Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

To life! (Proverbs 10:16–17)

Posted by jac/cdc on March 26, 2007

פְּעֻלַּת צַדִּיק לְחַיִּים תְּבוּאַת רָשָׁע לְחַטָּאת׃
אֹרַח לְחַיִּים שֹׁומֵר מוּסָר וְעֹוזֵב תֹּוכַחַת מַתְעֶה׃

p’-u-lat tsa-DEEK l’-cha-YEEM t’-vu-at ra-SHA l’-cha-TAT
O-rach l’-cha-YEEM sho-MAYR mu-SAR v’-o-ZAYV to-CHA-chat mat-E

The wage of the righteous is to life; the gain of the wicked is for sin.
A path to life is one who keeps discipline, but one who abandons a reprimand leads astray.

Verse 16 is janus faced, relating to the subject of the preceding proverb (verse 15)—wealth and poverty, and having the common phrase לְחַיִּים “to life” with the following, verse 17.

Commentators seem unduly consternated about both these proverbs. With respect to the first one, there is concern that the gain of the wicked should be “to death” or “to destruction” in order to parallel the first part. The wage of the righteous is “to/for life,” an ambiguous phrase that could mean mean that it leads to life (so e.g., NRSV), that it is permanent or lasting—”for life,” or even possibly that it is employed for life = benefit. By contrast, the wicked use their gain only for sin. The contrast may therefore be intentionally disparaging of the wicked and their use of wealth. Compare this especially with the preceding proverb (verse 15) in which wealth is implied as preferable to poverty; the two proverbs side-by-side temper each other.

Verse 17 compares the person who keeps or observes discipline to “a path to life.” Some commentators conjecture a participle here instead of the noun, in order to better parallel the participle in the second half. Such a change demands too much symmetry of proverbs. They should not be treated as that “predictable.” In any case, the present form of the text is not really a problem: the focus seems to be on actions as exemplary; either they show “a path to life” or they “lead astray.” Perhaps it is our over-individualizing of moral teaching that leads us away from this interpretation, which underscores that my behavior with respect to discipline and guidance I receive affects those around me! It implies both that we must diligently accept and follow discipline and that our behavior should be exemplary for those who may be watching.


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