The Wisdom of Ahiqar

Ahiqar really represents two different traditions, the sayings and the story. The Elephantine mss. which this comes from actually includes both, although the story is incomplete. Fortunately, The Story of Ahiqar survives in the later form in Syriac, but that is not what this is. These are the wise sayings attributed to Ahiqar which are in many ways similar to the book of Proverbs. Ahiqar is, of course, mentioned in the Deutero-canonical book of Tobit.

As with later versions, the text from Elephantine begins with the story and then appends a collection of sayings. The Elephantine story and the later Syriac version are obviously essentially the same story. The wise sayings are not, even contradicting one another in places (so the Syriac's 2.5 "0 my son! when thou hast heard anything, hide it not" flies in the face of this collection's "My child, do not say everything that comes into your head." The pattern - Story then sayings - is stable. I suspect, although this cannot be shown, that the legendary wisdom of Ahiqar and some of the sayings attributed to him are older than the Story of Ahiqar, and they once existed independently.

This is a paraphrase (not a summary, though) based on H.L. Ginsberg's translation in Pritchard's ANET. I am sure it is not always right, but my goal was to make it readable rather than that is should serve as a pony for beginning students of Aramaic. The notes are a combination of mine and Ginsberg's. I will try to indicate which is which by ending them with either [HG] or [AH]. If there are important corrections you want to alert me, to feel free to contact me. Alan Humm Ellipses are not mine, but represent absences in the manuscript. Guess work is in brackets.

Page 6 lines 79-94
What is stronger than a braying donkey? His load!

That child will thrive who is trained, taught, and controlled.

If you do not discipline your child, you will not be able to keep him from immorality.

You will not die if I hit you, my child, but neither will you live if I let you do whatever you want.

Striking your servants (men and women) is good. All your slaves need discipline.

Someone who buys a runaway slave, or a pilfering servant-girl, looses his property and brings dishonor on his family name with a reputation for imprudence.

The scorpion has no pleasure in finding bread, but prefers corrupt things to being fed.

The lion will hide and wait for the stag, then will kill and eat it. Some people are like a lion.

A donkey which will not carry its own load will be given another's load and will carry both his and the other's - a camel's load.

A male donkey will bow to a female donkey for love, and birds [1]

There are two good things,
In fact, three of which Shamash approves:

  1. Someone who shares his wine when drinking.
  2. Someone who holds on to wisdom.
  3. Someone who can keep a secret.
Shamash likes these things, but someone who will not share his wine, someone who strays from wisdom, [and a gossip, will not find Shamash's approval.] [2]

Page 7 lines 95-110
[Wisdom [2a]] is prized by the gods. The kingdom is hers forever, she has a place in Heaven since the lord of the holy ones has dignified her.

My child, do not say everything that comes into your head; people are always listening and watching. Loose lips can lead to ruin.

It is most important to watch what you say, but you should also be skeptical about what you hear.

Like a bird, once released a word cannot be recaptured.

Analyze what you are thinking and speak only what is important. What you say can be more destructive than war.

Consider seriously what is said by a king; it may be healing; but while the king speaks softly, his words are more dangerous than a two-edged blade.

Watch him, if he looks serious, do not dawdle. He can get angry quickly, make sure that anger is not directed at your words, which could be fatal.

The anger of a king, if he orders you to do something, is like fire. Obey immediately. Do not let it be kindled and consume you [3].

Pay close attention to what the king says [4]. Can wood compete with fire? Flesh with a knife? A regular man with a king?

I have eaten unripe medlar and endives, but nothing is bitter like poverty.

A king can speak softly, but his words can break a Dragon's ribs, or be an unseen plague.
Do not rejoice or grieve over the number of children you may have.

Like the Merciful One, the king is forceful; who can stand before him unless God is with him?

Like Shamash, the king is beautiful and majestic to mere mortals.

A good vessel keeps his thoughts to himself, the broken one pours them out.

A lion approached a donkey, "Greetings."
The donkey answered, [5]

Page 9 lines 111-125
I have lifted sand and carried salt, but nothing is heavy like grief.

I have lifted bruised straw and carried bran, but nothing is insubstantial like a transient. [6]

War troubles still water between good friends.

If someone goes from insignificance to greatness, what he says soars above him.

Everyone will want to hear what he says, and if he has favor with the gods it may be good.

No one knows the names of all the stars, and similarly no one really knows the inner workings of people.

Since there is no lion in the sea, a flood is called an alluvion [7].

The leopard met the goat when she was cold. The leopard said to the goat, "Come here, I will cover you with my hide."
The goat replied, "I do not need it, as long as you do not take mine." Since he (the leopard) does not greet the gazelle [8] unless it intends to drink its blood.

The bear suggested to the lambs, "Let me have one of you and I will leave the rest alone."
The lambs replied, "Take whichever us you want. We are in your hands" [9].

Apart from the gods, people do not even have the ability to walk. This is true for you as well. If people say good things, things will go well for them, but if they say evil things, the gods be evil to them.

If God is looking favorably at someone, that person can chop wood in the dark, not needing to see, like a thief who destroys a house and [10]

Page 9 lines 123-141
Do not bend your bow to shoot an arrow at a righteous person, since God may come to his help against you.

