Traditionally, wisdom literature has been overlooked in biblical studies because of a perception that its subject matter is too secular. The treatment of such pragmatic issues as how to succeed in business or how to raise a child seemed to be quite removed from the revelatory character of other sections of Holy Writ. The rediscovery of piety in the wisdom literature by writers such as von Rad has helped to shed light on the spiritual underpinnings of its corpus.
The historical context (time of composition) of the Book of Proverbs has been an issue from the early days of critical biblical studies. Certain scholars had previously assumed a post-exilic period of authorship for the Book of Proverbs, due to their perception of a strain of retribution in the writing, though evidence in this direction is weak.1 The discovery of parallel passages in the Egyptian Amenomope, which dates much earlier,2 has placed the Book of Proverbs reasonably in the context of the Monarchical Period,3 as the opening lines of the book state.
The Book of Proverbs, though claiming to have King Solomon for its main author, is not limited to courtiers in the scope of its applicability. The great range of subjects treated by the Proverbs provides evidence that they may have been intended for a more middle-class, urban audience.4 Thus we are confronted not with the limited spirituality of the ruling class, but with a more general piety directed towards the average person and to the average Israelite family. The education of children is a dominant theme in the Book of Proverbs, which may be extended to discipleship in general, associated with a lifelong quest for wisdom.
The Fundamental Imperative
The didacto-pedagogical character of the Proverbs places a unique burden on the child, or the disciple, proportionate to the responsibility he or she acquires with an increasing measure of contact with the greater social sphere. Contrasts are made between the righteous and the wicked, admonitions are given to work hard and to avoid temptation, and contingencies are presented to ensure precautionary behaviour. Appeal is made to a rational order, both in nature and in society, whereby various parallelisms are employed to illustrate a point of ethical teaching.
The discernment of the orders of creation is related directly to a consideration of the Creator, Yahweh. Thus, the first step in obtaining wisdom is to “fear Yahweh”.5 Whether the knowledge sought lies in the area of business, or marriage, or any other perceivedly “secular” pursuit, ultimately the source for choosing the correct behaviour comes from Yahweh. This can be traced through the method of transmission, as well. A child learns from its parents, who learn from their clan or their society, who are chosen by Yahweh. Thus the supposed disconnect between theology and practical advice on living in the Book of Proverbs is seen to be due to a failure to understand the implicit theological context in which the Proverbs are presented.
While other spiritualities in the Old Testament may have as their fundamental imperative an explicit reference to Yahweh, such as “love Yahweh” in theDeuteronomical, or “be holy, as Yahweh is holy” in the Priestly, the Book of Proverbs commands one to “seek wisdom and righteousness”. Yet it is the fear of Yahweh which constitutes the “beginning of wisdom”.6 This fear is not to tremble in the presence of the Almighty, but to pursue a healthy respect for, and commitment to His ways.
A variety of terms can be derived from the opening lines of the Proverbs (1:1-5), which indicate the purpose of the book:
“Proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel, to learn wisdom and discipline (mūsār).
To understand (hābīn) sayings of understanding (bīnā),
To acquire discipline (mūsār) in good sense (haśkēl), integrity (şedeq), justice (mišpāţ) and honesty (mēšārīm).
To give shrewdness (´ormā) to the simple, knowledge (da´at) and prudence (mezimmā) to the young.
Let the wise man hear and increase his learning (leqah), and the man of understanding (nābōn) acquire guidance (tahbulōt).”7
Discipline (mūsār) is similar to the commands of Torah, but is given here a special connotation regarding the correction of mistakes,8 of the pointing of one in the right direction, of reproof. The transmission of wisdom is effected through a mediator who has already grasped the principles of action being alluded to. Thus the voice of the father is heard, providing advice to his son on prudent behaviour in respect of companionship: “My son, if sinners entice you...” (Prov. 1:10-19). The motherly persona is presented as Lady Wisdom herself, willing to nourish the youngster's hunger and thirst for righteous knowledge: “Wisdom has built herself a house...” (Prov. 9:1-6). The use of the parental voice places the instruction of the Proverbs in a familial context, clothing its precepts in a pedagogical hue wherein the cultivation of receptivity in the pupil is key.
The project of discipleship moves from the familial context to a broader one, one which places the pupil requiring instruction under a wise teacher. In fact, Wisdom itself becomes the voice in the pupil's heart, after a process of internalization of the Logos. The Logos, the first of all God's works, is understood to be more than a word; it is a discourse which plays in the creation, conversing with those who seek out truth.
Belief in the existence of divine orders in all spheres of life admitted for the audience of Proverbs credence in norms of behaviour which carried a reward for adherence, or a penalty for neglect. Israeli society during the pre-exilic Monarchical period was a relatively stable world governed by cause-and-effect relationships, both in the so-called “natural” systems, and in the more stochastic universe of social relations. Thus one could hope to reap both from the fields of wheat and from the fields of friendship in just proportion as to what kind of seed was sown.
