Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

Known by their fruit

Posted by jac/cdc on January 11, 2007

(Proverbs 20:11) גַּם בְּמַעֲלָלָיו יִתְנַכֶּר־נָעַר אִם־זַךְ וְאִם־יָשָׁר פָּעֳלֹו׃

GAM b’m-a-a-la-LAV yit-na-ker-NA-ar im-ZACH v’-im-ya-SHAR po-o-LO

Even by its actions a child makes itself known, whether their behavior is pure and upright.

The traditional way of rendering this proverb is grammatically problematic since גַּם always modifies what immediately follows: either בְּמַעֲלָלָיו or the entire first half of the proverb, but not specifically נָעַר. Jewish tradition takes יִתְנַכֶּר with its usual sense of ‘dissemble’: “A child may be dissembling in his behavior even though his actions may be blameless and proper.” It is unclear to me what the point would be in stating this about a child: an adult can dissemble at least as well. It seems preferable to interpret יִתְנַכֶּר in this instance as ‘make oneself recognized’, in which case the point is that “you will know them by their fruit” (Matt 7:20).

Still, why mention the child? It may simply be that the education of young people is a focus of Proverbs (esp. chap. 1–9). A bit closer to the traditional interpretation is to understand it as saying that even the actions of the young make manifest their character.

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