Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom

PROVERBS 1 The ancient Near East has yielded a great deal of what scholars call "wisdom literature"—texts that instruct the reader about life, virtue and social interaction or reflect upon profound issues.

    • The instructive, or didactic, texts, like Proverbs, were typically written with a boy or young man ("my son") as the implied reader. These straightforward texts, exhorting the reader to right behavior, concern issues like personal morality, work ethics, career choice or peer respect.

    • The reflective texts, like Job, are addressed to a more mature reader—one who acknowledges that the world is not always as it should be. They lament societal ills and wrestle with complex issues.

    • These categories are not mutually exclusive. Ecclesiastes wrestles with life's unfairness and perversity but also instructs the reader. We could classify Proverbs as the workbook for a beginning or "undergraduate" course, with Ecclesiastes being an advanced or "graduate school" text.

    • Wisdom texts may address the reader directly, as do Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, or have a narrative structure, like Job.

    • Wisdom texts may be presented as prose (like most of Ecc) or poetry (like most of Job).

    • Didactic texts often employ simple, two-line maxims and parallelism (as in Pr), while reflective texts are typically more complex in structure (as in Job's more problematical poetic discourses).

Other nations also had wisdom literature. A few examples from the ancient Near East:

    • Egypt The Instruction of Vizier Ptahhotep (Fifth Dynasty, c. 2500-2350 B.C.): An aged counselor instructs his son in how he should conduct his life.

The Instruction for Merikare (Tenth Dynasty, c. 2106-2010 B.c.): A pharaoh (apparently Khety III) initiates his son in the principles of proper and effective ruling.This 'See text, reflecting the social turmoil of the First Intermediate period, asserts that Merikare must earn the respect of the nobles through just governance in order to maintain his hold on the throne.

The Protests of the Eloquent Peasant (oldest copy dates to the Twelfth Dynasty, c. 1963-1786 B.C.): A peasant who has been defrauded of his goods pleads for justice from high officials, eventually winning his case and gaining a high position for himself.The text reflects upon the nature of justice and the importance of eloquent speech.

The Instruction of Amenemope, (oldest copy dates to between the tenth and sixth centuries B.c.):This text, which is remarkably similar to Proverbs 22:17-24:22, includes an introduction and 30 sections of teaching on wise behavior.

    • Mesopotamia Akkadian Proverb Texts: These writings contain pithy adages and maxims of the sort found all over the world. For example, one proverb states that an enemy army never departs from a city whose weapons are weak (similar to the Roman proverb,"If you want peace, prepare for war").

Counsels of Wisdom:This Akkadian book of practical advice also addresses the reader as "my son." Examples of advice include a warning not to marry a prostitute and an admonition that the steward of a ruler's property should not give in to covetousness.

The Babylonian Theodicy (c. 1100-1000 B.c.): A cynical sufferer enters into a dispute with a man who defends traditional notions of wisdom. The text originally included 27 stanzas, each with 11 lines, but not all remain intact.This writing is often compared to Job; there are in fact both clear similarities and sharp differences between the two.

The Book of Ahigar (found on a fifth-century B.C. Aramaic papyrus but set in As-syria and possibly composed originally in Akkadian): This text describes how Ahigar overcame the adversity of a scheming and ungrateful nephew,avoided execution on false charges and proved himself to be the wisest man of his age.The story was translated into Armenian and Arabic, and the Apocryphal book of Tobit alludes to it.The motif of the wise man who triumphs over adversity appears repeatedly in the Bible as well.

We cannot deny that such similarities exist; the Israelites did not live in cultural isolation. At the same time, it would be a mistake to treat the Biblical texts as just another version of ancient wisdom. In grandeur of scope, internal complexity and theological profundity, the Biblical texts of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are in a class by themselves.

