Tuesday, March 16, 2021


 The primary vehicle for philosophical reflection in ancient Egypt was the sebayt or 'instruction', an aphoristic collection of advice. Some of them, like the Instruction of Ptahhotep, have a considerable importance. But there is no question whatsoever what the most important example of the genre is: The Instruction of Amenemope. Generally assigned to the Twentieth Dynasty (twelfth/eleventh century BC), the instruction purports to be the advice of Amenemope to his son; unlike many Instructions, it is much more focused on what we would think of as ethical matters rather than material success. It's usually considered a masterpiece in its own right, but it is important for another reason: it is provably linked to, and probably an influence on, the Biblical book of Proverbs.

The evidence of the link begins with Proverbs 22:20: "Have I not written for you thirty sayings of admonition and knowledge?" That's a little puzzling in context, because there's no obvious set of thirty sayings. But it makes much more sense when we recognize that the Instruction of Amenemope has thirty clearly delineated chapters, and in chapter 30 says, "Look to these thirty chapters, which inform and educate." And many of the pieces of advice in the Instruction have clear parallels in that section of Proverbs (22:17-24:22). On the basis of this, it's generally thought that the Proverbs gives us, in this particular section, a loose Hebrew paraphrase and rearrangement of some Egyptian version of the Instruction. (Strictly speaking, there are other possibilities. For instance, it could be that both Amenemope and Proverbs are adapted versions of another, non-extant, thirty-sayings collection, or that there was a whole genre of thirty-sayings text that promiscuously borrowed sayings from each other, and that these two are perhaps different original compositions in that genre, with no single common link. It's even possible that Amenemope is based on an earlier version of the Proverbs text, although that direction of influence is somewhat less likely. But as the version of Amenemope we have certainly predates the version of Proverbs we have, and as the book of Proverbs is quite open about the fact that it collects from other sources, it's usually easiest to suppose that Amenemope is the original text and that Proverbs loosely paraphrases and reorganizes its sayings, as long as we recognize that there are other possible variations.)

 A few of the sayings of the Instruction:

Fill yourself with silence, you will find life, and your body will flourish upon the earth. (ch. 5)

Better is poverty in the hand of the god; better is bread with a happy heart. (ch. 6)

Do not fraternize with the hot-tempered man, nor approach him to converse. (ch. 9)

When gold is heaped on gold, at daybreak it turns to lead. (ch. 16)

You do not know the plans of god; you cannot perceive tomorrow. (ch. 21)