The Songs and Sayings Podcast: Reading through the wisdom literature of the world.
By Menashe David Israel
Chapter 2 of Hebrew Proverbs
Further reading: The Wisdom Books by Robert Alter
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I would like to say—and I suppose assure my listeners—that it is not my aim to spend a lot of time providing commentary on these chapters and books, as I am not yet an expert, and I am learning as I go.
That being said, I did start reading Robert Alter’s commentary and translation of Hebrew Proverbs last night, it’s called, The Wisdom Books, and it covers Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, all books of wisdom literature that I intend to cover in this podcast at some point. We will see where the river takes us.
Anyway, I learned a few things about the origin of the book of Proverbs, and of its structure.
I thought I would share them to provide more context for the book, as we go forward.
The first thing I learned is that the majority of the book of Proverbs is dated as having been written around the 8th Century BCE; with some minor portions of the book being even older. If the book is reported as having been written by the Hebrew King Solomon, it may be in large part ascribed to him to follow the tradition of collecting literature in the name of a famous sovereign, or wise man. But it is not certain that the entirety of the text can be attributed to him. Some scholars see significant similarities between Hebrew Proverbs and the ancient Egyptian book of Amenemope, a collection of Egyptian proverbs, probably composed during the late New Kingdom (1300-1075 BCE), from the period of the Ramesses kings.
To give a bit more context as to what other events were going on during and around the 8th Century BCE: The writing of The Iliad and the Odyssey are dated to that time. The Hebrew Prophet, Elijah, fights against the worship of Baal in Israel. Iron and steel production begin in Indo-Caucasian culture. Art forms in Assyria and Greece become more naturalistic. Babylonian music is seen to have five-tone and seven-tone scales in their music. The earliest recorded music, a hymn on a tablet in Sumeria, written in cuneiform.
Beyond the dating of the book of Proverbs is its name and its structure.
The word for Proverbs in the Hebrew is mishley, which means “proverbs of” or, parable, poetic theme, or something like “rhapsodic utterance.”
Beyond that, the book is split into two major sections. The first occupies chapters 1 through 9. A section of stories on varying themes—which we will see as we read them—, and then a second section in chapters 10 through 31 which contains many maxims in poetic and rhyming couplets. A artful structure that is used because it helps with being remembered.
After all, the Hebrew Proverbs are intended to always inform our social and ethical behavior. They are left to us as tried-and-true principles for guidance through life.
I’ll add one more thing that I found in my reading, and which speaks to something I hope will be true of the ethos of this podcast: that there is an international character to Wisdom literature. Robert Alter writes that it is a recasting of older sayings, and for this he draws proof from the verse, “Bend your ear and hear the words of the wise,” and from the way that we can trace some of Hebrew Proverbs back to earlier sources.
It does seem to me that wisdom is one of those common graces that has appeared the world over. Of course, not all books of wisdom will agree metaphysically, say, about who or what God is; or the origins of the Universe; or what we can know about the nature of the world around us; but then that is not their main goal. The goal of wisdom literature, is to give the reader shortcuts to peace, and abundance; a memorable way to avoid the school of hard knocks. ☗
So lets read chapter two of Proverbs.
Read Proverbs 2 on the Bible App