Posts Tagged ‘Proverbs’

Biblical wisdom probes inconveniently into our multi-tiered strategies for bailing out.

If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength being small; if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death, those who go staggering to the slaughter; if you say, “Look, we did not know this”— does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according to their deeds? (Proverbs 24:10–12 NRSV)

Awash in a sea of refugees, newly awake to working-class seething of long standing beyond our earshot, bombarded by raw evidence that racial peace is not the settled shalom we had imagined, it is nice from time to time simply to look away.

The biblical witness follows us to our corners, asking nagging questions.

The wise are toned for the day of adversity, it insists. It is when their memorable work gets done.

Neither does a probing Watcher accept our pleas of ignorance. He discards the defense that we were busy elsewhere.

Where were you when … ? What did you do in that hour … ?

We might have saved some who were staggering to the slaughter.

Oh, here they are again. Through my window, just across the way.



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the nerve!: Proverbs 30

Grace and gentleness notwithstanding, we do well to cultivate a capacity for indignation that is on its way to revulsion.

Some behaviors are almost too brazen to be countenanced.

There are those who curse their fathers and do not bless their mothers. There are those who are pure in their own eyes yet are not cleansed of their filthiness. There are those—how lofty are their eyes, how high their eyelids lift! There are those whose teeth are swords, whose teeth are knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, the needy from among mortals. (Proverbs 30:11–14 NRSV)

Biblical wisdom knows this.

The Hebrew phrasing wants to speak of a ‘generation’ or ‘category’ of person who is almost too vile to exist. That he does is something of a wonder.

The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) captures the nuance of the curt Hebrew monosyllable דור, which is commonly translated by ‘generation’, ‘kind’, or ‘species’.

There is a breed of men that brings a curse on its fathers And brings no blessing to its mothers, A breed that thinks itself pure, Though it is not washed of its filth; A breed so haughty of bearing, so supercilious; A breed whose teeth are swords, Whose jaws are knives, Ready to devour the poor of the land, The needy among men. (Proverbs 30:11–14 JPS)

JPS’s deployment of the quasi-animalesque ‘breed’ successfully connotes the difficulty of even speaking of such unnatural behavior as a phenomenon of human affairs.

This species of human being defies all created intentionality. It knows nothing of gratitude or the persistent benefit of the doubt which is due one’s elders. It revels ignorantly in its moral hypocrisy. It offends by that core component of human rebellion that consists of lifting oneself up. It repurposes words—created for giving life and sowing blessing—to consume those who can least defend themselves against such articulate evil.

It is, almost literally, a shame to have to speak of such people.

One must, but there is no pleasure in it.

Tolerance is not here a core value, post-modern self-congratulation be damned.

The nerve of these people!, biblical wisdom subtly exclaims.

It expects us to turn away, to swallow hard, and to feel an indignant flush on our cheeks. There is a moment when not to revile is folly, a self-condemning abdication of proper honor and shame.


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YHWH hears the cry of the poor. So must you.

This, in a nutshell, is the utterly realistic instruction of one core feature of biblical wisdom. Occasionally, self-interest is invoked.

Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered. (Proverbs 21:13 ESV)

One unanswerable query that can be directed at the biblical ethic is this: Are we to understand that YHWH supernaturally intervenes to enact the consequences of generosity and stinginess upon the life of their perpetrator? Or are we to accept that we are all constructing culture where the practices we employ will in time circle back to bless us or crush us? (more…)

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Early or instant wealth lies heavily on the shoulders of those who acquire it.

Something venomous lurks in abundance without labor, status unearned, riches without long-sown tears.

An estate quickly acquired in the beginning will not be blessed in the end. (Proverbs 20:21 NRSV)

It is unclear whether the Proverbialist’s words ‘quickly acquired’ suggest an inheritance too hotly pursued by a young man who should have remained content to wait or, alternatively, fortune that simply falls unexpected upon its recipient. Odds favor the latter, for this interpretation does not require more precision than the words themselves offer up. (more…)

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The Bible’s Old Testament hints subtly in the direction of incarnation. Just one example: there may be no straight line between the book called Isaiah’s depiction of YHWH speaking in the dialect a responsive servant—’Behold, here I am!’—and the New Testament’s delineation of the risen Christ who at one time ‘took the form of a servant’. But between these two points lies at the least a winding path.

The Hebrew Bible’s occasionally daring portrayals of YHWH as a humble figure can take the slow reader’s breath away. (more…)

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We often require no help in order to pave the path to our own ruin. This lamentable task plays to our strength. I can do it all by myself.

The fool is equally adept at locating a scapegoat for the disaster he has brought upon himself. Too often he fingers YHWH for the crime.

One’s own folly leads to ruin, yet the heart rages against the LORD. (Proverbs 19:3 NRSV)

A deep irony of our human condition lies in our tendency to seek our Maker only when things have gone badly. We turn to him in anger and blame after the fact, rather than with our trust and our hunger earlier on.

The wide gaze of biblical wisdom does not imagine that human folly is always the cause of disaster. Life is subject to multiple causes. Yet wisdom knows that we who are foolish often cause our own destruction. The truly foolish then compound their ruin by blaming God.

How different a response is given by repentance and the humility that creates a space for it. If there is ‘rage’ in repentance, it is the dying embers of self-condemnation, not the retrograde misattribution of our pain to YHWH’s doing.

Then—often, if not always—comes fresh air, new light, soft rain, rebirth.

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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. (more…)

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Él es mantequilla, runs an endearing Mexican expression. He’s soft as butter.

It’s a compliment, not a snarky reference to spineless niceness. Niceness has only a little to do with it, and occasionally nothing at all.

Mantequilla (‘butter’) is the gentle though principled capacity to yield, to discover the common cause, to negotiate both fruitfulness and warmth in a human relationship, to prefer the other over oneself. (more…)

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Biblical wisdom is loathe to divide the human person into ‘constituent parts’. The main thing about a man is his unity, about a women her cohesion. Precise distinctions between, say, mind, body, and spirit usually pave the first steps on a ditch dressed up like a path, which leads nowhere. (more…)

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Why do cultures the world over produce exhortations to work hard?

Because hard work is, well, hard work.

It don’t come easy, as my elders used to remind me. The reward of it is seldom immediate, so it’s easy to cut corners and imagine that nothing’s been lost in the shortcut. To ‘take it easy’ sounds like great advice right up until it produces poverty or damage. (more…)

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