Verse of the Month: Proverbs 6:6 “Go to the ant…”

ant header

Go to the ant, you lazybones;

               consider its ways, and be wise.


This post has been developed and reposted as Ant – Day 11 of 30 Days [Biblically] Wild.

This proverb not only suggests that the ant can be a guide for living, it can also help us uncover the intriguing world of biblical wisdom literature by giving us insights into how these types of text were composed, developed and circulated.

A Bus Load of Voices

The book of Proverbs is an anthology that includes a number of different collections of sayings and instructions that is generally considered to have been compiled (in its present form) within Israel’s post-exilic period (sometime after 538 B.C.E.). The nature of the text means that attempting to find a more precise dating of the individual teachings can be difficult if not impossible (see Hunter, 2006:45).

Classified as ‘wisdom literature’, Proverbs is a collection of succinct sayings (aphorisms), often made memorable by their imaginative use of language and imagery, which instruct the user concerning issues of conduct and attitude in daily life.  It would be wrong to view Proverbs as an instruction manual for life, as it often includes a range of (sometimes competing) perspectives and viewpoints; for example, see Proverbs 6:4 & 5. Generally, wisdom literature does not attempt to give specific answers to particular problems; it rather informs the user of different positions in a debate and then seeks to draw the reader/hearer into that debate. Think of Proverbs as a crowded bus full of people all sharing their views on a particular subject, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing.The book of Job is primary example of this approach applied to the issue of theodicy (God and evil).

Proverbs 6:6 is part of a section (1-19) which, as Martin (2001) notes, comprises four short units and is devoted to practical teaching in the form of warnings. This forms part of a larger collection consisting of ten separate sections (chs. 1-9) and is attributed to King Solomon (1:1) – in fact, the Greek translation (Septuagint) of Proverbs is actually titled The Proverbs of Solomon. Whilst this is probably a later attribution, Hunter (2006) notes that these sections could possibly be dated to King Hezekiah’s reign, or just after it (around beginning of 7th cent B.C.E.). However, the underlying message of the teaching (correlation between behaviour and blessing, warnings against the marriage of foreign women etc.) appear to reflect the theology and nationalism of post-exilic writers and editors.

The Industrious Ant

Waltke (2004:336) suggests that although ‘ant’  נְמָלָה  (nemālâ)  is probably meant to refer generically to all ants, it could possibly refer to the ‘harvester ant’ (Messor semirufus) that is prolific in Palestine and is noted for its habit of storing grain in its nest.

harvester ant
Messor semirufus (harvester ant). Image: Genre Messor

The word ‘ant’  (נְמָלָה , nemālâ) occurs just twice in Hebrew scripture. Its other occurrence (also in the book of Proverbs) is in Chapter 30, where four different creatures are praised for their wisdom despite being “exceedingly small.” Having also referring to the ant’s industrious nature, in v. 25, we are taught:

the ants are a people without strength,
   yet they provide their food in the summer

But it is not simply its industry that appeals to the teacher in Prov. 6:6, it is its sense of self motivation, reliance and autonomous work ethic. Having instructed the “lazy bones” (עָצֵל – ‘sluggard’) to “go to the ant,” he is then told to observe that:

7 Without having any chief
   or officer or ruler,
8 it prepares its food in summer,
   and gathers its sustenance in harvest.

The image of independent, self-sufficiency described in these verses runs counter to the complex communal structures found in most ant colonies. Although technically incorrect, this apparent error is probably due to the need for presenting a simplified and memorable trope. It is unlikely that observations of ant behaviour that are detailed enough to establish that they have no leader would then fail to recognise their advanced social structure.

The idea that ants had no “chief”, “officer” or “leader” (v.7) was also mentioned by Aristotle in his History of Animals  (1.1.11) where (after noting their social nature) he states:

“the crane and the several sorts of bee submit to a ruler, whereas ants and numerous other creatures are everyone his own master.”

Although tempting to draw parallels between these two observations, I am not aware of any commentators establishing a specific relationship.

The question of how ants can organise their colonies without an overall leader has received a lot of attention from the scientific community. If you would like to know more and have the chance of running your very own virtual ant colony with Bryn Mawr College’s model simulation, click here.

Bryn Mawr ant site
Screenshot of Bryn Mawr College’s website exploring the social organisation of ant colonies

 An Alternative View of the Natural World?

The teaching contained in Hebrew wisdom tradition is generally distinct from other biblical teaching in that it is predominantly non-revelatory. Here, wisdom is gained from observation of creation rather than through divine revelation. McKenzie (2005:93) summarises it nicely stating that:

“The basic concept behind [wisdom] is that God has placed the secrets to success and human happiness in the created order, and it is up to humans to discover those secrets by means of observation and intuition.”

This raises some interesting questions. The natural world and non-human life is used in a way that is different from the fables of Greeks, where animals are anthropomorphised to demonstrate various human traits. As McKane (1970:324) notes, creation and the natural world are used within biblical proverbs in a “heavily didactic way.” There is no attempt of anthropomorphising nature.

