Is the book of Proverbs in the Bible a book that should be revered as if it is the words of God?
The book of Proverbs, claiming to be written by King Solomon, nowhere states that it is from God. You might counter with the fact that the history writer in the book of I Kings states that Solomon was gifted by God with wisdom. The writer of Proverbs says the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but beyond that, there is no claim that this wisdom listed in the book of Proverbs is from God. In fact it states that some of it was from the wise man Agur and King Lemuel (ch. 30-31). These are not Hebrew names, so they must be wisdom that was gathered from outside of Israel in Mesopotamia/Ur/Uz. Also, the proverbs in ch. 22 are similar to a book of wisdom from Egypt. In ch. 25 Hezekiah is put in charge of gathering wisdom from around the world.
So what we have is a very rich and powerful king gathering wise sayings and wisdom from around the world and compiling it into a best selling self help book that has survived through the ages as the book of Proverbs. How would the evangelical and fundamentalist community here in the United States react if someone followed Solomon’s example, and gathered wisdom from all over the world, publishing it as a self-help Christian book for fundamentalists and evangelicals? They would tar and feather him/her and run them out of town on a rail. Yet that’s exactly what Solomon, the man God gifted with wisdom, did.
The proverbs are written for young men. Wisdom and Foolishness are personified as two women that a young man must choose between. Foolishness is an adulterous woman who tempts a young man into destruction, while Wisdom is a virtuous woman who is to be pursued and treasured.
Some of the book of Proverbs is clearly authoritarian: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” (Pr 22:15) Even Dr. Dobson, the great defender of spanking, says that spanking should be an infrequent occurrence, and end at least by age 9. And there is no alternative given in the book of Proverbs about how creativity is in the heart of a child and the person who can feed that creativity is blessed, or that curiosity is in the heart of a child and one should follow that curiosity in order for one’s child to find their God-given gifts and career. No, just beat the child, with no limits or boundaries outlined for how young, how old, how often, with what kind of rod, how severely, etc.; just an admonition to beat one’s children with a rod in order to drive foolishness from him. Solomon gives no admonition to hug the child, encourage the child, pay positive attention to the child. There is no admonition to protect children from harm, or to not sell your daughters as wives until they are old enough to have sex. The only child-rearing advice we hear from the wisest man in the Bible: beat your child with a rod.
Jesus, interestingly, does not quote Solomon on this topic, rather he says, “It would be better for a millstone to be hung around one’s neck and one to be thrown into the deep, than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” This is in contrast to the authoritarian way the disciples wanted to treat the children, not bothering Jesus with their presence. Children are low status, take them away. Clearly the disciples had been reading the proverbs: “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child.” Jesus corrects this lack of wisdom: “Of such are the kingdom of heaven.“ No foolishness in their hearts, as far as Jesus is concerned, only the kingdom of heaven in their hearts. Jesus sharply departs from the wisdom of Solomon on this point.
Children in the 60s and 70s were taught that their normal needs and emotions were burdensome to parents (foolishness) and that children were to fear punishment. “That doesn’t hurt.” “Stop crying!” “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll really give you something to cry about!” “Oh, give me some real tears, those aren’t good enough.” “I could blister your butt.” “I’m going to tan your hide.” “I could skin you alive.” “I could beat you within an inch of your life!” “Stop embarrassing us.” “If you act up in the grocery store, I’ll take you out to the car and beat you.” “Do I need to pull your pants down and spank you in front of all these people?” As children growing up in fundamentalist churches, we were systematically taught that we were unimportant, that our universal legitimate needs were shameful, and that our normal emotions were dangerous and sinful.
Yes, child-rearing is difficult, and having the skills and equipment to handle tired and egocentric little ones takes a lot. But once a parent has learned the skills it’s not as hard as our parents and grandparents thought it was. “I know you want that toy right now. I would feel sad, too, if I couldn’t have it. I can see it is very important to you. Do you want a hug? No, you can’t have the toy, but when we get home you can play with your own toys. I know you want that toy.” For teens: “I can understand that you want to go to the sleepover, but the answer is no. I know it is important to you, and I can understand why you think I’m being unreasonable. I feel sad when I say no to you, because I can see how sad you are.” Children become less whiney when they have a reservoir of comfort to draw from. If they have been safe and nurtured, then they have less meltdowns and less whining. If they have been emotionally and physically abandoned or beaten down, they don’t have much to draw from to comfort themselves when they are upset. Many adults who grew up in fundamentalist churches have a very small reservoir of comfort to draw on when they are upset, and they crumble or blow up under stress or conflict.
Authoritarian child rearing raises wonderful Nazis. My friend, Wolfgang, was born at the end of WW2 in southern Germany. He said all the kids in his town hated Christmas, hated Christmas! Because on Christmas day Father Christmas (Santa) and Hans Muff (black clothes, black mask) would arrive at the door of each house, and a list of the good children would be read out, who would each receive an orange, and the one bad child’s name would be read out, and that child would be beaten with a stick by Hans Muff. Then Father Christmas and Hans Muff would go to the next house. When Wolfgang told the story we would laugh with horror! Wolfgang never laughed with us, ever. He still hated the story. There was nothing funny about it to him, even after decades. So that is how you create Nazis: just be cruel to the children. That’s all it takes.
Several psychologists, some of them Jews who escaped Germany, studied anti-Semitism, authoritarianism and cruelty in the United States after WW2. They found that about 65% of Americans, by and large, make great authoritarians (i.e. Nazis). Authoritarians are somewhat paranoid about the government, extremely obedient to authority figures, competitive with peers, cruel to those beneath them, are a little racist, very concerned about sexual goings-on, see things in black-and-white, punishment and guilt, are a little superstitious, and concerned that the world is getting worse, not better. In contrast Norway has instituted a prison system which is mostly just an education and social skills training center, the opposite of authoritarianism.
King Lemuel in Proverbs 31 has a high view of women: not only did his mother impart wisdom to him, but a valuable wife buys real estate, improves the real estate, goes into business and makes a lot of money for her family.
So for a book that does not claim to be the words and wisdom of God, the fundamentalist church has taken it to heart, except for chapter 31, women going into business. A fundamentalist wife, when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, was taught to stay home and take care of her children and family.
What I am noticing as I re-think the Bible, is that Jesus picked and chose what he wanted to use from the scriptures. If he thought something was foolish, he ignored it. If he thought something was valuable, he paid attention to it.
So where did Jesus get the idea that children were valuable, and needed physical touch, attention and blessing? We can find many stories in the Bible about how valuable children are, but I think the most important one is not specifically about children. I think it is the story of creation, of Adam and Eve, created in God’s image, given the task of taking care of the garden of Eden, with God walking and talking with them in the cool of the evening about all of the accomplishments they had done in the garden.
I read dignity, empowerment, value, companionship, relationship, purpose, gifting, all in that one story. And it applies to every human being. Perhaps that is where Jesus got the idea to value, respect and empower children.