(1) Summary of Purpose: Substance and Expression of Wisdom (1:2)

To know (lādaʿat) means “to become conscious of, become aware of, observe, perceive, realize, experience.” 2  The pedagogy for “knowing” in 2:1–4 shows that the personal internalization or experiencing of wisdom is in view here. Wisdom (ḥokmâ; see p. 76) cannot be possessed without instruction (műsār, lit. “chastening lesson”) to correct a moral fault. The authoritative instructors may be parents and/or sages (1:8) as well as God and experience (3:12; 24:32). Műsār connotes an authority to whom the disciple must submit himself (i.e., have “humility,” ʿanāwâ, 15:33) to quell his innate waywardness (cf. 22:15); thus it entails shaping character. 3  It is directly associated with tôkaḥat (“reproof,” i.e., “the need to set things right”) and tôrâ (“teaching,” 1:8). W. E. Lane observes that its root ysr (“to chastise”) always presupposes an educational purpose and is never used to refer to the correction of animals or to the divine discipline of foreign nations. 4  Since its aim is the edification of the individual, it is co-relative with “wisdom” (ḥokmâ, 1:2, 7), “knowledge” (dāʿat, 8:10), “insight” (bînâ, 1:2; 4:1; 23:23), and “counsel” (ʿēṣâ, 19:20). Moreover, since the education in view here is within the framework of true Israel’s worldview, it is used with “truth” (ʾemet, 23:23), “the fear of the LORD” (yirʾat YHWH, 1:7). With verbs of hearing or observing it is acquired through verbal rebuke. The insightful also attain műsār through keen observation of and cogent reflection on the suffering of others (19:25; 24:32; cf. Deut. 11:2; Ezek. 5:15). Műsār learned in these ways prevents acts of folly. To prevent the repetition of folly, műsār is learned with “the rod,” the symbol of corporal punishment, in which case it may be glossed by “discipline” (13:24; 22:15; 23:13, 14; 29:15). Shupak says, “The Hebrew noun műsār and the verb yāsar, like [their Egyptian equivalents], have the double meaning of ‘instruct-reprove’ and ‘chastise-beat.’ ” 5  The responsibility to respond to instruction lies squarely on the child’s shoulders; he must listen to it (1:8), accept it (1:3; 19:20; 23:23), love it (12:1), prize it more highly than money (4:7; 23:23), and not let go of it (4:13). Once accepted, discipline springs from the power of internalized wisdom, not from sporadic “New Year’s resolutions.” It is a matter of inward spirit, not of a coerced will and servile compliance.

Wisdom and instruction cannot be gained unless the hearer is able to understand (lehābîn) the sage’s words. Bîn in the Hiphil with an indirect object means “to explicate,” but with a direct object, as here, it denotes the act of giving heed and considering something with the senses in such a way that understanding about the object takes place within (i.e., he acquires and possesses its object). One can see or hear something and yet not “perceive”/“understand” it (Isa. 6:9). Sometimes the accent falls on “giving heed to”/“considering” something (Prov. 7:7; 14:15; 28:5), and other times on the derived “understanding” (cf. 1:2, 6). The preamble and ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature in general do not explicate how this intellectual skill is acquired, apparently assuming that the ability to comprehend a saying’s meaning is learned through the exercise of hearing and/or reading. Words (ʾimrę) refers to a complete statement, not an element that can be separated from others to make a complete statement. The plural refers to sayings, not to the words that make up a saying. Probably both the eye and ear were involved in perceiving sayings, which were both written and read aloud. The verb “to hear” (e.g., 1:8) and references to the “ear” (e.g., 2:2) show that proverbs, though written, were learned and activated orally. The references to the eye (e.g., 3:21), if not metaphoric, suggest that they were transmitted in written form. In Sumer and in ancient Egypt, schoolboys wrote down the instruction literature, and in ancient Israel most children were literate (Deut. 6:9; 11:20; Judg. 8:14). With the invention of the alphabet in the first half of the second millennium, any person of average intelligence could learn to read and probably to write within a few weeks. The earliest extant text in Hebrew (ca. 900 B.C.) is a child’s text recounting the agricultural calendar. A. Millard says that ancient Hebrew written documents demonstrate that readers and writers were not rare and that few Israelites would have been unaware of writing. 6  The wisdom tradition was written to preserve the sage’s heritage accurately, but in this medium the audience is in control whether or not it read the communication. It was disseminated verbally to impose the speaker’s will on his audience; in this medium the speaker is in control of the communication. This intertwining of speech and writing is well attested in the ancient Near Eastern wisdom tradition. 7 

The words or sayings of this book aim to give Israel’s youth insight (or understanding, bînâ). Bînâ,” says M. Fox, “is the faculty of intellectual discernment and interpretation, the exercise of that faculty, or the product thereof, in words or acts.” 8  In 1:2; 3:5 passim, it refers to the faculty of reason and intelligence applied to the content of the sage’s teaching. The sage renounces the autonomous use of the intellect (see 3:5). In Job 28:12, 20 understanding is equated with “wisdom,” and in Job 28:28 with the “fear of the LORD.” These equations are brought together in Prov. 9:10 (cf. 2:5). The parallelism in 1:2 shows that here, too, it refers to the substance of wisdom. The book of Proverbs emphasizes how important it is to seek (2:3), purchase (4:5, 7; 16:16), and learn (4:1; cf. 1:2; 2:3) its wisdom and understanding.



 2 W. Schottroff, TLOT, 2:511, s.v. ydʿ.

 3 N. C. Habel, “The Symbolism of Wisdom in Proverbs 1–9,” Int 26 (1972) 138.

 4 W. E. Lane, “Discipline,” in ISBE (1979), 1:948–50.

 5 N. Shupak, “Egyptian Terms and Features in Biblical Hebrew,” Tar 54 (1984/85) 107.

 6 A. Millard, “An Assessment of the Evidence for Writing in Ancient Israel,” BibAT (1985) 301–12.

 7 Fox, Proverbs 1–9, pp. 74ff.

 8 M. Fox, “Words for Wisdom,” ZAH 6 (1993) 154; see now Fox, Proverbs 1–9, p. 30.