The use of such a nature-based wisdom appears to be an integral part of ancient Jewish history. The writer of the deuteronomistic history attributed this type of wisdom to Solomon (1 Kings 4), writing:

  32 [Solomon] composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish.

However, we would appear to have much earlier evidence of this tradition in the Late Bronze Age Israelite/Canaanite region.

Hebron Amarna Tablet
Amarna Tablet (letter) from Hebron. Image: U.N.E.D

In the Amarna Letters of the 14th century B.C.E., cuneiform clay tablets reveal a correspondence between the Pharaoh (possibly Akhetaten) and his representatives (mayors) in the areas under Egyptian control, including Canaan. One particular tablet, EA 252, is written by a particular mayor/warlord from Shechem (in the northern hill country of Canaan) named Lab’aya (sometimes written as Labayu) – some scholars and archaeologists associate Lab’aya with the biblical King Saul. In his letter to the Pharaoh, Lab’aya defends his actions by arguing that the reason he acted violently was because he had been slighted and “denigrated” in front of the king. He then goes on to explain:

 “Further, an ant, when it is squashed, doesn’t revolt perhaps and bite the hand of the man who squashes it? If I had acted timidly, another city would have been taken today!”

It might not be too far a leap to speculate that viewing the natural world as a source of wisdom (as examples and explanations of good/bad behaviour) might have been an early characteristic of formative Israel. Scholars have also identified other possible reflections of Canaanite wisdom tradition and imagery within Proverbs;  for example, see Whybray’s treatment of wisdom as Canaanite goddess (1965:83ff). Whatever the case, the use of creation as a guide appears to be a characteristic that runs through Hebrew teaching and is reflected in Jesus’ teaching (for example, Matt 6:26-30//Lk 12:24-28).

If this is the case, it also provides an alternative reading of creation in biblical literature, in which the natural world can be seen as a guide to living; to which humans should aspire. This is in contrast to the perception of wild nature as something to be tamed (subdued and therefore changed) and with which we are at war (see the ‘war oracle’ of Gen 9:2) or that the whole of creation is tainted by the ‘fall’ (as some read Romans 8:19-20).

A Misplaced Ant and the Creation of Proverbs

It has been noted for a long time (see Toy, 1899) that the cycle of proverbs in which the proverb of the ant appears seems out of place in relation to the main collection (chs 1-9). Unlike the latter collections, the aphorisms found in 1-9 tend to be more ordered and thematic. 6:1-9 appears to abruptly break the flow of the teaching in ch 5 which then continues in 6:10 (and following). Here the reader is warned against the perils of consorting with foreign women (often rendered in English translations as ‘loose’, ‘immoral’ or ‘adulterous’ women).  Toy (1899) suggests that this section may have been misplaced by an editor or scribe. He further notes that, if this was true, it must have happened quite early as the section appears in this place in all the Ancient Versions of the book.

Clifford (1999) observes that most commentators judge this section as a later addition. If this is the case, it is one of the indicators that point to the accumulative nature of the wisdom tradition in post-exilic Israel.

Another proverb, also relating to an ethic of work, provides us with even more information about the way wisdom literature and the wisdom tradition developed.

Proverbs 24:30-34 reads:

30 I passed by the field of one who was lazy,
by the vineyard of a stupid person;
31 and see, it was all overgrown with thorns;
the ground was covered with nettles,
and its stone wall was broken down.
32 Then I saw and considered it;
I looked and received instruction.
33 A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
34 and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want, like an armed warrior.

Note how this sequence ends; vv 33 and 34 are identical to the conclusion of the proverb of the ant in 6:10-11. Whybray (1972:144) suggests that this can give us a clue concerning how “wisdom teachers elaborate traditional  material”, with two teachers independently creating material from the same older saying.

The Greek version of the Hebrew text (the Septuagint) develops this verse further and again points to the way in which the wisdom tradition and its literature continually develops over time. The expanded version also takes a naturalistic approach to nature (rather than fable) and, in the light of Aristotle’s observation (above), includes a perhaps significant reference to bees (8a-c)

Or go to the bee, and learn how diligent she is, and how earnestly she is engaged in her work; whose labours kings and private men use for health, and she is desired and respected by all: though weak in body, she is advanced by honouring wisdom.

If you have got down this far – well done!!

If you have a biblical text that you would like to nominate as ‘Text of the Month’ please contact me via email, Twitter, or, if you are on Facebook, through our Facebook group page (Bible at Newman).  

Clifford, R.J. (1999) Proverbs: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press

Hunter, A. (2006) Wisdom Literature. SCM Core Text. London: SCM Press

McKane, W. (1970) Proverbs. Old Testament Library. London: SCM Press

McKenzie, S.L. (2005) How to Read the Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Martin, J. D. (2001) Proverbs. Old Testament Guides. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press

Toy, C.H. (1899) A Critical and Exegetical Commentary of the Book of Proverbs. ICC. Edinburgh: T&T Clark

Waltke, B.K. (2004) The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1- 15. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans

Whybray, R.N. (1965) Wisdom in Proverbs. Studies in Biblical Theology No. 45. London: SCM Press

Whybray, R.N. (1972) The Book of Proverbs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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