One of my professors, Dr. Peter J. Gentry, made a good point in a class the other day that I would like to belabor.
Let’s look at Proverbs 1:8.
Prov 1:8: שְׁמַע בְּנִי מוּסַר אָבִיךָ וְאַל תִּטַּשׁ תּוֹרַת אִמֶּךָ
Prov 1:8: Listen, my son, to the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the torah of your mother.
Notice anything funny? Most people will find it shocking that the parallel for “instruction of your father” is the “torah of your mother.” To be sure, the word torah can mean “teaching” as well as “law.” But it is nevertheless still remarkable that here the torah is associated with the mother and not the father. To further appreciate this, lets talk about genre!
The Genre of Proverbs
This may seem obvious, but the book of Proverbs doesn’t read like the book of Genesis, which doesn’t read like the book of Jeremiah, which doesn’t read like the book of Numbers, etc. Why? One of the greatest things about the Bible is the unity of its message within the diversity of its genres, or types of literature. The Bible contains history, poetry, genealogy, narrative, etc. What’s even more remarkable is that most, if not all, of these genres have parallels in the Bible’s Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Proverbs is no exception. It is part of a well-established Ancient Near Eastern genre called “wisdom literature.”
How do we know this?
Easy, ancient literature (Sumerian, Akkadian, Aramaic, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, etc) has been discovered that mirror the structure, and even some of the sayings of proverbs almost exactly.
For example, in Egypt, wisdom literature was known as sboyet, we see this kind of structure:
- Title: “the beginning of the instruction of…which he composed for his son…
- Introductory section: This section gives the purpose of the book
- The Actual Content: This section contains the actual proverbs of the book which, not surprisingly, are written in Parallel structure like the Bible’s proverbs.
- Title: “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David King of Israel (Prov 1:1)”…”My Son, if sinners entice you, do not go with them.”
- Introductory section: “For knowledge, wisdom and instruction; to percieve the sayings of understanding (1:2). This section goes through chapter 9 in Proverbs. I’m sure you’ve noticed in reading the book that the actual “proverbs” don’t really start until…
- The Actual Content: “Proverbs of Solomon” (10:1)
I could go into way more detail. If you would like to learn more about this subject, just post a question in the comments or shoot me an email and I would be happy to answer. The point is that the writer of Proverbs did not just compose this work willy-nilly-stream-of-consciousness. These proverbs were compiled and written according to a set genre.
I Thought This Post Was About Women?!?!?!
For all of Proverbs’ affinities with Ancient Near Eastern Literature, there are a couple of stark contrasts. One of these is the role of the Mother.
14 times in the book of Proverbs the Mother is parallel with the Father. In verse 1:7, the Mother gets the word torah and the Father just gets the word instruction. In Proverbs 31:1, the king Lemuel attributes the teachings to his mother. The height of the whole book, and arguably the point of wisdom literature is the woman of valor in Proverbs 31. Proverbs 18:22 literally says, “He who finds a wife finds good, and he obtains favor from Yahweh.” Now before some snide person says, “well why is it cast in such a masculine way?!?! Why can’t it say she who finds a husband…,” realize that “wife” here is in parallel with this word “favor.” This is basically, in wisdom literature, the highest reward that can be bestowed upon someone.
NO other wisdom literature in the Ancient Near East holds women in this high of an esteem. You would never see the mother mentioned alongside the father in any of this literature. As my professor said, “Women are never more respected than they are in the Bible.”
The Bible is unapologetic about the differences in the roles of men and women, but it is even more unapologetic of its honoring of women. Do we see how backwards our world is today? The Bible celebrated these differences and held what was different about women in the highest regard. Today, women are only seen as honored if they are thought of as the same as men in every respect. They look at a sliver of christian denominations on the fringes of a certain theology and see some vague notion of women having to be “silent” and then bleach that over every Christian they meet. This is a gross reification of something they simply do not understand .Most cultures of the Ancient Near East would have been horrified at the Bible’s honor for women and for the mother. It’s easy to criticize your perception of something without going to the actual sources. Our only response is to treat with love and respect and teach along the way!
Now go give your mother or your wife or whoever a big hug!