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«Introduction to the Book of Proverbs The book of Proverbs is not easy to read or study. A first impression is that it is an anthology, a book to be ...»

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Introduction to the Book

of Proverbs

The book of Proverbs is not easy to read or study. A first impression

is that it is an anthology, a book to be sampled, not read straight

through. This is how it is most often used—like a coffee-table book,

to be dipped into for the tidbits that fall from its pages. But what in

reality is it? How did this book come to be?

A Book of Poems

Proverbs is a book of poems—not proverbs in the traditional sense.

We usually think of a “proverb” as a short, pithy saying. This is not what we encounter in the book of Proverbs [Genre Issues]. While many of its teachings are short, many are not, and “pithy” is not an apt description for most of them. For this reason the book’s name in English is misleading. It comes from Proverbia, the name of this book in the Latin Bible of the Middle Ages. Proverbia is a translation of the first word in the Hebrew text, mišlê, a plural construct of mashal

-- (mašal). A mashal is a poem-like composition (either short or long) that states a truth or teaches a lesson in a picturesque, compelling manner.

Hebrew poems of this type are almost always made up of two-line verses (or couplets), in which the first line states a point one way, and the second states it another way (or presents a new thought). Each line is short, not more than four or five words (in Hebrew). The book’s opening poem in 1:8-9 is an apt illustration. Line 1 states: Listen...

to your father’s instruction; line 2 repeats: and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. This is followed by a second couplet: They will be 15 16 Introduction to the Book of Proverbs a garland to grace your head (line 1), and a chain to adorn your neck (line 2). Poems like this might be as short as a single couplet— as in the case of the 375 two-line poems in the book’s main collec- tion (10:1–22:16)—or couplets might be combined to make longer poems like those in chapters 1-9.

A Book About Wisdom A mashal can be a poem on almost any topic. The opening verses of Proverbs state that its “poems” have a single theme and purpose: for attaining wisdom (1:2). Wisdom as we think of it is also not exactly what is meant by the Hebrew term ¤okmah used here. Its nearest equivalent in English is “expertise” (Fox: 33). Two of its most often used synonyms are “knowledge” and “understanding” (also translated “discernment”). So one might say that the wisdom referred to is the “expertise” that results from having “knowledge” with “understand- ing” (8:12). “Knowledge” in Hebrew refers to data derived from the bodily senses: eyes, ears, nose, touch (Harris: 366). “Understanding” has to do with the way knowledge is assessed and applied. When we have factual “knowledge” and know how to understand or use it, this in general is the “wisdom” this book is talking about [Words for Wisdom and Folly].

At the time it was believed that thoughtful learning of this kind occurred in the “heart,” not the head, and that the wisdom thus acquired was manifest in different ways [“Heart”]. Those with expertise in a trade are called wise (Exod 31:2-4). A king whose heart is skilled in interpreting laws and discerning good and evil is also thought to be wise (1 Kgs 3:9). Solomon is eulogized as one of the wisest kings of the time because of his knowledge of plants, animals, birds, reptiles, and fish (4:33); for his giftedness in composing thousands of songs and proverbs (4:32); and because of his insight (3:28) and breadth of understanding (4:29).

A Manual for Educating Young Men The teachings in Proverbs represent yet another type of wisdom: the kind young people need as they approach adulthood. Aristotle in book 6 of his Ethics defined wisdom of this kind as “prudence,” knowing “what is conducive to the good life generally” (Aristotle: 209).

Something similar is said in Proverbs about its teachings. They are for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young (1:4). In this verse the word young is more accurately translated as a young man. The book’s teachings are often addressed to a Introduction to the Book of Proverbs 17 son or sons (1:8; 4:1). These sons are not small children but young men on the verge of (or at the beginning of) adulthood, like the young man so vividly described in Proverbs 7.

