C. B. Ansberry, Be Wise, My Son, and Make My Heart Glad: An Exploration of the Courtly Nature of the Book of Proverbs

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Ansberry, Christopher B., Be Wise, My Son, and Make My Heart Glad: An Exploration of the Courtly Nature of the Book of Proverbs (BZAW, 422; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011). Pp. 240. Hardcover. US$154.00. ISBN 978-3-110-24790-9.

This monograph is a revision of Christopher B. Ansberry's 2009 doctoral dissertation for Wheaton College. In short, the author attempts to demonstrate that the book of Proverbs may legitimately be considered a courtly document, which “intended to produce a world necessary for those in positions of leadership” (p. 189). In the first chapter, Ansberry identifies the controversial character of scholarship on the book of Proverbs. Instead of focusing on the Sitz im Leben of each individual aphorism in this collection of sapiential lore, Ansberry places his emphasis on the literary context, the Sitz im Buch, of the entire book. He states that his task is to examine the aristocratic elements in the book of Proverbs and to trace the thematic development of the material. In the next chapter, Ansberry offers a brief overview of the nature of instructional literature in Egypt, as well as in Mesopotamia and Syria. All these instructional texts share similar formal and conceptual characteristics. Ansberry's conclusion that these Ancient Near Eastern documents presuppose a courtly context leads him to believe that they provide a comparable framework for the study of the book of Proverbs.

Ansberry's core argument is contained in the next four chapters. He divides the book of Proverbs into nine sections. He primarily follows the lead of the superscriptions, but further subdivides the first Solomonic collection in 10:1–22:16 into two sections (10:1–15:33 and 16:1–22:16, respectively “Solomon 1A” and “Solomon 1B”), and the second Solomonic collection in 25:1–29:27 into two others (25:1–27:27 and 29:1–29:27). In chapter three, Ansberry examines the lectures and the interludes in Prov 1–9 and argues that aristocratic elements are scattered throughout this extended discourse. The attribution to Solomon in the title of the book (1:1) indicates that the king assumes the role of the father in what follows. According to Ansberry's understanding, the naïve youth is the primary addressee in the preamble (1:2–7). In the lectures, this youth is called the “son,” and appears to be ready to enter the community as an independent adult. Ansberry thus concludes that “the prologue presents the discourse as a series of instructions delivered by a royal voice to a noble addressee within a domestic context” (p. 69). This prologue provides a literary context through which the rest of the book is to be interpreted.

The focus of attention in chapter four is Prov 10–24, which Ansberry calls “rudimentary wisdom.” He sees a progression of thought in these chapters, from “elementary wisdom” in Solomon 1A (10:1–15:33), to “intermediate wisdom” in Solomon 1B (16:1–22:16), to “vocational wisdom” in the collection composed of 22:17–24:34, comprising two sets of sayings (“Sayings of the Wise 1” and “Sayings of the Wise 2”). Ansberry argues that the “elementary wisdom” in Solomon 1A promotes a bifurcated worldview that divides individuals into two classes: the righteous/wise and the wicked/fool. The simplistic description of the character-consequence in this collection then provides an elementary paradigm of the life of wisdom. Ansberry further argues that the anthropocentric and theocentric dimensions of the world presented in Solomon 1A orient the addressee to live in harmony within society. This collection also sets the tone for the “intermediate wisdom” in Solomon 1B, which “reinforces particular topics, modulates certain themes, and provides a more detailed portrait of the socio-religious world” (pp. 99–100). Ansberry's analysis is greatly influenced by the argument of Brown, who in turn builds on the observation of Van Leeuwen.[1] Following the lead of Brown, Ansberry discerns both formal and thematic movements from Solomon 1A to Solomon 1B. While Solomon 1A is comprised primarily of terse antithetical sayings, Solomon 1B contains more diverse poetic forms. Moreover, Solomon 1B provides a more substantial treatment of anthropocentric themes that only receive a brief treatment in Solomon 1A. The theocentric dimension of the material also evinces a thematic development. Ansberry next examines the material in the “vocational wisdom” unit (22:17–24:34), which resumes the direct, instructional discourse of the prologue. This unit displays a strong aristocratic flavor, emphasizing proper behavior before the king, social justice, and a lifestyle of moderation.

In chapter five, Ansberry explores the “advanced wisdom” in Solomon 2A and Solomon 2B. He argues that Solomon 2A refines particular themes discussed in the previous collections and conveys an advanced moral vision. The thematic features of this compilation also display a strong courtly flavor and thus illuminate the status of the addressee. Surprisingly, Solomon 2B returns to antithetical sayings, highlighting again the opposition between the two classes of people as depicted in Solomon 1A. One distinguishing feature in this unit is the focus on the correct exercise or abuse of political, judicial, and economic power. Again, as Ansberry sees it, this compilation is geared toward people “in positions of power and influence within society” (p. 160).

