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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

Proverbs - Introduction

The book of Proverbs is an anthology—a collection of instructions plus speeches of Wisdom (chs. 1–9 ), two large collections of two-line sayings (chs. 10–22 and 25–29 ), a booklet of counsels ( 22.17–24.34 ), and some poems (chs. 30–31 ). The two chief literary genres * represented in the book are the instruction or lecture and the “proverb” or pithy saying. They are examples of the instruction attested in Mesopotamia, but especially favored in Egypt, where seventeen examples from every historical period are known to exist. In a typical instruction a king, high official, or father instructs his son (or disciple or successor) how to live so as to enjoy the blessings of life and avoid unnecessary trouble. Despite their practical and common-sense approach, instructions were thoroughly religious, for they were written in the assumption that the world yields its blessings to those who respect the gods and direct their lives in accord with the order and rhythms of the divinely fashioned universe. The second genre, the saying or proverb, was also very common in the ancient Near East; Mesopotamian and West Semitic sayings collections are extant. The two-line “proverbs” of Proverbs are broader than the modern proverb, which, in one definition, is “a concise statement of an apparent truth that has currency among the people.” Some verses in Proverbs are proverbs in this sense, but there are also witty sayings, paradoxes, and riddles. The sayings are hard to translate; even the best efforts of translators can seem banal. In their original language, however, the sayings are incisive and witty, provoking readers to take a fresh look at life. In the phrase of the great eighteenth-century aphorist, Samuel Johnson, “New things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new.”

No single date can be assigned to Proverbs, for its collections arose in different periods. The one datable reference ( 25.1 ) suggests that officials of King Hezekiah (715–687 BCE) added a collection of proverbs (chs. 25–29 ) to an existing Solomonic collection. It is likely that some sayings go back to Solomon (or even earlier), for ancient kings sponsored literature. Moreover, Solomon is remembered as a sage and author (1 Kings 3; 4.29–34, 10 ). Collections of sayings were arranged through techniques such as catchword (“king,” “the LORD”), topic (discretion in speech), or type of parallelism. * (Antithetic * parallelism, where the second line points up the first by expressing its opposite, predominates in chs. 10–15 ). Exactly when the collections were edited into the present book is difficult to say. Many scholars believe that the latest sections of Proverbs are chs. 1–9 and the poem on the virtuous wife ( 31.10–31 ) and that these sections influenced the final shaping of the book, which was edited in the post-exilic period.

Who wrote Proverbs? That question is vigorously debated. Some believe the sayings and instructions originated with scribes * in the royal court (or a hypothetical scribal school), whereas others believe the material originated with tribal elders instructing the young in ancestral traditions and customs, the material being written down later by scribes. Though much material may be ultimately of folk origin, the uniform and sophisticated style of the sayings and the foreign influence on the instructions suggest the book was essentially the work of palace scribes.

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