Chapter

Proverbs

Michael D. Coogan

in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version

Published in print February 2007 | ISBN: 9780195288803
Published online April 2009 |
Proverbs

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The purpose of Proverbs is to transmit insights whereby one might learn to cope with life ( 1.2–6 ). Its emphasis is on teachings gathered from traditions of the elders (e.g., 4.1–4 ) and from experience (e.g., 6.6–11 ). In contrast to many other books of the Hebrew Bible, major themes such as the covenants with Israel and with King David are absent; Temple worship and sacrifice are rarely mentioned.

Although some sayings are pragmatic observations, on the whole a moral ideal is inculcated. Guided by the principle that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” ( 1.7; 9.10; 15.33 ), the sages emphasize values such as honesty, diligence, trustworthiness, self‐restraint, and appropriate attitudes toward wealth and poverty. Proverbs acknowledges the limitations of human wisdom ( 16.1–2,9; 21.30 ) and offers a clear view of divine reward and punishment: Wisdom (generally equated with righteousness) brings success; folly (or wickedness) leads to destruction. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes, however, show that this schematic account of divine justice remained a problem for some sages.

The authorship of this composite work is multiple and essentially anonymous. Some of the material appears to be preexilic, but the book was completed in the postexilic period. The attribution to Solomon ( 1.1; 10.1; 25.1 ) derives from accounts of his legendary wisdom (1 Kings 4.29–34 ) and lends authority to the collection. The book is typical of the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible and also of the ancient Near East, especially Egypt (see further p. 721 hb). In fact, most scholars agree that 22.17–23.11 is in some way dependent upon the “Instruction” of the Egyptian sage, Amen‐em‐ope (ca. 1100 bce). Royal scribes are responsible for much of the material in Proverbs; hence the sayings sometimes reflect an elite point of view. But the learned editors of the book also preserve the folk wisdom of ancient Israelite villages and families.

The original audience of Proverbs was primarily young men preparing for adult responsibilities; a male‐centered perspective prevails. There is intense interest in finding a “good wife” (e.g., 12.4 ) and in governing a household successfully. In chs 1–9 , presented as a father's instruction to his son, the center of attention is a vibrant feminine personification of divine Wisdom. She is opposed to the foolish woman (ch 9 ) and to the complex, threatening “strange woman” (chs 2,5,7 ).

Proverbs contains several subcollections of short proverbial sayings framed by sets of longer wisdom poems in chs 1–9 and 30–31 . The book opens ( 1.1–7 ) with a title ( 1.1 ) followed by a programmatic statement of purpose and theme ( 1.2–7 ). Then comes a lengthy instruction in Wisdom ( 1.8–9.18 ), consisting of extended poems in second‐person address, with commands and admonitions usually completed by motive clauses. Personified Wisdom and her opposites, the “strange woman” and the foolish woman, are prominent. A collection of proverbial sayings follows ( 10.1–22.16 ), each of which is typically two lines in parallel thought, as is characteristic of Hebrew poetry. Antithetical parallelism (in which the second line contrasts with the first) predominates in chs 10–15 ; synonymous or synthetic parallelism (in which the second line repeats or extends the thought of the first) in 16.1–22.16 . Another collection is “the words of the wise” ( 22.17–24.34 ), which are teachings, chiefly brief admonitions, patterned after the Egyptian “Instruction of Amen‐em‐ope” (esp. 22.17–23.11 ), with an appendix of additional “sayings of the wise” in 24.23–34 . Another collection of sayings ( 25.1–29.27 ), credited to the “officials of King Hezekiah of Judah” ( 25.1 ), comprises two main subunits, chs 25–27 and 28–29 . The words of Agur and other sayings ( 30.1–33 ) are a wisdom dialogue and a prayer (vv. 1–9 ) followed by admonitions and numerical sayings (vv. 10–33 ). The words of Lemuel ( 31.1–9 ) consist of teachings attributed to King Lemuel's mother on sobriety and responsibility. Ending the collection, and expressing both closure and completeness by its acrostic form, is the section in praise of the woman of worth ( 31.10–31 ), a poem on the ideal wife, the embodiment of Wisdom.

The reader should begin with chs 1–9 , which form an extended invitation to the pursuit of Wisdom. Especially noteworthy are the programmatic statements of 1.1–7 and 8–19 and the speeches of divine Wisdom in 1.20–33 and 8.1–36 . While the sayings collections of chs 10–29 may at first seem randomly assembled, close reading reveals a variety of compositional strategies. The artful arrangement of discrete proverbs creates some coherence in the Hebrew by means of catchwords, plays on words, alliteration and assonance, and thematic associations. Some sayings have been repeated in other collections (e.g., 21.9 = 25.24 ); others are meaningfully paired (e.g., 17.27–28; 26.4–5 ), or gathered in thematic groups (e.g., 25.1–7 ). Although these verbal characteristics and thematic arrangements may have been an aid to memorization, the care given to these groupings indicates that the interpretation of the sayings is meant to be an exacting discipline (cf. 26.7,9 ). Individual proverbs are not simply to be mechanically applied; rather they should be read in creative tension with one another. Proverbs invites the reader to intellectual discipline as a life‐giving synthesis of keen observation and reflection, ethical concern, and piety.

Chapter.  15301 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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