donderdag 21 februari 2013

Review of: Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 10–31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB), Yale University Press, 2009; in: Interpretation

Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 10–31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB), Yale University Press, 2009.

Review in: Interpretation 2011 65: 194
Review door: William P. Brown
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Proverbs 10–31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary
by Michael V. Fox
The Anchor Yale Bible. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2009.
752 pp. $60.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-0-300-14209-9.

WITH THE PUBLICATION OF this volume, Michael Fox completes his work on the book of Proverbs for the Anchor Yale Bible series. Like Fox’s first volume, Proverbs 1–9 (2000), this commentary exhibits erudition and precision, achieving a fine balance between detailed textual analysis and hermeneutical substance. As an added bonus, Fox draws extensively from medieval Hebrew commentaries in his explication of the biblical text. Together, these two volumes offer an insightfully rich treatment of Proverbs.

This second volume dives into the multitude of terse proverbs that constitute Prov 10‑29. Throughout, Fox effectively works at undermining the dictum of the great paremiologist Wolfgang Mieder: a proverb set in a collection is dead. The proverb is alive, Fox insists, precisely in its potential, like a coin within its “particular currency system” waiting to be spent (p. 484). While acknowledging that some proverbs are arranged in “pairs” and “clusters,” suggesting “associative thinking,” Fox sees no overall design in the collections, as others have. Proverbs, rather, is like “a heap of jewels” in “sweet disorder” (p. 481).

Many of these “jewels” share common shapes. Fox helpfully refers to these shared structuresas “templates.” Exact repetition among proverbs is rare; variation is the norm. Among the wide array, Fox is able to distill certain commonalities of form and language. These templates figure in the process of “proverb permutation,” a literary evolution of syntax and wording that leads to the production of new proverbs, “a creative dialectic between the old and the new” (p. 489). A wonderful contemporary example cited by Fox is John F. Kennedy’s famous aphorism, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” (p. 492). The saying was not created ex nihilo but based on a much older proverb template shared by Calvin Coolidge, King George VI, and Kahlil Gibran. Authorship loses its pertinence in the evolutionary life of proverbs. A related strength of Fox’s commentary is his analysis of poetic parallelism. Though proverbial couplets come in small packages, they can generate a range of subtle relationships between their paired lines. Many are “disjointed”: they leave a gap that the reader is invited to fill in various ways. Others exhibit more obvious, banal connections; they were “stamped out mechanically” (p. 489).

While exploring the intricate and frequently provocative details of individual proverbs, Fox does not entirely lose the forest for the trees. He dates the collections in chs. 10–29 to the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., a time of literacy expansion and monarchic rule. Royal ideology runs rampant throughout these collections.

Given the nature of Proverbs, most of Fox’s commentary is devoted to discussing individual sayings. Two to three paragraphs of discussion, on average, cover each proverb. The textually difficult ones receive more attention. Occasionally, Fox discusses several together (e.g., 16:1–9, 10–15, 27–30), because they exhibit “thematic clustering.” Fox discusses variations among textual versions, engages the opinions of others, and notes connections and parallels with other proverbs, both biblical and extra-biblical. Proverbs 22:17–23:11 constitute an expansive unit, which Fox appropriately calls the “Amenemope Collection,” adapted from a particular corpus of Egyptian wisdom literature.

The final chapters of Proverbs consist of four “appendices,” including “the words of Agur” (30:1–9) and the “woman of strength” (31:10–31). The oracle of Agur is an anomaly in Proverbs, precisely because Agur professes himself to be the most ignorant of men. Fox argues that Agur confesses his lack of the knowledge of God, a “specialized, esoteric knowledge of God’s ways, a knowledge accessible only . . . to an elect few” (p. 855). Fox calls such knowledge “erudition” (p. 861), although the term seems misapplied. The knowledge to which Agur refers is more esoteric than learned. Agur’s oracle is a “cautionary response to the exaltation of wisdom” in Proverbs. For Agur, the fear of the LORD is not the beginning but the replacement of wisdom (p. 957).

