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Old Testament: Proverbs

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Summary

Solomon, Ingobertus (ca 880)The book of Proverbs is a collection of essays, poems, and sayings expressing the wisdom of ancient Israel. Some of the material probably originated as folk wisdom, circulating in the family or the clan. Other parts reflect the life of the royal court. Arrangement began during the time of Solomon (about 961-922 B.C.E.), and the final edition was likely produced during the exile in Babylon (about 587-539 B.C.E.). Jeremiah 18:18 refers to the priest, the wise, and the prophet as leaders in Israel; the book of Proverbs is the product of the work of "the wise."

So What?

One does not need to deal with the big questions each day, like the meaning of life or the problem of evil or why bad things happen to good people. In day by day living there are all sorts of smaller questions: How should I handle my financial affairs? How should I relate to friends and colleagues? What about falling in love? What can I do to maintain a healthy marriage? How can I responsibly help the poor? These are the sorts of things that the book of Proverbs can help with. If the major theme in the Psalms is the praise of God in heaven, the chief concern of Proverbs is the pursuit of a happy and good life on earth.

Where Do I Find It?

Proverbs is the twentieth book of the Old Testament, falling immediately after Psalms and just before Ecclesiastes.

Who Wrote It?

The book came into being through a long process. Some of these sayings no doubt originated with Solomon or with those in his court (1 Kings 4:29-34; Proverbs 1:1; 10:1; 25:1). Much of it originated in folk wisdom of the sort found in all cultures at all times. Other parts were composed as essays or poems (chapters 1-9, 31). As is characteristic of such materials, the names of the composers and poets are mostly lost to us.

When Was It Written?

The original impetus for the collection of folk wisdom and also much new composition likely came during the time of Solomon, around 961-922 B.C.E. These materials were preserved, collected, expanded, and edited by persons in the royal courts (25:1). The book was likely put into its final form during the flurry of literary activity which took place in the period of the Babylonian exile and beyond (587 B.C.E. and after).

What's It About?

The book of Proverbs is a manual for conducting one's everyday affairs in a manner that is happy and successful in worldly matters and responsible before God.

How Do I Read It?

Proverbs lends itself to being read a chapter a day, matching the number of the day of the month (there are 31 chapters). The short sayings should be taken individually, like a variety of expensive chocolates in a gift box. Some may be enjoyed and savored; others can be swallowed quickly or even skipped over.

AUTHOR: James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

I.    Title (Proverbs 1:1)
As is often the case with biblical books, the first sentence stands as the title for the entire book (see also Ecclesiastes 1:1; Song of Solomon 1:1; Isaiah 1:1).

II.    Instructional Essays (Proverbs 1:2-9:18)
The thematic statement, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom," frames this opening section (1:7; 9:10). The purpose of the book is stated in 1:2-7. Dominated by imperative verbs, 1:8-9:18 takes the form of instruction.

III.    Proverbs Associated with Solomon (Proverbs 10:1-22:16)
This segment consists mainly of short sayings or "proverbs" dealing with a variety of topics. Such sayings are characterized by shortness, sense, and salt.

IV.    Words of the Wise (Proverbs 22:17-24:22)
A good many of the sayings in this section have parallels in the Egyptian wisdom collection, The Wisdom of Amenemope.

V.    More Words from the Wise (Proverbs 24:23-34)
Noteworthy in this short collection of sayings is the use of the "autobiographical stylization" form in 24:30-34.

VI.    Proverbs of Solomon Collected by Hezekiah's People (Proverbs 25:1-29:27)
Here is a collection of miscellaneous sayings gathered at the time of Solomon (about 961-922 B.C.E.), then preserved in the royal libraries and passed on with expansions and annotations at the time of Hezekiah (about 715-687 B.C.E.)

VII.    Words of Agur (Proverbs 30:1-33)
The identity of Agur is not known; of interest in this section is the series of numerical sayings in verses 7-9, 15-16, 18-19, 21-23, 24-28, 29-31.

VIII.    Words of King Lemuel (Proverbs 31:1-9) and the ABCs of a Capable Wife (Proverbs 31:10-31)
The identity of this king is not known. In the original Hebrew, each of the verses in 10-31 begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, for ease in memorization.

AUTHOR: James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

The short sayings (the bulk of the material in chapters 10-30) probably originated as folk wisdom, generated, preserved, and passed on in the spheres of the clan and the family. Every culture (including our own) is concerned with passing on advice to the next generations about how to get along in the world. In the ancient world this preserving and passing on of such wisdom took place within the family and the tribe; in our day we might speak of the family and various educational institutions. As this folk and family wisdom was passed on, it began to be written down and collected, arranged according to content or form or other criteria that are not clear to us. Such collections became the beginnings of the book of Proverbs. The book is framed by essays and longer poems (chapters 1-9 and 31) that appear to have taken written form quite early.

