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The Wisdom of Amenemope

Travis Rogers, Jr.

The Wisdom of Amenemope

Religion
6 mins
July 21, 2020

In the Thursday night classes hosted by Pastor Elizabeth Bier, we have been discussing the historical context of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament. In a topic that we also discussed in the How We Got the Old Testament class, with Pastor Asafa Rajaofera in the Fall of 2018, we analyzed the sections of the Book of Proverbs and came to discover that a large section—Proverbs 22:17-23:11—bore an amazing resemblance to Egyptian wisdom writings, specifically a book known as the Wisdom of Amenemope. As it turns out, another Thursday night group on ZOOM and hosted by my old grad school roommate, Pastor Phil Ayers, had cause to mention Amenemope, also. 

Therefore, it seems like a good time to mention that work in association with Proverbs.

A Book of Egyptian Wisdom

The Wisdom of Amenemope (also called Instructions of Amenemope or Amenemopet) is a literary work composed in Ancient Egypt, most likely between 1300–1075 BC. It contains thirty chapters of advice for successful living, ostensibly written by the scribe Amenemope, son of Kanakht, as a legacy for his son. The writing was characteristic of the New Kingdom’s “Age of Personal Piety”, and reflects on the inner qualities, attitudes, and behaviors required for a happy life in the face of increasingly difficult social and economic circumstances. It is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature and has been of particular interest to modern scholars because of its relationship to the biblical Book of Proverbs

Overview

Amenemope belongs to the literary genre of "instruction" (Egyptian: sebayt). It is the culmination of centuries of development going back to the Instruction of Ptahhotep in the Old Kingdom but reflects a shift in values characteristic of the New Kingdom's "Age of Personal Piety": away from material success attained through practical action and towards inner peace achieved through patient endurance and passive acceptance of an unfathomable divine will. The author draws an emphatic contrast between two types of people: the "silent one", who goes about her/his business without drawing attention to her/himself or demanding their rights, and then there is the "heated one", who makes a nuisance of her/himself to everyone and is constantly picking fights with others over matters of no real importance. Contrary to worldly expectation, the author assures his readers that the former will ultimately receive the divine blessing, while the latter will inevitably go to destruction.

Amenemope counsels modesty, self-control, generosity, and scrupulous honesty, while discouraging pride, impetuosity, self-advancement, fraud, and perjury—not only out of respect for Ma’at, the cosmic principle of right order but also because "attempts to gain advantage to the detriment of others incur condemnation, confuse the plans of god, and lead inexorably to disgrace and punishment." 

Biblical Parallels

Though all extant copies of Amenemope are of a later date, the work is thought to have been composed in the Ramesside Period (dated above as c. 1300-1075 BC). Egyptian influence on the North Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was particularly strong in the reigns of Hezekiah during Egypt's Third Intermediate Period (1070-664 BC). As a result, "Hebrew literature is permeated with concepts and figures derived from the didactic treatises of Egypt", (according to E.A. Wallis Budge) with Amenemope often cited as the foremost example.

Even in his first brief publication of excerpts from Amenemope in 1922, Budge noted its obvious resemblance to the biblical wisdom books. He expanded upon these comments in his 1923 and 1924 publications, noting that the religiously based morality of Amenemope "closely resembles" the precepts of the Hebrew Bible and pointed out specific parallels between Amenemope and texts in Proverbs, Psalms, and even Deuteronomy. Other scholars soon recognized his insights and followed his lead.

Helping with Biblical Translations

The most famous of these was Adolf Erman, "the Dean of all Egyptologists", who in 1924 published an extensive list of identifications between the texts of Amenemope and the biblical Book of Proverbs, with the bulk of them concentrated in Proverbs 22:17-23:11. It was Erman who used Amenemope to emend (fix) a difficult reading of a translation in the text of Proverbs 22:20, where the Hebrew word shilshom ("three days ago") appeared to be a copyist's error that could be meaningfully rendered only with extreme difficulty. Erman pointed out that substituting the similar word, sheloshim ("thirty") not only made good sense in context but also yielded the following close parallel between the two texts, with the now-restored "thirty sayings" in Proverbs 22:20, corresponding exactly to the thirty numbered chapters in Amenemope.

(Proverbs 22:20): "Have I not written for you thirty sayings of counsel and knowledge?" 

(Amenemope, ch. 30, line 539): "Look to these thirty chapters; they inform, they educate." 

Budge, Erman, and others began to discover that using other Near Eastern languages like Akkadian, Ugaritic, and more were critical in aiding the translation of difficult Hebrew passages (and the other way around). In 1928, the ruins of Ras Shamra (Ugarit) were uncovered and excavations continued until 1970. The Ugaritic library tablets proved absolutely invaluable to Hebrew translations. The Norwegian biblical scholar Sigmund Mowinckel even suggested in his book, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, that true scholarship of the Hebrew Bible—especially the Psalms—must entail the study of not just Hebrew and Aramaic but also Ugaritic.

End of Part 1

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Travis Rogers, Jr.

Travis is a contributor in religion and entertainment.

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