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Wisdom and Folly in the city: exploring urban contexts in the book of Proverbs

  • Katharine J. Dell (a1)


Proverbs 1–9 is often said to have a city background that contrasts with the agricultural imagery dominant in the maxims sections. However, this is an oversimplification. There are also maxims in the main Proverbs collection that concern the city, and the city background revealed within Proverbs 1–9 links up with the portrayal of the ‘capable wife’ in Proverbs 31:10–33. Having established the presence of city references throughout Proverbs, this article explores how the portrayal of Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly in particular gives fascinating insight into the heart of happenings in the Israelite city.

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1 Along with parts of Prov 22:17–24:22 and 31, see below.

2 Whybray, R. N., The Composition of the Book of Proverbs, JSOTS 168 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), p. 56 . He is the scholar who has written most upon this subject in relation to wisdom literature.

3 Ibid., p. 62.

4 I do not wish to discuss dating issues here. Suffice to say that in my view there are early features of Proverbs 1–9 which do not make a late dating for the whole conclusive (see Dell, Katharine J., The Book of Proverbs in Social and Theological Context (Cambridge: CUP, 2006)), and that such a developmental view from oral to literary and from one set of genres to another is oversimplified and out of favour generally in current scholarship. See e.g. Niditch, Susan, Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), who speaks of an oral/literary continuum over a long period of time.

5 Whybray, R. Norman, ‘City Life in Proverbs 1–9’, in Diesel, A. A., Lehmann, R. G., Otto, E. and Wagner, A. (eds), Jedes Ding hat seine Zeit. . .’: Studien zur israelitischen und altorientalischen Weisheit, Diethelm Michel zum 65 Geburtstag, BZAW 241 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1996), pp. 243–50.

6 Yoder, Christine R., Proverbs, Abingdon OT Commentaries (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009), p. 189 .

7 See Fox, Michael V., Proverbs 10–31 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 689 .

8 So Yoder, Proverbs, p. 220.

9 Fox, Proverbs 19, p. 535.

10 So Fox, Proverbs 19, p. 644.

11 Yoder, Proverbs, p. 200.

12 So Fox, Proverbs 19, p. 836.

13 Other images are used in the maxims section that could indicate any town or city, e.g. ‘streets’ in 22:13 or ‘’at the gate’ in 22:22. Little can be built on these wider references.

14 Whybray, ‘City Life in Proverbs 1–9’.

15 The presence of walls usually distinguishes cities from villages in the Old Testament, notably in Josh 19:16; Neh 11:30; Num 21:25 and 2 Chron 13:19. A walled city is often assumed in the maxims of Proverbs, as well as being a relevant category for Proverbs 1–9. I am grateful to my Ph.D. student Arthur Keefer for supplying these references and for reading the article with a critical eye.

16 Whybray, ‘City Life in Proverbs 1–9’, p. 250.

17 The Instruction of Amenemope was discovered in 1923 and has had a significant effect on the interpretation both of this section of Proverbs, with which it is seen to share sayings, and on ideas about social context for the whole book. The debate continues as to how far the influence has gone. Against a direct alignment, see Whybray, R. Norman, ‘The Structure and Composition of Proverbs 22:17–24:22’, in Porter, S. E., Joyce, P. M. and Orton, D. E. (eds), Crossing the Boundaries: Essays in Biblical Interpretation in Honour of Michael D. Goulder (Leiden: Brill, 1994), pp. 8396 . In favour of the link, see Emerton, John A., ‘The Teaching of Amenemope and Proverbs XXII 17–XXIV 22: Further Reflections on a Long-Standing Problem’, Vetus Testamentum 51 (2001), pp. 431–65.

18 Whybray, Composition, p. 138.

19 See discussion in Dell, Katharine. J., ‘The King in the Wisdom Literature’, in Day, John (ed.), King and Messiah in Israel and the Ancient Near East, JSOTS 270 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 163–86, suggesting a broader context. See more recently Ansberry, Christopher B., Be Wise my Son, and Make my Heart Glad: An Exploration of the Courtly Nature of the Book of Proverbs, BZAW 422 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011), who emphasises the courtly context, but finds a wider ethical application for its values.

20 von Rad, Gerhard, Wisdom in Israel (London: SCM Press, 1972 [1970]); Heaton, E. W., Solomon's New Men (London and New York: Pica Press, 1974). See Dell, Katharine J.Solomon's Wisdom and the Egyptian Connection’, in Middlemas, J., Clines, D. J. A. and Holt, E. K. (eds), The Centre and the Periphery: Festschrift for W. Brueggemann (Sheffield: Phoenix Press, 2010), pp. 2136 .

21 Whybray, ‘City Life in Proverbs 1–9’, p. 244.

22 See Brenner, Athalya, ‘Some Observations on the Figuration of Woman in Wisdom Literature’, in McKay, H. A. and Clines, D. J. A. (eds), Of Prophets’ Visions and the Wisdom of Sages: Essays in Honour of R N Whybray, JSOTS 162 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1993), pp. 192208 . See also Camp, Claudia V., Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1985), and Camp, Claudia V., Wise, Strange and Holy: The Strange Woman and the Making of the Bible, JSOTS 320 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).

