The Songs and Sayings Podcast: Reading through the wisdom literature of the world.
By Menashe David Israel
Chapter 3 of Hebrew Proverbs
Further reading: The Wisdom Books by Robert Alter
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As I mentioned in episode two, Proverbs is comprised of six sections. The first section of which contains chapters 1 through 9. And it’s these chapters in this first section that present their wisdom in a more narrative or essay style.
For me, chapter three brings back many memories from my childhood—memories of sitting at the kitchen table on Saturday mornings and listening to my mom read Proverbs to me and my brothers. There is actually a distinct phrase from our current chapter, that every time I hear it, I can almost hear the sounds of my mom’s voice saying it to me. That phrase is the words: “My son—“.
One of the significant things about this phrase is that it is among a number of literary elements that tie the Book of Hebrew Proverbs to an Ancient Egyptian book called the Wisdom of Amen-em-ope. It is said that the Hebrews acquired this hearkening phrase of “My son—“ from this book of Egyptian sayings.
As I’ve been researching Proverbs these past few days I’ve realized that I’ll probably have to dedicate a future episode just to this ancient work of Amen-em-ope—because so much in Hebrew Proverbs is similar and related to it. But for now, I’ll just give a short biographical note, and the theme of the book.
So Amen-em-ope was a resident of Akhim, which is a town in Upper Egypt on the east side of the Nile, and he was a son of an Egyptian named Kanakht.
It is said that his Instructions were written during the late New Kingdom, at about 1300-1075 BCE, a time otherwise known as “The Age of Personal Piety.”
In the text attributed to him, a father passes on his wisdom to his son through many maxims and admonitions, and he does this over the course of thirty chapters. A number which is very close to the thirty-one chapters in Hebrew Proverbs.
Interesting note here is that Proverbs chapter 22, verse 20, actually says:
“Have I not written for you thirty sayings of counsel and knowledge?"
We can compare this with The Wisdom of Amen-em-ope, ch. 30, line 539, which says:
"Look to these thirty chapters; they inform, they educate."
As an aside, seeing this chapter similarity made me wonder if the number thirty was at all supposed to map to the lunar month—and that also accounting for the new moon; maybe the idea was that a person would read one of these chapters on each day of the month—kind of like we’re doing this month with Proverbs.
And then I also wondered if maybe the Hebrews thought to tack on chapter thirty-one as a sort of crown or jewel on top of the first thirty.
I suppose I’ll be able to find out whether this is so with further study.
Anyway, a few more notes on the chapter and then we’ll read it. This phrase, “My son—,“ is also the refrain that divides our current chapter into three discourses.
There are also a couple of words that I wanted to single out from the text to help us pull out some of the nuance in the meaning of the lines.
In verse 15. it says that “she (wisdom) is more precious than rubies;” but this word for ‘rubies’, according to Robert Alter, could equally be translated as pearls—which can allude to many things for us—a pearl necklace is one, and I’m also reminded of that line in the New Testament: Cast not your pearls before swine, where pearls are wisdom, or a valuable message.
Another note is for verses 3. and 22. where the word ‘neck’ is used to translate the Hebrew word nephesh. And nephesh is interesting because it is used idiomatically to mean soul. But literally it means neck. So you could imagine if someone said, “You just saved my nephesh (my neck).” It could also mean, “You just saved my soul,” or, “my life.” And then for verse 22. the sense becomes that wisdom is an ornament around your neck, or an ornament around your soul.
The last note is that there are some archaic English words in the translation I’m using, and one that probably sticks out above the rest is the Old English word, “froward,” which means: difficult to deal with; or, contrary, or, leading away from. So, if a person has a froward heart, that means they have a contrary attitude, or spirit. ☗
Read Proverbs 3 on the Bible App