About the Book
Proverbs is probably the biblical book that best characterizes the wisdom tradition. It appears to be the “guide for successful living” referred to in the introduction. Its primary purpose is to teach wisdom. It makes its appeal to various groups of people in different walks of life. It exhorts children (not necessarily or only young children) to heed the teaching of their parents ( 1, 8 ), and it directs citizens to act with respect toward the king ( 16, 10–15 ). It warns young men of the dangers of undisciplined living ( 5, 1–14; 23, 29–35 ), and it offers a portrait of the model wife for women to emulate ( 31, 10–31 ).
The book is composed of eight discernible collections of didactic teaching. These are quite distinct sections. Several of them are identified within the biblical text itself. Others can be distinguishable by means of their particular literary forms.
The first section consists of a general introduction to the entire book ( 1, 1–7 ) and a collection of instructions ( 1, 8f.18 ). It is in this section that we find the student addressed again and again as “my son” and exhorted to listen to the teaching that is advanced. Fifteen of the twenty‐three instances of this address appear in the first seven chapters of the book. The form clearly marks this section as instruction. The second section ( 10, 1–22, 16 ) is explicitly identified as “The Proverbs of Solomon” ( 10, 1 ). Each verse in this section is a saying in its own right whose meaning does not depend on what precedes it or on what follows it. Some scholars classify this as sentence literature. A second characteristic of this section is the antithetical nature of each proverb. (This poetic feature will be discussed below.) These characteristics clearly delineate the section as a distinctive collection.
It is possible that the third section of the book ( 22, 17–24, 22 ), instructions titled “The sayings of the wise” ( 22, 17 ), is patterned after a collection of an Egyptian scribe, Amen‐em‐Ope ( 22, 19 ). If this is the case, it is probably the most obvious example in the wisdom tradition of Israel's literary borrowing (see RG 236 ). The fourth section ( 24, 23–34 ), a group of sentences designated “also…sayings of the wise” ( 24, 23 ), is quite short. It is followed by a much longer collection of sentence literature ( 25, 1–29, 27 ) titled “the proverbs of Solomon” ( 25, 1 ). This collection is further linked with the sages of the court of Hezekiah, the Judean king who ruled around the turn of the seventh century BC. It seems that he inaugurated a period of religious reform and literary activity. The mention of his name in a collection of proverbs may be evidence of this movement.
The sixth section, called “The words of Agur” ( 30, 1 ), is the shortest ( 30, 1–6 ). It is followed by a collection of proverbs that are distinguished by their literary form ( 30, 7–33 ). These numerical proverbs, so named because of their use of numbers (x, x + 1), have much in common with the riddle. The latter is a form mentioned in one of the introductory verses ( 1, 6 ) and in other places of the Bible (see the riddle of Samson, Jgs 14, 12 , and the test of the queen of Sheba, 1 Kgs 10, 1 ), but are found nowhere in the book of Proverbs itself. The eighth and last section can be divided into two parts: instruction ( 31, 1–9 ), titled “The words of Lemuel” ( 31, 1 ); and a poem describing the ideal wife ( 31, 10–31 ).
The first verse of the book states that Solomon is the author of the proverbs. There was a tradition that this king was not only versed in human wisdom (see 1 Kgs 3, 16–18 ) but had encyclopedic knowledge as well (see 1 Kgs 3, 4–14 ). Ancient people believed that wisdom belonged by right to the god and, since the king was the human representative of the god, it was the special possession of the king. Since Solomon ruled during a time of splendor and enlightenment, he became known in popular devotion as the wise man par excellence. His reputation gave credibility to wisdom writing and, as more wisdom writing was attributed to him, his reputation grew. Ascribing Solomonic authorship to Proverbs gives the book the status of official teaching and credits the king with comprehensive wisdom. There is a possibility that the real royal authority behind the Proverbs is Hezekiah. Collections of proverbs could well have been compiled during the time of his religious reform, and he himself could have ascribed them to Solomon. We do not have enough information to reconstruct accurately this historical period. The book of Proverbs itself, however, attests to both Hezekiah's influence ( 25, 1 ) and Solomon's reputation ( 1, 1; 10, 1; 25, 1 ).