23 Lang, Bernhard (‘Schule und Unterricht im alten Israel’, in Gilbert, M (ed.), La Sagesse de l'Ancien Testament BETL 51 (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1979), pp. 186201) suggested the existence of market-place schools. Lemaire, André (Les écoles et la formation de la Bible dans l'ancien Israël, OBO 39 (Fribourg, Switzerland: Éditions Universitaires; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1981)) found schools all over Israel, probably centred in towns and cities. A more cautious view is that schools were probably sporadic – one in Jerusalem, and maybe a few elsewhere. The archaeological evidence is sparse also; see Davies, Graham I., ‘Were there Schools in Ancient Israel?’, in Day, J., Gordon, R. P. and Williamson, H. G. M. (eds), Wisdom in Ancient Israel: Essays in Honour of J A Emerton (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), pp. 199211 .

24 Whybray, ‘City Life in Proverbs 1–9’, pp. 247–8.

25 Ibid., p. 248.

26 Ibid., p. 249.

27 Ibid., p. 248.

28 See Sandoval, Timothy J., The Discourse of Wealth and Poverty in the Book of Proverbs (Leiden: Brill, 2005).

29 This reference to Wisdom's house has generated some discussion amongst scholars. See Zaban, Balint, The Pillar Function of the Speeches of Wisdom: Proverbs 1:20–33, 8:1–36 and 9:1–6 in the Structural Framework of Proverbs 1–9, BZAW 429 (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyer, 2012). Skehan, P. W. (Studies in Israelite Poetry and Wisdom, CBQMS 1 (Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1971)) argued that this is metaphorical for Wisdom's ‘house’ being Proverbs 1–9 itself. Others have seen the house with its seven pillars as representative of the universe with seven planets, possibly even an allusion to Ishtar of the Stars or to the Queen of heaven. Christine Yoder suggests that the seven pillars symbolise completeness and perfection, wealth and status, and that affluent and moderately wealthy members of an urban, commercial class are her audience. See Yoder, Christine R., Wisdom as a Woman of Substance, BZAW 304 (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2001), p. 103 .

30 Whybray, ‘City Life in Proverbs 1–9’, p. 247.

31 This ‘high place’ could be some kind of acropolis. Perhaps there is even an overtone of a worship context in the reference to high places in relation to both these figures.

32 Whybray, ‘City Life in Proverbs 1–9’, p. 250.

33 See Tan, Nancy, The ‘Foreignness’ of the Foreign Woman in Proverbs 1–9: A Study of the Origin and Development of a Biblical Motif, BZAW 381 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), for a thorough study of the different female characters in this section.

34 Whybray points out that there is very little in the Old Testament generally about the social and domestic life of the city in ancient Israel: the prophetic books contain much about the shortcomings of its citizens but little of their possible virtues or daily lives. He writes, ‘The literature of the Old Testament rarely shows an interest in individuals except for those who were politically prominent, desperately wicked or outstanding in some other way’ (‘City Life in Proverbs 1–9’, p. 243). He sees the wisdom literature as a partial exception; e.g. Job 29 describes the way Job helped the poor when he himself was a leader of his community, and in Ecclesiastes there are ‘glimpses’ of the activities and concerns of the citizens of Jerusalem (especially with money and work) in his day.

35 For more factual information about the Israelite city, see Frick, F. S., The City in Ancient Israel, SBLDS 36 (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977), pp. 2561 .

36 Yoder, Proverbs, p. 93. Yoder suggests a Persian dating for Proverbs 1–9, arguing that this setting fits well with the evidence of urbanisation and urban planning in the Persian period, particularly in cities located along the coast. I wonder, however, if there is enough evidence to establish such a conclusion. She points to Neh. 2:17–18 and 3:1–4:6, in which Nehemiah initiated the restoration of city walls and gates in Jerusalem. In this context, street corners and squares are mentioned using the same vocabulary as Proverbs. Toy, C. H., Proverbs, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1899), who compared urban references in Ben Sira, suggested the Hellenistic period as the possible date of Proverbs 1–9 and argued for a Hellenistic city model reflected here.

37 Dell, K. J., ‘Does the Song of Songs have Any Connections to Wisdom?’, in Hagedorn, Anselm C. (ed.), Perspectives on the Song of Songs, BZAW 346 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005), pp. 826 ; cf. Camp, Claudia V., Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1987), for the comparison with Woman Wisdom; and Grossberg, DavidTwo Kinds of Sexual Relationships in the Hebrew Bible’, Hebrew Studies 35 (1994), pp. 725 , for the links with Woman Folly.

38 For a fascinating study of how the divine realm is largely painted in urban terms and the splendour of the city seen as a reflection both of royal power and divine glory, see Davies, Philip, ‘Urban Religion and Rural Religion’, in Stavrakopoulou, Francesca and Barton, John (eds), Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah (London: T&T Clark International, 2010), pp. 104–17. Davies discusses the problem of the marginalisation of the rural context, given that biblical texts tend to have been written in urban settings. Whether one can assume such a setting for the maxims sections of Proverbs is a question for another day.



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