Proverbs: Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries

Proverbs: Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries

by Christine Roy Yoder

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Proverbs shape our moral imagination.

The Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries provide compact, critical commentaries on the books of the Old Testament for the use of theological students and pastors. The commentaries are also useful for upper-level college or university students and for those responsible for teaching in congregational settings. In addition to providing basic information and insights into the Old Testament writings, these commentaries exemplify the tasks and procedures of careful interpretation, to assist students of the Old Testament in coming to an informed and critical engagement with the biblical texts themselves.

The book of Proverbs invites us into an ancient and ongoing conversation about what is good and wise and true in life. Yoder explores the book through literary, exegetical, and theological-ethical analysis, paying particular attention to how Proverbs shapes the moral imagination of its readers. She highlights the poetics of each proverb, considers similarities and differences between the book’s sections, and ponders how the content, pedagogies, and arrangement of Proverbs contribute to its aim to form “fearers of the Lord.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781426700019
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 08/12/2009
Series: Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Patrick D. Miller, the author of the Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections on the Book of Jeremiah, is the Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey (Presbyterian Church {USA}).

Associate Professor of Old Testament Language, Literature, and Exegesis, Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA

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Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries - Proverbs

By Patrick D. Miller

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2009 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4267-0001-9

Chapter One

Commentary Proverbs 1–9: "The Proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel"

Proverbs 1:1-7: The Prologue

Literary Analysis

The book of Proverbs opens with a title or superscription (1:1, see Introduction to this book) and a prologue (1:2-7). The superscription provides the name, ancestry, and position of the teacher—"Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel"—as a means to commend the book to possible readers. Such titles are found in other ancient Near Eastern wisdom texts. For example, the Egyptian Instruction of Ptahhotep begins: "Instruction of the Mayor of the city, the Vizier Ptahhotep" (AEL 1:62). Similarly, the first line of the Instruction of Anii reads: "Beginning of the educational instruction made by the scribe Anii of the palace of Queen Nefertari" (AEL 2:136).

The prologue (1:2-7) promotes the book of Proverbs as instruction for a lifetime, as a primer for the young and an advanced textbook for the more experienced. It unfolds in a series of phrases that introduce the goals of the book (1:2-6). Each phrase, with the exception of verse 5, begins with an infinitive (e.g., "for learning," 1:2; "to teach," 1:4), a syntactical construction that connects the phrase back to the title (1:1). The result is an extended description, an advertisement replete with wisdom terminology, of what may be gained from studying "the proverbs of Solomon." The prologue culminates in what many interpreters call the "motto" of the book: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning [or epitome] of knowledge" (1:7; cf. 9:10).

Exegetical Analysis

The Title (1:1)

The superscription (1:1) identifies the content of chapters 1–9, and by extension of the book as a whole, as "proverbs" and ascribes this content to "Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel." A "proverb" is a statement of an apparent truth that is based on experience and that endures in the life of a community over time. The word is used of a wide range of utterances (e.g., one-line sayings, riddles, admonitions, maxims, extended poems). This particular collection of proverbs is attributed to Solomon, the second and last king of the united monarchy (ca. 966–926 BCE). Endowed with wisdom by God (1 Kgs 3:3-15), Solomon is the quintessential sage of Israel and purported author of three thousand proverbs and one thousand and five songs (1 Kgs 4:32; cf. 1 Kgs 3–11). Collections of Israelite wisdom are conventionally associated with him (cf. 10:1; 25:1; Wisdom of Solomon; and Eccl 1:1, 12 [implied]), in much the same way that the psalms are to David and the laws to Moses. The superscription of Proverbs thereby commends the book on two grounds: first, by the widespread use of its content by the community (proverbs) and, second, by the name, title, and ancestry of the one in whose name the book is issued (Solomon). Both lend authority to what follows.

