Review in: JOURNAL OF THE EVANGELICAL THEOLOGICAL SOCIETY 40/4Review door: Robert L. Alden
Proverbs. By R. N. Whybray. NCBC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994, xxxii + 446 pp., $19.95 paper.
Proverbs is the third commentary by Whybray in the NCBC series. His others are on Ecclesiastes and Isaiah 40–66. This volume demonstrates the same degree of thoroughness and competency with the Hebrew text and the secondary literature as the others.
After a table of abbreviations and a 20-page bibliography, there follows a relatively brief introduction (18 pp.). Relative to the question of authorship, he apparently sides with “the majority of scholars [who] now believe that the book contains a good deal of material originating in the period of the Israelite monarchy” (p. 6; cf. p. 16). But relative to the date of Proverbs in its present canonical form, it “cannot be earlier than the early post-exilic period” (p. 6).
Whybray is not sympathetic to the idea that Israelite wisdom is “secular” or that the proverbs can be pegged to a certain development in wisdom literature on the basis of whether or not they mention God. He understands wisdom to be related and integrated with the rest of the OT. Proverbs complements rather than opposes the rest of the OT. A strength of this commentary is the author’s efforts to see connections and organization in the Biblical book. While this is regularly done through the commentary, he notes in the introduction the possible connection between Lady Wisdom in the fist nine chapters, but especially chaps. 8–9, and the noble wife of chap. 31.
Whybray breaks down the somewhat miscellaneous first nine chapters as a “series of 10 instructions” (1:8–19; 2:1–22; 3:1–12; 3:21–35; 4:1–9; 4:10–19; 4:20–27; 5:1–23; 6:20–35; 7:1–27), interrupted by three insertions (1:20–30; 3:13–20; 6:1–19), preceded by a preface (1:1–7) and concluded by a “diptych” contrasting Lady Wisdom and the Woman Folly (chaps. 8–9). There is both miscellany and unity in these nine chapters, but all the sections more or less expand on the preface and share its vocabulary. Nevertheless they lack logical arrangement.
One of the most frequent themes is that young men should avoid evil company and immoral women. Both terms for these women are understood as “the wife of another man” rather than non-Israelite women or cult prostitutes (p. 55). Whybray believes that these chapters were written to upper-class youths, because there are no references to manual labor, and the Biblical author assumes they were literate. He explores, but does not support, the possibility that wisdom personified has extra-Biblical roots and that it has been “demythologized.” “Whatever remnants of polytheism may be detected in these chapters, there is no question that the text in its present form is monotheistic” (pp. 28, 119, 120). He devotes considerable discussion to pivotal words, e.g. “create/acquire” in 8:22 and “master workman” in 8:30. But usually after a survey of alternatives, the author fails to endorse any particular view. Occasionally Whybray dismisses a view as unsupportable, or sometimes he complains that the RSV is speculative, but he seldom offers a convincingly better solution. There are frequent judgments that this or that is added or is an intrusion or is subsequent to something more original, yet there is a reluctance to date such “additions.” Never does the question of inspiration arise or any discussion regarding at what point the Holy Spirit was active in the oral or written history of the book of Proverbs.
In the commentary proper all Hebrew is transliterated. All “footnotes” are in parentheses in the text using abbreviations and page numbers of those works cited in the front of the book. The actual words of the RSV are in bold type scattered through the pages, so it is easy to find your place. Whybray is familiar with virtually all commentaries on Proverbs and alludes to these often. The most frequently cited are McKane and Plöger.
In the comments there is a good balance between genre observations, alternate views of commentators, structure questions, various translations of given words or phrases, and notes about hapax legomena or Qere and Ketiv. There are minimal textual emendations and sidetracks. The author is remarkably nonpolemical. Homiletic applications are left to the reader. Some verses are dealt with in a line or two; others with exegetical problems sometimes consume more than a page. Normally two to four verses are covered on each page. The further along the commentary goes the more cross references there are to similar words, phrases, or whole proverbs discussed.
In sum, the strengths of this rather technical commentary are in the thoroughness of the discussion of textual problems and in the efforts Whybray makes to see organization and connections within the book. In the “proverbs of Solomon” sections of the book most English Bibles set up each proverb as a separate entity. This commentary seeks to rectify that. If there is any weakness, it is in failing to endorse particular solutions to the many textual, interpretative, and translation questions that plague this collection of ancient, cryptic, Semitic wisdom sentences.
Robert L. Alden