The Source Of Jewish Proverbs - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

The Source Of Jewish Proverbs - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs


I. Occasional Proverbs. In the historical and prophetical Books of the Old Testament there are to be found some popular sayings current in early Israel. Though few in number, they possess considerable interest, and will therefore be discussed in Chapter IV.

II. The Book of Proverbs. This Book is the principal “source” of the proverbs considered in this volume. Unlike modern writings, which are usually the work of one author and will rarely require a longer period than five or ten years for their composition, many of the Books of the Bible have reached their present form as the outcome of a protracted process of compilation and revision perhaps extending over many generations and involving the work of numerous writers.

The words of earlier authors were utilised again and again in later times by others who, having somewhat similar ideas and purposes in view, exercised complete liberty in reproducing, or modifying, or adding to the material they found to hand. Such a book is Proverbs. The consequence is that the question of date and authorship cannot be answered in a sentence. The problem of the structure of the Book rises as a preliminary subject.

(a) Structure. The Book of Proverbs in its present form represents the combination of five originally independent collections of the single proverbs which are of course the ultimate material of the Book. There is some evidence that these five collections were themselves built out of still smaller groups of proverbs, but such subdivisions cannot be traced with certainty, and for our purpose may be neglected. The five main sections are as follows:—(a) In chs. 1-9, a number of epigrams, sonnets, and discourses in praise of wisdom. (b) In chs. 101-2216, a collection of two-line (“unit”) proverbs. (c) In chs. 2217-2422 and 2423-34, two very similar collections of four-line (“quatrain”) proverbs. (d) In chs. 25-29, a collection of two-line proverbs. (e) In chs. 30, 31, epigrams, sonnets, and an acrostic poem.

(b) Date and Authorship. Both in its component parts and as a composite whole the Book of Proverbs is an anonymous work. It is true that titles, such as “The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel” (Pr. 11), are prefixed to several portions of the Book, but they do not imply authorship, although to those unacquainted with the nature of ancient books that may seem the necessary meaning. Their significance will be considered later, on p. 71.

The date of origin and the authorship of single proverbs are seldom discoverable: a tantalising circumstance for those who would write about them. And yet, perhaps, their reticence is wise. It may be that some of the noblest sayings have sprung from the lips of a poor man in a peasant home; and there are fools who would thenceforth despise them for their birth. Of the individual sayings in the Book of Proverbs a few, in matter if not in exact phrase, may go back to ancient days; some may be due to Solomon himself or date from his period; but the vast majority, for cogent reasons of style, language, tone, ethical and social customs and so forth, are post-exilic—that is, not earlier than about 450 B.C.; nor on the other hand are they later than about 200 B.C., by which time the several sections had been combined to form substantially the present Book.

Something may be said concerning the relative priority of the five sections of the Book. Internal evidence points to sections b and d as the oldest portions, then section c; sections a and e (i.e., chs. 1-9, 30, 31) being probably the latest groups. But of the precise date when these collections were severally formed and combined, and of the names of the men by whom the work was done, we are unaware.

Fortunately our ignorance of detail is but a negligible trifle compared with our firm knowledge of the general fact that in their present form these proverbs belong to the period 350-200 B.C., and their authors and compilers were men who styled themselves “The Wise,” and were known in the Jewish community by that term. A hundred and fifty years may seem a wide margin, but it is a mistake to wish it less; if anything, it ought to be increased. For the point to be grasped is that Proverbs represents the thoughts and ideals of the Wise throughout that whole period (350-200 B.C.) and even longer. The exact dates of the combination and final revision of the component collections of sayings are therefore questions of minor importance. The Book is not to be treated as a fixed literary product of any one particular year, but as representative of the teachings of the Wise during very many years.

To the same class of men we owe, besides Proverbs, other famous writings, of which two, Job and Ecclesiastes, were also included in the Old Testament Canon, and two are to be found in the Apocrypha, namely, Ecclesiasticus (or, as it is often called, The Wisdom of Ben Sirach) and the Wisdom of Solomon. Of these four writings the two first, Job and Ecclesiastes, are considered in other volumes of this series, and therefore, except for one or two quotations, will not be utilised here, although they both contain a number of proverbial sayings. The Wisdom of Solomon also will seldom be noticed in this book: it is much later in date than Proverbs, and is not a collection of proverbs, but a set of discourses in praise of Wisdom.

