The Songs and Sayings Podcast: Reading through the wisdom literature of the world.
By Menashe David Israel
Chapter 11 of Hebrew Proverbs
Further reading: The Wisdom Books by Robert Alter
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Proverbs is a breath of fresh air to me. It’s a breath of fresh air because of its straight-forward literary style, its kind of jab-jab-hook presentation of cause and effect. Of course there is room for expansive interpretation, but most interpretations of the Proverbs lead readers to the same general destination.
This is in sharp contrast to other books in the Biblical canon that often land people in very different areas of understanding. For example, one person may read the book of Jonah literally, and think that there once was a man who was swallowed by a whale and then actually spit up by it, alive, three days later; another person reads the same book and says that no such thing could happen, but that the story of Jonah must be taken strictly as metaphor. These two readers may argue and even squabble over the veracity of each interpretation,—interpretations which truly are important to work out, but that don’t usually see any direct effect on the way that they live, one way or the other, in their day-to-day existence.
Indeed, belief in literal or metaphorical interpretations of these texts does eventually have an effect on the way we live, but it seems to me that it is not so clear how far away these effects are; or how quickly the way we live is affected by believing metaphorically or literally about one thing or another. And this does not even take into account the selective nature of our literal and metaphorical interpretation of texts, as these aren’t even our only two options; the number of possible hermeneutic choices that we can make across the panoply of texts we encounter is probably near endless.
Does this mean that no right interpretation is possible? I don’t think so. On the contrary I do think there is always a best or most likely interpretation of the text that we have before us. And there are traditions and methods of thinking that we can take into account to guide our reading of texts. But these things take time, and learning, which are not always available to every person.
But what is at once available to us all is the ability to trust advice that has been tried and found to be true for thousands of generations, advice immediately practical, wise words that will affect my actions today.
These Proverbs, and wisdom literature the world over, teach people that certain kind of at-once knowledge that will lead to more righteous action today, even if we do not fully comprehend the ways in which these actions are right—we take this wisdom on faith.
I like what Robert Alter says toward this when he observes in his commentary on the Wisdom Books that “Much of the wisdom of Proverbs…is oriented pragmatically…” Chapter 11, I think, is a perfect example of this pragmatism. The first verse opens up on how God loathes uneven scales in commerce, but loves true-weighted stones. This seems to me like a way in which telling the truth can permeate everything we do, leading us easily to right action.
I’ll make one more comment before we read our current chapter.
In verse 2 there is a neat little rhyme in the first stych. In the Hebrew it says, “ba zadon, wayyabo qalon,” which translators interpret in a variety of ways. Robert Alter puts the line as, “With a bold face, there comes disgrace.” R.B.Y. Scott puts it, “To show disdain is to show you’re vain.” Leaving the rhyme, the King James Version puts verse two as, “When pride cometh, then cometh shame.” But literally the line “ba zadon, wayyabo qalon,” means, “comes insolence, comes disgrace.”
This line is just one of many examples of the poetic nature of the proverbs not only in meter but also in rhyme. ☗
Read Proverbs 11 on the Bible App