Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

Good help is hard to find! (Proverbs 10:26)

Posted by jac/cdc on April 11, 2007


כַּחֹמֶץ ׀ לַשִּׁנַּיִם וְכֶעָשָׁן לָעֵינָיִם כֵּן הֶעָצֵל לְשֹׁלְחָיו׃


ka-KHO-mets la-shi-NEYE-eem u-khe-a-SHAN l’-ay-NEYE-im KAYN he-a-TSAYL l’-sho-l’-KHAV


Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes—so is a lazy person to the one who sends them.

The message of this proverb is transparent enough. Its placement in the book/section less obvious. We can particularly appreciate the artfulness of this proverb, which includes its alliteration of לַשִּׁנַּיִם (la-shi-NEYE-eem; ‘teeth’) and לָעֵינָיִם (l’-ay-NEYE-im; ‘eye), and the colorful word pictures—vinegar in the teeth (referring to any acidic, grape-based drink and the affect of the acid on the teeth) and smoke in the eyes.

Sociologically this proverb belongs to a number of sayings in the book that contain warnings about messengers (13:17; 22:21; 25:13; 26:6). Faithful and diligent messengers were, of course, much more crucial to ancient commerce than to modern business, but the lesson is not lost: successful business requires faithful and diligent workers.

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Transience and permanence (Proverbs 10:24–25)

Posted by jac/cdc on April 9, 2007


מְגֹורַת רָשָׁע הִיא תְבֹואֶנּוּ וְתַאֲוַת צַדִּיקִים יִתֵּן׃
כַּעֲבֹור סוּפָה וְאֵין רָשָׁע וְצַדִּיק יְסֹוד עֹולָם׃


m’-go-RAT ra-SHA HEE t’-vo-e-NU v’-ta-a-VAT tsa-dee-KEEM yi-TAYN
ka-a-VOR su-FA v’-AYN ra-SHA v’-tsa-DEEK y’-SOD o-LAM


The wicked’s dread—it will come on them, and the desire of the righteous ones is granted.
When the stormwind passes by, the wicked is no more; but the righteous will be established forever.

These verses return to the dominant theme of righteous-wicked in this chapter, and may be closely related to each other: neither the “dread” of the wicked nor the “stormwind” that destroys them is defined, but it is hard to avoid taking them as mutually referential in one sense. However, there is a limit to how much these two may be identified since the stormwind may be envisioned as overtaking both the wicked and the righteous, the contrast being the sustainability of the righteous in the face of the stormwind and not the avoidance of its onslaught. It is clear in any case that the general conviction of the ends of the wicked and righteous is affirmed in these verses.

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Sport (Proverbs 10:23)

Posted by jac/cdc on April 4, 2007


כִּשְׂחֹוק לִכְסִיל עֲשֹׂות זִמָּה וְחָכְמָה לְאִישׁ תְּבוּנָה׃


kis-KHOK likh-SEEL a-SOT zi-MA v’-khokh-MA l’-EESH t’-vu-NA


As sport for a fool is acting wickedly, and wisdom for a person of understanding.

My translation conveys some of the syntactic ambiguity of this proverb. The most persuasive understanding is as a chiastically ordered saying in which כִּשְׂחֹוק is gapped in the second half. Thus, just as committing iniquity (זִמָּה ‘plan, cunning’ is usually negative, and clearly so here in contrast with וְחָכְמָה in the second part) is “sport” for the fool, so is (acting) with wisdom for the person of understanding.

Thus, כִּשְׂחֹוק receives both a negative and positive nuance in this proverb. Negatively, the fool fails to take seriously the moral dimensions of life, and thus acting wickedly is no more than jesting on their part. Positively, the person of understanding takes delight in (cf. 8:30–31; 21:15) wisdom—ambiguously referred to as the principle by which the person acts or an object of contemplation in itself.

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The Lord’s blessing (Proverbs 10:22)

Posted by jac/cdc on April 2, 2007


בִּרְכַּת יְהוָה הִיא תַעֲשִׁיר וְלֹא־יֹוסִף עֶצֶב עִמָּהּ׃


bir-KAT a-do-NEYE HEE ta-a-SHEER v’-lo-yo-SEEF E-tsef i-MA


The blessing of the Lord—it enriches, and toil cannot add to it.

This proverb is not directly—either verbally or topically—related to the surrounding proverbs, though it relates to earlier evaluations of wealth (vs. 15) and diligent work (vs. 16). The most notable connection to the context is between this proverb and 10:4b: וְיַד חָרוּצִים תַּעֲשִׁיר׃. Bridges in his commentary notes of the two, “Both are consistent. The one marks the primary, the other the instrumental and subordinate, cause. Neither will be effective without the other. The sluggard looks for prosperity without diligence; the practical atheist from diligence alone.”

