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Saturday Word Study: Σοφια in the LXX Proverbs

The book of Proverbs is known for its integral place amongst the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. In the church, much is often spoken of as either “wise” or “foolish,” but often people use the terminology without thinking it through closely. Our aim today, is to look at sophia and her various derivatives as they are found in the Greek translation of the book of proverbs with the aim of putting some definition to the bones of how we think of wisdom. I’ve chosen to explore σοφια in the LXX rather than חכמה in the Masoretic Text, partly out or curiosity and partly because many of us in the west have more of a Greek understanding of wisdom than we do a Hebraic understanding. Hence, we begin in the Septuagint and will look to the MT at another time.

Proverbs begins with a glorious introduction in the first seven verses that sets the tone for the book as a whole. The book’s goal, as found in these verses is to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth, increase in learning to the wise, and guidance to the ones with understanding.

In these verses, we have six uses of the term, verse 2 speaks about wisdom as something this book is aiming to teach, verse 5 speaks of these proverbs as that which will make a wise man wiser (2 uses). Verse 6 speaks of the sayings of the wise which are contained in the book of Proverbs. And verse 7 speaks of the nature of wisdom. Up until verse 7, we have a largely introductory use of the term and not that which is helpful in advancing our basic cultural knowledge of what wisdom is or of what wisdom does for those who have it.

Verse 7 changes that. Here we have two very clear statements about the nature of wisdom. First, wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. If wisdom is the opposite of folly and folly, as David states, is believing that there is no God (Psalm 14:1), then you would assume that to have wisdom one must have a healthy fear and reverence before the God of heaven. If I might editorialize for a moment, given that there is so little reverence before God in the western church, I would thus propose, based on Solomon’s words here, that there is very little wisdom in the churches at large. 

In verse 7, there is a second use of the term, in this case, with the negative aspect of what was spoken of at the start. Those who are ungodly, will set wisdom to the side and will not listen to instruction. Again, discerning the presence of wisdom is easy, based on these words. When the Scriptures are laid forth, how shall people respond? The wise will revere the Word of God and seek to put it into practice; the wicked will ignore the word of God and continue thinking and living as they choose.

It should be noted that wisdom is often personified in the book of Proverbs. In one sense, she is the one crying out in the streets for those who will listen. In another sense, she is the one to whom we are to flee. These uses are interesting, though not overly useful to us as we seek to better define wisdom in a more abstract sense, so we will highlight them on occasion but will not dwell upon them.

Wisdom described as one who is calling for those to listen: 1:20; 2:2; 8:12

Wisdom as one to whom we are to flee: 2:3; 7:4; 9:1; 

Wisdom as the words of a loving father: 4:11; 5:1; 19:20; 23:19; 

Proverbs 1:29 — There is an interesting contrast here between the MT and the LXX:

MT: “Instead, they hated knowledge and the fear of Yahweh they did not choose.”

LXX: “For they hated wisdom and did not choose the fear of the Lord.”

Notice that knowledge and wisdom are used almost interchangeably in this translation. Hebrew tends to distinguish between the two: knowledge being a base of information and wisdom being the ability to use that information and to apply it in Godly ways. The Greeks don’t seem to make that distinction and thus, as in 1:7, σοφια is used in the place of knowledge. In the context of this passage, those who refuse to wisdom as she speaks not only demonstrate their hatred for her but will find them under the wrath of God. This is reminiscent of Paul’s language in 2 Thessalonians 2:10.

Proverbs 2:6 — The Lord gives wisdom as well as knowledge and understanding. If you reject God then you are the fool.

Proverbs 2:10 — If you follow the path of wisdom then you will be given both discernment and understanding. This naturally follows from 2:6 but also is reminiscent of Paul’s language in Romans 12:2.

Proverbs 3:5 — the Godly man who trusts in God leans on God’s wisdom and not human wisdom.

Proverbs 3:13 — those who learn wisdom will be blessed

Proverbs 3:19 — God created the earth by his eternal wisdom (this connects wisdom not only with God the Father but with God the Son (John 1:3).

