Proverbs 1–9 is the most aesthetically composed and theologically incisive of the collections of wisdom in the book of Proverbs (see Whybray, Proverbs, 23–30). Most of the instructions and didactic poems in the book of Proverbs are assembled and aesthetically arranged here. The overwhelming majority of modern interpreters have concluded that the first collection not only is the latest compilation in Proverbs but also consists of later materials largely deriving from the early Persian period. This postexilic dating is based on several hypotheses.
First, as literary forms, brief sayings, while often artistically shaped as they are here, largely incorporate simple human observations. This suggests that they are a more archaic genre than lengthy instructions and didactic poems, which require greater intellectual prowess and literary sophistication.
Second, the detailed theologizing and nationalizing of wisdom, leading to its incorporation of the definitive religious traditions of Israel (e.g., the exodus from Egypt, the law and covenant at Sinai, and the dwelling place of Yahweh in the temple at Jerusalem), are not fully evidenced until Ben Sira in the early second century b.c.e. The climate for the sages’ strong impetus toward theological and religious wisdom appears to have been provided by the events and circumstances of the early Persian period (von Rad, Old Testament Theology 1:441–453).
Third, the personification of wisdom occurs elsewhere in sapiential literature in the Persian and Hellenistic periods (cf. Job 28; Sirach 24; and Wisdom 10–19; see Ringgren, Word and Wisdom).
Fourth, the closest literary parallels to the book of Proverbs are found in literature from the late sixth and fifth centuries b.c.e. These include Deuteronomic, Deuteronomistic, and late prophetic literature (cf. Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, Second Isaiah, and Malachi). The absence in Proverbs 1–9 of the legitimation of wisdom by reference to the Torah, however, suggests that the latter had yet to achieve its central position in Jewish piety, beginning with Ezra in the fourth century b.c.e. The dating of the literary materials and the redaction of Proverbs 1–9 in the early Persian period (late sixth and fifth centuries b.c.e.) appears to be the most plausible possibility from the very limited evidence we possess. The interpretation that follows, then, understands this initial collection as deriving from sages active in early postexilic Judah when it served as a colony in the Persian Empire (538–332 b.c.e.; see Perdue, “Wisdom Theology and Social History in Proverbs 1–9”).
Postexilic Judah and second temple Judaism did not represent a homogeneous society and unified religion (see Albertz, History of Israelite Religion). Geographically, significant Jewish communities developed not only in Judah but also in various regions of the Diaspora, including Egypt and Babylon in particular. Jewish communities in foreign lands faced the task of preserving their heritage while integrating into the dominant cultures. Religion especially became the means of preservation of the past and provided the peculiar definition of what it meant to be Jewish outside Israel. In the colony of Judah, the major challenge was to reshape in vital and effective ways the restored Jewish community’s social institutions and religious expressions in view of the social, economic, and religious collapse occasioned by the Babylonian exile and captivity (586–539 b.c.e.), and to adapt to the new social, economic, and cultural infusion necessitated by inclusion in the massive Persian Empire. Here, as elsewhere, religion played a vital role in preservation of the past and continuation into the future. Even in the tiny colony of Judah, however, this challenge was met in many, often-conflicting ways.
In Judah, where times were hard during Persian rule, significant tension developed between the indigenous population who had remained in the homeland during the Babylonian captivity and the Jewish exiles who, leaving Babylon, returned to Judah and sought to reclaim and then rebuild the country as a Persian colony. The returnees eventually were to prevail in this struggle to shape the identity of the Jewish community, largely because they enjoyed the support of the Persian authorities. Even so, competing factions and strife continued throughout the postexilic period.
