The comparison made in 1 Kings 4:29-34 between Solomon's
wisdom and that of the ancient Near Eastern sages strongly implies
that his proverbs were a part of an international, pan-oriental, wis-
dom literature. During the past century archaeologists have been
uncovering texts from Solomon's pagan peers, and scholars have
beeen using them to further the understanding of the Book of
Proverbs. The purposes of this article are to examine the ways in
which this ancient literature has advanced the understanding of
“the proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel" (Prov. 1: 1,
NIV), and to demonstrate how these texts help answer introductory
questions (date; authorship; literary forms, structure, and arrange-
ment; textual transmission; and history of the wisdom tradition)
and how these texts help interpret the content of the book (the mean-
ing of wisdom, its theological relevance, and the resolution of some
DATE AND AUTHORSHIP
Before the discovery and decipherment of these extrabiblical
texts, scholars who applied to the Old Testament a historico-critical
method (which presupposed the evolutionary development of reli-
gion) concluded that the biblical witnesses to Solomon's contribution
to wisdom could not be taken at face value.1 Instead, they argued,
These biblical witnesses are 1 Kings 4:29-34; Proverbs 10:1; 25:1; and Matthew 12:42. Proverbs 1: 1 is best taken as a title for the work and not a designation of the authorship of the whole book because the internal evidence of the book itself clearly shows that the book achieved its final form after the time of Hezekiah (25: 1) and that others besides Solomon contributed to this anthology of wisdom material (cf. 30: 1; 31: 1). There is no evidence, however, that the book in its present form should be dated later than the time of the monarchy.
222 / Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1979 the postexilic Jewish community under Grecian influences must be
credited for these literary achievements. Even as late as 1922,
Hoelscher still placed the so-called older proverbial literature in
the Persian period.2 But the many pagan sapiential texts, found
around the broad horizon of the Fertile Crescent, and confidently
dated to the time of Solomon and centuries before him, have called
their presupposition into question and have refuted their skepticism
toward the biblical witness.
Giovanni Pettinato, in his preliminary report on the thousands
of tablets unearthed in the royal archives at Tell-Mardikh (Ebla),
alerted biblical scholars that some of those tablets contain collections
of proverbs.3 The precise dating of the royal palace at Ebla poses
some difficulties, for the artifactual evidence points to a date between
2400 and 2250 B.C. while the paleography of the literary texts points
to a period around 2450 B.C.4
Gordon has published two collections of Sumerian proverbs
out of the fifteen collections he pieced together from the hundreds
of clay tablets dug up from the scribal quarters at Nippur, Susa,
and Ur.5 These two collections containing about 200 and 165
proverbs respectively have a strikingly similar form to the Solomonic
collections of 375 and 124 proverbs in Proverbs 10:1-22:16 and
25:1-29:27 respectively. Gordon dates both of these Sumerian
collections to the Old Babylonian period (ca. 1700 B.C.).
Lambert has published bilingual proverbial texts containing
both Sumerian proverbs and their Akkadian translations.6 Six of
these fragments, dating from the Middle Assyrian times and later,
overlap or can be placed in relation to each other, and thus provide a considerable part of one group of proverbs known as the Assyrian Collection. He also published an Akkadian translation from Middle Assyrian times of a Sumerian original entitled The Instructions of
2 Gustav Hoelscher, Geschichte der israelitischen und judischen Religion
(Giessen: A. Topelmann, 1922), p. 148.
3 Giovanni Pettinato, "The Royal Archives of TelI Mardikh-Ebla," Biblical
Archaeologist 39 (May 1976): 45.
4 Paolo Matthiae, "Ebla in the Late Early Syrian Period," Biblical Archaeol-
ogist 39 (September 1976): 94-113.
5 Edmund I. Gordon, Sumerian Proverb: Glimpses of Everyday Life in
Ancient Mesopotamia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1969), pp. 24, 152.
Gordon also noted that "it is quite reasonable to assume a considerably older
6 W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, 3d ed. (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1975), pp. 92, 97, 222.
