Bibliotheca Sacra 136 (July-Sept. 1979): 211-38.
Copyright © 1979
The Book of Proverbs and
Ancient Wisdom Literature
Bruce K. Waltke
The comparison made in 1 Kings 4:29-34 between Solomon's
wisdom and that of the ancient Near Eastern sages strongly implies
that his proverbs were a part of an international,
dom literature. During the past century archaeologists have been
uncovering texts from Solomon's pagan peers, and scholars have
beeen using them to further the understanding of the Book of
Proverbs. The purposes of this article are to examine the ways in
which this ancient literature has advanced the understanding of
the proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of
NIV), and to demonstrate how these texts help answer introductory
questions (date; authorship; literary forms, structure, and arrange-
ment; textual transmission; and history of the wisdom tradition)
and how these texts help interpret the content of the book (the mean-
ing of wisdom, its theological relevance, and the resolution of some
DATE AND AUTHORSHIP
Before the discovery and decipherment of these extrabiblical
texts, scholars who applied to the Old Testament a historico-critical
method (which presupposed the evolutionary development of reli-
gion) concluded that the biblical witnesses to Solomon's contribution
to wisdom could not be taken at face value.1 Instead, they argued,
 These biblical witnesses are 1 Kings -34; Proverbs 10:1; 25:1; and
Matthew 12:42. Proverbs 1: 1 is best taken as a title for the work and not a designation
of the authorship of the whole book because the internal evidence of the book itself
clearly shows that the book achieved its final form after the time of Hezekiah (25: 1)
and that others besides Solomon contributed to this anthology of wisdom material
(cf. 30: 1; 31: 1). There is no evidence, however, that the book in its present form
should be dated later than the time of the monarchy.
222 / Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1979
the postexilic Jewish community under Grecian influences must be
credited for these literary achievements. Even as late as 1922,
Hoelscher still placed the so-called older proverbial literature in
the Persian period.2 But the many pagan sapiential texts, found
around the broad horizon of the
dated to the time of Solomon and centuries before him, have called
their presupposition into question and have refuted their skepticism
toward the biblical witness.
Giovanni Pettinato, in his preliminary report on the thousands
of tablets unearthed in the royal archives at
alerted biblical scholars that some of those tablets contain collections
of proverbs.3 The precise dating of the
royal palace at
some difficulties, for the artifactual evidence points to a date between
2400 and 2250 B.C. while the paleography of the literary texts points
to a period around 2450 B.C.4
Gordon has published two collections of Sumerian proverbs
out of the fifteen collections he pieced together from the hundreds
of clay tablets dug up from the scribal quarters
and Ur.5 These two collections containing about 200 and 165
proverbs respectively have a strikingly similar form to the Solomonic
collections of 375 and 124 proverbs in Proverbs 10:1-22:16 and
25:1-29:27 respectively. Gordon dates both of these Sumerian
collections to the Old Babylonian period (ca. 1700 B.C.).
Lambert has published bilingual proverbial texts containing
both Sumerian proverbs and their Akkadian translations.6 Six of
these fragments, dating from the Middle Assyrian times and later,
overlap or can be placed in relation to each other, and thus provide a
considerable part of one group of proverbs known as the Assyrian
Collection. He also published an Akkadian translation from Middle
Assyrian times of a Sumerian original entitled The Instructions of
2 Gustav Hoelscher, Geschichte der israelitischen und judischen Religion
(Giessen: A. Topelmann, 1922), p. 148.
3 Giovanni Pettinato, "The Royal Archives of TelI Mardikh-Ebla," Biblical
Archaeologist 39 (May 1976): 45.
ogist 39 (September 1976): 94-113.
Gordon also noted that "it is quite reasonable to assume a considerably older
date for the origin of at least a great number of the proverbs included
6 W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, 3d ed. (
Press, 1975), pp. 92, 97, 222.
The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature / 223
Shuruppak as well as the famous Akkadian work, The Counsels of
Wisdom, which he dates to the Cassite period (1500-1200 B.C.).
Aramaic proverbs are given in a collection known as the Words
of Ahiqar. Ahiqar was a sage in the court of the Assyrian kings
Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.) and Esarhaddon (680-669 B.C.).7
Instructional literature from
admonitions found in Proverbs 1:2-9:18 and and are
dated from the
Period and Hellenistic Rule. The following is a list of those texts
belonging to the Egyptian instruction literature.8
The Instruction for Ka-gem-ni
The Instruction of Prince Hor-dedef
The Instruction of Ptah-hotep
The First Intermediate Period (2160-2040 B.C.)