The Persian authorities maintained political control over the colony of Judah and encouraged peace through the appointment of governing officials, who carried out imperial policies by exacting unswerving loyalty to the ruling Achaemenid family, the collection and payment of taxes to the empire, and the creation of local social and economic stability. The Persian authorities achieved these goals in part by allowing the colony to have and maintain its own social and religious institutions with their distinctive values and beliefs, as long as the empire’s political control and economic interests were duly acknowledged and supported. Temples like the one that was rebuilt in Jerusalem not only provided ideological legitimation of Persian rule and reinforced the colony status of the province but also funneled economic contributions to the empire through the collection of taxes. Persian support for the rebuilding of the temple was not at all an early and unusual expression of religious tolerance but rather a means by which local stability, the collection of resources, and the social construction of reality could be achieved in the interests of the empire. If tolerance and local support did not achieve their desired ends, the Persian rulers could and would resort to more brutal methods to enforce their will, as they did in some of their other colonies.
While they themselves did not represent a unified group, the leaders among the immigrants who returned from Babylonian captivity, largely because they included Persian-appointed officials and descendants of the earlier Jerusalem civil and priestly leadership, soon emerged as the dominant political and religious power in Judah. This ascendancy was gained at the expense of local inhabitants whose families remained in Judah during the time of the Babylonian exile. The controlling faction of Persian-appointed officials and Zadokite priests, whose high priest received Persian legitimation, practiced a pragmatic politics of accommodation with Persian authorities. In addition to the exercise of political and religious control, economic issues became a major source of conflict in the Persian period and were expressed especially in terms of the composition of the family household and its patrimonial land. One of the major issues in this regard concerned intermarriage with non-Jews. It appears that the exiles had largely practiced endogamy, that is, many of the returning households had arranged marriages for their children within the ethnic Jewish population in Babylonia and had avoided intermarriage with other groups. By contrast, exogamy, marriage with other ethnic populations, some of whom had migrated to and taken up residence in the former kingdom of Judah, was more common in the homeland. The conflict over intermarriage was driven not only by the desire for uniformity among Jews in regard to custom and religion but also by political and economic ambitions. This issue was eventually resolved with Ezra’s decision that Jewish males should divorce foreign wives and disinherit the children produced by this union, a measure designed not only to reject outside influence on Judaism but also to make clear that the inheritance of household property was to pass through exclusively Jewish offspring, primarily males (see Ezra 9–10). This decision helped solidify the hierocratic party’s political and religious position by gaining the support of Jewish households and collecting from them tithes and offerings for the Levites, the priests, and the temple in Jerusalem (Neh. 10:32–39).
Quite different social, political, economic, and religious expectations gave rise to a rival movement that challenged the reconstituted order achieved by the hierocratic party after the return of the exiles. This movement of “visionaries” especially opposed the position and influence of the Zadokite priests and their control of second temple Judaism. Jewish apocalypticism first distinctly manifests itself in the Hellenistic period, although several of its major elements originated in older Israelite religion, including the prophetic emphasis on the “day of the Lord” that points to a coming time of judgment and the notion of a heavenly council of supernatural beings presided over by Yahweh (Job 1–2; Psalm 82). Paul Hanson has argued that the early roots of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology can be traced back to the first part of the Persian period and are discoverable in Isaiah 56–66, Zechariah 9–14, Isaiah 24–27, Malachi, and perhaps Joel (Dawn of Apocalyptic). Whether the people behind these texts are best classified as early apocalypticists or later prophets from whom apocalypticism would develop is a historical question that will not be addressed here. Hanson’s major thesis, however, is a cogent and supportable one. According to Hanson, the Persian period witnessed a power struggle between the hierocratic movement and the visionaries. The former, led by the Zadokite priesthood, Persian-appointed governors, centrist prophets, and traditional sages who acquired the dominant political power, was able to shape the prevailing worldview and practice of second temple Judaism along the lines of a theocracy and to control the ritual practices and economic resources of the temple in Jerusalem. The latter consisted of peripheral prophets and critical sages who had a very different and contrasting social and religious view of the faithful community. While standing outside the circles of power and control of the temple practices and resources, the visionaries anticipated a new future centering on a Davidic ruler and a purified temple cult. In this struggle, the hierocratic movement prevailed, at least politically, through the Persian period. This did not lead, however, to the silencing of the “visionaries,” who continued as political marginals to articulate their contrasting worldview for the Jewish community in Judah, which, shaped by future eschatology, was yet to be realized.
