Saturday, June 29, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (65)

As we have noted in previous installments, there are different kinds of proverbs. One very common sort is the command. An example: “Do not add to his words lest he rebuke you.” Another is the warning: “The eye that mocks a father ... will be eaten by vultures.” A third is the appeal: “Give me neither poverty nor riches.” All these teach us in different ways.

Agur’s favorite type of proverb was none of the above. More than anything else, Agur was a keen student of the natural world. His proverbs are primarily observational. He may draw the occasional moral conclusion explicitly, but for the most part he simply tells us how things are and lets us chew on that for a bit.

It’s not a bad strategy. I’ve been enjoying it.

The Oracle of Agur (Proverbs 30:21-23)

Order and Chaos

Agur’s fourth quaternion of lists might be my favorite of the bunch. Here he contemplates four sets of circumstances that quickly turn order into chaos:
“Under three things the earth trembles;
under four it cannot bear up:
[1] a slave when he becomes king,
and [2] a fool when he is filled with food;
[3] an unloved woman when she gets a husband,
and [4] a maidservant when she displaces her mistress.”
Notice that there is no command here, nor even a clearly spelled-out warning. We are not being told, for example, “Under all circumstances, ensure that no unloved woman ever gets married.” Even if you or I had the power to prevent such unions, who would presume to interfere beyond the charitable offering of advice? (That’s in the unlikely event anyone would be inclined to heed it.) No, Agur is simply saying “This is how it is.” The natural order rebels under such circumstances. It might be political order, civic order, marital order or household order, but each of these four situations disrupts peace and harmony in one way or another, sometimes with drastic consequences. The earth trembles. The earth cannot bear up.

Is Agur just amping up the rhetoric here? I don’t think so. There might be an element of hyperbole at work, but the level of dysfunction he’s describing is really quite serious. Let’s consider:

[1] A Slave When He Becomes King

Slavery is no longer to be observed in the West, but human nature being what it is, we can safely speculate most slaves in the ancient East fell into one of two broad categories. The vast majority were uneducated, largely unreflective, and primarily concerned with their own survival and that of their families. Rarer but more dangerous, there also existed the occasional high-IQ plotter. Either sort may have detested his lot in life, but the likelihood of the first type ever wielding power was next to non-existent.

However, imagine the chaos that might result from an intelligent ex-slave being suddenly elevated to a leadership role. Actually, we don’t have to do much imagining; we can read about it in the essays of Plutarch. Spartacus of Thrace was a brilliant natural tactician who inspired a full-blown slave rebellion against the Roman republic called the Third Servile War. Though eventually defeated around 71 B.C., thousands died in the uprising Spartacus instigated and in the attacks he commanded.

Without training in statecraft and polity, and inflamed by a life of hard knocks and abuse, history shows the most likely outcome when a slave is granted power and opportunity is that he will break stuff and kill people, many of whom have little or nothing to do with the source of his oppression. The French Revolution illustrates the same principle: overturning the existing order without an alternative in place is a recipe for craziness and bloodshed.

Incremental change of a society is painstaking and difficult to accomplish, but it also averts the terrible human cost of civil unrest or war. Unfortunately, ex-slaves are not generally known for warmly embracing incrementalism.

[2] A Fool When He is Filled with Food

In the book of Proverbs, a fool is not an imbecile or a buffoon; rather, he is a man who rejects religious or civic authority while lacking the ability to come up with anything better on his own. Impervious to moral correction, he is constantly making the same mistakes because he will not learn. He is an agent of chaos and a despiser of order.

On their own out in the world, people who will not learn do not survive long or live well. Even in society, the fool remains on the fringes. Because his life is a shambles, most of his day must be devoted to just getting by. He is too busy trying to get his next drink or scrounge his next meal to do much real damage. Such a person is minimally dangerous to the social order.

On the other hand, beware the fool who is filled with food. Occasionally this happens. The loser wins the lottery. The hapless reprobate son unexpectedly inherits his father’s estate. With all the time in the world and no need to worry about what comes next, a fool can devote himself to his misbehavior 24/7, wreaking all kinds of havoc in the process.

