Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

On moral training (Proverbs 10:1)

Posted by jac/cdc on March 5, 2007

בֵּן חָכָם יְשַׂמַּח־אָב וּבֵן כְּסִיל תּוּגַת אִמֹּו׃

bayn-cha-CHAM y’-sa-mach-AV u-vayn-k’-SEEL tu-GAT ee-MO

A wise child gladdens a father, and a foolish child grieves their mother.

Although I’m generally disinclined to see great deliberation and interpretive importance in the organization of sayings in the book of Proverbs, I can’t help but see this as a fitting, even if not deliberate, heading to one of the sub-collections of sayings in the book, along with the title “Proverbs of Solomon,” which immediately proceeds it.

For some weeks now I’ve analyzed assorted saying that we would dig out, more or less at random, while sitting around the dinner table. As I look toward teaching the book of Proverbs and biblical wisdom literature over the following weeks in my adjunct course at a local college, I want to turn to a more intentional examination of the sayings. So, I offer the following as a tentative list of some of the issues I’m interested in addressing:

1) The analysis of proverbial sayings is still paramount in my mind. I’ve picked up a few more resources (outside of biblical studies) on this topic—and learned some new vocabulary like paremiological (from paremia “proverb”). I’d like to add a more metaphoric and literary perspective to my fledgling linguistic approach, and it appears that there is very little interaction between modern proverb studies (part of folklorist research) and the study of biblical (and ANE) proverbs.

2) In many ways proverbial wisdom is universal, and so I’m choosing to remain mostly within biblical proverbs. E.g., one of my favorite Filipino proverbs, which could as easily appear in any ANE wisdom collection, is “A command from the king? Run urinating!” I’m going to attempt, however, to incorporate/mention ANE parallels wherever possible, looking for elements specific to ANE wisdom.

3) My overriding personal interest remains largely unanswered in my own mind: How do proverbs, especially in a collection, serve for moral education? That they are pedagogical is the standard explanation I’ve heard for years regarding biblical and ANE wisdom writings. This aim is quite apparent in the instructional literature (e.g., Egyptian instructions, Proverbs 1–9) but less so in the sentence literature. Our use of “living” proverbs certainly does not reflect the sort of moral instruction envisioned by a collection of proverbs; indeed, the question arises whether a proverb loses some of its force taken out of its social context and placed in a literary one. At the very least, a plausible social context for the saying must be reconstructed. Note for instance the typical “moral educational” use of living proverbs: A friend tells you about an exciting business opportunity they are rushing into, and you tell them “Look before you leap.” The choice of that proverb is based on its aptness to the situation at hand, and it gains much of its semantic and educative import from it. Placed in a collection, however, it may well appear juxtaposed to “He who hesitates is lost,” in which case the legitimacy of the saying itself is called into question by the contrast, and no amount of qualification about the “general” nature of proverbs will fully overcome the incongruity in the juxtapositioning of the two sayings.

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