Cultural and Historical Notes, Proverbs 1

Kitchen model; workers grinding, baking and br...

Kitchen model; workers grinding, baking and brewing; 12th dynasty, 2050-1800 BC. Egyptian Museum Berlin, Inv. 1366 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom

Proverbs 1  The ancient Near East has yielded a great deal of what scholars call “wisdom literature”–texts that instruct the reader about life, virtue and social interaction or reflect upon profound issues.

  • The instructive, or didactic, texts, like Proverbs, were typically written with a boy or young man (“my son”) as the implied reader.  These straightforward texts, exhorting the reader to right behavior, concern issues like personal morality, work ethics, career choice or peer respect.
  • The reflective texts, like Job, are addressed to a more mature reader–one who acknowledges that the world is not always as it should be.  They lament societal ills and wrestle with complex issues.
  • These categories are not mutually exclusive.  Ecclesiastes wrestles with lief’s unfairness and perversity but also instructs the reader.  We could classify Proverbs as the workbook for a beginning or “undergraduate” course, with Ecclesiastes being an advance or “graduate school” text.
  • Wisdom texts may address the reader directly, as do Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, or have a narrative structure, like Job.
  • Wisdom texts may be presented as prose (like most of Ecc) or poetry (like most of Job).
  • Didactic texts often employ simple, two-line maxims and parallelism (as in Pr), while reflective texts are typically more complex in structure (as in Job’s more problematical poetic discourses).  Other nations also had wisdom literature.  A few examples from the ancient Near East: 
  • Egypt.  The instruction of Vizier Ptah-hotep (Fifth Dynasty, c. 2500-2350 B.C.): An aged counselor instructs his son in how he should conduct his life.  The instruction for Merikare (Tenth Dynasty, c. 2500-2350 B.C.): A pharaoh (apparently Khety III) initiates his son in the principles of proper and effective ruling.  This text, reflecting the social turmoil of the First Intermediate period, asserts that Merikare must earn the respect of the nobles through just governance in order to maintain his hold on the throne. 
  • The Protests of the Eloquent Peasant (oldest copy dates to the Twelfth Dynasty, c. 1963-1786 B.C.):  A peasant who has been defrauded of his goods pleads for justice from  high officials, eventually winning his case and gaining a high position for himself.  The text reflects upon the nature of justice and the importance of eloquent speech.
  • The Instruction of Amenemope (oldest copy dates to between the tenth and sixth centuries B.C.):  This text, which is remarkably similar to Proverbs 22:17–24:22, includes an introduction and 30 sections of teaching on wise behavior.
  • Mesopotamia:  Proverb Texts:  These writings contain pithy adages and maxims of the sort found all over the world.  For example, one proverb states that an enemy army never departs from a city whose weapons are weak (similar to the Roman proverb, “If you want peace, prepare for war“).
  • Counsels of Wisdom:  This Akkadian book of practical advice also addresses the reader as “my son.”  Examples of advice include a warning not to marry a prostitute and an admonition that the steward of a ruler’s property should not give in to covetousness.
  • The Babylonian Theodicy (c.1100-1000 B.C.): A cynical sufferer enters into a dispute with a man who defends traditional notions of wisdom.  The test originally included 27 stanzas, each with 11 lines, but not all remains intact.  This writing is often compared to Job; there are in fact both clear similarities and sharp differences between the two.
  • The Book of Ahiqat (found on a fifth-century B.C. Aramaic papyrus but set in Assyria and possibly composed originally in Akkadian): This text describes how Ahiqar overcame the adversity of a scheming and ungrateful  nephew, avoided execution on false charges and proved himself to be the wisest man of his age.  The story was translated into American and Arabic, and the Apocryphal book of the Tobit alludes to it.  The motif of the wise man who triumphs over adversity appears repeatedly in the Bible as well.

We cannot deny that such similarities exist; the Israelites did not live in cultural isolation.  At the same time, it would be a mistake to treat the Biblical texts as just another version of ancient wisdom.  In grandeur of scope, internal complexity and theological profundity, the Biblical texts of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes are in a class by themselves.

*Archaeological Study Bible, Zondervan Publishers

2 thoughts on “Cultural and Historical Notes, Proverbs 1

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:24

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