A Rhetorical Perspective on the Sentence Sayings of the Book of Proverbs
A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
University of Washington
Approved by John Angus Campbell
(Chairperson of Supervisory Committee)
to Offer Degree Speech Communications
Date January 28, 1994
University of Washington
A Rhetorical Perspective on the Sentence Sayings of the Book o Proverbs
by Dave Bland
Chairperson of the Supervisory Committee:
Professor John Angus Cambell
Department of Speech Communication
The dominant perspective of biblical scholarship; is that proverbs are
valued for what they reveal about the wisdom and culture of an ancient
civilization. While they convey insightful information; they are perceived as
mild mannered in spirit. But this perspective is anemic. It eclipses the power
of the proverb. What I have done is to brush away the deposits from the
surface of the proverb and expose the deep structure of its rhetorical shape. I
have demonstrated that far from being harmless cliches, biblical proverbs are
potent rhetorical works of art. What I have discovered is a sharpness about
the proverb that enables it to penetrate the ear and the mind of the listener.
Because of this internal dynamic, the proverb does not lie dormant. It
must have a context in which to work. Even when consigned to a collection,
the proverb seeks out active duty. Contemporary scholarship has of
acknowledged this activity within the book of Proverbs. My work is
distinctive in that it describes the action of the proverb within the collection.
Proverbs do not have to lie around waiting for someone to pluck them from
the loneliness of a collection and appropriate them to a social context before
they experience self-actualization. They have a working context within the
book of Proverbs. Thus, scholarship can no longer be noncritical of the long
standing belief that the texts of Proverbs are randomly Collected. Biblical
scholars must now be more sensitive to macro-structures within Proverbs. I
have shown that the rhetorical power of the proverb enables it not only to
manage individual and social behavior but also to manage texts and ever
changing contexts within the canon of Scripture.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter One: Introduction: The Rhetorical Foundation 1
The Cognitive Paradigm 3
Constraints of the Cognitive Paradigm 8
The Hermeneutic of the Cognitive Paradigm 11
A Rhetorical Hermeneutic as the Foundation for
Approaching Proverbs 18
Rhetoric and Hermeneutics 20
Characteristics of a Rhetorical Hermeneutic 23
The Hermeneutics of Scripture 42
The Contribution of a Rhetorical Paradigm 47
Selection Criteria for the Biblical Proverbs Studied 50
Chapter Two: The Biblical Proverb and its Micro-Dimensional
The Structural Character of Biblical Proverbs 55
Reasoning Patterns 90
Proverbial Content 120
The Situational Character of Biblical Proverbs 127
Chapter Three: The Biblical Proverb and its Macro-Dimensional
The Centrality of Speech in the Wisdom Corpus 139
Two Sample Texts: Proverbs 25:11-28 and 10:13-21 144
Oral Discourse as Art: Proverbs 25:11-28 149
The Role of Mentor in Developing the
Art of Speaking: Proverbs 10:13-21 164
Topoi Related to Oral Discourse 171
Topos: The Ethics of Discourse 171
Topos: The Kairos of Discourse 187
Chapter Four: The Ongoing Influence of Biblical Proverbs in the
Tradition of Scripture 201
Proverbs in Various Contexts in the Book of Proverbs 204
The Phenomenon of the Overlapping Sayings 205
Proverbs in the Context of the Proverbial Poem 214
Proverbs in the Broader Context of Hebrew Scriptures 226
Proverbs in the Context of Israelite Tradition 231
Proverbs in the Context of the New Testament 238
Chapter Five: Conclusion 245
Introduction: The Rhetorical Foundation
Though small and innocent in appearance, the Proverb has
demonstrated amazing tenacity in transcending time and influencing
cultures. This unique unit of discourse has been the possession of almost all
cultures in all times and places, being utilized for multivalent purposes and
goals.l The power of the proverb is linked to its polysemous quaility.2 More
easily than other rhetorical genres, the proverb shatter contextual constraints
and transcends the confines of authorial intent unfolding to referents before
it its multiple dimensions. Its perspicuity, brevity, commonness, and
structural quality equip it to penetrate the mind, influencing thought and
action. On the surface, the form and content of the proverb work together to
make its thought something that can be immediately affirmed by the hearer.
