Tuesday, April 17, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (2)

Just who is Solomon talking to in Proverbs anyway? Ever wondered?

“Well, that’s easy,” says the Bible student. “He’s talking to his son. Look at verse 8.”

“Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching.”

Now, the Bible student might well be right, but before we agree with him, let’s address the herd of elephants in the room.

Proverbs at a Glance

Actually, before we do that, let’s quickly lay out the contents of Proverbs so I can talk about them without inundating you with verse references:
Introduction Proverbs 1:1-7 Five reasons to read proverbs.
Section 1 Proverbs 1:8 to 9:18 A treatise on the value of wisdom.
Section 2 Proverbs 10:1 to 22:16 The proverbs of Solomon.
Section 3 Proverbs 22:17 to 24:22 The words of the wise in “thirty sayings of counsel and knowledge” (I think there may actually BE thirty!), along with a number of what appear to be editorial comments from Solomon.
Section 4 Proverbs 24:23 to 24:34 Additional “sayings of the wise”.
Section 5 Proverbs 25:1 to 29:27 More proverbs of Solomon, which “the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied”.
Section 6 Proverbs 30 The words of Agur son of Jakeh.
Section 7 Proverbs 31 The words of King Lemuel (an oracle taught to him by his mother).
Sons and Daughters

The words “my son” and “O sons” are used 18 times in Section 1 (see above) and five more times in Section 3, but only once in Section 2, where the advice is much more pithy, wide-ranging and, yes, proverbial, in the sense that we usually use the word. In contrast, the first nine chapters are all of a piece, much more poetic in tone and definitely thematically related. Together, Sections 1-3 comprise about four-fifths of Proverbs. Sections 4-7 each have their interesting features, which we will note as we come to them.

A sidenote: women will probably get the greatest value from the much more general Section 2 (and potentially Section 7, for reasons I will set out if we ever get there), although it is always useful to read other people’s mail if that mail is preserved in holy writ. But Sections 1 and 3 are primarily relevant to male wisdom-seekers, since they involve the sorts of errors men are most likely to make. That Solomon would be most concerned with passing on his personal insights to young men only makes sense: given his track record, it would have been near-impossible for him to view women as much more than a very available commodity. If he had particular insights to share with the fairer sex, they were definitely thinner on the ground than those he shared with men.

Right. Now for the elephants:

Needles in a Genetic Haystack

First elephant: Which son, of which mother? Rehoboam, Solomon’s most famous offspring, succeeded his father on the throne of a united Israel (briefly), but he is hardly the only potential candidate, nor the most likely (assuming we take the word “son” literally, which is not a given either).

Solomon, we are told, had 700 wives who were “princesses”; meaning that, at least initially, the main reason for most of these unions was political. Many — probably most — were foreign. We are told he “clung to these in love”, which may be the Old Testament’s way of saying he was a bit of a lothario. The desires of the heart were definitely involved.

He also had 300 concubines, a concubine being essentially a sex slave, a role often assumed voluntarily for the sake of a better standard of living. The concubine was exclusive to the man she served, but he was not exclusive to her; almost surely not the most desirable arrangement from a woman’s perspective, but some women evidently considered concubinage preferable to starvation. These were almost surely selected first and foremost for their looks as opposed to their lineage.

So how many “sons” is Solomon speaking to in Proverbs? Only Rehoboam is mentioned by name in scripture, as are two of his sisters, Taphath and Basemath. But unless Solomon had medical problems of which we are unaware, the math tells the story: a single sex act with each of 1,000 women would normally produce at least 40-45 children. More likely there were as many as 5,000, which might go a long way to explaining the apparent reluctance of the scribes to name every last one of them and preserve that record in the word of God. Almost surely Solomon did not know them all. Further, assuming they are literal, the words “O sons” suggest Rehoboam had brothers. And really, in whom would King Solomon be more invested than in his own progeny, however distant and diluted their actual relationship?

Counsel for the Illegitimate?

Second elephant: There are difficult questions that arise out of assuming that Solomon wrote for the benefit of a huge mob of princes. How likely is it that a prince would find himself sorely tempted to throw in his lot with murderers and thieves, loitering near the door of the adulteress or putting up security for his neighbor on which he cannot possibly make good? Faintly possible on the second, extremely unlikely on the other two. Thus it seems much of Solomon’s advice is calibrated for the common man, not for young princelings.

But the son of a concubine would have been a common man. To promote him to the level of a recognized heir would have sealed his fate, as the legitimate sons often drove out or killed the illegitimate once dad was no longer around to protect them. Jephthah, a judge who lived not so many years before Solomon, nicely illustrates the likely fate of the children of Solomon’s concubines. He “fled from his brothers” and “worthless fellows” were drawn to him. It is these men, so close to greatness but so far away, and burdened with all the natural resentments to which their lot in life may have predisposed them, who would have been most likely to step on the spiritual landmines their father warns us about.

If the word “son” in Proverbs is literal (and I think it is), it is to these sorts of sons, at least in part, that Solomon is writing. That’s a twist, isn’t it?

Or, if we prefer, we could simply hew to the sanitized version, in which Solomon spoke to the average Israelite as a “son” in affectionate but figurative language.

Your call.

Fear, Integrity and Abominations

Third elephant: At what point in Solomon’s reign is this being written? Could he ingenuously pen lines like “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” and “[The Lord] is a shield to those who walk in integrity” in his later years when he was old, terribly compromised and consumed with building places of worship for “gods” like “Chemosh the abomination of Moab” and “Molech the abomination of the Ammonites” on the mountainsides around Jerusalem? It seems highly unlikely.

No, frankly, it seems incredible.

Moral of the story: Either it is possible to be uniquely knowledgeable about how to live morally and happily without consistently putting that knowledge into practice; or else it is possible to be uniquely wise in some areas of life and uniquely foolish in others.

Perhaps both.

No comments :

Post a comment