Saturday, February 23, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (47)

Our Bible is full of moral lessons taught with food. The fruit of a very special tree in Eden. Manna and quail in the wilderness. The leeks and garlic of Egypt. The widow’s jar of flour and jug of oil. Five loaves and two fishes. The bread of heaven. The leaven of the Pharisees.

And honey. Why not? Honey is loaded with carbohydrates and natural sugars. It takes approximately seventeen minutes of brisk walking to burn off the 64 calories your body gets from eating a single tablespoon. In Israel, honey was the … er … gold standard for a luxury food item. Canaan was, after all, the land of milk and honey.

All today’s proverbs are about food, and two are about having too much of a good thing.

The “Men of Hezekiah” Proverbs (Proverbs 25:15-28)

We Thought He was Gone … and Now He’s Come Back Again
“If you have found honey, eat only enough for you,
lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.
Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house,
lest he have his fill of you and hate you.”
Here is one of those “juxtaposition exercises” for which the proverbs transcribed by Hezekiah’s men are so notable. We have two separate sayings, both of which are perfectly useful on their own, placed side by side so that the first illustrates and illuminates the second by way of comparison. The first is about moderation in eating; the second, about moderation in social interaction.

It should not take a degree in rocket science to register the fact that honey is better used as a flavor enhancer in other foods than as a mealtime staple; it’s more pleasurable spread on a slice of toast or mixed into a savory marinade than wolfed down by the bowlful.

Well, for most of us it is.

If “sweets are best eaten in moderation” seems so self-evident it ought not to need stating, remember that today some of us have neighbors and acquaintances who indulge 30-can-a-day Coca-Cola habits. There were surely Israelites with a similar lack of impulse control. But burying your face in the source of your pleasure until your stomach rebels and you heave it all back up benefits no one.

That’s the obvious proverb. The second may seem equally evident to you or me. Or not. I’m often amazed at the differences between people. Some, whether through experience or instinct, are keen observers; sensitive — even overly-sensitive — to whether their presence is or is not desired. Others are thick as planks. They have to be informed in carefully-chosen, simple English, “Go away, please. I have things to do.” Often it is the loudest, most obnoxious guests who are least aware they are better in small doses.

For those who might not otherwise entertain the possibility that it is possible to wear out one’s welcome so completely that your neighbor would like to vomit you out of his house, well … consider it. Certainly for Christians it’s better to leave ’em wanting more than wishing for less.

Sermon on the Parchment
“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
for you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you.”
For me, working my way through Proverbs and Matthew at the same time verse by verse has been eye-opening. Just as there is a very common misconception circulating that the Jehovah of the Old Testament and the Christ of the New are wildly different characters, so there is a myth floating about that the Sermon on the Mount was a “strange” or “revolutionary” take on the Law of Moses; a brand new thing.

Not so. It is possible to work through those three chapters of teaching in Matthew verse by verse and demonstrate overwhelmingly that the morality Jesus preached came straight out of the Law, Psalms and Prophets. Or in this case Proverbs: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” could easily have been the next verse.

Christian morality is superior to law. It is not inconsistent with law.

Lost in Translation?
“It is not good to eat much honey,
nor is it glorious to seek one’s own glory.”
The footnote in my ESV reads “The meaning of the Hebrew line is uncertain.” Perhaps this is one of those proverbs the Arabic translators of the Old Testament called “difficult”.

Too bad. It’s a sound observation, well substantiated in the teaching of Christ, who repeatedly told his disciples things like “When you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place.” The man who is preoccupied with honoring himself is not getting much useful out of the deal, as the story of Haman well illustrates.

But is that what is being taught here? Nobody knows. It is the second line, obviously, that is in doubt. Ellicott says, “It may mean, ‘But to search into difficult matters is an honour.’ Self-indulgence and study are here contrasted.” Maybe.

Literally, the Hebrew reads, “The search of their glory [is] glory.” The Pulpit Commentary points out the difficulty this creates for the would-be expositor:

“[W]ho are meant by ‘their’? No persons are mentioned in the verse to whom the suffix in כְּבורָם can be referred, and it is not improbable that some words have dropped out of the text. At the same time, we might naturally in thought supply ‘for men’ after ‘it is not good,’ such omissions being not uncommon in proverbial sayings; the suffix then would refer to them. Commentators have endeavoured to amend the text by alterations which do not commend themselves.”

Due to the differences in language and culture and the passage of time, you and I may not be able to take much from the proverb beyond the fact that it reinforces the lesson of verse 16. If that turns out to be the case, we should probably remind ourselves that: (i) truly obscure phrases in scripture are fairly rare; (ii) when they are part of a statement more than two lines long, they can usually be understood with the help of surrounding context; (iii) even if we cannot fully enjoy them today, these words certainly meant something useful to the Israelites of Solomon’s day and the centuries immediately following it; (iv) the same lessons are undoubtedly found in different words (and possibly another language) elsewhere in scripture; (v) it is better to err on the side of caution and avoid opining on the meaning of a verse at all than to dogmatically assert an imperative one cannot substantiate from scholarship; and (vi) whatever else we take away from the proverb, it is definitely not a good thing to overindulge in sweets.

No pleasure, after all, is an end in itself. Pleasure pursued for its own sake eventually ceases to be pleasurable. So too, perhaps, glory is best when it is not pursued for its own sake, but when it arrives unexpectedly as a byproduct of pursuing other “goods” like duty, love and loyalty.

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