1 Whiting describes a broad spectrum of culture and peoples who use
proverbial lore and the variety of ways in which they are employed. He
acknowledges that certain primitive peoples do not seem to have a store of
proverbs. However, he remarks, "It must be borne in mind that it is
impossible to be certain of the complete absence of proverbs, because there is
always the possibility that proverbial sayings have escaped the attention of
foreign observers." See B. J. Whiting, "The Origin of the Proverb," Harvard
Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature 13 (1931): 61.
2 Using the semiotic model of Susan Wittig, James William.
demonstrates the polyvalence of Biblical proverbs. Williams concludes his
essay with these words: "The possibility of multiple meanings may be viewed
as unfortunate or as a way of weaseling out of the interpreter's responsibility.
I view it as a challenge to the interpreter to allow the proverb to provoke and
challenge his mind." James G. Williams, "The Power of Form: A Study of
Biblical Proverbs," Semeia 17 (1980) : 55.
But its relatively indeterminate nature also empowers it with a surplus of
A vast amount of material has been written on proverbs, their use in
literature and what they reveal about different peoples. Anthropologists,
folklorists, psychologists, and sociologists have engaged in studying this
elemental form. However, few rhetoricians have entered into the arena to
explore their rhetorical function and influential force.4 Neither have
rhetoricians put much effort into historically investigating how proverbs
have been used.5 In this study I propose to investigate the rhetorical work of
the proverb as it is used and organized in the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew
3 Max Black speaks of the polyvalent quality of a proverb indirectly in
his description of metaphors. Black remarks that "when we speak of a
relatively simple metaphor, we are referring to a sentence or another
expression in which some words are used metaphorically while the
remainder are used nonmetaphorically. An attempt to construct an entire
sentence of words that are used metaphorically results in a proverb, an
allegory, or a riddle." Max Black, Models and Metaphors: Studies in
Language and Philosophy (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press,
4 One of the few are Goodwin and Wenzel who use Ehninger's and
Brockriede's classification system to analyze how contemporary proverbs
illustrate patterns of reasoning or argument. See Paul D. Goodwin and
Joseph W. Wenzel, "Proverbs and Practical Reasoning: A Study in Socio-
Logic," Quarterly Journal of Speech 65 (1979): 289-302.
5 One exception is Gerald Phillips' essay on the dominant role of
speech in the proverbs of Sirach and the Book of Proverbs. See Gerald M.
Phillips, "Rhetorical Gleanings from the Wisdom Literature," Western.
Speech Journal. 26 (1962) : 157-163. Another is an essay by Edd Miller and Jesse
J. Villarreal, "The Use of Cliches by Four Contemporary Speakers," Quarterly
Journal of Speech 31 (1945): 151-155.
This collection has been studied by biblical scholars who have revealed
much about its nature. But such studies have been constrained because of the
way in which the book has been approached. What I propose to do is initially
to examine and critique the traditional paradigm used by biblical scholars.
This examination will also include a description and critique of their
underlying hermeneutic. An alternative rhetorical paradigm and
hermeneutic will be offered that does not eclipse the old model but enables
the proverbial material to have its richest expression. It is this rhetorical
hermeneutic that will serve to inform the direction taken in this dissertation.
The Cognitive Paradigm
The dominant paradigm for studying the collection of proverbs in
Scripture is a cognitive one.6 The cognitive paradigm tends to be determinate
and focuses primarily on the content and message of proverbs. Charles
Fritsch's statement that the "way to rescue the valuable teaching of this
collection" is to arrange them according to subject matter, is representative of
this approach.7 After the superficial form of the proverb is boiled away, the
residue that remains is its real essence. The most influential scholars in
Wisdom Literature build their research around this perspective.
William McKane, in his monumental commentary on the book of
Proverbs in the Old Testament Library series, classified the proverbs according
6 Arland D. Jacobson has identified this as the paradigm. See Arland
D. Jacobson, "Proverbs and Social Control: A New Paradigm for Wisdom
Studies," Gnosticism and the Early Christian World, eds. J. E. Goehring, C.
W. Hedrick, Jack T. Sanders, and Hans Deter Betz, (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge
Press, 1991) 75-88.
7 Charles T. Fritsch, "The Gospel in the Book of Proverbs,” Theology
Today 7 (1950) : 170.
to content and the three phases in the development of that content.8 His
entire commentary is organized around these phases. The first includes
proverbs that are concerned with the success and harmonious life of the
individual. This is "old wisdom" and these proverbs are the earliest part of
the biblical collection. In the second phase the center of concern shifts from
the individual to the community. And the third phase reinterprets the first
by incorporating "God-language." The proverbs in the third phase are the
latest editions to the collection and are the most theological. The historical
development in this scheme is from the secular to the sacred. And the focus
is solely on content.
