Restoration Quarterly 40.4 (1998) 221-237
Copyright © 1998 by Restoration Quarterly, cited with permission.
THE FORMATION OF CHARACTER IN THE
BOOK OF PROVERBS
From the very
on her faith to the next generation. The instruction of youth was a religious
responsibility, the very reason for the choosing of Abraham: “...for I have
chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to
keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord
may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen 18: 19).
While there was no set form that Israelite households followed in carrying
out their responsibility to instruct, it seems probable that different social
implemented the educational task differently. Concerning
instructional responsibility, R. A. Culpepper concludes: “Education in
a period of time the training process underwent changes, taking on new
forms to meet the challenges of new circumstances.
valuable perspective on the efforts of a community to educate its youth in
the formation of moral character. While Proverbs does not describe a
systematic way in which this responsibility was carried out, one can identify,
various parts of the process throughout the course of the book.
The development of moral character in Proverbs, and Wisdom Literature
in general, has been of little interest among scholars. This should not come
as a surprise since Proverbs itself is treated as a resident alien of Scripture.2
1 R. A. Culpepper, “Education,” in The International Standard Bible Ency-
clopedia, vol. 2 revised (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) 21.
2 Proverbs has been marginalized for several reasons. I) Canonically, it appears
in the third and least authoritative section of the Hebrew Scriptures. 2) Theolog-
lcally, wisdom does not seem to fit into the frame of the test of the QT. Gerhard von
Rad's emphasis on Heilsgeschichte and Walter Eichrodt's use of covenant margin-
alized the Wisdom Literature. Wisdom Literature is deemed anthropocentric. It is
222 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
Contrary to popular opinion, however, Proverbs and Wisdom Literature are
a vital part of the theology of the First Testament. What I wish to do in this
article is to highlight the contribution Proverbs makes to the task of moral
development in youth. I begin by demonstrating that the literary or formal
context of Proverbs is the family. Once this is established, I investigate how
character is developed within this familial context
The Familial Context
The setting for the final form of Proverbs is the post-exilic period during
the time of the Persian empire.3 Before reaching the apex of its contribution
to Israelite culture during the post-exilic period, Israelite wisdom went
through several stages of growth and development. The earliest stage was
the pre-exilic period of folk wisdom. Stage two was the monarchic period in
which wisdom was developed, nurtured, and incorporated into the court
setting. The third phase of development occurred after the exile. During this
time the final form of the book of Proverbs took shape. This final phase was
most productive time for Wisdom Literature in
The post-exilic period
was a time when
It was a time of transition.
the land to depend on for her identity. She had to struggle with how she
maintain her identity in this context. Wisdom helped reshape
former nationalistic focus by placing her religious beliefs in a different
literary form (the proverb) and extracting the exclusive language of cove-
As a result, unlike many nations taken into exile,
only to survive but also to thrive. Religious and personal identities were not
lost, but were instead redefined. As Ronald Clements concludes, “In some
respects wisdom became a 'transitional philosophy,' maintaining identifiable
centered on human achievement and ability. In the biblical canon, Proverbs is too
secular or the rest of the neighborhood. 3) Formally, wisdom is not narrative as is
the majority of the Hebrew Scriptures. How one deals with what appears to be
random collections of Proverbs is an enigma. The self-contained Proverbs have no
literary context. They thus give the appearance of moralistic platitudes.
See Hartmut Gese, “Wisdom Literature in the Persian Period,” in The
bridge History of Judaism: Introduction; The Persian Period, eds. W. D. Davies and
Louis Finkelstein, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 189-218.
See also Ronald E. Clements, Wisdom in Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).
Patrick Skehan posits a post-exilic editing based on linguistic and structural evi-
dence. See “A Single Editor for the Whole Book of Proverbs,” in Studies in Ancient
Israelite Wisdom, The Library of Biblical Studies, ed. Harry M. Orlinsky (New
BLAND/FORMATION OF CHARACTER 223
links with the past, but adapting them to new ways and conditions.”4 Thus
wisdom flourished in its use for a couple of reasons. First, the original edu-
cational function that wisdom fulfilled was heightened during the post-exilic
period by the need to instruct Jews living in a predominantly Gentile world
in the religious and cultural ways of Jewish communities. Second, the lack
of covenantal language enabled wisdom to ground moral instruction in
something higher than Jewish nationalism.5
Within this environment the family takes on new significance. Having
removed from the land,
that had for centuries shaped her lifestyle. From the time the Israelites left
units known as the bxA tyBe the “father's house”). Such a social system gave
security, identity, and economic stability. But now with
words are apropos in this regard:
