Recent Trends in Interpretation and Exegesis: The Compilation and Redaction of the Book of Proverbs

Beginning next week, the Biblical Studies discussion list will be hosting an online colloquium entitled “Proverbs — Recent Trends in Interpretation and Exegesis.” The guest scholar for the colloquium is Knut Martin Heim, Tutor in Biblical Studies at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham, England.

Knut has recently published Like Grapes of Gold Set in Silver: An Interpretation of Proverbial Clusters in Proverbs 10:1-22:16 (Walter de Gruyter, 2001; Buy from | Buy from; see RBL review here). Knut’s volume is one of a growing number of works exploring the compilation, redaction, and structure of the book of Proverbs. This exciting avenue of research bucks the traditional view that ignores a contextual reading of individual proverbs or contends that once a proverb is included in a written collection it is effectively “dead.” In contract, Knut, and others mentioned below, contend that the redactors of the book of Proverbs purposefully arranged individual sayings into pairs and larger groups based on common themes, wordplay, catchwords, paronomasia, etc., creating a new literary context for interpretation and performance.

In addition to Knut’s book, there are a number of other significant works in this area, including the volumes by Snell, Van Leeuwen, and Whybray. In addition, some other important studies are noted below.

Daniel C. Snell, Twice-Told Proverbs and the Composition of the Book of Proverbs (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1993; Buy from | Buy from

In this important study, Snell sets out to reconstruct the history of the composition of Proverbs on the basis of the text of the book, i.e., the repetitions found within it.

Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, Context and Meaning in Proverbs 25-27 (SBLDS 96; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1988; Buy from | Buy from

According to Van Leeuwen, one of the most crucial problems in the interpretation of literary texts is the determination and use of context in establishing meaning. While form criticism helps define the context of individual pericopes, it doesn’t help with larger contexts. Form criticism was founded on the assumption that smaller oral or literary units had a Sitz im Leben out of which they arose and whose life concerns they served. However, the search for a Sitz im Leben and a concrete referents are particularly acute in certain biblical texts (Psalms, wisdom, legal texts, etc.) where the givens for reconstructing the life situation or historical referent of a text are few or lacking. This problem is acute with Prov 10-22:16; 25-29, as in these chapters we have self-sufficient literary units that are extremely terse and without any historical “hooks.” The concern of this work is the literary context of the proverbs, their Sitz im Buch. This involves two types of contexts: (i) immediate: the juxtaposition of letters, words, sentences, and pericopes, more of less in contiguity; and (ii) distant context: meaningful literary similarities or contrasts that are created and discerned in texts that are not contiguous. Van Leeuwen focuses on the question of contiguous context in the interpretation of Prov 25-27 and argues chapters 25 and 26 are independent literary units, while chapter 27 is a “proverb miscellany” of sorts.

R. N. Whybray, The Composition of the Book of Proverbs (JSOTSup 168; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994; Buy from | Buy from

This study important study by Whybray investigates the process by which the disparate material in Proverbs was brought together to form a single book, and also to seek to understand the structure and character of the book in its final form. Whybray assumes that the proverbs were originally independent and were then assembled into collections employing two criteria for discerning deliberately organized groups of proverbs: (1) identity of sense; and (2) identity of sound (alliteration, assonance, rhyme, verbal repetition). He concludes the book of Proverbs is composed of a number of originally distinct sections of which the majority had complicated pre-histories. Despite the disparate origins, these different sections exhibit some common themes, like the importance of the acquisition of wisdom and the contrast between the righteous and the wicked, etc. There is, however, no evidence of a systematic editing of the whole work for dogmatic or theological reasons. In contrast, the book of Proverbs was compiled as a compendium of traditional educational or instructional material in order to gather on to a single scroll all writings of this kind which the final editor thought should be preserved.

Some other noteworthy works include the following:

  • Theodore A. Hildebrandt, “Proverbial Pairs: Compositional Units in Proverbs 10-29,â€? JBL 107 (1988) 207-224. Hildebrandt discusses the formation of “proverbial pairs,” but doesn’t touch on the issue of larger groups of proverbs in Prov 10-29.
  • A. Meinhold, Die Sprüche. I. Sprüche Kapital 1-15 (Zürcher Kommentare AT, 16.1. Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1991). Meinhold includes some attempts to discover the process of composition of the book of Proverbs. For 10:1-22:16 and chaps. 25-29 he postulates a series of stages of composition from the formation of pairs and triads to that of larger groups that have further developed into chapters and sub-collections (10-15; 16:1-22:16; 25-27; 28-29) and then finally into main collections (10:1-22:16; 25-29).
  • Otto Plöger, Sprüche Salomos (Proverbia) (BKAT 17; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1984; Buy from | Buy from Plöger conceives Proverbs to have assumed its present shape in the early postexilic period, the result of the gathering together of three collections: (1) that of chaps. 1-9 could have had a seperate existence; (2) that of 10:1-22:16, with two independent appendices in 22:17-24:22 and 24:23-34; and (3) that of chaps. 25-29 with individual appendices in chaps. 30 and 31, each of which is in two parts. In general, the material of the second collection can be assigned to the middle period of the monarchy and that of the third to the latter period. The introductory first collection, while it may contain some preexilic material, in substance represents that final stage of the book’s composition.
  • Patrick W. Skehan, Studies in Israelite Poetry and Wisdom (CBQMS 1: Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1971; Buy from | Buy from This collection contains Skehan’s classic essays on the structure of Proverbs, complete with scintillating — and compelling — numerical patterns.

If this post has whetted your appetite for this sort of research into the book of Proverbs, I encourage you to participate in the online colloquium with Professor Knut Heim on the Biblical Studies discussion list.

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