Sunday, November 08, 2009

Blog Sabbath 2009!

And with the conclusion of the Book of Proverbs, it's time for the annual November - December MRtB Sabbath!

I read only six Books this year, but that included the massive and in some ways daunting Book of Psalms. In total, I've finished 20 of the Bible's 66 Books now, so I'm 30.3% of the way in. I read 256 chapters, though, which brings me up to 659 out of 1189, well over halfway through (55.4%). I'm at 55.7% of the way through in Verses, having completed a whopping 16401 out of 31102.

I stayed on task pretty well in 2009, despite the trouble that the Books of Job and Psalms gave me. I covered 5299 verses over the course of the year, down from 7124 last year but well over the 4687 in 2007 and 206 in 2006). I have 5829 verses to go to reach the New Testament, which would be a nice break point; it's an ambitious goal, but I will see if I can finish off the Old Testament in 2010. That would put the end of the whole project sometime in 2012. Mercy.

So, whatever readers there may be: Have lovely winter holidays of your choosing. I may well be back for a few pieces of unfinished business -- Elaine's request for me to read the book about the rabbit, for instance -- but we'll get back to actual Bible-readin' sometime around the new year. Ecclesiastes ho!!!

Proverbs 22-31: Wrapping Up Proverbs

The specific material we have been looking at in the last few posts – the entire stretch from Proverbs 10 to halfway through Proverbs 22, in fact – falls under the heading “Proverbs of Solomon.” In today’s reading, there are several subdivisions, and the content starts to change up a bit from Proverbs 25 to the last chapter, Proverbs 31.

Proverbs 22 - 24 for Dummies

The first half of Proverbs 22 still comes under the “Proverbs of Solomon” label. The second half of Proverbs 22, all of 23, and the first half of 24 are labeled “Sayings of the Wise.” The second half of 24 is labeled “Further Sayings of the Wise.” There are some minor stylistic differences here from the material we’ve been going through, but it certainly covers the same terrain in terms of themes. It has the same basic teachings about what’s good and what’s bad. And here, as a public service, I present the summary list!

Good Things:

A good reputation
Fear of God
Bringing up children well
Being rich
Purity of Heart
Disciplining children
Being skilled
Being wise (x6)
Listening to your parents
Having advisers
Rescuing people in trouble
Doing the outside work first, and making sure your crops are planted before building your house.
This last, very specific piece of wisdom (24:27) reminds us that the Bible comes from a specific time and place, one where the outside work generates food to sustain life and housing is a luxury. Presumably, Eskimos and those of us living in food-abundant technological societies are given a pass on this one.

Bad Things
Being wicked
Being poor
Sowing wickedness
Kissing an adulteress
Mocking (x2)
Oppressing the poor (x2)
Giving gifts to the rich
Crushing the needy in court
Being friends with a hot-tempered man
Backing the debts of others
Moving an ancient boundary stone (x2)
Gluttony (x2)
Being too excited about riches
Eating the food of a stingy man
Speaking to a fool
Encroaching on the fields of the fatherless
Withholding discipline from children
Envying sinners (x3)
Drinking too much (x2)
Cavorting with prostitutes
Plotting evil
Pretending you didn’t know that other people were in trouble
Being a biased judge
Giving false testimony
Rebelling against the king
So there you have it! All the does and don’ts, in a convenient list form!

Proverbs 25 – 29

This section is called “More Proverbs of Solomon,” but Chapters 25 and 26 in particular are quite a bit different than the previous Proverbs of Solomon. The first half of Chapter 25 consists of what I am calling “Proverbs of Court” – pieces of advice for kings and people going to a king’s court. The second half of 25, and almost all of 26, are mostly analogies. These vary from the obvious to the cryptic:
Like the one who seizes a dog by the ears
is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own.

As a dog returns to its vomit,
so a fool repeats his folly.

Like a lame man’s legs that hang limp
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day,
or like vinegar poured on soda,
is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.
I spent quite a while trying to figure out whether 26:4-5 was a flagrant contradiction:
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Or you will be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
Or he will be wise in his own eyes.
Well, maybe. Or maybe the Bible is just expressing a paradox to the effect that “you just can’t win when you’re talking with a fool!” That’s some catch, that Catch 26:4-5.

Proverbs 27-29 return to the same style and themes of Proverbs 10-22. In fact, these Chapters often return to the exact same words, even whole Verses, of earlier Chapters. There are a fair number of reruns here in Proverbs.

Proverbs 30

This Chapter is called “Sayings of Agur,” Agur having been either an “oracle” or the son of a Man from Massa; the interpretation isn’t clear. I’m betting on “oracle,” though, as his sayings are pretty mystical. Which is to say, trippy:
Who has gone up to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered up the wind in the hollow of his hands?
Who has wrapped up the waters in his cloak?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and the name of his son?
Tell me if you know!

The leech has two daughters.
“Give! Give!” they cry.
Much of the chapter consists of a peculiar kind of list, a type I’ve noticed one or two other examples of in earlier passages. In Agur’s Sayings, the form goes “There are four things that [are {x}], three things that [are {synonym of x}], and then a list of four items.
There are three things that are stately in their stride,
four that move with stately bearing:
a lion, mighty among beasts,
who retreats before nothing;
a strutting rooster, a he-goat,
and a king with his army around him.

