Word Up

King Solomon

Word Up

Bernd U Schipper, Proverbs 1-15, Fortress Press, 2019, Pp. i-xxvi, 1-579, reviewed by Darrell Sutton

Paremiology is the branch of study that delves into the compilation of proverbs. By far the most popular wise words from antiquity are those which were assembled throughout ancient Greek civilization. Proverbial expressions were recorded earlier among ancient Near Eastern peoples; but Aristotle collected various items for his own anthological uses. Select proverbs may put the accent on characteristics of humans, animals, insects, mythic analogies or places. Hebraic scholars have had at their disposal a corpus of Hebrew proverbs that antecede the proverbs of Hellas by hundreds of years. Sorting through them, interpreting and classifying them remains a controlled academic field of study.

This stout volume under review is the English version of part one of Dr. Schipper’s commentary which appeared in the Biblischer Kommentar series (2018). The renaissance of studies of olden sages’ statements continues. Remarkable advances in the study of wisdom literature by academy specialists were made in the last century. The gains are featured in this book. Schipper carefully compares archaic Hebrew proverbial statements to early near eastern texts, even ancient Egyptian ones. A large hardcover, the text-block is well done and the Univers 65 font is easy on the eye. As usual, the print quality is superb. The cream-colored pages are opaque enough that there is little glare; but they are thick enough that there is little ghosting of the text from the verso and recto sides of the pages. Each chapter begins with a translation of the Hebrew text. Footnotes are copious, and Dr. Schipper “allows the text’s projection of gender through its language to come through” (xxvi). The bibliography proves that he spared no pains in his investigations of sources and secondary literature. Students will be pleased with what he accomplished, for he struck the right balance in his employment of Greek Septuagint (LXX) readings and his use of Dead Sea Scroll (DSS) material.

Dr. Schipper’s linguistic equipment is formidable. His publications show deep knowledge of Torah traditions. In contrast to previous commentators on wisdom-tradition texts in the Bible, he utilizes Egyptological materials to form historical links to ancient Hebrew texts rather than merely providing the standard North-west Semitic motifs proffered in recent decades for understanding Hebrew wisdom literature. What he achieved is impressive. Schipper acknowledges that a few late 19th century-early 20th century German scholars denied Proverbs had any authentic standing within the Hebrew canon (without embracing that specific belief himself). Holders to those skeptical beliefs went on to pioneer complex theories about Proverb’s multi-author composition, even positing that ‘whatever resembled ancient Near Eastern texts must be “foreign” to the Bible’ (p.1).

Following the suggestions of his predecessors, Schipper (1) ‘highlights the connections between the Book of Proverbs and other biblical texts’; (2) ‘takes into account the Egyptian wisdom instructions’, and (3) ‘enquires into the overall function of the book in the formation of the moral self’ (pp.4-5). His studies of various superscriptions leads to the division of Proverbial material into seven parts: I – 1:1-9:18; II – 10:1-22:16; III – 22:17-24:22; IV – 24:23-34; V – 25:1-29:27; VI – 30:1-33 and VII – 31:1-31. Among all the other investigations there are two useful surveys: the Composition of Proverbs 1-9 (pp.44-60) and the Composition of Proverbs 10-31 (pp.341-358).

The term ‘wisdom,’ he concedes, is hard to define (p.12): a fair amount of complexity surrounds descriptions of this literary expression. Some of the difficulty stems from scholarly practices. In recent decades, the word ‘complex’ has been used to prevent solid descriptions of ancient customs and textual origins in far too many spheres of study. Students need only know what ‘wisdom’ meant to the ancient Jewish writers who composed Proverbs, not what its precise meaning was to the Sumerians or to neighboring Semitic speakers. Certain complexities dissolve when scholars narrow the scope of their investigations. But encyclopedic research, of necessity, imposes barriers when wide-ranging comparisons are attempted. Few scholars can master the vast corpus of the earliest ancient texts of Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Egypt. The field of Hebraic studies is not so necessitous that the knowledge of the one or the other subjects, although helpful to the commentator, should be deemed crucial in every case that an ancient Hebrew text requires explanation.

