Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

Virtues of leadership

Posted by jac/cdc on January 5, 2007

(Proverbs 29:2)בִּרְבוֹת צַדִּיקִים יִשְׂמַח הָעָם וּבִמְשֹׁל רָשָׁע יֵאָנַח עָם׃

bir-VOT tsa-dEE-KEEM yis-MAKH ha-AM u-vim-SHOL ra-SHA yay-a-NAKH AM

When the righteous increase the people rejoice; but when a wicked person rules people sigh.

The second half of this proverb is obvious enough, but what about the first part? Does increase speak of the ascendancy of the righteous to positions of power, hence contrasting the rule of the righteous with the rule of the wicked, or does it suggest the numerical or economic increase of the “community” of the righteous? The implicit distinction between the righteous and the people (i.e., the ruler’s subjects?) would suggest the first interpretation as more probable. However, the similar proverb in 28:28 (When the wicked arise, people hide; but when they perish, the righteous increase) suggests that the increase of righteous people in the land is mutually exclusive with the rule of the wicked. The first interpretation is straightforward: it extols righteousness in leadership and condemns wickedness—a value in common with other didactic literature throughout the ancient Near East (e.g., Don’t be evil, kindness is good from the Egyptian “Instruction for King Merikare”). The second interpretation is more subtle, not simply extolling righteous rule but also underscoring the inculcating nature of the ruler’s conduct: a righteous ruler increases the company of righteous throughout his realm.

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