Well, it’s April Fool’s Day (and appropriately my birthday) and I thought rather than trying to fool everyone with a clever post, I would do a post on the different types of fools in the Hebrew Bible, and more specifically in the book of Proverbs.
The first fool we meet in the book of Proverbs is presented as the antithesis of the person who is seeking wisdom:
The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge; fools/dullards (אוילים) despise wisdom and instruction (Prov. 1:7).
We meet the other three fools a bit later on the lips of Woman Wisdom (חכמות), when she cries out in the streets to the fools and admonishes them to heed her advice:
How long, O simple ones (פתים), will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers (לצון) delight in their scoffing
and fools (כסילים) hate knowledge? (Prov. 1:22)
These four types of fools have the wrong attitudes prerequisite for gaining wisdom. As fools, however, they are not all equal. There is still hope for the simple one, while the dullards, fools, and the scoffers are progressively more set in their ways.
The Simple (petayim; פתים).
The Hebrew word petayim (פתים) is found 17 times in the Bible, 13 of which in the book of Proverbs. The petayim are simple and naive; accordingly most English translations render petayim with “the simple” (KJV, NIV, NRSV, NJPS, etc.). They are untutored (1:4); lacking both sense (7:7; 8:5) and wisdom (9:6). They are self-satisfied (1:22); uncommitted (7:21); and believe everything (14:15). A bit dense too in that they do not avoid danger (22:3; 27:12), if they even knew where they were going (1:32). But they do have the potential to learn (8:5; 19:25; 21:11), and are the object of wooing by both Woman Wisdom (9:6) and Woman folly (9:4, 16). Their basic need is shrewdness, as they are weak-willed and easily seduced, but there remains some hope for them.
Fools/Dullards (kisîlîm; כסילים). Kisîlîm (כסילים) is the dominant word in the Hebrew Bible for fool. It occurs some 70 time in the Old Testament and a whopping 49 time in the book of Proverbs. While it is typically translated in English by “fool” (KJV, NRSV, NIV, etc.), the NJPS renders it consistently as “dullard” — which may not be a bad practice so as to differentiate them from the other type of fool, the ‘evîlîm. Dullards hate knowledge (1:22); are complacent (1:32); and reckless (14:16; 17:10; 29:11). They lack understanding and sense (8:5); are deluded (14:8); take pleasure in evil (10:23). They are easily seduced by folly (7:22); and their actions are foolish (13:16; 14:24), and they are an embarrassment to their parents (15:20; 17:21, 25; 19:13). And are characterized by imprudent and slanderous speech (10:18; 12:23; 13:16; 14:7; 15:2, 7, 14; 18:2, 6, 7; 19:1), and do not take rebuke seriously (17:10). They should not be trusted (26:6). The only saving grace for dullards is that they are potentially teachable (8:1-5; but 17:16, 23:9), though you need to have wisdom to know when it is appropriate to answer them (26:4-5). My favourite proverb associated with the kisîlîm (and perhaps my favourite out of the whole book of Proverbs) is Prov 26:11, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a dullard repeats his folly.”
Fools (‘evîlîm; אוילים).
The word ‘evîlîm (אוילים), typically translated as “fool” in English translations, is found 26 times in the Hebrew Bible, 19 of which occur in the book of Proverbs. These fools despise wisdom and discipline (1:7); are thoughtless (7:22); are self-deceived (12:15); have a lack of sense (10:21); and are incorrigible (27:22). They don’t take advice (12:15; even of a parent – 15:5); and are characterized by chattering speech (10:8, 10, 14; 14:3; 14:9; 20:3; 29:9; cf. 17:28). They are easily angered (12:16) and quick to quarrel (20:3). My favourite image associated with this type of fool is found in Prov 27:22, “Even if you pound the fool in a mortar, grinding him like grain in with a pestle, you will not remove his folly from him.” Ouch!
Scoffers (letsîm; לצים).
The verb lyts (ליץ) “to scoff” occurs a total of 28 times in the Hebrew Bible; it is found in the book of Proverbs 18 times, frequently as a substantive participle translated as “scoffer” or “mocker.” These mockers delight in their mocking (1:22); are proud (3:34; 21:24); and vainly seek wisdom (14:6); and are incorrigible (9:7; 15:12). Not only do they not listen to correction (13:1; 15:12), they abuse those who try to rebuke them (9:7, 8); and mock things that are of value (14:9). They are an abomination to all (24:9). There is not much hope for them.
So this April Fool’s Day, have some fun, pull some practical jokes, but do not act a fool — at least not in the biblical sense of the word!
How do we read and understand individual proverbs found in the book of Proverbs? Do we take them as universal truths? Do we read them as promises from God to be claimed? Either way of reading proverbs, I maintain, is entirely wrong-headed since it falls prey to genre-misidentification. Rather than seeing proverbs as universal truths or promises from God, proper genre identification understands them as “sanctified” generalizations based on experience that may be used to guide our lives.
