THE BOOK OF PROVERBS IN SOCIAL AND THEOLOGICAL CONTEXTWritten by KATHARINE J. DELL Reviewed By Jennie Barbour
Some of the best textbooks and introductions have an argument of their own, rather than simply giving a run-down of previous research. Katharine Dell’s ‘Get Wisdom, Get Insight’ did that, arguing for the early and native ancestry of Israelite wisdom. This monograph on Proverbs now performs the same service in closer detail, providing another comprehensive digest of scholarship to the present, and a particular tilt at the idea that the wisdom of Proverbs is separate, international, secular, and, in Bright’s judgement, ‘only peripherally related’ to Israelite faith. The author engages that old assumption on three levels: social context, theology, and literary relationship to the rest of the OT.
Against the view that chapters 1–9 are the product of a narrowly-focused elite court school in the Egyptian style, Dell suggests that the educational context of this material could have been familial as well as formal, and she sees in it a religious purpose just as strong as the educational aim: here as elsewhere in the text, she shows that references to Yahweh are too well-integrated to originate in later reworking. The instructional main body of the book is even more reminiscent of a family or tribal setting: distinguishing between oral and written stages of the material, she proposes that even sections of the book written down later—as by ‘the men of Hezekiah’, 25:1—have everyday folk origins.
The chapter on the theology of Proverbs traces earlier scholars’ rediscovery of creation as a pervasive OT theme, which ushered Wisdom back into the mainstream. Here, though, the author offers more of a reshuffle in the relative importance of different themes than a real reintegration. Readers might be left still hoping for a solution which manages to honour the distinctive emphases of Wisdom without displacing God’s saving acts from the theological centre. Some of Dell’s own ideas, though, are original and exciting moves in the direction of such a reintegration: her observation of the close nexus between king and Yahweh in Proverbs, and her sense of the impulse towards praise in observational proverbs could both, differently, be fruitfully taken up by biblical theologians.
Other new ideas come in the chapter on echoes of OT literature found in Proverbs. It would be strange if Wisdom, which has been credited with such wide influence on other texts in the Hebrew Bible, was itself impermeable to influence from other Israelite genres. The author suggests that the relationship to the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope has overshadowed equally important Hebrew influences on Proverbs. She finds prophetic and Deuteronomic elements in, especially, chapters 1–9, though the direction of dependence is hard to determine; and she identifies motifs and concerns from the psalms and the cult in 10:1–22:16, suggesting that the early Israelite wisdom reflected in these chapters began in the nation’s worshipping life. Wisdom on this model is more popular, more authentically Hebrew, and more sacred than older accounts have allowed, and its conversation with other biblical traditions begins early, in contrast to the scholarly portrait of the wise adding only a scribal last word to other texts.
With this study Dell wishes ‘to join the ranks of scholars who … affirm an interest in the nature of early Israelite life and belief’ against the tendency to fade out the pre-exilic period. By exposing the home-grown roots of proverbial wisdom and amplifying early (and monotheistic, universalistic) biblical voices present in Proverbs, the present work adds to our picture of pre-exilic Israel, and so will be of value beyond its own sphere of Wisdom.
Oxford, England, UK