Introduction to Proverbs
Anne W. Stewart
Course: Introduction to the Old Testament
Audience: Undergraduate Introduction to the Bible course
By completing this lesson, the student will:
- 1. Gain an introduction to the book of Proverbs, including its major themes and literary forms
- 2. Understand the ancient Near Eastern background of Proverbs
- 3. Explore the ambiguities of several proverbial sayings
- 4. Consider the social context of the sayings
- 5. Analyze the major units of the book
Guide to this lesson
As presented here, the lesson is likely too ambitious to be accomplished in one class period. The instructor is encouraged to adapt the plans accordingly, either to streamline and expand the introductory comments provided into a single lecture or to encourage class discussion in multiple sessions with the questions suggested. It may be appropriate to divide the material into two sessions: (1) an introduction to Proverbs and wisdom literature and in-depth discussion of Proverbs 1–9, and (2) consideration of the proverbial collections in Proverbs 10–31 and a discussion of wisdom in the modern sphere. The woman of substance poem in Proverbs 31 could fit into either session.
This lesson could be adapted for high school, college, and seminary students. High school instructors may wish to simplify the assigned reading, abbreviate the analysis of the textual units, and focus particularly on the interface between ancient and modern sources of wisdom. Seminary instructors may wish to assign additional reading, include some analysis of the text in Hebrew (particularly where the translation is disputed, as noted below), and incorporate discussion of theological interpretation of the book.
I. Background Material
The instructor should assign the combination of texts that will best suit the students' context.
- "Proverbs" entry in Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible, or (in shorter form) "Proverbs, The Book of" in The Oxford Companion to the Bible
- "Coining and Collecting Proverbs" in The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies
- "Characterizing Wisdom" in The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies
- NOAB Introduction to the book of Proverbs
- NOAB Introduction to the Poetical and Wisdom Books
- Thematic Guide to Wisdom Literature
- "Education" in A Dictionary of the Bible
- "Scribes and Scribal Techniques" in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East
Introduction to Wisdom literature: What is wisdom?
If the background reading has been assigned, solicit responses from the students about the nature and features of the Israelite wisdom tradition. Guide the discussion around at least four facets of wisdom: (1) a kind of literature [Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth), Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon]; (2) a tradition with a social location [rooted in homes, schools, courts]; (3) an international phenomenon [shared features with similar traditions in the ancient Near East]; (4) a particular worldview or set of values.
Depending upon how detailed the students' responses have been, the instructor may wish to provide a more formal introduction.
Within the Bible, Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes (plus Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox canons) are grouped as wisdom literature. Some scholars also consider certain psalms (e.g. Ps 1) and the Song of Songs as part of this literature. There are other examples of wisdom literature outside of the canon, including texts from Qumran and from the wider ancient Near East. Although these texts are of different literary genres, they share similar characteristics, such as an interest in the nature of order in the cosmos, a greater emphasis on practical experience than on divine revelation, and a didactic orientation that seeks to impart certain advice, skills, or character traits to the student. Wisdom literature reflects a variety of social settings, including family households, schools (see Sir 51:23), and royal courts. It is clear that Israel's wisdom tradition did not arise from thin air. Biblical wisdom reflects influence from didactic literature in Egypt and Mesopotamia. In fact, comparison of Israelite wisdom with those texts from elsewhere in the ancient Near East reveals another important dimension of wisdom—wisdom as a particular worldview or set of values.
If time permits, ask the students to compare chapters 1 and 7 of the Instruction of Amenemope (Egyptian, Ramesside period) with Prov 22:17–24:22 [especially 22:17–21; 23:4–5]. What similarities and differences can be identified? What values are important in each text?
For the full work and a brief introduction to the text, see Miriam Lichtheim, "Instruction of Amenemope." Pages 115–122 in The Context of Scripture. Volume 1: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World. Edited by William Hallo. Leiden: Brill, 1997.
Chapter 1 [III:8–IV:2]:
Give your ears, hear the sayings,
Give your heart to understand them;
It profits to put them in your heart,
Woe to him who neglects them!
Let them rest in the casket of your belly,
May they be bolted in your heart;
When there rises a whirlwind of words,
They'll be a mooring post for your tongue.
If you make your life with these in your heart,
You will find it a success;
You will find my words a storehouse for life,
Your being will prosper upon earth.