Other works on Proverbs follow suit. The foundational work on
Wisdom Literature in ancient Israel by Gerhard von Rad, discusses proverbs
under the heading "The Forms in Which Knowledge is Expressed."9 He goes
further and identifies in the Proverbs a "tension between a radical
secularization on the one hand and the knowledge of God's unlimited
powers on the other."10 Such a division is based on content. The most
renowned scholar of Wisdom Literature in America, James L. Crenshaw,
8 McKane, Proverbs, A New Approach (Philadelphia: The
Westminster Press, 1970) 11, 415.
9 Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (Nashville: Abingdon Press,
10 Von Rad 98. Claudia Camp takes issue with such a division. She
rightly argues that even though religion is not synonymous with common
sense, common sense is a part of religion. See Wisdom and the Feminine in
the Book of Proverbs (Decatur, GA: Almond Press, 1985) 173-176. Such a
connection is significant for rhetorical theory since endoxa (common or
popular opinion) is crucial for developing any kind of rhetorical argument.
entitles his chapter on the book of Proverbs "The Pursuit of Knowledge.”11
John T. Willis, in his little volume, organizes the proverbs in the book of
Proverbs around the various topics they address.12 In one of the most recent
books to come out on Wisdom Literature, Roland Murphy subtitles his
chapter on Proverbs "The Wisdom of Words" which implies an interest that
may reach beyond content.13 In fact Murphy states that the book of Proverbs
"seeks to persuade, to tease the reader into a way of life . . . ."14 However, after
only paying lip service to this element, Murphy devotes the chapter to
summarizing the contents of the major blocks of material in the book. These
works are representative of the dominant way in which the book of Proverbs
A number of scholars claim that what has contributed most to
perpetuating the cognitive model has been the placing of proverbs in a
collection. In a collection a proverb's performative context is lost and all that
remains is its content. Whenever a proverb is codified it loses its force and
power. Janet E. Heseltine has maintained this: "Looked at in one way, the
history of the use and disuse of proverbs is a progression from the concrete to
11 James Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction,
(Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981) 66.
12 John T. Willis, The Old Testament Wisdom Literature: Job,
Proverbs. Ecclesiastes. Song of Solomon (Abilene, TX: Biblical Research Press,
13 Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical
Wisdom Literature, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New Yok:
14 Murphy 15
the abstract."15 Later she adds, regarding the increased interest in collecting
proverbs in the eighteenth century, "We may take it as a sign that proverbs
were on the wane that they now began to be collected so zealously."16 The
paroemiologist Wolfgang Mieder affirms that "the proverb in a collection is
dead."17 Claudia Camp also argues that when a proverb is consigned to a
collection it dies.18
The literary collection of proverbs robs them of the function that
is essential to their identity, leaving only what paroemiologists
refer to as the Baukern or 'kernel,' the proverb's context-free core
composed of its topic and comment. The 'Baukem' is 'the
ultimate source for all subsequent applications, since this core is
the carrier of the message, however, mundane or profound'
(Fontaine, 165). Insofar as the form of the proverb is determined
by its function . . . and insofar as the proverb is only functioning
qua proverb in a performance context, the form and style of the
proverb in a collection become expendable features, as they are
15 Janet E. Heseltine, Introduction, "Proverbs and Pothooks," The
Qxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, comp. William George Smith,
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935) : xii.
16 Heseltine xvii
17 Wolfgang Mieder, "The Essence of Literary Proverb Study,"
Proverbium 23 (1974) 892.
18 Claudia Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs
(Decatur, GA: Almond Press, 1985): 166.
