Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

The Beginning of Beginning of Wisdom

Posted by jac/cdc on December 23, 2006

(Proverbs 4:7) רֵאשִׁית חָכְמָה קְנֵה חָכְמָה וּבְכָל־קִנְיָנְךָ קְנֵה בִינָה

ray-SHEET khokh-MA k’-NAY khokh-MA uv’-khol-KIN-yan-KHA k’-NAY vee-NA
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and in all your “gettings,” get insight!

At first glance this proverb appears tautological: the first thing about wisdom is . . . get some! But this embodies an important truth—that wisdom is not an innate quality; it must be acquired. At the same time, this proverb underscores the moral imperative to pursue wisdom. This moral imperative, the necessity of pursuing wisdom, and the inestimatible value of aquiring her are key themes in the first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs.

Another notable feature of this proverb is the dual meaning of רֵאשִׁית, which may refer to temporal precedence—the starting point for wisdom is getting it—or to the first principle of wisdom—that it must be aquired (‘must’ with both an epistemic and deontic modal sense).


4 Responses to “The Beginning of Beginning of Wisdom”

  1. The word here translated as “beginning” would be better rendered “the principle thing” or “most important”. The proverb then becomes: “the most important thing is wisdom…” and suddenly the proverb is no longer ambiguous or tautological. Second, the colon followed by the word “get” implies a command or instruction which further implies that people are, in principle, able to go out and get wisdom somewhere. This would not be in accordance with other references to wisdom in the Bible: we learn that wisdom is something that God gives to those who fear Him and who hate (doing) evil.

    The essential teaching of the Bible is that people, by themselves, can acquire knowledge, but not wisdom. Therefore, the second point of this translation is a wrong use of the word “get”. “Receive Wisdom” would be a better rendering of the text. Acquiring wisdom requires an active role of those who want it (as you say: pursuing. Passively waiting for God to hand out some will not work), but the actual acquirement only results from a related activity, fearing God, and not from the pursuing in itself.


  2. jac/cdc said

    Thanks for your comments Robert. I hope you don’t mind if I take issue with portions of your interpretation. First, I don’t find a compelling need to resolve the proverb so it is less tautological; its tautological character contributes to its rhetorical force, and the ambiguity in ראשׁית ‘beginning’ or ‘first principle’ is intentional I think. I am trying to be as uninterpretive in my translation as possible.

    Second, your translations are problematic. “The most important thing is wisdom” seems unlikely as the first two words should be interpreted as a genitive relationship (construct chain): “the beginning of wisdom.” And your rendering of קנה as ‘receive’ is odd. The word is usually glossed ‘aquire, buy’.

    Third, you are right, wisdom comes from God according to some passages in Proverbs, in which context “get wisdom” would imply “seek God” as the source of wisdom. However, the teaching in Proverbs is not uniform. Rather, wisdom seems readily available in the literature of chaps. 10–29 (e.g., “Wisdom is before the face of an understanding man” in 17:24a), but it is something that must be sought after with all due diligence in the lectures in chaps. 1–9 (e.g., 2:1–4). (The ideas in this third point derive from Michael Fox’s paper “Concepts of Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs,” which I heard delivered at a regional SBL meeting and is forthcoming” in the Shalom Paul Jubilee Volume).

  3. Hi! Thanks for your thoughts. I understand that you have not been trying to interpret the proverb. My comments were triggered by the use of the colon and the word get, a combination which carries in itself a strong sense of direction or conclusion. I agree with you that buy and acquire are more accurate; my point is that “get” is not right.

    When someone is hungry (in the Western world) he or she goes out to buy or acquire a loaf of bread in order to be filled. No-one would pursue being filled as such: one buys something else which, consequently, fills. As the result of eating, the stomach receives food and the hunger disappears. People can’t go out to “get filled” in a literal sense. It’s the food people buy that does the filling, but filled in itself is not for sale.

    When someone is cold, one can’t go out and acquire or get warmth. Warmth is not sold in a bottle. Instead one goes out to purchase oil or wood or a blanket or whatever, which provides the warmth one seeks. Warmth is never acquired in itself but is always received as the result of acquiring something else that, in turn, gives warmth.

    When someone does not have understanding, going out to “get wisdom” will not yield much of it. Instead, the way to acquire wisdom is fearing God. As a result, God will bestow wisdom.

    I felt that the rendering of the proverb was ambiguous with respect to the source of wisdom. If wisdom is something that could be had outside of God, then instructing people to “get wisdom” is feasible. My understanding, however, is that wisdom can only be received as a gift from God and I felt that the rendering of the proverb laid to much emphasis on the actions of people rather than depending on God.


  4. jac/cdc said

    Well it appears to me that your complaint is against the proverb, not against my rendering of it. My choice of “get” is dictated merely by wanting to use a more colloquial form of “acquire,” as in when my wife tells me to “get a loaf of bread” when I am out at the store. Honestly, I don’t see your point in distinguishing “get” and “acquire.” Any “strong sense of direction” in the use of “get” comes from the fact that it is an imperative in both Hebrew and English. Thanks for your comments though.

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