Heart, Breath, Throat and Intestines: Ancient Hebrew Anthropology

PROVERBS 6 Biblical Hebrew, like English, uses parts of the body metaphorically to express personality, emotion or thought processes. Hebrew, however, does not always allude to the same organs as English to express these functions. A verbatim translation of these terms would often be unintelligible in English, and thus even the most "literal" of translations must resort to paraphrase in order to communicate the intended point. The English reader might have difficulty spotting where the Hebrew word for a body part occurs in the examples below:

    • The word leb (usually translated "heart") can be used literally of the physical heart (e.g., Ex 28:29) or metaphorically for several aspects of the personality. Often leb indicates the seat of particular emotions, such as fear, lament, regret, joy, comfort, love, anger, etc. (e.g., Ps 27:3; Pr 19:3). It can also refer to thought functions, as the equivalent of"mind" in English (4:10).

    • Hebrew words for "breath" (ruah, neshamah) can refer to a person's inner being (e.g., Job 32:8; Pr 20:27).Thus, they are often translated into English as"spirit"or "soul." But an individual's ruah may also experience emotional reactions (Ge 26:35) and consequently exhibit a particular behavior, such as stubbornness (Dt 2:30).

    • There are several Hebrew words for neck or throat (e.g., garon or nephesh). The throat is the means by which a person breathes, eats and thus, so to speak, takes in life.Therefore, the word nephesh, although it concretely means "throat," is generally translated "life," "soul" or even"person."These words are often used to express the inner character of an individual. As such, the neck or throat can be deceitful (Ps 5:9), display arrogance (Isa 3:16), express determination or stubbornness (Ps 75:5) and praise God (Ps 149:6).The nephesh can be bitter or hot-tempered (Jdg 18:25; the Niv's"hot-tempered men" is actually"men of bitter nephesh"). Literally, necks displayed precious metals and jewels (SS 1:10) as well as the yoke of slavery (Isa 10:27). Figuratively, then, the neck or throat could be said to display what a person deemed valuable (Pr 6:21), as well as the consequences of an individual's sins (La 1:14).

    • The words for stomach or womb (e.g., beten) can indicate the seat of the emotions, such as titillation (Pr 18:8) and sexual desire (SS 5:4). Other organs that Biblical Hebrew uses in this way are the liver, intestines and kidneys.

Proverbs 6 illustrates the usage described above. Verse 16 states literally that there are seven things that are detestable to the Lord's nephesh (his very being). Verse 30 notes that men do not despise a thief who steals to fill his nephesh (throat or hunger),while verse 32 claims that the adulterer destroys his own nephesh (life or soul).Verse 14 points out that the individual who plots evil has perversity in his leb (heart or mind), while verse 32 asserts that the adulterer lacks leb (good sense).

The teachings of the Hebrew sages are couched in terms that are sometimes alien to the modern English reader, but when understood on their own terms they create a compelling picture of a human being as a bundle of physical, emotional and spiritual capacities and needs. A man, woman, boy or girl is an integral combination of body and soul; the emotional or intellectual aspects of life simply cannot be separated from the nature of the whole person.

Maat and Lady Wisdom

PROVERBS 8 In ancient Egypt, Maat was the abstract principle of truth, order, justice and harmony—as well as the name of the goddess who personified those virtues. Kings were enjoined to practice Maat in order to ensure a long reign (cf. Pr 8:15 — 16). When Maat held sway in the land, Egyptians believed,the Nile flooded properly to ensure good crops, there was justice for all and the classes of society coexisted in harmony. When Maat was ignored, the land fell into chaos, crime and ruin. Some funerary paintings depict a balance scale on one side of which is placed the heart of a recently deceased man and on the other side a feather, representing Maat. If the balance is in equilibrium, the soul of the deceased enters the paradise of the realm of Osiris. Should the individual's heart fail the test, a monster called the Eater stands ready to devour his soul.