From the earliest ancient versions onward, there have been differences of opinion on the second part of this proverb, hinging on the interpretation of עֶצֶב: ‘toil’ or ‘pain, sorrow’? The interpretation reflected in my translation here seems least banal (but of course God’s blessing would not come with sorrow or pain as an additional component of it!) and most consonant with other wisdom teachings: Qoheleth condemns both laziness (4:5) and endless striving after wealth (4:6–8); wealth hastily obtained is condemned by the sages (Prov 20:21; 28:22); and the instruction of Ptah-hotep describes well the interaction between human diligence and divine blessing: “It is their [the gods'] law for him whom they love: his gain, he gathered it himself; it is the god who makes him worthy and protects him while he sleeps” (ll. 180–81; AEL 1.66; cf. Ps 127:1–2).

If excessive striving and laboring for wealth is seen as vanity and evil, what does all this say about our modern western society of work-a-holics—both those who work endless hours in search of monetary security and those who set themselves to the endless pursuit of academic prestige?

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The character of speech (Proverbs 10:20–21)

Posted by jac/cdc on March 30, 2007


כֶּסֶף נִבְחָר לְשֹׁון צַדִּיק לֵב רְשָׁעִים כִּמְעָט׃
שִׂפְתֵי צַדִּיק יִרְעוּ רַבִּים וֶאֱוִילִים בַּחֲסַר־לֵב יָמוּתוּ׃


KE-sef niv-CHAR l’-SHON tsa-DEEK LAYV r’sha-EEM kim-AT
sif-TAY tsa-DEEK yir-U ra-BEEM ve-e-vee-LEEM ba-cha-sar-LAYV ya-MU-tu


Choice silver is the tongue of the righteous; the mind of the wicked is (worth) little.
The lips of the righteous feed many, and fools by lack of a mind will perish.

The general topic of speech turns to the valuation of speech of the righteous in these two proverbs. The presence of צַדִּיק and לֵב in the two proverbs and the poetic variants לְשֹׁון and שִׂפְתֵי tie the two together verbally.

“Tongue” and “lips” are both metonymic for speech: the speech of the righteous is presumably pure, refined, perhaps trustworthy, and therefore valuable. The comparison with the mind of the wicked is somewhat unexpected, but reinforces the implicit logical connection between speech and mind.

Read together, the second proverb explicates the value of the speech of the righteous by focusing on its “nourishing” powers. In contrast to the satiety of those who choose to feed on the pure words of the righteous, those without a mind will perish because of that lack: they are starved for common sense.

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Loose lips (Proverbs 10:18–19)

Posted by jac/cdc on March 28, 2007


כַסֶּה שִׂנְאָה שִׂפְתֵי־שָׁקֶר וּמֹוצִא דִבָּה הוּא כְסִיל׃
בְּרֹב דְּבָרִים לֹא יֶחְדַּל־פָּשַׁע וְחֹשֵׂךְ שְׂפָתָיו מַשְׂכִּיל׃


m’-cha-SE sin-A sif-tay-SHA-ker u-mo-TSEE di-BA HU ch’-SEEL
b’-ROV d’-va-REEM LO yech-dal-PA-sha v’-cho-SHAYCH s’-fa-TAV mas-KEEL


Whoever conceals hatred—lying lips, and whoever spreads a rumor, that one is a fool
In an abundance of words there is no lack of wrongdoing, and whoever restrains their lips shows good sense.

After a brief tangent on wealth, etc., the topic returns to the topic of speech (cf. 10:12–14). These two verses both treat the issue of loose lips. Verse 18 contrasts “concealing” hatred with “spreading” rumors, neither of which is sanctioned. Both halves appear to deal with actions toward an “enemy”: one may keep the hatred hidden through hypocritical speech; or one may spread rumors to the detriment of the person. Murphy notes the presence of both “conceals” and “hatred” also in 10:12, where the effect of hatred is contrasted with the pacifying effects of love.

Verse 19 affirms that with loquaciousness comes wrongdoing, a theme that is affirmed in other wisdom writings as well, e.g., Sir 20:1–8; Abot 1:17 (וכל המרבה דברים מביא חטא, And all multiplying of words brings sin); Counsels of Wisdom 127–34. The last passage is particularly interesting, since it combines the issues of slander and careless speech, as in these two verses (that and I finally bought Lambert’s Babylonian Wisdom Literature (= BWL), so it is good to have such an occasion to cite it):

e ta-kul ka[r-ṣi q/í-bi ba-ni-ti
lim-né-e-ti e ta-ta-me da-me-eq-ta ti-iz-kàr
šá a-kil kar-ṣi qa-bu-ú li-mut-ti
i-na ri-ba-a-ti ša dšamaš ú-qa-‘-ú rēs-su
e tu-ma-ṣ pi-i-ka ú-ṣur šap-ti-ka
e-nim-me-e kab-ta-ti-ka e-di-iš e taq-bi
sur-riš ta-ta-mu-ú ta-ra-áš-ši ar-ka-niš
ú ina sa-naq at-me-e tu-šá-an-na-aḫ ṭè-en-ka


