Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Proverbs and the Nature of Wisdom

I'm meant to be revising for an exam right now. But it's an exam on the Old Testament, so I feel kind of justified in writing random stuff about the book of Proverbs instead.

Striking Features of Proverbs

Proverbs has several very interesting features, some of which are so obvious that it's easy to miss them. We can see most of the features I want to write about in the first few verses:

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
for attaining wisdom and discipline;
for understanding words of insight;
for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young-
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance-
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and discipline.
Proverbs 1:1-7, NIV

Here are some of the striking features:

  • Probably the key word in Proverbs is "wisdom"
  • Proverbs consists mostly of observations about daily life
  • It claims that the starting point for wisdom and knowledge is the fear of God
  • It isn't written in prose - it really really doesn't read like Plato
  • It includes lots of stuff by non-Israelites

"Wisdom" in Hebrew includes ideas like the skills needed to be a carpenter, basic science (1 Kings 4:33) and stuff. A nice summary of Proverbs is that it's about enabling people to "live skillfully" (Goldsworthy), so it makes sense that it includes a lot of observations about daily life. It's not meant to be a philosophical treatise - it's much more down to earth than that...

Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.
Proverbs 21:9 and 25:24

This includes quite a few observations that might well be "borrowed" from other cultures - there's a fair bit of overlap with, for example, Egyptian wisdom literature. But one of the distinctive features of Proverbs is that with its down-to-earth-ness and with its borrowing stuff from non-Israelites, it's still thoroughly Yahwistic (worshipping the God of Israel). Even in noticing patterns in the way the world works, it still puts God absolutely at the centre and sees him as indispendible to the whole idea of wisdom.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
Proverbs 9:10, NIV

It's odd - I usually disagree with liberal Biblical scholars on most things (but still read what they're saying). But here, I found some really sensible comments from the liberals.

There was never any question of what we would call absolute knowledge functioning independently of the faith of Yahweh. This is inconceivable for the very reason that the teachers were completely unaware of any reality not controlled by Yahweh.
Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel

So yes, they took wisdom literature from non-Yahwistic sources, but when they did they adapted it to make it Yahwistic and they dropped bits of it that didn't make sense with their faith. Like Christians today taking sensible bits of what non-Christian scientists say but saying it's part of the way that God upholds the world.

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