Scholars naturally wonder to what degree the Egyptian concept of Maat influenced Israelite thinking on justice and order in society. Specifically, the feminine personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 has been suggested to have been derived from the Egyptian goddess Maat. It is, of course, important to realize that Israel did not exist in isolation; to the contrary, the Bible speaks a great deal about the Egyptian influences on Israel.The sojourn in Egypt was obviously a time when Israel would have been exposed to Egyptian culture and religion, and Solomon's era was also a period of close cultural exchange between these two societies.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to posit a direct line of influence from Egypt to Israel on the subjects of order, justice or Maat. Both Israel and Egypt understood that justice and harmony are necessary for life to function smoothly. But Wisdom, in Proverbs 8, is a personification—not a goddess. She exemplifies the order and justice God has built into creation. Lady Wisdom appears elsewhere in Proverbs; for example, in 1:20-33 she calls upon people to heed her teachings and so to find life. The embodiment of wisdom as a lady who invites people to follow her is a distinctively Israelite idea, with no analogy in Egyptian teaching.

Justice and Fraud in the Hymn to Shamash

PROVERBS 11 Desire for justice and fairness is a universal human trait. No society can function efficiently where injustice and fraud prevail. Indeed, people the world over have long believed that justice is not merely a human institution but the will of heaven. In the ancient Near East virtually all people believed that moral obligations were imposed upon them from above. Even though only Israel had the law of God, it would be a mistake to say that the other ancient religions lacked or ignored moral teachings.

A particularly clear example appears in an Akkadian hymn to Shamash, the sun god. Since the sun was thought to have been an all-seeing eye that looked down from above upon the affairs of humankind, it is not surprising that Shamash in particular would be associated with justice. In the hymn Shamash is praised for bringing to light the deeds of humanity. In particular, the hymn declares that the god sees and judges anyone who invests in a shady business scheme, commits fraud using inaccurate scales, avoids by some hoax full repayment of a debt or launches groundless lawsuits. Such people, the hymn insists, will see all of their profits disappear.

Proverbs 11:1 declares,"The LORD abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight." The fact that the Bible is not the only ancient text that speaks in such terms concerning justice does not diminish the place of Scripture as God's special revelation. Indeed, it is precisely at this point that Biblical teaching meets the wisdom of the Gentiles: The Bible affirms what is best in the teachings of the sages of the other nations, while avoiding the superstition and degradation that accompany paganism. Thus, 1:7 can recommend to all its readers that the fear of the Lord is the only valid launching pad in the quest for wisdom. Its words affirm the Gentile desire for justice but assert that this longing is best fulfilled by turning to the God of Israel.

The Poor and the Afflicted in Ancient Wisdom Literature

PROVERBS 14 The Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament has a great deal to say about the poor and afflicted. The source of poverty is variously attributed in its passages. In many proverbs, for instance, it is represented as a state one brings upon oneself through laziness, haste, lack of discipline or excessive or undisciplined consumption. However, other texts in both Proverbs and Job assert that scarcity can be attributed to injustice at the hands of greedy or corrupt people (cf. Job 24).1 Poverty may cause sorrow (Pr 31:7), abandonment or vulnerability (18:23) and can lead to crime.

Those who are privileged to be in positions of affluence are continually exhorted to support the poor and to avoid exacerbating their affliction by oppression. Oppressors of the needy in effect taunt God their Maker, while those who are gracious to the less fortunate honor him (14:31). A mark of the righteous is their concern for the underprivileged (Job 29:12 – 17; Pr 29:7), and rulers in particular are exhorted to demonstrate compassion toward the needy (28:3). It is remarkable that the persons in positions of power who wrote most of Israel's Wisdom Literature did not present the poor as immoral or second-class, but as neighbors in need of mercy. On the other hand, there is never an indication that the needy are necessarily more pious; after all, poverty was never presented as an ideal of Israelite society (Dt 15:4).

The poor are not the only victims of oppression —even the king of Israel suffered affliction at the hands of his enemies (Ps 94:2,16-17; cf. Ecc 10:7). In the face of such adversity, whether one is a privileged king or an impoverished beggar, Scripture indicates that the proper response is faith in the Lord, the righteous Judge over all iniquity and injustice. Above all else, a righteous individual is to be dedicated to the Lord, knowing that it is better to be a penniless person of integrity than a prosperous individual of proud or oppressive ways (Pr 28:6,11).

