Instruction and Imagery in Proverbs 1–9

Written by Stuart Weeks Reviewed By V. Philips Long

For all interested in what has been described as the Hebrew Bible’s most “practical” book, Stuart Weeks’ recent monograph on Proverbs 1–9 is welcome reading. Weeks’ quite plausible central thesis is that these chapters comprise not so much a collection of originally independent wisdom poems as “a single composition, with a more-or-less coherent viewpoint” (p. 1). As his title suggests, Weeks argues this thesis by focusing first on genre-affinities between Proverbs 1–9 and ancient Near Eastern, especially Egyptian, “Instructions” and, secondly, on the challenging and sophisticated imagery of Proverbs 1–9.

Weeks devotes his initial two chapters to the genre issue. Chapter 1 describes the character and provenance of ancient Near Eastern “Instructions,” which Weeks links with funerary inscriptions, and chapter 2 explores the implications of this comparative material for Proverbs 1–9. The next three chapters examine the distinctive imagery, figurative language, and motifs of Proverbs 1–9. His argument in chapter 3 is two-fold: “that Proverbs 1–9 develops an elaborate and distinctive set of motifs, and that the significance of some elements only becomes clear through a recognition of their place” in the unit as a whole (p. 67). Chapter 4 is more specific, focusing inter alia on the key concept of the “fear of Yahweh,” which he takes to be “the first product of knowledge,” rather than the “basis of knowledge/wisdom” (p. 118). Here I wonder whether one might find a place for both notions.

Chapter 5 explores the significance of path imagery and the “foreign woman,” noting with respect to the latter that many commentators rightly reject “specific, limiting identifications” and adopt a “more literary and symbolic” understanding (p. 135). While appreciative of recent studies that seek to understand the “foreign woman” emphasis against the backdrop of a “post-exilic campaign against marriages to foreign women” (p. 135), Weeks observes that the biblical warnings against intermarriage suggest not some “exclusivist agenda” (p. 141), but rather a concern over the religiously corrupting influence of associating with foreigners (e.g., Deut 7:1–5). This being so, one wonders if the repeated warnings in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Judges, Kings, etc. against intermarriage with the non-Yahwist inhabitants of Canaan (ably summarized by Weeks on pp. 137–41) do not loosen the post-exilic grip on the “foreign woman” motif.

His sixth and final chapter tackles such standard questions as Proverbs 1–9’s authorship and provenance (more on this presently) and its seeming disinterest in history. On the history question, Weeks insists that it is not “quite true to say that Proverbs 1–9 shows no interest in national history,” but in any case its main interest is “in talking about individuals and their decisions, rather than about the people as a whole” (p. 169). The book concludes with a very useful “Annotated Translation” of Proverbs 1–9, a bibliography of works cited, and the expected indices.

The brief and selective summary above cannot do justice to the range and depth of Weeks’ discussion, but it may at least give an idea of the general shape of his book. Readers will benefit from Weeks’ immersion in the literature and will be grateful for the ample documentation provided in footnotes. If they are like the present reviewer, they will find much in the monograph to provoke their thinking. They may also be left with some questions—perhaps not inappropriate in a book dealing with wisdom literature.

As examples of my questions/concerns, I shall mention just two. On the issue of authorship, Weeks observes that instruction literature is characteristically, though not universally, associated with “a particular individual, whose prosperity in life confirms its value” (p. 10). He then raises the possibility that settings and attributions “may have symbolic rather than historical significance” (p. 14). This possibility then quickly moves towards certainty, with Weeks asserting that “the strong tendency to link the setting of the instructional speech with some famous individual from the past” is “a narrative device, and should not be considered an authorial attribution in the modern sense” (p. 16). Having thus concluded that most ancient Near Eastern instructions are pseudepigraphic, Weeks opines that he does not believe there to be “any persuasive grounds for taking the composition to be genuinely Solomonic, although that view is still defended in some quarters” (p. 156). For this opinion to become persuasive to the yet undecided, Weeks would need to cite and actually engage with those who, even very recently and dealing with the same data, have argued against the pseudepigraphic view and in favour of Solomonic authorship (e.g., Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1–15 [NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], 31–36).

My second question has to do with Weeks’ observation that Proverbs 1–9 “lays a strong emphasis on the need for instruction, but offers very little instruction itself.” The “instruction” in view, according to Weeks, must be “the Jewish Law, the instruction par excellence” (p. 126), and it is this Law that must be internalized as “a prerequisite for an understanding of God’s will, and for protection against the temptations of sin” (p. 175). While not wishing to exclude Weeks’ emphasis on Law entirely, I wonder if the common understanding of Proverbs 1–9 as a “prologue” to the collections of aphoristic instructions found in Proverbs 10ff. does not obviate the necessity of looking beyond the book of Proverbs for the “instruction” the poet of Proverbs 1–9 has in view.

Such questions and quibbles notwithstanding, Weeks’ central thesis that Proverbs 1–9 is not simply a collection of wisdom vignettes, much less an exhibition of “pedestrian didacticism,” but “is in fact a very ambitious work of poetry, which employs extended imagery and allusion to convey a deeper understanding of its message” is convincing (p. 175). By offering expert guidance into this “rich and intricate” poetry, Weeks has put many readers in his debt.

V. Philips Long

Regent College

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

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