Taken in a larger context, some useful observations may be made which
have a bearing upon the role of wisdom in a biblical theology. The most
obvious is that, in the post-exilic period, wisdom appears to have flour-
ished as part of a program of education carried out with the approval of,
and probably within the location of, the individual household. Begin
early, be persistent and, if necessary, do not shun physical punishment,
in order to achieve results. These are seriously repeated maxims for
instruction, aimed at parents, instructors and pupils. The very roots of
religion and virtue are seen to rest within the relatively small household
context of family life. The rewards of adherence to the dictates of
wisdom are claimed to include security, prosperity and ultimately happi-
ness. All of this indicates that religion is taken out of its cultic setting
and is markedly domesticated. Parents, rather than priests, hold the key
to its seriousness and success! Yet it is never secular in the formal sense,
since it recognizes that, deprived of its religious foundations, it cannot
succeed and will lack its indispensable starting-point.6
The post-exilic period is a time of transition and change. The household
the focal point in enabling
people. It is the central sphere for the development of moral character.7
4 Clements, Wisdom in Theology, 125.
5 Ronald Clements, “Wisdom and Old. Testament Theology,” in Wisdom in
6 Clements, “Wisdom and Old Testament Theology,” 281.
7 See Ronald Clements, Wisdom in Theology, 125ff.; James Crenshaw, “Education
224 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
It is this historical context that lies behind the literary form of the book
of Proverbs. The book of Proverbs is framed in a familial setting. After the
introductory paragraph (1:1-7), the exhortation of the first wisdom poem
sets forth the context: “Hear, my child, your father's instruction, and do not
reject your mother's teaching; for they are a fair garland for your head, and
pendants for your neck” (1:8-9). The book concludes with the picture of the
well-ordered house and the capable woman offering counsel (31:10-31). She
is the one who “opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness
is on her tongue” (31:26). In addition, it is noteworthy that the sentence
sayings of 10:1-22:16 begin with this affirmation: “A wise child makes a
glad father, but a foolish child is a mother's grief” (10:1).8 Such a declara-
tion at the beginning sets the tone for hearing the sayings in a familial
context. As Ronald Clements concludes: “For wisdom the household had
become both a school and a spiritual training ground.”9 In spite of clues
may point to the existence of schools in
responsibility for instruction in the book of Proverbs falls on the family.11
instruction does the family play a significant role,” in The Roots of Wisdom: Oldest
ster/John Knox, 1995) 24.
8 .The NRSV is used whenever Scripture is quoted in this article.
9 Clements, Wisdom in Theology, 143.
10 In brief, there are three major arguments for the existence of schools in
schools; 2) the high literary quality of much of the OT is difficult to explain without
the existence of schools; 3) archaeological evidence points to the existence of
schools. Fragmentary inscriptions found and dated around the twelfth century BCE
seem to be the school exercises of young students.
Bernard Lang is of the
opinion there were schools in
described in Prov 1:20-33 of Dame Wisdom in the city gate rebuking the young men
who were assembled to learn but were not listening. See Lang, Wisdom and the Book
of Proverbs: A Hebrew Goddess Redefined (New York: Pilgrim, 1986). However,
is difficult to offer a definitive argument for schools in
is poetic! Both James Crenshaw and Stuart Weeks maintain that no definitive answer
be known from the current evidence. See Crenshaw in “Education in
JBL; Weeks in Early Israelite Wisdom (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994). G. I. Davies in
his article “Were There Schools in Ancient Israel?” sees the evidence as strongly in
of schools. See Wisdom in Ancient
John Day, Robert Gordon, and H. G. M. Williamson (
University Press, 1995) 199-211.
11 Carole R. Fontaine draws the following conclusion: “Within the private
sphere of the family, the most important sage roles are those that emphasize
BLAND/FORMATION OF CHARACTER 225
Responsibility for instruction is placed on the shoulders of both father and
mother. Sometimes the reference to the father-son relationship in Proverbs
is understood as actually referring to the relationship between a teacher and
his student. However, throughout Proverbs the mother, as well as the father,
is assumed to have the responsibility to teach.12 King Lemuel gives credit to
his mother for the instruction he received as a youth: “The words of Lemuel,
examples of the kind of advice his mother offered him.13 It is also possible
that the advice given to the son in Proverbs 7 comes from a woman. The
image in 7:6 of the person looking out the window of the house may imply
female figure.14 Whether it actually is or not, in ancient
role plays an important part in the education of children. This is why the
children (sons) of the capable woman in Prov 31:28 rise up and call her
The fact that both parents are frequently referred to as fulfilling this
teaching role strongly points to the recognition that it was the pupil's natural
parents who were involved. The father's reminiscence of his father's teachings
in 4:3 further depicts parental, not school, education. Thus whether or not
Proverbs was composed for use in schools, its literary context is the instruction
teaching, and these fall equally to father and mother.” Fontaine, “The Sage in Family
Tribe,” in The Sage in
and Leo G. Perdue (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990) 164. Raymond Van Leeuwen
remarks, “The social setting of the instructions in Proverbs 1-9 is portrayed as
parental address to adolescent 'sons' about to undertake the journey to full adult-
hood with its responsibilities and rewards....Hence, the primary purpose of these
chapters is protreptic: to entice the 'untutored' (ytiP,) to a wisely ordered (8:5-21)
and godly life (1:7, 29; 2:5; 3:5-12; 8:13; 9:10)” (113). Later he comments, “But our
interest lies rather in the explicit, self-conscious function of these texts as instruction
to youth in a situation of passage into adulthood” (115). See Raymond C. Van
Leeuwen, “Liminality and Worldview in Proverbs 1-9,” Semeia 50 (1990) 111-44.
