Proverbial Sacrifices

Proverbial Sacrifices February 12, 2015

C. John Collins has observed that it is common to set Torah and the Wisdom books in opposition to each other. The former is covenantal and specific to Israel; Wisdom is based on observation of creation and history.

The contrast is exaggerated at best, and in a 2o09 article is Presbyterion, Collins looks at several passages of Proverbs to demonstrate that they reflect a view of sacrifice that is rooted in Torah.

On Proverbs 3:9-10, where Solomon exhorts his son to honor Yahweh with his firstruits. Collins thinks that most straightforward way to understand the point is: “to honor the LORD with these offerings is to support the ministry of the priesthood, as they administer the sacrifices, teach the law, adjudicate disputes, and help the poor. Under such circumstances the whole people can embrace the life of the covenant, and thus experience the blessings of the covenant—a kind of restored Eden (see Deut. 28:1-14). Further, to give the firstfruits of the crop is to indicate that the whole belongs to God, indeed the whole person of the worshiper belongs to God” (17).

Proverbs that seem to criticize sacrifice don’t. Instead, they critique a misguided view of sacrifice that runs contrary to the purposes of sacrifice as stated in the Torah. On Proverbs 21:3, Collins writes, “The purpose of the sacrificial system was to foster covenantal faithfulness on the part of the people, in order that they might live out true humanness. The system was never given as a means to buy God’s favor, and Proverbs 21:3 joins the prophetic testimony to that effect” (21).

Bringing the sacrificial system to bear on the Proverbs can help explain puzzles. Proverbs 16:6 promises atonement as a reward for mercy. According to Collins, “steadfast love and faithfulness” must be a “a reference to God’s activity” because of “the way the rest of Proverbs uses the couplet; the covenantal orientation of Proverbs (basing life on ‘the fear of the LORD’), of the whole paragraph, 16:1-9 (‘the LORD’ appears in every verse except 8), and of this proverb (it is by the fear of the LORD that one turns away from doing evil); the coherence with verse 5 (‘go unpunished’) yielding an evocation of Exodus 34:6-7.” 

When the Levitical background is brought into play, “The proverb as a whole makes good sense, then: the sacrificial system, which mediates blessings such as atonement through the sin offering, the guilt offering, and the burnt offering, is a provision stemming from the LORD’S steadfast love and faithfulness, by which he graciously made a covenant with his people and preserves that people; and the proper response to that covenant, and to the steadfast love and faithfulness on which it rests, is to fear the LORD, and thus to turn away from doing evil—to begin to realize in one’s own experience the covenant ideal of properly functioning humanity— rather than to presume on the sacrifice” (29-30).

Covenant and wisdom are not at odds. Wisdom is the path by which an individual contributes to the covenant people, so that their lives “display something of a taste of Eden” (32).

Collins, “Proverbs and the Levitical System,” Presbyterion 35:1 (2009) 9-34.


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