The Prologue (1:2-7)

Like a blurb on a dust jacket, the prologue (1:2-7) announces the aim of the book—in this case, to impart wisdom, to shape persons and communities of moral character. The handful of terse lines nearly burst with vocabulary the sages consider essential to that endeavor: discipline, prudence, justice, and so on. The terms are, on the one hand, familiar and self-explanatory. On the other, they name concepts that are complex and deeply contested in the world. What is justice? What does equity look like? What constitutes knowledge? And who decides? Such questions are at the heart of the sages' work, and the thirty-one chapters of Proverbs reflect manifold attempts to address them, to speak about what is good for people amid the complexities and contingencies of the everyday.

That Proverbs begins with a "vocabulary list" of wisdom terms and so closely attends to speech throughout is arguably no mistake. To teach persons how to be moral, faithful beings is, after all, to teach a language—a language that envisions the world and guides people's practices so that such a world might be realized. Proverbs orients and opines, describes and prescribes, corrects and nurtures so that its readers might regard and enact the world in particular ways. And, as we expect from teachers of any language, Proverbs requires its students to pay close attention. Note that the prologue calls the wise to hear (1:5); the father repeatedly urges the youth to listen (1:8; 4:1; 5:7; 7:24; cf. "incline your ear" in 4:20; 5:1, 13); and personified wisdom promises safety and prosperity to those who hear her (1:33; 8:6, 32-34). Similarly, the youth is told to keep his father's instructions as the "apple of [his] eye" (7:2), never letting them out of his sight (3:21; 4:21). Such repeated summons are reminders that language is neither simple nor ever finally mastered. Even the wise must listen again and again.

The sages signal at the beginning that this book will demand much from readers. The phrase "wisdom and instruction" that frames the prologue (1:2, 7) is more appropriately translated "wisdom and discipline." The latter term is mûsar, which nearly always refers to correction made by one with authority, such as YHWH (3:11; cf. Job 5:17; Deut 11:2), personified wisdom (8:10, 33), teachers (5:13), and parents (1:8; 4:1; 13:1; 15:5). In Proverbs, mûsar is associated with rebuke (13:1) and reproof (e.g., 5:12; 6:23; 10:17), and with physical punishment (13:24; 22:15; 23:13-14). Elsewhere in the Old Testament, mûsar refers similarly to verbal warnings and reprimands (e.g., Ps 50:17; Jer 7:28; 17:23) and to physical chastisement (Isa 53:5; Jer 2:30; 5:3). The term thus connotes authoritative discipline, whether verbal or physical. It evokes the image of a stern teacher poised with a ruler to rap a student's knuckles or, as in the case of the Egyptian hieroglyph for "teachings," an instructor holding a rod above his head. The sages are clear: this book requires obedience to authority figures and their correction.

Throughout Proverbs, discipline is a celebrated virtue. Discipline is how one navigates through life successfully (6:23; 10:17). By discipline, a teacher demonstrates devotion to a student (3:11-12; 13:24). By loving discipline, a student embraces knowledge (12:1; cf. 19:27; 23:12), acquires insight (4:1), and becomes wise (8:33). The sages therefore urge that one acquire discipline and never sell it (23:23), value it more than silver (8:10), and keep hold of it always (4:13). Only a fool would despise discipline (15:5; cf. 5:23; 12:1) because hatred of discipline is a form of self-hatred (15:32) that results in public disgrace and, ultimately, death (5:14, 23).

Proverbs 1:3a specifies that the book teaches mûsar haskel (NRSV: "instruction in wise dealing"), discipline that imparts "insight" or "cleverness" (cf. Job 34:35; Dan 1:17). This "discipline of insight" is about "righteousness, justice, and equity" (1:3b; cf. 2:9), terms that together refer comprehensively to ethical, honest, and neighborly conduct in personal and communal relationships. The terms occur fairly often in Proverbs—righteousness (9x), justice (20x), and equity (5x)—and all three are associated with personified wisdom (8:6, 8, 15-16, 20). The lessons of insight, therefore, are not abstract, ivory-tower concepts detached from the concrete, everyday realities of how people live together. They are the foundations of a just and equitable common life.

