PROVERBS, BOOK OF (Heb. סֵפֶר מִשְׁלֵי, Sefer Mishlei), one of the three "wisdom books" of the Hagiographa, representing the affirmative and didactic element in wisdom (ḥokhmah), in contrast to the radical questioning of Job and Ecclesiastes. In its present form the book appears to have served as a manual for the moral and religious instruction of the young. Comprising materials of various kinds gleaned from the long tradition of wisdom, the book was used in schools by professional sages (cf. Eccles. 12:9–12; Ecclus. 6:23–28). The teacher's objectives and methods are outlined in Proverbs 1:2–6, namely, cultivation of the mind and training in ethical principles by the use of *proverbs (mashal), epigrams (meliẓah), sayings of the sages, and riddles (ḥidah) or puzzling questions. The teacher's basic theme is summed up in the motto with which he begins and ends the introduction to the older materials – "The fear of the Lord is the beginning [or first requirement, chief part] of knowledge [wisdom]" (1:7; 9:10).


In the Masoretic Text the title Mishle Shelomo ben David Melekh Yisrael is usually abbreviated Mishle (so LXX, Vulg.). Solomon is here named as the traditionally supreme sage and patron of wisdom; this neither proves nor necessarily implies a claim of authorship. According to I Kings 5:12–13, Solomon authored 3,000 proverbs, which are said to have addressed the nature of trees and animals, presumably as fables illuminating the behavior of humankind. There are, however, very few examples of this genre preserved in the Book of Proverbs itself (e.g., 6:6–8; 30:24–31). Statements such as Proverbs 20:2, 8, 26 are not such as would come from a king's own lips. Two divisions of the book are each headed Mishle Shelomo, which would be redundant if the title in 1:1 were intended to be comprehensive. Other authors are named in 22:17, 24:23; 30:1; and 31:1. It is therefore probable that the title of the book was taken over and adapted from 10:1 when chapters 1–9 were prefixed to the previously existing materials. The word mashal, literally "likeness, comparison" (cf. Akkadian mašālu, "to be similar to"), would most obviously refer to proverbial expressions employing similes (e.g., Ezek. 16:44, "like mother, like daughter"). In practice however, mashal is applied to a wide variety of compositions characterized by elevated language or rhetorical style, such as prophetic speeches, parables, and even extended series of oaths (e.g. Num. 23:7; Ezek. 17:2; Job 27:1). Indeed, in the Hebrew Bible itself, mashal appears alongside and is linked to such disparate designations as kelalah, "curse"; lit., "deprecation" (Jer 24:9), neginah, "(taunt) song" (Ps. 69:13), nehi, "lament" (Mic. 2:4), and ot, "sign," "symbol" (Ezek. 14:8). In Proverbs 10–22:16 and chapters 25–29 the heading Mishle Shelomo may have designated the literary form characteristic of these sections, namely, a single-line proverb in poetic parallelism, as distinguished from the half-line or prosaic form of colloquial sayings (cf. I Sam. 10:12; 24:14).

The Wisdom Tradition

The cultivation of ḥokhmah as an understanding of the good and satisfactory life had a long history in ancient Israel. In and of itself, the term has no ethical content, but means simply a special skill or superior ability. The moral and religious element, broadly speaking, is an expansion of its meaning. In Job 38:36 and 39:17 it denotes simply intelligence. The "wisdom" of Bezalel was his expertness as a craftsman (Ex. 35:30–35). The word is used even of the disgraceful cunning of Jonadab (II Sam. 13:3). In I Kings it refers successively to Solomon's cleverness (2:6), his moral discernment (3:12), his encyclopedic knowledge (5:9), and his special ability as a king (5:21). The wise women of Tekoa and Abel in II Samuel 14:2ff., and 20:16ff. are characterized chiefly in terms of their rhetorical skills and mastery of the art of persuasion. The "wise" with whom Isaiah and Jeremiah disputed were powerful courtiers (Isa. 29:13–16; Jer. 9:22). However, wisdom as embracing ethical qualities in personal and social life found expression in the divinely given moral obligations of the covenant people (Deut. 4:5–6), and in the prophetic picture of the ideal king (Isa. 11:1–2). It finally took literary form in the piety of wisdom psalms, e.g., Psalms 1 and 34, of the author of Proverbs 1–9 and of Ben Sira, and in the dogmatism against which the writers of Job and Ecclesiastes revolted (see also *Wisdom).