The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature / 223 Shuruppak as well as the famous Akkadian work, The Counsels of
Wisdom, which he dates to the Cassite period (1500-1200 B.C.).
Aramaic proverbs are given in a collection known as the Words
of Ahiqar. Ahiqar was a sage in the court of the Assyrian kings
Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.) and Esarhaddon (680-669 B.C.).7
Instructional literature from Egypt has close affinities to the
admonitions found in Proverbs 1:2-9:18 and 22:17-24:34 and are
dated from the Old Kingdom right on down to the Late Dynastic
Period and Hellenistic Rule. The following is a list of those texts
belonging to the Egyptian instruction literature.8
The Old Kingdom (2686-2160 B.C.)
The Instruction for Ka-gem-ni
The Instruction of Prince Hor-dedef
The Instruction of Ptah-hotep
The First Intermediate Period (2160-2040 B.C.)
The Instruction for King Meri-ka-Re
The Middle Kingdom (2040-1558 B.C.)
The Instruction of King Amen-em-het
The Instruction of Sehetep-ib-Re
The New Kingdom (1558-1085 B.C.)
The Instruction of Ani
The Instruction of Amen-em-Ope9
The Late Dynastic Period and Hellenistic Rule
The Instruction of 'Onchsheshonqy (fifth or fourth century B.C.)
The Instruction of the Papyrus Insinger (304-30 B.C.)
In short, wisdom literature existed around the Fertile Crescent
not only before Solomon but even before the Hebrews appeared
Like the wisdom sayings in the Book of Proverbs, these texts
of varying provenience are composed in poetic form, that is, they
are cast in parallelisms. Herder praised this form as "thought rhyme"
7 James M. Lindenberger, “The Armaic Proverbs of Ahiqar,” (Ph.D. diss.,
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, 1974)
8 Leo G. Perdue, Wisdom and Cult (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977),
9 The date of the Instruction of Amen-em-Ope is hotly disputed and deserves a separate study. The issue is of some importance because this text most closely resembles the Book of Proverbs. A date for this text shortly before the time of Solomon has received new support through the discovery by Cerny of a broken (yet unpublished) ostracon in the Cairo Museum. See Ronald J. Williams, "The Alleged Semitic Original of the Wisdom of Amen-emope," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 47 (1961): 100-106.
224 / Bibliotheca Sacra -July-September 1979 and von Rad aptly likened it to expressing truth stereophonically.
For example, the familiar antithetical parallelism of Solomon's
proverbs finds its counterpart in this Sumerian proverb: "Of what
you have found you do not speak; [only] of what you have lost do
you speak."10 In his "rhetorical analysis" of Sumerian proverbs,
Gordon calls attention to antithetical, synonymous, climactic, and
more complicated types of parallelism.
Most instructive here is the Instruction of Amen-em-Ope, pre-
served in a British Museum papyrus and on tablets in Turin and
Paris. On these documents the parallelism is written stichically,
that is, in lines that show the metrical scheme. Furthermore, the
lines are grouped into chapters.
The Egyptians had the specific term sboyet ("instruction" or
"teaching") for their literary genre11 that closely approximates the
precepts and maxims collected in Proverbs 1:2-9:18 and 22:17-
24: 34. On the other hand, the pithy Solomonic sentences designated
"proverbs" in 10: 1 and 25:1 resemble in the strictest sense the
apothegms, adages, and bywords of the Sumerian collections.
But in contrast to the Solomonic collections, the Sumerian
collections and the Assyrian Collections contain coarse and vulgar
proverbs. Here are some edited samples: "[A low] fellow/[An A]
morite speaks [to] his wife, 'You be the man," [I] will be the
woman.' "12 "A mother of eight [grown] young men who is [still
capable of] bearing [more children] lies down [for copulation] pas-
sively [?] !"13 "A thing which has not occurred.. since time immemo-
rial: a young girl broke wind in her husband's bosom."14 Such
proverbs bear more kinship to the Arabic, Turkish, and other modem
Near Eastern proverbs than to the known proverbs from the rest
of the ancient Near East.