124:1-4; 6:20-21; 10:1; 15:20; 17:25; 20:20; 23:22-25; 29:15; 30:11; 30:17;
31:26, 28. There are some 14 references to the Mxi in Proverbs as it relates to an
instructional context: 1:8; 4:1-4; 6:20; 10:1; 15:20; 19:26; 23:22; 23:25; 29:15;
13 Note that the advice given about sexual temptation and drinking alcohol is the
kind of advice one would give to a young adult.
14 The "woman at the window" was a popular motif on Phoenician ivories. The
LXX translates this verse using the third person feminine. For further argument see
Athalya Brenner, “Proverbs 1-9: An F Voice?” in On Gendering Texts: Female and
Male Voices in the Hebrew Bible, eds. Athalya Brenner and Fokkelien Dijk-Hemmes
(Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993) 113-30.
226 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
of the (actual) father to his (actual) son. “Father” means father, just as the
parallel “mother” (1:8; 4:3; 6:20) must mean the actual mother, not a
“schoolmarm.” A home, not a school, is the literary milieu of Proverbs.15
The Function of Family
The purpose of the household in Proverbs is for the instruction of youth.
But how does this purpose fit into the theology of Proverbs? Or is it simply
marginal to the book's concerns? Theologically speaking, Proverbs has been
deemed anthropocentric.16 It is centered on human accomplishment and has
been accused of being the first cousin to secularism. Recently, however
scholarship has argued that wisdom is more theocentric.17 Creation theology,
according to proponents, is at the core of the wisdom corpus. This
theological focus aligns wisdom material more with the mainstream of OT
thought. It is creation that reveals the nature and character of God in
Wisdom Literature. I would argue, however, that creation theology is not an
all-inclusive motif. In Proverbs the creation motif is, for the most part,
confined to the promotion of social ethics and the treatment of the poor and
oppressed. While creation constitutes an essential aspect of the theology of
the sages, it is not the only aspect of their theology, nor even the most
important. The anthropocentric still looms large.
Thus how the anthropocentric and theocentric dimensions relate to one
another is the issue.18 While it should not be denied that the theocentric view
is foundational, it is not in the foreground in Proverbs. The anthropocentric
pole is front and center. The concern for the success and well-being of the
individual and the community has precedence. Proverbs begins and ends
with a focus on humans, specifically the family. What ties these two theological
I5 Michael V. Fox maintains, “There is no justification for the common
assumption that the speaker is a schoolteacher.” See Fox, "Ideas of Wisdom in
Proverbs 1-9," JBL 116 (1997) 620. See his further comments in nn. 10 and 11.
See, for example, Walter Brueggemann, In Man We Trust (
Knox Press, 1972); Sibley Towner, “The Renewed Authority of Old Testament
Wisdom for Contemporary Faith,” in Canon and Authority, eds. George W. Coats
and Burke O. Long (Philadelphia: Fortress,1977) 132-47.
17 See Leo G. Perdue, Wisdom & Creation: The Theology of Wisdom Literature
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994). See also Lennart Boström, The God of the
Sages: The Portrayal of God in the Book of
Wiksell International, 1990).
18 Lennart Boström observes: “The remarkable thing about the book of Proverbs
is that the anthropocentric approach never collides with the theocentric. The
probable explanation is that the sages regarded the two as complementary and not,
mutually exclusive.” See Boström, The God of the Sages, 139.
BLAND/FORMATION OF CHARACTER 227
perspectives together is that they serve a common goal. Their goal is the
formation of moral character.19 Both Yahweh and parents are involved in the
task of training youth in the way in which their moral character should
develop.20 The result is that the theocentric and anthropocentric views are no
longer perceived as conflicting poles. The synthesizing force which engages
the human and divine wills is the formation of moral character.21 This fact
also explains why the anthropocentric captures center stage in the book. The
sages were deeply concerned with the moral formation of individuals for the
sake of maintaining order in society and the larger community.
At this point, however, a qualification is in order. Proverbs is not con-
cerned with the family's psychological or emotional well-being. Nor does
Proverbs engage in introspection, scrutinizing family dysfunctions and idio-
syncrasies. The focus is on the family as an environment of instruction. It is
on the call to youth to respond openly to sagacious instruction (1:20-33).
