Songs & Sayings #12 - Hebrew Proverbs Ch. 12


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

By Menashe David Israel

Chapter 12 of Hebrew Proverbs

Further reading: The Wisdom Books by Robert Alter

Proverbs by the Bible Project


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My comments:

If I were to choose a theme for this chapter, I would choose the theme of truth. Many of the verses that we'll read in this chapter are especially concerned with the tongue and the power of words for good or ill, and even evil; and sometimes even the power—for good—of withholding words completely.

To prepare for this podcast, I read a few different version of Proverbs chapter 12, as I usually do. These version are R.B.Y. Scott's translation, Robert Alter's translation, The NASB, and the King James Version.

If you've been following along with the previous podcasts, you will have recognized that the English translation I've been reading from is quite old-sounding. This is because I've been reading primarily out of the King James Version of the Bible. I use this version because of its poetic construction, and also because most writers of English literature since the 16th century quote from the King James when making their Biblical references. I'm reminded of Earnest Hemingway, who consulted the King James Version to find a title for his first novel, "The Sun Also Rises", an allusion to the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, verse 5, which reads: "The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arose." This is of course just one of countless examples that you can find. If you spend enough time with the King James, you'll notice many "hyperlinks" when you read other pieces of English literature.

Today, however, I'll be reading the full chapter from R.B.Y. Scott's translation, which you can find printed in volume 18 of the Anchor Bible series. The reason I'll be reading from Scott's translation is that he brings to light some meanings in the text that I think make this chapter more clear. We'll discuss these in the three verses that I'll pull out for special attention.

So, the first verse from chapter 12 that I found to be particularly instructive was verse 10. The King James reads: "A righteous man regards the life of his beast:

but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel."

R.B.Y Scott translates verse 10 as: A good man cares if his beast is hungry, But the "mercy" of evil men is cruel."

I think that in the West there is an idea about animals, and the Earth, that we have gotten from our Christian history with the Bible—that the Earth is to be subdued by Man, dominated and used without question or nuance. Though this idea does make sense for life—because we have to subdue the earth to grow things, and make a liveable world—the Biblical writings do not put the idea forth without a few caveats. Namely, that the Earth should be allowed to rest from its subduction every once in a while; the land should have a sabbath every seven years, and that animals should not be mercilessly handled: examples include not killing the mother bird in a nest full of chicks; not boiling a kid goat in its mother's milk. These seem to suggest that, though animals can't be said to have duties, humans ought to treat them with a certain modicum of dignity. And there are a few other examples that you can find if you look.

The second verse we'll consider is verse 23, which says "A prudent man conceals knowledge: but the heart of fools proclaims foolishness."

There's much that could be said about this verse. I think again of Earnest Hemingway, who had his "iceberg" theory: that what is left unsaid will act as a large hidden foundation for the little that *is* said, and this hidden knowledge will be felt by nature of its having been left out.

Rabbi Akiva, in the 1st century of the common era, said something similar: "Silence is a fence around wisdom."

And Jesus of Nazareth, in the same century as Akiva, hid his messianic message in parables, telling his followers not to cast their pearls before swine, and not to throw what is holy to the dogs.

Indeed, true knowledge is set apart, and it also sets apart. Wisdom, also, is a sharp and powerful device for dividing the world around us. We have to be careful how we wield wisdom and knowledge. Verse 18 in the King James reads: "There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword: but the tongue of the wise is health." Perhaps that is why unless the wise man is ready, and the listener is still, it is best to leave wisdom and knowledge sheathed so that no one comes to harm and nothing precious poured out in vain.

The septuagint adds a line to verse 13, which says, "A man whose glance is gentle wins kindness, but the contentious causes hurt." Wisdom is much more than just speech.

The third and last verse I will focus on is verse 28.

It isn't clear how this verse should be translated.

Most translations say something along the lines of: "In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death."

Robert Alter's translation says, "On the path of righteousness is life, BUT the way of mischief is to death."

If you remember the discussion of the three different kinds of Hebrew parallelism in episode 10 of the Songs and Sayings podcast, you'll notice that the first translation of this verse, that the writer of Proverbs 12:28 is employing, is a Synonymous parallelism; synonymous parallelism is where the two lines express the same idea but each is phrased in slightly different ways.

"In the path of righteousness is life, AND in its pathway there is no death."

So this verse, if interpreted as Synonymous paralellism, uses its two lines, or stychs, to both point to the idea of life.

However, in the second translation, by Robert Alter, the first stych points to life, and the second stych gives a contrast: an antithetical parallel second line pointing to death: "On the path of righteousness is life, BUT the way of mischief is to death."

The lack of clarity as to how to translate this verse comes from the Hebrew, "wederekh netivah al-mawet," which literally means "and the way of path [is] un-death," a phrase which Robert Alter says, "does not sound like intelligible Hebrew."

Perhaps it isn't intelligible as prose. But as poetry, which it undoubtedly is, it does seem to lend itself to the program of the Bible: The path of righteousness leads to un-death. That statement sounds like resurrection to me.

R.B.Y. Scott points out that there is a synonymous parallel between “life" and "non-death” in the Ugaritic poem Aqhat A, section vi, lines 26-27. Scott also says that this view of the relationship between righteousness and immortality is found in the later Greek work "The Wisdom of Solomon".

Perhaps the existence of these texts is why the majority of translations take the lines in verse 28 to be a synonymous parallel. ☗

Read Proverbs 12 on the Bible App