At some point in my grammar school career, I studied the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Pyramids of Egypt, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, the Statue of Jupiter at Athens, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus at Rhodes, and the Lighthouse at Alexandria in Egypt.
A shipping port, Alexandria was one of the three major cities of the Roman world (Rome and Antioch were the others), and by some estimates it had a population of almost 1 million at its peak. It boasted a prominent university, a great museum, and a lending library of more than 400,000 volumes. Its inhabitants included scientists, theologians, poets, philosophers, artists and scholars of every kind.
Alexandria was situated on a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and Lake Mareotis, near the mouth of the Nile River. The harbor at Alexandria was largely man-made, and one of its extraordinary features was a tunnel that connected the city with the island of Pharos, where the great lighthouse stood. The lighthouse was 445 feet tall and lit the way for sailors to navigate safely to harbor.
In the midst of the cultural and scholarly mix of Alexandria lived one of the largest Jewish populations of the ancient world. The Jewish community felt both the influence and the conflict of living side-by-side with the Egyptian and Greek worlds, and some Jewish scholars sought to identify their own wisdom and law with Greek philosophy. It was in Alexandria that the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, and there that the Book of Wisdom was written in the first century B.C.
Ever since I discovered that the Book of Wisdom was written at Alexandria, I have wondered if its author was inspired in some way by the lighthouse. It was a triumph of human skill and prestige, in a city proud of its science and commerce. Its importance for Alexandria’s shipping industry must have made it a source of pride for everyone.
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary describes first-century B.C. Alexandrian society in words that could have been written about 21st-century America: “A variety of religions and philosophical systems offered wisdom or salvation or a view on the real meaning of life. There existed the new cosmopolitan and individualistic mentality, skepticism, and dissatisfaction with traditional ideas. It was a time of crisis for faith, which some Jews had abandoned, replacing it with pagan religions, secular philosophies, or their own superficial versions of these.”
Wisdom’s author believed that some in the Jewish community at Alexandria were on the brink of abandoning their faith in favor of the latest trends. He wrote the Book of Wisdom to encourage them to rediscover their roots and to remind them that true wisdom comes not from philosophy but from God — the same God who had chosen them, made them his people, and protected them time and again. Beginning with Chapter 11, he takes his Jewish readers on a tour of their own history, demonstrating how God had always been faithful to his promises.
Wisdom 18:6–7 reads: “That night was known beforehand to our ancestors, so that, with sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith, they might have courage. The expectation of your people was the salvation of the righteous and the destruction of their foes.”
“That night” was the night of the Exodus, when the Israelites ate the Passover supper and fled the life of slavery they had known in Egypt. At the Red Sea, they watched Pharaoh’s chariots on the horizon and waited confidently for God to rescue them, for he had already forced Pharaoh to free them by working 10 signs and wonders. In a sense, the author of Wisdom was saying, “Remember how your ancestors had courage and held fast to faith because they knew God was faithful to his promises? That same God is our God. We must remember his faithfulness, too!”
I wonder if he looked at the 44-story lighthouse in the Alexandrian harbor and thought, “Faith is like a lighthouse.” He held up God’s faithfulness as a bright lamp and said, “Follow this way. This is the way to truth and salvation.”
The Book of Wisdom ends with these words: “For every way, Lord! you magnified and glorified your people; unfailing, you stood by them in every time and circumstance.” (19:22)
In our day there are plenty of philosophies, ideas, distractions and superficial “spiritualities” vying for our attention and allegiance. They are fleeting substitutes for the real thing, and they soon disappoint. None of them has the power to save us or satisfy our deepest longing. It is God alone who stands by us in every circumstance and guides us where we long to be.
Thus, the author prays for God’s wisdom: “She is fairer than the sun and surpasses every constellation of the stars.” (7:29) “Send her forth from your holy heavens and from your glorious throne dispatch her that she may be with me and work with me, that I may know what is pleasing to you. For she knows and understands all things, and will guide me prudently in my affairs and safeguard me by her glory.” (9:10-11)
There are almost 30 lighthouses in the state of Washington, more than half of which are still active. Beautiful to look at, they can also enlighten our hearts to higher things. The Lord Jesus is not an idea, nor did he teach a philosophy. He is Someone, the Son of God, who calls, teaches and forms us, who (better than any lighthouse) shows us the way because he is The Way. He himself is the wisdom of God, and over and through all things, he is Love. May we always look to his light, and may we never let go of his hand.
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - October 2018