What is the basic content of the instruction that parents give? The
fundamental thrust is revealed in the prologue in Prov 1:1-7. This is the
purpose statement of the book.22 The recipients of these proverbs are taught
“righteousness, justice and equity” (v. 3)23 This instruction is fleshed out in
the wisdom poems of chapters 1-9, which are a series of parental admoni-
tions to the young adult.24 In like fashion, the purpose of the dense thicket
of sayings in chapters 10-29 is to instruct in the way of righteousness.
Clustered at the beginning of this section is a series of proverbs on the
19 I am indebted to William Brown for calling attention, to the central role that
character development plays in the Wisdom Literature. Unlike Brown, however, I
do not see the theology of character as the template through which all of Wisdom
Literature is interpreted. See William Brown, Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach
to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).
20 Note the collaborative effort of parent, youth, and Yahweh as described in
Prov 2:1-8. Parents initiate the instruction responsibility (2:1-2), but Yahweh is the
one who provides the resources for accomplishing the task (2:6-8).
21 See William Brown, Character in Crisis, 1-4.
22 The five statements in verses 2-6 begin with the preposition ,”l”, which is
connected with the infinitive construct.
23 See 2:9 and 8:20. See also William Brown, Character in Crisis, 26, 43-49.
24 Claudia Camp has observed: Wisdom personified as feminine offers an
interpretive framework for the collection of proverbs. The feminine image enables
the book of Proverbs to be a unified whole and function as part of a canon of
religious literature. It enables the sentence sayings to be cradled in a narrative
context. However, Camp does not clarify how the narrative context informs our
understanding of the individual proverbs. See Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in
the Book of Proverbs (Decatur, GA: Almond Press, 1985).
228 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
righteous and the wicked which serves to set the agenda for the rest of the
sayings.25 What the way of righteousness involves is fleshed out in the
myriad of sayings that follows. Among other things, it encompasses the
appropriate use of speech, respect for others, a proper sense of timing in
dealing with people, integrity in relationships, the ability to resolve disputes,
the proper use of wealth, and reverence for Yahweh. In Proverbs the
righteous person is one who knows how to live responsibly before God. In
many respects, the term is synonymous with “wise.” Righteous persons live
wisely because they are obedient both to God and to the teachings of the
Thus in Proverbs, the anthropocentric focus and the theocentric founda-
tion unite to accomplish a common goal: instruction in the formation of
moral character. Through the gift of wisdom, the human dimension yields
to the divine will to enable the divine to do its work in the lives of
individuals who have nurtured a “listening ear.” The parent provides the
initial instruction to youth. Yahweh empowers those who incline their heart
to understanding (2:1-22).27 Proverbs is a collection of sayings, experiences,
and insights written primarily to equip youth to contribute to the well-being
of the community.
The Process of Moral Instruction
In the book of Proverbs, the means by which moral instruction is passed
on to youth is multifaceted. Again, Proverbs does not layout this process in
an organized fashion. Elements of the process are implicitly referred to
throughout the book. I want to identify and describe a few: the employment
of the rod, the use of wise reproof, the implementation of oral repetition, the
art of discernment, and the skill of observing life.
25 The largest number of sayings in Prov 10-29 on any single topic deals with
the righteous and the wicked. John Goldingay has discovered that the righteous/
wicked sayings cluster at the beginning of chapters 10-22. In 10:1-11:13 forms of
the root for righteous (qdc) appear nineteen times and for wicked (fwr) eighteen.
He concludes that the concentration of righteous/wicked sayings at the beginning of
the unit establishes an ethical context for chapters 10-22. See John Goldingay, “The
Arrangement of Sayings in Proverbs 10-15,” JSOT 61 (1994) 75-83.
26 Boström, 213.
27 For further reflection on the educational process described in Proverbs 2, see
Michael V. Fox, “The Pedagogy of Proverbs 2,” JBL 113 (1994) 233-43. Fox
summarizes the text with the following remark: “Father, mother, and God
collaborate with the youngster in the shaping of moral character which will remain
a reliable source of protection” (243).
BLAND/FORMATION OF CHARACTER 229
Two means by which youth are instructed are referred to in Proverbs
29:15: “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a mother is disgraced by a
neglected child.” Two forms of discipline are described here: physical and
verbal. The first form has to do with the use of the rod in the process of
instruction. Sages appear to promote the use of corporal punishment as the
following proverb graphically depicts:
Do not withhold discipline from your children; if you beat them with a rod, they
will not die. If you beat them with the rod, you will save their lives from Sheol
The common stereotype of pedagogy in
mindless affair that includes a healthy dose of zealous thrashings. John
Collins remarks, “It is typical of all ancient wisdom that learning and
education was thought to involve suffering.”29 However, strictness is not
viewed as incompatible with love (13:24).30
While there is little doubt that ancient cultures resorted to physical
punishment in the educational process, there is some sign of at least the limi-
tations of corporal punishment as the following proverb suggests:
A rebuke (hrAfAG;) strikes deeper into a discerning person than a hundred blows
into a fool (17:10).
