The Discourse Setting of the Book of Proverbs and Its Hermeneutical Significance

The social and intellectual context of the material in the book of Proverbs has given rise to several proposals concerning the nature of the constituent compendia within the document as well as the function of the discourse as a whole. Whether the sapiential material represents an aristocratic phenomenon, associated with the royal court, or a haphazard repository of plebeian banalities, the multifaceted nature of the work refuses strict classification. The nature and function of the sapiential material is made clear only when it is explored within a performance context, that is, in a particular social or dialogical situation that creates a framework through which to identify the function and significance of the discourse. Performance analysis is most problematic in the book of Proverbs, however, for the material has been removed from its original context(s) of use and assembled into an anthology. In light of the problems inherent in an investigation of the nature and function of the book of Proverbs, the present essay focuses on the social dimensions of the document within its distinct, literary context. That is, the study attempts to examine the nature and function of the sapiential material within its new performance context, viz., the discursive context, the Sitz im Buch. This form of analysis moves beyond the investigation of individual aphorisms to provide a concrete context through which to view the various components of the discourse as well as the discourse as a whole. In the main, the study explores the social setting, the speaker, and the addressee of Proverbs 1-9 to identify the dialogical context in which the material is conveyed. In view of this setting, the essay reflects on the hermeneutical significance of the prologue and offers a tentative proposal regarding the function of the book of Proverbs.