The Instruction for King Meri-ka-Re
The Middle Kingdom (2040-1558 B.C.)
The Instruction of King Amen-em-het
The Instruction of Sehetep-ib-Re
The Instruction of Ani
The Instruction of Amen-em-Ope9
The Late Dynastic Period and Hellenistic Rule
The Instruction of 'Onchsheshonqy (fifth or fourth century B.C.)
The Instruction of the Papyrus Insinger (304-30 B.C.)
In short, wisdom literature existed around the
not only before Solomon but even before the Hebrews appeared
Like the wisdom sayings in the Book of Proverbs, these texts
of varying provenience are composed in poetic form, that is, they
are cast in parallelisms. Herder praised this form as "thought rhyme"
7 James M. Lindenberger, The Armaic Proverbs of Ahiqar, (Ph.D. diss.,
8 Leo G. Perdue, Wisdom and Cult (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977),
9 The date of the Instruction of Amen-em-Ope is hotly disputed and deserves a
separate study. The issue is of some importance because this text most closely resembles
the Book of Proverbs. A date for this text shortly before the time of Solomon has received
new support through the discovery by Cerny of a broken (yet unpublished) ostracon in the
Amen-emope," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 47 (1961): 100-106.
224 / Bibliotheca Sacra -July-September 1979
and von Rad aptly likened it to expressing truth stereophonically.
For example, the familiar antithetical parallelism of Solomon's
proverbs finds its counterpart in this Sumerian proverb: "Of what
you have found you do not speak; [only] of what you have lost do
you speak."10 In his "rhetorical analysis" of Sumerian proverbs,
Gordon calls attention to antithetical, synonymous, climactic, and
more complicated types of parallelism.
Most instructive here is the Instruction of Amen-em-Ope, pre-
served in a
that is, in lines that show the metrical scheme. Furthermore, the
lines are grouped into chapters.
The Egyptians had the specific term sboyet ("instruction" or
"teaching") for their literary genre11 that closely approximates the
precepts and maxims collected in Proverbs 1:2-9:18 and -
24: 34. On the other hand, the pithy Solomonic sentences designated
"proverbs" in 10: 1 and 25:1 resemble in the strictest sense the
apothegms, adages, and bywords of the Sumerian collections.
But in contrast to the Solomonic collections, the Sumerian
collections and the Assyrian Collections contain coarse and vulgar
proverbs. Here are some edited samples: "[A low] fellow/[An A]
morite speaks [to] his wife, 'You be the man," [I] will be the
woman.' "12 "A mother of eight [grown] young men who is [still
capable of] bearing [more children] lies down [for copulation] pas-
sively [?] !"13 "A thing which has not occurred.. since time immemo-
rial: a young girl broke wind in her husband's bosom."14 Such
proverbs bear more kinship to the Arabic, Turkish, and other modem
Near Eastern proverbs than to the known proverbs from the rest
of the ancient Near East.
10 Gordon, Sumerian Proverbs, p. 47.
11 William Kelly Simpson,
ed., The Literature of
12 Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, p. 230. Lambert comments:
"The section apparently refers to transvestite practices, which are first known in the
ancient near East from their condemnation in Deuteronomy xxii.5. Later references
to these rites in
p. 250), though there seems to be no clear
evidence for them at any period in
Thus the alternative 'Amorite'
could be supported on the assumption that these people were notorious for
this perversion, as were the men of
13 Gordon, Sumerian Proverbs, p. 273.
14 Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, p. 260.
The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature / 225
LITERARY STRUCTURE AND ARRANGEMENT
The literary structure of the Egyptian sboyet genre includes
three elements: (a) a title - "the beginning of the instruction of
X which he composed for his son Y"; (b) a prose or poetic intro-
duction - the setting forth of the details of why the instruction is
given; and (c) the contents - the linking together of admonitions
and sayings in mutually independent sections of very diverse nature.
Aside from the omission of the first section, this is precisely
the structure exhibited in the "Thirty Sayings of the Wise" (Prov.
). The motive behind the collection is given in -21
which is followed by the diverse collection of admonitions in
Compare, for example, the first two chapters of the Instruction
of Amen-em-Ope with Proverbs -23.
Give your ears, hear the sayings,
It profits to put them in your heart,
Woe to him who neglects them!
Let them rest in the casket of your belly,
May they be bolted in your heart;
When there rises a whirlwind of words,
They'll be a mooring post for your tongue.