Especially as one examines Proverbs 1-9, corporal punishment is not among
the tools used to educate youth; and though Dame Wisdom reproves, she
never uses the rod. The description of the education process in chapter two,
for example, is a collaborative effort among parents, youth, and Yahweh.31
Yahweh and Wisdom offer reproof; parents give instruction. None resort to
28 Eight times Fb,we (rod) is used to describe corporal punishment in Proverbs
(10:13; 13:24; 22:8; 22:15; 23:13, 14; 26:3; 29:15). One time the term rF,Ho (rod)
is used (14:3). From Proverbs 13:24 we have coined the contemporary gnomic
saying “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
John Collins, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Knox Preaching Guides (
Knox, 1980) 40.
30 See 2 Sam 7:14-16. Also, Paul's advice to fathers is in keeping with the spirit
of the sage: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in
the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).
31 See Fox, “The Pedagogy of Proverbs 2.”
32 The social context of Proverbs is the world of the young adult. Notice the
kind of advice given. Youth are to stay away from gang-related activities (1:8-19);
they are to avoid the temptress (2:16-19; 5:1-23; 6:20-35; 7:6-27); they are to
avoid the overuse of wine (23:29-35); they are to live a disciplined life and not yield
230 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
The second form of discipline described in Prov 29:15 is verbal:
reproof.33 The noun reproof (tHakaOT) appears in Proverbs more than in any
other book in the Hebrew Scriptures.34 Reproof in Proverbs has to do with
training in moral instruction (see 19:25 and 21:11). Reproof in the mind of
the sage is not something that is practiced by the contentious man
(26:17-28) or the contentious woman (27:15-16). That is, reproof is not
verbal abuse or persistent nagging. Neither is reproof a verbal response that
comes only in the context of an angry moment. When appropriately used,
reproof is a skill that is learned through experience and through applying
wisdom. The sages describe it as a work of art: “Like gold or an ornament
of gold is a wise reprove to a listening ear” (25:12).35 Elsewhere reproof is
described as wholesome admonition:
The ear that heeds wholesome admonition36 will lodge among the wise.
Those who ignore instruction despise themselves, but those who heed admoni-
tion gain understanding.
The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility goes before honor:
This text envisions the instruction the sage gives to the youth. It uses the
familiar sapiential language of “admonition” or “reproof” (tHakaOT vv. 31,
32). This is not just any kind of reproof; this is wholesome, life-giving
(Myyi.Ha; v. 31) instruction. Youth are exhorted to heed admonition and
Reproof has as its goal the instruction of youth in the ways of righteousness,
justice, and equity. In its best sense, the whole of Proverbs is a collection of
to the temptation slothfulness (6:6-11; 24:30-34). This advice is blunt and
graphic-the kind given to young adults, not grade school children!
33 The term is often used with rsaUm (discipline, instruction) in Proverbs (3:11;
5:12; 6:23; 10:17; 12:1; 13:18; 15:5; 15:10; 15:32). The Hebrew word for “reproof”
is also the word for reasoned argument such as would be put forward by a lawyer in
the courtroom (cf. Job 13:6; 23:4; Ps 38:14).
34 It occurs twenty-four times in the OT; sixteen of those are in Proverbs. The
verb hky occurs 59.times in the OT. Its most frequent occurrence is in Job (17 times)
and Proverbs (10 times).
35 In the context of this proverb, the gold referred to in the first line is more than
likely gold that is fashioned into an earring. Such attractive jewelry is compared to
the process of offering reproof that is in good taste to one who has a receptive ear.
Both the ring and reproof are viewed as works of art.
36 The phrase for “wholesome admonition” is Myy.iH thakaOT; literally “admonition
BLAND/FORMATION OF CHARACTER 231
advice that could be classified as reproof. In the opening paragraph of
1:8-19, a wise father offers reproof to the listening ear of the son. The father
warns the youth about the dangers of living by the rules of a gang-type
lifestyle. The sage in 7:6-27 describes in graphic details the enticing and
destructive ways of the temptress. This is wise reproof to the attentive ear.
King Lemuel recalls with appreciation the constructive reproof his mother
gave him as a youth (31:1-9). She warned him about the baleful temptations
of the seductress and the ruinous effects of wine and strong drink, and she
admonishes him as king to practice justice and righteousness toward the poor
and afflicted (31:5, 8-9).
