Paul Overland, Proverbs (AOTC)

Overland, Paul. Proverbs. Apollos Old Testament Commentary Series. Inter-Varsity Press, 2022. xx+679 pp. Hb; £39.99.  Link to IVP UK

Studies on the Proverbs fall into several categories. At the popular level, books on Proverbs are often “A Proverb a Day” devotionals. This isolates the sayings and treats Proverbs as a collection of fortune-cookie-like sayings. Other commentaries gather sayings throughout the book in themes so that one studies all the proverbs on money, truth, etc. But this approach also misses the overall structure of the book of Proverbs. This was the approach in McKane’s OTL commentary (Westminster, 1970). The proverbs are in a random order, even if certain theological or literary themes can be traced. In his Baker Old Testament Commentary on Proverbs (2006), Tremper Longman says, “I do not see a systematic structure to Proverbs,” even if “there is no doubt that proverbs of a similar topic are occasionally grouped together” (41).

Overland, Proverbs

In this commentary, Overland argues there is an overall macrostructure in the book of Proverbs. The book was intentionally edited to train sages in ancient Israel. He suggests there is no evidence to draw firm conclusions with respect to the date of this editorial process. However, the use of the Aramaic word for son (bar) in Proverbs 31:2 suggests a late Israelite composition.

Overland begins the introduction to the commentary by observing any commentary on proverbs must first illuminate individual sayings and then clusters of sayings. But the commentary must also observe the book-wide instructional scheme of Proverbs. The commentary, therefore, focuses on this book-wide teaching, how wisdom learners may advance from novice to apprentice and eventually become journeyman sages. This macrostructure builds on his 1988 Brandies University Ph.D., “Literary Structure of Proverbs 1-9,” and a few subsequent journal articles.

He divides the commentary into several units which reflect his understanding of the book’s purpose:

  1. Proverbs 1-9 is an appeal to a prospective student.
  2. Proverbs 10-44 is advice to an apprentice sage.
  3. Proverbs 25-29 is advice to a journeyman sage serving in a royal context.
  4. Proverbs 30-31 is advice for both commoner and king.

Given the seeming randomness of Proverbs, how can interpreters read the book cohesively? First, Overland suggests closely translating isolated sayings and allowing difficult expressions in Hebrew wisdom literature in English. He recommends this close translation even if the language is “jarring.” Second, the interpreter must notice whole poems that span and unite content. Proverbs 1-9 is the obvious example, but there are other examples of proverbs that are intentionally grouped together, indicating a progression of thought leading to a climactic conclusion. Citing Moshe Greenberg, “the critic must curb all temptations to impose his antecedent judgments on the text; he must immerse himself again and again with all his sensors alert to catch every possible stimulus” (6).

To recognize a poem in Proverbs, he suggests observing beginnings and endings and looking for coherence within the poem. These are indicated by repetitions, multiple synonyms or antonyms, an imperative followed by an incentive, themes with sequential elaboration, and extended structures (such as palistrophe and chiasm). “When a solution resolves a problem, coherence emerges” (9). Overland describes individual sayings as riddles that must be solved. Modern readers see an apparent discontinuity, but he suggests we not assume too soon that the Book of Proverbs is random or full of these sorts of discontinuities. “As the reader picks up on the primary themes of proverbs, coherence emerges” (9).

The body of the commentary begins with a summary title for each unit, followed by an overview and a short observation of the preceding and ensuing text. He includes a brief “what to watch for” statement section (a remarkably helpful feature). Then, Overland provides his translation of the section and a running outline in a grid organizing the material. Extensive notes follow his translation of the text, including comments on his translation choices, syntax, and features of Hebrew poetry, which are difficult to express in English translations (such as assonance). Overland calls this a “study translation,” which preserves the Hebrew sense as much as possible. He does not, for example, use the Septuagint to help make sense of difficult Hebrew grammar or vocabulary, noting that the Greek translation often smooths out the “jarring Hebrew syntax.” (There are occasional notes on the LXX in the main commentary, but the Greek translation Is not a major interest in the book.)

Overland wants to challenge readers to take time to listen patiently to what the Hebrew text says. “We must restrain the impulse to smooth the texts by appealing to exceptional grammar or emending the text too quickly” (25). The result is often “unexpectedly insightful.” This is a verse-by-verse commentary. Overland occasionally interacts with major recent commentaries on Proverbs.

Following the verse-by-verse commentary on the Hebrew text, Overland discusses the unit’s borders (highlighting the beginning and ending). Then Overland connects the unit to the macrostructural features, connecting the unit to the larger themes of the overall structure of the book. Finally, he comments on microstructural features that indicate thematic coherence. This includes repetition, palistrophe, summaries, etc.

After closely reading the Hebrew text of the proverbs in the unit and placing them in the overall structure of Proverbs, Overland has several pages of comments on the subsections, followed by a section labeled “Explanation,” also arranged by sub-sections.  It is difficult to see the difference between these two sections. “Comments” seem related to tracing the primary concepts, and “Explanation” relates more to the progression of thought through a major macrostructural section.

Some readers will not be convinced by Overland’s macrostructure, a progression from a novice to apprentice and then to journeyman sage. Because sections of Proverbs seem random, virtually every commentary suggests a different overall structure of Proverbs. Overland’s suggested progression works but must remain only that, a suggestion. Other readers might struggle with his intentionally rough translations of individual sayings, preferring a smooth, elegant English translation. But to me, this is one of the values of Overland’s commentary. He is right. The reader should struggle with apparent rough Hebrew vocabulary and syntax because that is the nature of Hebrew poetry in general and Proverbs, more specifically.

Conclusion. The Apollos Old Testament Commentary Series intends to interpret the original text of the Old Testament accurately but also to assist pastors and teachers in presenting the Old Testament in a modern context. Overland’s commentary achieves these goals by carefully reflecting on the “riddles” found in the often-jarring Hebrew of Proverbs. Although it is likely most pastors will still address Proverbs thematically, this commentary will serve well for those who want to study Hebrew wisdom literature and think deeply about how these sayings inform our own journey to a life of wisdom.

Inter-Varsity UK published an interview with Paul Overland in August 2022.

Other Reviewed Commentaries in this series:

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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