Proverbs is the chief volume in the biblical
collection of wisdom literature, which also includes Ecclesiastes,
Job, and portions of Psalms. The purpose of wisdom literature in
the Bible is to teach rather than to relate a narrative. Proverbs
contains thirty-one chapters, each comprised of twenty to thirty-five
wise sayings that are each two poetic lines long. Most of the book
is attributed to King Solomon; but, as the book itself indicates,
the written teachings in their current form were probably collected
no earlier than the reign of Hezekiah, King of Judah in the late eighth
and early seventh centuries b.c. Other sections
of the text are attributed to additional, more obscure authors.
However, it is safe to say that Proverbs represents the written
record of an oral tradition of wise sayings with uncertain origins.
A proverb is a short, pithy saying that usually draws
a comparison between two forms of behavior in order to impart moral
or religious wisdom to its receiver. Some of the wise sayings
in Proverbs also take the form of enigmatic or cryptic utterances
that the receiver must interpret to understand the meaning.
Biblical proverbs are religious, but they focus on concrete human
experiences rather than divine revelation. Nevertheless, their judgments
always entail a timeless quality, like the moral of a myth or a
folktale. The biblical notion of wisdom implies acquiring
skill or ability in the areas of justice and moral goodness—like
a craftsmen learning a craft. In fact, Proverbs frequently instructs
the listener to “get” or “buy” wisdom (4:5 and 23:23).
The sayings in Proverbs are often addressed to young people, who
are in the process of becoming wise. It is likely that the Book
of Proverbs formed part of the education for Hebrew youth after
the Israelite exile and return to the promised land.
The Book of Proverbs is divided into four main sections,
with three additional sections, or appendices, included at the end.
The first third of Proverbs is an extended lecture spoken by the
personified voice of “Wisdom.” This section is the most conversational,
narrative, and thematic portion of the book. Wisdom speaks in the
first person and refers to the reader as “my child,” instructing
the reader on various topics for wise living. The voice of Wisdom
assumes different forms. On the one hand, Wisdom refers to itself
in feminine terms, using the pronouns “she” and “her.” Wisdom describes
itself as a woman standing on the city streets, crying out her warnings
to the people. However, Wisdom also identifies itself with God.
Pursuing Wisdom, it says, is the same thing as obeying God, and
Wisdom claims to have been God’s partner in creating the world.
The next three sections of Proverbs contain the proverbs
of Solomon and the sayings of the wise. The list of Solomon’s proverbs is
made up of two lengthy sections, and the proverbs are very loosely organized
by theme. The speaker usually assumes the voice and authority of
a king. Many of the proverbs follow the formula of antithetical
parallelism, a convention in which the proverb is stated in two
poetic lines, and one line describes a type of good or wise behavior
while the other describes its evil or foolish opposite. The “sayings
of the wise” make up one small section and are less rhetorical,
issuing more direct commands and advice to the reader.
The final three sections in Proverbs include
the brief oracles of Agur and King Lemuel and a closing lesson on
how to select a good wife. Agur and Lemuel’s historical existence
is unknown, but their cryptic sayings continue the demand for wisdom
and the themes of temperance and justice that are common to the
rest of Proverbs. The final passage praises all the traits of the
good and “capable” wife (31:10).
She is industrious, independent, strong, generous to the poor, and,
most importantly, she “fears,” or obeys, God (31:30).
Proverbs closes by calling for her family and the community to praise
Proverbs is largely concerned with the inevitability
of God’s justice and the importance of prudence and moderation.
Solomon’s proverbs maintain that wicked deeds will invariably lead
to divine retribution and punishment during a person’s earthly life.
People who slander others will have their tongues cut off, those
who are lazy will have failing crops, and undue pride will lead
to an individual’s downfall. One way to enjoy the favorable hand
of God’s justice is to practice moderation and prudence. According
to the proverbs, the moderate person avoids the excesses of the
foolish, including excessive drinking, eating, sleeping, gossiping,
and rage. A consistent way to demonstrate wise behavior is
by choosing words shrewdly and carefully. The proverbs also praise those
who prepare in advance, particularly those who build their homes
in preparation for later circumstances. The most important sign
of wisdom and prudence, however, is obedience and reverence to one’s
The importance of women and femininity in Proverbs
is unusual in the context of the Old Testament. In most Old Testament
narratives, women play a role secondary to that of men. However,
Proverbs suggests that women can use wisdom within a male-dominated
society to assert their strength and independence. The final chapter
gives license to the “good wife” to do everything from selling merchandise
to performing home repair, and Solomon notes earlier that it is
the “wise woman who builds her house” (14:1).
Interestingly, the young men throughout Proverbs wander aimlessly,
searching for the correct path but falling prey to seduction. Wisdom,
personified as a woman, stands fast, stationed at the city gates
or in the streets delivering messages as an oracle or soothsayer.
The juxtaposition of feminine Wisdom with God alters the vision
of God from previous biblical books, in which God appears as an
angel, a group of men, or in thunder and fire. The Book of Proverbs
does not suggest that God is a woman or a being with a gender. Nevertheless,
the feminine voice of Wisdom claims to be an integral part of God.
Wisdom notes, “The Lord created me at the / beginning of his work. . . . [T]hen I was beside him, like a / master worker” (8:22–30).
Wisdom also affirms, “For whoever finds me finds life / and obtains
favor from the Lord” (8:35).
Wisdom is the source of life, a helper in creation, and a mediator
between God and humankind. By assigning Wisdom a feminine quality,
Proverbs suggests that femininity, in addition to masculinity, should
be an important way in which we think about the order of the world.