These collections seem to have been used in some sort of school. Several hints point in this direction. When young David arrived at the court of Saul, for example, he was described as already educated, "skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the LORD is with him" (1 Samuel 16:18). The various rhetorical forms found in Proverbs also point to the use of these materials in teaching situations.

It appears that the materials in Proverbs also functioned as part of an educational program in the royal court. Just as Moses was associated with biblical law and David with the Psalms, biblical wisdom materials are associated with King Solomon (Proverbs 1:1; 10:1; 25:1), who ruled over Israel from about 961 to 922 B.C.E. Solomon was an internationalist who held David's empire together (1 Kings 4:20-28). Such an empire required a huge staff just to keep it functioning. There was no doubt some sort of "internship" or training program for young people being prepared to take positions in Jerusalem. Hints throughout Proverbs suggest that the material functioned in such a manner. For example, directions about how to behave properly when sitting down to eat with royalty assume that those receiving this instruction will one day have such an opportunity (Proverbs 23:1-3).

AUTHOR: James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

•    Alphabetical acrostic poem. This literary genre appears in the Hebrew text in 31:10-31. The alphabetical acrostic was beloved by biblical writers (see Psalms 9-10; 25; 34; 111; 112; 145; and especially 119), probably as a memory-aiding device. Testimony to the effectiveness of the alphabetical acrostic is the fact that most persons of my generation can sing or recite from memory the words to "The Alphabet Love Song," "'A,' you're adorable, 'B,' you're so beautiful…," which was a hit in the late 1940s (words and original music by Buddy Kaye, Fred Wise, and Sidney Lippman; copyright © 1948, Music of the Times Publishing Corporation). Scholars continue to find new hidden or obvious acrostics in biblical literature.

•    Autobiographical stylizing (24:30-34). Every speaker uses the device of reporting a real or imagined first-person observation and then drawing a conclusion from it. "A funny thing happened to me on the way to this meeting…." Notice that the "punch line" in verses 33-34 must have been a saying that circulated independently; it occurs in another setting in 6:10-11. See also Psalm 37:25, 35-36 and Sirach 51:13-30 for further first-person materials.

•    "Better x than y" statements. Some of these forms were likely invented just for the sheer aesthetic delight, much as one might enjoy composing limericks or rhymes. Examples in Proverbs include: 16:8, 19; 17:1, 12; 21:19; 22:1; 25:7, 24; 27:5; 27:10b; see also Ecclesiastes 4:6, 13; 7:2, 3, 5, 8; Sirach 40:18-27. The genre might also serve a pedagogical purpose: one can imagine a teacher asking, "What is better than a house full of feasting with strife?" and a pupil answering, "A dry morsel with quiet." "And what does this mean?" the ancient or modern teacher might continue, setting the scene for a discussion of family life.

•    Gender issues. Since much of the material in the book was originally intended for young men who would grow up to take positions of leadership in the government, efforts must be made to address the materials in ways also relevant to feminine readers. The warnings against the "loose woman" in chapters 5 and 7 will obviously have to be considered in the context of sexual responsibility in general. When read in the context of family devotions, the reader may have to exercise editorial freedom to adjust or even excise certain passages.

•    Instruction or imperative speeches. These speeches in chapters 1-9 and 22:17-24:22 are dominated by the imperative mood. Crucial to the interpretation of each of these pieces is the identification of the subunits within each chapter. For example: chapter 1 consists of 1:1-7, 8-19 and 20-33; one's own sense of style or a good study Bible will be helpful in this task. The use of the imperative mood means that the material was designed to be used for providing advice or instruction to an individual or a group. While chapters 1-9 were formerly considered to be the latest material in the book, recent scholarship contests that view.

•    Numerical sayings in the form x, x+1. These were also probably composed for aesthetic delight; see 6:16-19; 30:15b-16; 18-19; 21-23; 24-28; 29-31. Once again the form lends itself to teaching, with the teacher asking: "Name three or four things that are small but wise" (30:24-28). Or "Name three or four things that evoke wonder" (30:18-19). Discussions would easily follow.

•    Riddles. There are a few examples of the riddle in biblical literature. Again, the form is a playful one that lends itself to a pedagogical setting: "Who has woe? Who has sorrow?...Who has redness of eyes?" (23:29). Note that this is a real question-and-answer riddle with the answer in 23:30-35. The piece is obviously a warning against excessive drinking; a discussion of proper use of wine could follow. Note other examples of riddles in Judges 14:12-14 and 1 Kings 10:1-3. First Esdras 3 and 4 shows some royal bodyguards passing the time with word games!

•    Short sayings in the form of antithetic parallelism. These dominate chapters 10-30 of the book. For clear examples note the sayings in 10:4, 5, 7; 11:1, 12, 13, 14, 15. These sayings can be taken one at a time, read, reflected on, or discussed.

