Poetic Imagination in Proverbs

Knut Martin Heim, Poetic Imagination in Proverbs: Variant Repetitions and the Nature of Poetry, BBRSup 4 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 678 pages

HEIPOETICNo other book in the Old Testament contains as many (variant) repetitions as the book of Proverbs. Altogether this source of wisdom uses 223 of its 915 verses more than once, either in an identical or slightly modified form. This represents a methodological and exegetical challenge for interpreters, as they seek to be consistent in their treatment of these parallelisms as well as to be canonically purposeful in regard to their intertextual implications. Rev. Dr. Knut M. Heim, a tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College in Bristol, ambitiously attends to this phenomenon, not only by offering thought-provoking reflections and applicable techniques for the interpretation of these repetitions, but also by analyzing every single variant occurring in the book. In order to accomplish his objectives, Heim proceeds in three stages. While part 1 (chs. 1–2) and part 3 (chs. 19–20) introduce the subject matter, outline his applied method, and consider the results, part 2 (chs. 3–18) comprises the meticulous interpretive work.

In part 1, Heim sets up his agenda. In his opinion, it is clear that the frequent repetitions of full or partial lines throughout the book of Proverbs are the result of “a deliberate editorial technique” with a clear purpose (p. 3). The already existing theories explaining the use of variants (i.e., “scribal errors, oral background, different literary sources, redactional activity, and structural functions” [p. 5]) “fail to explain the specific shape of particular repeated elements and their present contextual locations” (p. 7). In this respect, the key to identifying the underlying purpose of repetitions lies in the poetic structures of individual proverbs and their context. In particular, the dynamic and imaginative interplay between the parallel lines on all levels will be the focus of the analysis (i.e., semilinear, intralinear, interlinear, and translinear parallelism).

In part 2, Heim sets out on his exegetical project. Here, the discussion proceeds through four steps: 1) Presentation of the text, translation, and textual notes; 2) Parallelism: understanding “the makeup of each partial line,” identifying “the precise relationships between partial lines of the same verse,” and preparing “for a more detailed analysis of the differences and similarities between the different members in each variant set” (p. 33); 3) Similarities and variants; and 4) Contexts. Before investigating the variants in order of appearance, he begins with one important structural observation: an exceptionally large number of the repetitions are found in noticeably strategic places in Proverbs 1–9. This not only functions as a means of linkage and coherence between the various lectures in the introduction but also with the rest of the book of Proverbs (see chart of all variants in 1–9 on p. 45).

Part 3 discusses both the editorial implications and the significance of variant repetitions in Proverbs. The wisdom presented in the book is not supposed to reflect “a strict system of simple rules that can be applied in all circumstances” but rather “a more flexible understanding of the world that sheds light on the multifaceted complexities of life” (p. 620). In this regard it is not surprising that the editors purposefully placed (adapted) repetitions into contextually, interpretatively, and structurally meaningful text segments. At this point, Heim exhorts the reader to abandon the idea of “perfect” parallelism. It is precisely the imprecise nature of parallelism that is the “very essence of Hebrew poetry” (p. 636). Its multivalence and ambiguity enriches meaning and significance by maximizing the amount of information and, thus, engaging the “readers and listeners in active and imaginative interpretation” (p. 638). In this light, scholars not only need technical exegetical skills to interpret biblical poetry, but also four interpretive virtues: “diligence, imagination, courage, and wisdom” (p.644).

There is no doubt that Heim’s extensive work is an outstanding resource for the study of Proverbs. It is not only a theologically relevant expansion of Snell’s Twice-told Proverbs and the Composition of the Book of Proverbs, but also a constructive supplement to Heim’s dissertation Like Grapes of Gold Set in Silver: An Interpretation of Proverbial Clusters in Proverbs 10:1–22:26. Due to the comprehensiveness of the material, this volumes becomes a great reference work that makes searches for connections and intertextual links within Proverbs almost unnecessary.

Heim’s exegetical work, especially his insights on the concept of parallelism are creative and thought-provoking. It is fair to say that a more flexible and imaginative approach does more justice to the proverbial genre than a rather strict system of determining exact correspondences between the parallel lines. Nevertheless, this raises two questions about his work: First, is his idea of “imprecise parallelism” as unique as he claims it to be? While it is always dangerous forcefully to impose methodological systems like parallelism onto biblical texts, it is doubtful that contemporary exegetes of Wisdom literature actually apply those categories in such a way. On the contrary, scholars are very flexible in the exegetical use and practical application of the different classifications of parallelism that are introduced in the technical works on parallelism and poetry. In this light, the standard commentaries on the book of Proverbs seem to be on the same page in their treatment of parallelism, unless Heim actually wishes to go even one step further by denying the existence of parallelism at all.

Second, since Heim allows so much interpretive freedom, how does he avoid reading too much into each proverb, resulting in eis­egesis instead of exegesis? Although he rightly believes—contrary to many other contemporary exegetes—that the respective context has a determining influence on the interpretation, at times Heim fills in the gaps of the text too much. Here, some additional exegetical restraints might be necessary. For example, it is a little far-fetched to link Proverbs 19:11 with 20:3, arguing for a conceptual repetition between those two verses based on the connection between the control of temper and the avoidance of strife (p. 451–55). Since these are two prominent themes throughout the entire book of Proverbs as well as in other ancient Near Eastern Wisdom texts, it is questionable that these two verses should have been interpreted in light of each other based on this connection alone.

In addition to this methodological criticism, Heim’s project fell short from what he thought sought to accomplish. While his exegetical agenda was challenging enough, Heim’s attempt methodologically to introduce a new way of treating parallelism and his editorial arguments need some further elaboration—especially in light of the fact that this seems to be such an important contribution to scholarship in Wisdom literature and poetry.

One final comment on this excellent monograph concerns Heim’s theological agenda. On the one hand, it is refreshing to read a book by an author who trusts in the competency of editors and believes that their editorial work is based on a theological framework, which he identifies as the “fear of the Lord” (p. 624–27). On the other hand, it is unfortunate that this theological key is neither reflected as much in the actual exegetical work nor in the respective structural thoughts on variant repetitions and parallelism. This would have been a superb addition to his otherwise exceptional work. All in all, it is unquestionable that scholars working in Proverbs should and, actually, must consider this book as a regular resource for their exegetical and biblical-theological work.

Special thanks to Eisenbrauns for providing the review copy.


About Eva Dittmann

I am a third year PhD Student at Wheaton College studying under Richard L. Schultz. My dissertation focuses on communication ethics in the book of Proverbs. While I am finishing my work here, I am hired in an Institute for ethics in Germany.
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