If you make your life with these in your heart,
You will find it a success;
You will find my words a storehouse for life,
Your being will prosper upon earth.
Beware of robbing a wretch,
Of attacking a cripple....15
If those who divided the Bible into its chapters had been aware of
these literary forms and structures found in the pagan sapiential
texts, they no doubt would have made a chapter break between
Proverbs and .
The literary structure of the Egyptian "teaching" genre also
enables one to detect better the structure undergirding the Book
of Proverbs. After the prose introduction in 1: 1 and before the
collection of sayings in 10:1-31:31, the editor included a collection
of admonitions and econiums to wisdom, setting forth in detail the
value of the instruction (1:2-9:18).
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient
Egyptian Literature: A Book of
2 vols. (
226 / Bibliotheca Sacra -July-September 1979
The biblical student may find small comfort in learning that
the sages throughout the ancient Near East essentially arranged their
material in the same baffling manner found in the Book of Proverbs.
Is there any logic to the arrangement? Perhaps some help is found
in the Sumerian collections which fall, with few exceptions, into
groupings which have in common either the initial signs of each
individual proverb or the subject matter of the proverbs in the group.
The "key sign" may also occur in the second place or even further
on in the proverb.16 Moreover, the "key signs" also alternate occa-
sionally. Gemser also notes rudiments of similar groupings in the
Instructions of 'Onchsheshonqy.17 Possibly the proverbial sentences
and the admonitions in the Book of Proverbs are connected in this
so-called anthological style whereby sayings are strung together by
certain catchwords as in the more obvious key king in -15 and
Yahweh in 16:1-7, which follows an alternating pattern in 16:7-11
(note king in ).
It is also surprising to find lofty precepts mixed with more
"trivial" apothegms. Of course, this is a misconception based on
the modern-day viewpoint of life. From the sages' perspective each
proverb is an expression of "wisdom," which is, as will be seen, the
fixed order of reality. Viewed from this perspective no sentence is
But when a predestined order is recognized in so many quasi-
permanent features of society...all rules of conduct become
practical rules. There can be no contrast between savoir-faire-
worldly wisdom - and ethical behavior. Conceptions which we
distinguish as contrasts thus turn out to be identical for the Egyptian;
statements of his, which have for us a pragmatic ring, appear to be
transfused with religious reverence.18
Such an inconsequential arrangement characterizes many books of
ancient "wisdom"; the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are cases
in point. The absence of a systematic arrangement is due to the
traditional character of the contents. There is no need of a closely
knit argument; striking images, incisive wording are all that is
required to give a fresh appeal to the truth of familiar viewpoints.19
16 Gordon, Sumerian Proverbs, pp. 24, 156.
17 B. Gemser, "The Instructions of "Onchsheshonqy and Biblical Wisdom
Literature," Supplement to Vetus Testamentum, vol. 7 (1960), p. 113.
19 Ibid., p. 61.
The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature / 227
TRANSMISSION OF THE TEXT
First Kings 4: 29-31 suggests that the sages and their writings
were held in high esteem in Solomon's world. The texts confirm this
impression. One hieratic papyrus put the value of wisdom literature
this way: "Books of instructions became their [the learned scribes']
pyramids. ...Is there another one like Ptah-hotep and Kaires?"20
wall of a New Kingdom tomb at
mummiform statues of important officials. Among the viziers are
Imhotep and Kaires. Their inclusion is certainly partly to be ex-
plained on the basis of their reputations as sages.
Not surprisingly, then, their works seem to have enjoyed a
canonical status. "Take no word away, add nothing thereto, and
put not one thing in place of another," cautions Ptah-hotep with
reference to his own work. His mentality corresponds to the godly
Agur's admonition: "Every word of God is flawless; He is a shield
to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words or He
will rebuke you and prove you a liar" (Prov. 30:5-6). Meri-ka-Re
was told, "Copy thy fathers, them that have gone before thee....
Behold, their words endure in writing. Open [the book] and read,
and copy the knowledge, so that the craftsman too may become a
wise man [?]."
The conservative scribes by and large followed these admoni-
Amen-em-Ope which corresponds to 24:1-25:9 in the complete
ment and the extract copied on the tablet begins precisely at the
beginning of a page in the complete papyrus.
The colophon to the Counsel of Wisdom reads, "Written accord-
ing to the prototype and collated." Lambert commented on a bilingual
tablet from Ashurbanipal's library, of which no duplicate or early
copy has yet been found.