International Wisdom

Hebrew wisdom was distinctive but not unique, as is recognized in the Bible itself. Solomon's wisdom is compared to his advantage with that of Egypt and of the people of the East (I Kings 5:10–11). Edom was famous for its sages (Jer. 49:7; Obad. 8), as was Tyre (Ezek. 28:2ff., 12ff.). Surviving wisdom literature from Egypt and Mesopotamia exhibits the same kind of divergence as between Proverbs and Ben Sira on the one hand, and Job and Ecclesiastes on the other – the first conservative, affirmative, didactic, and practical, the second skeptical of traditional values and radically speculative. The lengthy "instruction" (Eg. sbʾyt) addressed by a pharaoh or high official to his son and expected successor was a well attested genre in Egypt from the Old Kingdom on. The oft-repeated warnings in Proverbs 1–9 against the danger posed by the "strange woman" find their parallel in the Instructions of Ani (New Kingdom). The influence of this form has been traced in the admonitory discourses in Proverbs 1–8, and more certainly in 22:17–24:22. The latter has a demonstrable literary connection with the Egyptian Instruction of Amen-em-ope (New Kingdom). A late example of the instruction, ascribed to Onchsheshonqy, contains many sayings and proverbs of which some recall those of Proverbs, including examples of antithetical parallelism. In Sumerian literature the instruction genre (NA.RI.GA) is attested as early as 2400 B.C.E. in the Instructions of Suruppak. This composition, which exists in a number of versions, as well as in an Akkadian translation, includes both positive instructions and prohibitions on a wide variety of subjects. These are introduced, and regularly reintroduced, with the formula "Suruppak gave instructions to his son." Various kinds of advice offered here, some quite distinctive in content, are likewise found in Proverbs: warnings against going surety for another (Prov. 6:1–5), involvement in quarrels (Prov. 25:8), drinking beer when administering justice (Prov. 31:4–5), or partaking of "stolen food" (metaphorical; Prov. 9:17). Study of the recensional history of this long-lived Mesopotamian wisdom collection may well have specific application for understanding how the biblical book of Proverbs was composed. Similar to the Sumerian Instructions of Suruppak is the later Akkadian composition referred to as The Counsels of Wisdom, which in some cases offers the identical advice, but more consistently favors longer, more extensive topical units. The discovery of an Akkadian tablet at Ras Shamra in Syria containing the Instructions of Shubeawilim, itself related to the more ancient Instructions of Suruppak, attests to the availability of traditional Mesopotamian wisdom literature in the Canaanite cultural sphere as early as the 15th pre-Christian century. A millennium later a fifth-century Aramaic papyrus from the Jewish military colony at *Elephantine in Egypt contains the maxims of the famed Assyrian court sage Ahiqar. This collection presents numerous parallels in both content and form to the practical advice offered in the biblical Book of Proverbs. Particularly remarkable is the cluster in one column of the papyrus of close to 10 individual proverbs counseling caution in dealing with kings, whose unlimited power and volatile wrath are fraught with danger for the ordinary courtier. This topical cluster is most reminiscent of analogous groupings on the identical theme in Proverbs 16:10, 12–15; 25: 2–7 (cf. 20:2, 8, 26, 28).