Little agreement among Western scholars exists about the right way to define a proverb (מָשָׁל) and Schipper, himself, was unclear how to proceed to a definition. Simply put, they are short storied sentences that disclose valued beliefs and insights. The estimate of each proverb usually is dependent on the respect attributed to the inventor of the saying, not to the one who repeats it. Rabbinical figures have emphasised the fact that the ancient Hebrew community contained within it priests, prophets and sages. Priests provided instruction (and wise counsel, see II Sam. 17) that was derived from the literary Hebrew texts. Prophets declared Jehovah’s expressed will with regard to the nation’s relationship to the same texts; but the sages, male or female, offered parabolic enlightenment through short pithy statements. As a young person in Amman, Jordan, I routinely heard from my host-family, in Syriac idiom, the account of the ‘Two Brothers’. One owned one half of the world and the other owned the other half. Once every 5 years they would meet at some border to see one another. But each time, one brother encroached upon the other’s property until they eventually got into a fight, the one attacking the other. The point of the story is entirely proverbial: ‘greed in the heart of a sibling is destructive and can lead to strife.’ Schipper’s analyses put flesh and bone on these perceptions.

Notes on the English translation

The English renderings are clear and idiomatic. Hebrew thought is transparently provided in the English translation. Chapter 7 ‘The Strange Woman (cf. 2:16f;5:3f): A Case Study’ gives an apt example of his translative skill.

For through the window of my house,
through the lattice I looked down.
And I saw among the inexperienced,
I noticed among the sons,
a young man who lacked sense.
He was crossing the street at the corner,
and following the way (to) her house
in the twilight, in the evening of the day,
in the midst of night and darkness.
And look, a woman (came) toward him,
(in) the garb of a prostitute and determined (in her) heart.
She is restless and unruly;
Her feet do not remain in her house;
now in the street, now in the squares,
and at every corner she lies in wait.
And she seized him and kissed him…

‘And now, sons, listen to me,
And give heed to the words of my mouth!’
Do not let your heart turn aside to her ways;
do not go astray onto her pathways!
For she has brought down many wounded,
and numerous are those whom she has killed.
The ways to Sheol (are) her house,
going down to the chambers of death.

No attempt to be poetic is made in the above extract, although Schipper tries to keep to staccato constructions: i.e., one, two, and three syllable words. The parentheses are indicative. As is often the case with scholars who are non-speakers of Semitic idioms, they have difficulties understanding the use of implied prepositions. The lady’s characteristics are not imperceptible. Tragedy awaits all who fall into her embrace. The lengthy passage contains the crux of what proverbial literature entails, admonitions for individuals regarding conduct. The instructions here and there issue precepts for, or restrictions on, behavior. And an enlightened father’s words liberate his son’s and readers’ minds from imprudence so that each of them can act wisely.

Notes on the Hebrew text

Three superscriptions present Solomon as the author of several these series of wise sayings (מִשְׁלֵי, שְׁלֹמֹה): 1:1, 10:1, 25:1. The superscriptions here are as necessary as they are throughout the Psalms. Opening words tend to facilitate fresh interpretations. So I have chosen a small sampling from this genre of initial words.

P.87: In his brief Introduction on that page he refers to personified wisdom as a goddess, citing possible links to Isis (but see also his remarks at 3:13-20 and further Isis reflections on 292). But neither the ancient Jew nor the Jewish text of 1:20-33 describes wisdom as a deity. At 3:19 (בְּחָכְמָה) wisdom is shown to be an instrument or means of forming the worlds. So Schipper’s comment is not substantiated by ancient Jewish history or by the historical context. See 2:6 and 8:22-23 where wisdom derives from God – as a gift (employed in human spheres and distributed to men and women accordingly).