Either this tablet, or an antecedent copy on which it is based, was
copied from a damaged original, and the scribe very faithfully
reproduced this. When he wrote on one line what was split between
two in his original, the dividing point on the original was marked
with the pair of wedges used in commentaries to separate words
quoted from the comments on them....Where the original was
badly damaged, the scribe copied out exactly what he saw, and
left blank spaces marked "broken" where nothing remained.21
20 From Papyrus Chester Beatty IV, following the translation of A. H.
21 Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, p. 239.
228 / Bibliotheca Sacra -July-September 1979
But the evidence also shows that some changes were made. The
comparison between the late bilingual tablets with
ian unilingual Sumerian material is proving to be a most helpful
lesson in literary history. Gordon turned up thirty-four individual
proverbs common to both the earlier unilingual material and the
later bilingual texts. Lambert observed instances where no change
occuued. "What is more significant is that whole groups of proverbs
in the same sequence are carried over from the unilinguals to the
late bilinguals."22 But he also noted that one tablet of the late period
has a proverb not in the earlier collection. This shows that while
collections were transmitted conservatively, yet choice proverbs
could be added to the collection. In the same way, the editor of
the Book of Proverbs felt free to bring together material from
diverse sources. Lambert also found another tablet which added a
variant from one in the earlier period. The circulation of variant
forms of the same proverb is also well known in the Hebrew collec-
tion (cf. Prov. 11:4 with 24:6 ).
HISTORY OF WISDOM TRADITION
Many attempts have been made to trace in one way or another
an evolutionary development in the history of the wisdom tradition.
Richter,23 for example, advanced the notion that the motive clauses
in the admonitions were late, post exilic additions to the imperative
statements.24 But more recently Kayatz carefully documented the
remarkable parallelism between the syntactic forms of these admoni-
tions in both the Egyptian and Hebrew instructions.25 Albright had
earlier shown their close affinities with Ugaritic and Phoenician
texts and on this basis had argued for their antiquity.26
Hermisson27 and Murphy28 have proved wrong the thesis of
22 Ibid., p. 223.
23 W. Richter, Recht und Ethos. Versuch einer Ortung des weisheitlichen
Mahnspruches (Munich: Kosel-Verlag GmbH & Co., 1966).
24 Compare the imperative statements in the odd-numbered verses and the
motive clause in the even-numbered verses in 3:1-12.
25 Christa Kayatz, Studien zu Proverbien 1-9 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirch-
ener Verlag, 1966).
26 W. F. Albright, "Some Canaanite-Phoenician Sources of Hebrew Wisdom,"
Supplement to Vetus Testamentum, vol. 3 (1955), p. 4.
27 H. J. Hermisson, Studien zur israelitischen Spruchweisheit (Neukirchen-
Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1968).
28 Roland E. Murphy, "Form Criticism and Wisdom Literature," Catholic
Biblical Quarterly 31 (1969): 477.
The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature / 229
Schmid29 that popular sayings (Volkspriiche) developed into artistic
sayings or aphorisms (Kunstspriiche).
Many today still attempt to date profane and secular wisdom
with the early period and the more religious and ethical wisdom with
a later period. According to this view Israelite Yahwism, with its
strong religious stamp, was laid over an older pragmatic wisdom
thesis recently propounded by McKane30 and Whybray.31
It would seem that we have here material (from texts from the third
millennium extending to the late dynastic times) for a history of
ideas, and modern scholars have sometimes used these texts to
describe a development of social
and ethical thought in
not think that such an interpretation is tenable if we study the
evidence without prejudice - that is, without an evolutionary bias.
The differences between the earlier and the later texts seem largely
to have been caused by accidents of preservation, while their re-
semblance consists, on the contrary, in a significant uniformity
Erman concurs: "It ['Onchsheshonqy] is far removed from the pious
quietism of the Instruction of Amenemope and in fact seems closer
to some of the
and Kegemni . "33
Whedbee addressed himself directly to McKane's view.
McKane does not deal with the basic concept of an order in the
world, which seems to have formed a crucially important presup-
position in the wise man's approach to reality. The wise man took
this order - created and guaranteed by God - as the starting point
in his attempt to master life. ...To say that the wise man was
completely an independent, empirical operator, as McKane does,
is to misread the data of the ancient wisdom and view it through
the lens of a modern construct. The wise man always reckoned
with God .34
H. H. Schmid, Wesen und Geschichte der Weisheit (
William McKane, Proverbs: A
New Approach (
minster Press, 1970).
