Wisdom. In the ancient Near East (ANE), people assumed that wisdom belonged to the gods, who were wise by reason of their divinity; human beings needed to have wisdom granted them by the gods. Many of the “beginning of the world” accounts found in surrounding ANE cultures depict creation in two stages. In the first stage, human beings lived an animal-like existence, without clothes, writing, or kingship (seen as proper governance). Over time, the gods came to realize that such a low-grade of existence made the human race inadequate as their servants, so they endowed the race with “wisdom,” which consisted of culture (e.g., kingship) and crafts (e.g., knowledge of farming, ability to weave). Such wisdom elevated the race to a “human” level and made them effective servants of the gods. Furthermore, divine wisdom was mediated to human beings through earthly institutions—the king, scribes (who produced wise writings), and heads of families (fathers, sometimes mothers). These traditional mediators appear in Proverbs – in fact, the book is credited to King Solomon. Throughout the book kings are mentioned as pillars of society (e.g., 16:12–15); writings are a source of wisdom (1:1–7); the father instructing his son is the major paradigm of teaching. Proverbs differs, however, from other wisdom books in concentrating on wisdom itself, treating it as a virtually independent entity and personifying it as an attractive woman. Other books urge readers to perform wise acts, but Proverbs urges them to seek wisdom itself and portrays wisdom as a woman seeking human beings as disciples and companions.
Audience. The original audience of the instructions and sayings seems to have been male. The father addresses his son, marriage is finding a wife, success often is serving the king or farming effectively. The book itself, however, expands the traditional audience of youths (1:4) to include older, more experienced, people (1:5). It broadens the father-son language by mentioning the mother, and incorporates sayings on human experience generally. The father teaching his son becomes a model for anyone teaching a way of life to another person.
Structure. The Book of Proverbs has nine sections:
Title and Introduction (1:1–7)
Instructions of Parents and of Woman Wisdom (1:8–9:18)
First Collection of King Solomon Sayings (10:1–22:16)
Sayings of the Wise (22:17–24:22)
Further Sayings of the Wise (24:23–34)
Second Collection of King Solomon Sayings, Collected Under King Hezekiah
Sayings of Agur and Others (30:1–33)
Sayings of King Lemuel (31:1–9)
Poem on the Woman of Worth (31:10–31)
Chapters 1–9 introduce the book, drawing attention to wisdom itself and its inherent value rather than exhorting to particular wise actions. The chapters personify wisdom as a woman and draw an extended analogy between finding a wife, or founding and maintaining a house(hold), and finding wisdom. The collections following chap. 9 consist largely of independent, two-line sayings, yielding their often indirect or paradoxical meaning only to readers willing to ponder them. To reflect on the sayings is perhaps what chapters 1–9 mean by living with Wisdom and dwelling in her house.
Part II is judged by many scholars to contain ten instructions (1:8–19; chap. 2; 3:1–12, 21–35; 4:1–9, 10–19, 20–27; chap. 5; 6:20–35; chap. 7), three wisdom poems (1:20–33; chap. 8; 9:1–6 + 11, 13–18), and two interludes (3:13–20; 6:1–19).