If you are hungry, my child, do any kind of work you can and you will be filled with food and feed your children.

If you bend your bow to shoot an arrow at a righteous man, the arrow comes from you, but God directs the arrow.

If you are in need, my child, borrow grain and wheat so you will be filled and feed your children with you.

But do not borrow too much, or from a bad person. Also, if you borrow, do not rest until you have repaid the loan.

A loan is sweet as [¿honey?], but paying back is grief.

My child, do not listen to a liar. A person's allure should be their honesty; lying is ugliness.

In the beginning they set up a throne for a liar, but then his lies find him out and they spit on his face. A liar may speak persuasively, like a [¿homely?[11]] virgin that is veiled, or like a purveyor of calamity not sent from God [12].

Do not be dissatisfied with your lot in life, or go desiring wealth that is not for you.

Do not become over-rich and conceited.

Whoever does not honor his parents, may he have no good fortune, since he is depraved.

If I am the source of my own misfortune, who will look well on me? If I am crippled by self-loathing how can I compete against others?

Do not reveal personal secrets to your friends; you will loose their respect.

Do not quarrel with someone more respected than you; do not fight with someone who is stronger. You will end up loosing some of your property to him. This is what happens when an insignificant person tries to take on someone powerful.

Do not depart from wisdom.
If you look at something too long, it becomes harder to see.
Do not be too sweet or you will be swallowed.
Do not be too bitter or you will be spit out.

If you want to be exalted, my child, humble yourself before God who humbles the exalted and exalts the humble. God does not curse the same things people do.

[lines 152-155 Damaged]
God will twist the mouth of someone who twists the truth, and pull out his tongue.

Do not let good eyes become blind or good ears deaf; let a good mouth love and speak the truth.

Page 11 lines 159-172
Someone with good conduct and a good heart is like a strong city on a mountain. No one can destroy it.

One cannot take refuge in himself, but must rather dwell with God, but who can bring down the one with whom God is?

[lines 162 omitted]

No one can know what is another's heart, so a good person should beware of a bad one. The good person and the bad should not be travelling companions, or even neighbors.

The bramble wrote to the pomegranate tree, "Bramble to pomegranate: Why so many thorns hurting the one who touches your fruit?
The pomegranate tree responded, "You are all thorns hurting anyone who touches you."

Anyone who comes in contact with a righteous man will be on his side.

A city of wicked people will be destroyed on a windy day and its gates pulled down on a calm day since their spoil belongs to the righteous.

You have scorned my eyes which I lifted to you, and my heart which I gave you in wisdom. You have turned my honor into disgrace [13].

If the wicked person grabs the corners of your clothes, leave them in his hand. Then come to Shamash who will take what is his and deliver it to you.

[lines 173-190 fragmentary]
Page 12 line 188
Hunger sweetens bitterness; thirst sweetens sourness.

lines 191-207 fragmentary
If your master entrusts you with water and you keep it faithfully, he may entrust you with gold.

One day a man said to a wild donkey, "Let me ride you, and I will take care of you."
The wild donkey said, "Keep your food and shelter and your riding as well."

The rich person should not say, "I am superb because of my riches."

Do not show the sea to an Arab, or the desert to a Sidonian. They have different work.

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The Arabic version of the Story of Ahiqar has, at 2.54:
Do not stand between quarreling persons. A quarrel comes from a bad word; war comes from a quarrel; fighting comes from war. And you will be forced to be a witness, but get away from there and protect yourself.

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[1] The ms. is damaged at this point. Presumably we hear that the same thing is going on in the aviary kingdom. I don't know if it mentions bees :-) [AH].

[2] More missing text. This and the following material in the brackets is entirely conjectural, but seems to be demanded by the context [AH].

[2a] "Wisdom" is a guess, informed by the second good thing in the previous mashal and Proverbs 9 (& parallels). It is possible, however, that uncontrolled speach is the topic, as in the following verse (and the third item in the previous), in which case this passage may have said something like, "The woman who is not a tell-all."

[3] Lit. "cover your hands," i.e. with fire [HG].

[4] Or "If you disagree with the king, keep that to your self" [AH]. Ginsberg lit.: "Cover up the word of a king with the veil of the heart" [HG].

[5] This starts out like the leopard and the goat story below, but where it goes, no one knows!

[6] Unrespected. Low class people are called "lighter than bran" in Babli, Baba Bathra, 98b [HG].

[7] (lb') - 'flood' sounds like (lby')- 'lion' [HG, AH].

[8] Ginsberg thinks this may be an error for 'goat' [HG] It is also possibly a generic for defenseless herbivores [AH].

[9] In other words, "It's not like we have a choice!" [AH]

[10] Once again, missing text leaves us wondering. The context suggests that it is something so lucky that it only makes sense if God is involved. Simply not getting caught does not seem enough [AH].

[11] Another unsupported guess, except that, from context, it has to be something undesirable about an otherwise desirable virgin which one cannot see due to her being hidden [AH].

[12] e.g. calamity from God is at least just [AH].

[13] This one passage of lament seems out of place. Perhaps it is closely connected with the following, as if the latter answers the former [AH].

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Last Modified May, 2009