P.165: at 4:1: although I am in no way opposed to his explanation, the Hebrew term for gendered ‘sons’ (בָנִים), does not in its sense here imply the presence of a scribal setting of wisdom students. From a philological standpoint, and with less imagination, it refers to progeny who are receiving advice from a father. However, Schipper is correct when he states on page 284 that “the wisdom poem of 8 is the most discussed text in the book of Proverbs” by scholars.

P.278: as for “Sheol” (שְׁאוֹל), Schipper cites Ps.16:10-11 and Job 38:16-18 as attestations of his belief that God’s power does not extend to Sheol. Here I would pose a question. Would it not be incredible to assume that ancient writers of Jewish texts believed that Jehovah, their deity who created all things, had powers that were prohibited from manifestation in a place made by Him?

P.292: since we are told on page 288 that chapter 8 “gives no clear indications of its possible sociohistorical context” how then can one scientifically illustrate – as Schipper attempted to do – “extrabiblical parallels for personified wisdom”? Further still, why does one need to suppose it “a literary point of view” to state that “chap. 8 is a late redactional insertion into chaps. 1-9”? That text-critical conclusion is not based on any valid evidence of textual correspondence or linguistic variation.

P.462: He denies the plausibility, even the possibility, of Bruce Waltke’s translation of the Hebrew text “the wise among women…” (חַכְמוֹת נָשִׁים, בָּנְתָה בֵיתָהּ), citing the appositional clause’s singular suffix. The singular feminine ending for ‘her’ does not exclude the verity of his rendering. In fact, the generic sense of “the wise among…” is much closer to the Hebrew than Schipper’s “The wisdom of women has built her house”. The difference is a matter of perception. Other translators have emphasized the woman; but Schipper’s version accents ‘wisdom’ as the subject-builder rather than as the means (cf.9:1). Comparing the various commentaries, readers are given options. Either one may be so construed from the text.

Remarks on Footnotes and Bibliography

The footnotes contain references to sources, alternate readings, analogical expressions, and very concise expansions of what is noted down in the text or commentary. The bibliography (pp.515-541) is vast, and his references are used well; but I did not find therein A. Cohen, Proverbs (Soncino Press:1945), a small but educative treatise. Also absent is recent published work on Mesopotamian proverbial collections by M.P. Streck and N. Wasserman, ‘On Wolves and Kings. Two Tablets with Akkadian Wisdom Texts from the Second Millennium B.B.’, Iraq 78 (2016) 241-252. Another useful piece for students is M.P. Streck and N. Wasserman, ‘I Was Not Warm in the Cold. Another Babylonian Proverbial Collection’, Iraq (2019) 81 241-245. Excellent work is being done in this field; but the latter piece was likely not available to Schipper at the time of his writing; M.P. Streck is cited on page 538 for his (2012) paper ‘The Pig and the Fox in Two Popular Sayings from Aššur’. Schipper’s use of published articles on topics related to Proverbs are extensive: the best of German-language scholarship appears.

Numerous papers in festschrifts are exploited. Ancient targums are systematically analyzed. Among other texts, he uses the LXX and Vulgate. Schipper prefers the Leningrad Codex (B19A), and does not favor conjectural emendation (see p.40-43; p.72:fn.f and p.102:fn.k-k). Text-critical material appears in sections at the beginning of each chapter. I have found his remarks to be helpful and his textual reports to be reliable.

Notes on the Commentary

Schipper’s knowledge of the history of the scholarship on Proverbs is deftly deployed. Sections and sub-sections are organized coherently. His observations are astute. Taking a couple of paragraphs at random from chapter 6, in his Introduction on page 218 he writes

Upon first glance, Prov. 6:1-19 does not seem to fit well with its surrounding context. Thus, since the time of Franz Hitzig’s Proverbs commentary from 1858, this unit has been regarded as a later addition or interlude, Closer investigation, however, reveals that these nineteen verses continue the line of thought from 4:20-27 and 5:1-23, even if they are presumably secondary from a compositional perspective. Proverbs 6:1-19 is a piece of “scribal literature” that presupposes a wide variety of materials from chaps. 10-31, including the only example of a quotation of wo consecutive verses in the book of Proverbs (Prov 6:10-11 = 24:33-34).