III. Ecclesiasticus. On the other hand, the book of Ecclesiasticus or The Wisdom of Ben Sirach, is—next to Proverbs—the source from which we shall derive most material. Like Proverbs it is a storehouse of sayings about Wisdom, but fortunately, unlike Proverbs, it is not anonymous, and can be dated with some exactitude. The author or compiler of the book was one, Jesus ben (i.e., Son of) Sirach, who lived in Jerusalem about 250-180 B.C., his volume being finished about 190 B.C. Some fifty years later his grandson, then living in Egypt, translated it into Greek, and until recently the book was known to us only in its Greek form. Now, however, a large part of the original Hebrew text has been recovered, with the happy result that the Greek version can frequently be checked and obscurities be removed by means of the Hebrew.

Besides the single, “unit,” proverbs, there are in Ecclesiasticus, and in Proverbs also though to a less extent, a number of short sonnets and essays. These longer passages will be freely referred to, but perhaps a word in justification will here be in place. It has been said with truth, that “often a parable is an elaborate proverb, and a proverb is a parable in germ.” That comment excellently indicates the nature of the passages in question; most of them are expansions of some brief gnomic phrase. When, for example, in E. 2014f we read, “The gift of a fool shall not profit thee, for his eyes are many instead of one; he will give little and upbraid much and he will open his mouth like a crier; to-day he will lend and to-morrow he will ask it again: such an one is a hateful man....” it is obvious that the verse is only an elaboration and explanation of the enigmatic proverb printed in heavy type.

IV. The New Testament. Scattered through the pages of the New Testament are more allusions to popular sayings than one would readily expect. Almost all offer interesting comment on the life and manner of the times; but, unfortunately, they will fall outside the scope of this book, except for occasional references.

V. Finally, a great number of Jewish proverbs are mentioned in the post-Biblical Rabbinical writings—the tractates of the Mishna, the Midrashim, and Talmuds. Embedded in a vast and difficult literature (how difficult only those know who have attempted seriously to study it), these later Jewish sayings have been somewhat inaccessible to Gentile students. They are interesting in many ways, but the development of our subject in this volume will give opportunity for the mention only of a few. Should any reader desire to know more of these Rabbinic sayings, he can now be referred to a small but trustworthy collection recently made by A. Cohen and published under the title Ancient Jewish Proverbs.

The question is, What can the Jewish proverbs tell us about human life? The conclusion of the first chapter left us perplexed by indicating too many paths that might be followed. This chapter solves the difficulty by suggesting that these proverbs will have a great deal to say to us, if we choose to treat them in their historical aspect. To do so is to follow the king’s highway; but when the plain road promises an interesting journey, it is folly to search for bypaths. The human story seems naturally to divide into past and present; and, because the present immediately concerns us, we are all tempted to ignore the past and count it negligible. To the uneducated man the past is dead; and he fails to perceive that, if the facts of history are unknown, the present, though it may fascinate, will prove bewildering.

The truth is that history is one and continuous, the present is organically related to the past, and the division between them in our thought is artificial and perilously misleading. Nothing is of greater practical value than to learn and ponder the narrative of the past, provided heart and mind are kept alert to discern the guidance it continually offers to ourselves. To neglect its lessons is to starve the power of judgment in the present. Much that by our own unaided trials can only be learnt slowly, painfully, and at great hazard, may be discovered swiftly and securely by observation of the experience of other men. In this spirit let our studies of the Jewish proverbs be first of the past: what glimpses of former days are discernible in their homely words?

Let us commence as if we had some leisure at our disposal, and let us use it by following up occasional traces of very ancient times. Then we shall proceed to the more strenuous and more rewarding task of recovering a picture of the stirring years when Wisdom was moulding the Jewish proverbs to her urgent needs. Always, however, as the records yield up these tales of byegone days we are to keep in mind ourselves and our own generation, striving so to interpret the fortunes of men of old that we in our turn may learn from them how to avoid folly, endure trials, use success, and discover the secret of content. Finally we shall gather such of the proverbs as may please our fancy, and briefly consider them in themselves for their perennial, as opposed to their original or historical, interest.

Excerpt From Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs By W. A. L. (William Alexander Leslie) Elmslie