Sunday, November 08, 2009

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.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

I don't think that riddle's about women's inscrutability. The first three seem to be motion-based (though I'm not sure about the snake), which suggests that the fourth has less to do with women's inscrutability than with something rather more tangible.

Besides, I like the idea that there's something ineffable about sex, even to a mystic. But maybe I'm misunderstanding your point?

The riddle form reminds me of the Welsh triads, which are very similar, and which I had a lot of fun reading (years ago).