Then in the Commentary section on page 221 he writes,

Biblical legal texts do not contain any warnings against vouching for someone, although wisdom literature does contain such warnings. The verb עֲרַב (“to vouch [for]”) is used elsewhere in Prov 11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26 and 27:13 as well as in Sir 8:13. The same applies to תָּקַע (“to strike hands)”.

The Sumerian Instruction of Shuruppak states:

Do not vouch for someone; that man will have a hold on you.
And you, let nobody vouch for you; the man will despise you (19-20)

At the start of my close scan of this volume, I presumed that the commentary section would run over with Egyptological material. Schipper finds a healthy balance in his discussions of texts.

Notes on Exegesis and Theology

Explications of passages are clear. Theological discussions are slight, but when they are included, they are intertwined with all the other intertextual remarks he makes. The author blends comments on ancient Jewish custom with ancient Near Eastern ideas. Sometimes the links are not so apparent. Where theological precepts require consideration (e.g., at Prov. 1:1-7), they do not appear. Terms are scrutinized linguistically but not always according to Jewish usage. Schipper uses the term Yahweh – Tetragrammaton – all the way through. Indeed, Yahweh needs to be defined at verse 7 in particular. The revelation of his name at Exodus 3:14-15 is crucial to understanding Yahweh’s character as the self-existent one. He presents himself to Moses, not as one among many Canaanites gods but as the true God, the only sovereign deity. Despite Israel’s recurrent idolatries that are recorded in Judges, Kings and in The Prophets, Proverbs shows definitively that those patterns were not the prescribed ideal. Even still, God is shown to be the natural spring of all knowledge, and when due reverence is given to him, that act of piety produces streams that lead to greater understanding of Him and of how a person is to live his or her life in a world created by Yahweh.

From the point of view of the several authors of proverbs named in this corpus, those individuals who despise divine instruction are similarly viewed as the foolish ones who do not acknowledge God’s existence (Ps. 14:1,53:1). Solomon came of age singing lyrics written by his father David, words that magnified the majesty of God and diminished the importance of man’s pride and the might of David’s enemies. God is orderly and structured in the handling of his creation, plans and purposes. Several proverbs about the wisdom of insects and animals demonstrate it (Prov. 30:24-31). But unwise persons despise the qualities that would deliver them from a less organized existence and from absurd thoughts.

Readers will look in vain if they wish to discover what early Christian writers may have written about select verses in Proverbs. E.g., Patristic writers debated Prov. 8:22. It was at the center of the Arian controversy and is a passage that for many communities had been applied to Jesus Christ. But various factions in the fourth century AD interpreted its application in different ways. Their labors go unmentioned. Yet in this commentary ancient Jewish exegetical methods are referred to, but Christian exegesis in earlier and Late Antiquity is all but ignored. Hermeneia volumes are marketed to pastors, rabbis, [unaffiliated] scholars of all sorts, and to adherents to doctrines of various groups within Judaism and outside of Christianity. So there is little reason now to cite rabbinical authorities (Mishna/Talmud) while disregarding the writings of the Church Fathers of the same epoch. So much new material (in Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Ge’ez etc.) is in the market today that it behoves all Old Testament commentators to draw on them and place select comments before a an educated reading public. Readers might want to know that The book of Proverbs was the first biblical book to be translated into the Armenian language (c.5th century AD). It could have been of equal value to Schipper in his comparative analyses as was the text, noted in the bibliography, of the eminent dogmatician and exegete, Cornelius Lapide (1567-1637), whose Commentaria in Salomonis Proverbia (Antwerp:1645) remains serviceable.

Likewise, it is helpful, always, if Proverbs is set within the larger corpus of Old and New Testament, rather than merely drawing parallels to ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian themes and motifs which were less likely to have been adopted from sapients of nearby cultures for their hallowed Jewish traditions, notwithstanding the numerous scholarly arguments to the contrary.

