Nili Shupak, 'NO MAN IS BORN WISE': Ancient Egyptian Wisdom Literature and Its Contact with Biblical Literature, The Bialik Institute, Jerusalem 2016
This anthology forms the first translation into Hebrew of the classical Egyptian wisdom instructions dating from the Old Kingdom (2682 b.c.e.) through to the New Kingdom (1550–1070/1069 b.c.e.). It contains two parts. The first—the introduction—discusses various themes related to Egyptian wisdom literature and its contribution to our understanding of the biblical wisdom literature. The second comprises the translation of the texts themselves.
Part One: Introduction
Chapter 1: Types of Egyptian Wisdom Literature
Around thirty Egyptian wisdom texts dating from the middle of the third century through to the first centuries b.c.e. have survived. They fall into two groups—didactic and speculative. The works belonging to the former were designed to teach and educate, being characterized by an optimistic outlook. Those belonging to the latter are marked by a critical tone, reproving and reprimand flaws in diverse areas of life. This anthology is devoted to the didactic wisdom texts.
Chapter 2: Didactic Wisdom—The Instructions
This genre is known in Egyptian as sb3yt , a term parallel the Hebrew מוּסָר. The works of this type customarily take the form of words addressed by a father to a son, employing counsels based on life-experience to guide him in the “way of life”—i.e., the right way. The father is usually a vizier (Instruction of Ptahhotep, Instruction Addressed to Kagemni), king (Instruction of Djedefhor, Instruction Addressed to Merikare, Instruction of Amenemhet), or scribe (Instruction of Any, Instruction of Amenemope). Within this category, two instructions are exceptional—the Loyalist Instruction and the Instruction of a Man to his Son. While these contain advice intended to guide the son towards a successful life, they serve first and foremost as encomia to the king.
Egyptian wisdom instructions are customarily structured according to standard sections—heading, introduction, body of the text, and epilogue. While the framework is occasionally narrative in form, the body of the text is written in verse, making use of sophisticated stylistic devices such as rhythm, parallelism, wordplays, refrains, metaphors, images, and diverse types of sayings. These works also possess a distinctive vocabulary—terms designating instruction and teaching, the result of acquiring or failing to acquire knowledge, wisdom and the wise/fool, human types and traits, parts of the body employed during the learning process, etc.
Chapter 3: Central Concepts—The Ideology of Egyptian Wisdom Literature
a) The image of man
Like other wisdom literatures, Egyptian wisdom literature is anthropocentric, men being expected to conform to the cosmic order established at creation—Maat (m3 ̔ t) by pursuing integrity, truth, modesty, self-restraint and self-control, generosity and benevolence, eloquence, etc. Behaviour that does not comply with these principles is punished. Human beings, characteristics, and values are frequently categorized according to antithetical pairings in order to sharpen and elucidate their polarity: the wise versus the fool, the silent versus the hot-tempered, the silent versus the greedy man, the good woman versus the evil woman.
b) The attitude towards the cultus
Didactic-pedagogical aspect and inculcation of proper socio-ethical behaviour lying in its center, Egyptian wisdom literature rarely adduces ritual and ceremonial acts. While the existence of the cultus is assumed, direct ritual demands are uncommon. The saying “The character [or: loaf] of the upright is preferred to the ox of the evildoer” (Instruction Addressed to Merikare 129) is exceptional, raising the question of whether this maxim reflects the view that ethical behaviour is preferable to ritual accompanied by wrongdoings—an idea common in biblical prophetic literature. During the New Kingdom period, religious sensitivities appear to have grown stronger, as evidenced by the Instructions of Any and Amenemope, accompanied (primarily in Any) by cultic requirements.
c) The attitude towards god
The early instructions are dominated by the concept of “act and consequence,” god being responsible for rewarding and punishing people. The man who walks on the straight path of Maat can expect to flourish and prosper. Already here, however, and more forcefully in the New Kingdom instructions (Any and Amenemope), the “act and consequence” doctrine is increasingly replaced by a more deterministic outlook according to which man’s fate is determined by the gods before he is born. In the New Kingdom instructions, the dichotomy between divine omnipotence and human helplessness becomes more dominant , man being completely dependent upon god, who decides his destiny as he wishes. The link between personal responsibility and prosperity being cut, Maat is now regarded as lying solely in the hands of god, who grants it arbitrarily. Significantly, the term god (nṯr), which customarily appears in singular in the Egyptian wisdom texts and has occasionally been understood in the past as indicating a form of monotheism in fact represents a strikingly polytheistic outlook.
d) The doctrine of retribution
The instructions are preeminently practical manuals intended to guide their addressees towards reward and away from punishment. In the words of the wise man: “It is good to those who heed it, disaster to those who disregard it.” Retribution is personal and familial.