Proverbs 3:35 — the wise will inherit glory

Proverbs 6:6,8 — the wise is like the ant who diligently labors for his needs (in contrast to the lazy sluggard)

Proverbs 8:1 — those who proclaim wisdom will grow in both understanding and obedience

Proverbs 8:11 — wisdom is more valuable than earthly wealth

Proverbs 9:8 — a wise man accepts rebuke

Proverbs 9:9 — a wise man accepts instruction

Proverbs 9:10 is another passage that is worth contrasting the MT with the LXX

MT: “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of Yahweh; the knowledge of the holy ones is understanding.”  (Note: Some English translations render קדשטם as “The Holy One”, “the holy,” or as “holy things.” My translation reflects that of Young’s Literal Translation and the LXX).

LXX: “The beginning of wisdom if the fear of the Lord; and the counsel of the holy ones is understanding. For the knowledge of the Law is a good mind.” (Note: while I recognize that the final clause is not inspired writ but is a translator’s edit, it should be understood that the edit is not inconsistent with the scriptural teaching; in fact, it is quite consistent. For the one who fears the Lord will most certainly be diligent in seeking to live that fear out in obedience to God’s commands).

The interesting thing to note is how the LXX brings out the importance of the counsel of mature Christians in the church. When we find ourselves with matters that we don’t understand or in which we need clarity, the church leaders ought to be the first to whom we appeal for wisdom.

Proverbs 9:12 — the wise person’s wisdom benefits their neighbors. Once again we have a passage where the LXX translator has added embellishment, though it does not advance our discussion here.

Proverbs 10:1 — a wise son makes his father glad

Proverbs 10:4 — the wise son accepts instruction and will master the fool

Proverbs 10:8 — the wise accepts commandments

Proverbs 10:13 — the wise smite their enemies with their words

Proverbs 10:14 — the wise will hide their judgment (MT reads knowledge here). In other words, a wise person is discrete.

Proverbs 10:23 — a wise person is prudent

Proverbs 10:31 — wisdom is the product of the mouth of the righteous. 

Proverbs 11:2 — the humble meditates on wisdom

Proverbs 12:15 — a wise man seeks out the counsel of the wise

Proverbs 12:18 — while the words of the wicked harm others, the words of the wise bring healing

Proverbs 13:10 — those who judge themselves are wise

Proverbs 13:13 — taken from a scribal addition, the wise person shall be directed righteously by wisdom and understanding

Proverbs 13:14 — the wise find a fountain of life in the Law of God

Proverbs 13:20 — if you walk with the wise you will become wise. As C.S. Lewis used to summarize this: “The next best thing to being wise yourself is to surround yourself with those who are wise.”

Proverbs 14:1 — a wise woman builds up her house

Proverbs 14:3 — wisdom preserves a person from discipline

Proverbs 14:6 — wisdom is not found with the wicked

Proverbs 14:7 — the wise are discrete

Proverbs 14:8 — wisdom and prudence should guide your path

Proverbs 14:16 — the wise depart from evil

Proverbs 14:24 — the wise person treasures a prudent person

Proverbs 14:33 — The LXX speaks of wisdom as in the “good heart” of man…the MT speaks of wisdom laying in the heart of the understanding.

Proverbs 15:2 — the wise knows what is good

Proverbs 15:7 — the lips of the wise are discrete

Proverbs 15:12 — the uninstructed person will not be drawn to the wise

Proverbs 15:20 — a wise son gladdens his father

Proverbs 15:33 — The fear of the Lord is wisdom

Proverbs 16:14 — a wise man pacifies an angry king

Proverbs 16:16 — the brood of wisdom is more valuable than gold

Proverbs 16:17 — again, a translators addition, the wise accepts reproof

Proverbs 16:21, again, we should compare the MT with the LXX

MT: “To the wise heart it is called understanding; sweetness of lip increases instruction.”

LXX: “The wise and intelligent is called evil; but the sweetness of word improves hearing.”

Both are communicating the same idea, though in different ways. To simplify, wisdom is sometimes hard to listen to but when spoken with sweet words, it is often heard.

