Many teachers argue Proverbs is not merely a collection of ethical or moral rules. We stress the role of this teaching in forming the person. We notice how often the real wisdom consists not in knowing the words but in recognising when they are applicable.
Thus, “contradictory” proverbs may both be true, and both collected, remembered and used by the same person:
4 Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.
5 Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.
That the book opens with a collection of “instructions” and “wisdom poems” strongly supports this view of its aims and goal.
Instructions, with the form of some commands followed by a motive, suggest such character formation. The form itself is rather like the priestly torah with instructions for ritual observance followed by a theological grounding:
- 1 My child, if you accept my words
- and treasure up my commandments within you,
- 2 making your ear attentive to wisdom
- and inclining your heart to understanding;
- 3 if you indeed cry out for insight,
- and raise your voice for understanding;
- 4 if you seek it like silver,
- and search for it as for hidden treasures–
- 5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD
- and find the knowledge of God.
- (Proverbs 2:1-5)
Yet the address to a “child”, and thus the casting of the speaker as a parent, suggest already a formational goal. When we notice the prevalence of words that describe who or what a person is, rather than what they do, this becomes even clearer.
However it is in the “wisdom poems” that this becomes most explicit. For example:
13 Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
14 for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
15 She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
18 A tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.
While it begins with language that seems “merely” to describe the benefits of a “good upbringing” gradually but progressively it seems to be describing a way of living. This language already in Proverbs begins to personify Wisdom, both as a quasi-independent attribute of God (in the long poem in 8:1ff. see especially vv.22ff.) but also as a companion for life:
1 My child, keep my words
and store up my commandments with you;
2 keep my commandments and live,
keep my teachings as the apple of your eye;
3 bind them on your fingers,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call insight your intimate friend…
So, it begins with education, but ends with a life companion. This relational aspect of the imagery becomes clearer and quite explicit in the contrasting figure of the adulteress or loose woman in vv.5ff.. While taken on its own this might merely be a parental warning against sexual infidelity the contrast with Wisdom suggests otherwise. So also do the hints that associate this other woman with pagan goddesses.
This contrast of Wisdom to the adulteress and to Dame Folly and their possible connections to goddess figures leads directly to a consideration of both what Proverbs says about women and its gendered character and to a consideration of later developments of the figure of divine Wisdom in Scripture.
(See my next post.)