This focus on “sons” gives the impression that Proverbs might have served (initially at least) as a manual of instruction for young men. This impression was confirmed in 1923 with the discovery and publication of a booklet from ancient Egypt entitled The Instruction of Amenemope (Pritchard: 421-24). Amenemope was an employee of the Egyptian government living in the twelfth century BC. His “Instructions,” written initially, he informs us, for his own son to “steer him in the ways of life,” were widely used in schools where young men were trained for the Egyptian civil service. It was noted right away how strikingly similar Amenemope’s teachings were to those in Proverbs, especially those in 22:17–24:22 (see commentary notes). A number of teachings in both books imply a governmental setting. Many additional manuals of this kind from this ancient world have been found and published (Walton: 172-78). An initial edition of Proverbs might well have been written for a similar purpose and setting, as a manual for steering young men “in the ways of life” who were preparing to be civil servants (see the reference to “teachers” and “instructors” in Prov 5:13).

That instructions of this kind were needed in the days of Solomon is apparent from what is said in 1 Kings about his vast national enterprises. At one point, we are told, 550 officers were employed (9:23) to supervise 3,300 foremen, who were in charge of 70,000 carriers and 80,000 stonecutters (5:15-16). In “grandeur and complexity” Solomon’s kingdom rivaled that of ancient Egypt (Heaton: 59). Small wonder that right at this time “the ‘wisdom’ of Egypt, upon which its scribal meritocracy had been nurtured for centuries, first gained entrance to Israel and began to shape its instructions, literature and intellectual life” (Heaton: 12).

Two Editions: Solomon and Hezekiah In our Bibles the book of Proverbs is not as it was in the time of Solomon. We know this to be the case because of editorial headings interspersed throughout, seven in all (1:1; 10:1; 22:17; 24:23; 25:1;

30:1; 31:1). One of the things they do is call attention to two very different time periods when the book’s teachings were compiled and published. The headings in 1:1 and 10:1 refer to the book’s origins in the days of Solomon. The heading in 25:1 alludes to a supplemental block of proverbs added in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah. This implies that there were, at least, two quite distinct editions of this

18 Introduction to the Book of Proverbs

book: the one created in the time of King Solomon, and another enlarged edition produced two centuries later during the reign of King Hezekiah.

A thesis of this commentary is that the Hezekiah Edition of this book (as called below) was created by adding supplements reflective of the views of those who did this to an intact older version of the Solomon Edition (as called below). For the most part these supplements are readily identifiable and were inserted into all parts of the book’s older edition [Solomon Edition]. That Proverbs might have been enlarged in this manner during Hezekiah’s reign is not a totally new idea; as mentioned, the book itself indicates as much, and this too is what the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud imply when they ascribe it to “Hezekiah and his Colleagues” (Baba Bathra 15a). Heretofore, however, scant attention has been paid to this aspect of the book’s composition. This commentary is the first to present a detailed study of the book from this perspective [Distinctive Approach].

Approaching the book in this light was for me personally a godsend that helped resolve many otherwise puzzling features of the book. Naturally, I hope others too will be helped by this approach.

With this in mind I now take some first steps in introducing the Hezekiah Edition of Proverbs as I have come to understand it.

The Hezekiah Edition of Proverbs Hezekiah’s Reforms To begin to understand the Hezekiah Edition of Proverbs, it is essential that we pay attention first of all to what is known about King Hezekiah himself. The book of 2 Kings informs us that this king was unique among the kings of Israel for his devotion to “the commands the LORD had given Moses,” and for the sweeping religious reforms enacted as a consequence (2 Kgs 18:1-6). With respect to these reforms, the text says, “There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah” (18:5). In the course of his reforms, he rid Judah of the cult objects of alien gods, including “the Asherah poles” of the Canaanite mother goddess Ashtoreth (18:4). Surprisingly, a prior account in 1 Kings states that it was none other than King Solomon who first inaugurated this practice of worshipping alien gods in Israel of the kingdom period. He did this after he himself became a follower of the goddess Ashtoreth (consort of Baal, the Canaanite storm and fertility god) and of “Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites” (1 Kgs 11:5). As a consequence shrines devoted to these and “other gods” became commonplace in both Israelite kingdoms, and remained Introduction to the Book of Proverbs 19 so for some two centuries, with catastrophic moral and spiritual consequences. In the eighth century Assyrian armies destroyed the northern kingdom and were threatening to do the same in Judah (2 Kgs 17). This is the context in which the books of Kings tell us of Hezekiah’s reforms (2 Kgs 18).