Chapter 7 [IX:10–X:15]:
Do not set your heart on wealth,
There is no ignoring Fate and Destiny;
Do not let your heart go on straying,
Every man comes to his hour.
Do not strain to seek increase,
What you have, let it suffice you.
If riches come to you by left,
They will not stay the night with you.
Comes day they are not in your house
Their place is seen but they're not there;
Earth opened its mouth, leveled them, swallowed them,
And made them sink into dat.
They made a hole as big as their size,
And sank into the netherworld;
They made themselves wings like geese,
And flew away to the sky.
Do not rejoice in wealth from theft,
Nor complain of being poor.
If the leading archer presses forward,
His company abandons him;
The boat of the greedy is left (in) the mud,
While the bark of the silent sails with the Wind.
You shall pray to the Aten when he rises,
Saying: "Grant me well-being and health";
He will give you your needs for this life,
And you will be safe from fear.
II. Introduction to Proverbs
Again, the instructor may wish to solicit input from the class to introduce the book, drawing particularly on their reading from the assigned articles. Ask the students to provide information on the following introductory matters or expand this material for an introductory lecture.
According to the book itself, it dates as early as Solomon's reign (e.g. Prov 1:1) and as late as Hezekiah's (Prov 25:1), but the ascription to Solomon is unlikely and the latest material likely postdates Hezekiah. It is nearly impossible to date single proverbs, mainly due to their oral origin and lack of historical references. Many show strong influence from Egyptian wisdom literature (see Prov 22:17–24:22 vs. The Instruction of Amenemope), but they also exhibit significant differences. Chapters 1–9 and 31:10–31 likely represent the final layer of the book. These longer poems serve as an introduction and conclusion to the entire collection and are usually dated to the Persian or Hellenistic eras.
Proverbs is an anthology of proverbial collections and can be outlined as follows:
- 1. 1–9. The First Collection, "The Proverbs of Solomon Son of David, King of Israel"
- 2. 10:1–22:16. The Second Collection, "The Proverbs of Solomon"
- 3. 22:17–24:22. The Third Collection, "The Sayings of the Wise"
- 4. 24:23–24. The Fourth Collection, "These Also are Sayings of the Wise"
- 5. 25–29. The Fifth Collection, "These are Other Proverbs of Solomon that the Officials of King Hezekiah of Judah Copied"
- 6. 30. The Sixth Collection, "The Words of Agur"
- 7. 31:1–9. The Seventh Collection, "The Words of King Lemuel of Massa, which His Mother Taught Him"
- 8. 31:10–31. The Concluding Poem, "The Woman of Substance"
For each theme, ask the class to discuss a particular proverb or text. These themes will be explored in further depth below, but set the framework for the lesson by a brief introduction here.
- 1. Pedagogy—the means and purpose of instruction
- a. Prov 1:1–6. According to this text, what is the purpose of the book? What should the student learn? What values are prized?
- b. Prov 13:14. What is the purpose of instruction? What is at stake?
- a. Prov 31:1–9. What kind of advice does this give to the king?
- b. Prov 25:6–7. What kind of advice does this give to those who work for kings?
III. Proverbs 1–9
Introduction: The Nature of Proverbial Poetry
The first nine chapters of Proverbs are a series of poems that provide instruction in the voice of a parent to his child. Other voices also enter and address the student—the voice of Wisdom, personified as an alluring woman, and the voice of a seductive temptress, termed the Strange Woman. Each of these voices (parent, Wisdom, Strange Woman) seeks to shape the student's character in a particular way. Each of the individual voices may be discussed as a class. Or the instructor may wish to divide the students into 3 groups, giving each group responsibility for one "voice.".
The Parent's World (Prov 1:8–19; 2:1–22)
- 1. What advice does the parent offer to the child?
- 2. How does the parent address the child?
- 3. Why should the child listen to the parent? (What kind of authority does the parent have?)
- 4. What virtues does he extol? Of what vices does he warn?
- 5. According to the parent, what tools will the student need to be successful in the world? How will he gain them?
Woman Wisdom's World (Prov 1:20–33; 8:1–36)
- 1. What advice does Wisdom offer the student?
- 2. How does Wisdom address the student?
- 3. Why should the child listen to Wisdom? (What kind of authority does Wisdom have? What is the nature of Wisdom's appeal?)
- 4. What virtues does she extol? Of what vices does she warn?
- 5. According to Wisdom, what tools will the student need to be successful in the world? How will he gain them?
