Sunday, November 5, 2017

Distilling Distilled Wisdom: The Book of Proverbs

Previous book: Psalms
Next book: Ecclesiastes

Proverbs is more clearly helpful than Psalms in terms of applying wisdom to become a better person in daily life - but still not overflowing with gems.

Of course I'm sure I'm missing some things. (Cut me some slack, I'm making my very first honest attempt at religious wisdom literature.) And indeed, Chapters 1 and 2 are loaded with exhortations that the reader "understand". This could result from a need to get unruly young people to pay attention, or it could be an alert for astute readers attempting to glean deeper meanings as in esoteric writings (hint hint, pay attention, there's something to decode here, like Revelations 13:18.) Today, lazy writers often encourage esoteric readings of their work because this allows critics to read into it, thus implying profundity without the extra effort of actually including deeper meaning. There's a different incentive for the gatekeepers of holy texts to encourage esoteric readings - because then when outsiders like us come meandering into their liturgical world and say we can't see much of value, they can say "Ha! Of course not! Only after years of study will the secrets reveal themselves to you, as they did to me, and I cannot enlighten those who would rather be deceived!"

Chapter 3 stood out to me as the most helpful. There actually isn't a strong belief among Biblical scholars that any parts were really written by Solomon, and it's interesting that Chapters 1-9 are the most recent, from the 6th century BC or later.
3:25-31 "Have no fear of sudden disaster or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked, for the LORD will be at your side and will keep your foot from being snared. Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, "Come back tomorrow and I'll give it to you"— when you already have it with you. Do not plot harm against your neighbor, who lives trustfully near you. Do not accuse anyone for no reason— when they have done you no harm. Do not envy the violent or choose any of their ways."
9:7-9 is worth repeating and hard to keep in mind when people on the internet are wrong; "Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults; whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse. Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you. Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning." And 15:12, "Mockers resent correction, so they avoid the wise."

Other than that, large parts of Chapters 5 to 9 are mostly "Don't cheat on your wife." Fair enough. Then starting with Chapter 10, you could summarize the book as "Knowledge is valuable, ill-begotten profits are fleeting, be disciplined, remember the effect you have on others in your family, work hard, don't lie, don't cheat on your wife, and be nice" in a somewhat monotonous rhetorical style of "A causes B; but not-A causes not-B."* Many of the verses approach tautology, and there's not much that could be considered surprising. Really - Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac has about ten times the wisdom of this book.

To be fair, in rougher times, maybe this was one of the first times people had heard this, and it needed to be repeated in this way to be grasped. As well, Solomon may have been so effective that he was a victim of his own success. That is, these rules for living are now so taken for granted that they seem obvious, much like Lovecraft doesn't seem so horrifying, or Led Zeppelin doesn't seem like such a mind-blowing musical revolution now, both of them invented a whole genre, which went on to improve on that the founders had done, making them seem obvious or even trite by comparison.

In Chapter 22, the Thirty Sayings section begins, which is less repetitive and slightly less obvious.

22:28 - "Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your ancestors." This could have many other meanings, as does "Good fences make good neighbors." Later on, in 25:17, "Seldom set foot in your neighbor's house - too much of you, and they will hate you."

23:29-34 - Practical and not rocket science, but more people need to hear it: "Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine. Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper. Your eyes will see strange sights, and your mind will imagine confusing things. You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging."

24:17-18 - An injunction against schadenfreude: "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them."

25:28 - "Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control." To match, 26:11, "As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly."

26:7 - A little self-referentiality to give credence to the claim of esoteric writing: "Like the useless legs of one who is lame is a proverb in the mouth of a fool."

26:18-19 - We all know someone like this (and this pattern is associated in modern psychiatry with certain character pathology) "Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, 'I was only joking!'"

27:15-16 - "A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm; restraining her is like restraining the wind or grasping oil with the hand." No further comment. But in the Sayings of King Lemuel (31:10-11) I have the good fortune to attest from personal experience that the opposite is true: "A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value."

30:24-28 (the Sayings of Agur) - Interesting perspectives on humble animals. "Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise: Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer; hyraxes are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags; locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks; a lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings' palaces."


*Antithetical parallelism is the fancy term for it. It seems Biblical scholars get all excited about this, much like your high school English teacher did about Shakespeare's use of anachronism. Your teacher may not have considered that maybe Shakespeare just didn't know that Romans' togas didn't have pockets, and maybe kings writing in Hebrew only knew one rhetorical form.

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