This group of visionaries, consisting of peripheral prophets and some of the Levitical families ruled by the Zadokite priesthood, developed a more inclusive view of second temple Judaism and focused their future expectations on Second Isaiah’s (Isaiah 40–55) vision of the cosmic and social transformation of reality as largely unfulfilled. This prophetic vision, emanating from the community in Babylonian captivity, regarded the collapse of the Babylonian Empire as the act of Yahweh through his “anointed one” Cyrus. These visionaries shaped a future eschatology in which the final restoration would be rendered by a miraculous act of God that would culminate in a new sacral and social order ruled over by the messiah, who would be a descendant of David, and presided over by a legitimate priesthood that would conduct proper rituals in a purified temple cult (see Isaiah 56–66 and Zechariah 9–14). This eschatological act of God thus would bring about salvation for the faithful remnant of visionaries, who would be honored with positions of prominence in the time of the new order. This largely disenfranchised group came to regard the existing temple cult as defiled and its priesthood as corrupt, pronounced judgment on Jewish civic leaders appointed by the Persians, argued that Yahweh would establish a new political order, and may have challenged the dissolving of marriages and families comprised of Jewish men, non-Jewish women, and their offspring. The visionaries would have been inclined to support the land tenure of families of mixed races who, faithful to God, could be included in the community of the restored Israel. As things developed during the Persian period, this group of visionaries was largely disenfranchised and held only a secondary status in the new order, which was dominated by the hierocratic party that cultivated and enjoyed the support of the Persian government. The leaders of the visionaries, however, were not themselves poor, dispossessed, uneducated, and socially on the fringe of Jewish culture and politics. Rather, they came from socially respectable families with means, if not power, and included among their leaders well-educated intellectuals. This movement of visionaries became increasingly pessimistic about the transformation of the current cosmic and social order and finally concluded that every vestige of present reality must be either radically reshaped or destroyed by a cataclysmic act of God before the creation of a “new heaven and new earth” and a purified universal kingdom could occur.
The sages were active participants in this struggle for power, influence, and the opportunity to shape second temple Judaism in the Persian period (Perdue, “Wisdom Theology and Social History in Proverbs 1–9”). Theologically, the sages joined with Second Isaiah in articulating a theology of Yahweh’s creation of the world and sustaining of the orders that made life possible, though they did not adopt the sacred traditions of salvation history until Ben Sira in the second century b.c.e. From the extant wisdom literature, however, it is clear that two distinct camps of sages emerged during the postexilic period: on the one hand, traditional sages who aligned themselves largely with the increasingly dominant hierocratic party of the Zadokite priests (Proverbs 1–9 and Ben Sira) and, on the other, critical teachers who, in challenging many of the conventions of the conservative wise and the priests with whom they were aligned, reached rather pessimistic conclusions about the evils of the current cosmic and social order. Some were “skeptics” in that they recognized all too readily the impairments of the current period, and yet they still hoped for a better world to emerge one day in the future (Job). While religiously and perhaps socially compatible with the party of visionaries, these critical teachers did not all share the hopeful anticipation of God’s dramatic ending of the current reality and reshaping of a new social and political order. Some became cynics and possessed no human hope for the future (e.g., Qoheleth and Agur; see Crenshaw, “Birth of Skepticism in Ancient Israel,” The Divine Helmsman 1–19).
