233: SAGES #1: Solomon (The Book of Proverbs)

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I have argued elsewhere (see the Zingcreed Post ‘Jesus was a sage, not a priest, prophet or king‘) that Jesus was not divine, he  was a sage or teacher of wisdom, in fact he was one of the leading sages of the Greco-Roman era. This is the first Post where I look at the sages that preceded him, and from whom he possibly borrowed some of his ideas. This is my take on the Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), which I have never read before. In spite of this, some verses were quite familiar because they have entered the mainstream mindset e.g. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” and “Pride comes before a fall.” First I make a few general comments from a 21st century atheist perspective, then I quote those verses that struck me as particularly interesting,  amusing or just plain odd. This is a purely personal selection.

General comments:

  • verse one claims the book  is written by Solomon
  • there are 31 chapters –  it is not just a list of proverbs
  • it contains advice for ‘young men’ and for ‘the simple’ on how to lead a good life
  • it is also a leadership training course for ‘wiser men’
  • it is very repetitive, especially of the basic message which is that the good shall prosper and the wicked and the fool will not. What a pity this is not true! It really proposes an ethical system based on wishful thinking
  • it  also proposes an ethical system where you do good not for any intrinsic value that  good behaviour might have e.g. for the greater good of society, but for the rewards the good man will (supposedly!)  receive, such as longevity or wealth. In other words you are expected to be motivated by selfishness. On this basis, one might reasonably argue that “After all, if there’s nothing in it for me, why should I bother to be good?” I would definitely classify this as a primitive, not to say childish, moral system. Did Jesus preach anything better?
  • A second motivating force behind this patriarch’s morality is that you can do your enemy more harm if you do him good! To clarify this apparent contradiction, I’ll quote 25:21-22; “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for live coals you will heap upon his head, and the LORD will reward you.” In other words be a deceitful hypocrite, and a double-dealer, thus contradicting the instruction in 28:6 “Better is a poor man walking in his integrity than a perverse double dealer even though he be rich.”
  • it is misogynistic and frankly insulting to women
  • it is racist. Non-Jews are called ‘aliens’. The rules set out are meant to apply within the Jewish community only
  • however, there is a delightful use of metaphor and simile, especially involving animals. (Bears, rabbits, dogs, ants, ravens, serpents, vultures, swine, cows, and eagles all feature)
  • my comments are in italics

My 3 favourite verses:
“Speak up for the dumb, for the cause of those who are left desolate; speak up, judge righteously and defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (31:8-9)
Good!
“Like him who catches a dog by the ears, so is he who, passing by, involves himself in a quarrel not his own.” (26:17)
Great simile!
“Like a gold ring in a swine’s snout, so is a beautiful woman who neglects good taste.” (11:22)
What sexist cheek!

Sound familiar:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (1:7)
“He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to chasten him” (13:24 and 22:15)
I think most social workers, not to mention European Human Rights legislation would not agree with this!
“Pride comes before a fall” (16:18)
“As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” (26:11)