not in the context of use (p. 124). In the collection, it is only the
kernel, the message, that has any relevance at all.19
Camp's solution to the loss of a context for the proverbs is to
recontextualize them. She proposes that this is accomplished by framing the
sentence proverbs (chs. 10:1-22:16 and 24:22-29:33) in a narrative within the
wisdom poems (chs. 1-9 and 30-31). Wisdom personified as feminine offers
an interpretive framework for the collection of proverbs. The feminine
image enables the book of Proverbs to be a unified whole and function as part
of a canon of religious literature.20 Camp's approach is creative and
illuminating in many ways. But to say that the prologue and the epilogue
offer the interpretive key to the text of Proverbs is to continue to confine
proverbs to the abstract. Other than transforming the book into narrative,
how does the beginning and ending interpret the whole? How does it
interpret the sentence proverb? Camp does not say. In the final analysis,
Camp's approach as well is primarily interested in the intellectual content.21
The interpretive responsibility belongs to the narrative itself. There is little
or no dialogue between text and interpreter. The interpretation takes place
19 Camp 171. Camp enumerates three effects of placing proverbs in a
collection: 1) they lose their function as cultural model is (i.e. their capacity to
evaluate and affect change); 2) the removal of the performance context creates
the appearance of proverbial dogmatism; 3) "in Israel the loss of he
performance context also meant the loss of the covenant context. It is this
factor that engenders the appearance, and perhaps also the experience, of a
sacred-secular dichotomy" (p. 177).
20 Camp 182
21 Jacobson reaches this conclusion as well when he remarks that
Camp's "model continues to be a primarily cognitive one" (p. 87).
within the text between the feminine image and the sentence proverbs.22 All
of this is to say that Camp's interpretive approach is guided by a cognitive
model and therefore is constrained.23
It does seem accurate to claim that collections of proverbs have tended
to promote the cognitive paradigm. The collections are perceived by this
model to abstract proverbs from their oral context and focus interest solely on
intellectual content. But even in collections it is, as Jacobson says, a
"mistaken assumption that intellectual content is what proverbs are about.24
Gathering proverbs into collections does not in and of itself bring about their
Constraints of the Cognitive Paradigm
Even though the cognitive model has much to commend itself and
even though it has yielded rich insights into the meaning of the contents of
the proverbs, there are a number of constraints that must be faced if we are to
advance further in our understanding and appropriation of proverbs. First,
the cognitive model has no interest in the way in which proverbs influence
thought and behavior. The exclusive focus on content has totally eclipsed the
22 According to Camp, the feminine image brings to the fore the focus
on the woman and her characteristics throughout the book. The primary
characteristic has to do with the responsibility of the woman to educate and
advice. She is evaluated not by her role as childbearer but by her
responsibility as advisor.
23 Camp has worked to release her approach from any one method. So
she relies on the use of several including literary, anthropological,
sociological, historical, and canonical (p. 11). Notably absent from her
repertoire is any use of rhetoric.
24 Jacobson 87
vital dimension of how a proverb works rhetorically to accomplish its task.
The internal structure and reasoning pattern used by the proverb along with
its content and the context in which it is used all work together synergistically
to energize it with persuasive power. The traditional approach to proverbs
treats them as inert entities. It lumps the various structural patterns of
proverbs into fixed categories of parallelism such as synonymous, antithetic,
or synthetic, and this does not allow for the subtle but dynamic differences
that characterize the individual proverbs. To investigate the rhetorical
dimension that resides within the proverb will yield rich insight into the way
the proverb works, that is, the way in which it influences thought and action.
Proverbs, as such, are a valuable resource for contemporary rhetorical use.
Thus, a constraining factor of the cognitive model is that it has little interest
in the way in which proverbs act upon their audiences.
Second, the cognitive model is uninterested in and even incapable of
discovering possible macro-structural patterns in the book of Proverbs. The
cognitive model assumes that the proverbs gathered together in the Hebrew
collection are a random collection. In fact, the dominant way of
understanding the book has been to see the collection as quite haphazard and
the surrounding context in which the proverb is placed as irrelevant for its
interpretation. William McKane has made this observation of the sentence
proverbs which is representative of much of biblical scholarship: "there is no
context, for each sentence is an entity in itself and the collection amounts to
no more than the gathering together of a large number of independent
sentences, each of which is intended to be a well-considered and definitive
observation on a particular topic."25 Such an observation is constraining in
that it disregards the possibility of a macro-structure or, at least, certain
clusters of proverbs that are intentionally placed together in a context. In fact
the cognitive model has no tools for investigating such structural
Third, the cognitive perspective does not take seriously the dialogical
dimension of the proverb. The proverb is designed to be used in an
unlimited variety of situations and contexts. In those different contexts a
traditional proverb is immediately recognizable. But at the same time it may
take on a little different meaning or shape. One or both of its parallel lines
are changed or adapted to fit the situation. Generally speaking the cognitive
perspective views proverbs as determinate in both form and content. The
meaning and structure remains constant regardless of the context in which
the proverb is used. The difficulty with this view is that when many of the
proverbs are found in other parts of Scripture, they are not repeated verbatim.
