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Proverbs, Book of


The Hebrew title of the Book of Proverbs is mišlê š elōmōh. The Greek renders the Hebrew title as Προιμίαι Σο(α) λομ[symbol omitted]ντος. The title in the Vulgate is Proverbia Salomonis, whence comes the English title, Proverbs of Solomon, or Proverbs. Neither the term parable nor proverb does justice to the Hebrew term māšāl (plural, mišlê ), which has a more comprehensive signification. Māšāl denotes a relatively brief saying, universal in scope, but quite specific as to the object described and its application. Such wisdom sayings are usually cast in one of the molds that has come to be called parallelism (see hebrew poetry). Satire, hyperbole, irony, and wit are often present. As for the subject matter of such a "proverb," few areas of human activity or interest seem excluded. For information concerning the nature and rise of wisdom literature in the ancient Near East and in Israel, see wisdom (in the bible).

This article treats the relation of Solomon to the book and gives an analysis of each of the nine collections of proverbs.

Solomonic Authorship. In Israel, as in her neighboring lands, the literary genre of "proverbs" or "wisdom sayings" is very old. And, in Israel, as in the other ancient Near Eastern lands, the life-setting of the proverbs was the royal court (see 1 Kings 4.2934; 10.19). The titles of the collections referring to solomon, King Lamuel, and Agur reflect this courtly background and indicate that the compiler is publishing the sayings as a collection of royal wisdom.

The book is called Proverbs of Solomon because it contains collections of wise sayings which were anciently attributed to Solomon. Collections II (10.122.16) and V (25.129.27) are the most ancient in the book and are ascribed to Solomon. In view of the many references made in the Bible to Solomon's wisdom, and in view of all that is known of the influence of Egyptian institutions on Israel's court life (see egypt, ancient, 3), it cannot be doubted that Solomon and the learned men around him promoted the wisdom movement in Israel; but it is impossible to determine their precise contributions. The tradition that is represented in these collections goes back at least to the time of Solomon, who may have composed or collected the original nucleus. Collection I (1.19.18) is also attributed to Solomon in 1.1, but this collection is generally considered to be postexilic, even though its phraseology depends on earlier biblical books.

The book as a whole represents the final stage of a long tradition which was put in final form in postexilic time. It was completed, however, before the end of the Persian period, for Hellenistic influence cannot be proved with certainty anywhere in the book.

Nine Collections. A step-by-step analysis of the nine constituent parts of the Book of Proverbs will show plainly its anthological nature.

Collection I (1.19.18). This collection forms the introduction to the whole book. A few pivotal ideas are developed at length in prose-like fashion, not in the brief, pithy manner of the classical proverb with its parallel stichs. After the title, the author states his purpose: to teach wisdom. Then, in verse 7, he defines true knowledge in almost dogmatic fashion: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." Some of the external forms of traditional wisdom literature are prominent, e.g., the affectionate "Hear, my son" (1.8); "My son" (1.10, 15; 2.1; 3.1); "Hear, O children" (4.1); and every effort is made to arouse the interest of the reader. A subtle sub-structure underlies this first section, alluded to in 9.1: "Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven columns." These "seven columns" are to be found in the arrangement of chapters 2 to 7 into seven units of 22 verses each [see P. W. Skehan, "The Seven Columns of Wisdom's House in Proverbs 19," and "A Single Editor for the Whole Book of Proverbs," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 9 (1947) 19098; 10 (1948) 11530.]

Collection II (10.122.16). These 375 Solomonic proverbs, the core of the book, are cast mostly in antithetic parallelism as far as ch. 16, and thereafter, mostly in synthetic parallelism. The tone of the couplets is entirely different from the tone of the preceding part; the environment of the royal court is sensed repeatedly; a primitive shrewdness shows through. However, its earthy humanism has been subjected to the spiritual dynamism of Yahwistic religion and given a spiritual orientation, even though this may not be directly evident in many instances. That "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (1.7) casts its aura over the whole book should not be forgotten.

Collection III (22.1724.22). A difference in style is immediately noticed in "the sayings of the wise." Instead of unrelated, simple, two-lined maxims, ideas are spelled out in strophe form. The tone, as in Collection I, is direct and personal, like that of a father admonishing his son or a teacher instructing his pupil. Of special note is the author's indubitable sympathy for Egyptian wisdom, shown by the formerly vexing line, "Have I not written for you the 'Thirty"' (22.20), preceded in the Confraternity Version by the explicit mention of Amen-em-Ope (a solid conjectural reading for the obscure Hebrew text). Since the publication, in 1923, of the Instruction of Amen-em-Ope, a collection of maxims in 30 chapters or "houses," as he called them (J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 42124), a comparison of the judgments in this part of Proverbs with the statements of that Egyptian sage are to be found in most commentaries. The parallels, at times annoyingly close, are always intriguing.