There is no English word that adequately translates the Hebrew mashal (translated “proverb”). It embraces a broad category of literary forms: oracle (Nm 23, 7 ); discourse (Jb 29, 1 ); parable (Ps 78, 2 ); taunt‐song (Is 14, 4 ). In each case there is a lesson to be learned, and for this reason the mashal might best be understood as “an example from life” intended to instruct. (Although some scholars understand mashal in the limited sense of a specific form, it will be used here as a general category unless otherwise indicated.) This is the word that identifies two major collections as “The Proverbs of Solomon” ( 10, 1; 25, 1 ) and from which the book itself receives its name. The root meaning of mashal is “likeness” or “comparison” as in “Like mother like daughter,” or in the contrast “Better safe than sorry.” As a comparison, it usually consists of two parts in some kind of poetic construction. The sentence ( 10, 2ff ), the purest form of the proverb, is distinct from the instruction ( 22, 17ff ), which is a much longer unit, sometimes almost a short essay. Sentence and instruction alike, however, are expressed in poetic form, the two parts being either compared or contrasted in parallel balance of “thought rhyme.” This parallelism is an easily recognizable feature of Hebrew poetry (see RG 238 ).
While there are various types of parallelism, it is usually some form of balanced equivalence or opposition. An example of the first is:
On the way of wisdom I direct you, I lead you on straightforward paths ( 4, 11 ).
An example of the latter is:
The memory of the just will be blessed, but the name of the wicked will rot ( 10, 7 ).
It is clear that the first type does not demand exact equivalence, nor does the second require precise contrast. Thus the second part of each of these poetic lines can be drawn from a wide variety of possibilities. The result is a collection of sayings, which are remarkable for their accuracy of insight and fluidity of expression. It is precisely this openness to interpretation and application that distinguishes a proverb in the strictest sense from a simple simile or metaphor whose interpretation is indicated and whose use is thereby limited.
It is important to appreciate the prominence of poetry in the Bible. Israel did not casually choose to express itself in poetic form. Its very perception of reality was poetic. The modern world of science and technology does not always grasp, much less appreciate, the aesthetic perspective of the ancient world. It insists on the language of exact sciences because it tends to perceive reality scientifically. Ancient Israel did not. Its encounter with reality was aesthetic and, therefore, it expressed itself in artistic thought patterns and literary forms. This does not minimize the validity of its perception and the truthfulness of its expression, or ours for that matter. They are two very different ways of looking at reality and talking about it.
The proverb itself serves two important functions. It depicts a situation from the past, and from this depiction it suggests a way of acting in the future. Understanding how this literary form works should help us to grasp the dynamics of the wisdom tradition. Wisdom is not a collection of quaint catchy phrases, which in some simplistic fashion suggest that life will unfold according to plan if we just follow the directions. Proverbs are artistically honed images of specific facets of life, and from these we can learn something about our own living. They direct our attention to the commonplace and there, usually by some type of comparison or contrast, provide us with an opportunity to gain insight into the complexities of life. Different proverbs do this in different ways. The wise person is the one who understands life from more than one proverbial point of view and can discern the appropriate way of responding to it.
Our comprehension of proverbs depends upon our ability to recognize what very different things might have in common:
The way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent upon a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden ( 30, 19 ).
What do these dissimilar realities have in common? It is apparent that none of these “ways” is a distinctly defined route. The kind of analogy present in a proverb operates according to the same principles, as do the riddles, which people might use to challenge each other's wit. Different realities have something in common; what is it?
