Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

The wise and the scoffer (Proverbs 13:1)

Posted by jac/cdc on February 5, 2007

בֵּן חָכָם מוּסַר אָב וְלֵץ לֹא־שָׁמַע גְּעָרָה׃

bayn-cha-CHAM mu-SAR AV v’-LAYTS lo-sha-MA g’-a-RA

A wise child—a father’s discipline, but a scoffer does not heed rebuke.

The first half of this proverb is challenging because of its lack of a verb. The ancient versions (LXX, Targum, Peshitta) and the medieval commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra all feel its lack and insert or understand a verb like ‘hear’ (cf. second half), ‘love’ (cf. 12:1), or ‘accept’. Many modern versions suggest emendation (e.g., NRSV a wise child loves discipline—which requires “restoring” just a single letter). All this presents strong evidence in favor of some sort of emendation, but lately I’ve been reflecting on the “intrusiveness” of emendation. As it stands, the verbless clause makes a suggestive equation: a wise son (is the result of?) a father’s discipline.

‘Discipline’ is often associated with ‘reproof’ in Proverbs (e.g., 3:11, 5:12, etc.), and though it may imply affliction (e.g., 3:11), it also refers more generally to a body of instruction (e.g., 1:8). The ‘scoffer’ often appears opposite the ‘wise’, as here (e.g., 15:12, 20:1). The word is translated ‘arrogance’ by the Greek in 1:22, and is often associated with ‘arrogance’ in the Greek of Sirach. Its general sense is arrogant presumptuousness or foolish self-confidence.

We must, of course, remember that ‘son’ and ‘father’ are literary devices in Proverbs: we all stand in the place of ‘son’, and within the context of religious wisdom, God stands in place of ‘father’ (cf. Prov 3:11). At issue is trust in the “father” versus misplaced trust in self. This proverb calls to mind a Bach cantata from this past Sunday (BWV 92), which focuses on this very issue. One choral portion in particular is worth quoting (text and translation from Alfred Dürr, The Cantatas of J. S. Bach):

Zudem ist Weisheit und Verstand (Moreover, wisdom and understanding)
Bei ihm ohn alle Maßen, (With Him are beyond all measure;)
Zeit, Ort und Stund ist ihm bekannt, (Time, place, and hour are known to Him,)
Zu tun und auch zu lassen. (Whether to do or to leave undone.)
Er weiß, wenn Freud, (He knows when joy,)
Er weiß, wenn Leid (He knows when suffering)
Uns, seinen Kindern, diene, (Will serve us, His children,)
Und was er tut, (And whatever He does)
Ist alles gut, (Is all good,)
Ob’s noch so traurig schiene. (However sad it seems.)

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