The Instructions of Anii

PROVERBS 20 A number of ancient texts are described as "wisdom literature" in that they give the reader advice on how to live a prudent life.' Some have similarities to Proverbs, illustrating that the quest for virtue was a widespread phenomenon in the ancient Near East. These include the Instructions of Anii (also spelled "Any"), a writing that dates to Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty. The text purports to have been written by the scribe Anii and is set in the context of the Egyptian middle class. Like the book of Proverbs, Anii:

    • exhorts the reader to avoid beer drinking and warns about the disgrace of public drunkenness (see Pr 20:1).

    • asserts that an individual should avoid the company of brawlers and violent men (see v.3).

    • advises against taking vengeance, urging the reader instead to seek divine help (cf.v. 22).

    • warns the reader to stay away from the "strange woman,"the prostitute or adulteress (vv.23 —35).

Not surprisingly, many of the other admonitions in Anii are unlike those in Proverbs. For example, Anii exhorts the reader to maintain the external, formal devotion the gods demand (making sacrifices, showing obeisance before idols, etc.), but in a perfunctory manner that is totally unlike the heartfelt piety of Proverbs. Anii also has some pleasant advice on domestic life, such as a warning for husbands not to fail to show appreciation for their wives' management of household affairs.

A curiosity of Anii is that it ends with a debate between Anii and his son Khonshotep, who complains that few people are able to maintain the virtuous life Anii prescribes. Anii counters that even a beast can be taught; Khonshotep's excuse will not stand.

The Teaching of Amenemope

PROVERBS 22 Arranged into 30 chapters of varying lengths, the Teaching of Amenemope is an Egyptian text probably dating to the time of Rameses. It is preserved complete on one papyrus housed in the British Museum, as well as in several fragments appearing in other collections. In this text Amenemope instructs his young son in the proper conduct and mindset of the ideal man. He is to be generous, contented, confidential, self controlled, conciliatory toward his superiors and honoring to his god.

Scholars have found striking parallels to the teaching of Amenemope in the book of Proverbs, especially in chapters 22 and 23. Chapter 1 of Amenemope begins with an injunction similar to that in Proverbs 2:2 to give one's ears to wisdom and one's heart to understanding (cf. 22:17). Both works warn against illegally expanding one's property by moving the boundary stones demarcating the border of a field (Amenemope, VII.11-14; Pr 22:28; 23:10). Both wam against robbing the poor (Amenemope, IV.4-5; Pr 22:22), associating with hot-tempered persons (Amenemope, XI.12-14; XV.13-14; Pr 22:24-25), being gluttonous at the table of an official (Amenemope, XXIII.!#-20; Pr 23:1-3) and eating the food of a hoarder (Amenemope, XV.9-12; Pr 23:6-8). Both point out the propensity of riches to sprout wings and fly away like birds (Amenemope, X.4-5; Pr 23:4-5) and note that a person's reputation is more valuable than wealth (Amenemope, XVI.11-12; Pr 22:1). that the skilled will serve rulers (Amenemope, XXVII.15-17; Pr 22:29) and that generosity is the proper response toward the prrr (Amenemope, XVI.5-10; Pr 22:9). In fact, many scholars propose that Amenemope's division into 30 chapter is referred to in the original Hebrew version of verse 20.

It is quite possible that the writer of these proverbs incorporated wisdom material from other sources, such as Amenemope, when compiling his work. This does not negate the inspired nature of the Biblical text, however. The compiler of Proverbs was able to make use of those elements of foreign wisdom literature that demonstrated proper morality and justice, while maintaining that true wisdom always begins with the "fear of the Lord" (1:7).

The Israelite Family

PROVERBS 23 Domestic issues abound in the book of Proverbs, an indication that the family played an essential role in the development of wisdom literature, both in the Biblical and nonbiblical sense. Although the wise man had an institutional function on par with that of the priest and prophet (Jer 18:18), Proverbs illustrates the familial context of religious and ethical instruction.The concept of the family was probably more broadly defined in ancient Israel than in modern Western terms.The fundamental unit was the household (Hebrew bet av; lit.,"father's house"), which included a patriarch with his wife, his sons and their wives, his grandsons and any other dependents.