Do not utter libel, speak what is of good report.
Do not say evil things, speak well of people.
One who utters libel and speaks evil,
Men will waylay him with his debit account to Šamaš.
Beware of careless talk, guard your lips;
Do not utter solemn oaths while alone,
For what you say in a moment will follow you afterwards.
But exert yourself to restrain your speech. (BWL 106)

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To life! (Proverbs 10:16–17)

Posted by jac/cdc on March 26, 2007


פְּעֻלַּת צַדִּיק לְחַיִּים תְּבוּאַת רָשָׁע לְחַטָּאת׃
אֹרַח לְחַיִּים שֹׁומֵר מוּסָר וְעֹוזֵב תֹּוכַחַת מַתְעֶה׃


p’-u-lat tsa-DEEK l’-cha-YEEM t’-vu-at ra-SHA l’-cha-TAT
O-rach l’-cha-YEEM sho-MAYR mu-SAR v’-o-ZAYV to-CHA-chat mat-E


The wage of the righteous is to life; the gain of the wicked is for sin.
A path to life is one who keeps discipline, but one who abandons a reprimand leads astray.

Verse 16 is janus faced, relating to the subject of the preceding proverb (verse 15)—wealth and poverty, and having the common phrase לְחַיִּים “to life” with the following, verse 17.

Commentators seem unduly consternated about both these proverbs. With respect to the first one, there is concern that the gain of the wicked should be “to death” or “to destruction” in order to parallel the first part. The wage of the righteous is “to/for life,” an ambiguous phrase that could mean mean that it leads to life (so e.g., NRSV), that it is permanent or lasting—”for life,” or even possibly that it is employed for life = benefit. By contrast, the wicked use their gain only for sin. The contrast may therefore be intentionally disparaging of the wicked and their use of wealth. Compare this especially with the preceding proverb (verse 15) in which wealth is implied as preferable to poverty; the two proverbs side-by-side temper each other.

Verse 17 compares the person who keeps or observes discipline to “a path to life.” Some commentators conjecture a participle here instead of the noun, in order to better parallel the participle in the second half. Such a change demands too much symmetry of proverbs. They should not be treated as that “predictable.” In any case, the present form of the text is not really a problem: the focus seems to be on actions as exemplary; either they show “a path to life” or they “lead astray.” Perhaps it is our over-individualizing of moral teaching that leads us away from this interpretation, which underscores that my behavior with respect to discipline and guidance I receive affects those around me! It implies both that we must diligently accept and follow discipline and that our behavior should be exemplary for those who may be watching.

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The bitterness of poverty (Aḥiqar 105)

Posted by jac/cdc on March 23, 2007


טעמת אף זעררתא מררתא ומררא חסין
ולא איתי זי מריר מן ענוה


I have tasted even bitter medlar and the bitterness of endives,
but there is nothing that is more bitter than poverty.

As a follow-up to the preceding post’s theme of wealth and poverty, here is an observation about poverty from Aḥiqar. As with so many proverbs, the artfulness of this one lies in the metaphorical twist of meaning between the lines: “bitter(ness)” in the first line refers to literal, physical bitterness of medlar (small crab-apple-like fruit) and endives; but in the second line it has a metaphorical meaning, referring to the much more “bitter” experience of poverty.

As with the previously discussed proverb, we might be tempted to treat this as a neutral observation. However this would miss the point of proverbs. A couple of quotes from an entertaining article by Bert O. States (Troping through Proverbia, The American Scholar. 70/3 [2001]: 105–12) make the point:

Poetic metaphor is usually concerned with theme rather than thesis, reflection or recognition rather than practical action or behavior (106).

Proverbs, however, are not intended to enlighten as much as they are intended to light the way toward the right course or to justify what one would have done anyway . . . (108).

In other words, proverbs are both: they identify or help us “recognize” situations as a particular type, but in orienting us to the character of the situation at hand they also imply a preferred course of action.

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Wealth and Poverty (Proverbs 10:15)

Posted by jac/cdc on March 21, 2007


הֹון עָשִׁיר קִרְיַת עֻזֹּו מְחִתַּת דַּלִּים רֵישָׁם׃


hon a-SHEER qir-YAT u-ZO m’-chi-TAT da-LEEM ray-SHAM


The wealth of the rich is their strong city; the ruin of the poor is their poverty.