If the earth doesn’t groan, his neighbors certainly will.

[3] An Unloved Woman When She Gets a Husband

Here we are not talking about a woman who becomes unloved over time because her husband’s attention wanes or he develops some fickle fixation with another woman. This is a woman who agrees to enter into a relationship that is pretty much expected to be loveless from the get-go.

How does that happen? Again, we don’t have to imagine. We have the biblical example of Jacob, tricked into marrying poor Leah by her father, when everyone knew he loved her sister Rachel. The unloved Leah was in a perpetual state of misery, competing with her sister for Jacob’s affections and losing regularly. Again, in 1 Samuel, we find Elkanah married to both Hannah and Peninnah, but he loved Hannah and gave her twice what he gave Peninnah, who then made Hannah’s life miserable. We may have to read between the lines to conjecture how wretchedly unhappy Peninnah was to be a visible and perpetual second-place finisher with her own husband, but we are probably not far wrong.

Arranged marriage was common in the ancient East. One can easily think of circumstances in which two people with no emotional connection would be paired up because of financial or political considerations. What responsible aging father would want to leave an unmarried daughter in the world without the protection of a husband even if he had to cough up a substantial dowry to make it happen?

In my experience, unhappy married men get real quiet and spend as much time as possible at work. Unhappy women? Again, no guessing required. Proverbs tells us what that’s like: “Better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.”

A chronic nag might not make the earth shake, but the lives of her family members can certainly resemble a natural disaster.

[4] A Maidservant When She Displaces Her Mistress

This is a less-common scenario in scripture, but Sarah and Hagar definitely come to mind. Sarah had agreed to allow her husband to sleep with her servant, hoping to have a child by her. But when Hagar saw that she had conceived, “she looked with contempt on her mistress.” That didn’t take long at all. In fact, it’s a very natural reaction, if a fleshly one.

There’s much for which we can legitimately fault Abraham in his handling of the situation but, to his credit, from what we can find in scripture, he never exalted Hagar over Sarah or considered putting Sarah aside in Hagar’s favor. That would have been an even more egregious violation of the marriage relationship than bringing in a third party.

The dynamics of the situation were doomed from the get-go. If you elect to treat a woman like a wife in one respect, it is remarkably foolish to expect her to retreat willingly to servitude. Hagar’s reaction to her successful conception was short-sighted and eventually fatal to her relationship with Abraham and Sarah, but to me it seems thoroughly understandable. The fault lay with Abraham and Sarah, who tried to make a domestic situation work that Agur compares to something under which even the earth cannot bear up. It inverts the natural order and is bound to fail.

Of course they didn’t have Proverbs, did they.

But We Do

So what can modern Christians learn from this rather obscure fourth Agurian tetrastiche? It’s a reasonable question. Slaves and kings and maidservants and mistresses are all things of the past. Still, it remains a smart move not to elevate men or women to positions and responsibilities for which they are not suited either by training or disposition. Despite all the warnings from experts, companies still do it all the time, resulting in tyranny, petty revenge, incompetence and the occasional nervous breakdown.

Further, in our Western economies, all sorts of fools are filled with food. A surprising number of people on welfare candidly admit they have no interest in working. I would argue our society is not improved by indulging them. Paul tells believers, in effect, that men and women unwilling to labor for their living are not proper subjects of Christian charity. Governments may be unwise with tax dollars, but Christians ought to ensure their efforts to help the poor are directed toward those most willing to cooperate in their own advancement.

Finally, the Law of Moses formally addressed domestic situations like the Rachel/Leah problem, instructing the men of Israel not to marry both a woman and her sister. The influence of that law may have filtered down even to us today. I suppose unloved women still marry from time to time, though it is probably much rarer than in Agur’s day. But however and whenever it happens, unloved wives remain a violation of God’s order. Paul’s command to Christian husbands in Ephesus is not conditioned on their wives remaining lovable. It is an absolute.

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