The Songs and Sayings Podcast: Reading through the wisdom literature of the world.
By Menashe David Israel
Chapter 6 of Hebrew Proverbs
Further reading: The Wisdom Books by Robert Alter
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As any good teacher knows—and also, any good student—repetition–repetition is the key to learning.
In chapter six, there is a continuation on the themes in chapters 1 through 5: We see injunctions to heed the advice of a father; to avoid the strange woman; to be diligent in one’s work and not lazy. And a new admonishment to not co-sign people’s loans carelessly. You don’t want to take all of the previous advice, and get your life in order, only to fritter it away with bad business dealings.
Some translations make the first two verses of chapter six almost unintelligible to modern readers.
The King James Version, which I’m using, says:
If thou be surety for thy friend,
if thou hast stricken thy hand with a stranger,
Thou art snared with the words of thy mouth,
thou art taken with the words of thy mouth.
But what does ‘surety’ mean? And what does “stricken thy hand with a stranger” mean?
‘Surety’ has to do with financial loans. And to “be surety” is to agree to cosign someone’s debt or to be a guarantor on a loan that they can’t afford to pay. Then to “stricken thy hand” just means to shake hands, to make the deal official, or to give your word.
After the co-signing loans section of this chapter makes the repetitions we mentioned just a paragraph ago.
But two things stuck out to me today.
The first, is from verse 16. Where it reads: Six things are there that the LORD hates, and seven He utterly loathes.
The following verses then go on to list these things. But what we are interested to look at here is the literary device of saying: “Six things, and even seven,” with the set-up making the seventh of highlighted importance.
Again, as in previous chapters where we saw the way that these proverbs are related to earlier texts from other cultures, this specific device is also used in the Persian Proverbs of Ahikar and in Ugaritic literature.
And this brings me to the second thing that stuck out to me today.
In Proverbs chapter six, something interesting happens that is different from a mere retelling of non-Hebrew wisdom writings, as it seems that the first chapter of Proverbs was doing when it introduced itself as a human wisdom tradition passed on from father to son.
In verse 22 has a distinctly Mosaic flavor. Alluding to Deuteronomy 6:7, which says,
“You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”
So the writer of this proverb takes the Deuteronomy verse and puts life into it by making wisdom active, responding to the student’s diligent study. The teacher turns “talk about them when you walk by the way” into, “When you walk about, it—that is wisdom—will guide you.”
Charles T. Fritsch makes a comment about this in his introduction to Proverbs in “The Interpreters Bible” commentary. He says, “As Israel fell heir to the common, practical wisdom of the Near East, she used it in her own inimitable way, setting it in her own peculiar context which instinctively related it to God…Israel redeemed the pagan wisdom of her day and made it theocentric.
While the Hebrew Proverbs are mostly a compilation of human wisdom traditions that are similar to those of the cultures which surrounded Ancient Israel, there are some passages that portray the Hebrew One God as the true source of wisdom; and pleasing this God as the ultimate reason for living wisely. ☗
Read Proverbs 6 on the Bible App