After the return from exile, the social groups that emerged in the early Persian period included the sages whose literary artistry and editorial activity are represented by Proverbs 1–9. Finding their primary locus of activity in Jerusalem, these sages and their descendants quickly allied themselves with the hierocratic party of second temple Judaism that would become the dominant political and religious group among the Jews in the postexilic period. Although this alignment would not reach its full realization until the time of Ben Sira, elements already present in the first collection of Proverbs are compatible with the agenda of the hierocratic party. These compatible elements include the theme of a largely static and just cosmic order that is universal; the affirmation of Yahweh as the one true God; the insistence that justice is largely retributive and dispensed by a righteous deity; divine providence expressed through the theory of retribution as the justification for the possession of wealth and power by the dominant social group; the legitimation of wisdom teachings by grounding them in the just order of creation and by personifying the tradition as the daughter of God; the authentication of the rule of the kings of the earth by reference to their selection by Wisdom, the queen of Heaven, who embodies God’s creative power and providential rule; the warning against the dangers of extra-Israelite culture and religion personified by the metaphor of the “strange woman”; affirmation of the social features of the traditional extended household, including the authority of the senior male and female, marriage limited to Jewish women, patrimony and heredity, and the value of children; the claims of the “righteous” to the inheritance of the land, over against those who dally with the strange woman; and the support of the sacrificial system of the temple.
The theological and ethical materials found in Proverbs 1–9 probably derived from several school settings in the early half of the Persian period: a temple school, family guilds, and civil academies. More than likely a temple school emerged in the Persian period to educate scribes to assist the priests in compiling, copying, and interpreting the Torah, written in Hebrew, to a populace increasingly dependent on Aramaic (the lingua franca of the Persian period); in codifying and arguing case law for civil and religious regulations and disputes; in administrating and recording the temple’s vast economic resources; and in shaping the major case for legitimating the claims to power and influence of the ruling class. Guilds (most likely centered in family households) continued to train scribes for service in the government or in the temple (1 Chron. 2:55). Scribes also were needed by the Persian government at both the central (e.g. Ezra) and the provincial level to carry out administrative leadership and bureaucratic tasks, to maintain records, and to serve as notaries. These scribes perhaps were educated in civil academies supported by the central and provincial governments. Traditional sages sought through their writings and educational system to promote the interests of the prevailing social and religious order.
The critical wisdom tradition emerging in the Persian period is represented primarily by Job (the poetry), Qoheleth, and perhaps Agur (Proverbs 30), texts also likely produced by teachers as school literature (Crenshaw, “Human Dilemma and Literature of Dissent,” 235–58). These sages were intellectuals who opposed traditional wisdom’s social knowledge, which was used to support the political power and economic advantages of the hierocratic movement. These teachers were critical of earlier sapiential tradition and their conservative colleagues; questioned and at times even denied the justice of God; ranged from open criticism to a deepening skepticism concerning the teaching that justice permeated the cosmic and social order; doubted that a just order representing the larger justice of God could be discovered by astute observation and then implemented in a life that would consequently experience success and well-being; held that God remained hidden, was capricious and unjust, or was engaged in a struggle for justice that was never completely won; viewed both religious and civic leaders as often corrupt; denied that the temple cult produced the dividends of blessing that the priests claimed; and witnessed a vitiated social order that oppressed not only the poor but even the righteous. Unlike their visionary contemporaries, however, these sages did not easily look to a future act of God that would transform heaven and earth and then constitute a reality of justice in which they would participate as leaders among the redeemed. Instead, either they retreated into a deepening cynicism that avoided speculation about a hidden, capricious deity, while teaching their students to “seize the day” when joy in one’s labor and family is experienced (Qoheleth), or they concluded that moral living and resistance to the forces of chaos, while restrained and held in check by God, did not always promise the exemption of the righteous from their suffering or even their eventual justification (Job). While these critical sages questioned and thus would have undermined the epistemological and confessional assumptions undergirding and legitimating the current social world of Judah as a Persian colony, they were not, however, in agreement as to whether a new and just social order would one day emerge through righteous living and the intervention of divine justice. These teachers challenged the comfortable theological and ideological dogmas that promised advantages and privileges to students who persevered in their discipline of study and character formation, but they were not quick to offer in their literature of dissent a new, constructive vision of social justice that would reshape the current political order of Persian rule (Crenshaw, “Human Dilemma and Literature of Dissent,” 235–58).