Precepts and Proverbs

Inherent in the biblical idea of wisdom was that it could be taught to those capable of learning (Ex. 35:34). The peti in Proverbs 1:4 is "simple," "untutored"; he is not a "fool" (ʾevil) unless he despises learning (1:7). There were two methods of education – the authoritative musar ("training, precept") of the parent and of the teacher in a parent's role, and ʿeẓah, the "counsel" of the sage and of the teacher as sage. Musar is found in Proverbs in peremptory "dos and don'ts" (e.g., 3:25–32; 22:22ff.), and in longer discourses in chapters 1–9 and 30:1–9. ʿEẓah is expressed in the sentence-long sayings about how life is lived well or badly, which form the substance of the "Solomonic" proverbs in 10:1–22:16 and chapters 25–19. The precept speaks in the imperative mood, the proverb in the indicative, with the occasional variant of a rhetorical question. The one seeks to impose the teacher's will and knowledge on the student; the other to elicit from him a free and positive response. They have the same objectives of forming the mind, building the moral character, and training the judgment of the pupils (1:2–4). The form of extended instruction differs from that of the shorter precept by including a motive clause indicating the welcome or unwelcome results that would follow from obedience or disobedience respectively. In this it resembles many proverbs describing the character and behavior of men, and thus serving as indirect precepts encouraging virtue and holding up vice to contempt. "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come upon you like a robber" (24:33–34) has the same effect as "Love not sleep lest you come to poverty" (20:13). The precept in 25:16 is the equivalent of the saying in 25:27a. Precepts reflect the imperatives of social order and religious values. Proverbs were rules of another kind, pointing to a right order in life which exists or should exist, expressed in the stylistic pattern: "this is like that," "this is better than that," "this results in that." Happy or unhappy consequences of actions occur in accordance with an unseen order of justice. The observations and counsels of the proverbs in 10–22:16 and chapters 25–29 are on two levels of moral and religious understanding. On one level they are exhortations to personal piety and probity, and affirmations that the Lord is master in human affairs and guarantor of the moral order (e.g., 10:3; 11:1; 12:2; 16:1). With these are associated the encomiums on wisdom and wise men, and the identification of the latter with "the righteous" and of fools with "the wicked" (e.g., 10:6–8; 12:1, 15; 13:20; 16:22). On the second level are the more secular sayings, caustic comments on antisocial behavior, and pathetic reflections on "the way things are" (e.g., 13:7; 14:13; 20:14; 26:6–16). Some short colloquial sayings seem to have been recast in verse form, as when an identical saying in 10:15a and 18:11a has been differently supplemented in the second half of the line. In 15:33 and 18:12, what looks like a simple parental admonition has been given different parallel lines. Other sayings possibly of popular origin are 11:2a; 12:4a; 17:14a; 22:8a; 27:7b, 10c. A special type of proverb compares phenomena in a culminating numerical series. "Three things are never satisfied, four never say, 'Enough!': Sheol, the barren womb, the earth ever thirsty for water, and the fire which never say 'Enough'!" (30:15b–16; cf. 30:18–19, 21–31). Since a whole number cannot have an exact synonym, it is paired with the number next lower when used in synonymous parallelism (see *Poetry). The form originated in the effort of early wisdom thinkers to classify phenomena by common characteristics. It is a kind of riddle: "What do such similarities mean for man's understanding of the world about him?"

Structural Outline of the Book


Chapters 1–9. Didactic discourses and "wisdom poems."

Title, preface and motto: 1:1–7.

Ten instructional discourses: 1:8–19; 2:1–22; 3:1–12; 3:21–26 + 31–35; 4:1–9; 4:10–19; 4:20–27 + 5:21–23; 5:1–14; 6:20–21 + 23–35; 7:1–27.

Five poems:

(a) the rewards of wisdom: 3:13–20;

(b) personified Wisdom addresses men in rebuke, appeal and self-affirmation: 1:20–33; 8:1–36; 9:1–6 (+ Folly, 13–18).

Precepts, direct or implied: 3:27–30; 5:15–20; 6:1–19, 22;9:7–12.


Chapters 10–22: 16. First Collection of "Solomonic Proverbs."


(A): Chapters 22:17–24:22. The "Thirty Precepts" of the Sages; an "Instruction" modeled on the Egyptian Instruction of Amen-em-ope.

(B): Chapter 24:23–34. Other Sayings of the Sages; an appendix to (A).


Chapters 25–29. Second Collection of "Solomonic proverbs," transmitted by Hezekiah's scribes. Appendixes to the book:

(1) Chapter 30:1–9. The skepticism of Agur, and a believer's reply.

(2) Chapter 30:10–13. Warnings and numerical proverbs.

(3) Chapter 31:1–9. A queen mother's diatribe.

(4) Chapter 31:10–31. Acrostic poem on the Excellent Wife.

Subject Matter

Since none of the main divisions of the book is entirely homogeneous in spite of the clear distinctions from one another, some further comments are called for.

In Part 1 the points where each of the 10 discourses begins are clearly marked, but their extent and possible expansions are less certain. Each opens with an exhortation to learn wisdom because of its value for living. All except no. 2 have as their pivotal point a specific precept, with corresponding promises or threats. In no. 2 the casuist form ("if you… then") replaces the imperative. In nos. 3, 5, and 7 the counsel is positive and general: "learn wisdom, and keep to the right path." In nos. 1, 4, and 6 the pupil is sternly warned against casting his lot with evildoers, and in 2, 8, 9, and 10 against the seductions of adultery. The latter evidently has here both a literal meaning and a metaphorical reference to religious unfaithfulness. A notable feature in nos. 1, 6, 8–10 is the vividness of the descriptions of temptation and the fateful consequences of yielding to it. The poems in 1:20–33, 8:1–36, and 9:1–6 not only conceptualize Wisdom but personify her in striking fashion. Chapter 8, arranged in three strophes and an epilogue, is one of the most remarkable passages in the wisdom literature, picturing Wisdom as YHWH's associate in the creation of the world. This poem appears to be based on the shorter one in 3:13–20, which, however, speaks of Wisdom in the third person. The short poem on Folly in 9:13–18 is a companion piece to that on Wisdom in 9:1–6. Following the eighth discourse, four short warnings against particular vices are inserted, together with a numerical list of hateful sins (4:15–20; 6:1–19). Again in 9:7–9 three proverbs intrude into the context.

