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.
(7-8)

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.
(10-16)
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?
(5:18-20)

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.
(6-11)

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.

Marginalia!

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.
(3:21-22)


NEXT WEEK: More Proverbs!

This Week's Text: Proverbs 1 - 6

4 comments:

Jennifer said...

Let's hear it for wisdom! Wisdom is great. Lots of wisdom is better than just a little wisdom, and a little wisdom is better than none at all. The wise man soweth his words in the ground like corn and harvests the ears when they come up. You can never have too much wisdom...

Or at least we'll find out soon if you can have too much wisdom as you go through Proverbs, I guess.

Elaine said...

The "boxom?"

Michael5000 said...

@Elaine: Corrected. It's the bosom. Don't embrace the bosom. The boxom is up for grabs.

Incidentally, your bunny story is waiting for me at the library. Patience, patience.

Beaukiss Steve said...

Wisdom is wonderful, and it's found in a lot of places. Proverbs is a book to help train the mind to find Wisdom. Great Blog.