One or the other of their binary lines are changed and various images
substituted in order to fit the context or rhetorical argument of the text. In
Scripture proverbs are dynamic and ever changing. They enter into a kind of
dialogue with the context in which they are placed. The cognitive model does
not acknowledge this quality in its scheme. Its focus is on what the proverb
25 McKane 413. Earlier in his work, McKane had set the tone for his
view and approach to Proverbs when he said that "there is, for the most part,
no context in the sentence literature and that the individual wisdom sentence
is a complete entity. The logical outcome of this argument is the allocation of
the sentences to different classes, since the necessity for such a system of
classification follows from the random way in which wisdom sentences
follow one upon another in any chapter" (p. 10).
meant. Therefore it is limited in what it can say about the ongoing function,
the living tradition, of the proverb.
Finally, the cognitive paradigm, even with its topical approach, has
overlooked the primacy that the book of Proverbs has assigned to the role of
discourse and speech. At the heart of sagacity is the ability to use words
effectively. The topical approach can catalog various subjects that are
addressed in Proverbs. But it has no real interest in discovering which ones
are more significant. Central to the texts of Proverbs is a concern for the
proper training in and use of speech. The sage's function appears to be more
rhetorical than cognitive.
My argument in this dissertation is that these four areas are vital to
developing a more holistic understanding of biblical proverbs. These areas
will be addressed in the succeeding chapters of this dissertation. However,
before I can adequately address them, another and more fundamental
problem must be exposed. What lies at the basis of all four of these problem
areas are the hermeneutical presuppositions of the cognitive paradigm. An
exclusively cognitive hermeneutic leads to a restrictive view of proverbs. So,
in addressing this hermeneutical problem, the groundwork for offering a
more productive approach to the study of biblical proverbs is made possible.
The Hermeneutic of the Cognitive Paradigm
Underlying the cognitive paradigm is a hermeneutic that continues to
dominate biblical studies, including the study of biblical proverbs, which has
profoundly influenced the way proverbs are viewed. To briefly explain and
understand this hermeneutic will equip one to understand how proverbs
have been traditionally perceived and will open the door for an alternative
The cognitive hermeneutic takes a determinate approach to Scripture.
Such a hermeneutic came as a reaction against the interpretive practice of the
medieval period and the common idea of the four senses of Scripture.26 The
criticism of the four senses was that they "could easily breed confusion"27 and
Scripture could come to mean anything anyone wanted it to mean. The
concern of the Reformation was to make the interpretation of Scripture more
"respectable." And the way to do that was to make it more scientific.
William Tyndale in explaining the four senses of Scripture, "wrote the first
actual discussion of the nature of a proverb which is to be found in
They divide the scripture into four senses, the literal,
tropological, allegorical, and anagogical. The literal sense is
become nothing at all: for the pope hath taken it clean away, and
hath made it his possession. . . . The tropological sense
pertaineth to good manners (say they), and teacheth what we
ought to do. The allegory is appropriate to faith; and the
anagogical to hope, and things above. . . .
Thou shalt understand, therefore, that the scripture hath but
one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the
26 The four senses are the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical.
For a nice summary of this hermeneutic see Harry Caplan, "The Four Senses
of Scriptural Interpretation and the Mediaeval Theory of Preaching,"
Speculum 4 (1929) : 282-290.
27 Caplan 287
28 B. J. Whiting, "The Nature of the Proverb," Harvard Studies and
Notes in Philology and Literature (1932): 292.
root and ground of all, and the anchor that never faileth,
whereunto if thou cleave, thou canst never err or go out of the
way. And if thou leave the literal sense, thou canst not but go
out of the way. Neverthelater, the scripture useth proverbs,
similitudes, riddles, or allegories, as all other speeches do; but
that which the proverb, similitude, riddle, or allegory signifieth,
is ever the literal sense, which thou must eek out diligently: as
in the English we borrow words and sentences of one thing, and
apply them unto another, and give them new significations. We
say . . . "Look er thou leap": whose literal sense is, "Do nothing
suddenly, or without advisement." "Cut not the bough that thou
standest upon": whose literal sense is, "Oppress not the
commons.". . . All fables, prophecies, and riddles, are allegories;
as AEsop's fables, and Merlin's prophecies; and the
interpretation of them are the literal sense.
