Restoration Quarterly 40.4 (1998) 221-237

       Copyright © 1998 by Restoration Quarterly, cited with permission.



                         BOOK OF PROVERBS


                                           DAVE BLAND

                      Harding University Graduate School of Religion




From the very inception of Israel's history, she was summoned to pass

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

strata implemented the educational task differently. Concerning Israel's

instructional responsibility, R. A. Culpepper concludes: “Education in

ancient Israel...was largely informal and related to the family unit.”1 Over

a period of time the training process underwent changes, taking on new

forms to meet the challenges of new circumstances.

Israel took her responsibility to heart. The book of Proverbs offers a

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

the most productive time for Wisdom Literature in Israel.

The post-exilic period was a time when Israel faced significant change.

It was a time of transition. Israel no longer had the temple, the monarchy, or

the land to depend on for her identity. She had to struggle with how she

could maintain her identity in this context. Wisdom helped reshape Israel's

former nationalistic focus by placing her religious beliefs in a different

literary form (the proverb) and extracting the exclusive language of cove-

nant. As a result, unlike many nations taken into exile, Israel was able not

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.

3 See Hartmut Gese, “Wisdom Literature in the Persian Period,” in The Cam-

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

York: KTAV, 1976) 329-40.



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

been removed from the land, Israel also is severed from the clan structure

that had for centuries shaped her lifestyle. From the time the Israelites left

Egypt, their social structure was organized around clans, extended family

units known as the bxA tyBe the “father's house”). Such a social system gave

them security, identity, and economic stability. But now with Israel

dispersed across the Persian Empire, the clan system is dissolved. Clements’

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

becomes the focal point in enabling Israel to maintain her identity as God's

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

Ancient Israel, eds. John Day, Robert Gordon, and H. G. M. Williamson (Cam-

bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 273.

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

which may point to the existence of schools in Israel,10 the primary

responsibility for instruction in the book of Proverbs falls on the family.11



in Israel,” JBL 104 (1985) 614. Claus Westermann observes: “Only in the sphere of

instruction does the family play a significant role,” in The Roots of Wisdom: Oldest

Proverbs of Israel and Other Peoples, trans. J. Daryl Charles (Louisville: Westmin-

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

ancient Israel: 1) Israel followed the practices of Egypt and Mesopotamia, who had

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 Israel based on the image

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,

it is difficult to offer a definitive argument for schools in Israel based on a text that

is poetic! Both James Crenshaw and Stuart Weeks maintain that no definitive answer

can be known from the current evidence. See Crenshaw in “Education in Israel,”

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

favor of schools. See Wisdom in Ancient Israel: Essays in Honour of J. A. Emerton,

eds. John Day, Robert Gordon, and H. G. M. Williamson (Cambridge: Cambridge

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,

king of Massa, which his mother taught him” (31:1). What follows are

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

a female figure.14 Whether it actually is or not, in ancient Israel the maternal

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

and Tribe,” in The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East, eds. John G. Gammie

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;

30:17; 31:1.

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.

16 See, for example, Walter Brueggemann, In Man We Trust (Atlanta: John

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 Proverbs (Stockholm: Almqvist &,

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 Israel is that it is a harsh and

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

the rod.32



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.”

29 John Collins, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta: John

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

of life.”


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.”

38 See André Lemaire, “Education: Ancient Israel,” in ABD, vol. 2, ed. David

Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 309.


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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

Israel lost its major institutions, was exiled and dispersed abroad, the sages

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

throughout Israel's life proverbs may have been more important for making

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.

41 Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972) 26.

42 This is Ronald Clements's thesis in Wisdom in Theology (Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1992).

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

Theology,” Andover Newton Quarterly 7 (1966) 6-14.

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

people are undisciplined.” See McKane, Proverbs: A New Approach (Philadelphia:

Westminster, 1970) 257.

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

(1994) 199-203.

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

right (2:9-10).

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 (Nashville:

Abingdon, 1995) 21-32.




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