by Richard J. Clifford
The Old Testament Library. Westminster John Knox, Louisville, 1999. 286 pp. $38.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-664-22131-9.
by Roland E. Murphy
Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 22. Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1998. 306 pp. $32.99 (cloth). ISBN 0-8499-0221-5.
ALTHOUGH STILL CONSIDERED BY SOME as merely a collection of banal sayings, the book of Proverbs has commanded the attention of many biblical scholars and theologians in recent years. This so-called "conventional" part of the wisdom corpus has provoked everything from feminist reflections on wisdom (Hebrew hokma; Greek sophia) to new paradigms for Christian education. Far from being a collection of dead sayings, Proverbs has inspired many to push the envelope in contemporary theological discourse.
Into the fray enter two new commentaries, and they could not be more different in style and content. Such divergence attests not only to the controversial nature of Proverbs, but also to the variegated nature of the field of wisdom research. Both authors ably analyze the arrangement and pedagogical aims of Proverbs, sifting out the book's distinctive ideas. Both appropriately point out that the first nine chapters serve as the introduction and interpretive guide for the rest of the book. But Clifford and Murphy part ways when addressing the weightier matters of traditio-historical background and theology. Their brief discussions on the significance of "law" (Ord) in Proverbs 28, for instance, are diametrically opposed. Both have their respective strengths and deficiencies, and one compensates for what the other lacks. Hence, together they constitute a perfect match in a classroom setting, a match that, however, may provoke more questions than answers. But that is no loss!
Clifford's commentary bears the fruit of his career-long research on the mythic traditions of the ancient Near East. Consequently, a wealth of cognate literature is featured in his exegetical discussions, from the Instructions of Shuruppak (Sumerian) and the Counsels of Wisdom (Babylonian) to the Egyptian Instructions and the Aramaic proverbs of Ahiqar. All are marshalled not only to determine the world(s) behind the text of Proverbs but also to clarify certain exegetical conundrums, most notably the translation of Prov 8:30a, in which wisdom speaks of her relatedness to God and the world: "I was at [YHWH's] side, a sage" (p. 92). The meaning of the word that Clifford translates as "sage," amn, constitutes perhaps the main crux of Proverbs, for it strikes at the heart of wisdom's identity in Proverbs 1-9, yet the interpretive tradition from the Septuagint onward has lacked consensus. Clifford takes his cue from Mesopotamian mythology, which features certain "mythical bringers of culture" known as the ummanu. Wisdom, according to Clifford, is a "heavenly figure mediating to humans the knowledge they need to be good and blessed servants of God" (p. 26). Although this view may provide some help in cutting the Gordian knot of 8:30, it does not account for Wisdom's gender role. Sensing this, Clifford finds another ancient Near Eastern precedent for wisdom's explicitly feminine role in her encounter with her male students, namely, the epic type-scene in ancient mythology in which a goddess attempts to deceive the youth into marriage. "Woman Wisdom is . . . the alternative to the deceptive woman" (p. 27).
Regarding historical background, Clifford does not rule out some degree of Solomonic authorship in the earliest collections found in 10:1-22:16, but firmer footing can be found in the reference to Hezekiah in 25:1. By the time the monarchy came to an end, much of Proverbs was already in circulation, according to Clifford. …