Rich and poor; thieves and laziness:
“A thief is not despised if he steals to satisfy his vital need when he is hungry; nevertheless, when caught, he must restore sevenfold; he must give of the substance of his house” (6:30-31)
So don’t get caught!
“Always poor is he who works with an indolent hand, but the hand of the diligent brings wealth. He who gathers during the summer is a prudent son, but a son who sleeps during harvest acts shamefully” (10:4-5)
“As vinegar to the teeth and as smoke to the eyes, so is the lazy one to those who send him” (10:26)
It was a pleasant surprise to encounter such vivid similes!
“The people will curse the man who holds back the grain, but a blessing will be on the head of the one selling it” (11:26)
In India in the 1940s this is exactly what happened: millions starved to death while the merchants’ grain stores were full – they were waiting for a better price before they sold. It’s called capitalism, folks, and there are many more examples!
“Better is he who is lightly esteemed, but has a servant, than he who boasts of himself, and lacks bread” (12:9)
“There is one who considers himself rich, yet has nothing; and one who considers himself poor yet possesses great wealth” (13:7)
“Much food is in the fallow ground of the poor, but it is swept away for lack of justice” (13:23)
“He who oppresses the poor insults his Maker, and he who is kind to the needy honours Him” (14:31)
“Better is a little with righteousness by fair means than a large income without justice” (16:8)
“It is better to be humble in spirit among the poor, than to divide the plunder with the proud” (16:19)
“He who mocks the poor insults his Maker, and he who rejoices at another’s calamity will not go unpunished” (17:5)
“A bribe is a precious stone in the eyes of the one receiving it; whatever he turns to, he causes to succeed” (17:8)
So Solomon is condoning bribes! Or perhaps the pocket-size Gideon Bible translation I am using on holiday is inaccurate?
“The rich man’s wealth is his strong city and as a high wall – so he thinks” (18:11)
“So he thinks”!! – I love it!
“The poor use entreaties, but the rich answer roughly” (18:23)
Nothing has changed!
“He who is gracious to the poor is lending to the Lord; He will repay him for his benevolent action” (19:17)
“Be not overfond of sleep lest you come to poverty; keep your eyes open and have plenty of food” (20:13)
“He who closes his eyes to the cry of the poor will himself also cry and not be heard” (21:13)
“He who loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich.” (21:17)
That ain’t necessarily true!
“the righteous gives and does not hold back.” (21:26b)
“The rich and poor meet together – the Lord is Maker of them all.” (22:2)
“He whose eye is generous will be blessed, for he gives food to the poor.” (22:9)
“He who oppresses the poor to make gain for himself, or he who gives to the rich, surely he will suffer want.” (22:16)
The capitalist, in other words.
“Do not rob the poor because he is poor, nor oppress the afflicted in the gate; for the Lord will plead their cause, and he will take the life of those killing them.” (22:22-23)
This implies that God will sort it all out so we don’t need to bother.
“Be not among those who give pledges, who are securities for debts; if you do not have the means to pay, why should your bed be taken from under you?” (22:26-27)
“Better is a poor man walking in his integrity, than a perverse double-dealer, though he be rich.” (28:6)
So, as I maintained above, the wicked can prosper.
“Wise in his own eyes is  a rich man, but a discerning poor man sees through him.” (28:11)
May we all be “discerning poor men”.
“He who tills the soil will have plenty of food, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.” (28:19)
“grant me neither poverty nor riches; feed me my portion of nourishment, lest I be full and deny Thee and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor, and steal, and violate God’s name.” (30:8-9)
“There are those whose teeth are swords, whose teeth are knives, to devour the poor from off the earth and the needy from among men.” (30:14)

Amusing verses
“A worthless man, a wicked man is he who walks with a crooked mouth, winking his eyes, shuffling his foot, signaling with his fingers.” (6:12-13)
Sounds like a bookie at a horse-racing track!
“Better a vegetable meal where love is, than a fattened ox and hate with it.” (15:17)
Implying a meal with meat is preferable to a vegetarian dish. I know a great many vegetarians who would dispute that.
“Sweet to a man is food gained by deceit, but afterwards his mouth will be filled with gravel.” (20:17)
Billy Graham used to use this simile.
” Have you found honey? Eat only what you need, lest being filled with it, you vomit it up.” (25:16)
“Like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar upon soda, so is a singer of songs to a heavy heart.” (25:20)
“He cuts off his own feet and drinks poison who sends a message by the hand of a fool.” (26:6)
“As the door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it tires him to return it to his mouth.” (26:14-15)
“The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body.” (26:22)
“For the churning of milk brings forth butter, and the wringing of the nose brings forth blood; so the churning of anger brings forth strife.” (30:33)

Drink
“Who has bloodshot eyes? They who tarry long over wine, they who go to sample mixed wine. Look not upon wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind will utter upside down things; yes, you will be as one who lies down in the heart of the sea, or as one who lies down on the top of a mast. ‘They struck me, I did not feel it! They beat me I did not know it!When shall I awake? I will seek it yet again.’ (23:29b-35)
Spot on!

