Saturday, June 01, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (61)

The remainder of Proverbs 30 is made up of a series of individual sayings irregularly interspersed with six lists of four things Agur has observed in the natural world and in the world of human interaction. As I have mentioned, these groups of four are often referred to as quaternions or tetrastiches. We have already encountered one in Agur’s introduction. The resulting verses are a peculiar arrangement; not entirely regular, but not quite random either.

Unlike some of Solomon’s longer assembled proverbs, Agur’s lists do not seem to have a single, powerful point to which they are building. The fourth item on each of his lists usually appears no more significant or insignificant than the others. As the Pulpit Commentary puts it, “the conclusion is wanting.” We must attempt to elicit one for ourselves.

Notwithstanding some of the more astute observations we find here, it’s a curious chapter, and one whose point always perplexed me as a child.

The Oracle of Agur (Proverbs 30:10-14)

A Difficult Singleton
“Do not slander a servant to his master,
lest he curse you, and you be held guilty.”
Most commentators seem to agree about the two most obvious questions this proverb raises:
  1. Is it the servant or the master who may curse you?
  2. Held guilty by whom?
Their answers are consistently “the servant” and “God”.

Still, I don’t think these are idle questions. Not all masters appreciate or indulge a busybody. (The New Testament also warns against meddling and suggests it may not end well for those who engage in it.) Depending on the social status of the individual bringing the accusation, and whether or not he enjoyed a congenial personal relationship with the master of the household, some allegations might be considered frivolous, intrusive, presumptuous or all of the above. The opinions of outsiders are not always gratefully received. Years ago, I passed on a (legitimate) criticism of a fellow employee who worked in another department and was succinctly instructed to mind my own business. How much more might a patently false accusation meet with less-than-absolute approval?

The question of whether we are discussing guilt in the courts of man or God is also not irrelevant. In addition to being a violation of one of the Ten Commandments, bearing false witness was a serious criminal offense in Israel. If you were caught doubling down on slander in the presence of witnesses, your punishment was equal to the sentence for whatever misdemeanor you falsely claimed the accused had committed.

In any case, so far as I can tell there is nothing in the original Hebrew that makes the answer to either question cut-and-dried, and we have no context to look to for clues. I suspect this is one of those proverbs that was more useful in days when the readers of Proverbs knew more masters and servants and understood the dynamics of the relationship better than we do. Nevertheless, we can probably draw a couple of lessons from it: (1) False accusations are wicked, and false accusations of those ill-equipped to defend themselves are doubly wicked; and (2) Those who presume to stick their noses into other people’s business without warrant deserve whatever they receive.

The First “Four”

Now Agur begins his lists in earnest:
[1] There are those who curse their fathers
and do not bless their mothers.
[2] There are those who are clean in their own eyes
but are not washed of their filth.
[3] There are those — how lofty are their eyes, how high their eyelids lift!
[4] There are those whose teeth are swords, whose fangs are knives,
to devour the poor from off the earth, the needy from among mankind.”
The words “There are those” may also be translated “There is a generation”. It is not impossible Agur is speaking of a specific time in history in which people on the whole will be “disobedient to their parents”, “arrogant”, “proud”, “abusive”, “brutal” and “slanderous”. Paul tells Timothy such behaviors will characterize the “last days”.

However, it is also possible Agur is speaking more generally. We must admit, if we are honest, that most of us have indulged in moments of ungratefulness, pride, hypocrisy or failure to correctly self-evaluate. To our shame, one or two of us may even have lashed out for one reason or another against people we later realized were ill-equipped to defend themselves. Thus we are reminded such behaviors should not be found among God-fearing men and women.

But I don’t think this sort of occasional lapse is what Agur has in mind. He is speaking of those for whom these things are a lifestyle. They are characterized by arrogant self-deception, blaming others for their lot in life and making meals of the innocents around them. These types of predators will be everywhere as the present age comes to its close, but they have also been among us from time immemorial.

It is not a bad thing to recognize this feature of the world, though it is a sad one. Wise parents should teach their children to look, hope for, and encourage the best in others, but not to proceed through life with their eyes shut.

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