Bibliotheca Sacra 136 (July-Sept. 1979):  211-38.

               Copyright © 1979 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.



                   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, pan-oriental, wis-

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 Israel" (Prov. 1: 1,

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

exegetical problems).




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,



            [1] These biblical witnesses are 1 Kings 4:29-34; 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 Fertile Crescent, and confidently

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 Tell-Mardikh (Ebla),

alerted biblical scholars that some of those tablets contain collections

of proverbs.3 The precise dating of the royal palace at Ebla poses

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 at Nippur, Susa,

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.

        4 Paolo Matthiae, "Ebla in the Late Early Syrian Period," Biblical Archaeol-

ogist 39 (September 1976): 94-113.

     5 Edmund I. Gordon, Sumerian Proverb: Glimpses of Everyday Life in

Ancient Mesopotamia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1969), pp. 24, 152.

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

in them."

            6 W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, 3d ed. (Oxford: Clarendon

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 Egypt has close affinities to the

admonitions found in Proverbs 1:2-9:18 and 22:17-24:34 and are

dated from the Old Kingdom right on down to the Late Dynastic

Period and Hellenistic Rule. The following is a list of those texts

belonging to the Egyptian instruction literature.8

The Old Kingdom (2686-2160 B.C.)

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 New Kingdom (1558-1085 B.C.)

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 Fertile Crescent

not only before Solomon but even before the Hebrews appeared

in history!



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.,

Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, 1974)

                8 Leo G. Perdue, Wisdom and Cult (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977),

pp. 28-61.

                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

Cairo Museum. See Ronald J. Williams, "The Alleged Semitic Original of the Wisdom of

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 British Museum papyrus and on tablets in Turin and

Paris. On these documents the parallelism is written stichically,

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 22:17-

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 Egypt (New Haven, CT:

Yale University Press, 1972), p. 6.

          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 Syria and Asia Minor are more abundant (see S. R. Driver, Deuteronomy,

p. 250), though there seems to be no clear evidence for them at any period in Mesopotamia.

Thus the alternative 'Amorite'

could be supported on the assumption that these people were notorious for

this perversion, as were the men of Sodom, Corinth, and Bulgaria, and the

women of Lesbos, for other things" (ibid.).

                13 Gordon, Sumerian Proverbs, p. 273.

                        14 Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, p. 260.


The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature / 225




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.

22: 17-24:22). The motive behind the collection is given in 22: 17-21

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 22: 17-23.


Chapter 1

He says:

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.

Chapter 2

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 22: 16 and 22: 17.

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).


          15 Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings,

2 vols. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), 2 (1976): 149-50.


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 16:12-15 and

Yahweh in 16:1-7, which follows an alternating pattern in 16:7-11

(note king in 16:10).

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

trivial, as Frankfort notes.

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

Elsewhere Frankfort expanded on the traditional character of the

wisdom literature.

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.

     18 Henri Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion, 2d ed. (New York: Colum-

bia University Press, 1961), p. 65.

            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

A wall of a New Kingdom tomb at Sakkara has representations of

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-

tions. The Turin tablet contains the portion of the Instruction of

Amen-em-Ope which corresponds to 24:1-25:9 in the complete

British Museum papyrus. The tablet attests the same line arrange-

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 their old Babylon-

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 ).



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

inherited from Egypt. But Frankfort and others have refuted this

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 Egypt. I do

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

of tenor.32

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 Old Kingdom practical instructions, those of Ptahhotep

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


          29 H. H. Schmid, Wesen und Geschichte der Weisheit (Berlin: Alfred

Topelmann, 1966).

          30 William McKane, Proverbs: A New Approach (Philadelphia: West-

minster Press, 1970).

          31 R. N. Whybray, Wisdom in Proverbs (Naperville, Ill: A. R. Allen-

son, 1965).

          32 Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion, p. 59. Fr. R. W. von Bissing finds

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 Wisdom (Nashville: Abingdon Press,

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

social order...."35

            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

                                           THE SETTING

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 Y." As Frankfort

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.

        36 David A. Hubbard, "The Wisdom Movement and Israel's Covenant

Faith," The Tyndale Bulletin 17 (1966): 18.

        37 Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion, p. 60.

                38 James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old

Testament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955), p. 12.

        39 Simpson, The Literature of Egypt, pp. 178-79.


            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 Lemuel’s 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 (11:14) or the

king (16:10; 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 Egypt also focused on the king's responsibilities

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

Union College Annual 18 (1943~4): 77-118.

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 Israel are writing for their

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. 12:24; 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; 6:20; 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 Egypt through

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 Residence City, to put him

into the Writing School among the children of officials...." Indeed,

many of the extant copies of these texts are obviously schoolboy

efforts to reproduce what their instructors were teaching them. In

Israel the sayings of its courtiers were democratized for the improve-

ment of all Israel through such a work as the Book of Proverbs.


                             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


From this statement Frankfort made the following conclusion:


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 1:20-33 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 3:18 it is referred to as a tree of life in the midst

of time. According to 3:19-20 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 8:22 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.


            47 Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion, p. 62.

            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 Egyptian sages seem to have discerned values in Ma'at

similar to those affirmed in Israel for "wisdom." Since the pioneering

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"

(Amen. 19:16).


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'


        49 E.A.W. Budge, The Teaching of Amen-em-apt, Son of Kanekht (London:

M. Hopkinson & Co., 1924).

                50 Hugo Gressmann, Israels Spruchweisheit im Zusammenhang der Weltliter-

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. 22:24-25, 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

ancient Near East will immediately grasp the point that the question

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 Israel's hymns; they are

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. Frankfort rightly observed

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 (Grand Rapids:

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), p. 1,333.

     55 Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion, p. 76. While most scholars think

Amen-em-ope has an "urgott" in view, both Frankfort and Hellmut Brunner

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

(1926-27): 11.


          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

understanding" (NIV).

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 Israel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972),

p. 193.


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

better translation.




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.



This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204  


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