So in like manner the scripture borroweth words and
sentences of all manner things, and maketh proverbs and
similitudes, or allegories.29
For the Reformation leaders, proverbs, along with the rest of Scripture had
just one plain determinate meaning, and that was the literal meaning.
Such a view dominated the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The
hermeneutical perspective of John Locke heavily influenced the way in
29 William Tyndale, "Obedience of a Christian Man," Doctrinal
Treatises, ed. H. Walter (Cambridge, Parker Society, 1848) 303-305. Quoted by
B. J. Whiting, "The Nature of the Proverb," 292-293.
which Scripture was interpreted. Locke's approach was inductive and the
truth of Scripture could be empirically verified:
The scriptures consist of datum exterior to man, and man
receives its truth in the same manner in which the scientist
learns the truth of nature. Through induction one derives
spiritual truth in precisely the same manner as material truth.30
Locke believed that by following the commands of Scripture anyone who
really desired to could be able to see plainly what God required. Scottish
Common Sense Realism and its method of Baconian scientific induction also
had a profound influence on the way in which Scripture was interpreted.
The scientific method of Baconian induction was the means
used by the Scottish Common Sense Realist philosophers to
construct their philosophy. These philosophers believed that
careful generalizations should be built upon an inductive
accumulation of "facts."31
Such a scientific hermeneutic is still dominant in many religious circles
30 Thomas H. Olbricht, "The Bible as Revelation," Restoration,
Quarterly 8 (1965) : 213.
31 Michael Casey, "The Origins of the Hermeneutics of the Churches of
Christ Part Two: The Philosophical Background," Restoration Quarterly 31
32 The growing ranks of fundamentalism witnesses to the popularity
of this approach to Scripture. For a description of the tenants of this
hermeneutic see J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism" and the Word of God, (Grand
Rapids: Eerdman's Publishing Co., 1967). For a critique of the hermeneutic of
fundamentalism see Kathleen C. Boone, The Bible Tells Them So: Discourse
The central concept related to this scientific hermeneutic is that of
determinism and objectivity. Emilio Betti is the philosopher who has
championed this hermeneutic today. Richard Palmer observes that Betti's
primary concern is with objectivity. Betti, himself states his intention clearly:
This contention which raises a completely new problematic and
which would lead to the negation of objectivity, we, as
historians, have to oppose with all firmness. Our outline has
shown that the subjectivist position rests on a shift of meaning
which identifies the hermeneutical process of historical
interpretation with a situationally determined meaning-
inference . . . and which has the effect of confounding a
condition for the possibility with the object of that process; as a
result, the fundamental canon of the hermeneutical autonomy
of the object is altogether removed from the work of the
There are a number of derivative principles in this hermeneutic
stemming from the canon of objectivity. First is the canon of the autonomy
of the object.34 That is, the object has its own existence. The primary way in
which an interpreter respects an object's autonomy is to focus on authorial
intention. For E. D. Hirsch, authorial intention is the norm for validity of
of Protestant Fundamentalism (Albany: State University of New York Press,
33 Emilio Betti, "Hermeneutics as the General Methodology of the
Geisteswissenschaften," The Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Ricoeur,
eds. Gayle L. Ormiston and Alan D. Schrift (Albany: State University of New
York Press, 1990) : 177.
34 Betti 164
interpretation.35 According to Gadamer, Spinoza argued that "everything
important can be understood if only we understand the mind of the author
'historically'--i.e., overcome our prejudices and think of nothing but what
the author could have had in mind."36
The second canon, according to Betti, is the coherence of meaning or
"the principle of totality."37 Betti argues that one must understand the text in
context. There is "an inner relationship of coherence between individual
parts of a speech because of the overarching totality of meaning built up of the
The third canon is the "actuality of understanding."39 With this canon
the interpreter reverses the creative process that produced the object in the
first place; the process and message is reconstructed. Understanding involves
the re-construction of a meaning.40 Betti, who adamantly opposes Gadamer's
idea that the interpreter produces messages, claims that the interpreter's
responsibility is to reproduce the message. The concern is with an accurate
35 E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1967) 27, 38.
36 See Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed., trans.
Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroad Publishing
Corp., 1991) 181.
37 Betti 165
38 Richard Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in,
Schleiermacher, Dilthey. Heidegger and Gadamer (Evanston: Northwestern
University Press, 1969) 57.
