The Songs and Sayings Podcast: Reading through the wisdom literature of the world.
By Menashe David Israel
Chapter 8 of Hebrew Proverbs
Further reading: The Wisdom Books by Robert Alter
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Proverbs Chapter 8 is like a treasure trove, full of shining things to talk about and examine. Indeed, it has be used as a prooftext concerning topics ranging from the nature of reality, and Man’s ethical responsibilities in the world, to highly charged theological debates concerning the nature of God—and whether or not the Jewish Rabbi Jesus pre-existed; and these debates even ranging as far back as the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E. There is much we could talk about.
But we’ll keep our focus narrow and our time short by zeroing in on two things:
The universality of Wisdom: and the poetic nature of the poem’s imagery.
I started off today by reading chapter 8 in the King James—I like the English; and then following that with Robert Alter’s translation and commentary, which had an intriguing thing to say about the second verse at the opening of the chapter—where “wisdom calls out from the top of the heights, on the way, standing at the crossroads, and by the gates at the city’s entrance.” Alter’s comment on the verse says, “the implication is that wisdom is not a hidden or esoteric treasure but something plainly accessible—in the metaphor used here, proclaimed to all.” I really liked that, especially considering the baseline ethical nature of these proverbs, it is interesting to reflect that all peoples, no matter how seemingly barbaric, have in all cultures and times had ethical codes of conduct; realizing the need for such ethical codes, or collections of laws, as self-evident. The tying of wisdom to the mosaic law in previous chapters comes to mind.
Further bringing out this idea of wisdom’s plain accessibility is the third translation I read today, that by R.B.Y. Scott, in the Anchor Bible Commentary, where he translates verse 1. in a way that is different from most other translations I’ve seen.
Where Robert Alter translates verse 1. as, “Look, Wisdom calls out, and Discernment lifts her voice.” Scott translates it as, “Do you not hear Wisdom call aloud, and Reason raise her voice?”
Reason, universal Reason; that thing accessible by all people to make sense of the world and help us order our relations in it. Now, of course, the Hebrews were not using Reason or Understanding in the same way an Enlightenment person would use the word and its corresponding ideas; but the Hebrews did use this universally accessible way of orienting oneself in the world, in much the same way that moderns have viewed Reason: as a guiding light for one’s actions.
Verse 9. gives a further case for Wisdom’s universality when it says, “All of it is right to the discerning mind, And straightforward to those apt for knowledge.”
Alter goes on to say that after this introduction, it is mostly boilerplate language, echoing similar formulations from elsewhere in Proverbs.
That is until verse 22, the second half of the chapter, and a second poem: Where wisdom is reported to have been with God at the beginning of creation, before he had even made anything else.
Depending on who you talk to, this second cosmogonic poem may be literal, or figurative. Some use it to argue for a pre-existent messiah, others see it as merely a poetic personification similar to the rabbinic tradition that God made the world by the blueprint of Torah, which pre-existed creation. Indeed many bloody conflicts can be traced back to how different people—with different interests—have interpreted this chapter, and these verses.
I’m reminded that Dr. Dale Tuggy has a podcast speaking to some of the debates concerning the chapter, which I’ll link to in the show notes.
Anyway, I suppose I do have one more thought on this chapter, which is that wisdom here, and in most places, seems to have much to do with ethical rule and dominion. Verses 14 through 21 say as much, and could be a poster for governments who wished to rule wisely… ☗
Read Proverbs 8 on the Bible App