The sages invite young and old to take these teachings to heart. They address the "simple" and the "young" (1:4). The "simple" (peta'yim) are youth who are inexperienced and naive but capable of learning (e.g., 8:5; 22:3). Without instruction, they are wayward, prone to the tendencies of fools (1:32; 14:15), and may even esteem their gullibility (1:22). Similarly, the "young" (sg. na'ar) are boys, presumably adolescents, who lack maturity, and without tutoring may act senselessly (22:15); in Proverbs 1–9, they are arguably of marriageable age (5:18; 7:7).

The sages also address the "wise" and "discerning" (1:5). Lest anyone believe the book is only for novices, the sages abruptly interrupt the string of infinitives (1:2-4) and call the wise to attention also. The study of wisdom, it seems, is a lifelong endeavor. The Egyptian Instruction of Ptahhotep aptly captures this:

Don't be proud of your knowledge, Consult the ignorant and the wise. The limits of art are not reached, No artist's skills are perfect. (AEL 1:63)

The young are promised that Proverbs will teach them "shrewdness and prudence" (1:4). The former term denotes cleverness, cunning, and trickery (e.g., Exod 21:14; Josh 9:4). Such cleverness is attributed to personified wisdom (8:12) and the strategies of the wise (cf. "craftiness," Job 5:13). The latter term refers to discretion, private thoughts (e.g., Job 21:27-28; Ps 10:4), and plots or plans devised in secret. Such scheming may be regarded positively (e.g., 2:11; 5:2; 8:12) or negatively (12:2; 14:17; 24:8). Both terms, therefore, have to do with the capacity to think and plan freely, creatively, even cunningly to get things done. The sages acknowledge the value of that capacity when practiced in the context of "wisdom and discipline" (1:2, 7); with proper guidance, cleverness and plotting might be used to legitimate, worthy ends. The prologue offers disciplined cunning to the youth, perhaps with the hope that the youth might then refuse to join in the dangerous schemes of others (e.g., 1:18-22; 7:16-20). The sages preempt the mystique of "hatching a plan" and put the skill of autonomous thinking firmly under the thumb of wisdom's correction.

The prologue also promises, perhaps particularly for the wise and discerning (1:5), the honing of interpretive skills (1:6). Apart from "words of the wise," a phrase that anticipates later sections of the book (cf. 22:17–24:22; 24:23-34), the terms in verse 6 refer to genres: wisdom is about content (e.g., justice, shrewdness) and form. Two of the terms are rather cryptic. The first, a "figure" (melisa), is presumably some sort of crafted speech—perhaps a proverb or parable (cf. Hab 2:6; Sir 47:17). The second, "riddles" (hidot), are enigmatic expressions that require explanation or particular skill to decipher (cf. Num 12:8). Often they are what we would call riddles (e.g., Judg 14:14-19; Ezek 17:1-21). Recall the "hard questions" the Queen of Sheba posed to Solomon: "There was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her" (1 Kgs 10:1-3 // 2 Chr 9:1-2). Although proper riddles are extremely rare in Proverbs (arguably 23:29-30; there is debate as to their extent), use of the term hidot in the prologue suggests the book provides an "inside scoop"—access to what is otherwise unknowable. Not only is that sure to pique readers' interest, but they are more likely to pay careful attention to what follows (Fox 2000, 66). The sages might just pull one over on you.

Excursus on "Fear of the LORD" (1:7)

The climax of the prologue is the "motto" of Proverbs (1:7). Without question, the phrase "the fear of the Lord" is the book's resounding refrain; it is found fourteen times (1:7; 2:5; 8:13; 9:10; 10:27; 14:2, 26-27; 15:16, 33; 16:6; 19:23; 22:4; 23:17), and the imperative "fear the Lord" is found twice (3:7; 24:21). The idiom also forms an inclusio—a frame of a word, phrase, or idea repeated at the beginning and conclusion of a literary unit—around Proverbs 1–9 (1:7; 9:10) and the book as a whole (1:7; 31:30).

