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Friday Bible Blogging - Proverbs 1 to 10

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleOkay, so I fell behind again in this series. Part of it was that I got a little busy at work and cut my lunchbreaks short. But for the main reason, I have to admit that the title of this blog isn't entirely accurate. While I try to do most of the writing during my lunch breaks, for this series, I'd been doing a lot of catching up on my laptop at home on weekends. Unfortunately, my laptop crashed a few weeks ago and I haven't fixed it yet, so I haven't been able to catch up like normal. Oh well, I'll do my best to keep up to date in the future, or this project will end up dragging on for way to long.

Today's entry marks the start of a new book - Proverbs. While the book is traditionally credited to Solomon, this almost certainly isn't the case (not least of which for the reason that Solomon might not have even existed). As the New Oxford Annotated Bible puts it, "The book of Proverbs is a composite, consisting of several different collections dating from different periods and most likely with different authors." This week's entry covers the first ten chapters, which are mostly introduction without many actual of the book's namesake proverbs.

Proverbs, Chapter 1

The first seven verses are an overall introduction, talking about all the wisdom and knowledge the reader will get from this collection. The seventh verse caught my.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
   fools despise wisdom and instruction.

It's a theme I've read in previous books, but it still rubs me the wrong way. The juxtaposition certainly implies that people who don't believe in god are the 'fools' who 'despise wisdom and instruction'.

The next several verses were a petition for the reader to pay attention to these lessons. Actually, it was mostly a warning against following sinners and their sinful ways. There was very little nuance, implying that all sinners 'run to evil' and 'hurry to shed blood'.

Verse 12 was interesting in the fact that it appears to be borrowing from another mythology. Here's the verse from the Bible.

like Sheol let us swallow them alive
   and whole, like those who go down to the Pit.

The footnotes of New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) described the passage this way, "Sheol...the Pit, the abode of the dead (see also...). Cf. the depiction in Ugaritic mythology of Mot, the god of death, with a vast throat stretching from earth to heaven into which he swallows his victims whole and alive."

The rest of the chapter personified Wisdom as a woman. The NOAB also pointed out how much of the language used to describe Wisdom is similar to that used to describe prophets (e.g. "Wisdom cries out in the street; / in the squares she raises her voice. / At the busiest corner she cries out; / at the entrance of the city gates she speaks").


Proverbs, Chapter 2

This chapter consists of 22 verses. The NOAB notes that that's the same as the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, but doesn't say whether or not it's acrostic (each verse starting with the next letter of the alphabet).

This chapter carried on with the introduction, extolling the virtues of wisdom and warning against going against these lessons. One verse caught my eye in much the same way as the verse I quoted from chapter 1.

For the Lord gives wisdom;
   from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;

This again seems to be saying that knowledge is only possible through God, implying that those who reject God don't get that knowledge. This is certainly an effective way of insulating the faithful against any criticisms of their religion - you don't even need to pay attention to those critics because obviously, they're not getting their wisdom from Yahweh.

This chapter also introduced a few images/themes that will come up a few more times in Proverbs. One was comparing wisdom to valuable earthly treasures.

if you seek it like silver,
   and search for it as for hidden treasures--

The other was a warning against following a 'loose woman' who will lead you to your doom.

You will be saved from the loose woman,
   from the adulteress with her smooth words,
who forsakes the partner of her youth
   and forgets her sacred covenant;
for her way* leads down to death,
   and her paths to the shades;
those who go to her never come back,
   nor do they regain the paths of life.

The NOAB notes that 'adulteress' might also be translated as 'alien' or 'foreign woman', going back to a theme from earlier books where Hebrews were to be especially careful of marrying foreign women and being tempted to follow their gods.


Proverbs, Chapter 3

The first part of this chapter was more of the same - telling the reader to heed these lessons, promising of the benefits they'll bring, and warning of the dangers of not following them. There was even more 'treasure' imagery.

One verse caught my eye in a negative light.

Do not be wise in your own eyes;
   'fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.

The NOAB claims this isn't anti-intellectualism, but rather a warning against arrogance. But it certainly seems to me that it's ripe for the anti-intellectual interpretation.

