Ancient Near Eastern Context of Proverbs by Carol Newsom


One of the things that is quite characteristic of Egyptian wisdom literature is that they wrote a composition called Instructions. And this was a father talking to his son, giving advice about how to live well and how to live prosperously.

Now this is a very similar style to what we find in the oldest Mesopotamian wisdom literature—the instruction from father to son about how to live well, and do well—and also it’s the same thing we find in Prov 1-9.  So why are they all so similar?

It’s likely that this genre originated probably in Egypt or possibly in Mesopotamia, and that as scribes, who were the people who wrote this kind of literature, scribes were also the people who served as diplomats for kings and in facilitating trade across national boundaries. And they had to be bilingual if they were going to do these functions.  And how did you learn another language? Well, these instruction texts were what were used as the school curriculum.

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So apparently, scribes from Israel, if they wanted to learn Egyptian what they learned was the instruction texts. So it spread cross-culturally in that way.


Carol Newsom

Carol Newsom
Professor, Emory University

Carol A. Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, Emory University, is the author of a commentary on Job in the New Interpreter’s Bible and of a book on Job, The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations (Oxford University Press, 2003). She also wrote the entry for Job in the Women’s Bible Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2012).

A translation of Proverbs 31 showing the alphabetic acrostic found in the Hebrrew text.  The words in the center read "woman of valor" (eshet hayil).

A category or type, often of literary work.

A category of biblical literature that typically deals with the nature of God and the moral and practical aspects of human experience.

Prov 1-9

1The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
2For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding words of insight,3for gaining inst ... View more

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