In Proverbs, "fear of the Lord" refers variously to dread of God's disapproval or punishment, trepidation in the presence of the holy, and a conscience defined by obedience to God. At times, "fear of YHWH" is nearly synonymous with "knowledge of God" (1:7, 29; 2:5; cf. 9:10; 30:3) and "instruction in wisdom" (15:33). These proverbs explicitly identify fear of God with cognition, with a worldview that recognizes God's sovereignty and the posture of humanity (our capacities and limitations) before God and creation. M. V. Fox rightly notes: "This is fear of God as conscience" (2000, 70)—a state of mind that engenders humility (e.g., 3:5-8, 34; 22:4; cf. 15:33; 18:12) and is equated with hatred of evil (8:13; cf. 14:16; 16:6).

At other times, however, what motivates "fear of the Lord" is dread of certain consequences, such as trouble (15:16), harm (19:23), and deadly snares (14:27; cf. 10:27). "Fear the Lord and the king," the sages admonish, "for ... who knows the ruin that both can bring?" (24:21-22). These proverbs caution that, at least in Proverbs, we should not draw too sharp a distinction between "fear of the Lord" and fear (e.g., Exod 20:19-21; 2 Sam 6:6-11; Job 1-2). Indeed, insofar as Proverbs depicts God as sovereign, mysterious, and free (e.g., 16:1-9; 19:21; 21:30-31), one might argue that not to feel "some stirring of fear would indicate a profound state of spiritual numbness" (Davis 2000, 28), an overly domesticated conception of the divine, or an exaggerated sense of self. This dread, then, is not unreflective or irrational but rather cognitive. It reflects certain beliefs, namely, that should one act wrongly, God has the capacity to act (including adversely); God will probably do so; and the wrongdoer is accountable and vulnerable.

Thus "fear" in "fear of the Lord" is used equivocally, to name an emotion and a more complex orientation in the world (i.e., conscience) of which that emotion is a part. It manifests itself on a continuum, so that to talk of "fear of YHWH" we need to include everything from obedience to moments of trembling. The whole gamut, which reflects certain beliefs about God, humanity, and the necessity of a relationship between the two, is, for the sages, "the beginning of knowledge" (1:7). And, like many fears that promote survival, "fear of the Lord" enables one to avoid certain perils, including the storms of panic that consume fools (3:24-26; cf. 1:33), and as a result affords health and long life (e.g., 3:8).

"Fear of the Lord" also motivates and informs right conduct. It demands just and gracious acts even when human laws and regulations are ineffective or silent. "Fear of the Lord" requires, for example, respect for and deference to the elderly (Lev 19:32), care for the physically disabled (Lev 19:14), support and protection of family and resident aliens (Lev 25:36), and fair business practices (Lev 25:17). Without it, the threads that weave together moral, equitable relations easily fray or unravel completely. When Abimelech asks Abraham why he introduced Sarah as his sister, Abraham says he feared he might be killed on her account because he thought, "There is no fear of God at all in this place" (Gen 20:11). Moses indicts hard-hearted Pharaoh who, despite the ten plagues, adamantly refused to release the Hebrews: "But I know that you and your officials still do not fear the Lord God" (Exod 9:30 NIV). Without "fear of the Lord," all other fears, including the fears of scarcity, ineptitude, irrelevance, and insecurity, run rampant.

The sages declare that "fear of the Lord" is the "beginning" (re'sit) of knowledge (1:7a; cf. 9:10; 15:33). The term re'sit has a range of possible meanings. It may be interpreted temporally as "beginning" or "starting point" (cf. Gen 10:10; Jer 26:1), suggesting that "the fear of the Lord" is the prerequisite or foundation for knowledge. It may also be read qualitatively, so that this fear is the "first," "best," or "epitome" (e.g., Jer 2:3; Amos 6:6) of knowledge. Understood this way, "the fear of the Lord" is the quintessential expression of what it means to be wise. This fear is the beginning and end, the best and fullest expression of wisdom. Either way (and the ambiguity may well be intentional) there is no wisdom without it. The sages would thus find strange, if not bewildering, our present-day understanding that we know apart from faith, that there are "categories of thought"—science or religion, reason or faith, fact or belief. For them, because the whole world and its mysteries belong to God, to "know" can be nothing less than to seek and be subject to God.


Excerpted from Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries - Proverbs by Patrick D. Miller Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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