M.V. Fox, Proverbs 10–31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Fox, Michael V., Proverbs 10–31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB, 18B; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009). Pp. xix + 728. US $60.00. Hardcover. ISBN 978-0-300-14209-9.

Eagerly awaited has been the second volume of Fox's commentary on the book of Proverbs. [1] Like the first, this study showcases Fox's rigorous scholarship—his attention to detail, compelling argumentation, and thorough knowledge of the field. The volume also appeals to a range of potential readers. Whereas the exegesis is accessible and does not require knowledge of Hebrew, anyone interested in philological and other technical matters may delve into embedded notes that are set apart in a smaller font, or consider Fox's textual notes which comprise a lengthy appendix (pp. 979–1068). Fuller discussions of certain matters, such as the relationship between Prov 22:17–24:22 and non-Israelite wisdom literature (pp. 753–769) or various interpretations of the “woman of strength” in Prov 31:10–31 (pp. 899–917), are found in excurses throughout the commentary. Fox concludes with four longer essays that explore aspects and implications of wisdom. The result is a magisterial study that is now a standard for the interpretation of Proverbs.

The volume opens at a critical juncture in Proverbs, namely, the threshold between the longer instructions of chapters 1–9 and the largely independent proverbs of chapters 10–29. The new literary landscape can be disorienting, prompting some interpreters to posit that larger intentional structures—about which there is yet no consensus—function to organize the proverbs. Fox argues against the existence of such elaborate patterns, although proverbs may form groupings like proverb pairs and, more commonly, thematic clusters wherein two or more proverbs engage the same topic or share catchwords (e.g., 16:1–9, 10–15; 19:11–14). He observes pointedly, “[a] proverb is like a jewel, and the book of Proverbs is like a heap of jewels. Indeed, it is a heap of different kinds of jewels. Is it really such a loss if they are not all laid out in pretty, symmetric designs or divided into neat little piles? The heap itself has the lushness of profusion and the charm of a ‘sweet disorder in the dress’” (p. 481, emphasis original).

Given this “lushness of profusion,” Fox devotes more attention to how one reads a proverb. Especially helpful is his attention to processes at work in and between the proverbs of the book that train readers to think like sages. A proverb “template,” for example, is a recurring pattern of wording or syntax that serves as a mold for generating new proverbs (e.g., “better A than B”). The resulting proverb permutations are significant not only for the fresh insights they afford, but for the “creative dialectic of the old and new” (p. 489) they reveal in how wisdom works. Similarly, a disjointed proverb, or one in which the parallelism of the two lines is non-congruent or disrupted, invites readers to fill the rhetorical gap. Should they supply the missing premise or conclusion successfully, the proverb snaps into place much like the “ah-ha” moment when one solves a riddle. Readers thereby learn habits of a wise person—to consider a proverb's assumptions, participate in its reasoning, and propose a compelling solution.

Fox's analysis of each proverb is the heart of the volume. He turns proverbs like the jewels to which he compares them, calling attention to their many facets. Consistently insightful are Fox's analyses of key images and metaphors and his careful adjudication of possible meanings. He regularly draws in comparable proverbs from the ancient Near East, especially from Egypt, to inform his interpretation. And he pays particular attention to medieval Jewish commentators on Proverbs, setting their observations in conversation with his own and those of other modern interpreters. This sustained engagement of medieval Jewish peshaṭ readings is distinctive to Fox's commentary and suggests the benefits to be gained through even wider engagement of the reception history of Proverbs. Fox notes, for example, that he tends less frequently to midrashic interpretations and mostly sets aside patristic and medieval Christian exegesis.

The final four essays advance the discussion of various aspects of wisdom. Fox first traces the history of the concept of wisdom within Proverbs from a pragmatic capacity and disposition with no inherently religious or ethical connotation (Prov 10–29), to an intellectualized moral virtue rooted in “the fear of Yahweh” (Prov 1–9), to a faculty that transcends the human mind and permeates space and time (the interludes of Prov 1–9). At stake for him is appreciation for the dynamism and diversity of wisdom thought—that the sages of different historical periods studied the ideas of their predecessors and construed wisdom anew. In the second essay, Fox argues that the foundational axiom of Proverbs' ethics is analogous to the Socratic principle that virtue is knowledge. Emphasis on human intellect enables Proverbs to function as a guide to human flourishing without invoking the Torah, prophetic revelation, or other divine communication. The third essay then explores this absence of divine revelation in the book and how ancient authors wrestled with the relative status of wisdom and Torah until Ben Sira identified the two with each other; subsequently, Wisdom of Solomon elevated wisdom over Torah while the rabbis essentially subsumed wisdom in Torah (e.g., Gen. Rab. 1.2). And in the final essay, Fox argues that wisdom's epistemology is not empiricism, as the majority of scholars assume, but a coherence theory of truth whereby a proverb is reliable if it coheres with an underlying and integrated system of assumptions. I expect this essay in particular will generate significant and fruitful debate.

Fox's commentary on Proverbs is a remarkable achievement. Readers will find plenty to contemplate about the nature and worldview of wisdom, the complexities of proverbs, and how processes integral to them and to the book train readers to think like sages. With regard to this last point, I would welcome from Fox further consideration as to how the arrangement of the major units of the book may also participate in the formation of its readers. Fox's introductions to the major units are relatively brief and tend principally to matters of genre. Thematic continuities and discontinuities between the main units must be gleaned from Fox's discussion of particular proverbs therein. As such, readers interested in reading Proverbs as a whole may lose sight of developments or disjunctions across the book and thereby miss some of the very dynamism and diversity of wisdom thought that Fox rightly highlights. That said, we are indebted to Fox for this important contribution.

Christine Roy Yoder, Columbia Theological Seminary

[1] Cf. his earlier Proverbs 1–9 (AB, 18A; New York: Doubleday; reprint New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). reference