The Wisdom of Proverbs in Hebrew and Greek (LXX) Texts (Mon. Feb. 27)

The word of the day is “wisdom.”  As we begin the Lenten fast in the Orthodox Church, we turn to the books of Genesis and Proverbs for our daily readings.  As we seek to return to the Lord and His ways, the Book of Proverbs offers us practical wisdom to guide us.  In today’s reading of Proverbs 1:1-20, we hear, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and there is a good understanding in all who practice it” (OSB Proverbs 1:7 from the Septuagint).  This principle maxim is the foundation of the book of Proverbs and is the key to understanding the counsel that the Church provides for the 40 days of Lent.

The Orthodox Church uses the Septuagint (LXX), an ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible, as its primary version of the Old Testament.  Today’s comments will show that it is worthwhile to compare the LXX with the Hebrew Bible.  For example, today, following the Septuagint, The Orthodox Study Bible translates verse 7 as “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (LXX vs. 7).  The King James Version, following the Hebrew Bible translates “The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge.” (vs. 7)

Comparisons Between the Greek (LXX) and Hebrew Texts

This difference might confuse us.  Which comes from reverence to the Lord, “wisdom” or “knowledge?”  But if we study the text more closely, we find no real difference between the two versions.  The Hebrew speaks of  “knowledge” (Hebrew Dictionary # 1847, 64).  Yet the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon says that in Wisdom literature, the term can mean “discernment” and “wisdom.”  Thus, the Septuagint’s use of the Greek term (soph’a) is an accurate reading of the thought of the axion.  It is wisdom and not mere knowledge that should instruct us along the path of godliness.  Our comparison clears up the misleading English translations of the key maxim of the book.

In Proverbs, wisdom (soph’a) is the understanding of the righteous practice of living in the ways of God (Strong’s #4677).  The Septuagint highlights this sense when it inserts a helpful addition to verse 7:  The LXX explains, “And there is a good understanding in all who practice it” (OSB vs. 7).  The term that the LXX uses for “understanding” is derived from the thought of “putting together.”  Those who “understand” have a ready grasp of the nature of things that enables one to follow with action (Strong’s #4907, 241).

Yet according to this sentence in the Septuagint, the relationship of understanding to practicing it in action is shared.  Understanding and action complete one another.  Wisdom gives practical advice for living.  On the other hand, the practice of wise counsel gives a “good understanding” (LXX vs. 7), the deep discernment into the nature of reality.

Comparing the Statements of the Purposes of Proverbs

The first part of Chapter 1 of Proverbs (vs. 1-9) is a prologue to the book.  As we read that passage today, we learn the purpose of the proverbs which follow.  The Septuagint says that these sayings are for “instruction,” that is, “training, especially of the young” (vs. 2)  (Strong’s #3811, 186).   In this LXX version, this tutoring is to give “perception of the words of  understanding.”  In Greek, the term for perception means “to comprehend with the mind” (Strong’s #3539, 172), and the term for “understanding” refers to “prudence,” the sensible management of the affairs of living (Strong’s #5428, 267).

On the other hand, in The New King James Version that follows the Hebrew, the purpose of the proverbs is for “wisdom and instruction.”  The result of this teaching is that the young can “perceive the words of understanding” (NKJ vs. 2).  In this case, the Hebrew term for “understanding” simply means the faculty by which things are comprehended (Hebrew Dictionary #998, 37).

The difference between the Septuagint Greek LXX and the Hebrew texts is that the Septuagint is more specific about what understanding means.  For instance, “understanding” refers specifically to the goal of instruction, prudence.  By using the Greek term for prudence, the Septuagint suggests that the wise management of one’s affairs is a major goal of the sayings of Proverbs.

On the other hand, translating from the Hebrew The New King James Version says that the saying gives “knowledge and discretion.”  The word for discretion in Hebrew is derived from the thought of concocting an evil plan.  But here, it refers to the careful development of a plan (Hebrew Dictionary #4209, 153).  In this case, The New King James Version is more specific because  it mentions discretion, the careful judgment about one’s plans and purpose.

Our comparison of the Greek and Hebrew versions of our reading discovers both major and minor differences between the Greek and Hebrew texts.  These contrasts are primarily in vocabulary, which gives different nuances to the passages.

Major Agreements in the Two Texts

Yet our comparisons also reveal that there are major agreements between the Greek LXX and the Hebrew Scriptures.  For instance, both the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint emphasize the teaching of righteousness, true justice, and equitable judgement (vs. 3).  The Hebrew word for judgment stresses the verdict that a judge pronounced (Hebrew Dictionary #4941, 178).  Likewise, the Greek word emphasizes the judicial pronouncement of a sentence (Strong’s2917, 145).

Both versions also say that the Proverbs give shrewdness to the simple.  The Septuagint Valsamis translation says that the sayings of wisdom are to give “subtlety to the simple.”  But the word can also mean shrewdness (Strong’s #3834, 187).  The LXX says that the advice of the book will also give “perception” (Strong’s #144,9) and [moral]  understanding (Strong’s 1771, 89) “to a young man”( vs. 4).

Summary of the Purposes of Proverbs

In summary, from our analysis of the texts we learn that the purpose of the book of wisdom is to train the mind in perception, insight, and judgment that will wisely guide, manage,  and control one’s actions.  But this judicious way of thinking is grounded in the fear of the Lord.  The fear of the Lord transforms mere knowledge into wisdom.  Without the fear of the Lord, the practical advice that Proverbs gives is mere sophistry.  With the “fear of the Lord,” a wise person walks righteously before God the Creator.

As we read through the Book of Proverbs, we will learn the practical wisdom of walking in the way of God, the prudence that comes from the fear of the Lord.

For Reflection

“Without wisdom, knowledge is just a pile of books on the hind end of a donkey” (Japanese Proverb).  In the same vein, can we say that a learned person is not necessarily a wise person?  What makes the difference?   Our reading suggests that one cannot be wise without understanding the will and ways of the Creator and Ruler of the world.

Proverbs 1:1-20, The Septuagint (LXX) Text of Proverbs, Comparison of the LXX Greek and Hebrew Bible, The Fear of the Lord, the Beginning of Wisdom, The Wisdom of Prudence, Wisdom and Knowledge,



One comment:

  1. Knowledge in the colloquial English of trades people is much as you describe it. Take carpenters ,fishermen and so on. Knowledge is knowing how things go and is a “feeling in the bones.” I think it might have been what the K J V meant by knowledge ,not book “learning ” . English must have developed quite a lot since the translation but many can discern the original meanings especially if they are not “learned”
    I hope this is not too muddled ?

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