Verse 13 begins with 'Happy are those who...' The NOAB noted that this is a "characteristic wisdom formula... often called a beatitude", and pointed out numerous other places where this formula appears in Proverbs. It certainly makes Jesus's beatitudes seem a little less revolutionary, knowing that they're just using a formula common to already existing literature.

This chapter contained another verse that appears to be borrowing from other mythology.

Long life is in her right hand;
   in her left hand are riches and honour.

According to the NOAB, "The imagery echoes that of the Egyptian goddess Ma'at, who represents right order. She was portrayed with the symbols of life in one hand and wealth and prestige in the other." The NOAB also noted how the 'tree of life' from verse 18 "is also an Egyptian motif, associated with the sycamore tree."

Starting with verse 27, the chapter began to give some actual beneficial advice, mostly on being helpful and avoiding violence.


Proverbs, Chapter 4

This chapter is more of the same.

I'll also add, like I hinted at when writing about Chapter 1, that proverbs presents a very black and white view of the world. Even the NOAB stated (in reference to verses 18 & 19), "In keeping with the binary way of understanding reality common in Proverbs, the ways of righteous and wicked are compared to light and dark." There's very little nuance or shades of grey in this book.


Proverbs, Chapter 5

And more of the same, bringing back the loose woman imagery. I found one of the footnotes in the NOAB a bit humorous (in reference to verse 10), "Probably a reference to loos of earnings; prostitutes are expensive!" It's the exclamation point that really does it for me.

There was one passage that stuck out. It's not exactly salacious, but it is more explicit than most parts of the Bible.

Let your fountain be blessed,
   and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
   a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
May her breasts satisfy you at all times;
   may you be intoxicated always by her love.

Of course, there are still euphemisms in there, coming from a whole series of water/sex euphemisms leading up to those verses. 'Fountain', at least according the NOAB, is supposed to represent the woman's "sexual organs, seen as the property of her husband, and possibly to the offspring that will ensue."

And just pausing to reflect on this for a minute, the sexism in the Bible is so pervasive that I almost missed how sexist this whole chapter is (and actually, much of this book so far). It's all directed at men, not as advice for women.


Proverbs, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 is mostly practical advice - money issues with neighbors, laziness, lying, adultery, etc. It's mostly good advice.


Proverbs, Chapter 7

Chapter 7 is back to the imagery with the loose woman.


Proverbs, Chapter 8

Chapter 8 returns to describing Wisdom as a woman, contrasting with the loose woman from the previous chapter. And Wisdom really is personified here, speaking in the first person, being "created me at the beginning of his work, / the first of his acts of long ago", being present during acts of creation, "When he established the heavens, I was there...", and even reacting to the Lord. In fact, this last example is worth quoting on its own.

when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
   then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
   rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race.

Once again, this appears like part of Proverbs that might have been borrowed from other mythology. According to the NOAB, "Comparisons have been made with the Egyptian goddess Ma'at, daughter of the creator god Amun Re, who is sometimes depicted as a little child playing on his lap."

It's also worth noting that some of the rewards for following Wisdom were rather worldly, "endowing with wealth those who love me, / and filling their treasuries."


Proverbs, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 continued on with the two women. They're each throwing a banquet, and it's shown to be much better to be invited to Wisdom's banquet. The first couple verses stood out to me.

Wisdom has built her house,
   she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
   she has also set her table.


Proverbs, Chapter 10

Chapter 10 finally moves past the introduction into actual proverbs and advice. These are all presented as two-line sayings, and use many of the same parallel structures that were used in Psalms.

These proverbs cover a variety of topics - divine reward and punishment, laziness, power of speech, wealth, poverty, etc.

It's worth noting the contradictory messages on reward and punishment. As the NOAB states, and which I can certainly agree with having read Job not too long ago, "Affirmation of the doctrine of divine retribution whereby the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished... Other proverbs complicate this doctrine of divine reward and punishment (e.g. 15.16; 16.8), and the books of Job and Ecclesiastes challenge it profoundly."


---

I'm glad to be into a new book and past the book of Psalms. The personification of Wisdom as a woman was especially interesting. I was also struck by how much these chapters borrowed from other mythologies. Now that I'm through with the sort of introductory chapters, I suspect the remainder of this book will be mostly the namesake proverbs. I just hope that they don't get too repetitive like Psalms did. But even if they do, this book is only 31 chapters long.


New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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