R. N. Whybray, Wisdom in
constant spiritual and moral stance throughout the history of the sapiential
genre (Altaegyptische Lebensweisheit [Zurich: Artemis-Verlag, 1955]).
33 Simpson, The Literature of Egypt, p. xxi.
34 J. William Whedbee, Isaiah and
1971), pp. 118-19.
230 / Bibliotheca Sacra -July-September 1979
Murphy holds the same opinion. "No distinction of 'profane' or
'sacred' is applicable here; God was considered the guardian of the
Hubbard concludes that no evolution in the history of the
wisdom tradition can be discerned. "Simple evolutionary approaches
ought to be passe in studies of wisdom as they are in those of
prophecy or cultus."36
For whom were the proverbial sentences and admonishing
sayings originally composed? How should one interpret the frequently
recurring expression, "my son"? For lack of space the theories given
in answer to these questions cannot be discussed here. But it is this
author's conviction that the wisdom material had its original setting
in the home of the courtier.
At least that seems to have been the case for the Egyptian
teachings. As noted earlier, the titles of these works uniformly follow
the form: "The instruction of X ...for his son
observed, "The authors of the 'teachings' do not present themselves
as priests and prophets. They appear as aged officials at the end
of active and successful careers, desirous to let their children profit
by their experience."37 Here, for example, are the introductions to
Ptah-hotep and Ka-gem-ni, respectively:
The Instruction of the Mayor and Vizier Ptah-hotep ...: "O
Sovereign, my lord: Oldness has come; old age has descended....
Let a command be issued to this servant to make a staff of old age
(that is, the son as the support of his father), that my son may be
made to stand in my place. Then may I speak to him the words of
them that listen and the ideas of the ancestors...."38
The vizier had his children called after he had completed (his
treatise) on the ways of mankind and on their character as en-
countered by him. And he said unto them: "All that is in this
book hear it ."39
35 R. E. Murphy, "Assumptions and Problems in Old Testament Research,"
Catholic Biblical Quarterly 29 (1967): 103.
A. Hubbard, "The Wisdom Movement and
Faith," The Tyndale Bulletin 17 (1966): 18.
38 James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old
Testament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955), p. 12.
The Literature of
The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature / 231
Amen-em-Ope, a high official in the administration of royal
estates, wrote expressly for his own son, Hor-em-maa-kheru, a young
priestly scribe. Erman points out that the content of these texts
supports this alleged setting: "What King Amenemhet committed
to his son far exceeds the bounds of school philosophy, and there
is nothing whatever to do with schools in the great man warning
his children to be loyal to the king."40
The expression "my son" also appears to have its face value
in the Akkadian Counsel of Wisdom. Lambert makes the following
comment on the use of the term in this text:
The advice given in the section "My son" can have had relevance
for very few people.... This suggests that we are to construe the
text as being in the form of admonitions of some worthy to his
son who will succeed him as vizier to the ruler.41
Ahiqar, the vizier to the Assyrian king Sennacherib, wrote his
words for his nephew Nadin.42 He too uses the recurrent parental
address, "my son."
Thus across many cultures through centuries of history these
admonitions are those of a high court official addressing his son.
The admonitions and proverbs in the biblical text also appear
to have originated in courtiers' homes. In addition to Solomon's
proverbs, other literary achievements collected in the Book of
Proverbs are attributed to King Lemuels mother (31:1) and to the
copying of Solomon's proverbs by the men of Hezekiah (25:1).
Moreover, the subject matter of Proverbs best suits this setting.
Some of them are most appropriate for kings and for those associated
with him, e.g., proverbs pertaining to the nation () or the
king (; 20:2); dining with royalty (23:1-3); behaving in a
way worthy of a king (31:4); etc. Here too it should be noted that
court wisdom in
as guarantor of justice.43 In addition, the Book of Proverbs, like the
Egyptian literature, includes a mingling of urban and agricultural
concerns, particularly those of the wealthy plantation owner.44 Such
40 Ibid., p. 54.
41 Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, p. 96.
42 The story is set during the reign of Esarhaddon.
43 H. Brunner, "Gerechtigkeit als Fundament des Throns," Vetus Testa-
mentum 8 (1958): 426-28; cf. H. Schmid, Gerechtigkeit als Weltordnung
44 R. Gordis, "The Social Background of Wisdom Literature," Hebrew
232 / Bibliotheca Sacra -July-September 1979
a breadth of interest and perspective on life admirably suits the
position of courtiers.