- 6. What benefits does Wisdom offer the student?
The Strange Woman's World (Prov 7:6–27)
- 1. What advice does the Strange Woman offer the student? What does she want him to do?
- 2. How does the Strange Woman address the student?
- 3. Why should the child listen to the Strange Woman? (What kind of authority does she have? What is the nature of her appeal?)
- 4. Does the Strange Woman have the same sense of virtue and vice as the parent or Wisdom?
- 5. What benefits does the Strange Woman promise the student?
Questions for Discussion
- 1. How do you compare the various voices in Prov 1–9? Where do they overlap? Where do they contradict each other?
- 2. To what desires of the student do the voices appeal?
- 3. What kind of imagery do the poems use?
- 4. Given the various voices of chapters 1–9, what is the overall message of these chapters? How do they function as a whole?
IV. Proverbs 10–31:9
Introduction: The Nature of the Proverbs
A proverb is a short, pithy saying that encapsulates a piece of wisdom. Most of the sayings in the book likely originated in oral form, and in fact there are many proverbs in modern culture that are circulated orally. Ask the class to name some examples. Within the book of Proverbs, there are several different varieties of proverbial forms, including:
- 1. Saying: usually characterized by two parallel lines
- 2. Numerical saying: derives a point from a list of objects
- 3. Admonition: saying including a clause of motivation or explanation
- 4. Instruction: teaching in the voice of the parent or authority figure
For each theme, ask the class to consider a particular proverb. Alternatively, the instructor may assign different themes to different groups of students, asking them to prepare short presentations on the theme to their colleagues.
- 1. Pedagogy: Prov 22:6
- a. The Hebrew text of this verse, translated literally, says: "train a boy according to his way, and even when he grows old, he will not turn from it."
- b. What are some possible interpretations of this verse? (e.g. his way—according to his proper age, ability to understand, or intended profession; his way—the boy's own wishes; his way—the correct way) Consider the implications of translating the first part of the verse for understanding what the second half means.
- c. Using OBSO, compare several translations of this verse. How do the translators interpret the verse?
- d. Using OBSO, research ancient education. See especially "Literacy and Education" from The New Oxford Annotated Bible. What do we know about education in ancient Israel? In later periods?
- e. Whether in Israel or elsewhere in the ancient Near East, one of the things that would have been part of a scribe's education was learning to write the alphabet. Using OBSO, find some pictures of ancient scribal writing (e.g. those under Gezer Calendar, Ebla texts, Ugaritic).
- a. What kind of advice does this text give? To whom would it be addressed?
- b. Using OBSO, gather some data on ancient banquets. What would a banquet like the one described in Proverbs 23 look like? Who would attend? What would they eat? What would they drink? [See such articles as "Meals" or "Wine" in The Oxford Companion to the Bible.]
- c. Based on the information you found, read Prov 23:1–3 again and explain its significance. For whom would this be important advice?
- a. Using the Concise Concordance to the NRSV in OBSO, search for occurrences of the word "righteous" in Proverbs. What does Proverbs say about the righteous? What kinds of things happen to them? Next, use the NAB Concise Concordance to search for occurrences of the word "wicked." What does Proverbs say about the wicked? What kinds of things happen to them? Based on your research, what can you say about the sense of order in the world according to Proverbs?
- b. Prov 11:1. Using OBSO, gather some data on ancient weights and measures. What did they look like? How were they used? Why would accurate measures be so important? What might the accuracy of weights have to do with a sense of order?
- c. Prov 10:25. Can bad things happen to good people? If so, does order still prevail? How?
Additional Questions for Discussion
- 1. Ask the students to supply other key themes that they noticed from their reading.
- 2. Did you notice any contradictions among the sayings? If so, where (e.g. 26:4–5)? How can contradictions stand within one collection? What is a wise person to do?
- 3. How do you compare Proverbs with what you know of other genres of biblical literature (e.g. law, prophets, narrative, etc.)?
V. Proverbs 31:10–31
Introduction: The Nature of the Poetry
The final poem in Proverbs is an acrostic poem, meaning that each verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order, from aleph to tav (the equivalent of from A to Z in the English alphabet). Most scholars think that it is one of the later postexilic additions to the book.
The Woman of Substance
- 1. The Hebrew term ʾēšet-ḥayil is translated in many different ways. Using OBSO, have the students look up various translations of Prov 31:10. What does each imply about the character and nature of this woman by its translation?
