Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

The character of speech (Proverbs 10:20–21)

Posted by jac/cdc on March 30, 2007


כֶּסֶף נִבְחָר לְשֹׁון צַדִּיק לֵב רְשָׁעִים כִּמְעָט׃
שִׂפְתֵי צַדִּיק יִרְעוּ רַבִּים וֶאֱוִילִים בַּחֲסַר־לֵב יָמוּתוּ׃


KE-sef niv-CHAR l’-SHON tsa-DEEK LAYV r’sha-EEM kim-AT
sif-TAY tsa-DEEK yir-U ra-BEEM ve-e-vee-LEEM ba-cha-sar-LAYV ya-MU-tu


Choice silver is the tongue of the righteous; the mind of the wicked is (worth) little.
The lips of the righteous feed many, and fools by lack of a mind will perish.

The general topic of speech turns to the valuation of speech of the righteous in these two proverbs. The presence of צַדִּיק and לֵב in the two proverbs and the poetic variants לְשֹׁון and שִׂפְתֵי tie the two together verbally.

“Tongue” and “lips” are both metonymic for speech: the speech of the righteous is presumably pure, refined, perhaps trustworthy, and therefore valuable. The comparison with the mind of the wicked is somewhat unexpected, but reinforces the implicit logical connection between speech and mind.

Read together, the second proverb explicates the value of the speech of the righteous by focusing on its “nourishing” powers. In contrast to the satiety of those who choose to feed on the pure words of the righteous, those without a mind will perish because of that lack: they are starved for common sense.

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