This proverb links to the preceding only by the repetition of מְחִתַּת“ruin.” The point of this proverb is simple enough, even tautological: the rich are afforded a degree of protection by their wealth that the poor lack, such that they are exposed to possible “ruin.”

The difficulty is what to do with the proverb? Murphy (R. E. Murphy. 1998. Proverbs. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson) concludes that this is simply a reflection on a reality of life, without any moral judgement. But then what of Fox’s notion that though Proverbs betray diverse sociological origins, there is nevertheless a guiding ideology in collecting them—one that portrays an idealistic view of city dwelling (M. V. Fox. 1986. The Social Location of the Book of Proverbs. Pp. 227–39 in Texts, Temples, and Traditions: A Tribute to Menahem Haran. M. V. Fox and et. al. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns)?

Here, however, I find the insights of Shapin helpful (Steven Shapin. 2001. Proverbial Economies: How an Understanding of Some Linguistic and Social Features of Common Sense Can Throw Light on More Prestigious Bodies of Knowledge, Science for Example. Social Studies of Science 31/5: 731-769). Shapin talks about how on the one hand, we often do not need to know the sociological origin (or literal reference) of a proverb in order to understand its import (e.g., don’t look a gift horse in the mouth; a rolling stone gathers no moss). On the other hand, proverbs lose some of their power (i.e., validity and persuasiveness) when they are placed in collections, isolated from the social settings in which they originated and were employed. Proverbs in collections can seem trite, contradictory, etc., whereas “in use” they are strong epistemological and moral tools that classify situations and imply how best to successfully navigating the situation.

How does Shapin’s insights help? I think he makes the important point that proverbs by their very character always have a “moral lesson.” Thus, we are entitled to ask what the moral lesson of this proverb is, even if it does not make a moral judgment on wealth and poverty. I am encouraged by the prospects of studying biblical Proverbs in light of Shapin’s comments. I am encouraged by the fact that they may give us a window in to the ancient culture that has hitherto been largely unexplored—namely, through reconstructing possible social situations in which these proverbs might have naturally been employed. I am also encouraged by the prospect of thereby recovering the moral lessons in these proverbs, which has largely been ignored in favor of understanding their contribution to “wisdom thought.”

More than anything, the task relies on understanding a certain commonality of thought and society between ancients and moderns, and the imagination to envision the sorts of situations that could call forth a given proverb. In the case of Prov 10:15, I can imagine a situation in which financial disaster has overtaken a poor person, and a rich person in a similar position has successfully weathered the storm. It could be spoken by either party—rich or poor—or a third party that is a witness to the unfolding events. The moral lesson? That wealth is useful protection in an uncertain world, so take precautions. Is it anything more than the “evil” associations of wealth in the Bible and history that makes it difficult to embrace such a pragmatic lesson?

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On speech (Proverbs 10:13–14)

Posted by jac/cdc on March 19, 2007


בְּשִׂפְתֵי נָבֹון תִּמָּצֵא חָכְמָה וְשֵׁבֶט לְגֵו חֲסַר־לֵב׃
חֲכָמִים יִצְפְּנוּ־דָעַת וּפִי־אֱוִיל מְחִתָּה קְרֹבָה׃


b’-sif-tay na-VON ti-ma-TSAY choch-MA v’-SHAY-vet l’-GAY cha-sar-LAYV
cha-cha-MEEM yits-p’-nu-DA-at u-fi-e-VEEL m’-chi-TA q’-ro-VA


On the lips of the discerning may be found wisdom, and a rod for the back of the one who lacks sense.
The wise will store up knowledge, and the mouth of a fool imminent ruin.

These two proverbs revolve around speech, a theme that is dominant through verse 21 of this chapter. The paired vocabulary חָכְמָה/חֲכָמִים and בְּשִׂפְתֵי/וּפִי also hold the verses together. Verse 13b is a variation on 26:3b, which compares the need of a rod for a fool to similar instruments of guidance for animals.

I am inclined to understand verbal ellipsis in both verses, in which case the contrast consists in part in the ironic reversal of meaning of the verb from the first to the second half of the verse: one may find knowledge on the lips of the understanding (taking the verb as a deontic modal expressing permission and hence invitation to partake of the offered wisdom), and one must find a stick for the back of one lacking sense (a deontic modal interpretation expressing necessity: there is no other way to guide one lacking sense). Similarly, the wise will store of knowledge (understood positively as valuing it and storing it up for future use), and the mouth of the fool stores up imminent destruction (in the sense of building up just desserts for their talk). The ironic reversal of the verbs in one case involves the modal interpretation, in the other the metaphoric understanding of the lexeme “store up.” In both cases, however, if the reversals lend to the “antithetical” contrast of the two halves.

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