Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Read the book of Proverbs, plumb its theological depths and get wisdom!

Katharine J. Dell

The book of Proverbs is not the most widely read of the biblical books, although individual proverbs are widely cited:  eg “A wise child makes a glad father, but a foolish child is a mother’s grief” (10:1) or “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (10:4) and known to us in variant forms or paraphrases in English and other languages.  There are many proverbs to choose from, especially from chapter 10 onwards where we find saying after saying on many different subjects such as wisdom, wealth, poverty, laziness, work, relationships with others and so on. 

This leads to the misapprehension that Proverbs is a rather secular book.  It is true that much of the book represents practical advice on a whole range of subject of everyday concern to human beings, but God does appear from time to time, usually as the one who “directs the steps” of those on the journey of life who think they are making their own decisions: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (16:9).  God as creator stands behind the whole human enterprise and the ultimate wisdom is to “fear” him: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (9:10). 

So this is a well-rounded biblical book about human beings and living in the world and also about relationship with God and with wisdom (indeed with Woman Wisdom, a poetic representation of the quality that is desired (Prov 8)).  In this book, therefore, I offer a guide to the nature and character of Proverbs and bring out the relevance and interest of its key messages. 

The rich theological themes shine through its timeless proverbial advice.  The theme of Wisdom as a mediator between God and humanity stands at the centre of Proverbs 1-9, a profound theological prologue to the rest of the book. 

Looking at scholarly opinions of the book of Proverbs over the last couple of centuries, it will be seen that this ‘theology’ aspect of the book has not always been as valued as it might have been.  Scholars have been preoccupied with literary questions, structure, purpose and social context – all good topics that are also aired, but not the main focus of this book or this thesis. 

One fascinating modern concern is with intertextuality – how the book links up with other theological themes and ideas from elsewhere in the biblical canon and outside it.  Obviously there are other wisdom books with which to compare it, notably Job and Ecclesiastes and also the apocryphal wisdom books of Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon, but do the theological links go further than that?  I argue that they do, within the canon linking up with other texts and beyond the canon into other material that ranges from the scrolls at Qumran to the New Testament and well beyond when one includes the history of the interpretation of this book. 

So chapter 1 begins by exploring the issue of Proverbs as wisdom literature and its context within that group of books, it looks at the distinctive forms and content of the book and at the various possible context(s) for different sections of the work.  It also looks at the Solomonic attribution and at other attributions to different characters found in Proverbs and at questions of orality and literacy. 

The next chapter (2) looks at scholarly assessment of traditional issues in relation to Proverbs such as provenance, historical and cultural context and literary-critical history across the debates of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries leading into the twenty-first.  Beginning in the nineteenth century when the term “wisdom literature” was coined, changing ideas regarding compositional issues, original social context, and authorship and the effect of key Egyptian parallels on those debates are all discussed. 

Chapter 3 treats Proverbs 1-9, which demands a whole chapter because of its theological significance and maturity.  Both the educational context of the prose instruction texts and the figures of Wisdom and Folly in the poetry are essential parts of this discussion as is the place of God as creator/orderer and the notion of the fear of the Lord in its theological worldview. 

Chapter 4 ranges together the oldest proverbial material – i.e. the previously oral maxims that form the bedrock of the ‘proverb’ genre.  These are to be found in the main sayings collection in 10:1-22:16, also in 24:23-34 and in the many variants in 25-9 and in the miscellany of animal sayings and lists in Proverbs 30:7-33.  The role of all these sections in ethical guidance, itself not monochrome but characterized by difference and contradiction, is explored.  A fascinating aspect is connections with the ancient Near Eastern world and

So chapter 5 looks at the remaining sections of Proverbs largely in the light of Egyptian influence – Proverbs 22:17-24:22 is the prime example.  Proverbs 30:1-6; 31:1-9 and 31:10-31 are shorter and self-contained whilst being collectively disparate.  However, the ‘sayings of Agur’ in Prov. 30:1-6 forms a bridge towards the scepticism of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs 31:1-9 in its attribution to a foreign king has interesting implications for social context. The final section in Prov. 31:10-31 with its poem about a worthy woman contains key framing links to Proverbs 1-9 and the female figures within that section.  

Chapter 6 is at the heart of the book, focusing on a theological evaluation of the whole, evaluating scholarly discussions of this century that have strongly impacted this discussion, such as a relatively recent interest, for example, in the ‘fear of the Lord’ as a guiding theological principle of the book and in the place of creation in Proverbs. This chapter looks at the key intersection of theological themes with a fresh emphasis in scholarship on character formation, on the moral and educational goals of the book and at ideas about life as a journey. 

Chapter 7 looks at the interaction of Proverbs with other books in the canon, notably Ecclesiastes, Genesis 1-11, Deuteronomy and ‘wisdom psalms’.  The parallels with the book of Job are seen to have been overstated and the book more obliquely related to Proverbs than many have argued.  Questions of the place of Proverbs within a broader intellectual tradition are also explored. 

And the final chapter looks, necessarily in brief, at the afterlife of Proverbs, first outside the canon, notably in Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon and second in relation to wisdom finds at Qumran.  Beyond that, its place at key stages in the history of interpretation is discussed.  In theological terms, the figure of Woman Wisdom and her influence on the theology of the Christian church is of particular interest, from the New Testament to the thought of the early church fathers and beyond.

The study of Proverbs and its theology thus opens up all kinds of areas of interest and this book encapsulates many approaches, past and present, to this fascinating book that is a handbook for life:  as Woman Wisdom says “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may diesire cannot compare with her”.  The quest to “get wisdom” is as pertinent today as it has ever been.  Although therefore not the first text to which one might turn for inspiration, my contention is that the book of Proverbs contains hidden delights and many nuggets of theological inspiration.  Whilst the theological meat is contained in Proverbs 1-9, much of the rest of the book, especially when taken thematically, can offer profound insights, as I explore in this book.

About The Author

Katharine J. Dell

Katharine Dell is Professor of Old Testament Literature and Theology in the Faculty of Divinity, and Fellow in Divinity at St. Catharine's College, University of Cambridge. An inte...

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