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Biblical References: Proverbs 22-24

Leading Question: “How can we determine when other faith communities or even secular communities, maintain truths that we should support?”

At the heart of this week’s discussion is a piece of wisdom literature with roots in Egypt. Known as the “Teaching of Amenemope” (also as the “Wisdom of Amenemope”) the text was published in 1923 by Wallis Budge, and sparked a lively debate over the relationship between the “Teaching” and the biblical book of Proverbs. Proverbs 22:20 refers to “thirty sayings” (NIV), which finds almost an exact parallel in Amenemope. Derek Kidner, in his commentary on Proverbs in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries series states: “The points of contact between the two are too many and too close to be a matter of coincidence” (Kidner, 23). Kidner’s further comment on the course of the debate is also helpful:

The fact that Amenemope in these shared sayings sometimes rises to heights that are worthier of an Israelite and a Christian than of a polytheist and a seeker of tranquillity, creates an initial presumption that he is the borrower. Close scrutiny of the wording and contexts of the parallels, however, has led almost all scholars to the opposite conclusion, since it is the Hebrew text that tends to be clarified when it is read by the side of its longer Egyptian counterpart. – Kidner, ibid.

Now the argument has been virtually clinched by physical evidence from Cairo Museum, an ostracon (an inscribed piece of broken pottery) from Cairo Museum containing an extract from Amenemope. That ostracon has been dated with some certainty to 1300 BC or thereabouts, several hundred years before Solomon’s time. This was and is a potentially troubling discovery for many because of the deeply-rooted impulse to see biblical material as being original, untouched by human hands. Others can borrow from the Bible. But it’s not supposed to happen the other way around. It has been hard to believe that inspired writers would borrow from non-inspired sources. Below are comments from the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol 3, published in 1954. F. D. Nichol was the editor, but no authors are named for the various books. The SDABC argues that the whole book was written by Solomon. By contrast, this study guide is based on the assumption – supported by a certain amount of evidence – that the book is a compilation of compilations, with many but not all the proverbs written by Solomon. Note how the SDABC handled the question in 1954:

“That Solomon was the author of the book seems evident from chs. 1:1; 10:1; 25:1. See, however, on chs. 30:1; 31:1. It is also known that Solomon ‘spake three thousand proverbs’ (1 Kings 4:32). Until recently the authorship or divine authority was scarcely disputed in either the Jewish or Christian church. Modern scholarship tends to assign a postexilic date to the book and denies the Solomonic authorship of the book.” – p. 945

On 30:1: “Some Jewish interpreters believe that ‘Agur’ was an allegorical name for Solomon…. Those who do not consider Solomon the author of this section reason that it has a somewhat lower tone than the preceding portions of the book…. However, it is not necessary that we know through whom these inspired words were given.” – p. 1049f

On 31:1: “This chapter is closer in style and spirit to the rest of the book of Proverbs than is ch. 30, and there are those who think that Solomon wrote it. They regard Lemuel as another name for Solomon.” – p. 1052.

Additional Note on Chapter 22: “In 1922 the scholarly world learned through a preliminary announcement that another Egyptian work of wisdom literature had been discovered…. That there are a number of close parallels is evident, but this does not prove the direction of dependency…. [evidence surveyed] This leads to the conclusion that the proverbs of Amemenope…. are at least 150 years younger than those of Solomon…. Only scholars who do not accept the Solomonic authorship of the Biblical book of Proverbs, holding that it originated several centuries after Solomon’s time, can argue for a priority of Amenemope. Students of the Bible, however, who accept the Solomonic authorship of Proverbs, explain the parallels between this book and that of Amenemope by assuming that some of Solomon’s proverbs found their way to Egypt, and were used by Amenemope in his collection of proverbs, where they are now found in an Egyptian garb. – p. 1022

In what follows, some of the closest parallels between Proverbs and Amenemope are noted. These all come from 22:17-23:14.

Common Truths:

Helping the Poor:

22:22 Do not exploit the poor because they are poor
    and do not crush the needy in court,
23 for the Lord will take up their case
    and will exact life for life.

Dealings with the ill-bred (the angry and fools):

22:24 Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person,
    do not associate with one easily angered,
25 or you may learn their ways
    and get yourself ensnared.
23:9 Do not speak to fools,
    for they will scorn your prudent words.

Security: cf. 6:1-6, 11:15; 17:18, the prohibition against being security (see lesson #3 above)

22:26 Do not be one who shakes hands in pledge
    or puts up security for debts;
27 if you lack the means to pay,
    your very bed will be snatched from under you.

Comment: If one can make peace with the idea that God’s writers don’t have to be first with the truth, then one doesn’t have to live in fear that someone might find an ostracon in a museum somewhere that will destroy the credibility of the Bible. The Spirit will lead God’s writers to borrow anything from anywhere in order to get God’s message through.

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