In Proverbs, offering reproof is a way of holding up experiences of life
before young adults in order for them to have an image of how they are to
live morally responsible lives. To offer constructive reproof is one form in
which moral instruction is taught. Good discipline aims at education; it is
concerned with how much a youth learns, not how much it hurts. Though
rebuke can turn into nagging and even verbal abuse (26:17-28), its construc-
tive function is to develop character. In fact, reproof which is forthright but
wise is more productive than a superficial demonstration of love.37 Reproof
finds its theological moorings in the way in which Yahweh instructs his
My child, do not despise the Lord's discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves the one he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights (Prov 3:11-12).
There is such a close relationship in this text between the discipline of the
Lord and the discipline of a father to a youth that the discipline of a loving
father who offers wise reproof is really an extension of Yahweh's discipline.
Woven into the process of reproof is a heavy dose of oral repetition.
Through memorization the sages infuse their instructions into young, pliable
minds. This is apparently what the sages are referring to when they exhort
youth to keep the father's instructions “on your fingers and write them on
the tablet of your heart” (7:3; cf. also 3:3; 1:9; 22:17-21).38 These instructions
37 Compare the following proverbs: “Better is open reproof than hidden love”
(27:5). “Whoever reproves a person will afterward find more favor than one who
flatters with the tongue” (28:23). See also Eccl 7:5: “It is better for a man to hear the
rebuke of the wise, than to hear the song of fools.”
See André Lemaire, “Education: Ancient
Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 309.
232 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
are packaged in the memorable form of the proverb. Parallelism39 enable the
proverb to be tucked away easily into the corners of the mind ready for
active duty when the occasion arises. Proverbs make instructions portable.40
In terms of its socio-historical context, the proverb was of primary
importance during the transitional years of the post-exilic period. When
reframed their beliefs, packaging them not in narratives but in proverbial
form to pass on to their children. In fact, Gerhard von Rad holds that
daily decisions than were the ten commandments.41 While Israel was in
exile, proverbs served as survival tools.42 Even though the sages taught
youth to develop reasoning skills, to plan for the future, to think critically,
there were times when youth had to make immediate decisions in the heat of
temptations and moral dilemmas. To have a mental storehouse of proverbs
provided the resources for youth to meet the demands of such occasions.43
The sages, however, are not interested just in having youth memorize
oral instruction. They are quite concerned that youth learn to engage the
mind. The sages want students to learn the art of discernment (1:2, 6). The
discerning student is the one who develops a “listening ear” (25:12). The
sages want to equip students with the ability to think critically.44 In their
39 Parallelism is a dynamic quality of Hebrew poetry in which the second line
in some way emphasizes, or seconds, the first line.
40 James Crenshaw refers to this portable quality when he defines the proverb
as “a winged word outliving a fleeting moment.” James Crenshaw, Old Testament
Wisdom: An Introduction (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981) 67.
Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in
This is Ronald Clements's thesis in Wisdom in Theology (
43 Walter Harrelson's remarks are apropos (though he oversimplifies the thought
process of wisdom): “Wisdom operates without the necessity of synthesis. This is
perhaps its most characteristic feature. Humans need both disciplines of philosophy/
logic and phronesis/wisdom thinking....They need the carefully articulated picture
of the world and its parts which comes from systematic thought that aims at
synthesis. They need equally-and this is my point-the mode of thinking that can
stop short of synthesis. That is what the ancient world called wisdom....A society
needs to have a large number of observations that can be applied to given situations
unthinkingly, immediately, without necessary reference to some coherent scheme of
thought within which they fit...” (10-11). See Harrelson, “Wisdom and Pastoral
44 See John Eaton, “Memory and Encounter: An Educational Ideal,” in Of
Prophets' Visions and the Wisdom of Sages, eds. Heather A. McKay and David
BLAND/FORMATION OF CHARACTER 233
instruction, the sages give no pat answers.45 For example, while the proverbs
in chapters 10-15 emphasize the simple, conventional theology of wisdom
(wise people prosper, foolish people suffer), Prov 16:1-9 quickly dispels any
mechanical or mindless approach to that theology. Pro v 16:1-9 throws a
wrench in the conventional cogs of wisdom claiming that humans may make
their plans, but Yahweh has the final say. This cluster of proverbs in verses
1-9 describes the complexity of a world that lives with the tension between
human freedom and divine sovereignty. No simple answers exist.
