon is only repeating a facet of the vanity of idolatry he mentioned in verse 5 of this chapter where we read of such idols that “5 The sight whereof enticeth fools to lust after it, and so they desire the form of a dead image, that hath no breath.” Now, in a statement which implies that man cannot impart breath to inanimate objects, he says of the same idols:
16 For man made them, and he that borrowed his own spirit [or breath] fashioned them: but no man can make a god like unto himself.
There is no word in the text for “his own”, and the second clause should read only “and he borrowing the spirit fashioned them”. The suggestion seems to be that when a man makes an idol, he seeks to make a god in his own image, but he cannot give it life. Solomon continues by speaking of the man:
17 For being mortal, he worketh a dead thing with wicked hands: for he himself is better than the things which he worshippeth: whereas he lived once, but they never.
In Jeremiah chapter 3, speaking of the sin of Judah as it was comparable to that of Israel, we read: “9 And it came to pass through the lightness of her whoredom, that she defiled the land, and committed adultery with stones and with stocks.” Stocks in that context are idols made of wood, and of course the idolatry led to a host of other and much more grievous sins which Solomon has also already described here, sins such as adultery and even spousicide, or more accurately, uxoricide, one’s killing of one’s own wife.
Through the worship of inanimate objects, man makes himself of less value than the objects. But just as wicked is the worship of lowly beasts, so Solomon continues:
18 Yea, they worshipped those beasts also that are most hateful: for being compared together, some are worse than others.
While the sense of the translation is acceptable, we would prefer to more accurately render the verse to read:
18 And they worship the most loathsome animals [καὶ τὰ ζῷα δὲ τὰ ἔχθιστα σέβονται]. For being compared in folly [ἀνοίᾳ γὰρ συγκρινόμενα] it is the worst of all others [τῶν ἄλλων ἐστὶ χείρονα],
As Paul had written in Romans chapter 1: “22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, 23 And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.” Solomon had also written in this manner near the beginning of his discourse on idolatry, in Wisdom chapter 13: “10 But miserable are they, and in dead things is their hope, who call them gods, which are the works of men's hands, gold and silver, to shew art in, and resemblances of beasts, or a stone good for nothing, the work of an ancient hand.”
Here, in relation to beasts, it is fitting that the word chosen to express the concept of being worse, or inferior, is a comparative form of the Greek words χείρων, since Χείρων as a proper noun was the name of one of the mythological Greek centaurs, beasts which were half man and half horse. According to Homer’s Iliad, Χείρων was the benefactor of the Greek hero Achilles and his father Peleus. If the classical chronologies are credible, as they appear to be, then the time in which the legend is set would predate Solomon by perhaps around two hundred and fifty years.
So now Solomon attests further:
19 Neither are they beautiful, so much as to be desired in respect of beasts: but they went without the praise of God and his blessing.
Once again, the sense of the translation is fine, but we chose to offer our own, as the thought is continued from verse 18, where Solomon attested that the worship of beats is the worst of follies:
19 nor is it so much as to be desired [οὐδ᾽ ὅσον ἐπιποθῆσαι], that the sight of a beast attains beauty [ὡς ἐν ζῴων ὄψει καλὰ τυγχάνει], but escapes even the approval of God and His blessing [ἐκπέφευγεν δὲ καὶ τὸν τοῦ θεοῦ ἔπαινον καὶ τὴν εὐλογίαν αὐτοῦ].
Here Solomon is apparently implying that a craftsman can seem to make the lowliest beasts appear beautiful, but in reality those beasts are not beautiful, and being ugly or loathsome it is evident that such beasts themselves had not been blessed by God. So therefore they should not be made into objects of desire or worship by men.
Now as Solomon proceeds in Wisdom chapter 16, he turns to describe the historical consequences of the worship of beasts in relation to both the children of Israel and their ancient enemies, of whom he speaks first and writes:
16:1 Therefore by the like were they punished worthily, and by the multitude of beasts tormented.
