Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

The Lord’s lamp (Proverbs 20:27)

Posted by jac/cdc on February 7, 2007

נֵר יְהוָה נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ כָּל־חַדְרֵי־בָטֶן׃

nayr-a-do-NEYE nish-mat-a-DAM cho-FAYS kol-chad-ray-VA-ten

The human breath is the lamp of the Lord, searching all the innermost parts.

‘Human breath’ (see Gen 2:7) is equated with ‘the lamp of Yahweh’ by juxtapositioning; the identification of subject and predicate is ambiguous. It is likewise unclear whether the proverb presents a warning (nothing is hidden from the Lord’s view, cf. 15:11) or an encouragement (the breath [=spirit] given to humans enables them to understand themselves, cf. Job 32:8).

Of course these two interpretations need not be seen as mutually exclusive: we should strive to understand ourselves as God understands us. We should thus be warned that all our ways are open before God, and encouraged that the creator has placed in us the ability to understand ourselves—that is, in the context of biblical wisdom, our place (i.e., role and responsibility) in his created order.

In this, biblical wisdom distinguishes itself. Compare, for instance, the oft-quoted Socratic “Know thyself.” By contrast, biblical wisdom literature focuses on understanding our responsibility toward God, others, and self in light of God’s lordly position over everything: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”

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