Songs & Sayings #13 - Hebrew Proverbs Ch. 13


This podcast episode is dedicated to Andrew Silaghi. Thanks for following along, Andrew.

The Songs and Sayings Podcast: Reading through the wisdom literature of the world.

By Menashe David Israel

Chapter 13 of Hebrew Proverbs

Further reading: 

The Wisdom Books by Robert Alter

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes - The Anchor Bible by R.B.Y. Scott

Proverbs by the Bible Project


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My comments:

So we're back to the Songs and Sayings Podcast--and with an exceptionally practical chapter on appearances, being diligent in your work, the benefits of frugality, advice on how to choose the people you surround yourself with, and always, always: remembering to weave wisdom into everything that you do.

As with almost any translation between languages--for us Biblical Hebrew into English--there will always be certain differences in the structure of one language or another that affect how lines are interpreted in translation.

One of the things that I've been learning more and more while doing these podcasts is how little I actually know about these books, their themes, and their historical and cultural setting.

When I first set out to do the Songs and Sayings Podcast, I inititally had in mind the creation of an audio-anthology of Wisdom Literature; this is still one of the overarching goals. However, as I've spent time submerged in the depths of commentaries and translations, I've come to see how absolutely small the harbor of my own knowledge is, and how immeasurably large the ocean of my ignorance.

Whenever I read for these podcasts, there are probably fifty to one-hundred things that I could share about a chapter. But because of time and other limitations, it is really only appropriate for me to choose one or two things to share. I say all of this as an encouragement to you in your own wisdom studies, and your own wisdom practice. What sticks out to me may not be what sticks out to you. And certain ideas may stick out to us at different times and for different reasons.

While in Jerusalem, I've been taking classes in Modern Hebrew so that I can read and write the local language, and be a good guest of the country.

One of the things that I have noticed about Hebrew in these classes is that it's not a language with many--if any--"being" verbs. That is, words like: "am", "is", "was", "are", "will be"...there are others. Words like these are formally called copulas: words which don't have an inherent meaning but serve to connect nouns with adjectives, verbs, prepositions, and other kinds of words.

For example, in English we say, "I am hungry." The word "am" is the copula in that sentence. It doesn't obviously do anything for the apparent meaning of the sentence. But nonetheless, it is there. The equivalent in Hebrew to "I am hungry," is, "Ani raev." Which literally means, "I hungry." Notice that in Hebrew there is no copula between the words "I" and "hungry." This is because the link between the noun and the adjective is assumed by the context: A person says, "I" and then "hungry". The close proximity of the ideas of "I" and "hungry" leads the listener to believe that the idea of "hungry" must be very close the the person "I" who just said these two words so close together, and in whatever situation they were spoken in.

Now, exactly why a language like English has copulas, and to the question of what function exactly they serve, that is a conversation for another time. My own opinion is that at root it has to do with the philosophy embedded in the history of the English language. If you look up some information on the use of articles in Greek grammar, I think you can begin to piece together a reason and a difference--between the Greek approach to talking about the world--which makes being in the world more explicit--and the Hebrew, or Eastern, approach to talking about the world, which lets things sit in states that are more ambiguous and context-based.

In any case, verse two in this chapter is what brought this thought on copulas--being verbs--to my mind. It says, "From the fruit of a man's mouth he eats goodly things, but from the throat of traitors comes outrage."

Robert Alter notes that: the verb "comes" has been added to clarify the Hebrew, which has no verb there, or the merely implied verb "is."

Without the added verb the line reads: "From the fruit of a man's mouth he eats goodly things, but from the throat of traitors--outrage."

As I read this I thought that an em-dash or a comma between "traitors" and "outrage" would satisfy the implied being verb "is" just as well.

My other note for this chapter is from verse 23, which says: "Abundant food is in the fallow ground of the poor; But it is swept away by injustice."

Robert Alter says that this proverb "is cryptic, [and that] it might be a worldy observation on the contradictory nature of reality: destitute people have fields from which an abundant yield could be extracted, but they can't figure out how to do it; others are suddenly destroyed by disease or disaster for no good reason."

Alter goes on to say that this line sounds more like Ecclesiastes than Proverbs, which I think I agree with; not that there has to be a strict distinction. Where the book of Hebrew Proverbs seems to be more sure of the outcomes of taking its advice, Ecclesiastes take a more pessimistic stance: that even if you do heed all good advice, life may still not go well for you. At the end of the day, though, both books--in spite of some opposing viewpoints--do compliment each other.

But this verse sticks out to me especially right now because I have been thinking a lot about time — the time in a day, in a week, in a lifespan. We all have one thing in common, and that is time--the same 24 hours in a day until the day we die. The daily question each person has to answer is——Taking the whole of life into consideration; whatever physical, psychological, geographical, economic, relational, or political situations we find ourselves in—How can we make the most of our time? How will we decide? Well, seeking wisdom is a good start. And verse 23 seems to say that some people can in fact decide better than others. ☗

Read Proverbs 13 on the Bible App

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