The disciple of wisdom was to gain mastery in life and overcome its “numerous difficulties.”9 The disciple was to be prepared in advance with the knowledge required to obtain favour in the eyes of Yahweh and the people: “Never let faithful love (hesed) and constancy (emet) abandon you” (Prov. 3:3). The key here is that these are qualities of Yahweh and were therefore of the highest priority. To follow these instructions was to ensure a right relationship with one's neighbour.
There is little appeal to Mosaic authority (i.e., the Decalogue) in the Proverbs. Rather, the ethical imperatives they contain were norms set by family, or by culture.10 It is of some interest that the command to love Yahweh is also absent in the Proverbs. Love was to be directed, rather, towards wisdom. Perhaps such a practical concern was born of an era in which Yahweh's presence was not of such great value as His material blessing. In any case, Solomon's pursuit of wisdom afforded him many contingent rewards such as wealth and peace at his borders. The disciple of wisdom could expect these, and long life, as well.11 The application of the Proverbs was pragmatic, not theoretical.
Good and Evil
Wisdom in the context of the Proverbs was seen as choosing the good and hating evil. These were understood to be real forces which affected such practical areas of concern such as business, family, happiness, reputation, wealth, children, etc. Good and evil were therefore defined in terms of causing harm or blessing- primarily an outward evaluation.12
The cause-and-effect relationship between one's behaviour and one's prosperity were assumed. Thus a good man would see blessing, while an evil man would see curses. A person was intimately linked with the forces of his or her environment in a kind of a karmic accountability. Here we do not see the good in misfortune, as in Job, or the leveling justice which grants the same experiences to all, found in Ecclesiastes. Moreover, the characterization of the righteous one (şaddĭq), was established by communal norms.13
A person living at the time would have understood the world to be made of a divinely-imposed order, into which he or she would have to become reverently assimilated to see any kind of blessing. The proper discernment ofgood and evil would have been an art of no small value in the face of “unending variability... and in view of man's aptitude for self-deception.”14 That the faculty for correct judgment was available to the majority was not questioned, but its cultivation was made into a lifelong pursuit:
“Acquire wisdom, acquire understanding, never forget her, never deviate from my words.
Do not desert her, she will keep you safe; love her, she will watch over you.
The first principle of wisdom is: acquire wisdom; at the cost of all you have, acquire understanding!”15
The Book of Proverbs touches on a variety of themes which pertain to many areas of practical living, from diligence, to prudence, to continence, to honesty. While a complete listing would be by no means exhaustive, we will limit our study to a brief overview of certain ideas which are repeated via various formulations. In this exercise, it will be of some help to quote the proverbs in question directly, for what could be more pithy and concise a presentation of a maxim than the maxim itself? Indeed, the expression of a very pure distillation of experience sticks well in the mind of the disciple.
Hard work was given much value in the Book of Proverbs. Riches were said to flow from industry, while laziness led to want: “A slack hand brings poverty, but the hand of the diligent brings wealth” (Prov. 10:4).
While prosperity was a welcome blessing, one was not to trust in material things, especially not in comparison to wisdom: “Better gain wisdom than gold, choose understanding in preference to silver” (Prov. 16:16). Riches also had their proper place; if they caused trouble, for example, one was to prefer poverty: “Better to have little and with it fear of Yahweh than immense wealth and with it anxiety” (Prov. 15:16).
It might seem in some places that the Proverbs were standing in judgment against the poor, as having lack in just proportion to laziness. It would be unfair, however, to ignore the defense they found in other places: “One who despises the needy is at fault, one who takes pity on the poor is blessed” (Prov. 14:21). Thus there was a sense of social justice, along with exhortations to diligence.
As in many proverbs, the wise were contrasted with the foolish. The wise showed proper care in judgment, while the foolish did not: “The simpleton believes any message, a person of discretion treads a careful path” (Prov. 14:15). Again: “With people of discretion, wisdom keeps a watch over their conduct, but the folly of fools leads them astray” (Prov. 14:8).
This conservatism was extended to speech: “The discreet keeps knowledge hidden, the heart of fools proclaims their folly” (Prov. 12:23). The value of constraint in revealing a matter was not to be underestimated: “A guard on the mouth makes life secure, whoever talks too much is lost” (Prov. 13:3). The hope for a fool was found in silence: “If the fool holds his tongue, he may pass for wise; if he seals his lips, he may pass for intelligent” (Prov. 17:28).
One of the great temptations for the youth being addressed by the Proverbs was immorality. The worst kind of seductress was the foreign woman, a sign of the xenophobic attitude prevalent in the day: “...to keep you, too, from the woman who belongs to another, from the stranger, with her wheedling words...” (Prov. 2:16).
Whatever the nationality, the disciple was urged to avoid adultery at all costs: “the lips of the adulteress drip with honey... but in the end she is bitter as wormwood... her feet go down to death” (Prov. 5:3-5).
This restraint does not lead necessarily to prudishness. Indeed, one was to: “Find joy in the wife (one) married in (one's) youth” (Prov. 5:18b).