Criticisms and Suggestions

There is a rare punctuation issue at 4:1. In English it reads,

Listen, sons, to a father’s discipline,
and be attentive, to recognize insight!

Those two lines are encumbered by unnecessary pauses and emphasis.  It happens often in the translations. Why not rephrase and re-punctuate them to read,

            Sons, listen to a father’s discipline,
and be attentive to a recognize insight.

Some final thoughts. In order for comparative research to command authority, a text or passage needs plausible arguments made to explain its formation. Lacking any such argument, one cannot demonstrate how one passage may or may not have influenced another one. Arguing for a particular date of composition is foundational to building one’s case. The display of similar words in diverse literature does not explain how they came to exist in different civilizations; but the similarity of word-construction and phrasal assembly across cultures definitely provides connections, even more so if it can be demonstrated firmly how one set of statements, whether inscribed or oral, passed into usage in another society.

Exhaustive historical sketches rarely find their way into Old Testament introductions nowadays. Grand leaps of faith are made. New terms, and vocabulary, develop. Once an assumption finds approval among competent individuals it becomes an assumed fact and is habitually published so; and all other theories which deviate from the ‘accepted belief’ usually are deemed original because they diverge from received opinion. What undermines all these opinions most of the time is the fact that our technical commentaries still form their basic conclusions on suppositions initiated by 19th century German scholars, the adoption and adaptation of which restrains contemporary scholars from further academic progress.

Besides, Jewish literature alone has had consistent, international usage for thousands of years, in western, eastern and far eastern hemispheres. Excepting Egyptian literatures, if their writings are everywhere interpreted correctly, ANE literatures cannot be demonstrated securely to have been universally used by any societies as one descends through time into later ages of antiquity. Regional transmission was ubiquitous. There are tablets that have been recovered from Hattuša with trilingual (Sumerian-Akkadian-Hittite) wisdom statements contained therein. However, Babylonian inscriptions during the ‘Archaic Greek’ epoch do not turn up in abundance; they appear even less in Hellenistic times, and hardly any show up by Roman Imperial dates. And the so-called wisdom-texts of Mesopotamia have little in common with biblical Hebrew insights, the latter of which were not employed in the biblical canon for magic spells and incantations as other ANE texts often were so used.

Even though I do not claim that Schipper was wholly unaware of them, variants from the medieval Masorah did not find their way onto this commentary’s printed pages very often (but see p.265). Seeing that he accepts Solomon as an influential figure in the composition and compilation of the proverbs, a “critical” commentary like this one would have been made better by the inclusion of a terse, reconstructed biography of Solomon. Schipper’s views on the matter would have doubtless been instructive. In the main, Hebrew words are presented with vowels. And in my opinion, the description ‘cultic community’ should be discarded, as it is often used by Old Testament and Hebrew scholars in their labors on ancient wisdom literature. The ascription is equivocal, and is no less pejorative if the same phrase were applied to modern laypersons of the same religion or ascribed to those specialist academics who hold consentient views on any topic.

Hermeneia is a leading publisher of critical commentaries on canonical and non-canonical books. This first volume of Proverbs certainly is among the better ones, if not the best one, they have printed in recent years. A phenomenal resource, if the second volume matches this one in depth and acuity, the two of them will be standard go-to reference works for a long time to come. An outstanding feature of Schipper’s style is that the critical perspectives to which he refers do not prevail in the absence of evidence. Schipper’s own views are held in check by the duty to confirm theoretic claims. As of now, volume one stands in the front ranks of other commentaries on Proverbs 1-15. Dr. Schipper’s commentary is to be recommended unreservedly.

Several line drawings of figures, pictures and coins by Maria Bruske enhance the text. The philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was surely correct when he stated, “The genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs.”

Darrell Sutton publishes papers on ancient texts and reviews biblical and classical literature

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