In Chapter six, the author considers the “applied wisdom” in the words of Agur (30:1–33) and the words of Lemuel (31:1–31). He argues that these two units should be interpreted as a complex diptych, signaled by their formal introductions and parallel structures. This diptych and the prologue in 1:1–7 thus “form a hermeneutical envelope around the book” (p. 162). The words of Agur subordinate the human quest for wisdom to divine revelation, and personal interest to conventional social parameters. The words of Lemuel, together with the words of Agur, bring the book's pedagogical program to a climax. This concluding composition marks the closure of the addressee's moral formation by depicting a married, noble adult.

In the final chapter, Ansberry offers a concise summary of his findings in the previous chapters and briefly introduces the topic of leadership as presented in Deuteronomy. He further claims that “the moral vision of the book of Proverbs seeks to reinforce the Deuteronomic paradigm of leadership” (p. 188). He suggests that his own thesis may give way to a smoother incorporation of the book of Proverbs into the discipline of biblical theology.

Ansberry's study of the performance context of the book of Proverbs is well-researched and clearly written. His attempt to read Proverbs, which undeniably comprises collections of aphorisms, in a linear narrative fashion is to be commended. However, at times his argument is not persuasive as it stands. Let me single out three areas for illustration. First, the comparative studies that Ansberry performs do not appear to support his claim. The Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Syrian sapiential literature that he surveys utilize a narrative framework, while the book of Proverbs clearly lacks such a formal element. Moreover, the instructional documents in the ANE always explicitly identify the specific addressee(s) of the teachings. Again, this is not the case with the book of Proverbs. Although Ansberry notes this critical difference, the presence of other formal and thematic features is sufficient to convince Ansberry that the book is comparable to other sapiential texts in the surrounding regions.

Second, crucial to Ansberry's interpretation is the strategic place of the prologue, which provides a hermeneutical lens through which the entire book is to be read. As noted above, he takes the epithet “Solomon” mentioned in the superscription as an interpretive guide and argues that the voice of the father in the prologue thus has a royal overtone. He also claims that the abundance of aristocratic imagery employed throughout this compilation further supports his reading. Nevertheless, the epithet “Solomon” appears to denote the wisdom tradition rather than royal lineage. As Ansberry himself argues, the two collections in 22:17–24:34, both of which identify the speaker as “the wise,” resume the discourse of the prologue. If his argument is valid, then the interest of the final editor(s) in attributing the work to Solomon becomes apparent; namely, it is simply because Solomon is the sage par excellence. Moreover, the use of royal imagery does not necessarily imply that the target audience has noble status. Figures of speech of all kinds, including those with aristocratic flavor, simply reflect a common stock of everyday language spoken by ordinary people.

Finally, in order to sustain his scheme of reading the book of Proverbs in a linear fashion, Ansberry interprets the formal feature in Solomon 1A, the very first collection of terse aphorisms, as promoting a morally bifurcated worldview, which he sees as a simplistic description of the world. Nevertheless, similar antithetical sayings permeate Solomon 2B, but in this case the phenomenon does not lead Ansberry to a similar conclusion. Possibly, the interpretive significance of the formal feature of a collection is in the eye of the beholder. Moreover, Ansberry labels Solomon 1B as “immediate wisdom” in contrast to the “elementary wisdom” that characterizes Solomon 1A according to his interpretation. His analysis shows that while Solomon 1A spells out the general principles of life, Solomon 1B delves into life's specifics. Even if Ansberry's argument is defensible, this still does not imply that the wisdom in Solomon 1B is more advanced than that in Solomon 1A. The scope of examination simply has no direct connection to the degree of sophistication of the study. At best, one can only conclude that the primary voice in each of these two subdivisions perceives the world from a different angle.

Despite my reservations about some aspects of the key arguments of this work, Ansberry's monograph nonetheless represents a welcome contribution to the examination of the ethos of the individual collections in the book of Proverbs. His suggestion that there is a thematic development in the successive collections is a direction worthy of further exploration.

Edward Ho, Chinese Online School of Theology

[1] William P. Brown, “The Pedagogy of Proverbs 10:1–31:9,” in W. P. Brown (ed.), Character and Scripture: Moral Formation, Community, and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 150–82; Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “The Book of Proverbs: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in L. E. Keck (ed.), New Interpreters Bible 5 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1997), 19–264. reference