There are three things that are never satisfied,
four that never say, ‘Enough!’:
the grave, the barren womb,
land, which is never satisfied with water,
and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!”
This is a pretty cool riddle form, but I’m not sure what they are really supposed to mean, why they are supposed to be significant. There’s only one that seems straightforward; I think that in 18-19 Agur is trying to make the ancient joke that woman are just too darn inscrutable. He chooses his words poorly, though, and would likely get laughed out of the bar if he were to repeat them today:
There are three things that are too amazing for me,
four that I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a maiden.
Really, how does a guy get to be oracle without understanding that last bit?

Proverbs 31

The final Chapter of Proverbs is split in two sections. The first are the Sayings of King Lemuel, or actually the sayings of King Lemuel’s mother. He reports that she warned him that he, as a king, should avoid women, wine, and beer, that he should be a fair judge, and that he should defend the rights of the poor and the needy.

Part two is the Epilogue: The Wife of Noble Character. In 21 Verses, this passage describes the Proverbial dream girl. She is, you may have heard, worth far more than rubies. (10) It is pretty specific about tasks appropriate to a pre-modern agricultural society, but the gist is that a good wife is hard-working, smart, trustworthy, generous, even-keeled, religious, and responsible. She doesn’t need to be charming or pretty, but those things aren’t important in the long run anyway.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Proverbs 19-21: Proverbs and the Poor, Proverbs in the Marketplace, and other good advice.

Let's begin with my favorite Proverbs from #19, just because it's fun to imagine them cross-stitched, or carved on a plaque, hanging on a kitchen wall:

A foolish son is his father's ruin,
and a quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping.
Houses and wealth are inherited from parents,
but a prudent wife is from the Lord.
Proverbs and the Poor

The Proverbs continue to be a mixed batch here in Chapter 19, but five of the twenty-nine happen to deal with the poor. They are the following:

Better a poor man whose walk is blameless
than a fool whose lips are perverse.

Wealth brings many friends,
but a poor man's friend deserts him.

A poor man is shunned by all his relatives --
how much more do his friends avoid him!
Though he pursues them with pleading, they are nowhere to be found.

It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury --
how much worse for a slave to rule over princes!

What a man desires is unfailing love;
better to be poor than a liar.
OK, Verse 1 is straightforward enough, and Verse 22 is a bit disjointed but means basically the same thing. What is a little more surprising is Verses 4 and 7, with what appears to be a negative attitude about the poor. On one hand, the observation that it's easier for people who are well off to attract friends could be passed off as a neutral observation, a simple statement of the way things are. But this is a book of wisdom, as we have been repeatedly told, and the assumption is that all its verses have moral weight. Looked at in this light, Verses 4 and 7 acquire the sense of "It's obnoxious to be poor, so you have an obligation to avoid poverty." Harsh!

The class dynamics of 19:10 are a little puzzling too. I can remember a time back in Exodus that the Bible was all about slaves getting to rule over their masters, but it seems here like there has been a turn towards the Conservative. Well, these are the Proverbs of Solomon, after all, and Solomon is a king, and kings are not known for their calls for the poor to rise up and throw of their chains.

Proverbs in the Marketplace

Again, Proverbs 20 has the usual mix-and-match, but I'm picking out a handful that have to do with economic life.

There are a lot of Proverbs about laziness, including these:

A sluggard does not plow in season;
so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing.

Do not love sleep or you will grow poor;
stay awake and you will have food to spare.
Well, fair enough. A certain amount of get-up-and-go is required to prosper here in our modern age, but it's reasonable to assume this was all the more so when food supply was never far from anyone's mind.

Another thread of Proverbs concerns economic fair play:

Food gained by fraud tastes sweet to a man,
but he ends up with a mouth full of gravel.
More explicit, and more common, are Proverbs about weights and measures. This seems a little comical to us today, but that's only because we generally HAVE standard, regulated weights and measures, and have lost sight of how difficult it is to conduct fair exchanges when you have to renegotiate the rules every time.

Differing weights and differing measures --
The Lord detests them both.

The Lord detests differing weights,
and dishonest scales do not please him.
Then there's this odd little gem:

"It's no good, it's no good!" says the buyer;
then off he goes and boasts about his purchase.
Again, you could see this as a wry observation about human behavior. But as with 19:4 & 7, this comes in a list of moral injunctions, so we have to assume it has moral weight. My guess is that it is criticizing the buyer for his hypocrisy, but I'm not sure.

I'm even less sure about 20:16.

Take the garment of one who puts up security for a stranger;
hold it in pledge if he does it for a wayward woman.
Baffled. Anyone?

Mixed in with these commercial Proverbs, of course, are the continual reminders that, although the material world is important, there's something even importanter. Care to guess?

Gold there is, and rubies in abundance,
but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel.
Tricked you! You thought it was going to be "wisdom!"

Proverbs 21

The grab-bag goes on. Themes that we've just looked at are repeated:

The sluggard's craving will be the death of him,
because his hands refuse to work.

