Saturday, December 22, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (38)

If you were here with us back in the second installment of this series on Proverbs, you may recall that for ease of reference I divided the book into seven sections and an introduction. We have now reached section 3.

With perhaps one exception I can currently recall, section 2, the longest in the book, is filled with two-line proverbs. The advantage of two-liners is that they are tremendously memorable. The disadvantage we discovered is that in the absence of context — and proverbs are by their nature decontextualized — the briefer a sentence in Hebrew, the more difficult it is to discern its meaning.

That’s a pretty significant disadvantage.

Hebrew to English

To put the problem in layman’s terms, Hebrew does more with less than most languages. It is exceedingly economical. For example, Proverbs 22:17 is 18 words in King James English, 19 words in the Greek Septuagint, and a mere 8 words in Hebrew. Verse 18 is 20, 14 and 6 words, respectively, and so on. If one of twenty English words in a sentence is open to multiple interpretations, that’s usually a minor problem. But if one out of only six Hebrew words is ambiguous, it’s a bigger one — assuming of course that authorial intent matters to the reader. And if it’s more than one of six, you now have a proverb that may be interpreted several different ways. Sometimes one or another of these possible interpretations self-disqualifies by virtue of contradicting other proverbs or other teachings in scripture. Other times two or three meanings are equally plausible.

Outside of Proverbs, where there is a larger immediate context to limit and clarify authorial intent, the economy of written Hebrew is less of an issue for translators. Put a six-word sentence in the middle of a paragraph and its intended meaning is often perfectly obvious. But taken entirely on its own, as we must often do in Proverbs, it may not be so clear.

Ambiguity and Value Considered

The aforementioned Septuagint is helpful in such instances. Because it dates to a few hundred years B.C., more than two millennia closer to the penning of Solomon’s proverbs, its translators can be expected to have known things about the Hebrew language we don’t. All the same, there’s still (approximately) an 800 year gap to contend with, so the Septuagint’s interpretation of Hebrew cannot in every case be considered absolutely definitive.

In short, a series of brief, decontextualized statements such as we find in section 2 of Proverbs is a recipe for occasional ambiguity. That does not mean these proverbs are not the word of God, or that they are of no use. Many are perfectly clear today. Those which are not were perfectly understandable to their original audiences and were useful for hundreds of years; after all, not all scripture is about you and me.

Even where two or three possible meanings exist, there is often benefit in chewing over a proverb and considering it from multiple angles. Sometimes all possible renderings contain valuable moral and practical lessons.

Thirty Sayings of Counsel and Knowledge (Proverbs 22:17-24:22)

The Thirty Sayings are generally longer than what we have seen so far, and thus supply greater context to clarify any questions that arise. Only six of thirty are two lines, most are at least double that, and one is roughly ten times longer than average. They are worth looking at in depth not just because they are longer and therefore much less ambiguous than the two-liners, but because they may be applied across the centuries and across cultures more easily than some other proverbs.

It is pretty certain there are intended to be exactly thirty separate sayings here, but it is not entirely obvious to the English reader where each begins and ends. Sometimes, as in 23:27, English translators have supplied linking words like “for” that are not present in the Hebrew. In such instances, a relationship seems obvious to us that may not have been intended by the writer. I read them as if each new command or observation (“do not”, “make no”, “be not”, etc.) initiates a new saying, but I exclude the first three times Solomon addresses “my son” (23:15, 19, 26), as these comments appear to be more general encouragements to his son or sons to follow their father’s ways, rather than specific new bits of wisdom.

Stan Murrell’s breakdown of the Thirty Sayings in Today’s English Version may be found here. My own version follows this post.

This short modern language summary of the Thirty Sayings may help. The reference in the second column is to the first verse of each saying:
1 2:22 Respect the rights of the poor
2 2:24 Avoid angry people
3 2:26 Don’t go to bat for people whose actions you can’t predict
4 2:28 Do not treat lightly the wisdom of past generations
5 2:29 Prize diligence
6 23:1 Watch how you behave in the presence of powerful people
7 23:4 Do not be a workaholic
8 23:6 Some offers come with strings attached
9 23:9 Do not waste advice on those who will not take it
10 23:10 Be careful of stepping on the rights of others
11 23:12 Pay attention
12 23:13 Disciplining children sure beats the alternative
13 23:17 Righteousness pays off in the long run
14 23:20 Don’t hang around with people who have no self-control
15 23:22 Pay attention to your parents
16 23:23 Value truth
17 23:24 Be the kind of child you would want to raise
18 23:27 The wrong kind of woman is dangerous
19 23:29 Alcoholism makes you stupid and unhappy
20 24:1 Steer clear of evildoers
21 24:3 Living an enjoyable life depends on acting wisely
22 24:5 You can’t have enough wise people, or enough wisdom
23 24:8 Those who do evil things deliberately are the lowest of the low
24 24:10 Keep it together when things get tough
25 24:11 If you have a chance to prevent disaster, take it
26 24:13 Wisdom is as necessary as food in an emergency
27 24:15 Plots against righteous people will not end well
28 24:17 Don’t celebrate your enemy’s errors
29 24:19 Don’t copy the ways of wicked people
30 24:21 Stay away from people who have no respect for authority
The Introduction
“Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise,
and apply your heart to my knowledge,
for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you,
if all of them are ready on your lips.
That your trust may be in the Lord,
I have made them known to you today, even to you.
Have I not written for you thirty sayings of counsel and knowledge,
to make you know what is right and true,
that you may give a true answer to those who sent you?”
A quick paraphrase: “Memorize these thirty. You will need them all, and things will go better for you if they come instantly to mind. This is not man’s wisdom, it is God’s, and when you follow it, you are demonstrating your confidence in his word and therefore in him personally. You can bank on these sayings, and you can confidently share them with others.”

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