Chapter 4: The Social Background of Egyptian Wisdom Literature
The Old and Middle Kingdoms instructions are attributed to well-known figures from the upper classes—viziers and kings—and generally addressed to high-ranking officials, for whom they are meant to serve as aids in professional and day-to-day matters. The authors of the New Kingdom texts—Any and Amenemope—are lower or middle-class officials. The ideology the instructions thus reflects the worldview and life-experience of officials-scribes working within diverse governmental institutions.
Chapter 5: The Development of Egyptian Wisdom
Over the course of three millennia, the Egyptian wisdom genre witnessed no change in literary pattern or purpose, the content only varying in accordance with the events of the time or the particular problems with which the authors were preoccupied. The rise of a central government during the Old Kingdom (2682–2145 b.c.e.) prompting the need for educated officials, the Instructions to Kagemni and Djedefhor were composed in order to train suitable candidates. The wisdom texts from this period are governed by Maat—i.e., the premise that the world operates according to a specific order. The rules of Maat also apply to man, being exemplified in the doctrine of “act and consequence”: he who does good is rewarded, he who does evil is punished. The emphasis lies on the welfare of the individual within the social framework. The advice of the sage thus relates primarily to interpersonal relations. The idea of the ideal man—he who is modest, silent, and calm—that emerges at this point henceforth becomes a leitmotif.
In the Instruction of Ptahhotep—dated to the end of this period or the beginning of the Middle Kingdom—sayings pertaining to the family-personal circle become evident for the first time.
Following the First Intermediate Period (2145–2025/2020 b.c.e.), when the central government gave way to anarchy, the stabilization of the regime during the Middle Kingdom (2119–1794/1793 b.c.e.) led to increased efforts to reinforce the monarchy’s status. The four instructions written in this period—Merikare, Amenemope, the Loyalist Instruction, and the Instruction of a Man to his Son—thus unsurprisingly focus on the king.
The New Kingdom instructions (1550–1070/1069 b.c.e.) resume the theme of the prosperity of the individual and his social interrelations with his family, neighbours, friends, and superiors. While drawing on early wisdom philosophy, these works are also influenced by the New Kingdom spirit of personal piety that arose in the wake of the religious revolution of the Amarna period (1388–1334 b.c.e.). This is exemplified par excellence in the stress laid on the direct contact between man and god. Thus, for example, the Instruction of Any is marked by a religious tone not encountered in early works, the son being required to behave properly on various ritual and cultic occasions.
The Instruction of Amenemope also sounds a new note: the bond between “act and consequence” loosens, being replaced by utter dependence on god. Here, Maat lies totally in the hands of god, who determines a person’s fate irrespective of his deeds or qualities, arbitrarily favouring those whom “he loves.” The traditional view is also revised, the emphasis laid upon the social framework giving way to a religious ethic. The ideal of the “silent man” (gr) within the social fabric (Kagemni, Ptahhotep) now becomes the ideal believer within the religious realm (gr m3 ̔). Similarly, while in the past the texts generally presented a cohesive worldview, now the possibility of undermining this outlook and expressing an alternative is entertained—exemplified in the dispute between the father and son at the end of Any, for instance.
Chapter 6: The Authors of Egyptian Wisdom Literature
One of the key questions debated by scholars is whether the authors to whom the Egyptian wisdom texts are attributed were real or fictitious. There is no reason to doubt the identity of the authors of the instructions of the scribes Any and Amenemope, the scribes being the circle responsible for creating the Egyptian wisdom literature. This is not the case, however, with other works attributed to figures from the upper class—viziers and kings—who were well-known personages in ancient Egypt. These authors were thus likely fictitious—despite the fact that during the New Kingdom they were regarded as the authentic authors of these writings, as attested by Papyrus Chester Beatty 4, in which the scribes-sages are accorded everlasting fame.
Chapter 7: The Sitz im Leben of Egyptian Wisdom Literature
The Egyptian wisdom authors and teachers were all active within diverse educational frameworks—the private instruction from father to son or professional patron to apprentice, alongside a more official context of the royal court or temples in the capital city and probably in other large cities, and later, within the scribal guilds. From the New Kingdom onwards, we hear of an institution called the “house of life” that operated close to a temple, constituting an advanced school for students who had passed through the early stages of study and sought to specialize in specific sciences. The recent reconstruction of the Book of the Temple provides us with details of the material studied and the stages of learning. The corpus of various school writings from the Ramesside period also sheds light on the atmosphere of the ancient Egyptian school, the identity of the teachers and pupils, the study methods, and the material learned. The latter was first and foremost classical wisdom texts, via whose copying and recitation students learnt to read and write. Dozens, in some cases hundreds, of copies of these compositions have been preserved on cheap writing materials that served students in the circles of the Egyptian school.