It is clear from the artistic quality of the first collection that the sages who produced it possessed remarkable literary skills (see Skehan, Studies in Israelite Poetry and Wisdom, 1–47). The symmetrical shaping of the first collection of Proverbs, chapters 1–9, comprises a superscription (1:1) and general introduction (1:2–7) for both this collection and the entire book, ten instructions, and four related didactic poems whose subject is Woman Wisdom. The instructions are located in the first seven chapters (1:8–19; 2:1–22; 3:1–12; 3:21–35; 4:1–9; 4:10–27; 5:1–23; 6:1–19; 6:20–35; and 7:1–27; see Whybray, Wisdom in Proverbs, 33–71), while the four poems on Woman Wisdom are strategically placed at the beginning and end of the collection (1:20–33; 3:13–20; 8:1–36; and 9:1–18) to form a literary inclusio that reconstitutes in the elegance of didactic poetry the themes and language present in the instructions. Indeed, the conclusion of the book of Proverbs, 31:10–31, is an exquisite poem on the “woman of worth” or “capable wife,” who, while not a literary metaphor for divine wisdom, becomes the human incarnation of what Woman Wisdom teaches through her instructions about moral existence, the bounties of insight, and the fullness of life. Consequently, the crowning poem on the ideal wise woman offers an intricate integration of sapiential themes and provides a stunning symmetrical closure to the entire book.
The literary positioning of the poems in the first nine chapters underscores the centrality and essential role of (Woman) Wisdom in the origins of creation; in sustaining and enhancing the cosmos, society, and human life; in guiding or steering the moral behavior and skillful language that leads to the fullness of life for both the devotee of wisdom and the larger community; and in avoiding folly and evil, which threaten life in all its manifestations. In particular, Woman Wisdom, who embodies the sapiential tradition as divine instruction for life, is counterpoised to Woman Folly, who represents not only the evil and frivolity of foolish life that strays toward destruction but also both the allure of the “foreign woman” and her culture and the threat of the prostitute to the extended family (Blenkinsopp, “Social Context of the ‘Outsider Woman’ in Proverbs 1–9,” 457–73).
In four didactic poems (1:20–33; 3:13–20; 8:1–36; and 9:1–18) and one instruction (4:1–9) in this initial collection, divine insight and artistic design are personified and metaphorically depicted as Woman Wisdom, employed in creating the cosmos, in guiding its human community, and, while representing a divine attribute of Yahweh, serving much like the personal goddess of the sage (Ringgren, Word and Wisdom). Woman Wisdom is the divine, creative force that originates and continues to permeate the cosmos; the social justice that shapes and provides a righteous character to human institutions; the enticing goddess and lover of the sage, who seeks to find comfort and exhilaration in her charms and life-giving embrace; a personal goddess who protects, exalts, honors, and crowns the aspiring sage who follows her; the darling daughter of God, whose endearment toward the child combined with her own delight in the world of human habitation form the affectionate bond between creator and human creation; and the powerful queen of heaven, who not only elects and enables the princes of the earth to rule successfully and well but also gives wealth to and bestows honor on her royal lovers. But most of all, Woman Wisdom, through the teachings of the wise whose tradition she embodies, is the voice of God, whose invitation to come and learn of her and whose instructions revealing divine knowledge and insight direct the simple on the path to the fullness of life (Lang, Wisdom and the Book of Proverbs).
Ultimately, the voices one hears in Proverbs 1–9 are not limited to those of the wise teachers of Israel or even of Wisdom herself, who incorporates and articulates the sapiential tradition that is grounded in the order of creation. The audible undertone of the teachings and poems of the entire collection is sounded by the mouth of God, who reveals to the simple and the wise the pathway to life.