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

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