Proverbs do not command, they persuade. They do not dictate what must be done. Rather, they describe how things work. Their purpose is not to indoctrinate, but to educate. They are not precepts that call for obedience, but adages that invite prudent response. The book of Proverbs clearly insists on the importance of living an ethical life. The ethics it promotes, however, issued from reflection on life rather than from conformity to law.
The Teacher and the Student
Scholars hold various opinions regarding the identity of the wisdom teachers and the settings within which they taught. Some believe that there was a professional class of teachers attached to the court and appointed to train young men in the arts of diplomacy. They claim that much of the wisdom that we find in Proverbs is specialized knowledge imparted in well‐defined schools. Others maintain that the elders of the family were the recognized teachers of wisdom who handed down the tradition to the next generation. These others believe that wisdom was part of the common cultural heritage of the people, and all members of the society were fashioned in its teaching.
All scholars agree that the primary education of ancient Israelite youth took place in the home and was the responsibility of the father and, as Proverbs 1, 8 tells us, the mother. (Some commentators do not believe that women played a role in the education of sons. They contend that the inclusion of “mother” is merely for the sake of poetic balance of thought [see parallelism above]. While that may be the case in this instance, such a poetic construction probably would not have been envisioned without some grounding in experience.) The pertinent information and operating principles of hereditary occupations were also handed down within the confines of the family, perhaps within an extended family. Such hereditary professions included the monarchy, the priesthood, and the scribal class. Education in these professions might well have been an extension of family training.
The biblical texts show that Israelite kings modeled their courts after the pattern of other ancient Near Eastern nations. They appointed men to advise them, to administer royal policies, and to keep official records. It is obvious that these men had to be trained. We should not, however, automatically conclude that such centers were the exclusive or even the principal settings for the teaching of wisdom. Some insist that since the relationship between teacher and student was analogous to that between father and son, (in patriarchal societies women seldom benefit from the educational system) the address “My son,” should not be viewed exclusively as familial. While this may be true, the inclusion of “your mother's teaching” ( 1, 8 ) argues for a family setting.
If wisdom is basically the way a culture addresses the fundamental questions of life, then all members of the society are trained in it and all possess this wisdom in varying degrees and live it out in their lives in diverse ways. The “way of wisdom” may have been very general and indistinguishable, or specialized and distinctive. Intelligence may be an innate quality, but wisdom is acquired by learning from others and from life experience. Such wisdom is neither static nor the exclusive domain of an official class. It grew up within the people, and it was their public property.
The Way of Wisdom
Wisdom came to be understood in several ways. Consequently, “the way of wisdom,” a phrase that scholars use, refers to the proper way of doing things, whether in human society, in the world of nature, or on the cosmic plane. The first of these is the kind of wisdom that has been described thus far. Often called practical or folk wisdom, it is primarily concerned with the consequences of social interaction. Since peace and harmony can exist only where some kind of social order is maintained, whatever guaranteed such order was pursued, and whatever threatened it was avoided. This, in fact, is the dimension of wisdom thinking that gave rise to the theory of retribution—the wise will enjoy peace and security; the fool will suffer the consequences of foolishness:
The virtue of the upright saves them, but the faithless are caught in their own intrigue ( 11, 6 ).
Proverbs declare that there are only two ways open to women and men: the way of the wise (those who learn from experience), and the way of the foolish (those who do not learn). Since successful living demands an ongoing search for meaning, one can never settle for the solutions of the past. New situations constantly present themselves; new choices must be made. The ever‐developing tradition of wisdom provides various examples of behavior that resulted in success as well as behavior that ended in disaster. The wise, enriched by this store of practical knowledge, will take to heart these lessons. They are the ones who have developed a certain facility in drawing from the accumulated wisdom of the past and, in an imaginative way, successfully bring it to bear on new situations. Thus they follow “the way of wisdom.”
