Coining and Collecting Proverbs
It is common to most cultures in the world to cultivate and exchange maxims or sayings that express, in a terse and pithy way, a clever observation or experience. In the modern world we find many examples of proverbs in English, and we have a whole fund of them from Africa (Golka 1993) and China. Going further back, we might think of the sayings of the Vikings. These proverbs often circulated in a predominantly oral culture and in rather backward societies in relation to scientific advances. The ancient world was no exception to such maxim making, and we have a particularly fine collection from ancient Sumer, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, as well as our more familiar book of Proverbs. The proverb is at the heart of the wisdom enterprise—it represents the distillation of observation and experience into a short and meaningful saying, one line or more. Comparisons are often made between unlike phenomena, such as between human behaviour and the natural world—for example, Prov. 25: 23, ‘The north wind produces rain, and a backbiting tongue angry looks.’ But there are proverbs covering the whole range of human experience too, and of relationship with the divine—for example, Prov. 16: 7, ‘When the ways of people please the Lord, he causes even their enemies to be at peace with them.’
From ancient Sumer we have proverbial collections later taken over by the emergent Babylonian culture. They reflect an agricultural background and a concern with family life. Proverbial sayings such as ‘A people without a king is like sheep without a shepherd’ (Assyrian Collection, iv. 14–15) are interspersed with short fables, religious admonitions, and rhetorical questions. We have sayings from Egypt, often forming part of longer instructions. Both these cultures go back considerably further than the Israelite period, the proverbs probably having been written any time from the ninth to the seventh century BCE. A more contemporary source to Proverbs is the Wisdom of Ahiqar, a seventh-century Aramaic composition which contains a similar contrast between the righteous and the wicked as in Proverbs, as well as animal proverbs, graded numerical sayings, and a possible personification of wisdom. However, perhaps the most important source of proverbs for those who are interested in the biblical genre of wisdom is contained in the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament. Proverbs 1–9 contains only patches of proverbial material—the main sayings collection begins at Proverbs 10. Here we find a whole range of subjects tackled, such as the important distinctions between the good and the wicked, the righteous and the fool in relation to good behaviour, good communication skills, making friends, dealing with family problems, striving for money through hard work and its opposite, i.e. laziness and subsequent poverty. And underlying these themes the theological assumption that life is full of choices—one can choose the smooth path or the rough one, one can fear God or trust one's own judgement. Wisdom is on offer to those who wish to choose its path by steering a way through conflicting experience and following the advice of those who have gone before.
Proverbs probably circulated around camp-fires in early Israel, in tribal nomadic circles as well as amongst settled agricultural groups. They were probably promulgated within the family and wider family group, and we have hints in Prov. 30: 1 and 31: 1 that mothers were involved in the educational process of teaching children how to behave. Learning by the experience of others was thus a major means of education, and the whole book of Proverbs is set in the context of an address to ‘young men’ who need educational guidance. We find sayings in other parts of the Old Testament which may relate to this tendency to produce wise words for particular occasions on which a word of experiential advice may be pertinent. However, we need to consider the proverbial enterprise on another level: that of the more elevated circles of the educated, the literary, possibly even those involved with the courts of pharaohs and kings.
Whilst a folk origin is a possibility for Proverbs (stressed again recently in the work of Westermann (1995)), their original formulation, on the one hand, and their collection and writing down, on the other, probably represent very different processes. The formation of the text of the book of Proverbs was most likely the work of an educated group, who may have put them down in a compendium for educational purposes. The preface of Proverbs 1–9 seems to indicate this educational and instructional milieu, and gives us a lens through which to regard the rest of the proverbial material. There is also the traditional association of maxim making with King Solomon, who had the reputation of being a particularly wise king (I Kgs. 3: 29–34), and there is a further reference to interest in copying proverbial collections by the ‘men of Hezekiah’ in Prov. 25: 1. This adds up to a picture of educated men, probably at the court, enjoying the skill and the leisure to put together these collections, possibly in the context of training young men to become courtiers and/or administrators, depending on the scope and extent of educational institutions at the time. The proverbs may simply have been used in a court school in Jerusalem, although the production of literature is rarely for one situation alone, and we don't know how widespread pockets of education were (Lemaire (1981) has repeatedly argued that schools were found throughout Israel), or how widely proverbs in written form might have been disseminated.
Many questions are raised by collections of proverbs, especially in terms of their social context(s). Much has been learned from ancient Near Eastern parallels, particularly from those drawn with Egyptian wisdom circles. It seems that there was a powerful group of court administrators who were educated and versed in wisdom at the courts of pharaohs. In fact, the particular Egyptian form of wisdom—the Instruction—reveals that the wise words of dying pharaohs that usually formed them were often copied over and over again in school contexts in the process of teaching young men. Some of the wise would perhaps have been destined to become court administrators, whilst others may have had more academic or scribal functions. We have parallels for such an educational emphasis from ancient Sumer, where wise men had an educational and scribal role, but there was less of a courtly set-up there. Can we extrapolate from such parallels to reconstruct the possibly social context of the material we have in Proverbs? We have material very similar in form, content, and context to Instruction forms in both Prov. 1–9 and Prov. 22: 17–24: 22, which provide a close parallel to the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope (just how close is debated; see recently Whybray (1994) against a close relationship, and Emerton (2001) in favour). Is this evidence of cultural interchange between the two nations—even of borrowing? After all, didn't Solomon engage in riddles with the Queen of Sheba (I Kgs. 10: 1–13)? The Israelite state was not so large as the Egyptian one, and may not have needed an administrative infrastructure such as that of Egypt. However, some scholars have posited a Solomonic enlightenment at the time of King Solomon (originally von Rad (1966a), expanded on by McKane (1970) and Heaton (1974)), in which such a model was emulated at the court of this wise king, and have sought comparative evidence in the Egyptian context. McKane (1970) saw the parallel in relation to the need for administration and a civil service under Solomon, which, he believed, led to a desire to establish a school for the training of officials. Others have suggested that greater evidence of written material from the eighth century BCE onwards may mean that the reign of Hezekiah was more of an enlightenment in wisdom terms (Scott 1985). Uncertainty abounds as to possible historical contexts, and we can probably speak about the likelihood of court and educational contexts only once the proverbs were gathered together in literary circles.
From ancient Sumer we have evidence that those versed in wisdom also performed a scribal function (Kramer 1958). This too should perhaps come into our equation. Do we have evidence within Proverbs and elsewhere in the Old Testament of wisdom writers shaping material? This possibility of later scribal contexts—arguably extending well into the period of the fixing of canons of the biblical literature—has been recently stressed by scholars (see Davies 1998), sometimes to the exclusion of acknowledging wisdom's earlier roots. Also we need to ask how separated off from the rest of society this wisdom material would have been. Israelite wisdom appears to have a quite different character from much of the rest of the Old Testament, and yet one wonders how far palace really was from law court or temple precinct. In the post-exilic wisdom books we have some evidence of a mixing of the various genres, so that the character of wisdom itself becomes increasingly eclectic.