The Israelite family (Proverbs 23)

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Illustration: Israelite family sharing a meal

Domestic issues abound in the book of Proverbs, an indication that the family played an essential role in the development of wisdom literature, both in the Biblical and non-biblical sense. Although the wise man had an institutional function on par with that of the priest and prophet (Jeremiah 18:18), Proverbs illustrates the familial context of religion and ethical instruction. The cncept of the family was probably more broadly defined in ancient Israel than in modern Western terms. The fundamental unit was the household (Hebrew bet av, literally: “father’s house”), which included a patriarch with his wife, his sons and their wives, his grabdsons and any other dependents.

Parental exhortations to the son provide the literary shape of Proverbs 23:13-28. This very ancient form of father-son instruction occurred widely in the ancient Near East, as in the Mesopotamian Instructions of Shuruppak (mid third century B.C.), in which the hero, Shuruppak, begins his teachings by declaring “My son, I will instruct you”. Moreover, the use of physical chastisement for a child’s moral training advocated in 23:13-14 has an analogue in Aramaic story of Ahiqar (seventh – sixth centuries B.C.), which similarly exhorts the reader to discipline his son with the rod.

These similarities reflect the international flavour of wisdom literature and familial responsibility for religious and ethical education (cf. Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Proverbs 4:1-4). Even so, Biblical wisdom, especially that presented in Proverbs, has distinctive features:

  • Education in Proverbs is centred in the family and has the good of the individual in view. By contrast, Greek education was centred in the gymnasium and had good of the city-state (polis) in view.
  • Education in Proverbs is primarily directed at moral and spiritual value rather than toward vocational training. By contrast, some wisdom texts from Egypt are principally concerned with preparing a young man for work in the government or as a scribe.
  • Education in Proverbs does not focus upon any particular social class. Egyptian wisdom literature, on the other hand, was to a large intent directed to the elite.
  • Education in Proverbs begins with the fear of God as the source and goal of all wisdom. This focus has no parallel in other ancient texts.


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