But these kings and high officials in
sons. There is no reason not to take the reference to "my son" in
any other way than in its normal significance. Elsewhere in the Old
Testament the father is held responsible for his child's social, moral,
and religious training (Gen. 18:19; Exod. ; Deut. 4:9-11 ).
Furthermore, it is certain that skills and trades were passed down
from father to son without recourse to schools. But above all, the
references to the mother in 1:8; 4:3; ; 31:1, 26 clinch the
argument. Whybray argued cogently:
Here the father and mother are placed on exactly the same footing
as teachers of their children.... The phraseology of these sentences
corresponds almost exactly to that of their Egyptian counterparts...;
and this throws into greater relief the one feature which is entirely
unique in them: the mention of the mother. It is difficult to avoid
the conclusion that this feature is an example of the adaptation of
the Egyptian tradition to the peculiar situation in which the Israelite
instructions were composed: a domestic situation in which the
father and mother together shared the responsibility for the educa-
tion of the child.45
But while these sayings originated in the courtiers' homes, they
seem to have been disseminated in Mesopotamia and
the schools for most of these texts have been unearthed in scribal
schools. The Satire on the Trade Winds reads, "The beginning of
the instruction which a man of the ship's cabin, whose name was
Duauf's son Khety, made for his son, [whose] name was Pepy, as
he was journeying upstream [to] the
many of the extant copies of these texts are obviously schoolboy
efforts to reproduce what their instructors were teaching them. In
ment of all
THE MEANING OF WISDOM
Crenshaw justly complained that "the many attempts to define
wisdom have not been altogether successful."46 He is well aware
however, that efforts to understand this term so central to the teach-
45 Whybray, Wisdom in Proverbs, p. 42.
46 James L. Crenshaw, Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom
(New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1976), p. 3.
The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature / 233
ing of the Book of Proverbs have been greatly advanced through an
understanding of its Egyptian equivalent Ma'at. The Egyptian term,
like Hebrew hmAk;HA ("wisdom"), lies at the heart of its wisdom
teaching. A section in the Instruction of Ptah-hotep presents Ma'at
in these terms:
Ma'at is good and its worth is lasting. It has not been disturbed
since the day of its creator, whereas he who transgresses its ordi-
nances is punished. It lies as a path in front even of him who knows
nothing. Wrongdoing [?] has never yet brought its venture to port.
It is true that evil may gain wealth but the strength of truth is that
it lasts; a man can say: "It was the property of my father."47
The Egyptians recognized a divine order, established at the time
of creation; this order is manifest in nature in the normalcy of
phenomena; it is manifest in society as justice; and it is manifest in
an individual's life as truth. Ma'at is this order, the essence of
existence, whether we recognize it or not.48
This notion of a fixed, eternal righteous order does compare
favorably with the biblical meaning of "wisdom." The figures of
speech used in the first section of the Book of Proverbs (1:2-9:18)
suggest that it is Yahweh's eternal and righteous order granting
life to those who walk in it. In -33 wisdom is likened to a street
preacher (Lady Wisdom) who laughs at the calamity of the fools
who ignored her or disdainfully rejected her, that is, it is an inviolable
righteous order. In it is referred to as a tree of life in the midst
of time. According to -20 it was God's instrument for creating
the cosmos. The point of this statement seems to be that wisdom is the
principle that accounts for order and life found in creation. In
4:10-27 in a series of poems it is designated "the way," that is, it is an
ordered realm without imperfections. In 8:1-11 an evangel proclaims
that righteousness, justice, and truth are the way to lasting well-being.
In wisdom is likened to a craftsman at Yahweh's side delighting
above all in man at the time of creation. The point of this comparison
seems to be that it is an eternal order existing for man's good.
Finally in 9:1-18 Dame Wisdom contends with Dame Folly in their rival
invitations for the soul of the simpleton. In a word, wisdom is a potent
righteous force opposed by a potent unrighteous force.
48 Ibid., p. 63.
234 / Bibliotheca Sacra -July-September 1979
The Egyptian concept of Ma'at has helped gain from these
metaphors the meaning that wisdom is God's fixed order for life,
an order opposed by chaos and death. But man must choose by faith
to trust the Lord who stands behind this created order.
THE THEOLOGY OF THE BOOK OF PROVERBS
The Egyptian sages seem to have discerned values in Ma'at
similar to those affirmed in
efforts of Budge49 and Gressmann,50 it has been clear that the Instruc-
tion of Amen-em-Ope most closely approximates the teachings of
the Book of Proverbs, especially the "Thirty Sayings of the Wise"
in Proverbs 22:17-24:22.