Part 2 brings together about 375 single-line metrical proverbs or "wisdom sayings," haphazardly arranged except for one or two small groups on related topics (16:1–15). Some formal differences can be noted between chapters 10–15 and 16–22:16, though the point of division is indefinite and the teaching of both halves of the collection is essentially the same. In 10–15 there is a much higher incidence of antithetical parallels than later; "righteous" and "wicked" are contrasted most frequently in chapters 10–12, and "wise man" and "fool" most often in 12–15. After chapter 15 synonymous and extended parallelism predominates, together with scornful descriptions of the fool. References to YHWH's overruling providence and to divine sanctions on man's conduct are most frequent in 15 and 16. These may have been inserted by the teacher who prefaced 1–9 to the earlier collection of proverbs.

The literary relationship of Part 3 (A) to Amen-em-ope is clear, but difficult to spell out in detail. The structure of the two is the same: a summons to hear "thirty" (sheloshim, for MT vocalization shalishim) admonitions, a series of extended negative precepts. The first six and the ninth of these have topical and some verbal echoes of their Egyptian counterparts, but in a different order. The most striking verbal correspondence is the counsel against avarice in Proverbs 28:4–5: for wealth "grows wings, like an eagle it flies away into the sky." Amen-em-ope gives the same counsel but uses the simile "geese" rather than an "eagle." Because the order of corresponding sections is different, and 21 of the Egyptian precepts have no counterparts in the Hebrew work, it seems that the Hebrew scribe was depending on what he remembered from an earlier acquaintance with the Egyptian work. Part 3 (B) is a brief miscellaneous section attributed like 3 (A) to "the wise men," that is, to tradition. The first seven verses have enough points of contact with (A) to raise the possibility that they were left over from an earlier or alternative form of (A).

Part 4, the second collection of "Solomonic proverbs," resembles the first in some particulars and differs in others. It also falls into two parts unmarked in the text, 25–27 and 28–29. Chapter 25 opens with a series of precepts of double length, and chapter 26 has groups of sayings that pillory the fool and the sluggard. Throughout 25–27 precepts and similes predominate, rather than the declarative sentences common in the first collection. The tone also is more secular and less moralizing; the name YHWH occurs only once, and then in a supplementary line. The topical unit 27:23–27 is devoted to the seemingly unusual subject of animal husbandry, but similar subject matter appears in the Sumerian Instructions of Suruppak and in an Akkadian composition styled The Counsels of a Pessimist. This venerable tradition of combining advice on one's behavior together with helpful hints on the care of farm and flock survives in Hesiod's Works and Days, Virgil's Georgics, and beyond. In 28–29 the resemblance to 10–22:16 is greater both in form and content. Parts 2 and 4 have six proverbs in common, seven others are nearly identical, and four more have identical half-lines. The virtues extolled and the vices held up to scorn are much the same. The four appendices differ markedly from each other and from the rest of the book. In 30:1–9 the challenge of Agur the agnostic is answered (either in dialogue or as a later addendum) by a believer who affirms his faith and adds a humble prayer. In 30:10–33 there are five numerical sayings or riddles, a numbered list of sinners in the same style as 6:16–19, and some miscellaneous proverbs. In 31:1–9 the mother of an otherwise unknown King Lemuel cautions her son against dissolute behavior and neglect of his duties to his people. The fourth appendix is an acrostic poem on the excellent wife; it is remarkable for the light it throws on domestic activities in well-to-do homes and on the managerial responsibilities undertaken by the woman.

