Thoughts on the Book of Proverbs

In the book of Proverbs, we encounter a seemingly contradictory theology that stands in stark contrast to our exegesis of the book of Job.

The book of Proverbs, predicated on the wisdom literature of the Egyptians, is designed as a letter from an elder Hebrew man to a much younger and inexperienced son. It is meant to serve as a guide for those seeking wisdom, and the way to attain wisdom is through prostration to the divine. For example, Proverbs famously states that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7). According to Proverbs, rewards come to those who seek wisdom through fear of the Lord and also “humility comes before honor” (15:38).

Right conduct, arete to the Greeks, according to the Israelites is best performed in prostration to the Lord. One must be humble, rather than proud, which is also the opposite of the Greek notion of virtue.

As is common for theology, wisdom is a gift to be distributed from the divine. However, there are certain actions humans can apparently take to incur the favor of God that will bring wisdom. Wisdom appears in the form of a divine woman, one to be tamed and kept close, and most importantly pursued. It is the path to gaining personal rewards. Wisdom is also acknowledged for her role in the act of creation discussed in the book of Genesis.

In addition to wisdom, humans can also acquire things like health, wealth, and good things by worshipping the Lord. This claim stands in stark contrast to the message given to Job. Despite Job’s firm uprightness, the Lord can still bring him to the brink of destruction and allow the Adversary torture him, yet Job must remain faithful and obedient. Job must take consolation in the notion that he lacks knowledge of the divine, which appears to be chaos to human beings undergoing suffering. However in Proverbs, the author, dubiously claimed to be King Solomon, states that people who pursue wisdom by being obedient to the Lord, will be given rewards. According to Proverbs, the Lord will not leave his loyal followers in the torturous hands of the Adversary. Nothing is mentioned of the divine terror that Job experienced at the hands of the Adversary in Proverbs.

The author is concerned with things social and political, such as speech and law. Unlike Job, who does not remain silent during his time of great duress, Proverbs instructs the young hold their tongues. Young men must be made to love reproof in order to pursue wisdom and excellence, for punishment is is necessary for the sake of the city. Proverbs makes an early attempt, later taken up by Augustine and Aquinas, to harmonize the theological and the political so that the former does not continue to pose a threat to the latter.

The final three books of Proverbs are said to be written by varying prophets and kings, yet they continue the same threads of theological inquiry in them.

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