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.

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