Thursday, October 22, 2009

Proverbial Wisdom

The Book of Proverbs is a great read, chock full of useful and interesting, um, well, proverbs. Lots of it still speaks to us today. Some of it, not so much. I re-read it the other day and added several lines to my famous Book of Quotes, which I may share later.

It got me thinking about various attempts over the years to produce a gender-neutral translation of the Bible. Proverbs makes clear the futility and folly of the effort. Like a lot of the books of the Old Testament, it is an anthology of writings and wisdom stitched together as one volume, often reflecting different styles and points of view. Much of Proverbs is intended to be advice to a young man about to enter adulthood. The proverbs are intended to remind the fledgling of the way he must follow and the things he must avoid to lead a good life. Some of it is advice on choosing the right sort of wife and avoiding the wrong sort of woman. Trying to pretend that these lessons were intended to be universal takes it out of its context and strips it of meaning. Taking instructions to a young Jewish man of a couple of millennia ago and finding universal wisdom in them is a valuable exercise, but trying to do that in a translation is a mistake.

While the core message of the text is that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, it expands upon that to give advice about not ruining your life by breaking societal taboos. We all know that coveting your neighbor's wife is one of the top ten sins, but it can also lead to a whole lot of messy problems here below. There are several admonitions against giving in to the wicked wiles of your neighbor's wanton wife. I found the advice of 6:25-26 to be particularly interesting:
Do not desire her beauty in your heart,
and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes;
for a prostitute's fee is only a loaf of bread,
but the wife of another stalks a man's very life.
Yes, if you are sorely tempted by a married woman, the Bible's advice is to get yourself a prostitute. This sort of thing tends to create difficulties for people who argue that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and that every passage therein can be used as a guide to life. It is filled with little contradictions. Several other passages condemn those who patronize the oldest profession. Proverbs 29:3 tells us that
A child who loves wisdom makes a parent glad,
but to keep company with prostitutes is to squander one's substance.
Oh darn. I was all set to go check out the naughty pages on Craigslist.

I'm interpreting the meaning of these apparently contradictory proverbs as being that while both are sins, one of them is far worse as it could cost you your very life (few prostitutes have dangerously jealous husbands). I could be wrong about that. Bear in mind --
One who is clever conceals knowledge,
but the mind of the fool broadcasts folly. (12:23)
I have a lot more to say about the proverbs, but perhaps I should just keep it to myself. Don't want to look too foolish.

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