A second kind of wisdom deals with our need to survive and prosper in the natural world. Reflective observation of nature and the movements within it led people to recognize a certain amount of regularity in its operations and similarity in its various manifestations. This regularity was charted, the similarities noted, and a kind of nature wisdom developed that was a precursor of the physical sciences. People learned how to live in harmony with nature and, through comparison and contrast, they drew lessons from nature for their daily lives:
Like snow in summer, or rain in harvest, honor for a fool is out of place ( 26, 1 ).
This too was “the way of wisdom.”
Some have questioned the religious value of folk wisdom, because there is no mention of God. The proverbs appear to be anthropocentric (human‐centered) rather than theocentric (God‐centered). We must be careful not to compare an ancient Near Eastern humanistic point of view with a kind of modern humanism that is faithless. Biblical Israel was not a secular society. It never questioned the divine power working to hold the world in proper balance. It might not understand God's actions, but it did not doubt God's power. The wisdom tradition was built on the conviction that God expected people to use their human abilities to the fullest. Whether or not there is explicit mention of God, Israelite wisdom was religious teaching, and the ethical orientation of the proverbs should be seen as evidence of their religious character.
Finally, people in the ancient Near East believed that there was a kind of wisdom that was beyond their grasp and their comprehension. Their belief rested on the conviction that there was some kind of cosmic order within which they lived, an order that was reliable though mysterious, an order that revealed the wisdom of the creator‐god. They maintained that this cosmic order not only predated the natural world but also was actually somehow responsible for its existence. The primordial wisdom associated with this cosmic order fashioned the world and keeps it functioning properly. Of all the kinds of wisdom, it alone contains the secrets of the universe and the complete answers to all questions. The sages knew that this was the only wisdom that would satisfy the human search for meaning. Since it was clearly beyond human reach, it was considered a cosmic reality and it was described as such:
From of old I was poured forth, at the first, before the earth ( 8, 23 ).
Creation is “the way of wisdom” on this cosmic plane. Israel believed that God was creator of all things, and thus it spoke of a theological dimension to each of these three manifestations of wisdom. Although theological expression is more explicit in later writings, it was never absent from Israel's worldview. The optimistic view of life that permeates the book of Proverbs flows from the conviction that there is an order to the universe and, with God's help, we can discover it, live in harmony with it, and thus enjoy peace and prosperity. This, above all, is “the way of wisdom.”
The Teachings of the Wise
Before we look at some of the specifics of the wisdom teaching, it is important for us to remember a few fundamentals of the movement. Here, emphasis is on the human person in general rather than on the nation as a collective group. Its scope is universal, not exclusively Israelite. The counsel offered addresses issues from everyday life rather than cultic experience. It is concerned with pragmatic ends, not transcendent values. If we expect this teaching to address questions not found within its range, not only will we find it wanting but also we might even fail to appreciate the riches that are to be found there.
Fear of the Lord
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Several variations of this familiar saying appear in the book of Proverbs (1, 7; 9, 10; 15, 33). This notion of fear is based on the recognition of the holiness of God. There may very well be a certain dimension of terror in those who behold the awesomeness of God and realize their own deficiency in the face of it, but this is not the primary meaning that “fear of the LORD” intends to convey. This fear is better characterized as awe and reverence than as terror and dread. Awe, not dread, is awakened when one realizes the transcendence of a God who is protective, not threatening.
Israel did not view this reverential fear as merely an attitude of mind. It was the foundation of its moral conduct. It included respect, loyalty, obedience, and covenant love. Owing to the special character of Yahweh, “fear of the LORD” (the Hebrew word that we translate as LORD is Yahweh, the name of Israel's God) becomes a uniquely Israelite expression. Eventually, this phrase became the summation of Israelite religion and piety. In Proverbs this “fear of the Lord” is linked with wisdom, which is practical knowledge that comes from reflection on experience. These are two quite distinct ideas that, when brought together, significantly reinterpret the meaning of wisdom. Comparing two proverbs can see this:
The beginning of wisdom is: get wisdom … ( 4, 7 ) The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the LORD … ( 9, 10 ).
