Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

Thorns and snares (Proverbs 22:5)

Posted by jac/cdc on January 15, 2007

(Proverbs 22:5) צִנִּים פַּחִים בְּדֶרֶךְ עִקֵּשׁ שׁוֹמֵ֥ר נַ֝פְשׁ֗וֹ יִרְחַ֥ק מֵהֶֽם׃

tsi-NEEM pa-CHEEM b’-DE-rech ‘ee-QAYSH sho-MAYR naph-SHO yir-CHAQ may-HEM

Thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse; the diligent guardian of their life will keep far from them.

Proverbs presents orthodox wisdom: the wise will prosper and the wicked will suffer. Examples to the contrary, however, do not invalidate the advice based on this world view, and presented in this proverb in terms of the metaphor of ‘way, path’. The ‘perverse’ are those who turn aside from the ‘way’ of wisdom, and their way is full of difficulty and problems—whether physical, financial, or moral. The person who successfully avoids these problems is the one who takes full stock in the danger of “turning from the way” and recognizes that to preserve their life they must attend to staying “on the straight and narrow.” The whole metaphor of ‘way’ is very productive throughout the Hebrew Bible and moral and religious writings; the proverb here calls to mind the extended use of ‘way’ in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

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4 Responses to “Thorns and snares (Proverbs 22:5)”

  1. I am really enjoying your series. Thanks for all the hard work! I would be very interested in any reflections on the “status” of a proverb such as this. Crenshaw calls it a big lie, but that won’t do, will it? It clearly doesn’t work as a universal “law of nature.” How do we best describe its quality of truth?? Peace, —Stephen Cook

  2. jac/cdc said

    I’m glad you are enjoying the blog. Colin and I have enjoyed working through some of these proverbs. Your question is a good one and not easily answered. I’ve attempted to address this issue as far as I could from a linguistic (semantic) perspective in my essay in the Fox Festschrift Seeking Out the Wisdom of the Ancients (www.eisenbrauns.com/wconnect/wc.dll?ebGate~EIS~~I~TROSEEKIN). Linguists have illustrated the problem as one of meaning: how does a statement like “birds fly” mean anything (i.e., under what circumstances is it true) since we know that certain birds do not fly. One approach to generic statements like this is the “inductivist” one, which argues that once their are enough instantiations of a situation we may make such generic statements. Another is the “rules-and-regulations” theory, which argues that these statements do not directly describe events but some rule or regulation about the “world.” Finally, a third approach is the “alternative-based” theory, which argues that such statements must be evaluated on the basis of alternatives. Thus, “birds fly” is true because “fly” is seen as more “prototypical” of birds than other, alternative means of locomotion, such as walk, hop, run. I’m not sure that any of these three approaches are universally successful. I’m inclined, for instance, to gravitate toward the rules-and-regulations approach in describing this proverb, because I understand the sages as describing the “structure” of the world. Of course Job and Qoheleth both rail against this view as somewhat nieve, but like the Psalmists I think the sages as often base their advice on what the world’s structure should be as what it actually is. Although this may appear to dodge the question, I think it points to the power of the sayings of the sages as “world making,” just as the Psalms are often described as being (e.g., Brueggemann). Proverbs, like Psalms, sometimes present the world with all its injustices but other times portray the world as it should be. In so doing they confront and challenge our own (often cynical and faithless) conception of God’s justice in the world.

  3. Jim said

    I second Stephen’s comment. What a great series. A great treat. Thanks for it.

  4. Very helpful. Thanks! —SLC

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