Proverbs are Not Promises
A popular approach to understanding proverbs — especially in a church context — is to see them as promises from God to be claimed by the individual believer. Take for instance, the following passage from Proverbs 3:1- 10:
1My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; 2for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you. 3Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. 4So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people. 5Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. 6In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. 7Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. 8It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body. 9Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; 10then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.
I have heard these verses preached as promises, especially vv. 5-6 and 9-10. But do these verses guarantee the results promised? If you keep God’s commandments will you enjoy long life? If you trust in Yahweh will you enjoy straight paths? (I won’t even touch on the common misapplication of relating this proverb to divine guidance). If you fear Yahweh will you be physically healthy? Despite what late-night prosperity preachers claim, if you tithe your first fruits, will God reward you materially? Are these promises to be claimed?
Or how about this proverb:
Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray (Prov 22:6)
As a Christian parent I would like to “claim” this, but that is not the way proverbs work. This is a generalization based on experience. Perhaps in the appropriate circumstances this and other proverbs are true, but I think we all know enough real life situations where this has not been the case. If proverbs are promises, then either God is unfaithful or we don’t claim them with enough faith.
What is more, this sort of “claim it” approach to proverbs is also contradicted by other wisdom traditions found in the Bible. The book of Job poignantly illustrates that “trusting in Yahweh” doesn’t guarantee health and wealth. What is more, the book of Ecclesiastes highlights that the opposite occurs far too often:
There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is absurd (Eccl 8:14).
The Contextual Nature of Proverbial Truth
In order to properly understand proverbs we must distinguish between promises in admonitions and proverbial truth. Proverbs are true in the right context — they are not universally true. Take, for example, this famous pair of biblical proverbs:
“Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself” (Prov 26:4).
“Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes” (Prov 26:5).
Obviously both proverbs cannot be universally true! Nonetheless, anyone who has ever interacted with a fool knows the “truth” of both sayings. Sometimes it is appropriate to ignore fools, while at other times it is necessary to “put them in their place” with a gracious response. The wise person will know what response is appropriate in different situations: “To make an apt answer is a joy to anyone, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov 15:23)
The recognition that proverbs are generalizations that apply in certain circumstances really shouldn’t surprise us. This is the same way proverbs work in our culture. We have English proverbs that appear contradictory and yet are appropriate in the right circumstances. How about: “Too many cooks spoil the broth” compared to “many hands make lite work.” We can imagine circumstances where both are appropriate.
So when it comes to reading proverbs we need to keep in mind both their genre and our context. They are not promises to be claimed or universal truths; rather they are generalizations that are true in the right circumstances.
A good little introduction that I would recommend for anyone interested in how to understand and interpret the book of Proverbs is Tremper Longman’s How to Read Proverbs (InterVarsity Press, 2002; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com).
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 Amazon.ca or Amazon.com), 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)
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.
I have always liked John Goldingay’s scholarship and this volume on the Psalter is no exception. Goldingay interacts with the best scholarship on the Psalms and presents it in a warm and engaging style that is both academically sound and theologically relevant. As such his commentary is ideal for pastors and Christian scholars and laypeople will also find it extremely accessible. I highly recommend it!
Another new commentary on the Psalms is in the popular Believers Church Bible Commentary:
OK, so I’m on a Proverbs kick tonight. In advance of the online colloquium entitled on recent trends in the interpretation of the Book of Proverbs on the Biblical Studies discussion list, I thought I could offer a modest survey of commentaries available on the Book of Proverbs.
Proverbs is one biblical book that is better to take in small doses, rather than read straight through. That being said, there have been some recent scholarship on the composition and redaction of the book of Proverbs that suggests it was not compiled haphazardly (see my post on the compilation and redaction of the Book of Proverbs here). Most of the more recent commentaries also explore the connections and smaller collections within the book of Proverbs. In this regard note especially Garrett, Van Leeuwen, and Waltke.
When we turn to commentaries on the book of Proverbs there are a lot of different options. Murphy is one of the preeminent scholars on the wisdom literature of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. His three works on Proverbs are all worth consulting, though his WBC is perhaps the best of his work. Fox is also excellent for scholars and pastors, as is Clifford. I would be remiss to not mention the excellent and extremely thorough (albeit somewhat conservative) commentary by one of my former professors, Bruce Waltke. I highly recommend it. Hubbard is a good popular commentary, and I have been impressed with Farmer and Koptak. Wright‘s volume is invaluable for a historical perspective.
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 Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com; 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.
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.
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 SprÃ¼che. I. SprÃ¼che Kapital 1-15 (ZÃ¼rcher Kommentare AT, 16.1. ZÃ¼rich: 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 PlÃ¶ger, SprÃ¼che Salomos (Proverbia) (BKAT 17; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1984; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com). PlÃ¶ger 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 Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com). 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.