In the light of the myriad ethical issues that preoccupy the biblical anthology, it is most remarkable that its powers of observation and instruction are so often drawn to that little organ we call the tongue. Biblical ethics in diverse garb agree that this little muscle possesses the powers of both life and death.
It is perhaps not surprising that the theme should be drawn into the orbit of another recurring image, that of the tree of life.
The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life,
but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.
The tree of life is patient of multiple understandings. One that ought not be lost in the shuffle corresponds to what grammarians call an objective genitive. That is, the subject (in this case, the tree) produces the item that clings to it in a grammatically genitive construction. Life, here, is the tree’s object. The tree produces the conditions which in turn create live in a recurring fashion.
One lives and lives well when such a tree graces the square of one’s community, for its leaves, its fruit, its sheer persistent productivity see to the nourishment of the people who live in its shade.
A healing tongue—the proverb cannot help but telegraph its intention prosaically even before it steps over the threshold of the image it wants to create—is rather like such a tree. It takes its place among the to-ings and fro-ings of people who grow accustomed to its presence. It nourishes such folk, displaces the threat of death that might otherwise skulk and lurk in the shadows of the town. It sees to their fitness, their longevity, their capacity to laugh and to make others laugh with them.
Perversity, on the other hand, does the opposite. No doubt we are meant to remain in the conceptual field of speech and, therefore, to understand this perversity as intentional, misleading, undermining, assassinating words. Unlike a tree of life, such use of the tongue demeans a community. In its presence people limp, then wither, then die.
What enormous power trembles in the potency of this minute, world-changing muscle.