Animal comparisons
“Go to the ant, you sluggard, consider her ways and be wise; who, having no chief, official, or ruler, provides her bread in the summer, gathers her food in the harvest .”(6:6-8)
Entomologically inaccurate, but the point is clear.
“Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is like a cow.” (12:1)
So now you know!
“Rather a man should encounter a bear robbed of her cubs, than a fool in his folly.” (17:12)
“Like him who catches a dog by the ears, so is he who, passing by, involves himself in a quarrel not his own.” (26:17)
I find this image hilarious!

Patriarchal advice
“My son, heed the instruction of your father and reject not your mother’s teaching; for they are a fair garland upon your head and adornments for your neck.” (1:8-9)
“For wisdom will enter into your heart; knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.” (2:10)
“Hold back no benefit from those entitled to it, when it is in the power of your hand to perform. Say not to your neighbour.’Go and come back and tomorrow I will give;’ when you already have it.” (3:27-28)
“There are six things which the Lord hates, yes seven that are an abomination to Him;  haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands shedding innocent blood, a heart devising wicked schemes, feet quick to run to evil, a false witness breathing out lies, and he who is sowing discord among brothers.” (6:16-19)
“Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars, she has slaughtered her meat, she has mixed her wine, she has also prepared her table.” (9:1-3)
“He who corrects a scorner  heaps abuse upon himself, and he who reproves a wicked man gets bruises in return. Do not reprove a scorner, lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you. Inform a wise man and he will become yet wiser; teach a righteous man and he will add to his grasp of things.” (9:7-9)
“Deceitful scales are an abomination to the Lord, but an accurate weight is his delight.” (11:1)
“The charitable soul will be enriched, and he who waters, will himself be watered.” (11:25)
“He who tills his ground will have his fill of bread, but he who follows vain pursuits is lacking in sense.” (12:11)
“Hope drawn out makes the heart sick, but a longing come true is a tree of life.” (13:12)
“A relaxed mind makes for physical health; but passion is rottenness to the bones.” (14:30)
“A happy heart makes the face look sunny; but in grief of heart the spirit is broken.” (15:13)
“Pleasant words are as a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” (16:24)
“Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.” (17:1)
“Diverse weights are an abomination to the Lord, and false scales are wrong.” (20:23)
“A wise king winnows the wicked and drives the wheel over them.” (20:26)
“The glory of young men is their strength, and the attractiveness of old men is their gray head.” (20:29)
“Withold not correction from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die; beat him with a rod and, and you will deliver his soul from Sheol.” (23:13-14)
“Be not among winebibbers, among gluttonous eaters of flesh; for the drunkard and the glutton will be poverty stricken, and drowsiness will clothe a man with rags.” (23:20-21)
“My son, revere the Lord and the king; do not mingle with those who are given to change.” (24:21)
The reverse of Zingcreed’s position! But then, this was written by the king – what do you expect him to say?
“To give the right answer is like a kiss on the lips.” (24:26)
“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for live coals you will heap upon his head, and the Lord will reward you.” (25:21-22)
See comment on this verse above.
“As the legs of a lame man hang useless, so is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.” (26:7)
“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (26:12)
“For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, contention ceases.” (26:20)
“Do not boast about tomorrow for you do not know what a day will bring forth. Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger and not your own lips.” (27:1-2)
“He whose appetite is satisfied disdains a honeycomb, but to him who is hungry everything bitter is sweet.” (27:7)
“Oil and perfume make the heart rejoice, as does the pleasantness of a friend’s suggestions from the heart.” (27:9)
“Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand all about it.” (28:5)
“There are three things which are too wonderful for me, yes, four which I do not comprehend: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent upon a rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a maiden.” (30:18-20)