Parental exhortations to the son provide the literary shape for Proverbs 23:13 —28.This very ancient form of father-son instruction occurred widely in the ancient Near East, as in the Mesopotamian Instructions of Shuruppak (mid-third millennium B.c.), in which the hero, Shuruppak, begins his teachings by declaring,"My son, I will instruct you." Moreover, the use of physical chastisement for a child's moral training advocated in verses 13-14 has an analogue in the Aramaic story of Ahiqar (seventh—sixth centuries B.c.), which similarly exhorts the reader to discipline his son with the rod.

These similarities reflect the international flavor of wisdom literature and familial responsibility for religious and ethical education (cf. Dt 6:6-7; Pr 4:1-4). Even so, Biblical wisdom, especially that presented in Proverbs, has distinctive features:

Education in Proverbs is centered in the family and has the good of the individual in view. By contrast, Greek education was centered in the gymnasium and had the good of the city-state (polls) in view.

    • Education in Proverbs is primarily directed at moral and spiritual virtue rather than toward vocational training. By contrast, some wisdom texts from Egypt are principally concerned with preparing a young man for work in the government or as a scribe.

    • Education in Proverbs does not focus upon any particular social class. Egyptian wisdom literature, on the other hand, was to a large extent directed to the elite.

    • Education in Proverbs begins with the fear of God as the source and goal of all wisdom. This focus has no parallel in other ancient texts.

Dogs in the Ancient World

PROVERBS 26 In Proverbs 26:11 a fool is said to return to his folly as surely as a dog to its vomit, and in verse 17 Solomon pointed out—possibly from childhood experience!—that it is dangerous to grab a dog by the ears. These statements would be equally true of both wild and domesticated dogs. But the question is often asked: Did the Israelites keep dogs as pets?

Dogs were first domesticated in prehistoric times. A site called Ein Mallaha in northern Israel yields the earliest uncontested

archaeological evidence for domesticated dogs (c. 9600 B.c.), though there may be an earlier site at the Palegawra Cave in Iraq. Even so, most dogs in the early Biblical period were wild, and ancient people naturally regarded them with fear and disdain.The portrayal of dogs in the Bible is especially negative (e.g., 1Sa 17:42 —43). They are depicted as roaming carnivores that hunted in packs, even inside cities (1Ki 14:11; Ps 22:16). To have one's corpse devoured by dogs was a dreadful fate (1Ki 21:19), and the epithet "dog" was insulting (2Ki 8:13), if not humiliating (2Sa 3:8), implying that an individual was either worthless (1Sa 24:14) or evil (Ps 22:16). In fact,the reference to a dog in Deuteronomy 23:18 probably refers to a male prostitute.

Other ancient cultures viewed dogs more positively. In Mesopotamia puppies were used in purification and healing rites.' In

Persia dogs were revered. Similarly, in Egypt some dogs were considered sacred, and many were mummified. The Philistine city of Ash-Roman era statue of the goddess Artemis the Huntress with one of her hunting dogs Preserving Bible Times; Dr. James C Martin; permission of The Istanbul Archaeological Museum kelon, during the Persian period, maintained a cemetery of over 1,000 pits filled with carefully buried puppies, though the significance and function of this burial ground is difficult

to interpret. In the Greco-Roman world dogs were frequently domesticated, as is attested in a conversation between Jesus and a Phoenician woman (Mt 15:26-27),as well as by Greek vases depicting hunters with their dogs at their sides.A Latin sign found in Pompeii reads cave canem ("beware of dog").

Whether the ancient Israelites disliked dogs more than did other peoples is unknown. Most Biblical references to dogs are negative, but that may be more an accident than a reflection of how the Israelites felt overall about this species.There are occasional positive references to dogs (Job 30:1). For the sake of comparison, we might observe that there is no word for"cat" in Biblical Hebrew, although cats were domesticated in Egypt and must have been known in Israel. It may be coincidental that cats are never mentioned in the Old Testament (although there is one reference to cats in the Apocrypha at Bar 6:22). The reality is that we cannot say with certainty how the ancient Israelites viewed dogs (or cats) in general or how common it was to have such animals in the home.