Simpson called attention to the following parallels, among
many others, between the Hebrew and Egyptian works.51
1. "Better a little with the fear of the Lord
than great wealth with turmoil.
Better a meal of vegetables where there is love
than a fattened calf with hatred"
(Prov. 15:16-17, NIV).
"Better is poverty at the hand of God
than riches in the storehouse.
Better is bread with happy heart
than riches with vexation" (Amen. 9:5-8).
2. "In his heart a man plans his course,
but the Lord determines his steps"
(Prov. 16:9, NIV).
"The words which men say are one thing.
The thing which God does is another"
3. "Do not say, 'I'll pay you back for this wrong!'
Wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you"
(Prov. 20:22, NIV).
"Say not, 'Find me a redeemer,
for a man who hateth me hath injured me'
Budge, The Teaching of Amen-em-apt,
Son of Kanekht (
M. Hopkinson & Co., 1924).
50 Hugo Gressmann,
atur (Berlin: Karl Curtius, 1925).
51 D. C. Simpson, "The Hebrew Book of Proverbs and the Teaching of
Amenophis," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 12 (1926): 232-39.
The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature / 235
Sit down at the hand of God;
your tranquility will overthrow them"
(Amen. 22:3-4, 7-8).
4. "Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man,
do not associate with one easily angered,
or you may learn his ways
and get yourself ensnared" (Prov. -25, NIV).
"Do not associate to thyself a passionate man,
nor approach him for conversation.
Leap not to cleave to that [fellow],
lest a terror carry thee away"
(Amen. 11:13-15; 13:8-9).
5. "Do not wear yourself out to get rich;
have the wisdom to show restraint.
Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone,
for they will surely sprout wings
and fly off to the sky like an eagle"
(Prov. 23:4-5, NIV).
"Labor not to seek increase
[perchance] they have made themselves wings like geese,
they have flown to heaven" (Amen. 9:14-10:4).
These individual sayings not only agree in form and sometimes
even in wording, but when viewed collectively they share the same
ethical and social ideals. Lichtheim summarizes the ideal man, "the
silent man," in this Egyptian text in this way:
[He] is content with a humble position and a minimal amount of
material possessions. His chief characteristic is modesty. He is
self-controlled, quiet, and kind toward people, and he is humble
before God. This ideal man is indeed not a perfect man, for per-
fection is now viewed as belonging only to God.52
Here again space does not permit discussion of a much-debated
issue related to these sapiential texts, namely, how this striking
relationship between the Bible and these pagan texts is to be
accounted for. Suffice it to say here that Oesterley seems to have
the best of the arguments in his contention that both go back to a
common stock of international, pan-oriental, proverbial literature.53
52 Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, p. 146.
53 W. O. E. Oesterley, "The 'Teaching of Amen-em-Qpe' and the Old
Testament," Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 45 (1927): 9-24.
236 / Bibliotheca Sacra -July-September 1979
But the question still remains, In what way is the theology of
Proverbs unique? Indeed, anyone familiar with studies comparing
other literary forms of the Bible with their counterparts in the
needs to be expanded: In what way is the Old Testament unique?
The theological significance of the Book of Proverbs does not depend
on the originality of its individual sentences or sayings any more
than the theological significance of the so-called Book of the Cove-
nant rests in the originality of its individual commandments. These
can be paralleled at point after point in the Babylonian, Assyrian, and
Hittite laws, and they clearly reflect a common body of ancient Near
Eastern legal tradition. The same is true of
stamped by a hymnology common to the ancient Near East. The
theological significance of the Old Testament rests rather on the
connection of all this literature with Yahweh, the God of Israel.
The theological significance of the Book of Proverbs rests in its clear
affirmation that Yahweh brought "wisdom" into existence, revealed
it to man, and as Guarantor upholds this moral order.
Hubbard pointed in this direction when he wrote, "Pagan
wisdom though it, too, may be religious has no anchor in the cove-
nant-God. ..."54 The pagan sages do not even know the name of
the God who created and sustains the fixed moral and ethical order
that their consciences bore witness to.
this lack in the Egyptian texts: "But is it not remarkable that none
of the gods are mentioned by name in any of the 'teachings'? When
the Egyptians appeal to 'God,' ...they impart to the divine interest
in man's behavior a distinctly impersonal character."55
Keimer put it this way: "All in all, one has the impression that
there is for Amenemope but one God; it remains open to the in-
dividual, however, to represent this highest being as he will."56
Paul's famous sermon to the Athenians, in which he related their
54 D. A. Hubbard,
"Wisdom," in The New Bible Dictionary (
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), p. 1,333.