Women:(remember Proverbs is written by a man for men)
“Let your own fountain be blessed; derive delight from the wife of your youth; a lovely hind, a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; be always infatuated with her love; for why my son, should you be infatuated with a loose woman, and embrace the bosom of an outsider?” (5:18-20)
“to keep you from the evil woman, from the smooth tongue of an unfamiliar woman. Do not lust for her beauty in your heart; neither let her eyelashes captivate you.” (6:24-25)
“For at the window of my house I looked out through my lattice and I saw among the simple, I perceived among the youths a senseless young man. Passing along the street near her corner, he takes the way to her house, in the twilight, in the evening, in the middle of the night, in the darkness. And look,a woman comes to meet him, with the attire of a harlot, and a crafty mind. She is loud and lewd; her feet do not stay in her own house; now in the street, now in the market places, near every corner she sets her ambush. So she catches him and kisses him; with a a hardened face she says to him: ‘Sacrifices of peace offerings I owed; today I paid my vows; therefore I come out to meet you, to seek your face; and I have found you. I have decked my couch with coverings, coloured sheets of Egyptian linen. I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. come let us take our fill of love until the morning; let us delight ourselves with love, for my husband is not at home; he has gone on a distant journey; a bag of money he has taken with him; at full moon he will come home.’ By her sophistries she draws him away; with the flattery of her lips she entices him. Suddenly he goes after her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, as in fetters a fool to his punishment, till an arrow strikes his liver; as a bird hastened to the snare, for he does not know that it will cost his life….for many victims has she brought down….her house is the way of Sheol, descending to the chambers of death.” (7:6-27)
Dirty old man, he’s a real Peeping Tom isn’t he? He knows so much detail that my guess is he has been into her house himself!
“Like a gold ring in a swine’s snout, so is a beautiful woman who neglects good taste.” (11:22)
How insulting to women! Remember the pig is the most offensive animal to the author’s Jewish readers. Who are to be the arbiters of good taste? The men, I expect!
A wife with strength of character is a crown to her husband, but she who acts disgracefully is rottenness in his bones.” (12:4)
“It is better to live in the corner of a housetop than to share a house with a contentious woman.” (21:9)
“The mouth of a strange (i.e. gentile) woman is a deep pit; he who is cursed of the Lord falls into it.” (22:14)
“a harlot is a deep pit; an alien (non-Jewish woman) is a narrow well; she also lies in wait like robber.” (23:27-28)
“A constant dripping on a rainy day and a contentious woman are alike; to restrain her is like restraining the wind;” (27:15-16a)
This sexist patriarchal drivel isn’t included here because I approve of it but because I want to be reasonably thorough in my perusal of this book. The aim of the game is to examine the roots of Jesus’ aphorisms, as it is highly probable he was exposed to all this guff (a polite term for it) on his visits to the shul (synagogue).
Who can find a wife with strength of character? She is far more precious than jewels…her husband will never lack profit…she seeks wool and flax and works with willing hands….she rises while it is still night and gives food to her household…she buys a field and plants a vineyard…she sees that her merchandise is profitable. Strength and dignity clothe her and she laughs at the future, etc,etc. ” (31:10-31)
This truly impressive Yiddisher mommah in the final chapter of the book works like a black. I wonder what her husband is doing meanwhile? Something important like reading the torah or praying maybe.

The experts say…(i) (ii)
Author: not Solomon, but the accumulated sayings of generations of wisdom teachers, maybe Lemuel, Agur, Hezekiah
Date: “500 B.C.E.” (i); “715-686 B.C.E.” (ii)
Character: does not claim to be revealed truth; its wisdom is insight based on experience, ‘crystalized experience’, ‘community wisdom’
Sophia: the first 9 chapters are wisdom poems, wisdom being personified as the ‘wisdom woman’ or Sophia, a female image for God in Jewish wisdom literature. Is Jesus an incarnation of Sophia? (Borg p.150)

 

Suggested follow-up work: Imagine you are Queen ‘Davina’ – write some proverbs that are patronising and suitable for a matriarchal society; perhaps complaining about contentious husbands who are worse than chinese water torture with their constant droning on.

Sources:
(i) Borg, Marcus “Reading the Bible again for the first time.” HarperOne (2001) chap. 7
(ii) Nick Page “The Bible Book a user’s guide” HarperCollins (2008) p. 164

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