As Solomon uses lessons from the history of the Exodus throughout the closing chapters of Wisdom, this is a reference to the plagues of ancient Egypt, which was punished with plagues of frogs, lice, locusts, caterpillars and flies, among other things. Now Solomon contrasts this punishment to that of the rebellion of the Israelites while wandering in the desert:
2 Instead of which punishment, dealing graciously with thine own people, thou preparedst for them meat of a strange taste, even quails to stir up their appetite:
Here the word translated as quails is a plural form of ὀρτυγομήτρα, a compound word formed from the name Ὀρτυγία, or Quail Island, as an ὄρτυξ is a quail, and the Greek word for mother, which is μήτηρ. Where quails are mentioned four times in the Septuagint referring to this same event which Solomon describes, in the books of Exodus, Numbers and Psalms, this same word appears for s-l-v (שלו) in the Masoretic Text, which is transliterated as selav in Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon. In their Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell & Scott translate ὀρτυγομήτρα as “a bird which migrates with the quails, perhaps the land-rail…” and explain that the term was ludicrously applied as an epithet to Latona, or Leto, the mythological mother of Apollo and Artemis, as the Ortygian mother, citing the 5th century BC poet Aristophanes.
If the quail itself were meant, it seems unlikely that Solomon would have referred to “meat of a strange taste”, as quail had been a game animal in Europe and Africa from the earliest times. In a Wikipedia article for quail, which cites a bird conservation journal, we read that “The common quail is heavily hunted as game on passage through the Mediterranean area. Very large numbers are caught in nets along the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. It is estimated that in 2012, during the autumn migration, 3.4 million birds were caught in northern Sinai and perhaps as many as 12.9 million in the whole of Egypt.” But the corresponding Hebrew term does seem to mean quail, at least in modern times.
The two birds are distinguished in Aristotle’s History of Animals, and we shall read the corresponding passage, in part, from the Loeb Clasical Library edition: “When the quails have landed, if it is good weather or a north wind they pair off and are quiet, but if it is a south wind they are in difficulties through not being good fliers; for the wind is wet and heavy. Hence the hunters try for them during south winds. But in good weather they avoid flying because of their weight; for their body is bulky, hence they scream while flying, for they are suffering. Now when they make landfall from overseas they do not have leaders; but as they set off from this side the glottis sets off with them, together with the quail-mother and the eared owl and the kuchramos which actually summons them during the night; and when the hunters have heard its voice they know the quails are not remaining. The quail-mother is like the marsh-birds in form, and the glottis has a tongue that it puts out a long way. The eared owl resembles the owls and has tufts by the ears; some call it night-raven.”
Here in Aristotle we see that the ὄρτυξ is indeed the true quail, and the ὀρτυγομήτρα, or quail-mother as it was translated here, is some other bird which is more like marsh-birds than quail. However the Greek word for marsh-bird used by Aristotle in that passage is ambiguous. But in any event, we must agree with Liddell & Scott, that the ὀρτυγομήτρα is not a quail, but some bird somehow associated with quails. For that and other reasons we would translate verse 2, leaving the word ὀρτυγομήτρα untranslated, to read:
2 Instead of which punishment [ἀνθ᾽ ἧς κολάσεως], working kindly for Your people [ εὐεργετήσας τὸν λαόν σου] for their longing of appetite [εἰς ἐπιθυμίαν ὀρέξεως] You prepared ὀρτυγομήτρα, meat of a strange taste [ξένην γεῦσιν τροφὴν ἡτοίμασας ὀρτυγομήτραν].
If we had to translate ὀρτυγομήτρα, we would have to write quail-mother rather than quail, as it also appears in the Loeb Classical Library edition of Aristotle. This seems trite, but it also calls into question whether the Israelites in the desert were actually given quail to eat, or if they were being punished with some bird of “strange taste”, something to which Solomon attests here.
There were two occasions where the Israelites in the wilderness were fed with quails, or rather, with these strange quail-mothers. The first is recorded in Exodus chapter 16, where we read in part: “12 I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel: speak unto them, saying, At even ye shall eat flesh, and in the morning ye shall be filled with bread; and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God. 13 And it came to pass, that at even the quails [or quail-mothers] came up, and covered the camp: and in the morning the dew lay round about the host.”
