The Fear of Yahweh and the Hermeneutics of Wisdom

I’m teaching a course on wisdom literature this semester and I thought I would do a few posts relating to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. In this first post I want to look at what I think is a programmatic theological passage for how we should approach the wisdom tradition in Scripture: Proverbs 1:1-7. This passage not only provides the hermeneutical key to understanding the rest of the book of Proverbs, it also presents a comprehensive vision of the integrating function of biblical wisdom or hokmah (חכמה).

The first seven verses of the book of Proverbs present a comprehensive vision of wisdom that functions as a hermeneutical key to the rest of the book of Proverbs:

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:

2For gaining knowledge of wisdom and discipline,
for understanding words of understanding,
3for acquiring disciplined insight:
righteousness, justice, and equity;
4for giving shrewdness to the simple,
to the young knowledge and discretion —
5Let the wise listen and gain in learning,
and the discerning purchase guidance,
6to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.

7The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge;
wisdom and discipline fools despise.

The accumulation of terms relating to wisdom and knowledge in these verses indicate the vast scope of the wisdom enterprise. While the nuance of many of these terms are debated, they clearly represent a broad range of intellectual qualities, concrete skills, and moral virtues. Looking at this preamble a bit closer, you realize that in its comprehensiveness it touches on a variety of virtues, and has a certain systemization and progression to it. William P. Brown, in his work Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1996; Buy from or, argues that this is a systematic arrangement that “exhibits a tightly wrought concentric structure” (p. 25). Brown’s structure is as follows:

A – Comprehensive, intellectual values: wisdom, instruction (2a)

B — Literary expression of wisdom: insightful sayings (2b)

C — Instrumental virtue: effective instruction (3a)

D —- Moral virtues: righteousness, justice, equity (3b)

C’ — Instrumental virtues: prudence, discretion, erudition, skill (4-5)

B’ — Literary expression of wisdom: proverb, figure, words, enigmas (6)

A’ – Comprehensive, intellectual values: fear of Yahweh, knowledge, wisdom, instruction (7)

“Wisdom”, according to this comprehensivesummary includes not just intellectual values, but also practical skills and instrumental virtues.  Most significantly, it also includes moral virtues like righteousness, justice, and equity — and if there is anything to Brown’s structure, the moral virtues are underscored by virtue of being in the middle of the concentric structure. Being wise is not just about “smarts”, but includes practical skills and moral character.

The climax of this passage is v. 7, where the “fear of Yahweh” is said to be the beginning of wisdom. The fear of Yahweh starts one on the path to wisdom, and the insights about life which follow help one on the path. It is interesting that it is commitment to Yahweh is understood as being inextricably linked to the search for human knowledge. It is this verse then that “joins into a unity intellectual, experiential activity and religious behaviour” (B.S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture).

This brings together all the previous virtues and values and connects them with one’s relationship with Yahweh. This is absolutely central and is an important correction to the modernist worldview that divorces religious conviction from “objective” truth. All of the great concepts that give order and conherence to reality as we know it are subsumed in the fear of Yahweh. These are not unrelated ideas but are the building blocks for a Christian worldview.

Furthermore, in Proverbs faith is not opposed to reason (see Raymond Van Leueuen, Proverbs, NIB, p. 34), but rather faith makes it a possiblity. This contradicts an assumption characteristic of a modernist worldview that sees knowledge and wisdom as separate from the “fear” or “knowledge” of God. This is expressed in the variety of dichotomies thrown about in our world: sacred/secular, public/private, facts/values, science/religion, reason/faith, objective/subjective, etc. In contrast, Proverbs — and the rest of Scripture — eschew these diachotomies and compartments and argue that all life is to be lived in the service of God, and according to God’s “ways” or norms.

What I find quite fascinating is how this understanding of the prologue to the book of Proverbs, with its emphasis on the personal and comprehensive nature of wisdom, is also reflected in recent epistemological and hermeneutical advances. Hans Georg Gadamer (my hermeneutical hero) has underscored the situatedness of our understanding and that rather than pretending to be unbiased in the name of some “scientific” method, we must be aware of our prejudices/presuppositions and recognize that they in part make understanding possible.

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3 Responses to The Fear of Yahweh and the Hermeneutics of Wisdom

  1. John Hobbins says:

    Another fan of Gadamer. Excellent indeed. A really nice little book on the subject of faith and reason is by Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Reason within the Bounds of Religion.”

    I am not so enamored of “the tightly wrought concentric structure.” Most of the time when scholars propose these things, it’s as if there is a veil over my eyes. I can’t see it; the hypothesis seems contrived.

  2. Henry Kirsch says:

    Which Gadamer book are you referring to, Tyler?

  3. Hey Henry,

    I was referring to his magisterial Truth & Method.

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