Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Proverbs Makes Its Cameo Appearance

If you are a daily communicant, you might notice that the Book of Proverbs is making its "cameo appearance" right now in the First Reading of daily Mass. In Weeks 25-26 of Year II of Ordinary Time, we get readings from the Wisdom Literature in the First Reading of ferial days.  Proverbs gets just three days allotted: Monday through Wednesday of Week 25.  That's right now.

So, to mark this special occasion, one of the few occassions that Proverbs gets "air time" in the Liturgy, I thought I'd post some discussion of this wisdom book for the entertainment of our blog readers:

The Book of Proverbs is a collection of short, pithy statements expressing the basic principles for leading a prudent and therefore prosperous life.  It is the foundational book of the wisdom literature collection.  Proverbs lays out the fundamental principles of “wisdom” (Heb. hokhmah), or prudence for living, and all other wisdom books may be viewed as building on it, either by dealing with exceptions to the principles it lays out (e.g. Job, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon) or by further development of the principles themselves (e.g. Wisdom, Sirach).
            In the Jewish tradition, Proverbs (Heb. sepher mishlēy, “The Book of the Proverbs of [Solomon]”, or simply mishlēy, “Proverbs of”) is found in the third canonical division, the
Writings (Heb. kethuvim), after Psalms and Job and preceding Ruth and Song of Songs.  In this way, the song of the noble woman with which Proverbs ends (Prov. 31:10-31) is exemplified by the heroines Ruth and the Bride of the Song.  In the Septuagint, Proverbs (Gk. paroimiai, “Proverbs”) is always the first of the Solomonic trilogy Proverbs-Ecclesiastes-Song of Songs.  In the Vulgate, Proverbs (Lat. Liber Proverbiorum Solomonis, or Liber Proverbiorum, or simply Proverbia) is the first of the “five books of Solomon,” Proverbs through Sirach, for though Wisdom and Sirach were not authored by Solomon, they were considered extensions of his tradition.
            In the Church’s spiritual tradition, the three Books of Solomon proper (Proverbs-Ecclesiastes-Song of Songs) were, and are, understood to represent the threefold path of the soul to God: the illuminative way (Proverbs), the purgative way (Ecclesiastes), and the unitive way (Song of Songs).
            A “proverb” (Heb. mashal; Gk. parabolē or paroimia) in Biblical thought is any compressed, instructive statement employing artistic—rather than ordinary—use of language.  Although usually a pithy, two-line sentence, the category of mashalim (Heb.) or parabolai (Gk) was broad enough to include longer discourses like oracles, riddles, and the instructive stories (“parables”) told by Our Lord.
Literary Structure
There are different ways to analyze the structure of Book of Proverbs.  Following the explicit introductions found in the traditional Hebrew (i.e. Masoretic) text, one derives the following sevenfold structure:
            I.  The Proverbs of Solomon (Collection 1): Introductory Discourses (chs. 1-9)
            II. The Proverbs of Solomon (Collection 2): Couplets (10:1–22:16)
            III. The Words of the Wise (Collection 1) (22:17–24:22)
            IV. Further Words of the Wise (Collection 2) (24:23-34)
            V. The Proverbs of Solomon (Collection 3): More Couplets (chs. 25–29)
            VI.  The Words of Agur (ch. 30)
            VII. The Words of Lemuel (ch. 31)
However, although neither has an explicit introductory statement in the traditional Hebrew text, there is evidence that the collection of Numerical Proverbs (30:15-33) and the Song of the Noble Woman (31:10-31) are distinct units, because the LXX order of the text in chs. 25–31 differs in the following way:
Masoretic Text (MT)
Septuagint (LXX)
24:23-34 “Further Words of the Wise”
30:1-14 “Words of Agur”
25:1–29:27 “Proverbs of Solomon copied by the men of Hezekiah”
24:23-34 “Further Words of the Wise”
30:1-14 “Words of Agur”
30:15-33 Numerical Proverbs
30:15-33 Numerical Proverbs
31:1-9 “Words of Lemuel”
31:1-9 “Words of Lemuel”
25:1–29:27 “Proverbs of Solomon copied by the men of Hezekiah”
31:10-31 Song of the Noble Woman
31:10-31 Song of the Noble Woman

If one regards Prov. 30:15-33 and 31:10-31 as separate units, the following structural analysis becomes possible:
            Prologue: Solomon’s Ten Discourses to His “Son” (chs. 1–9)
                        I. The Proverbs of Solomon I (10:1–22:16)
                        III. The Words of the Wise I (22:17–24:22)
                        IV. The Words of the Wise II (24:23-34)
                        V. The Proverbs of Solomon II (chs. 25–29)
                        VI.  The Words of Agur (ch. 30)
                        VII. The Words of Lemuel (ch. 31)
            Epilogue: The Song of the Noble Woman (31:10-31)
In this pattern, there is a strong connection between the Prologue and the Epilogue.  These are the two places in the Book where nuptial (spousal) imagery dominates.  In the Prologue, “Solomon” exhorts his “son” constantly to marital fidelity and the rejection of promiscuity, while personifying Wisdom and Folly as a desirable wife and a loose woman, respectively.  The interweaving of the themes of wisdom and nuptiality are not prominent again in the book until the finale, the Song of the Noble Woman, in which the message of the whole book is concretized in the person of the ideal wife, who perfectly exemplifies all the virtues of wisdom, and is, in fact, the embodiment of Lady Wisdom from the prologue.
            There seems to be a reference within the Book to its sevenfold structure, near the end of the Prologue:
            Wisdom has built her house,
            She has set up her seven pillars … (9:1)

It seems probable that the “seven pillars” are, in one sense, the sevenfold division of the book, whether analyzed in the first or second way above.
I'll post some more discussion on Proverbs tomorrow.


Sr. Dorcee said...

Thank you, Dr. Bergsma!

Tomas said...

Dr. Bergsma,

I'm currently doing research into the connections between Lady Wisdom in Prov 1-9 and the Good Wife Passage of Prov 31. Do you recommend any articles or commentaries discussing the matter? I've found a good article by Thomas McCreesh "Wisdom as Wife" and am looking for more.

John Bergsma said...

Dear Tomas: Great area of research! I would suggest Craig Bartholomew's textbook on the Wisdom Lit, "Old Testament Wisdom Literature," where he has a chapter on Lady Wisdom and the Valiant Woman/Noble Wife. You can check his secondary literature citations, too.