Friday, January 9, 2015

Proverbs: Some Won Ton Soup with Your Wisdom?

            So we’re continuing on with Proverbs, which is supposed to represent the wisdom of Solomon in print form. And, in case you need a reminder, the Bible claims that Solomon is the wisest man who ever has or ever will live. That’s a lot to live up to. So let’s keep going and see how well it holds up to the hype.

            Anyway, when last we left off, Solomon was advising (among other things) that going to prostitutes is an acceptable way to avoid adultery. And then there are several chapters of long soliloquys about wisdom again, once more personifying it as a woman. These seem even more explicitly to be treating wisdom as a goddess than the previous ones. For example:

Prov 9:1 Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. 2 She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wind; she has also set her table. 3 She has sent out her young women to call from the highest places in the town, 4 “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” To him who lacks sense she says, 5 “Come, eat of my bread and drink the wine I have mixed. 6 Leave your simple ways and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

            That sounds an awful lot like describing a goddess with her own temples, offerings, and priesthood, doesn’t it?

            Anyway, once we get to Chapter 10, we hit the main thrust of Proverbs: the actual proverbs, which will pretty much occupy all but the last two Chapters of the book. If you want to get an idea what it’s like, well, try to imagine that someone opened a couple hundred fortune cookies and taped the fortunes down into the pages of a book. Complete with the occasional baffling mistranslation.

            The vast majority of the proverbs are simple pithy sayings taking up only a single verse, usually in the form of “X does/is like Y, but A does/is like B.” Usually these are written by way of contrasting some form of good or wise behavior with some form of bad or unwise behavior. Let me just pick a representative excerpt to kind of give you the general idea.

Prov 10:4 A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. 5 He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame. 6 Blessings are on the head of the righteous, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence. 7 The memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot. 8 The wise of heart will receive commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin. 9 Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out. 10 Whoever winks the eye causes trouble, but a babbling fool will come to ruin.”

            That’s just a little sample. And really, you could open Proverbs anywhere from the start of Chapter 10 to the end of Chapter 29 and read pretty much the same thing. The details vary, but not as much as you might think; like Psalms, there are a limited number of themes and a good deal of redundancy. But Proverbs is vastly more readable, so I was actually able to read through all the way to the end.

            The general themes are: Laziness is bad, adultery is bad (and generally a woman’s fault), fools are awful people who deserve to be beaten, wives who talk back are just about the worst thing in the world, don’t fuck with kings, good things happen to the righteous and bad things happen to the wicked (contradicting Job), honesty is good, fear God, yadda yadda yadda. There are so many proverbs, really, that any attempt to encapsulate them all would be fruitless. I suggest just reading them yourself. None appear particularly insightful, but I suppose that it’s just possible that, for the time in which they were written, they might have been revelatory grains of wisdom. But given the two-line compare and contrast format, each individual proverbs couldn’t have been anything other than shallow sayings anyway. Most just seem like “everybody knows this” kinds of things, but maybe we only know them because they were written down here. Who knows?

            But then there are some whose inclusion is just baffling. Such as…

Prov 12:17 Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness utters deceit.”

            Yes, Solomon, thank you for telling us the definitions of “speaks the truth,” and “false witness.” Or maybe you were going meta and decided to define “tautology” for us? This needed to be written down? And how about…

Prov 12:19 Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment.”

            This is one of those proverbs, of which there are quite a number, that seem to be more in the realm of wishful thinking rather than insightful observations on reality. I also find it immensely ironic that it should be included in the pages of one of the most enduring lies of all time.

Prov 13:19 A desire fulfilled is sweet to the soul, but to turn away from evil is an abomination to fools.”

            Can anyone tell me what the second clause of that proverb has to do with the first? Maybe it’s being a bit pedantic of me, but this kind of sentence construction is generally supposed to be used to draw a contrast between related concepts. The concepts in this sentence have nothing to do with each other. There are several proverbs that do this.

Prov 14:1 The wisest of women builds her house, but the folly of her own hand tears it down.”

