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Were biblical proverbs influenced by ancient Near Eastern literature?

Amenemope papyrus
Instructions of Amenemope

Q. Is there any comparison between the biblical proverbs with the extrabiblical materials? Did Solomon borrow some proverbs from his non-Israelite neighbors?

A. Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate (Prov 22:22; NRSV)

Guard yourself from robbing the poor, from being violent to the weak (Amenemope 4.4-5)

Ever since the publication of the Instructions of Amenemope by the Egyptologist E. A. W. Budge in 1923, scholars have recognized that Israelite proverbs have extensive analogues in ancient Near Eastern proverbial literature similar to the example above. Besides the Instruction of Amenemope (typically dated to 12th century B.C.E.), we have examples of Egyptian instructional literature that come from the Old Kingdom period (2715-2179 B.C.E.) down to the latest periods of Egyptian history. Sumerian, Akkadian, and Aramaic wisdom texts also contain proverbs worth comparing with Israelite proverbs.

That Israel knew and appreciated ancient Near Eastern wisdom may be observed in a passage that pays homage to Solomon’s prodigious wisdom: “God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt” (1Kgs 4:29-30). For this to be a compliment, the wisdom of those to the east of Israel and Egyptian wisdom has to be pretty impressive!

The extensive comparison that can be made between biblical proverbs and extra-biblical instructional material makes it clear that Solomon and the other sages who produced the collection of didactic material that we know as the book of Proverbs was well aware of and learned from sources like the Instructions of Amenemope.

While the Israelite sages learn from their ancient Near Eastern counterparts, they differ on the ultimate source of their wisdom. Prov 1:7 announces that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” a theme that reverberates throughout the book of Proverbs as well as the other wisdom books (Job 28:28; Eccl 12:13). It appears that while the Israelite sages recognized that their ancient Near Eastern counterparts were a source of practical and even ethical wisdom, they themselves believed that the God of Israel was one who made the world and so deserved their worship.

  • Tremper Longman III is the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College. Longman has authored or co-authored over twenty books and numerous articles that approach the study of the Bible through literary criticism. His interest in history and historiography is expressed in his book A Biblical History of Israel (co-authored with Iain Provan and Phil Long; Westminster John Knox, 2003). He has also written commentaries on Song of Songs (Eerdmans), Ecclesiastes (Eerdmans), and Daniel (Zondervan) among others; he wrote Introducing the Old Testament (Zondervan, 2012) for lay audiences.