Studying Proverbs 1

We are studying Proverbs 1, with emphasis on verses 1-4, 7-8, 10, 20-22, and 32-33, for Sunday, June 8. This introduction to the Biblical book of Proverbs (mishlei) begins a four-week series of lessons on Proverbs, which leads in to a look at wisdom texts in the gospels and the book of James. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: In turning from the prophets to the sages, we are turning from one genre of Biblical literature to another. Proverbs in particular is a collection of traditional material, probably drawn initially from the daily life of the whole community, but at least including “court wisdom” – that is, insight into the way to get things done successfully when serving the king of Israel. That impression is reinforced by the attribution of the collected speeches and sayings and comparisons to Solomon, whose reputation for wisdom precedes him and is literally Biblical.

Scholars of the wisdom literature tell us that the literature of the Ancient Near East, which includes many of the “Bible lands” of the Old Testament world – Mesopotamia, the land of Israel, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia – included a developed, sophisticated genre of wisdom. That genre included several sub-genres that would have been recognizable and intelligible to their readers, including “instruction” – rather long monologues that sound like a father talking to his son, or a mentor talking to his protégé – and stories that turn on the application of wisdom (think of the story of Joseph, a prototypical wisdom hero, which features classic wisdom themes), and sayings of various forms, like “comparisons” (“Like cold water to a thirsty soul is good news from a far country” Prov. 25:25) and contrasts (“Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment” Prov. 12:19 and amen).

All cultures have proverbial wisdom (e.g., “least said, soonest [a]mended”).

Ancient Israelite proverbial wisdom seems to be at the core of Proverbs. We probably have it after it’s been refined and polished by being put to use in the setting of the royal court or the “wisdom school” in which scribes might have been trained for their profession, and compiled and edited, with a new introduction and conclusion, after the exile. The introduction features a feminine personification of wisdom, Woman Wisdom, who has several dramatic speeches; the conclusion features another feminine figure, the Woman of Worth, who is a paragon of wisdom in practice.

[The idea that the opening and closing chapters of Proverbs, with their twin figures of Woman Wisdom and the Woman of Worth, are post-exilic, contextualizing additions to the collection of traditional wisdom, and reflect the development of domestic liturgy during the time of the exile, is from Claudia Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs, one of those books you never forget having read.]

[And here’s a personal digression: I feel I owe Woman Wisdom a lot, because she was the one who brought me back to the Bible, and then the Church, fifteen years or so after I had chucked it all on principle on the grounds of 1 Timothy 2.

Along with Huckleberry Finn, I figured I would rather “go to hell” than worship a God cruel enough to make people smart and then make a rule that they couldn’t do anything with it.

So there I was, being a Buddhist and working in advertising and not on my dissertation when I needed to check my memory by looking something up in my old Scofield Reference Bible that I won earned for memorizing Bible verses back in 6th grade and lo and behold on the way to checking out the wording of God alone remembers what I ran into this Woman standing by the way in the places of the paths and crying at the gates with her “whoso findeth me findeth life” and “they that hate me love death” and I sat on our second-hand sofa in the living room of our apartment in Oak Park in stunned incredulous amazement and thought – this was always in here? And I never knew it? So what the heck else did the people at that church NOT tell me?! … and that was a new beginning.

So I personally have a lot of affection for the book of Proverbs in general and for Woman Wisdom in particular.]

The Jewish Study Bible recommends reading Proverbs as a set of “collections,” and its identification of the collections is echoed by others, looking like this:

  • 1:1 – 9:18 “The proverbs of Solomon son of David king of Israel”
  • 10:1 – 22:16 “The proverbs of Solomon”
  • 22:17 – 24:22 “Words of the sages”
  • 24:23 – 34 more words of the sages
  • 25:1 – 29:27 More proverbs of Solomon, copied by scribes of Hezekiah
  • 30:1 – 31:31 Appendices: Words of Agur; numerical epigrams; Words of Lemuel; the Woman of Worth

Woman Wisdom’s speech in chapter one, a few verses of which are in this week’s lesson, shows up in the lectionary on the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.

The whole speech seems bitterly timely, though, a comment on the morning’s headlines.

That’s the Bible for you: it never gets old.

CLOSER READING: The first couple of verses introduce the first collection, which introduces the whole book, by naming “Solomon son of David king of Israel” and listing the purposes of the collection; one of the purposes is to teach “shrewdness” to the “simple,” a class of people we might also think of as naïve.

This shrewdness, or cunning, is the property of the serpent in Genesis 3, by the way. Jesus recommends this quality of wisdom associated with serpents to the disciples, too, in Matthew 10:16

But verses 5-6 remind us that the wise still have something to learn. Continuing education is a good thing [in Proverbs, although Qohelet counters with “much learning is a weariness of the flesh” – they argue back and forth like that].

Verse 7 introduces a recurring theme in Proverbs, “the fear of YHWH is the beginning,” here of knowledge, elsewhere of wisdom itself. The fool who rejects it is not merely stupid, but villainous.

[Fools are the kind of people who “say in their hearts ‘there is no God,’” and “God does not see,” and as a consequence get up to all kinds of wickedness, wickedness that harms other people, and ultimately harms the fools themselves. This is described in detail here in verses 10-19, which are not part of our lesson, maybe because it’s so depressing. But this kind of nonsense is criticized elsewhere in the Bible, too. The moral of this part of the Biblical story is: steer clear of fools.]

The “teaching” of your mother is literally torah, what we sometimes call “law,” and what the translator here would probably have called “instruction” if they hadn’t already used up that word in the preceding line for the kind of instruction you get from your father [here, at least], which in other contexts we might call discipline or correction or reproof. [What all scripture is good for, 2 Timothy 3:16]

Verses 20-33 is a long speech by Woman Wisdom, who is “outside,” in the “open squares,” and right at the head of “the ones murmuring/making an uproar” [literally, which has been interpreted as places of commerce it seems, but there is more than one kind of uproar] … so the answer to Job’s question “where will wisdom be found” is, according to Proverbs, right out in front of you in a crowd of people, so listen up, because you’ve got a lot to learn, and what you don’t know COULD actually hurt you.

We might not appreciate that answer, or Wisdom’s subsequent speech, which is not exactly maternal. Or maybe it is: maternal like my aunt who used to say things like “don’t come crying to me when one of you gets hurt” and “I WILL say ‘I told you so’” or like the mother of someone I knew who reportedly said “Do not break the law because I, your mother, will not come visit you in prison.” Maternal tough love.

The kind of Wisdom that is willing to whop you upside the head and say “stop being an idiot and pay attention.”

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The words of the prophets have been written on the subway walls and tenement halls for a really long time already, and in the Bible a couple of millennia before that.

“What happens to a dream deferred?”

“All who hate me love death.”

2 responses to “Studying Proverbs 1”

  1. Sometimes it only takes a few words to understand certain situations and learn to deal with them. Many greetings from Italy. Serenity and joy to you and your family. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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