It appears, however, that some students were attracted to the simple
route of receiving wisdom. Prov 17:16 reveals the concern of the sages in
regard to a lack of interest in learning discernment: “What is this price in the
hand of a fool to acquire wisdom, when there is no mind?” Some students
believed they could gain understanding apart from using the mind. All they
needed to do was to pay the tuition cost and wisdom was theirs for the
taking. Wisdom was a commodity, a matter of learning some techniques,
accepting certain beliefs, and memorizing a few proverbs. But not so in the
eyes of the sage. The answers were not cut and dried (cf. 26:4, 5). Students
had to learn to think. They had to interact with others. Students who
accepted the challenge came to realize that understanding is a process in
which “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another”
Among other things, lack of discernment manifests itself in those who
develop the habit of speaking before thinking. The consequences result in
significant harm inflicted on others (25:20; 27:14). In the same vein, the
person who does not know how and when to use a proverb lacks
discernment. Such a person is described as foolish (27:7,9). The ability to
discover that which is appropriate for a particular situation is an essential
ingredient of wisdom (25:11). Thus for the sages, the development of moral
character comes as a result of a genuine engagement of the mind in
discerning what is appropriate or not appropriate for the occasion at hand.
The art of discernment is also used to engage students in another process
of instruction: the skill of learning to observe life. The strategy of the sage
is to provide youth with opportunities to observe experiences at a distance
J. A. Clines (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993) 179-91.
45 The individual proverbs are not timeless truths. Neither are they, contrary to
popular opinion, general truths. Rather, they are sayings that are appropriated to
specific contexts. It takes wisdom to know how and when to use a proverb. Wisdom
is not so much in the proverb as it is in the proverb user. Alyce McKenzie describes
proverbs as more like spotlights than floodlights. See McKenzie, Preaching
Proverbs: Wisdom for the Pulpit (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996) xvii.
234 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
without having to pay the consequences of irresponsible behavior. The sages
are not interested in sheltering youth from the harsh realities of life. They
want youth to know and experience vicariously the dangers of certain
lifestyles. Thus youth are exposed to the crooked speech of wicked men
(2:12-15) and the smooth deceptive speech of wicked women (2:16-19).
Youth are introduced to the violent behavior of gangs (1:8-19). They are
escorted to the red light district of town (7:6-27). They are shown the havoc
alcohol wreaks on its victims (23:29-35). They even get a taste of the
devastating consequences of a life of indolence (24:30-34). Exposing youth
to experiences they can observe in others is a form of inoculation, a
powerful means of “receiving instruction” (24:32).
The sage, however, exposes youth not only to negative experiences but
to positive ones as well. Youth are given a glimpse of the well-ordered
family (31:1 0-31). They are shown the ways of the prudent so. They are
exposed to the seven-pillared house of Dame Wisdom and the ordered life
she offers (9:1-12). Youth observe the ways of the ant and see the results of
hard work and self-discipline (6:6-8). They observe creation around them
and learn wisdom (30:24-28). For the sage, then, instruction occurs in
observing life. In the process of observing life, one learns to reflect on those
experiences with discernment.
Wisdom devotes much effort to the instruction of youth. While there is
no complete picture of the process, the gravity of the task for both parents
and youth is clearly portrayed. The process is rigorous. It calls on parents to
initiate the process, to offer reproof, to seek out opportunities to instruct. It
calls on youth to respond receptively: to receive reproof openly, to engage
the mind for the task of memorizing, for thinking, for observing. But this
demanding assignment seems always to appear in the context of a deep
respect for the value of the individual as that individual seeks to contribute
to the well-being of the whole community.
The Goal of Moral Instruction
What is the goal of these instructional tools and of the whole educational
process of wisdom? To respond to that, it is first helpful to look at the
absence of such training. One of the consequences of an undisciplined youth
is that such a one wreaks havoc on the larger community. Prov 29:18 takes
the principle of instruction beyond the home to the neighborhood and city:
“Where there is no prophecy the people cast off restraint; but happy are
those who keep the law.” The King James Version translates the first line in
the most familiar way: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” The
proverb is frequently understood to mean that where people have no dreams
BLAND/FORMATION OF CHARACTER 235
for the future they will not survive.46 This translation,however, makes the
proverb impotent. In 29:18 “vision”47 is a term that refers to moral instruc-
tion or revelation, not to the imagination or foresight of the people. In fact,
the word “vision” or “prophecy” in the first line is parallel with “law”48 in
the second. Thus verse 18a affirms that where people have no respect or
consideration for the instruction of the wise, there is chaos: “the people cast
off restraint.” That is, there is no discipline.49
With the second line of the proverb, there is an important shift that
occurs, a shift from the plural to the singular. This shift is lost in the NRSV
because of its use of inclusive language. A somewhat more literal reading is
“...but blessed is he who keeps the law.” There is a contrast between an
immoral community in the first line and a morally responsible individual in
the second. One implication may be that even though a society may lose its
moral bearings and cast off restraint, an individual who follows sagacious
advice can choose otherwise. Such a person maintains strong ethical char-
acter even in the midst of a corrupt society.
This advice is precisely what the parents seek to give their son in
1:8-19. Here the youth is tempted to become a part of a gang that has no
regard for others or for the community. Such a group rejects the instruction
that is given them by their parents (v. 8). They cast off all restraint. They
steal, abuse, and mistreat others in order to gain selfishly for themselves.