In the first proverb, ordinary life is the source of wisdom. In the second, wisdom flows from religious faith. This change in perspective may be the result of sages trying to bridge the gap between the wisdom teaching that they held in common with other Near Eastern nations and that which was distinctively Israelite.
“Fear of the Lord” might be understood in another way. The Israelites believed that behind the breathtaking order of the universe was an all‐wise and all‐powerful God. They believed that the more they knew about their world, the more they would discover about God. The reverse was also held. Knowledge about God was the beginning of true knowledge about the world. The more one was committed to God, the more one was in harmony with the order placed in the world by this same God. Thus, the proper religious attitude toward God was the source of wisdom.
Training in Virtue
As stated above, the emphasis in the wisdom tradition is on the individual person rather than on the nation. This should not be understood as a kind of privatized individualism as we know today. It was precisely as a member of the covenant community that an Israelite searched for meaning in the events of life. The social ramifications of one's personal life were seldom far from the minds of the people. (It is merely for the sake of this investigation that we separate personal virtues from social virtues. The former characterize behavior in every kind of situation. The latter suggest specific social settings implied in the proverbs themselves.)
The connection between wisdom and personal virtue is clear and frequently stated. The way of wisdom is the way of virtue. It is also the only way to happiness (see Prv 10–13 ). Many proverbs praise self‐control, especially restraint in speech ( 21, 23 ). They direct one to speak with words that are pleasing ( 16, 24 ), not foolish ( 14, 23 ). They admonish discipline in other areas of life as well. For instance, the student is counseled: “With closest custody, guard your heart” ( 4, 23 ). Honesty ( 13, 5 ), diligence ( 6, 6–11 ), docility ( 13, 10 ), and humility ( 22, 4 ) are but a few of the virtues that are recommended to the young who, if they live their lives according to this counsel, are promised a good reputation ( 22, 1 ) and long life ( 10, 27 ). Once again we see that the people are advised to put their trust in the LORD and not be overconfident of their own ability ( 3, 5 ).
There are numerous warnings against the seduction of adulterous women. In a strict patriarchal society, the virtue of men is of primary concern; women are frequently regarded as property and are confined in restrictive seclusion in order to guarantee their fidelity and thus assure the legitimacy of the male's offspring. Only women of questionable virtue move freely in such societies, and these are precisely the women against whom the young men are cautioned (see 2, 16–19; 6, 20–35 ).
A significant amount of instruction is unmistakably social in its focus. It is bent on developing relationships necessary for societal tranquility. The proverbs themselves provide glimpses into the social settings within which they might be effective. It is obvious that the family plays a prominent role as the initial setting for education. Several proverbs admonish young people to heed the teaching of their parents ( 1, 8; 6, 20 ). The sages realized that the family is the foundation of society, and social virtues are cultivated there. They understood that the lessons of respect and obedience learned within the family go a long way in other less personal social situations. A fair amount of counsel about training and chastisement can also be found ( 22, 6; 13, 1; 24; 19, 18 ). This advice might be directed either to training within the family or to occupational education (see The Teacher and the Student).
The distinct influence of Yahwism may not be easily detected in some proverbial instruction, but the call to justice in Proverbs is similar to what we find in the covenant. It manifests itself in concern for the relationship between the rich and the poor. Despite the fact that riches were viewed as fitting reward for righteous living, the inherent dangers of possessing wealth were still acknowledged ( 28, 3.8; 11, 28; 21, 13 ). The poor were to be respected, for they too came from the hand of God ( 14, 31; 22, 2 ) and were sometimes more virtuous than the rich ( 28, 6 ).
Advice is given to both the ruled and the ruler. Subjects are told to esteem the king, because he exercises considerable power over them ( 16, 14f ). Kings, on the other hand, are bound to be fair and upright ( 16, 10–12 ). The demand that kings observe justice is part of the ideology of kingship throughout the ancient Near East.
