To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles. Proverbs 1:2-6 ESV
The book of Proverbs begins with the statement of purpose above. One of the purposes of Proverbs is to learn how to read “the words of the wise and their riddles” (v. 6). While we can see a book like Proverbs as a rather simplistic set of morals and aphorisms, it is more complex than that. It shares literary forms with several cultures of the Ancient Near East. It is one part of Biblical Wisdom Literature. And here it comes with a warning and an invitation.
The warning is implied. An uninformed reader cannot merely read the words of the book as they encounter it. At face value the reader might be confused or possibly worse, become convinced of what is a misinterpretation.
A recent Facebook interchange went afield when an irate writer asked, “Do you believe in spanking?” The other person responded that he didn’t. The irate writer stated that he would no longer interact with someone who did not hold to biblical inerrancy. The irate writer was no doubt thinking of a well-known proverb,
Whoever spares the rod hates his son,
but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. Proverbs 13:24 ESV
At face value such a proverb looks like a command. Some believe that it mandates the means of discipline, even so much as to use a specific word for “rod” (shebet) that would indicate the correct size to use. And for the irate writer, it is a test of orthodoxy.
Now as I spent time in the library reading works on proverbial writing and wisdom literature, it became clear that proverbial wisdom is based on observations and comparisons. One thing is often set beside another to stimulate reflection. A proverb is an invitation to think, more than a command to follow. Parents who neglect discipline (in whatever form they use it) will end with undisciplined children. Indeed. Shall I actually use a “rod”? Perhaps not.
There is an interaction for the believer between scholarship and reading the scriptures. Do we understand Genesis 1 as literal history or a literary telling of how things are? To answer that question, we need to know more about the Hebrew language, literary forms, and Ancient Near Eastern cosmology. Similar things apply to the way we read Proverbs.
I find great help in a reading room at the University Library. Large oak tables with quiet scholars and a no-phone policy create the environment to read those who have invested their lives in the study of these matters. These scholars may or may not have believed what I believe, but they can become my guides into the scriptures.
Perhaps an emerging scholar will place some good work in the library for people like me to use. All of us can appreciate those who have gone before and done the work of understanding historical context and interpreting texts.
In what ways can I be seeking wisdom within my field? What contexts of history or cultural understanding are helpful to me in my study? How can I understand and apply wisdom from Scripture in my study?
Lord of all creation, give me wisdom in knowing how to read your words. Help me to know from your world what it has to show us. Thank you for the gift of scholarship. Help me to discern what is true from what is not. Amen.
“shēbeṭ.” R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago: Moody Press, 1980.