Hezekiah’s “Men” The period of Hezekiah’s reforms is increasingly recognized as a time of intense literary activity. In support of these reforms, a collection of books was produced that would over time be expanded and become the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity [Hezekiah Reform Literature]. In this light the brief reference in Proverbs 25:1 to the men of Hezekiah producing an enlarged edition of Solomon’s proverbs takes on enhanced importance. It signifies that it too was published at this time in support of these reforms.

Who were the “men” who did this? It is often thought that they were scribes or sages [Modern Study], but this is not how they are designated. In 2 Chronicles 29-31 we are told of “Levites” whom Hezekiah had “consecrated” at the beginning of his reign (29:5) and who were his associates in all aspects of his reforms. Were these the “men” referred to in Proverbs 25:1? It becomes apparent that the Levites were Hezekiah’s men when we consider their history. First Kings informs us that when Solomon became king, he banished certain priests from Jerusalem because they had opposed him as successor to his father, David (2:26-27). The leader of the banished group, we are told, was Abiathar, the sole survivor of the Levites of Shiloh who traced their appointment as priests in Israel to Moses (Exod 32:29; Deut 10:8; 33:8-11). Earlier, David had installed two priesthoods in Jerusalem, one headed by Zadok, the other by Abiathar (2 Sam 8:17). So, when dismissing the priesthood headed by Abiathar, Solomon was (in effect) dismissing the Levites whom his father had appointed and whose primary loyalty was to the teachings of Moses. The Zadokite priests who remained in Jerusalem (1 Kgs 2:35) worshipped Yahweh the God of Israel, but not (at the time) to the exclusion of other gods (as taught in the Decalogue [Ten Commandments] that Moses advocated). This is why they raised no objections when Solomon permitted other gods to be worshipped (Miller 1994:40-48).

Against this background the report in 2 Chronicles 29-31 of Hezekiah’s action in enlisting Levites as colleagues in his reforms is both credible and illuminating. To reverse Solomon’s policies, Hezekiah needed associates who were as loyal to Moses’ teachings as

20 Introduction to the Book of Proverbs

he was—and who would act meaningfully and decisively on his behalf.

The Levites, even though banished from the national shrines of both Judah and the northern kingdom, Israel (see 1 Kgs 12:31), still remained faithful in their respective communities to their calling as custodians of Moses’ teachings. At Hezekiah’s request they returned to Jerusalem and were restored to temple duties. Some of them were set apart to be devoted full time to the study of “the Law [torah or teachings] of the LORD” (2 Chr 31:4-8). This group of state-supported Levites, I suggest, were the “men of Hezekiah” who created the Hezekiah Edition of Proverbs.

Agur Son of Jakeh Proverbs 30:1 refers to Agur son of Jakeh. That the book even mentions an individual other than Solomon is significant, but that his name appears in chapter 30 may also be important, since the editor or author of a scroll was sometimes recognized at its end (cf. Ps 72:20; Eccl 12:9-14). There are reasons for thinking that chapter 30 is the last chapter of the Hezekiah Edition, with chapter 31 being added later (see following section). Agur’s name and sayings appearing at this point in the edition might well be an indication of his leadership role in creating it.

The poems of Agur that follow in 30:2-33 (the first two in particular) are fully consistent with this suggestion. The first poem (30:2-6) is termed an oracle or inspired message (30:2; cf. Isa 13:1). Agur thereby addresses two individuals, Ithiel and Ucal, possibly professional scribes involved in the literary productions of the time. His message to them is that despite the fact he (Agur) has not learned wisdom (studied it professionally as they have), there is something he does know about: Knowledge of the most Holy One I know (30:3;

for this translation, see notes). Then, in language echoing that of Moses in Deuteronomy, he chides them for their futile speculations about what is in heaven (30:4; cf. Deut 30:11-16) and concludes with a warning not to add to God’s words (30:6; cf. Deut 4:2; 5:22;


From this oracle and Agur’s devout prayer in 30:7-9 (where he expresses the fervent wish to remain faithful to Yahweh whatever may come), it is evident that Agur too (like the men of Hezekiah referred to in 25:1) was a devout Levite. He was deeply engrossed in the words of God revealed to Moses [Distinctive Approach].

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