Moral teaching such as this might presuppose an almost mechanical view of retribution. It suggests that the universal order upon which the world depends is neat and reliable. The rewards and punishments, considered the consequences of particular styles of living, seem almost to issue from impersonal laws inherent in the actions themselves, or they are deemed the direct intervention of a God who is executing justice. The book of Proverbs may appear to oversimplify the complexities of human life. It does not question the status quo. One will have to look elsewhere for a critique of social structures or of the prevailing philosophy of life. The applicability of the theory of retribution is not challenged in this book as it is in Job and in Ecclesiastes.
The Figure of Wisdom
An interesting feature of this book is the figure of Wisdom personified. In the very first chapter ( 1, 20–33 ), wisdom is depicted as a woman who goes through the city looking for disciples. Many of the traits that characterize her are found throughout the book in proverbs that describe either the wise teacher or the wisdom teaching itself. This woman is frequently contrasted with a second woman, Folly ( 9, 13 ), who attempts to seduce the simple into her ways. It is not unusual to find personification itself in Hebrew poetry. The prophets used it:
Break out together in song, O ruins of Jerusalem! (Is 52, 9 )
as did the psalmists:
Let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains shout with them for joy (Ps 98, 8 ).
What is unusual here is that wisdom is characterized as a woman. Several explanations for this have been advanced. Some believe that this is a remnant of ancient Near Eastern (even Israelite) worship of a goddess of wisdom. Others see it as merely a development from the feminine form of the word hokmah, “wisdom.” A widely accepted explanation for this might be found in the nature of the society itself. Wisdom was regarded as the most desirable possession. In this patriarchal male‐preferred society, it is understandable that what is desired would be personified as a woman. The same is true for folly. Women are no more inherently seductive than are men. However, they are a better representation of what men find enticing.
This might explain certain features of the figure of the woman in the market place ( 8, 1–21 ), but the real mystery lies in the identity of the figure that was present at creation ( 8, 22–31 ). Over the centuries this figure has been interpreted in various ways.
The Bible quite explicitly states again and again that God alone is the creator. However, there we also find Wisdom claiming to have exercised some role in creation ( 8, 30 ). This claim must be reconciled with the traditional Israelite faith. One way to do this has been to understand the figure of Wisdom as the personification of a divine attribute. According to this view, the personification is merely a stylistic feature of the author. Such an imaginative technique is not foreign to the Bible. The kindness, truth, and justice of God have also been personified (see Ps 85, 10–14 ).
As helpful as this explanation may be, it does not take into account the fact that Wisdom is identified as an entity separate from the creator ( 8, 22 ). Such a characterization is more than personification. It is closer to hypostasization (taking what is normally a personal trait and transforming it into a person with its own existence). It is apparent that once Wisdom is created, she has a life of her own. It is also clear that she is a creature with cosmic dimensions. She existed before the rest of creation, and she appears to be active beyond the confines of space and time. According to some commentators, this suggests a mythological origin. Such an interpretation would not be against biblical religion, for there are several other sections of the Bible that contain mythological elements (for example, the garden with the talking serpent [Gn 2–3 ]; the sea dragon [Is 27, 1 ]).
A third interpretation of this mysterious figure is gaining more prominence today. It claims that Wisdom was originally a goddess. Some say that she was a Canaanite deity; others argue that she was actually early Israelite. Scholars have long maintained that Israel moved from believing in many gods (polytheism), to acknowledging that other nations might have their gods but Israel would worship only one (monolatry), to insisting that there is only one God (monotheism). It is possible that the ancestors of Israel once believed in a goddess of wisdom from whom Woman Wisdom originated.
Whatever the origin of this enigmatic figure, she is no longer perceived as a goddess. She probably represents that inaccessible dimension of wisdom that all people desire but which resides with God alone, the kind of wisdom that is within creation but beyond us. This is the wisdom that explains the universe but which we cannot attain. The mysterious figure, whatever her origin, reminds us that the fullness of wisdom cannot be gained through human experience. It belongs to God.