•    Similes. A tip for interpreting similes (comparisons using "like" or "as"): begin by concentrating on the "like" half of the saying ("Like a gold ring in a pig's snout" 11:22; what is the point of picturing a gold ring in a swine's snout?) and then moving on to the comparison (in both cases there is a waste of beauty); see also 25:3, 11-14, 18-20, 25-26, 28, and others. These sayings could also point to a pedagogical setting, with the teacher asking, "Why are these two alike?" Thus, "Why is a word fitly spoken like a beautiful piece of jewelry?" and an answer, "Using just the right word at just the right time is an experience of truth and beauty."

AUTHOR: James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

•    The fear of the Lord. The sense of "fear" is not "to be afraid of" but to honor or respect. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" frames the first section of the book (1:7; 9:10; see also 15:33; Psalm 111:10; Job 28:28) and "fear of the LORD" runs through the entire collection like a pedal note on a pipe organ, describing the right attitude of the person seeking wisdom (see, for example, Proverbs 1:29; 2:5; 3:7; 8:13; 16:6).

•    Friendship. Living responsibly under God means practicing friendship and neighborliness. "A friend loves at all times" (17:17a); also 14:20-21; 18:24; 19:4, 6; 25:17; 27:6, 10, 14.

•    God the beginning. The first element in the wisdom that this biblical book advocates is a right relationship with God. The human side of this relationship is expressed in the notion of "the fear of the Lord."

•    God the Creator. The God encountered in Proverbs is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Put plainly in 3:19, "The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens"; see also 8:22-31. Absent from this book is a recital of God's mighty acts in history; these themes are dealt with elsewhere (see, for example, Deuteronomy 26:1-15; Joshua 24:1-28; Psalms 105; 114; 136:10-26; Hosea 11:1-11).

•    God the guide and sustainer. The Creator has not abandoned the creation to run on its own (deism). God is continually working out God's purposes in, with, and under the events happening on earth: "The human mind plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps" (16:9); see also 16:3; 19:21; 20:24; 21:30-31.

•    God the universal God of all peoples. The materials in Proverbs are not directed only to Israel. Wisdom does not cry out in the temples or synagogues, but in the public square, in the city gates, at the crossroads where people from all nations are gathered or passing through (1:20; 8:1-2). The wisdom teachers are open to good instructional materials from outside Israel; much of 22:17-24:22 has been appropriated from the teachers of Egypt.

•    Happiness. Living responsibly under God means finding happiness by getting wisdom. "She [wisdom] is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her" (3:15). Godly wisdom is the way to happiness. And the way to godly wisdom is to get started by honoring God (1:7).

•    Humility. Living responsibly under God means practicing humility. "Let another praise you, and not your own mouth…" (27:2); also 6:16-19; 16:5; 18-19.

•    Living responsibly under God. The major concern of the book is not to teach about God, but rather to teach how one ought to live a responsible and happy life on earth. Though much of the book contains what might be called secular wisdom, that wisdom is always "under God."

•    Marriage. Living responsibly under God includes enjoying and appreciating marriage as God's gift. "House and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the LORD" (19:14); also 5:15-19. Appreciating one's spouse is advised in the context of the alphabetical acrostic in 31:10-31.

•    Parents. Living responsibly under God means honoring parents. "My child, keep your father's commandment, and do not forsake your mother's teaching" (6:20); see also 6:21-22; 15:5; 22:6; 23:22.

•    The powerless. Living responsibly under God includes helping the poor, the widow, and the orphan, both as individuals (14:21; 21:13; 22:9; 22:22-23; 23:10-11; 28:27; 29:7; 31:20, among many more examples) and as individuals in government. Such help is understood as the special responsibility of those in positions of power. "If a king judges the poor with equity, his throne will be established forever" (29:14; see also 28:15; 31:8-9).

•    Sexual promiscuity. Living responsibly under God means avoiding sexual promiscuity. The consequences of such promiscuous living are nothing less than death (7:27 as part of 7:6-27); also 5:1-14, 20-23.

•    Speaking and silence. Living responsibly under God includes gaining skill in the use of words and of silence. "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver" (25:11). See also 11:13; 13:3; 14:7; 17:28; 18:2, 21; 21:23; 26:23; 29:11, 20; and Sirach 20:5-8.

•    Woman Wisdom. Wisdom is personified as a woman in Proverbs 1, 8, and 9 (and also in Job 28 and later in Sirach 24 and Wisdom of Solomon 7:7-9:18). Wisdom is a feminine noun in Hebrew (hokmah), as it is in Greek (sophia), but the personification of wisdom in the Old Testament is more than merely a grammatical issue. Woman Wisdom becomes a significant personal agent through which God works, especially in creation itself, in some ways not unlike the personified Word or Logos in John 1.

•    Work. Living responsibly under God means being diligent in one's work. "The hand of the diligent will rule, while the lazy will be put to forced labor" (12:24); also 6:6-11; 10:4-5; 12:11; 20:13; 26:13-16.

AUTHOR: James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

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