An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Wisdom Literature–Proverbs

I tend to read the Bible more as history than as scripture. The stories of the Pentateuch develop fascinating characters, but I view them as mythological explanations for the creation of the earth and the creation of the Israelite nation—although I don’t go quite so far as Brigham Young and call them “fairy stories.”  

For me, the prophets are pretty tedious reading. Who can blame the Israelites for not listening to grumpy oddballs, sometimes running around naked (Isaiah 20:2), and predicting destruction? And if many of the calamities described by the prophets were really eschatological—about events thousands of years in the future—then no wonder the Israelites found these messages irrelevant.  While some of the Psalms are quite beautiful, too many of them are whiny or strike me as over-the-top flattery trying to get God to grant the petitioner’s wishes.

But the Wisdom Literature—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job—those, I love. The authors of these books do not claim to be speaking for God. They are thoughtful humans relating wisdom gained from their earthly experiences. Proverbs, although attributed to Solomon, was more likely composed by numerous authors at a much later date—probably after the Babylonian exile. Modern scholars believe many passages were taken from more ancient Egyptian wisdom books, particularly The Instruction of Amenemope.

Recognizing that the proverbs are not direct revelation from God frees people from taking every admonition seriously such as: “A slave cannot be disciplined by words/ Though he may comprehend, he does not respond.” (29:19) Beating slaves—and children—for that matter, is not part of modern philosophy. My neighbor, whose biological time clock was set for evening rather than morning, could have used this information to counter her husband’s interpretation of “Early to bed, early to rise” as a commandment.

I like the short, pithy statements of Proverbs: “When the wicked dominate the people groan.” (29:2)  Some verses have poetic beauty: “Three things are beyond me/Four I cannot fathom/ How an eagle makes its way over the sky/ How a snake makes its way over a rock/ How a ship makes its way through the high seas/ How a man has his way with a maiden.” (30:18-19)  (All quotes are from the Jewish Publication Society translation.)

My hackles are raised by Prov. 31:10-31—the description of a “virtuous woman.” I seethe at the praise heaped upon this competent, but overworked woman busy night and day with housekeeping, horticulture, earning money, and caring for her children while hubby sits at the gates all day with “the elders of the land.”

Proverbs is a classic because most verses contain truths about coping with an often harsh world. Pride, dishonesty, laziness and drunkenness are all eschewed, and hard work, thrift, and generosity are extolled. Still, it is possible to come away from Proverbs with the notion that people bring all misfortune upon themselves. To find the perspective that many things in life are beyond our control, we must turn to Ecclesiastes which I’ve written about here.

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