Like Grapes of Gold Set in Silver

  • Knut Martin Heim
  • Jan 1, 2002
  • Series: Volume 5 - 2002

Heim, Knut Martin Like Grapes of Gold Set in Silver: An Interpretation of Proverbial Clusters in Proverbs 10:1-22:16. BZAW 273. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. 2001. xiv + 378 pp. Hardback. ISBN 3-11-016376-4.

Although the book of Proverbs has always been a source of interest and advice for biblical enthusisasts, it has only been recently studied from the perspective of its canonical and literary formation. The modern application of these methods of interpretation to the book have evoked cohesive structures for the first nine chapters as well as sections of the latter part of the book. However, except for some exceptions in the analysis of smaller units, the bulk of the text, 10:1-22:16, has eluded the attempts of analysts to define in terms of a coherent or readable whole. More to the point, how do these seemingly diverse proverbs relate to one another?

It is this challenge that Heim has set for himself in his thoroughly revised and updated version of a 1996 Ph.D. thesis completed at the University of Liverpool under the supervision of Prof. A. R. Millard. The first part of the volume provides a competent survey of recent attempts by scholars to address this question and the weaknesses and strengths of the variety of solutions proposed. Heim is fully conversant with Continental scholarship as well as the English language material. The result is an up-to-date survey of Proverbs interpretation and scholarship that demonstrates the ultimate failure to find (a) satisfactory principle(s) of cohesion for the book.

Heim makes his case for coherent groupings withing chs. 10-22 by building upon earlier work. He also examines the fundamental characteristices of proverb collectors and users. In this regard, he concludes that the practitioner is able to draw from a collection of proverbs, whether written or memorized, by grouping them according to relevant characteristics and selecting the one or several proverbs most applicable to the situation. This prepares him for a review of the appellations assigned to individuals in Proverbs, especially chapter 10. Dominating these are the terms, righteous and wicked. Other groups, such as wise and foolish, have their appellations related to this dominant coupling, and an overall opposition of positive and negative appellations is created.

Turning to the actual relationship of the individual proverbs to one another within their smaller units, Heim argues for a "complex set of inferences" rather than any kind of logical sequence. Thus the proverbs within a unit can be read forwards or backwards, or in any order. The important point is to read them together in order to gain an understanding of the proverbs that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. The focus of this method is Heim's grape analogy (p. 107):

The cluster forms an organic whole linked by means of small "twiglets", yet each grape can be consumed individually. Although the grapes contain juice from the same vine, each tastes slightly different. It doesn't matter in which sequence the grapes are conusmed, but eating them together undoubtedly enhances the flavour and enriches the culinary experience... The primary criteria for the delimitation of proverbial clusters are consequently not boundary markers, as commonly thought, but linking devices (the "twiglets" in the grape analogy)... The most fundamental such device, of course, is repetition - repetition of sound and sense: consonants, word roots, words, synonyms, etc.

There follows more than two hundred pages of delimitation, exegesis, and analysis of Proverbs 10-22. This provides what is one of the most fascinating and carefully controlled studies of these texts available. For the preacher or teacher of Proverbs looking for guidance through this difficult section of the text, this study should now serve as a basic exegetical guide for the material.

There are many insights to be gained from a study of these texts within the context that Heim proposes. Thus the topic of women, often thought to be disparaged in wisdom literature, is seen as a foil to goad men on to moral character. The focus of the Yahweh sayings transforms traditionally secular sayings into a corpus of religious wisdom literature (even as 1:9 already suggests). While Heim interacts with other commentaries and studies, there are occasional surprises. For the famous crux of 22:16 Heim does not address the issues raised by the "in the way he should go," which naturally and more correctly reads, "in his way." Clifford's suggestion of an ironical interpretation is not discussed. A gap such as this is rare in an otherwise exemplary work that should form the basis for all future studies of this difficult section of the book of Proverbs.

Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary