Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Proverbs 7 - 16: 235 Propositions

As we continue on into the Book of Proverbs, there is a break in style beginning with Proverbs 10. Chapters 7, 8, & 9, though, continue in the same vein as the material we were looking at last time. Chapter 7 is a warning against spending time with adultresses, and Chapter 8 is another paean to wisdom; Chapter 9 is a little folktale contrasting wisdom and folly.

Proverbs 7:6 - 22 is an uninterrupted narrative, which came as a real treat -- it had been a long time! It begins:

At the window of my house I looked out through the lattice.
I saw among the simple, I noticed among the young men, a youth who lacked judgment.
(6 - 7)
This young guy has the misfortune to meet a woman whose husband is out of town. She kisses him with a brazen face and invites him home to check out her fine Egyptian linen sheets, which she has perfumed with myrrh, aloe, and cinnamon. After some smooth talking on her part,
All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter,
like a deer stepping into a noose.
Now, I don't want to be unduly cynical, but having such an relatively long, detailed, and sexy story suddenly pop up in the text made me think about the exploitation paperbacks of 50 years back, a briefly popular genre that allowed publishers to print prurient sexual material under a paper-thin disguise of social criticism. Is it possible that this tale -- the sad story of the poor unfortunate lad who gets tricked into a terrible terrible night of hot cinnamon-scented sex with the beautiful, assertive, seductive woman -- was an occasion for more chortling, smirks, and elbowing in the ribs than solemn contemplation? No way of knowing, I suppose.

Chapter 8's praise of wisdom extends to a kind of personification, with capital-W Wisdom speaking in first person:
The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old...

I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.
(22, 30-31)
It is unusual to see an abstract virtue assigned a voice in the Bible, and it recalls for me a speech you might expect to hear from a god or goddess of wisdom in a pantheon. If you are willing to read this passage metaphorically, it's not too hard to accept it as a literary device, a way of praising wisdom by pretending to personify it. A strict Biblical literalist runs into another trouble spot here, though, as Wisdom is elevated to a minor god and we find ourselves once again confronted by a whiff of polytheism.

The Book of List

The heading for Proverbs 10 is Proverbs of Solomon, and what follows is a list of aphorisms that lasts for at least the next six chapters. These do not seem to be organized in any particular order, and the chapter breaks seem fairly arbitrary as well. Every individual verse, unless I am mistaken, is in the form of a couplet, the two halves of which often express opposite forms of the same idea (e.g. The Lord abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight. (11:1))

The Proverbs assert the same values that we saw praised in the Psalms. They are pro-wisdom, of course, and also pro-honesty, pro-obedience, pro-work, pro-patience, and pro-charity. They are also pro-righteousness, although I still get question marks in my head when I see righteousness, which could reasonably be defined as "that which is praiseworthy," described as worthy of praise. The Proverbs are, as you might expect, anti-wickedness. They are anti-pride and anti-sloth, against mocking, lying, and shooting one's mouth off. And like the Psalms, they frequently offer promises of long life, prosperity, and security to the righteous and threats of destruction to the wicked.
The fear of the Lord adds length to life,
but the years of the wicked are cut short.
The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it. (10:22)
The righteous man is rescued from trouble, and it comes on the wicked instead. (11:8)
The Lord tears down the proud man's house but he keeps the widow's boundaries intact. (15:25)
Three Kinds of Proverbs

There are probably a lot of ways that you could categorize this long list of moral statements, but three categories leapt out at me as I read. This is not to say "there are three kinds of Proverbs"; my three types are potentially overlapping and not comprehensive. Nevertheless:

The Tautologies

Quite a few of the Proverbs, at least in the English translation we are reading, are so circular as to be nearly meaningless. A particularly vivid example is Proverb 11:13,
A gossip betrays a confidence,
but a trustworthy man keeps a secret.
It is certainly a wise statement in the sense of being true, since it essentially recites the definition of "gossip" and "trustworthy." It adds little beyond this, however. Similarly, 15:13 doesn't tell us much we didn't already know:
A happy heart makes the face cheerful,
but heartache crushes the spirit.
Or 12:17:
A truthful witness gives honest testimony,
but a false witness tells lies.
And when 16:27 tells us that A scoundrel plots evil, there is nothing to be done but nod in agreement. That's what a scoundrel does, all right!

Most of the Tautological Proverbs are not quite so blatant. Take 10:26:
As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes,
so is a sluggard to those who send him.
Well, yes. A sluggard is essentially someone who is annoyingly slow or lazy. So, to say that sluggards are annoying adds nothing that is not already inherent in the word "sluggard." People curse the man who hoards grain, begins 11:26 -- but then, unpopular anti-social behavior is already implied in the word "hoards." Again, the Proverb is stating a truth that is uncontestable, but only because it is circular.