Chapter 8: The Contribution of Egyptian Wisdom Literature to the Study of the Biblical Wisdom
Of all the ancient Near Eastern wisdom corpora discovered, the Egyptian texts are the most relevant for the understanding of biblical wisdom literature. One of the central goals of this study is to identify the nature of the contact between these corpora. Sections a–d compare the texts, section e setting forth the conclusions drawn from this analysis. Proverbs and the Egyptian wisdom compositions resemble one another in structure, literary form, style, vocabulary, and principle topics. The most significant instruction is Amenemope, dated to the eleventh–tenth centuries b.c.e., whose publication in 1923 constituted a turning point in the study of the biblical wisdom literature. The contact with this work is exemplified in direct and sequential parallels (see Table 2) found in no other works. These are concentrated in Prov 22: 17–24:22—i.e., the third collection, known as the “Words of the Wise.” Evidence of the influence of the Egyptian text is particularly striking in the first half of this unit (Prov 22:17–23:11). The key word שלשום (ketiv; qere שָׁלִשִׁים :) is explained by the fact that the Egyptian instruction is divided into thirty chapters, other ideas and images foreign to the Hebrew background also becoming clear in its light. These occurring in their natural setting in Amenemope, also being characteristic of the Egyptian sapiential tradition as a whole, appearing frequently in earlier and later works, the biblical author/editor of Prov 22:17–23:11 unquestionably borrowed from Amenemope. Striking affinities also exist between the fourth chapter of Amenemope and Psalm 1 (a wisdom psalm) and Jer 17:5–8, all three passages contrasting the positive with the negative human type, whose fates are illustrated by the use of various faunal images. Common features also exist between the Egyptian royal instructions—Merikare and Amenemhet—and Proverbs 28–29, known as the “Mirror of the Ruler,” and the Loyalist Instructions (to the king) and proverbs dealing with the image of the king in the rest of Proverbs.
The comparison of the Egyptian and biblical wisdom corpora sheds light on the following problems associated with the biblical wisdom literature:
a) The dating of the biblical sapiential material—The direct contact with Amenemope, composed in the eleventh to tenth centuries b.c.e. but based on an Egyptian tradition almost a millennium earlier, demonstrates the early date of the material in Proverbs and the emergence of Israelite wisdom in the first millennium b.c.e. Egyptian influence most likely penetrated Israelite thought during the Twenty-Fifth to Twenty-Sixth dynasties, when political and cultural ties developed between Israel and Egypt. This continued during later periods, lasting even after the destruction of the First Temple (587 b.c.e.).
b) The Sitz im Leben of the biblical corpus—As in Egypt, the setting responsible for the Israelite writing of the First Temple period appears to have been a school for high-ranking officials in the royal court or Temple. Here, at least parts of the biblical wisdom literature were written and studied, together with passages from the well-known Egyptian instructions, which influenced the authors of the biblical wisdom texts.
c) Obscure terms and expressions—The Egyptian wisdom texts elucidate the meaning of terms that appear only in the wisdom literature within the biblical canon—תַּחְבֻּלוֹת, תֹכֵן לִבּוֹת חדרי בטן, איש חמה/ חמות.
d) The stages of development of the biblical wisdom corpus—The Egyptian tradition demonstrates that Israelite wisdom literature most likely developed from “secular” literature based on the teacher’s life-experience into a “religious” literature in which the fear of God replaces human wisdom.
In summary, Proverbs is a pedagogic and instructional book that reflects the values and worldviews subscribed to by the scribes and high-ranking officials of the ancient Near East, first and foremost in Egypt.
Chapter 9: The Translation
This chapter presents the guiding principles on which the translation of the texts is based. Egyptian and Hebrew belong to different language families, reflecting divergent cultural and conceptual worlds. Egyptian contains linguistic and grammatical rules that have no parallel in Hebrew. The translation work is also complicated by the sophisticated stylistic devices—word plays, homonyms, assonance, alliteration, etc.—that characterize the Egyptian texts. I have sought to find the golden mean—i.e., a mixture of literal and high-literary translation, at times anchored in biblical language itself. At all times, however, the goal was to provide a translation that is clear and intelligible.
Chapter 10: Review of Previous Translations
This first translation of the classical Egyptian instructions into Hebrew has only been possible due to earlier studies and efforts. The introduction to each work thus refers to the existing translations and studies pertaining to it. This chapter presents a selected list of scholars and studies that have contributed to our understanding of Egyptian wisdom literature in general and the principal translations published to date.
Part Two: Translation of the Texts
The translation of the texts is divided into four categories based on the author’s identity and content: viziers’ instructions to their sons, kings’ instructions to their sons, instructions regarding loyalty, and scribes’ instructions to their sons. The translation of each text is preceded by an introduction addressing its date, the author’s identity, the extant manuscripts, and the work’s structure, style, and content. Annotations cite variant textual witnesses, offer critical text commentaries, present the terminology, ideas, and values characteristic of Egyptian wisdom, adduce citations from other wisdom texts, and parallels and comparisons with the biblical corpus. Quotations from other Egyptian wisdom compositions and parallels between the Egyptian instructions and biblical passages are presented in Tables 3 and 4, Table 1 presenting the dates of the Egyptian instructions. Glossaries of the names of Egyptian gods and religious terms and biblical, Egyptian, and other sources are appended.