Bible Commentary: Proverbs 1:1-7 Part 2

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Proverbs 1:1-7 Part 2

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Parallels From Egypt and Mesopotamia

Agreeing with an early compilation by Solomon himself, respected scholar Kenneth Kitchen’s structural analysis of Proverbs “indicates that the Book of Solomon (Proverbs 1–24) was written as a unified text at the beginning of the first millennium B.C. Even apart from that work, however, the older criteria for dating the sections of Proverbs are inappropriate. The lengthy wisdom discourses and the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 1–9, once regarded as proofs of the late origin of those chapters, are now acknowledged to be paralleled in Egyptian literature” (NAC, p. 51). Indeed, there are a number of parallels in the book of Proverbs with similar wisdom literature in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

There are good reasons to give some consideration to this fact and take a look at such literature. As The Expositor’s Bible Commentary explains in its introduction to Proverbs: “This literary background is helpful to understanding the biblical book. First, it provides help in understanding the forms of wisdom literature—proverbs, maxims, fables, riddles, allegories, and instructions. Second, it indicates the antiquity of the forms used in the Bible, especially Proverbs 1–9, which was once considered to be the latest form. But it now can be demonstrated that the literary proverb of two lines may be as old as the Sumerian proverbs, and that collected instructions may be as ancient as the Old Kingdom of Egypt.” Of course, such wisdom literature was based on human observation in a pagan setting without divine sanction. Yet some elements of this literature were valid and may have, through God’s direction, been edited to fit in the collection of the book of Proverbs, as we will see. On the other hand, the biblical proverbs may also have influenced foreign literature. We will consider these issues after briefly taking note of some of the foreign wisdom instruction.

Old Kingdom Egypt gives us “the ‘Instruction of Kagemni’ and the ‘Instruction of Ptah-hotep’ (2450 B.C. [?]), which advise the proper decorum for a court official. Like Proverbs, Ptah-hotep counsels on persuasive speech: ‘Good speech is more hidden than the emerald, but it may be found with maidservants at the grindstones’…. He further warns against going after a woman like a fool, for ‘one attains death through knowing her’” (same note). The same work says: “When you are guest at the table of one who is greater than you then take what he gives you, as they serve it before you. Do not look at what lies before him, but always look only at what lies before you” (compare Proverbs 23:1).

Also from the Egyptian Old Kingdom, “the ‘Instruction of Merikare’ (2160-2040 B.C) records a monarch’s advice for his son on the wise qualities needed by a king, including this saying: ‘The tongue is a sword…and speech is more valorous than any fighting’” (Expositor’s, introduction to Proverbs).

From the Egyptian New Kingdom we have the “Instructions of Anii.”

“Like the book of Proverbs, Anii:

• exhorts readers to avoid beer drinking and warns about the disgrace of public drunkenness (see Proverbs 20:1).

• asserts that an individual should avoid the company of brawlers and violent men (see v. 3).

• advises against taking vengeance, urging the reader instead to seek divine help (cf. v. 22).

• warns the reader to stay away from the ‘strange woman,’ the prostitute or adulteress (vv. [16; 22:14;] 23[:27]-35)” (“The Instructions of Anii,” NIV Archaeological Study Bible, sidebar on Proverbs 20, p. 990).

 From early Mesopotamia comes the “Instruction of Shuruppak” (ca. 2000 B.C.), which “records the advice of a king to his son Ziusudra, the hero of the flood in the Sumerian version. For example, it says, ‘My son, let me give you instructions, may you pay attention to them,’ and ‘{My} son, do not sit {alone} in a {chamber} with someone’s wife.’ The ‘Counsels of Wisdom’ (c. 1500-1000 B.C.) are a collection of moral exhortations about avoiding bad company and careless speech, being kind to the needy, and living in harmony with one’s neighbor and in loyalty to the king. For example, it says, ‘Do not return evil to your adversary; Requite with kindness the one who does evil to you, / Maintain justice for your enemy’” (Expositor’s, introduction to Proverbs).

 Solomon may well have studied such literature, given the cosmopolitan nature of his kingdom and his renowned pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Considering his royal education and position as king, he likely was able to speak and read the languages of surrounding kingdoms. Scripture, as we’ve seen, even mentions the wisdom of the East and of Egypt, which was surpassed by Solomon (see 1 Kings 4:30; compare Daniel 1:4, Daniel 1:17, Daniel 1:20). Solomon was closely allied to Egypt, being married to the pharaoh’s daughter. Many Egyptian cultural influences have been discovered in archaeological finds in Jerusalem dating to Solomon’s time.

