It is good to begin any study of anything by defining what, in fact, you are studying. So, let’s start there. What, exactly, am I looking at in this blog – what is “the Wisdom Literature?” What, for that matter, is a “proverb,” since I’m going to be spending an awful lot of time looking at a whole collection of them?
The easy (well, easier) one first. When I say “Wisdom Literature,” I specifically mean several books of the Bible that have traditionally been identified as texts about what God has to say about wise living in our world. As of January 2018, I am focusing my attention on four books of scripture, three of which are almost always included on the list of “Wisdom Literature” – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. I’m also adding on the Song of Solomon because, in its own way, it offers up perspectives on wisdom…and wisdom that it would behoove us to heed in the 21st century. Over time, I may also devote some attention to works not included in the Hebrew scriptures or Protestant canon, but that Catholic and Orthodox traditions hold up as “Wisdom Literature,” as well. That being said…it’s going to be a while before we really work all the way through the four books already on the docket. I’m starting with Proverbs; there will be an upcoming separate entry on why that is, but for now suffice it to say that these thirty-one chapters of ancient text have plenty enough to unpack. I’d bring a sack lunch.
Now, then, if we’re starting with Proverbs…what *is* a proverb? The odds are good that the average person would give a definition along the lines of “a wise saying,” and that’s not wrong – that’s dictionary definition kind of material. Fundamentally, most of the content of the biblical Book of Proverbs is exactly that – pithy maxims concerning how to live wisely. But…I think there’s more to explore here as we set out.
For starters, let’s talk about language. The Book of Proverbs was written originally in Hebrew; its translation into Greek included in a volume of Jewish scripture called the Septuagint, which largely served as the Bible for early Christians, is also significant to our modern translations. But, lest we forget, we are working with translations when we read Proverbs in English – and to translate means to interpret.
Even using the word “proverb” is, to a certain extent, an interpretation. Our English word comes from the Latin proverbium; quite literally “words put forward,” though meaning basically the same thing in context. Wise words put forward for people. How does that compare to the Hebrew and Greek? In Hebrew, the very first word in Proverbs 1:1 (basically the title line of the book) is mishlei, derived from the verb mashal. Mashal means “to represent or be like;” mishlei communicate to us in words the essence of what things are like. These nuggets are words put forward to show us reality, words representing the fundamental nature of things. The Greek Septuagint offers us a collection of paroimiai. This is a compound word – para, meaning “near” or “about” or “in proximity to” depending on context, and oiomai, meaning “to make like (oneself), to imagine, to suppose, to think.” Clearly, there are a lot of hairs to split here if you’re so inclined, but the general thrust is that these texts are intended to provoke imagination and reflection around how to be. Three words – proverb/proverbium, mishlei, paroimiai – three distinct emphases on what exactly is going on here, and three intriguing entry points into the question of why should we engage with these words put forward to provoke thought and transformation about the way things are.
So, why *should* we engage with these proverbs (to use the word, knowing its a bit loaded, for the sake of simplicity)? Because they matter. They put flesh onto theoretical bones about what God is like, what life is about, and what that means for who we are and how we should be. I once heard a well-meaning professor wave off the entire Book of Proverbs as “sayings about how rich people should manage their money;” while, sure, yes, that’s a part of the whole here, there’s a lot more in these thirty one chapters than that…and even those sections are of surprising relevance in the 21st century context.
At the end of the day, the Book of Proverbs is an invitation to reflect on the interrelationship between divine life and human nature – and neither God nor humanity have changed much in the last few thousand years. That, in a nutshell, is why I’m starting this blog. We have not achieved “peak wisdom,” neither as the Church nor as a species more broadly. We’re not even close. We need wisdom – the kind of wisdom that God offers up. So, I end with an invitation – let’s take a look at this tradition of writing about the wise life, about human nature and God’s nature and wealth and death and sex and love and suffering and pain and life…and let’s learn what it means to be human, created in God’s image, along the way.