Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

Righteousness and wickedness (Proverbs 10:2–3)

Posted by jac/cdc on March 6, 2007


לֹא־יֹועִילוּ אֹוצְרֹות רֶשַׁע וּצְדָקָה תַּצִּיל מִמָּוֶת׃
לֹא־יַרְעִיב יְהוָה נֶפֶשׁ צַדִּיק וְהַוַּת רְשָׁעִים יֶהְדֹּף׃

lo-yo-EE-lu o-ts’-rot-re-SHA u-ts’-da-KA ta-STEEL mi-MA-vet
lo-yar-EEV a-do-NEYE ne-fesh-tsa-DEEK v’-ha-vat-r’-sha-EEM ye-DOF

The treasures of wickedness will not profit; but righteousness will deliver from death.
The Lord will not let the righteous person go hungry, but the craving of the wicked he thwarts.

I’ve decided to work my way through some of the chapters of sentence literature in Proverbs, beginning with chapter 10, and see how far I might follow a particular thread of thought. I’m not interested, as many have been, in necessarily discerning a “strategy” to the collection as much as I’m interested in discerning whether, in lieu of a social context, there might be import to the “literary context” in which ANE proverbs appear.

Commentators have noted the dominance of righteous(ness) and wicked(ness) in chapter 10; however, as I look ahead to chapters 11 and 12, I don’t see this dominance much diminished. What I do find interesting in these verses is the juxtapositioning of two sayings about the righteous and wicked followed by two proverbs on industriousness (vss. 4–5, which I’ll post on tomorrow). What holds them all together? It does not appear to be the theme of righteous(ness) and wicked(ness), but that of wealth.

The first two proverbs are concordant and mutually reinforcing: treasure that is characterized by wickedness—whether gained by wicked business dealings or simply that it is possessed by the wicked—cannot “profit” its owner. The second half provides the eschatological (as in just desserts) interpretation to the first half by its mention of righteousness saving from death.

The theme of wealth is maintained in the second proverb by the mention of hunger and desire. Though lacking the eschatological sense of the previous one, this proverb reinforces the idea that wickedness and righteousness bring their just rewards, but in this case the Lord is credited with handing out the rewards. The proverb thus brings an added layer of meaning to the previous one by its proximity: wickedness and righteousness are not ineffectual and effectual, respectively, due to some characteristic inherent to them; rather, the righteous are inherently in relationship with God, who preserves them in life and saves them from death, while the wicked are fundamentally at odds with God and all their pursuit of success is only so much “kicking against the goads.”

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