The Dubious Truths

The Dubious Truths are confident assertions that, once you think about them, are vulnerable to obvious counterexamples.
Hatred stirs up dissension,
but love covers over all wrongs.
For lack of guidance a nation falls,
but many advisers make victory sure.
A kindhearted woman gains respect,
but ruthless men gain only wealth.
These are probably better thought of not as hopelessly naive musings, but as statements of principle, of the way that things should be in a just society, all other things being equal.
Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
but he who hates correction is stupid.
A man's riches may ransom his life,
but a poor man hears no threat.
He who spares the rod hates his son,
but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.
It would be unkind and unrealistic to think that Solomon, or his eventual amanuensis, really believed that all smart people love discipline, that the poor are safe from crime, and that indulgent parents hate their children. Once again, we must be looking at figures of speech, poetic ways of saying "It's good to discipline kids," "Being too rich can get you in trouble," and "It's a good idea to listen to constructive criticism."

Proverbs of Judgment

The Proverbs that are most user-friendly are the ones that simply state a principle. They make a judgment. Mind, this is not to criticize them. After all, wisdom is "good judgment" and the Proverbs are supposed to be all about the wisdom. So here, according to Solomon (or whomever), are some nuggets of pure wisdom:
Like a gold ring in a pig's snout
is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.
How much better to get wisdom than gold,
to choose understanding rather than silver!
These are, however, surprisingly rare. To eyeball these six chapters, the majority of Proverbs seem to fall into the Dubious Truths category, with Tautologies leading Proverbs of Judgment among the minority categories.

Three Favorites
A heart at peace gives life to the body,
but envy rots the bones.
Better a meal of vegetables where there is love
than a fatted calf with hatred.
Well, I'm a quasi-vegetarian, and I like cows.
Grey hair is a crown of splendor;
it is attained by a righteous life.
A very Calvinist sentiment, reflecting the idea that people who please God will live a long time while the bad guys are cut down in their prime. Whatever! It makes me think of my mom!

Next Time: I bet this list continues.

Today's Text: Proverbs 7 - 16.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Proverbs 1 - 6: Bring on the Wisdom!

In the last entry, looking forward to the book of Proverbs and trying to imagine what I would find in it, I had the vague notion that it might be like Polonius' famous advice speech in Hamlet -- you know, "neither a borrower nor a lender be" and all of that. Well, to my considerable amazement... I was right. Proverbs really is a lot like Polonius' famous advice speech in Hamlet!! It is suggestions for right living, couched as a long speech from a father to his son, and even -- forgive me -- has some of the long-winded and too-obvious qualities of the Shakespeare speech.

Each chapter begins with a variation of "Listen to your old man, you little punk." Proverbs 4, for example:

Listen, my sons, to a father's instruction;
pay attention and gain understanding.
I give you sound learning,
so do not forsake my teaching. (1-2)

Proverbs is very big on "wisdom," and spends a lot of time talking about how awesome wisdom is. This is the aspect of the Book that seems a bit tedious; in these first six chapters at least, it often seems as though the writer is spending more time stating how great wisdom is than he is actually dispensing any wisdom.

Good Advices

Much of the wisdom, once it arrives, can be generalized into two ideas: Obey God, and Don't Be Evil. An example of the first idea appears, with the difficult-to-verify claim that belief in God is healthful, in Proverbs 3:
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and shun evil.
This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.

An example of the latter concept arrives early in Proverbs 1:
My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them
If they say, "Come along with us;
let's lie in wait for someone's blood,
let's waylay some harmless soul;
let's swallow them alive, like the grave,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot with us, and we will share a common purse"--
my son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths;
for their feet rush into sin,
they are swift to shed blood.
This is certainly not bad advice at all, and indeed I hope any of you dads out there are discouraging your kids from joining bands of opportunistic killers. It's just that telling someone that they shouldn't hang out with opportunistic killers because they are violent and sinful seems like a bit of a restrained argument. (What I suspect might be really going on in passages like this, really, is that the "for" doesn't exactly mean "because," but something slightly different that is hard to render in English. This would go a long way toward explaining why the logic of the Old Testament so frequently seems off-kilter. But who knows; I know absolutely nothing about the linguistics involved.)

The most prominent piece of concrete guidance given in Proverbs 1-6 is that you should try to avoid hanging around with adulteresses. It's rather implied that you should avoid collaborating to create adulteresses too, although this is never directly stated. In a frank and earthy passage, the writer spells it out for his son:
May your fountain be blessed,
and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.
A loving doe, a graceful deer --
may her breasts satisfy you always,
my you ever be captivated by her love.
Why be captivated, my son, by an adulteress?
Why embrace the bosom of another man's wife?

In addition to further admonitions against adultresses and prostitutes, Proverbs 6 has the very famous warning against laziness:
Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
and gathers its food at harvest

How long will you lie there, you sluggard
When will you get up from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest--
and poverty will come on you like a bandit
and scarcity like an armed man.