Though wealth was looked upon favorably, it was not to be obtained by deceit: “A false balance is abhorrent to Yahweh, a just weight is pleasing to him” (Prov. 11:1). Reward was not far from the successful observance of the command, nor judgment from rebellion: “The honest obtains Yahweh's favour, the schemer incurs his condemnation” (Prov. 12:2).
Chief among the virtues was humility, which always left room for correction and reproof, ensuring adaptation and growth. Conversely, self-sufficiency choked out any possibility of an external, objective perspective: “Pride comes first; disgrace soon follows; with the humble is wisdom found” (Prov. 11:2).
The practical side of humility involved receiving input from others: “Insolence breeds only disputes, wisdom lies with those who take advice” (Prov. 13:10). This theme was repeated: “Whoever rejects discipline wins poverty and scorn; for anyone who accepts correction: honour” (Prov. 13:18).
While the Proverbs do not make many direct references to Yahweh, in comparison with some other books in the Bible, the backdrop of the collection assumed, especially in the prefacing statement, “fear Yahweh”, a heart grounded in His ways: “Commend what you do to Yahweh, and what you plan will be achieved” (Prov. 16:3). Indeed, the power of hesed was understood as supernatural: “By faithful love and constancy sin is expiated” (Prov. 16:6a).
Though it was mentioned briefly elsewhere in this paper, one cannot overlook the character “Wisdom”, as it is personified in Prov. 8. Of special note is the treatment of Wisdom as a companion to Yahweh during the creation:
“I was beside the master craftsman,
delighting him day after day,
ever at play in his presence,
at play everywhere on his earth,
delighting to be with the children of men.” (Prov. 8:30-31)
The invitation to embrace Wisdom carries with it a notion of the Lady's graciousness. That is to say, she may be found by those who seek for her diligently, and she bestows her gifts on all who ask. The contingencies of action-and-consequence may find their basis in a logic of merit, but wisdom is a gift, available free for the one who would have its blessings. There is, of course, a responsibility to act on the knowledge obtained, without which wisdom would be just that- fruitless knowledge.
Returning to the subject of the disciple, one finds a tension based in the use of the female symbol (perhaps the only ideation to which young men are irresistibly drawn). The contrast between the Lady Wisdom and the foreign harlot delineates a battle for the soul of the foolish youth. Both cry aloud in the streets for his attention (Prov 7:11,12; Prov. 9:3), and both try to draw him through various preparations (Prov 7:16,17; Prov. 9:2,5).
While there may be hope for the merely simple, who may go either way, due to a lack of knowledge, the wholly foolish seem beyond hope, for they act rebelliously even in the face of knowledge.16
The spirituality of the Book of Proverbs was overlooked for a long time, because its contents seemed too secular. Recent scholarship has revealed a backdrop of inner devotion to the ways of Yahweh, especially in light of the fact that the first principle of securing wisdom was to “fear Yahweh”. Thus a recognition of parallelisms in the various orders of creation, from the so-called natural to the more subtle domains describing the webs of relationships which comprised Israeli society during the time of the Monarchy brings one to the conviction that there was no separation between sacred and profane for the audience of Proverbs. All business was carried out under the light of Yahweh's dominion, whether agriculture, or marriage, or childrearing.
The fundamental imperative of the Book of Proverbs is “seek wisdom”, an enterprise which is carried out over the course of a lifetime, beginning in the home, through the transmission of knowledge from parent to child, and eventually moving to an internalization of the Logos, who serves as master to the disciple of wisdom.
The context of many proverbs was one of contingency. Contrary to Hume, Israel in the Monarchical period subscribed implicitly to a link between cause and effect, not just in the sphere of nature, but in personal life, as well. Thus behaviour was responsible for one's lot in life, whether wealth or poverty. Such a deterministic view did not conflict with the will of the Sovereign, but rather pointed to ever-deeper truths to be discerned: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, it is the glory of kings to search a matter out.”17
Good and evil were defined in terms of wisdom and folly, and a number of examples repeated over and over to show the pattern from behaviour to outcome. The personification of Wisdom revealed a gracious nature, which extends her invitation to all.
Irwin, W. 2005. Old Testament Spiritualities. Toronto: St. Michael's College, lecture notes.
von Rad, G. 1972. Wisdom in Israel. Trans. J.D. Marton. London: SCM Press.
1 G. von Rad. 1972. Wisdom in Israel. Trans. J.D. Marton. London: SCM Press, p. 8.
2 Ibid, p. 9. The passages of interest are found in Prov. 22:17-23:11.
3 Ibid, p. 11. This pertains more precisely to Prov. 10-29.
4 Ibid, p. 17, 84.
5 Prov. 1:7.
7 von Rad,p. 13.
8 Ibid, p. 53.
9 Ibid, p. 74.
10 Ibid, p. 75.
11 Prov. 3:16.
12 von Rad, p. 77.
13 Ibid, p. 78.
14 Ibid, p. 80.
15 Prov. 4:4-7.
16 W. Irwin, 2005. Old Testament Spiritualities. Toronto: St. Michael's College, lecture notes, 17 November, 2005.
17 Prov. 25:2