While Fox as a rule gives definitive answers and powerful solutions to a host of exegetical cruxes that have plagued wisdom scholarship, he does on occasion admit his own bewilderment. His treatment of Prov 30:18–19(20) is telling, a passage meant to evoke a sense of wonder about snakes, ships, and sex. On the one hand, he admits to treating this passage “as a lyrical and romantic evocation of the wonder of love” (p. 871). (But, I ask, how does that pertain to ships?) On the other hand, as suggested by rabbinic interpreters, Fox wonders if the passage is about the lack of leaving a trace, although how this is applicable to “the way of a man with a maid” remains unclear. Fox remains wondering, and so do I. But maybe that is the point. Perhaps some proverbs are simply meant to provoke wonder. Period.

The final section of Proverbs has also sparked much debate among scholars. Frequently labeled the “woman of valor” or more prosaically, “a capable wife” (NRSV), Fox opts for what I consider to be the most obvious translation, the “woman of strength.” Drawing from the fine work of Christine Yoder (despite certain quibbles regarding provenance and dating), Fox argues that the figure profiled in this final poem is real and not mythical, even though it “contradicts the modern stereotype of women in ancient, male dominated societies” (p. 900). She is by no means confined to her domicile; the home is her base of operations as she buys real estate, produces linen, plants vineyards, and sells her merchandise. Fox appropriately calls the poem an “encomium,” a form well-known in Greco-Roman literature (p. 903). In addition, he traces the history of interpretation from traditional Jewish to Christian to modern allegorical and feminist interpretations. While noting similarities between the “woman of strength” and “wisdom,” Fox finds nothing figurative about the former. She belongs securely “on the map of humanity” kin to the “typical American farm wife in the nineteenth century” (pp. 911–12). Yet she is also an ideal (p. 916).

So ends Fox’s commentary, but not his volume. The last 147 pages consist of four essays with topics that range from wisdom ethics and knowledge to revelation. Sapiential thought, Fox argues, is based not so much on empiricism as on a “coherence theory of truth.” By that, Fox means an interrelated system of moral aesthetics. True enough, but as Fox himself admits, Proverbs gets at its truth by “focus[ing] on the normal. . . . It sees an orderly world” (p. 975), and that involves some measure of empirical observation. Although empiricism does not lie at the heart of wisdom’s method, it does, I would argue, reside at its edge. Finally, Fox gives a schematic accounting of the development of the concept of wisdom. At its earliest stage, evidenced in the oldest collections of Proverbs, wisdom remains pragmatic and prudential. Whereas righteousness is static, wisdom is developmental: it requires continual learning. In later stages, wisdom becomes increasingly religious at its core (see 1:7; 2:5–6) and virtuous in its scope. In the final stage (e.g., 1:20–33; 3:13–20; 8:1–35; 9:1–18), wisdom “transcends the human mind and permeates all space and all time” (p. 932). The figure of “Lady Wisdom represents the transcendent universal of wisdom” (p. 933).

These final essays provide a measure of coherence to the nature of wisdom in Proverbs. I would have appreciated at least one more essay, a discussion of the literary coherence of Proverbs as a book. By that, I do not mean charting the various stages of compositional and redactional growth, which Fox has ably done. I mean, rather, the overall movement of the book from beginning to end, its “plot.” What does it mean to read Proverbs in light of its prologue (1:1–7) and introduction (chs. 1–9)? How does the encomium provide a fitting conclusion to the book? These questions are left unaddressed, at least overtly.

Given its length and detail, Fox’s commentary would be too formidable for many readers if it were not for his highly readable and frequently engaging style. Fox delights in using metaphor and pithy language, not unlike the sages themselves, to get his points across. His writing sparkles as much as it resonates with deep insight. For the time being, Fox’s commentary is the commentary of commentaries on Proverbs.

William P. Brown

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