Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

Wealth and Poverty (Proverbs 10:15)

Posted by jac/cdc on March 21, 2007

הֹון עָשִׁיר קִרְיַת עֻזֹּו מְחִתַּת דַּלִּים רֵישָׁם׃

hon a-SHEER qir-YAT u-ZO m’-chi-TAT da-LEEM ray-SHAM

The wealth of the rich is their strong city; the ruin of the poor is their poverty.

This proverb links to the preceding only by the repetition of מְחִתַּת“ruin.” The point of this proverb is simple enough, even tautological: the rich are afforded a degree of protection by their wealth that the poor lack, such that they are exposed to possible “ruin.”

The difficulty is what to do with the proverb? Murphy (R. E. Murphy. 1998. Proverbs. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson) concludes that this is simply a reflection on a reality of life, without any moral judgement. But then what of Fox’s notion that though Proverbs betray diverse sociological origins, there is nevertheless a guiding ideology in collecting them—one that portrays an idealistic view of city dwelling (M. V. Fox. 1986. The Social Location of the Book of Proverbs. Pp. 227–39 in Texts, Temples, and Traditions: A Tribute to Menahem Haran. M. V. Fox and et. al. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns)?

Here, however, I find the insights of Shapin helpful (Steven Shapin. 2001. Proverbial Economies: How an Understanding of Some Linguistic and Social Features of Common Sense Can Throw Light on More Prestigious Bodies of Knowledge, Science for Example. Social Studies of Science 31/5: 731-769). Shapin talks about how on the one hand, we often do not need to know the sociological origin (or literal reference) of a proverb in order to understand its import (e.g., don’t look a gift horse in the mouth; a rolling stone gathers no moss). On the other hand, proverbs lose some of their power (i.e., validity and persuasiveness) when they are placed in collections, isolated from the social settings in which they originated and were employed. Proverbs in collections can seem trite, contradictory, etc., whereas “in use” they are strong epistemological and moral tools that classify situations and imply how best to successfully navigating the situation.

How does Shapin’s insights help? I think he makes the important point that proverbs by their very character always have a “moral lesson.” Thus, we are entitled to ask what the moral lesson of this proverb is, even if it does not make a moral judgment on wealth and poverty. I am encouraged by the prospects of studying biblical Proverbs in light of Shapin’s comments. I am encouraged by the fact that they may give us a window in to the ancient culture that has hitherto been largely unexplored—namely, through reconstructing possible social situations in which these proverbs might have naturally been employed. I am also encouraged by the prospect of thereby recovering the moral lessons in these proverbs, which has largely been ignored in favor of understanding their contribution to “wisdom thought.”

More than anything, the task relies on understanding a certain commonality of thought and society between ancients and moderns, and the imagination to envision the sorts of situations that could call forth a given proverb. In the case of Prov 10:15, I can imagine a situation in which financial disaster has overtaken a poor person, and a rich person in a similar position has successfully weathered the storm. It could be spoken by either party—rich or poor—or a third party that is a witness to the unfolding events. The moral lesson? That wealth is useful protection in an uncertain world, so take precautions. Is it anything more than the “evil” associations of wealth in the Bible and history that makes it difficult to embrace such a pragmatic lesson?


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