Proverbs: Everyday spirituality

Many teachers argue Proverbs is not merely a collection of ethical or moral rules. We stress the role of this teaching in forming the person. We notice how often the real wisdom consists not in knowing the words but in recognising when they are applicable.

Thus, “contradictory” proverbs may both be true, and both collected, remembered and used by the same person:

4 Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.
5 Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.

That the book opens with a collection of “instructions” and “wisdom poems” strongly supports this view of its aims and goal.

Instructions, with the form of some commands followed by a motive, suggest such character formation. The form itself is rather like the priestly torah with instructions for ritual observance followed by a theological grounding:

1 My child, if you accept my words
and treasure up my commandments within you,
2 making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
3 if you indeed cry out for insight,
and raise your voice for understanding;
4 if you seek it like silver,
and search for it as for hidden treasures–
5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD
 and find the knowledge of God.
 (Proverbs 2:1-5)

Yet the address to a “child”, and thus the casting of the speaker as a parent, suggest already a formational goal. When we notice the prevalence of words that describe who or what a person is, rather than what they do, this becomes even clearer.

Old Babylonian Queen of the Night (Ishtar?) Photo by seriykotik1970

However it is in the “wisdom poems” that this becomes most explicit. For example:

13 Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
14 for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
15 She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
18 A tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.
(Proverbs 3:13-18)

While it begins with language that seems “merely” to describe the benefits of a “good upbringing” gradually but progressively it seems to be describing a way of living. This language already in Proverbs begins to personify Wisdom, both as a quasi-independent attribute of God (in the long poem in 8:1ff. see especially vv.22ff.) but also as a companion for life:

1 My child, keep my words
and store up my commandments with you;
2 keep my commandments and live,
keep my teachings as the apple of your eye;
3 bind them on your fingers,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call insight your intimate friend…
(Proverbs 7:1-4)

So, it begins with education, but ends with a life companion. This relational aspect of the imagery becomes clearer and quite explicit in the contrasting figure of the adulteress or loose woman in vv.5ff.. While taken on its own this might merely be a parental warning against sexual infidelity the contrast with Wisdom suggests otherwise. So also do the hints that associate this other woman with pagan goddesses.
This contrast of Wisdom to the adulteress and to Dame Folly and their possible connections to goddess figures leads directly to a consideration of both what Proverbs says about women and its gendered character and to a consideration of later developments of the figure of divine Wisdom in Scripture.

(See my next post.)

Humour and hurt: Proverbs 26:1-9

Billy Connolly. Taken by Jemma Lambert on April 13, 2005. The image links to a video clip that illustrates some of the points made here, but which uses excessive bad language.

Humour and hurtfulness often go hand in hand. Comedians can hardly be squeamish about offending. Indeed one of the liberating possibilities humour opens for us is to make fun of the powerful. But often in everyday life the people humorists make fun of are not powerful, still less powerful and oppressive. Rather they are often weaker with less access to resources than the comedian. (If you doubt this just search on YouTube for really funny clips, and note how often the “fun” is hurtful.)

Thinking about humour in biblical books, for my series seeking signs of humour in each book of the (Hebrew) Bible, I looked at Proverbs 26:1-9.1 Humour is used widely in proverbs, and so in Proverbs, because it is memorable, and proverbs aim to teach.

Here is the beginning of Proverbs 26 with some comments on how each couplet is either funny or hurtful, or not:

1 Like snow in summer or rain in harvest,
so honor is not fitting for a fool.

Hershey saw this one as funny, but I can’t see the joke myself.

2 Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying,
an undeserved curse goes nowhere.

Having a variety of birds around to watch, here in the bush clad hills between Tauranga and Rotorua, I found this picture of an undeserved curse flitting here and there, never settling, like a sparrow, or like a swallow swooping, swerving and always returning, most amusing.

3 A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey,
and a rod for the back of fools.

Expresses clearly the biblical idea of discipline, beat someone soundly and you may knock some sense into them, but it is not funny. Unless perhaps you see yourself as wise, and have a cruel streak.

But the next pair are brilliant. The more quoted is quite good:

4 Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.

Just picture the last conversation you had with someone intent on “proving” that the world would end sometime back in May, or perhaps next October, or of “demonstrating” their particular form of church rules is found in this and that “verse” of Scripture. Remember how, if you opened your mouth, you were dragged into a morass of stupidity from which you were lucky to return ;)

But then read on…

5 Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.

Every time someone descends into the slough of verse bashing the fools whose forté it is are confirmed and built up in their folly. Now that is funny and hurtful at the same time. And a delightfully amusing complement to the previous couplet.

6 It is like cutting off one’s foot and drinking down violence,
to send a message by a fool.

The image is sufficiently incongruous, if not really funny, to be memorable, and since you are to cut off your own foot it hardly mocks the disadvantaged. Except those who make a bad choice or “messenger”.

7 The legs of a disabled person hang limp;
so does a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

However, this one is both very funny, and very hurtful, as well as memorable and effective. What do we do with it? To remove the offense would remove the point. Yet to make fun of the affliction which makes someone else less able to enjoy life than one is oneself seems deeply wrong.

8 It is like binding a stone in a sling to give honor to a fool.

Seems safe enough, though if we look at the translations and commentaries it seems the image may be a bit obscure…

9 Like a thorn in the hand of a drunkard
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

I have translated this one more literally than the NRSV and have preferred “thorn” to the NIV’s “thornbush” (agreeing pretty much with the NET). For the image seems to me clear, just as someone really drunk will hardly notice the prick of a thorn, so someone who is incurably stupid can learn proverbs, but their point will not prick, and no change will result.

So, what change should result from this reading of Proverbs 26:1-9?

Well for me, I resolve:

  • to try to cease answering fools according to their folly – students and others who quote “verses” at me had better expect an unsympathetic response
  • to try to answer fools according to their folly, and avoid honouring them, by pointing out that such verse bashing is daft


  1. The passage was suggested by an article: Hershey H. Friedman, “Humor in the Bible” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 13:3, 2000, 258-285. Although Friedman was Bernard H. Stern Professor of Humor and the journal sounds respectable the material is of varied quality and some of his examples did not tickle my funny bone, but it did suggest Pr 26 was worth consideration. []