Proverbs 1-9 as an Introduction to the Book of Proverbs

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Arthur Jan Keefer
The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies
  • London: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , May
     2020.
     224 pages.
     $103.50.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567693358.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Arthur J. Keefer’s Proverbs 1−9 as an Introduction to the Book of Proverbs is an adaptation of the author’s dissertation. With that in mind, the book is focused and methodically structured. As emphasized in the introductory section, Keefer sets his goal as understanding the relationship of Proverbs 1−9 to the remaining chapters of Proverbs. In his view, the first nine chapters act as an interpretive guide to properly understand the latter chapters. Chapters 1−9 have long been thought to serve as a distinct unit within the book of Proverbs. However, Keefer desires to illuminate the function of these chapters as an introduction, a common attribution when describing them.

Many previous studies have found various lexical and conceptual connections between the proverbial sayings throughout the book. Keefer’s study seeks to expand this idea to a grander scale and proposes intention behind the connective relationships. Although many scholars have undertaken to address the redactional history, he instead chooses to approach the text synchronically, that is according to its final form rather than its chronological development. However, he does posit that chapters 1−9 are likely—and to the benefit of his study—later in date than chapters 10−31. This posturing leads to the idea that chapters 1–9 serve as a methodological and theological introduction.

To assess the logical and functional value of Prov 1−9 for 10−31, Keefer breaks his study into three major categories: character types, educational goals, and theological context. Each chapter addresses a couple of illustrative verses or passages from both chapters 1−9 and 10−31. These are then examined and compared, focusing on the interpretive value that chapters 1−9 provide. For the character types, he chooses to look at those of contrasting nature, such as wise and fool, or wicked and righteous. In his view, these should be understood as idealized, either for good or bad, rather than literal examples. Likewise, they coalesce into contending types of persons, which are at odds for the wisdom student. He prefers to see them as coreferential character attributes. Though any one person may not possess all the negative or positive attributes, the author envisions a hypothetical person who possesses the attributes corresponding to that nature.

Keefer’s view here is especially valid if the two-paths paradigm is the basis and the hermeneutic for the whole of Proverbs. Regarding the rhetorical function of the character types, he highlights several, notably emulation of the model character types and self-reflection. To get to these functions, he first assesses the many rhetorical sayings of chapters 10−31, finding four categories: character-only, consequence-only, both, and neither. Due to the large number of character-type passages, this chapter is a limited assessment, targeting only a couple of examples.

In the next chapter, Keefer addresses some educational goals, though he offers the caveat that these are only part of the program. One particular area he seeks to highlight is the role of the Lord. This role serves as the proverbial father’s starting point for developing the student along the path of achieving wisdom, which results in wise character. To illuminate the functional value of chapters 1−9, he proposes that within them exists the hermeneutical calibration for conflicting passages such as Proverbs 16:16 and 22:1. There is a hierarchy of priorities for the wise: the Lord, wisdom, a name, and treasures. Also, within his assessment of educational goals, Keefer proposes that moral ambiguity is a principle found in both sections of Proverbs. So, for him, the orientation toward a relationship with the Lord and wisdom serves as the assumed background of those standalone proverbs in chapters 10−31, which may not provide an interpretive framework otherwise. While moral ambiguity is a broad topic, his assessment seems to be a valid approach, though limited in his study.

Finally, the chapter on the theological context primarily focuses on those passages that include a mention of the Lord or God. A primary aspect addressed is those passages that mention that the student ought to trust in the Lord. Though the student is not given any reason or context in chapters 10−31, Keefer finds a number of reasons established in 1−9, which serve as the background for those later chapters. A couple of these reasons are God’s sovereignty and the supremacy of wisdom. Furthermore, Keefer discusses the important idea of emulating God, particularly in God’s desires and emotions. Passages referencing God’s affective responses coax the student toward being one who not only does right but feels and intends right. Such is a holistic view of wise character that is keenly attuned to the nature of the Lord, a feature not accounted for in ancient Near Eastern parallels.

Keefer’s study is an intriguing and helpful introduction on the hermeneutical value and rhetorical function of Proverbs 1−9 for chapters 10−31. He demonstrates in many places with reasoned exegesis that his proposition is likely true and can serve as an intra-textual interpretive guide. Additionally, the study incorporates an interesting and helpful assessment of “Wisdom,” which Keefer believes serves as a literary, if not actual, mediator between God and humankind. Wisdom parallels many of the words and actions of both God and the teacher. For Keefer, this further strengthens the theological value of a relationship with the Lord as the center of wisdom in Proverbs.

The study was well prepared and researched. However, the topic is indeed too large for a single work. While a few examples are highlighted and defended, the vast majority are necessarily left untouched. This means that Keefer’s study is only the tip of the spear needed to fully assess the validity of his claims. Proverbs 1−9 may indeed serve as the authoritative guide to every saying in 10−31, or it could be that several words and verses incidentally correspond. So, while a helpful initial step, a more comprehensive work or series of works is needed to actually validate his thesis.

Additionally, perhaps as a mistake, it seems that Keefer early in the study does not espouse imitating God and provides some arguments against it as an interpretive framework, but later in the study uses it as a tool for his own discussions. This may be the result of a simple oversight, some change in perspective, or a mistake between the dissertation and the book. Regardless, his discussion on imitation later in the book is indeed useful, providing interpretive insight for several passages.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jesse W. Harris is a PhD candidate at Gateway Seminary.

Date of Review: 
October 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Arthur Keefer is master of divinity and chaplain at Eton College, UK.

Keywords: 

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