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The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature



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Bibliotheca Sacra 136 July Sept 1979 211 38 Copyright 1979 by Dallas Theological Seminary Cited with permission The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature Bruce K Waltke The comparison made in 1 Kings 4 29 34 between Solomon s wisdom and that of the ancient Near Eastern sages strongly implies that his proverbs were a part of an international pan oriental wisdom literature During the past century archaeologists have been uncovering texts from Solomon s pagan peers and scholars have beeen using them to further the understanding of the Book of Proverbs The purposes of this article are to examine the ways in which this ancient literature has advanced the understanding of the proverbs of Solomon son of David king of Israel Prov 1 1 NIV and to demonstrate how these texts help answer introductory questions date authorship literary forms structure and arrangement textual transmission and history of the wisdom tradition and how these texts help interpret the content of the book the meaning of wisdom its theological relevance and the resolution of some exegetical problems DATE AND AUTHORSHIP Before the discovery and decipherment of these extrabiblical texts scholars who applied to the Old Testament a historico critical method which presupposed the evolutionary development of religion concluded that the biblical witnesses to Solomon s contribution to wisdom could not be taken at face value 1 Instead they argued 1 These biblical witnesses are 1 Kings 4 29 34 Proverbs 10 1 25 1 and Matthew 12 42 Proverbs 1 1 is best taken as a title for the work and not a designation of the authorship of the whole book because the internal evidence of the book itself clearly shows that the book achieved its final form after the time of Hezekiah 25 1 and that others besides Solomon contributed to this anthology of wisdom material cf 30 1 31 1 There is no evidence however that the book in its present form should be dated later than the time of the monarchy 222 Bibliotheca Sacra July September 1979 the postexilic Jewish community under Grecian influences must be credited for these literary achievements Even as late as 1922 Hoelscher still placed the so called older proverbial literature in the Persian period 2 But the many pagan sapiential texts found around the broad horizon of the Fertile Crescent and confidently dated to the time of Solomon and centuries before him have called their presupposition into question and have refuted their skepticism toward the biblical witness Giovanni Pettinato in his preliminary report on the thousands of tablets unearthed in the royal archives at Tell Mardikh Ebla alerted biblical scholars that some of those tablets contain collections of proverbs 3 The precise dating of the royal palace at Ebla poses some difficulties for the artifactual evidence points to a date between 2400 and 2250 B C while the paleography of the literary texts points to a period around 2450 B C 4 Gordon has published two collections of Sumerian proverbs out of the fifteen collections he pieced together from the hundreds of clay tablets dug up from the scribal quarters at Nippur Susa and Ur 5 These two collections containing about 200 and 165 proverbs respectively have a strikingly similar form to the Solomonic collections of 375 and 124 proverbs in Proverbs 10 1 22 16 and 25 1 29 27 respectively Gordon dates both of these Sumerian collections to the Old Babylonian period ca 1700 B C Lambert has published bilingual proverbial texts containing both Sumerian proverbs and their Akkadian translations 6 Six of these fragments dating from the Middle Assyrian times and later overlap or can be placed in relation to each other and thus provide a considerable part of one group of proverbs known as the Assyrian Collection He also published an Akkadian translation from Middle Assyrian times of a Sumerian original entitled The Instructions of 2 Gustav Hoelscher Geschichte der israelitischen und judischen Religion Giessen A Topelmann 1922 p 148 3 Giovanni Pettinato The Royal Archives of TelI Mardikh Ebla Biblical Archaeologist 39 May 1976 45 4 Paolo Matthiae Ebla in the Late Early Syrian Period Biblical Archaeologist 39 September 1976 94 113 5 Edmund I Gordon Sumerian Proverb Glimpses of Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia Westport CT Greenwood Press 1969 pp 24 152 Gordon also noted that it is quite reasonable to assume a considerably older date for the origin of at least a great number of the proverbs included in them 6 W G Lambert Babylonian Wisdom Literature 3d ed Oxford Clarendon Press 1975 pp 92 97 222 The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature 223 Shuruppak as well as the famous Akkadian work The Counsels of Wisdom which he dates to the Cassite period 1500 1200 B C Aramaic proverbs are given in a collection known as the Words of Ahiqar Ahiqar was a sage in the court of the Assyrian kings Sennacherib 704 681 B C and Esarhaddon 680 669 B C 7 Instructional literature from Egypt has close affinities to the admonitions found in Proverbs 1 2 9 18 and 22 17 24 34 and are dated from the Old Kingdom right on down to the Late Dynastic Period and Hellenistic Rule The following is a list of those texts belonging to the Egyptian instruction literature 8 The Old Kingdom 2686 2160 B C The Instruction for Ka gem ni The Instruction of Prince Hor dedef The Instruction of Ptah hotep The First Intermediate Period 2160 2040 B C The Instruction for King Meri ka Re The Middle Kingdom 2040 1558 B C The Instruction of King Amen em het The Instruction of Sehetep ib Re The New Kingdom 1558 1085 B C The Instruction of Ani The Instruction of Amen em Ope9 The Late Dynastic Period and Hellenistic Rule The Instruction of Onchsheshonqy fifth or fourth century B C The Instruction of the Papyrus Insinger 304 30 B C In short wisdom literature existed around the Fertile Crescent not only before Solomon but even before the Hebrews appeared in history LITERARY FORMS Like the wisdom sayings in the Book of Proverbs these texts of varying provenience are composed in poetic form that is they are cast in parallelisms Herder praised this form as thought rhyme 7 James M Lindenberger The Armaic Proverbs of Ahiqar Ph D diss Johns Hopkins University Baltimore MD 1974 8 Leo G Perdue Wisdom and Cult Missoula MT Scholars Press 1977 pp 28 61 9 The date of the Instruction of Amen em Ope is hotly disputed and deserves a separate study The issue is of some importance because this text most closely resembles the Book of Proverbs A date for this text


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