            Is this meant to suggest that even the wisest women are so foolish that they inevitably destroy what they work for? More sexist bullshit?

Prov 14:5 A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies.”

            Yes, Solomon was so impressed with his earlier tautology that he had to repeat it. See what I mean about redundancy?

Prov 15:10 An oracle is on the lips of a king; his mouth does not sin in judgment.”

            The king is always right? How convenient for Solomon, given that he was a king and all. Surely this proverb could only have been pure in motivation. In the verses that follow it, there are several proverbs reinforcing the notion that kings are inherently wise and just, and should be obeyed and/or appeased.

            Anyway, this goes on and on through Chapter 29. Chapters 30 and 31, the last of the book, purport to be the words of different people.

            Chapter 30 opens by identifying itself as “the words of Agur, son of Jakeh, the oracle.” It also seems to be a collection of sayings, though in a different format than those attributed to Solomon. Agur doesn’t restrict himself to single pithy compare/contrast verses, often taking several verses to make a point. Here’s a small sample of the fare:

Prov 30:20 This is the way of the adulteress: she eats and wipes her mouth and says, “I have done no wrong.” 21 Under three things the earth trembles; under four it cannot bear up: 22 a slave when he becomes king, and a fool when he is filed with food; an unloved woman when she gets a husband, and a maidservant when she displaces her mistress.

            As you can see, Agur continues the trend of treating adultery as a female-initiated thing.

            That construction of “X is like Y, X+1 is like something similar to Y,” followed by a list of X+1 things, is repeated often throughout this section. It seems to be some kind of poetic convention, as I’ve seen it once or twice in the Bible before this. But Agur makes use of it far more than any of the other authors I’ve encountered thus far.

            Anyway, it’s just one chapter and, like the rest of Proverbs, combines some insightful sayings with a mixture of gibberish and biased judgment.

            The final chapter of Proverbs introduces itself as “The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him.” Wouldn’t that mean it’s actually the words of Lemuel’s mother, and in the typical casual sexism of the Bible Lemuel is just taking credit? By the way… King Lemuel is never mentioned anywhere else. Nobody seems to know for sure who he is. One theory is that Lemuel is just another name for Solomon, which would make the true author of these words Bathsheba. But whatever.

            The Chapter starts out with several verses admonishing the king to not give power to women, and to stand up for the rights of the poor and needy. There’s also a bit in there about refraining from strong drink for himself, but rather to give it to the poor so they can drown their sorrows. It’s a weird mix of healthy and unhealthy advice.

            From there it continues into discussing the wondrous virtues of a good wife. It’s a tad sexist, as might be expected, but many of the values it expresses (industriousness, generosity, kindness, providing for one’s family, etc.) are fairly laudable. It’s the only extended portion of the Book of Proverbs that lauds virtues without also condemning everyone who falls short of them.

            But now I have to single out a weird translation nitpick:

Prov 31:21 She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet.”

            OK, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, now, does it? There’s no reason red clothing would ward off snow better than any other color. But this line has a footnote attached to it, and if you follow the footnote it informs you that the line can also be translated as “clothed in double thickness.” What the fuck, translators? Given the choice between “scarlet,” and “double thickness,” as a description of clothing that would ward off fear of snow, you went with “scarlet” as your primary translation? In what way does that make any fucking sense whatsoever?! No cookie for you!

            Deep breath.

            So anyway, that gets us to the end of Proverbs. It was actually a fairly interesting read, and there’s some good stuff to be gleaned from it. Though I must admit that it falls far short of what I might expect of the writings of the wisest man who ever lived. It makes a lot of assertions about how people ought to behave, but its reliance on two-line fortune cookie style platitudes and/or weird poetic conventions means it rarely provides reasons behind the advice it gives. Rather, it leans heavily on simply insulting anyone who might reject any of the advice and occasionally recommending violence against them.

            Next up: Ecclesiastes. It’s a short book, so if we’re lucky we can toss it off in a single post. Until then, y’all be well!

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