Proverbs 16:23 — the ways of the wise are discerning

Proverbs 17:16 — wisdom is not for sale to the fool

Proverbs 17:24 — the attitude of a wise person is intelligent

Proverbs 17:28 — if the fool is quiet and listens he will be presumed wise

Proverbs 18:2 — the one who lacks understanding will not see the value of wisdom

Proverbs 18:15 — the heart of the prudent purchases wisdom

Proverbs 20:1 — the wise is not a drunkard, brawler, or engaged in illicit sexuality

Proverbs 20:26 — a wise king crushes the ungodly

Proverbs 20:29 — wisdom is the world to young men and grey hairs to old

Proverbs 21:11 — the simple become wiser when the wicked are punished

Proverbs 21:20 — the words of the wise is a desirable treasure

Proverbs 21:22 — the wise demolish fortresses that threaten (think of Paul’s language in 2 Corinthians 10:4-6)

Proverbs 21:30 — Wisdom and counsel do not dwell in the presence of the ungodly

Proverbs 22:4 — the fear of the Lord is the offspring of wisdom

Proverbs 22:17 — the words of wise men should be listened to

Proverbs 23:15 — the wise son gladdens his father’s heart

Proverbs 23:24 — a wise father raises his children well

Proverbs 24:3 — wisdom and understanding go hand in hand

Proverbs 24:5 — wisdom is better than physical strength

Proverbs 24:7 — wisdom and understanding belong to the wise person

Proverbs 24:14 — if you seek wisdom, your end will be good

Proverbs 25:12 — obedience is a jewel in the ear of the wise

Proverbs 26:5 — if you do not correct a fool, he will think himself wise

Proverbs 26:12 — the fool thinks himself wise but isn’t

Proverbs 26:16 — the sluggard thinks himself wise but isn’t

Proverbs 27:11 — in wisdom one’s heart may rejoice

Proverbs 28:11 — the conceited rich man thinks himself wise but isn’t

Proverbs 28:26 — there is safety in walking in wisdom

Proverbs 29:3 — the father rejoices when his son loves wisdom

Proverbs 29:8 — wise men will spare a city destruction

Proverbs 29:9 — the wise shall judge the nations (think of Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 6:2)

Proverbs 29:11 — the fool tells everything; the wise is discrete

Proverbs 29:15 — discipline gives wisdom

Proverbs 30:3 — God teaches wisdom

Proverbs 30:24 — ants, rock badgers, locusts, and lizards, from which we can learn

Proverbs 31:5 — strong wine robs you of wisdom

Proverbs 31:28 — the tongue of a woman of character discloses wisdom

Samson or Sampson

            Growing up I remember being corrected on the spelling of Samson.  “No ‘p’ in his name!” I would be told over and over.  The interesting thing is not in that I was spelling the name incorrectly, but that so many people spell the name incorrectly.  In addition, there are many people in our culture today whose surname is Sampson, which seems to reinforce the use of the letter “p” in the middle of the name. 

            This year, as I have been teaching through the book of Judges, I posed the question as to what is the cause for this phenomenon?  Is this but a dialectical thing, or is there something in the original text that is not being carried over into our English transliteration?  What I found was quite interesting.

            The Hebrew spelling of Samson’s name is !Avm.v. (Shemshon).  While there is some debate over the source of his name, it seems that it is derived from vm,v, (shemesh), which means “sun.”  Since the Philistines worshiped the sun as one of their gods (the Mesopotamian god “Samsu” was revered as god of the sun), this seems to be a direct attack on their deity, much in the same way that the plagues in Egypt are attacks on the Egyptian gods of that day.  Yet, this does not help us solve the mystery of the “p” in his name.

            The “p” actually arrives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.  About 300 years before the birth of Christ, the Hebrews began translating the Bible into Greek.  Greek was the “lingua franca” of the day and many Jewish people in the dispersion could no longer read Hebrew well.  In addition, the Greek mind likes to engage in dialogue with other schools of thought and such a translation provided a medium for that discussion.  This translation is referred to as the “Septuagint” or the “LXX.”

            When the translators of the Book of Judges approached the name of Samson, they transliterated it as follows: Samyw/n (Sampson).  This transliteration not only explains how the “Sh” transformed into a “S,” but also explains the importation of the letter “p” into the center of the word.  Now, why they opted to use a psi (y) instead of a pi (p) is still clouded by the shadows of history, perhaps it was simply seen as an easier way to pronounce his name—there are a number of names that have been transliterated oddly both in the Septuagint and in our English translations.

            Thus, the next time you happen to slip, and pronounce or spell Samson’s name with a “p,” and someone curtly corrects you, all you have to do is to put on as serious and scholarly a face as you are able and inform them that you simply favor the Greek spelling over the English one.  That ought to get them scratching their heads for a while.  :8)