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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Online review only, listed in Volume 58, 2010

PETER T. H. HATTON, Contradiction in the Book of Proverbs: The Deep Waters of Counsel (Society for Old Testament Study Monographs; Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008). Pp. 200. Hardcover. 55.00.

In this study of the Book of Proverbs, Peter Hatton disputes the commonly held scholarly consensus that Proverbs articulated a platitudinous and banal wisdom, consisting chiefly of the doctrine that both the good and the bad would always be appropriately requited for their deeds. He argues that far from being a complacent mouthpiece for conservative establishment stooges, Proverbs is carefully composed and crafted to encourage readers to question traditional wisdom and to develop their critical faculties.

He outlines how and why this book, traditionally highly valued by Jews and Christians, became marginalised by critical scholarship and unable to share fully in the revival of interest in Israelite wisdom literature. Proverbs was assessed as simplistic and tied to retributive thinking, whereas Job and Ecclesiastes were far more interesting as protests against this. He illustrates this from scholars such as Eichrodt, McKane, Clines, Brueggemann and Philip Davies. Von Rad in his Wisdom in Israel (1970) is a notable exception because he found in the book an essentially religious search for knowledge and a profound attempt to understand the complexity of what God is saying through the world.

Von Rad, however, did not set the direction of scholarship. Rather it has been the 1955 article by Klaus Koch which has had a dominant influence, especially as summed up by the phrase rendered in English as “the Act-Consequence Construct”, taken as a cause and effect mechanism in the moral life. This leads to a detailed discussion of Koch’s views which, although frequently quoted, are not always properly understood. Here, as throughout, Hatton quotes from the original German sources and attaches his own careful translation. He does the same with his numerous references to the Hebrew text and to the Septuagint. This is a very helpful feature of the book.

Two major themes come to the fore in the rest of the book. The first is that Proverbs as a whole is much more carefully edited than is usually assumed. The second is that the editor or editors, by the inclusion of contradictory statements, aimed to provoke readers into critical engagement with ideas. In this way the simple relationship that is assumed to exist between human actions and their consequences is challenged.

Hatton argues his case by examining in detail passages such as Proverbs 10:1–9; 11; 29 as well as individual sayings, frequently comparing them with other passages and sayings which parallel or possibly contradict. The effect of some individual sayings is to disturb the flow like “stones thrown, as it were, into the smooth surface of the text, contradictions that provoke ripples and counter-eddies.”

Hatton is most convincing in this latter aim. He is able to point to clear tensions between various sayings. For example, in some the human agency is the decisive factor while in others the divine is more important. He makes extensive use of the Septuagint to argue that the Greek translators were conscious of these tensions and ambiguities in the Hebrew which they reduced or eliminated to produce a more pious and harmonious text. One example is 11:4 which may be read as one of cynical realism which denies the connection between goodness and prosperity. The Greek translation diverges remarkably (as do some English translations) in order to mute the challenge of the original.

In all this Hatton is able to show convincingly that Proverbs contains critical statements (such as an assessment of kingship) which may rightly be compared to those in Qoheleth with which it shows much in common. Proverbs is no simple supporter of the status quo. The perceptive reader can acquire wisdom and understanding as the Prologue promises (1:2–7). “By attending to the complex dialogue in the book; by refusing to jump to premature conclusions; by reading sensitively and holding contradictions together rather than seeking to harmonize them away, the reader can become one of those who are able to act wisely, responsibly, in a complex world.”

Review by
John W. Wilson
Anglican Diocese of Melbourne