Proverbs 1-9: A Commentary

Author explains the meaning and his approach to the book of Proverbs ( Anchor Bible Commentary. Doubleday-Random House, 2000)

By Michael V. Fox
University of Wisconsin     

    This is the first of two volumes on Proverbs. Together they will provide a comprehensive commentary on Proverbs that builds from the ground up--from detailed examination of language and text to broad questions of religion, ethics, and intellectual history. The exposition is secular in approach, attempting to understand the biblical book in its own terms. I offer no religious inspiration or ethical message. These should arise from the biblical book itself. My goal is to help the contemporary reader understand it as well as possible, in the light of scholarship--modern and earlier.

    In the first volume, I undertake to describe chapters 1-9 in its parts and as a meaningful whole. This whole is built from historically distinct components. I describe the teachings of each layer as a thought-system.

    These chapters, which are probably the latest component of Proverbs, are composed (I argue) of two interlaced compositional levels: first, the Ten Lectures, spoken by father to son (1:8-19; 2:1-22; 3:1-12; 3:21-35; 4:1-9; 4:10-19; 4:20-27; 5:1-23; 6:20-35; 7:1-27), then, the five poetic Interludes (1:20-33; 3:13-20; 6:1-19; 8:1-36; 9:1-18). The Interludes are imbedded in the lectures as inner-biblical expositions of the theme of wisdom as treated in the lectures. 

    The commentary rests on philological and textual analysis, provided in a more detailed fashion than previous commentaries. I believe that scholars will find value in this more technical material, which is typically excluded in more popular commentaries. At the same time, I have tried to make the commentary accessible to a lay audience as well. The body of the commentary, in regular font, addresses an educated but non-specialist audience, without presuming knowledge of Hebrew. The philological comments (dealing with problems in the Hebrew) appear in imbedded paragraphs in smaller font and can be read or skipped without losing the train of thought. The text critical comments, which do presume a knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, are gathered in an appendix. The technical material is available to be used as the need arises but should not interfere with the non-technical exposition.

    One unusual aspect of my commentary is the attention it gives to the medieval Jewish commentators, such as Sa`adia Gaon, the three generations of Qimhis, Hame'iri, Nahmias, and the like. These scholars initiated and pursued the art of literalistic, "plain-sense" commentary. They were sensitive readers and often had a different perspective from the modern reader. Reference to their ideas should be of value, especially to the reader who does not have access to medieval Hebrew texts.

    At the end of volume I, four essays consider the unit as a whole and treat certain fundamental issues: the formation of Proverbs 1-9; the origins of personified wisdom (that is, Wisdom spoken of as a female); wisdom in the Lectures, and wisdom in the Interludes. I argue that this unit offers new ideas of wisdom: wisdom as character and wisdom as a transcendent power permeating the universe.

    In the second volume, I will continue the commentary in the same fashion, but treating each proverb separately, for proverbs are first of all meant to work on their own. The volume will end with essays on the literature and thought of the book of Proverbs and its place in ancient Near Eastern and Jewish intellectual history. (The latter has never been investigated.) I will argue for three theses about the unique character and function of Proverbs. 

    1. Wisdom--the faculty of intellect together with transmitted knowledge--is made a primary value, a necessary and sufficient precondition for virtue. Earlier wisdom literature inculcated wise, pious, and virtuous behavior. Proverbs was the first to focus on the intellectual foundations and prerequisites of piety and righteousness and to insist on the obligation to seek wisdom in itself, apart from any specific virtue.

    2. By exalting wisdom as the precondition and guarantor of all virtues, the authors and compilers of Proverbs sought to transform the ancient Hebrew tradition of ethical and practical maxims and to present it as a Jewish equivalent of philosophy, which is the employment of unaided reason in the search for truth and the principles of effective and ethical behavior.

    3. Rabbinic Judaism's debt to wisdom literature is greater than generally recognized. Wisdom literature's principle of the transcendental value of wisdom is refined in the rabbinic ethic of Torah Lishmah, meaning study for its own sake. According to this tenet, the study of God's word, and not only its fulfillment in deed, is an act and obligation of piety. Indeed, the Rabbis called Torah study the "foundation of the world," crucial to the cosmic economy. In Pharisaic and rabbinic Judaism, revelation is no longer direct or via prophecy but must be mediated through Torah. But Torah itself must be mediated exegetically, through scholars, who are called "the wise" or "students of the wise" in rabbinic usage. Book-learning (which is included in the Hebrew concept of "wisdom") thus becomes an intrinsically religious virtue and duty, whose fulfillment is a realization of a transcendent potential.

Michael V. Fox is a distinguished Professor at the University of Wisconsin.

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