Text and Dating

The questions of the text and its dating are interrelated. The Hebrew text is relatively well preserved. The Septuagint seems to have been derived from essentially the same text, in spite of the idiosyncracies of that version. The only significant difference is in the order of some sections, indicating that the text was still not finally fixed in the first century B.C.E. One problem of dating is that an atomistic work, of which so much of Proverbs consists, was peculiarly susceptible to minor expansions. Hence the rare occurrence of Aramaic words may be meaningless for dating. There are no Persian or Greek words, and it is no longer necessary to posit the Greek period on philosophical or theological grounds. The customary post-Exilic dating of the book may have been influenced more than is realized by its association with Ben Sira. The book is composed throughout in classical Hebrew, with the exception of some Phoenicianisms, chiefly in chapter 8, which may have resulted from the use of older sources. Material as early as the time of Solomon may be included in the numerical proverbs of 30:15–31 and many of the more secular sayings. If reliable, 25:1 indicates that older materials were assembled in Hezekiah's reign. The activity of Wisdom teachers in the eighth century B.C.E. is evident in Isaiah (cf. Prov. 19:11–12; 21:2), in the prophet's adoption of a wisdom form for his oracle in Isaiah 28:23–29, and in apparent references to schools (Isa. 28:9–10; cf. 6:9–10). The literary influence of the Egyptian instructions and the optimistic serenity of tone point to a time when concern for individual conduct and education were not crowded out by alarm over national security. However, both older and later materials undoubtedly are included. Although the evidence is inconclusive, the late monarchical period seems as likely as any for the completion of the work in substantially its present form.

Ethical and Religious Teachings

The contents of Proverbs range from purely intellectual observations about natural phenomena, to "secular" comments on how men behave and life's occurrences, as well as a final positive association of right conduct with true wisdom and piety. The teacher's introduction in chapters 1–9 emphasizes the spirit in which the older wisdom materials are to be approached. Virtues and vices which had been discerned in the long experience of the community and by its older sages were still valid. The principal new emphasis is on resisting the temptation to fall into the ways of hardened evildoers and adulterous women. The "wise" and the "fools" have become the "righteous" and the "wicked" in newly composed moralistic couplets, inserted in the Solomonic collections. Whereas in the older wisdom it was asserted on grounds of experience that good conduct generally led to prosperity and its opposite to ruin, the reason for each now is seen to be that "the eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good" (15:3). In the older parts of the book, wisdom means simply the state of being wise. Its conceptualization begins with the idea in the Solomonic sayings that wisdom is an inner fountain of life (13:14). The teacher in 1–9 further develops both ideas: The state of being wise is attained by training, but it is also a gift of divine grace (2:1–6), and will act as a personal guide through life. This personification of Wisdom is dramatically enhanced in 1:20–33 and 8:1–31, yet still within the limits of poetic imagery (cf. Ps. 85:11–12). Wisdom here addresses men in her own name and in the guise of a goddess; she is a living power in the order of the world and has been YHWH's associate in its creation. Scholars differ as to whether in 8:22ff. Wisdom has become a full-blown hypostasis of YHWH, or whether it is an imaginative image of what is said in 3:19: "YHWH by [His] wisdom founded the world." The structure of the whole passage 8:12–31, when compared to 3:13–20, favors the latter alternative, though the picture may be colored to some degree by mythic language. However, the oft-posited identification of ḥokhmah, "Lady Wisdom," and the Egyptian goddess Maat has yet to be demonstrated beyond a superficial similarity. At the same time, the personification of Wisdom and her characterization as one who is herself not divine but nevertheless "dear to the gods" are found in the Aramaic proverbs of Ahiqar cited above.


R. Gordis, in: HUCA, 18 (1843–44), 77–118; C.I.K. Story, in: JBL, 64 (1945), 319–37; Kaufmann, Y., Toledot, 2 (1960), 631–46; C.T. Fritsch, and R.W. Schloerb, in: Interpreter's Bible, 4 (1955), 767–957; Pritchard, Texts, (19552), 405–52; W.G. Plaut, Book of Proverbs (1961); B. Gemser, Sprueche Salomos (1963); M. Haran, in: Tarbiz, 39 (1969–70), 116–18, 130–32; W. McKane, Proverbs (1970), incl. bibl. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (1960); Ugaritica, 5 (1968; Text 163 = R.S. 22.439); B. Alster, The Instructions of Suruppak (Mesopotamia 2; 1974); idem, Studies in Sumerian Proverbs (Mesopotamia 3; 1975); J.M. Lindenberger, The Aramaic Proverbs of Ahiqar (1983); B. Porten and A. Yardeni, in: TADAE, 3 (1993), 24–53; R.J. Clifford, Proverbs, incl. bibl.; 1999; M. Fox, Proverbs 1–9 (AB; 2000), incl. bibl.

[Robert B. Y. Scott /

Murray Lichtenstein (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.