10 Gordon, Sumerian Proverbs, p. 47.
11 William Kelly Simpson, ed., The Literature of Egypt (New Haven, CT:
Yale University Press, 1972), p. 6.
12 Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, p. 230. Lambert comments:
"The section apparently refers to transvestite practices, which are first known in the ancient near East from their condemnation in Deuteronomy xxii.5. Later references to these rites in Syria and Asia Minor are more abundant (see S. R. Driver, Deuteronomy, p. 250), though there seems to be no clear evidence for them at any period in Mesopotamia. Thus the alternative 'Amorite'
could be supported on the assumption that these people were notorious for
this perversion, as were the men of Sodom, Corinth, and Bulgaria, and the
women of Lesbos, for other things" (ibid.).
13 Gordon, Sumerian Proverbs, p. 273.
14 Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, p. 260.
The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature / 225 LITERARY STRUCTURE AND ARRANGEMENT
The literary structure of the Egyptian sboyet genre includes
three elements: (a) a title - "the beginning of the instruction of
X which he composed for his son Y"; (b) a prose or poetic intro-
duction - the setting forth of the details of why the instruction is
given; and (c) the contents - the linking together of admonitions
and sayings in mutually independent sections of very diverse nature.
Aside from the omission of the first section, this is precisely
the structure exhibited in the "Thirty Sayings of the Wise" (Prov.
22: 17-24:22). The motive behind the collection is given in 22: 17-21
which is followed by the diverse collection of admonitions in
Compare, for example, the first two chapters of the Instruction
of Amen-em-Ope with Proverbs 22: 17-23.
Give your ears, hear the sayings,
It profits to put them in your heart,
Woe to him who neglects them!
Let them rest in the casket of your belly,
May they be bolted in your heart;
When there rises a whirlwind of words,
They'll be a mooring post for your tongue.
If you make your life with these in your heart,
You will find it a success;
You will find my words a storehouse for life,
Your being will prosper upon earth.
Beware of robbing a wretch,
Of attacking a cripple....15
If those who divided the Bible into its chapters had been aware of
these literary forms and structures found in the pagan sapiential
texts, they no doubt would have made a chapter break between
Proverbs 22: 16 and 22: 17.
The literary structure of the Egyptian "teaching" genre also
enables one to detect better the structure undergirding the Book
of Proverbs. After the prose introduction in 1: 1 and before the
collection of sayings in 10:1-31:31, the editor included a collection
of admonitions and econiums to wisdom, setting forth in detail the
value of the instruction (1:2-9:18).
15 Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings,
2 vols. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), 2 (1976): 149-50.
226 / Bibliotheca Sacra -July-September 1979
The biblical student may find small comfort in learning that
the sages throughout the ancient Near East essentially arranged their
material in the same baffling manner found in the Book of Proverbs.
Is there any logic to the arrangement? Perhaps some help is found
in the Sumerian collections which fall, with few exceptions, into
groupings which have in common either the initial signs of each
individual proverb or the subject matter of the proverbs in the group.
The "key sign" may also occur in the second place or even further
on in the proverb.16 Moreover, the "key signs" also alternate occa-
sionally. Gemser also notes rudiments of similar groupings in the
Instructions of 'Onchsheshonqy.17 Possibly the proverbial sentences
and the admonitions in the Book of Proverbs are connected in this
so-called anthological style whereby sayings are strung together by
certain catchwords as in the more obvious key king in 16:12-15 and
Yahweh in 16:1-7, which follows an alternating pattern in 16:7-11
(note king in 16:10).
It is also surprising to find lofty precepts mixed with more
"trivial" apothegms. Of course, this is a misconception based on
the modern-day viewpoint of life. From the sages' perspective each
proverb is an expression of "wisdom," which is, as will be seen, the
fixed order of reality. Viewed from this perspective no sentence is
trivial, as Frankfort notes.
But when a predestined order is recognized in so many quasi-
permanent features of society...all rules of conduct become
practical rules. There can be no contrast between savoir-faire-
worldly wisdom - and ethical behavior. Conceptions which we
distinguish as contrasts thus turn out to be identical for the Egyptian;