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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament
The Oxford Annotated Bible editors describe the book of Proverbs as “a small library of teaching materials of different origins and dates.” It is thought to have been assembled in the fourth or third century BCE by a teacher charged with the instruction of young men as evidenced in the repeated address to “my son.” While there are repeated attributions to Solomon, the book obviously has more than one source. Best known for its multitude of short aphorisms, Proverbs is similar to wisdom literature from other ancient Near East cultures. In fact Proverbs 22:17-23:4 appears to have been based on a twelfth century BCE Egyptian text, the “Instruction of Amen-em-ope.”
Proverbs has four separately titled main parts with five shorter appendixes. The introduction states the purpose of the book, “That men may know wisdom and instruction, understand words of insight, receive instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; that prudence may be given to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth - the wise man also may hear and increase in learning, and the man of understanding acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles” (1:2-6).
Proverbs takes a fundamentally optimistic view while warning against the many temptations, especially sexual, that may lure a youth away from a good and prosperous life. Adherence to moral standards is rewarded with happiness and success. The first part (chapters 1-9), which may be the work of the teacher who assembled the book, is a warning and admonition to a youth about to enter adulthood. Most interesting is the personification of Wisdom as a woman who existed before Creation: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. . . . When he established the heavens I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep . . . then I was beside him, like a little child (alternate reading of the Hebrew); and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always” (8:22, 27, 30). Over time, this personified Wisdom would come to be associated with the Greek philosophical concepts of wisdom (“sophia”) and reason (“logos”). The Gospel of John famously opens with a description of Jesus as, in the original Greek, “Logos,” an idea that would be further developed in Christian tradition. In some forms of Christian mysticism Holy Wisdom (Greek: Hagia Sophia) comes close to being a fourth person of the godhead. Several modern mystical traditions represent her as a goddess.
But back to the ancient book of proverbs! Intermingled with praise for the female personification of Wisdom are repeated warnings against “loose” and evil women. Which set me to wondering if, following the example of the prophets who metaphorically equated Israel’s unfaithfulness to Yahve with “harlotry,” Proverbs might be doing something similar. Although it may simply be that the personified descriptions of Wisdom were interpolated with the more mundane warnings against sexual temptation. However that may be, Proverbs repeatedly expresses concerns about relationships with women. There are repeated warnings that “it is better to live in a corner of the housetop . . . in a desert . . . than to live with a contentious woman” who is likened to “a continual dripping on a rainy day” (21:9, 19; 25:24; 27:5).
Offsetting the misogynistic verses are admonitions to follow the counsel of one’s mother, the advice of a mother to her son who is identified as an Arabian king, and, closing out Proverbs in an acrostic poem, a glowing description of “A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels” (31:10).
Chapter 30 opens with a rather confusing dialogue begun by someone who has “not learned wisdom” and lacks “knowledge of the Holy One.” In verses that resemble those of Job he asks who knows God. The apparent reply (no speaker is identified) is less poetic, an assertion that “every word of God proves true. . . . Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you, and you be found a liar” (30:16).
Most of the book is a recitation of proverbs attributed to Solomon. An older person well experienced in life and the ways of the world is advising an inexperienced young man as to how he should live his life. The focus is on what constitutes a morally upright and responsible life with warnings against doing otherwise. Reward for righteousness and punishment for moral failings will come as success or failure in this life. While there are reminders of the importance of a right regard for the Lord, the author’s primary arguments are based on wisdom and experience rather than prophet-like revelations. Some of the proverbs have become well known even to people who may have no other knowledge of the Bible and no awareness of where the sayings they repeat originated.
A few of the proverbs made me pause to wonder just what they were saying, but for the most part the admonitions and advice offered are straightforward, what one might expect to hear from someone committed to the status quo who is tasked with preparing young people for adult life. It is, as Rabbi Sandmel puts it, “sound and good; it is also safe and prudential, without the slightest element of risk.” It is also rather unimaginative and not likely to inspire anymore than does the advice of the average high school teacher to the average high school student. Sandmel sums it up: “The book itself never strays from that which is right, socially acceptable, and useful. It is an edifying and sound book, but unimaginative righteousness may, for some, become tedious.” As is probably true of most things that begin with something like, “Hear my son, your father’s instruction, and reject not your mother’s teaching” (1:8).
© 2021 James Moyers