Collection IV (24.2334). The caption in verse 23, "These also are the sayings of the wise," sets these 12 verses apart as a separate collection. The influence of Amen-em-Ope is no longer present, but the general style is the same as that of the preceding section. Notable in particular is the advanced ethical thinking of verse 29, "Say not, 'As he did to me, so will I do to him; I will repay the man according to his deeds."'

Collection V (25.129.27). This part consists of Solomonic proverbs, similar in form and content to those in the first Solomonic collection. The editor's note preceding the first proverb contains an authentic message: there is no reason to deny that scribes at the court of Hezechiah compiled an anthology of contemporary wisdom sayings. However, since wisdom was a common possession, later sages, including the final editor of Proverbs, felt free to modify the arrangement, the slant, and the contents. There is no way of reconstructing the Hezechian original apart from the application of specifics touching the theological, cultural and linguistic variations proper to the kingdom and the postexilic era.

Collection VI (30.114). This section is entitled "The words of Agur, son of Yakeh, the Massaite." Whether the reflections of this unknown individual terminate with verse 6 or continue on to verse 14 is debated. The style, exclusive of that of verse 10, can hardly be called typically proverbial. Agur's short message is most concerned with a frequent theme in wisdom literature: the inaccessibility of wisdom for man.

Collection VII (30.1533). The position of this collection of numerical proverbs in the Septuagint (after 24.34) as well as the mode of employing digits in it, sets it apart as an independent collection. The numerical style follows this pattern: a number is given (for instance, 3) in the first member; then in the second member the next higher number (here, 4) is given; and in the following members the same number of persons, things, or situations as the number given in the second member are enumerated. The purpose of this procedure is not to affirm the value of the number but to fix attention on the completeness of the enumeration. It would be best not to seek moral lessons in these numerical proverbs, at least not in their original form. Observations on nature and the habits of animals occasion sentiments of wonder, astonishment, incomprehensibility. The collection gives evidence of antiquity; it is cited as an exemplification of 1 Kgs 4.33, "And he [Solomon] treated about trees from the cedar that is in Lebanon, unto the hyssop that cometh out of the wall; and he discoursed on beasts, and of fowls, and of creeping things, and of fishes."

Collection VIII (31.19). The instruction given Lamuel by his mother comprises the collection; it warns against dissipation and exhorts to care for the poor. As is suggested in 31.1, this brief unit with its somewhat unusual message and numerous Aramaisms may well have had its origin in the Ismaelite tribe of Massa in northern Arabia (see Gn 25.14). The incorporation of a passage authored by a woman, especially a non-Israelite, into Israel's sacred writings is a rarity.

Collection IX (31.1031). The concern of this part is the ideal wife. Harsh statements made about women throughout the book are counterbalanced by a concluding unitan alphabetic poem of 22 verses, each of which begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Apart from 31.30b, which could possibly be a later scribal modification, the virtues attributed to the ideal wife are wholly in the natural order: she seemingly has no other purpose than laboring for husband and household. However, these passages may be a final example of how secular compositions were taken over by the wisdom editors and spiritualized by being immersed in the wisdom context, which oriented all human endeavor toward God. Verse 30b, then, would be an authentic expression of the sacred author's mind and purpose.

In the Septuagint the collections are found in the following order: 1, 2, 3, 6, 4, 7, 8, 5, 9. The secondary collections are enclosed between the two great Solomonic syntheses, while wisdom personfied as a woman begins the compilation, and wisdom exemplified in the ideal housewife ends it.

Bibliography: a. cohen, Proverbs: Hebrew Text and English Translation with an Introduction and Commentary (New York 1945). v. hamp, Das Buch der Sprüche (Echter Bibel 8; Würzburg 1949). h. duesberg, Les Scribes inspirés, 2 v. (Bruges 193839) v.1, Les Livres des Proverbes. p. f. ellis, The Men and the Message of the Old Testament (Collegeville, Minn. 1963). The Book of Proverbs, comm. j. t. forestell (Paulist Pamphlet Bible Series 37; New York 1960). r. e. murphy, Seven Books of Wisdom (Milwaukee 1960). j. m. mcglinchey, The Teaching of Amen-em-ope and the Book of Proverbs (Washington 1939). m. j. dahood, Proverbs and Northwest Semitic Philology (Rome 1963).

[w. g. heidt]

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