Friday, October 20, 2017
Like the teachings of an ancient Israelite Yoda, The Book of Proverbs is all about wisdom. The book's editors and compilers took wisdom wherever they could find it: the oracles of Agur and Lemuel at the end of Proverbs may very well be non-Israelite in origin, and the "thirty sayings" in the middle part of Proverbs are related to an Egyptian wisdom collection ("The Instructions of Amenemopet"). Combine that with proverbs classically attributed to King Solomon, and you have a delicious Near-Eastern fusion meal, slathered in wisdom gravy. Proverbs is a little like Confucius's Analects, which had a profound influence on the ethical, social, and moral teachings of China. Confucius doesn't spend much time getting deep into metaphysics and theological disputes—he just wants to know how to live in accordance with "the Will of Heaven," how to be a good person, while also managing to live a productive life in the world. Proverbs has the same set of concerns. It takes the existence of God for granted and has interesting poetic statements to make about the role of Wisdom in the world. Yet overwhelmingly, the advice it offers is extremely practical: it's concerned with the details of everyday life, with work and family. Like the writer Jack Miles observed, Proverbs deals with the struggles of character formation and prudence—in a way that the Torah doesn't, exactly. It's really hard to determine when the book was actually written or compiled because it takes so much material from so many sources from different time periods. One section claims to have been compiled by officials in King Hezekiah's court—so if they truly date from his reign, that would put that section at roughly the 8th century CE… though its sayings could've come down from earlier centuries. Then the final compilation of the book would've likely been a few centuries after Hezekiah's reign, give or take a century or two. As with all things Bible, you never can tell.