Saturday, July 13, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (67)

A lot of things change in three thousand years, but human nature is not one of them. I am always astounded to find how many of the ancient Hebrew proverbs remain relevant today, if not directly, then certainly by application.

We are looking at the last five verses of Agur’s oracle, which include the last of his six observational quaternions of lists (seven total).

This one is maybe a bit more difficult to work out …

The Oracle of Agur (Proverbs 30:29-33)

Four Things That Won’t Back Down

One of these things is not like the others:
“Three things are stately in their tread;
four are stately in their stride:
the [1] lion, which is mightiest among beasts
and does not turn back before any;
the [2] strutting rooster, the [3] he-goat,
and [4] a king whose army is with him.”
It’s pretty hard to miss that even without the bold text.

[1] The lion is bluntly described as “mightiest among beasts”. Naturally he can stride any old way he likes; he’s got the teeth, claws, speed and power to back it up. If you’ve ever seen the laconic ease with which those big cats move, there is a muscular grace there that is hard to equal.

[4] A king with an army around him would also have oozed confidence and poise, if our historical recreations are even slightly accurate. Backed up by threat of force with the swords and spears of his fighting men, he need have had no concern about looking over his shoulder for contenders to the throne. Historically, kings were at greatest risk in their private chambers or among supposed friends, not when they were out and about in public with their power on display for the masses.

[3] If you see a he-goat without horns, he’s had them removed artificially, or in rare cases these days, had some gene tampering done to him. Otherwise, a male goat comes equipped with natural weapons above his eyes, the neck musculature to make use of them when he needs to, and the potential to become quite bellicose if he has reason to be agitated. Sure, he’s not as well protected as a lion or a king, but if he moves with apparent confidence, it is because he feels in no danger from his surroundings.

Hmm. It’s [2] that stands out, isn’t it.

That Mysterious Rooster

Here come the complications. First of all, there’s difficulty even identifying what sort of creature we are talking about. The Hebrew is so ambiguous as to be almost entirely unhelpful. My ESV has “rooster”, but the literal translation is “girt-of-loins”, which usually means “ready to run”. Now, a rooster can hit about 9 mph, and could probably outrun your aging Shih Tzu, but not much else. A rooster will also attack intruders to protect hens, but he really hasn’t got a whole lot to work with compared to the other examples we are given. He’s all noise and display.

However, a good number of translators suggest this term may actually refer to a greyhound (“ready to run” indeed), a magpie, a zebra, or an extinct animal of some sort. Genesius even offers this: “[A] war horse is meant, as ornamented about the loins with girths and buckles.” Darby infers much the same.

What to make of all this? Well, if a war horse is indeed intended, then the proverb is simply a list of created beings which are all powerful in different ways. That seems like an observation without any great practical lesson in it. If “greyhound” or “zebra” are intended, we have an animal that is fast, not exceptionally powerful, and with no particular reputation for exuding confidence, warranted or otherwise.

However, if “rooster” or “magpie” is intended, as most modern translations have it, then Agur is surely drawing a deliberate contrast with the other three examples. A rooster may be the cock of the walk in the barnyard among hens, but his confidence is grossly misplaced when he encounters even a small scavenging predator. A magpie may exude confidence, but has nothing to back it up.

As with a couple of other proverbs we have encountered, there is no definitive answer to be obtained from the Hebrew dictionary. We are simply reaching too far back in time. However, context may provide us a clue.

Inevitable Outcomes

I suspect Agur intended to draw a contrast between beings able to bring force to bear as required, and a being which acts like it can, but manifestly cannot. All walk with confidence but some are better off than others, the moral lesson being: watch your attitude. Why? Well, I think the next couple of verses offer a possible clue:
“If you have been foolish, exalting yourself,
or if you have been devising evil,
put your hand on your mouth.
For pressing milk produces curds,
pressing the nose produces blood,
and pressing anger produces strife.”
These verses address the foolish man who exalts himself … much like the rooster, who has a big mouth, a puffed-out chest, and a great big red crown on his head, but absolutely no real way to avoid the teeth and claws of the fox, wolf, coyote, raccoon, opossum, mink, weasel, skunk, great horned owl, or even the family dog.

Agur’s advice is much like Elmer Fudd’s: “Be vewwy, vewwy quiet.” Or rather, “Put your hand to your mouth.” (It is unlikely Agur had a lisp.) Or, as one of my high school teachers used to say, “Zip it.” Do not provoke people who have the means to do you harm with pointless displays of arrogance. Silence is a far better strategy, even if you think you know better than they do.

That’s certainly a sensible instruction, because the human inclination to see the arrogant man brought down is very strong indeed. Agur speaks of it as an inevitability.

Pressing Milk Produces Curds

Out of curiosity, I checked to see if cheese-making still requires pressure. At least in Wisconsin and the Midwest, apparently it does. Both process and terminology were probably a little different three thousand years ago, because I don’t see how exactly one could “press milk”. The KJV has “the churning of milk bringeth forth butter”, which seems a little more likely. In any case, Agur’s point is made to an audience that understood agriculture a great deal better than I do. What should not be confusing to anyone is this: If you perform a specific action on a dairy product, you will get a wholly predictable result. You will not get a fish, a steak or a salad. Likewise, “pressing the nose produces blood,” as any boxing fan knows, and not Coca-Cola. Make forcible contact with the human proboscis, and the body protests in the expected way. It is a wholly predictable consequence of the action that preceded it.

The moral of the story: If you’re going to make an annoyance of yourself, make sure you have the means to fend off the people you annoy. When you make unsaved people angry, they are inevitably going to strike back. That’s how the world works. Perhaps not in Christian circles, at least when things are operating as they should, but that’s not the world Agur was living in, and it’s not the world where you and I spend most of our time either.

Here end the words of Agur, to the best of our knowledge. I’m a little disappointed.

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