The second is found later on, in Numbers chapter 11, where the children of Israel were rebellious once again and we read: “31 And there went forth a wind from the LORD, and brought quails [or quail-mothers] from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, as it were a day's journey on this side, and as it were a day's journey on the other side, round about the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth. 32 And the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails: he that gathered least gathered ten homers: and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp. 33 And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD smote the people with a very great plague.”
So here Solomon is certainly describing the event of Exodus chapter 16, and not that of Numbers chapter 11, as he attested that Yahweh God was working kindly, or perhaps dealing beneficently, with His people. Now his further description of the ὀρτυγομήτρα describes a hideous bird which certainly does not seem to have been an actual quail:
3 To the end that they, desiring food, might for the ugly sight of the beasts sent among them lothe even that, which they must needs desire; but these, suffering penury for a short space, might be made partakers of a strange taste.
While there is no word for beasts in the text, where this translation has “the beasts sent among them” we would write only “those sent upon them”, but we see a reference to the ὀρτυγομήτρα of the previous verse. For that and other differences, we will translate the verse for ourselves:
3 In order that they [ἵνα ἐκεῖνοι], on the one hand desiring food [μὲν ἐπιθυμοῦντες τροφὴν], on account of the ugly sight of the things sent upon them [διὰ τὴν εἰδέχθειαν τῶν ἐπαπεσταλμένων] then they would turn away from the necessity of appetite [καὶ τὴν ἀναγκαίαν ὄρεξιν ἀποστρέφωνται] while they having been a little needy [αὐτοὶ δὲ ἐπ᾽ ὀλίγον ἐνδεεῖς γενόμενοι] also had been partakers of a strange taste [καὶ ξένης μετάσχωσι γεύσεως].
So with this we may certainly be persuaded that the ὀρτυγομήτρα was not a quail, but some other bird which was probably not eaten regularly, but which was observed by the ancient Greeks to have migrated along with the quail, so that the Greeks called it a quail-mother, and so did the translators of the Septuagint. Now, speaking of the enemies of Israel, or in this case, the Egyptians, in contrast to the children of Israel in the wilderness Solomon writes:
4 For it was requisite, that upon them exercising tyranny should come penury, which they could not avoid: but to these it should only be shewed how their enemies were tormented.
Once again, for clarification, we shall translate the verse for ourselves:
For it was necessary for them [ἔδει γὰρ ἐκείνοις] that while unmerciful poverty came upon [μὲν ἀπαραίτητον ἔνδειαν ἐπελθεῖν] those ruling as tyrants [τυραννοῦσιν] on the other hand to these alone [τούτοις δὲ μόνον] it was shown [δειχθῆναι] how their enemies [πῶς οἱ ἐχθροὶ αὐτῶν] had been tormented [ἐβασανίζοντο].
While the love of money is indeed the root of all evil, that is associated with the love of luxury, personal comfort, covetousness and the satisfaction of one’s carnal desires. So in a parenthetical remark in chapter 3 of his epistle to the Philippians, Paul of Tarsus wrote “18 (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: 19 Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.)”
Here the children of Israel were sustained with manna in the desert, and they were unhappy with that. Mere sustenance was not enough for them, so they demanded meat, which in their condition certainly was a luxury, as they were basically only recently escaped slaves. So they were filled with the strange taste of a bird which was apparently not usually eaten, and in this analogy Solomon implies here that the strange taste should have taught them to be satisfied with the manna, while also demonstrating to them that while their enemies were punished with strange beasts, they themselves were preserved by them even if they did not receive to eat precisely what they had expected.
On account of these things we are led to rebellion against our parents, as Esau was a profane man and a fornicator and lost his inheritance, and as the children of Israel had often rebelled against Yahweh their Father, in spite of the fact that He often demonstrated His power of life and death over them all. And if we obey not our Father, how can we ever expect our sons to obey us?
Yahweh willing, we shall soon return to Solomon’s lessons from the Exodus as we proceed with Wisdom chapter 16.