Amen-em-ope has an "urgott" in view, both
suppose that Egyptian netjer ("god") designates an individual's personal god,
his god ("Der Freie Wille Gottes in der aegyptischen Weisheit," Sagesses,
pp. 103-20). Joseph Vergote believes that a distinction can be made between
the mention of "specified gods" and the anonymous "unique" god ("La
notion de Dieu dans les Livres de sagesse egyptiens," Sagesses, pp. 159-90).
56 Ludwig Keimer, "The Wisdom of Amen-em-ope and the Proverbs of
Solomon," American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 43
The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature / 237
unknown god with the Creator and the God who raised Jesus Christ
from the dead, springs immediately to mind (Acts 17: 22-31).
Since the Egyptians did not know the name of this "urgott,"
with whom they had no personal relationship, they do not attribute
their understanding of the fixed order to him. Of course, this is
strikingly different from the claim made in Proverbs 2:6: "For the
LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and
Finally, it should be noted that the Egyptian fathers did not
call on their sons to trust an impersonal, unnamed God. By contrast
the godly Hebrew courtiers realized that ultimately the son must
trust in Yahweh who founded, revealed, and upheld this fixed moral
order. Its promises were only as sure as He is trustworthy.57 It is
instructive to note that in the introduction to the "Thirty Sayings
of the Wise," which bears such a strong resemblance to chapter
one in the Instruction of Amen-em-Ope, the Israelite sage uniquely
adds that his purpose is that his readers' "trust may be in the LORD"
(Prov. 22:19, NIV). In that unique addition the essential theological
relevance and distinctiveness of the biblical book stands out. That
demand for faith informs the whole book (cf. Prov. 3:5-6 and the
recurrent expression, "Fear the LORD" [1:7], which is the motto
of the book).
SOME EXEGETICAL PROBLEMS
On the basis of the similarity between the sayings collected in
Proverbs 22:17-24:22 and the Instruction of Amen-em-Ope and
the fact that both works contain thirty sayings - a point stated
explicitly in Amen-em-Ope 27:7 - most modern versions emend
the obscure Kethibh readings MOwl;wi "day before yesterday" =
"heretofore" (?), and the Qere reading, MywiliwA "officer" = "excel-
lent" (?), to Mywilow; "thirty."
In Proverbs 24:12 Yahweh is represented as one "who weighs
the heart." This figure goes back to the Egyptian god Thoth, who
is often represented as standing at the judgment of the dead beside
the scales with the human heart.
The Septuagint and some ancient versions have rendered the
ambiguous rw,xE of Proverbs 23: 1 by "note well what is before you,"
57 Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in
238 / Bibliotheca Sacra -July-September 1979
while other versions have "note well who is before you." The parallel
in Amen-em-Ope, "Look at the cup that is before you," suggests
that the Septuagint and those versions agreeing with it have the
The contribution of the ancient Near Eastern sapiential litera-
ture to biblical studies is apparent. It helps to establish the plausibility
of a position contending for the preexilic date of the content of the
Book of Proverbs and for the historical credibility of those texts
which attribute their authorship to Solomon. A "proverb" can now
be defined more accurately and confusion with other literary forms
in the book can be avoided. There is firm reason to think that the
text of the Book of Proverbs was transmitted conservatively, and
that the attempt to arrange its sources chronologically by distinguish-
ing so-called earlier, profane texts from later, sacred texts is wrong-
headed. The structure of the literary forms within the book and of
the book itself, along with its anthological arrangement, no longer
appears so disconnected as it once did. As the sayings and poems
within the book are read, one now envisions a godly, noble couple
instructing their children. No longer can wisdom be defined sim-
plistically as "the practical application of knowledge." Instead
wisdom must be thought of as a broad, theological concept denoting
a fixed, righteous order to which the wise man submits his life. Also
commentaries should appeal to ancient sources to clarify obscure
texts where that is possible.
These sources also provide data for the systematic theologian.
The shape and form of the Word of God was popular in its own time
and even some of its material is similar to that found in the pagan
world. The way in which these inspired sages integrated contemporary
literature with their faith provides a model for the saint today.
Moreover, one is forcibly reminded that while the Word of God
is unchanging, his understanding of it is progressing.
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