- 2. In other contexts, the Hebrew term ḥayil can connote might, an army, bravery, and wealth. Men of ḥayil are usually depicted as people of strength, good character, wealth, or skill (see Exod 18:25; 2 Sam 23:20; 2 Kgs 15:20). Thus, some have proposed calling the figure of Prov 31 the "woman of substance" or the "woman of strength."
- 3. The poem praises the woman for many attributes. Ask the students to name her valorous features.
- 4. Given her characterization, how would you translate the verse?
The Socioeconomic World of the Woman of Substance
Christine Yoder argues that the depiction of the woman in Proverbs 31 reflects social and economic realities of women in the Persian period. For example, she notes the following correspondences:
- 1. 31:10b. Her worth is far beyond that of rubies. Persian period marriage contracts included an inventory of the woman's dowry, including the monetary value of all items. This account thus measured to some extent the "value" or "worth" of the woman as a wife. The most valuable wives, Yoder notes, brought wealth, property, and socioeconomic advantages to their husbands.
- 2. 31:11. Her husband puts his confidence in her, and lacks no good thing Marrying a valuable bride thus brought a husband greater financial resources such that he did not lack gain or good things. The husband was the caretaker of the woman's dowry and could use its value to his own financial advantage, though several legal documents from the Elephantine community indicate that a woman or her father could take legal action against the husband if he borrowed from his wife's dowry and failed to restore its value.
- 3. 31:13, 19, 22, 24. She looks for wool and flax, and sets her hand to them with a will, etc. Some women in the Persian period were skilled workers who traded their wares for profit. Possible trades for women included textile workers, goldsmiths, treasury workers, grain handlers, beer tenders, winemakers, and scribes. Women received food rations or payment for their work, depending upon their rank and degree of specialization.
- 4. 31:14. She is like a merchant fleet, bringing her food from afar. Archaeological evidence indicates that Palestine experienced great growth in international commerce during the Persian period. Grain, textiles, and ceramics, among other goods, were traded with merchants from other cities. Proverbs 31:14 suggests that this woman is engaged in such commerce.
- 5. 31:15c. She supplies the daily fare of her servant girls. Persian period women often supervised female workers or slaves on their estates. For example, Artystone, the wife of Darius I, provided grain rations for her workers and travel rations to those who conducted business on her behalf.
- 6. 31:16. She sets her mind on an estate and acquires it; she plants a vineyard by her own labors. Prominent and royal women of the Persian period did own property and were involved in managing, acquiring, and selling their real estate holdings.
- 7. While Yoder's survey does not require that the poem in Proverbs 31 itself necessarily dates to the Persian period, she convincingly demonstrates that the activities described in Proverbs 31 do align with socioeconomic realities of women in that period. It is important to note that this picture contradicts the common stereotype that women in ancient patriarchal societies were restricted to the domestic sphere and responsible for little else but raising children. Although not on equal footing with men, women—especially upper-class women—were also economic actors in the public sphere.
Questions for Discussion
- 1. How does the woman of Proverbs 31 compare with Woman Wisdom? What features do they share? How are they described differently?
- 2. How does this poem function as a conclusion to the book as a whole?
VI. Additional Assignments and Questions for Discussion
- 1. Compile a list of modern proverbs. Where do you see proverbs pop up in modern life? What themes are common to modern American proverbs? What kinds of values or worldview do these proverbs reveal?
- 2. What kinds of sources of wisdom exist in modern culture? Ask the students to analyze modern advertisements, magazines, internet sites, etc., as "sources of wisdom." What kinds of values or worldview do they promote?
- 3. In many cases, the sayings of Proverbs use images specific to their cultural and social origin. Do they still provide useful wisdom? Why/why not?
- 4. Choose several sayings from Proverbs and update them with modern images.
- Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985), pp. 55–61; 163–184.
- Michael Fox, Proverbs 1–9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible 18A; New York: Doubleday, 2000).
- Michael Fox, Proverbs 10–31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible 18B; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
- Carol Newsom, "Woman and the Discourse of Patriarchal Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs 1–9," in Gender and Difference (Peggy L. Day, ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 142–160.
- Christine Roy Yoder, "The Woman of Substance (אשת־חיל): A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 31:10–31," Journal of Biblical Literature 122/3 (2003): 427–447.