A fortune made by a lying tongue
is a fleeting vapor and a deadly snare.
There's a different note sounded about the poor:

If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor,
he too will cry out and not be answered.
And encouragement of thrift:

He who loves pleasure will become poor;
whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich.

In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil,
but a foolish man devours all he has.
But the very, very most interesting Proverb of Chapter 21 -- one of the most interesting sentences in the whole book to date, really -- is this:

To do what is right and just
is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
WOAH WOAH WOAH WOAH WOAH!!! This is big news, as it appears to very casually undermine much of the Law of Moses. And it is strange to see this notion ascribed to Solomon, since we've already read through Kings and Chronicles that sacrifice was very important indeed for many, many generations after the death of Solomon. Indeed, if memory serves God was still judging kings and the fates of Israel and Judah according to the orthodoxy of their sacrifices, punishing them not just when altars were set up to other gods but when altars to God were set up not according to code.

So this is a rather explosive verse to find tucked in with the nagging-wife Proverbs, which may well be wise counsel to choose well in marriage but which must have always been a bit of comic relief:

Better to live on a corner of the roof
than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.

Better to live in a desert
than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife.

Next time: Proverbs 22-31: the Sprint

Today's Text: Proverbs 19-21

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Proverbs 17 - 18: The Weakness of Categories; The Power of Language

Proverbs 17

My first thought for this go-round was that I'd extend my typology of Proverbs from last time and do a proverbial census. This is the kind of thing that, if all goes well, could lead to a pie chart, which would of course be awesome.

It started off well enough, with two new categories added to the ones from last time (dubious assertions, tautologies, judgments): assertions of faith and Proverbs of reward and revenge, the promises of better life for the virtuous and punishment for the evil, which I also talked about last time. But as I began the business of fitting each Proverb into one of the categories, I found my definitional edges starting to crumble.

Take 17:26, for instance:

It is not good to punish an innocent man,
or to flog officials for their integrity.
My first impulse was "judgment," a statement of principle. But then, you could also be a little cynical and call it a dubious assertion, for surely anyone who has read Machiavelli can imagine situations where it might be a good idea to punish some innocent men in order to preserve peace, prosperity, and public order. Or on the other hand, you could call it a tautology: the definition of "innocent" is more or less "those not deserving punishment."

Similarly with Verses 21 & 25:

To have a fool for a son brings grief;
there is no joy for the father of a fool.

A foolish son brings grief to his father
and bitterness to the one who bore him.
My first thought was "judgment"; they are an assessment that foolishness is bad. But then I thought, wait a minute, that's a pretty dubious assertion -- I know people whose children are kind of numbskulls, and they are happy enough in general and have reasonably good relationships with their kids too. Too, there's a whiff of tautology here in the obviousness of the statement, the idea that a parent wouldn't want they child to have bad qualities hardly being breaking news.

So, I gave up the categorizing.

Proverbs 18

In reading this Chapter, I noticed statements that seemed to imply a philosophy of knowledge. That's not to say that this chapter is "about" a philosophy of knowledge, mind you -- the individual Proverbs seem as much a grab-bag as ever. What set me off was probably 18:4

The words of a man's mouth are deep waters,
but the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook.
Now a statement like this leaves lots of room for interpretation, of course, but it also seems to suggest that it doesn't want to be interpreted too much. It seems to argue for the concept of "Keep It Simple, Stupid" or of Occam's Razor. This might be a comfort for someone trying to dredge some understanding out of Derrida or Kant. Calls to prefer "common sense" over that too-fussy book larnin', though, are dangerous; they tend to render people resistant understanding or appreciating the workings of complex systems, and most systems are complex systems.

The chapter has numerous admonitions that it is better to shut up and listen than to shoot your mouth off.

A fool finds no pleasure in understanding
but delights in airing his own opinions.
A fool's lips bring him strife
and his mouth invites a beating
A fool's mouth is his undoing,
and his lips are a snare to his soul.
He who answers before listening --
that is his folly and his shame.
The idea that you should shut up when you don't know what you are talking about is of course a compelling one, especially to anyone reading the reader comments on the average newspaper article. But there is also a very conservative element at play here. Solomon the King is famously wise -- he's really made it the hallmark of his brand -- and here he is saying that people who aren't wise should just shut the hell up. It is awfully convenient for him and his hold on power.

Because certainly, the author of Proverbs 18 understood the power of language. Check out Verse 17:

The first to present his case seems right,
till another comes forward and questions him.
Or the odd Verse 8:

The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;
they go down to a man's inmost parts.
This is perhaps an unfortunate metaphor, as the first thing that jumps into most heads about "choice morsels" is that they are tasty and highly desireable. I think the intended concept, though, is that gossip will worm its way into a person's inner being and be destructive there, rather than nourishing. Another curious metaphor follows at Verse 21:

The tongue has the power of life and death,
and those who love it will eat its fruit.
Bizarre imagery aside, the idea seems fairly clear: language is powerful, and knowing how to use language confers power.

Next Time: Proverbs and the Poor, Proverbs in the Marketplace, and other good advice.

Today's Text: Proverbs 17 - 18.