Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

Two ways (Proverbs 10:8–11)

Posted by jac/cdc on March 14, 2007

חֲכַם־לֵב יִקַּח מִצְוֹת וֶאֱוִיל שְׂפָתַיִם יִלָּבֵט׃
הֹולֵךְ בַּתֹּם יֵלֶךְ בֶּטַח וּמְעַקֵּשׁ דְּרָכָיו יִוָּדֵעַ׃
קֹרֵץ עַיִן יִתֵּן עַצָּבֶת וֶאֱוִיל שְׂפָתַיִם יִלָּבֵט׃
מְקֹור חַיִּים פִּי צַדִּיק וּפִי רְשָׁעִים יְכַסֶּה חָמָס׃

cha-cham-LAYV yi-KACH mits-VOT ve-e-VEEL s’-fa-TA-yim yi-la-VAYT
ho-LAYCH ba-TOM yay-LECH BE-tach u-m’-a-KAYSH d’-ra-KAV yi-va-DAY-a
ko-RAYTS A-yin yi-TAYN a-TSA-vet ve-e-VEEL s’-fa-TA-yim yi-la-VAYT
m’-KOR cha-YEEM pee tsa-DEEK u-fee r’-sha-EEM y’-cha-SE cha-MAS

The one who has a wise mind will accept commandments and the fool by his lips will come to ruin.
Whoever walks in integrity, walks securely and whoever perverts their way will be found out.
Whoever winks the eye gives trouble and the fool by his lips will come to ruin.
A fountain of life is the mouth of the righteous and the mouth of the wicked covers violence.

I’m treating these four proverbs together because they exhibit a certain (intentional?) unity through the repetition of the second line in vss. 8 and 10, and the following proverb in vs. 12 departs from the theme of wisdom/folly and righteous/wicked found here. That said, of course, vs. 11b is identical with vs. 6b, but I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from that.

Vs. 8 echoes the general motif that heads the chapter: there are two ways, the way of the wise and the way of the fool. Lit., “the foolish of lips” will fall. The contrast between the two lines is subtle (leading some commentators to amend), but speech as a sure indicator of wisdom or folly is frequent enough in wisdom writings to make the implication apparent: the wise will speak well because they accepted instruction, whereas the fool, who has rejected wisdom, will make his folly apparent by his speech and bring ruin on themselves.

Vv. 9–10 have an identical grammatical structure: relative participle, substantive, yiqtol; construct phrase, yiqtol. The participle frequently describes characteristic activities in Proverbs. Vs. 9 presents some obvious alliteration in the first part: ho-LAYCH ba-TOM yay-LECH BE-tach. The point seems to be the same as the English proverb, “your deeds will find you out,” and we can envision similar social situations that would call forth these English and Hebrew proverbs. Vs. 10 describes the characteristic action of winking, though it is not clear the exact significance of this action in ancient Israel. This verse lacks the typical antithesis in the second half, and perhaps it does not belong here, though commentators complain about its fit in vs. 8 as well. Some (e.g., Toy, Murphy) adopt the Septuagint reading as preserving the proper contrast: ὁ δὲ ἐλέγχων μετὰ παρρησίας εἰρηνοποιεῖ “but whoever rebukes boldly makes peace.”

Vs. 11 returns to the righteous/wicked contrast. The phrase מְקֹור חַיִּים “fountain of life” is used in Proverbs to describe the teaching of the wise (13:14), fear of God (14:27), and of wisdom (16:22), in addition to the speech of the righteous, here. The second half of the verse, though better suited to this proverb (note the repetition of “mouth”) than vs. 6, remains somewhat obscure: violence characterizes the speech of the wicked, or the wicked conceal their violent intents in their speech, or something else?

Given the possible problems with corrupt or mixed up second lines here and in vs. 6, I can’t help wondering whether such problems are due to dropping the second line of proverbs in common usage, for example, “The bigger they are . . .,” “If it ain’t broke . . .,” “When the going gets tough . . .” Could popular employment of the first line only of proverbs to recall the import of the entire saying lead to variation or even corruption of the second line? I can’t think of any significant variations in English proverbs to justify such a supposition, but it is nevertheless intriguing to me.


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