Some later works in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt could reflect earlier wisdom in nations that Solomon borrowed from. On the other hand, these works could just as easily reflect wisdom that came to some extent from Solomon—as his wisdom was famous throughout the Middle East during his reign. “The ‘Words of Ahiqar’ (700-670 B.C.) is a collection of proverbs, riddles, short fables, and religious observations by a court official for the Assyrian kings Sennacherib and Esarhaddon, giving advice on disciplining children, guarding the tongue, respecting secrets, and being circumspect in dealing with the king. For example, it says, ‘Withhold not thy son from the rod’ (…cf. Proverbs 13:24); and ‘I have lifted sand, and I have carried salt; but there is naught which is heavier than {grief}’ (…cf. Proverbs 27:3)” (same note).

And from later in Egypt there is the “Instruction of Ankhsheshonqy” (ca. 400-300 B.C.), “a large collection of about five hundred sayings and precepts like those in the Book of Proverbs that reflect the practical and religious concerns of the community. But they do not have the poetic parallelism characteristic of Hebrew proverbs. For example, their instructions include: ‘Do not go to your brother if you are in trouble, go to your friend’ (cf. Proverbs 27:10); and ‘Better {to have} a statue for a son than a fool’ (cf. Proverbs 17:21)” (same note).

The strongest parallels with the book of Proverbs are to be found in the Egyptian New Kingdom “Instruction of Amenemope” (sometimes written as Amen-em-opet). A number of its statements correspond closely to the “Sayings of the Wise” in Proverbs 22:17–23:11. “For example, the instructions include these: ‘Do not associate to thyself the heated man, / Nor visit him for conversation’ (…cf. Proverbs 22:24); ‘Do not strain to seek an excess, / When thy needs are safe for thee. / If riches are brought to thee by robbery…. / (Or) they have made themselves wings like geese / And are flown away to the heavens’ (…cf. Prov 23:4-5)” (same note). The latter parallel is uncanny. Proverbs 23:4-5 says: “Do not overwork to be rich…. Will you set your eyes on that which is not? For riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away like an eagle toward heaven.” We will examine further parallels with Amenemope later. There is some debate over who influenced whom here. Most scholars take Amenemope to predate Solomon, in which case Solomon could have borrowed from the Egyptian work—though the Egyptian work could just as well have drawn on earlier Hebrew wisdom that Solomon also borrowed from. However, some argue that Amenemope was composed later than Solomon.

We should realize that borrowing or editing some sayings in use at the time does not signal approval of surrounding cultures—nor does it take away from the inspiration of Solomon’s work. As commentator Tremper Longman points out: “Study of the similarities between the advice given in the biblical book and ancient Near Eastern wisdom…makes concrete what we read in 1 Kings 4, that the sages of Israel lived and studied in an international context. It is always dicey to be dogmatic about specific borrowings, but there is little doubt that Israel’s wise teachers read, understood, adapted, and appropriated the wisdom of their (pagan!) neighbors. Does this tell us something about how we should view our own, non-Christian culture, as well as other cultures worldwide? Many Christians react strongly against today’s culture and the literature it produces—reading only Christian literature, going only to Christian schools, avoiding movies, and so forth. Certainly the prophets of Israel issued important warnings about the seductive power of pagan culture. The sages, though, are the counterbalance. They are a model of thoughtful observers, reflecting on the world around them [just as the apostle Paul later quoted from pagan literature to make certain points]. Perhaps we should be better observers ourselves. Though the sages observed and appropriated, they never simply or uncritically borrowed ideas from the broader cultural setting. Rather they adapted them to their own religious values…. If sages observed a truth in Egyptian wisdom, they understood it to be a truth of Yahweh” (How to Read Proverbs, 2002, p. 77).

And Expositor’s notes: “Whatever the Spirit of God inspired the ancient writers to include became a part of the Word of the Lord. Such inclusions then took on a new and greater meaning when they formed part of Scripture; in a word, they became authoritative and binding, part of the communication of the divine will” (introduction to Proverbs).

 Indeed, such wisdom was not left to stand on its own but was placed in subordination to the fact that true knowledge and wisdom begin with the fear of the Lord (see Proverbs 1:7; Proverbs 9:10). “The words ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge’ (Proverbs 1:7) set the record straight, so to speak. This is the foundation on which all other wise sayings stand. It is the Book of Proverbs’ central idea: Fear of the Lord motivates us to obey God’s commandments, and obedience to them constitutes true wisdom” (The Nelson Study Bible, introduction to Proverbs). Indeed, Proverbs 1:7, which concludes the purpose statement of the book and commences the introductory instruction, is the very first sentence proverb or compact saying in the book—contrasting the way to right knowledge through godly fear with the choice of fools to reject wisdom and instruction. (Compared to later sections of the book, the first nine chapters constituting the introduction contain relatively few such maxims.)