One of the Book of Proverbs‘ most quotable dicta has a meaning more debatable than readers in a quote-seeking mood might prefer.
The most traditional interpretation is captured by the English Standard Version.
A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Proverbs 18:24 ESV)
Here the Hebrew להתרעע is understood to derive from רעע, to inflict harm.
But להתרעע may instead express a form of the verb רעה, to associate with. The Jewish Publication Society Bible embraces this understanding.
There are companions to keep one company, And there is a friend more devoted than a brother. (Proverbs 18:24 JPS)
Nuances and elaborations abound, but the source verb for this expression is the most critical interpretive issue.
By nearly any interpretation, the Proverb classifies friends into two categories: casual and/or entertaining friends vs. non-blood ‘brothers’ linked in common destiny by a bond that is stronger than blood ties. Some translations, like the two quoted above, add the English word ‘many’ in order to express the premise that the first envelope of friends is a fat one, while a second, thin may contain just one priceless exemplar.
Probably a contrast in value is implied, a nuance that is commonly expressed by the English adversative ‘but’.
Why does a mere sorting qualify as wisdom’s instruction?
Because it is possible to traipse through life with a vaguely romantic notion of friends and friendships. The fool merely counts his friends rather than weighing them. By contrast, the wise comes to understand that not all friends are the same.
There are those acquaintances in spite of whom it is possible to ruin one’s life. However entertaining, they are basically irrelevant to the weighty matters of life, death, and legacy. Or, by the second interpretation, they are fine for parties but not much good beyond that.
On the other hand, life occasionally throws up the oddity not commonly found in nature by which a genetically unrelated person finds his way into the deep space normally occupied by family. There is no shared blood, no common gene pool, just an inseparable bond that proves its worth in poverty, sickness, assault, or despair.
This kind of friend—this singular, solitary gift comprising the love of a human being who has no genetic reason to love—is the dearest of treasures. One is fortunate to find oneself bound to even one friend of this kind. It goes almost without saying that brothers are, from the perspective of biblical wisdom, a very deep wealth. Yet there is such a wonder as one who loves more tenaciously still.
Wise is he who can tell the difference between ordinary friends and the amazing one, fortunate the one who is loved by a friend like this.