Six or Seven Things God Hates About You

And it also has a list that immediately caught my eye as resembling the kind of thing you might expect to find if the capital-B Bible was like a small-b bible, a straightforward handbook of rules and tips for proper conduct, practice, and belief. It is a list of the six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestible to him:
haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
a false witness who pours out lies
and a man who stirs up dissention among brothers. (16-19)

Although the numbering is a little confusing -- which one is the one that the Lord finds detestible, but doesn't hate? -- this is an extremely interesting list. It is almost the opposite, if you think about it, of the Ten Commandments. The one consists of ten rules (most, admittedly, in the negative -- thou shalt NOT) you should follow; whereas the Proverbs 6 list implies six or seven things to avoid. It's interesting that the list isn't better known -- unless it is, and I've just somehow missed it all these years.


Today's reading included something I haven't seen for many months: a marking in the margins of this Bible. Extremely long-time readers might recall that I am the first and only owner of the official project Bible, so this notation -- a simple bracket alongside Proverbs 3:21 - 22 -- was undoubtedly made by me. Why I found this passage significant, or when it was that I was poking around in Proverbs, though -- of this, I have no memory at all.
My son, preserve sound judgment and discernment,
do not let them out of your sight;
they will be life for you,
an ornament to grace your neck.

NEXT WEEK: More Proverbs!

This Week's Text: Proverbs 1 - 6

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Psalms 144 - 150: End of the Psalms

The stretch from Psalm 144 to Psalm 150 -- the final Psalm! -- begins with Praise be to the Lord and ends with Praise the Lord, and in between there are numerous praises sung to the Lord. What is not praise is mostly affirmation: statements to or about God that indicate his magnificence, power, mercy, love, and justice. What is left over is petitions: requests for the destruction of enemies and foreigners, and for peace and prosperity.

There is nothing in these final seven Psalms about the sorrow and despair of one who feels failed by God, and relatively few complaints about the vindictive enemies and evil-doers who have it in for the Psalmist. Other than that, they are fairly representative of the whole set of 150. They cover familiar topics and employ the Psalmic style: an energetic, declaritive, loosely structured poetry with a fairly narrow range of themes and images. They are rich in ringing phrases and chockablock with abrupt shifts of topic and mood. Having been composed for singing or chanting one at a time, they make -- as I have often complained -- for a tedious, numbing experience when read through en masse.

Reading the Psalms as an Outsider

There are some styles of music that, as an occasional guitar noodler, I enjoy playing even though I don't especially enjoy listening to them. Heavy Metal, bluegrass, and a lot of folk music fall into this category. Others will differ, of course, but for me these are musics that are best experienced as a performer, not as a listener. And to stretch a point, maybe this is somewhat true of the Psalms as well. To a worshiper -- to someone in the actual act of "Praising the Lord" -- the Psalms may be a rich library of texts, and therefore of practices, that enrich and add structure to that experience. To their original writers and to someone using them in the context of religious practice today, the affirmations and petitions of the Psalms may be perceived as ringing with the most sacred holy truths.

To an outsider to this experience, however, there is an arid and lifeless quality to the Psalms. In their singleminded assertions, stripped of anything like argument or narrative flow, it is hard to find anything like inspiration. They have been, to be sure, different from anything else we've encountered so far in the Bible, certainly unlike the epic historical accounts and the lists of stern Mosaic Law. The poetic Book of Job, although I found it equally inpenetrable as Psalms, was at least steeped in theological ideas, whereas Psalms itself consists merely of thousands of essentially unconnected religious statements. There is not enough development of ideas in Psalms for anything but the loosest theological concepts to be apparent, and even these are often at odds with each other: God is merciful, and vengeful; God is all-loving, and has abandoned me; God reigns over all kingdoms, and will protect me from the foreigners.

I knew when I picked the Bible up that it would not be a wholely unified document, but I did not realize just how much of a... scrapbook it would turn out to be. The range of materials is quite a bit broader than I realized. I don't recall exactly what I expected from the Psalms, but I don't think I expected them to be no more (and no less, I suppose) than the hymnal tucked in among the histories and prophets. Yet that's pretty much what they are.

Progress Report!

Reading Psalms, the longest book of the Bible, took 21 posts spread over 5 months and 6 days. Having completed Psalms, I've got through 19 of the 66 Books of the Bible: 28.8%.

Well, that's all fine and good, but I've also completed 628 of the Chapters of the Bible, or 52.8%! Or 16401 of the Verses, 52.7%! I'M MORE THAN HALFWAY THROUGH, PEOPLE!

NEXT TIME: Here come Proverbs! Which I expect to be... somewhat like Psalms, except pithier? And more addressed to everyday life, rather than religious practice? I guess I imagine Proverbs as being like Polonius' long advice-giving speech in Hamlet. I bet I'm wrong. But here's an advantage Proverbs is sure to have over Psalms: it's only 31 Chapters long!

We'll tuck into it next time!

This Week's Reading: Psalms 144 - 150