They are schemers, mischief-makers, a gang without scruples. However,
their lifestyle is attractive, and they seem to have quite a following. They
share equally in the spoils of their conquests. They practice the philosophy
“all for one and one for all” (v. 14). Yet the youth who is being lured can
make a choice to reject that enticing way of life and follow in the way of
sound instruction. He can maintain strong moral character even in the midst
of unscrupulous people. If he does, according to Prov 29:18, he is blessed.
46 George Barna uses this proverb as a biblical basis for stressing that churches
need goals and visions. See Barna, The Power of Vision: How You Can Capture and
Apply God's Vision for Your Ministry (Ventura: Barna Research Group, 1992).
47 The Hebrew term is NOzHA. See Amos 1:1; Isa 1:1; Nah 1:1.
48 hrAOT (torah or instruction) here may refer to God's law as revealed through
the prophets, but more likely it refers to the instruction given by the wise, including
father and mother.
49 William McKane translates this line as follows: “Where there is no vision
are undisciplined.” See McKane, Proverbs: A New Approach (
236 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
Those who are given solid moral training in the home become respon-
sible citizens in the community even when many in that community are
corrupt. But the development of moral character is not for the sake of having
skills for one's personal success. Moral instruction is about preparing youth
to serve the larger community. The end result is imaged in Prov 31:10-31.
Here the youth has come of age and is now living responsibly within the
family and society. The capable woman is not depicting the ideal wife that
every youth is supposed to desire; instead, she herself represents wisdom
incarnate. She is what wisdom looks like when it is nurtured and developed.
The capable woman provides for the welfare of her family as well as the
community. Here the mature youth, the one who has come of age, who is
now established in the community, is actively involved in the lives of those
around (vv. 13-19). She encourages others; she is a wise counselor (v. 26);
she engages in instruction (v. 26); she ministers to the poor and the needy (v.
20); she has the respect of her friends and family (v. 28-29). In a word, she
practices righteousness, justice, and equity. The book of Proverbs is about
youth who journey beyond the protected walls of home into the mainstream
of society to fulfill their roles responsibly so that righteousness exalts the
nation (14:34). Such is a description of one who truly fears the Lord. This
is the goal of wisdom's instruction.
In Proverbs the primary function of the family is to prepare youth for
living morally responsible lives. Responsibility lies with both parents and
youth in the educational process. Parents initiate the process (2:1-2; 4:1-4).
They provide the loving caring environment where instruction can most
effectively occur. They offer wise reproof; words that instruct, encourage,
caution, and guide. They give youth a mental repertoire of proverbial
sayings that enable them to face daily moral decisions responsibly. They
actively engage the mind of the youth in the art of critical thinking. They
provide opportunities for youth to observe some of the harsh realities of life.
These parents are invested in the well-being of their children.
The stereotypical view of adolescence in our culture today describes it
as a period of rebellion; it is a time to “sow one's wild oats.” Youth, it is
believed, have little interest in moral or spiritual matters.50 Thus
conventional wisdom advises, “leave them alone, be patient, lay low;
eventually they will come around.” “If they do not have solid instruction
given to them prior to the teen years, it's too late anyway.” William
50 Thomas G. Long, “Beavis and Butt-Head Get Saved,” Theology Today 51
BLAND/FORMATION OF CHARACTER 237
Willimon refers to the present generation of young people as the “abandoned
Generation”51 because parents have, by and large, been absent from their
lives. In contrast, Proverbs depicts fathers and mothers deeply engaged in
the instruction of youth.
However, youth have responsibility as well. They can choose to reject
a parent's discipline. There is the youth who scoffs at instruction (13:1);
there is the foolish son (10:1), the one who brings shame to his family
(29:15). But the responsible youth has cultivated an attentive ear (2:1-2).
Such a youth is open to receiving instruction (22:17-19). No, the task is not
easy. In the initial stages, seeking wisdom and developing moral character
is wearisome (2:3-4). It demands critical engagement of the mind. But the
one who perseveres receives satisfaction. Such a youth delights in doing
However, neither parents nor young people striving to live uprightly are
left to their own devices. Underlying the whole instruction process is
Yahweh, who supplies the strength and grace for both parties to fulfill their
responsibilities. Yahweh gives wisdom. He offers protection from the
destructive lifestyles of the wicked (2:7-8). He preserves the way of those
who walk in integrity (2:7-11).
In submission to Yahweh's will, parents strive to train up responsible
youth in the way in which they should morally live out their lives. Youth, in
response, endeavor to comply by cultivating the listening ear. They learn to
fear the Lord and turn away from evil.
51 William Willimon, “Hunger in This Abandoned Generation,” in Sharing
Heaven's Music: The Heart of Christian Preaching,
ed. Barry L. Callen (
Abingdon, 1995) 21-32.
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