39 Betti 167
40 Betti 163
reconstruction of the meaning of the text. In this regard Hirsch makes the
If a meaning can change its identity and in fact does, then we
have no norm for judging whether we are encountering the real
meaning in a changed form or some spurious meaning that is
pretending to be the one we seek. Once it is admitted that a
meaning can change its characteristics, then there is no way of
finding the true Cinderella among all the contenders. There is
no dependable glass slipper we can use as a test, since the old
slipper will no longer fit the new Cinderella.41
The hermeneutic of Betti, Hirsch, Locke and those traditions stemming
from the Reformation movement is concerned primarily with determinacy.
A determinate hermeneutic views a symbol as having univocal meaning that
does not change when the symbol is applied to new objects or in new
situation. Determinacy in texts implies an arbitrary and coercive imposition
of meaning. This leads to the interpreter exerting a tyrannical hold over the
interpretation of a text. But what is needed is a hermeneutic that will allow
the text to be heard. What I want to argue is that a rhetorical perspective does
just that. It enables the interpreter to hear the text on its own terms. Such a
hermeneutic, then, needs fuller elaboration.
41 Hirsch 46
A Rhetorical Hermeneutic as the Foundation for Approaching Proverbs
Paul Ricoeur maintains that when discourse moves from speaking to
writing it is liberated from its author and original setting.42 This
phenomenon Ricoeur refers to as distanciation is a phenomenon that works
as a positive value in the process of interpretation. It enables the interpreter
to approach the text and its structural nature as fixed and at the same time to
enter into a dialogue with the text and appropriate it to the present situation
rather than confining the meaning of the text only to the past and to
authorial intent. Such a hermeneutic is rhetorical because it views both the
interpreter and his or her audience as active agents in the interpretive
However, when it comes to proverbs, Claudia Camp sees this
perspective as problematic. To begin with Camp's critique at this point will
aid in sharpening the focus for establishing a rhetorical hermeneutic. Of
Ricoeur's hermeneutic, she makes the following assessment:
Although Ricoeur construes this liberation resulting from
writing in a positive way, it becomes quite problematic with
respect to the proverbs as we have already seen. Perhaps more
than any other form of discourse the import of a proverb
depends on 'what the author (or user) meant.' It is designed to
penetrate the world of the listener in a given situation, causing
42 Paul Ricoeur, "Philosophical Hermeneutics and Theological
Hermeneutics," Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 5 (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1975) : 14-33. Reprinted with excursus as
"Philosophical Hermeneutics and Theological Hermeneutics Ideology: Utopia
and Faith," The Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern
Culture (Berkeley: n.p., 1976) 5.
him or her to see that situation in a new way. . . . Stripped of a
situation in which to create new meaning, there is little work for
it to do, and little demand for a new audience. Thus, the de-
contextualization of a proverb does not provide the conditions
for its re-contextualization but only for its descent into
platitudinalism. The proverb requires a performance context to
be fully meaningful.43
But why does a proverb, more than any other genre, have to depend on
what the original author meant? Why cannot the de-contextualization of a
proverb from its original context provide for its re-contextualization? Camp's
understanding of proverbs treats them as univocal and having one "literal"
meaning, much in the same way as William Tyndale viewed them. When
proverbs are placed in a collection, can they not be multivalent in the way in
which they are appropriated by the interpreter? In fact, is not the proverb by
nature polysemous? In contrast to Camp's position, I would like to argue that
a rhetorical hermeneutic is inventional--it enables written proverbs to be
dynamic by locating their meaning in the emergent speech situations of life.
In order to understand this hermeneutic, it is necessary first to ask
about the relationship between rhetoric and hermeneutics. Second, what
does such a rhetorical hermeneutic look like? Finally, is such a hermeneutic
a foreign template that intrudes on proverbial texts in an artificial and
mechanical way? Or is it endemic to them? Such an investigation, I am
convinced, will confirm the heuristic value of a rhetorical perspective.
45 Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs, pp. 181-
Rhetoric and Hermeneutics
First, what is the relationship between rhetoric and hermeneutics?
The close relationship between rhetoric and hermeneutics has been
acknowledged by Michael J. Hyde and Craig R. Smith who have forcefully
argued that from "the hermeneutical situation originates the primordial
function of rhetoric."44 That primordial function is to make known
meaning.45 There is, for these authors, an important dialectic between
hermeneutics and rhetoric: "Without the hermeneutical situation there
would be a meaningless void; without rhetoric the latent meaning housed in
the hermeneutic situation could never be actualized."46 Rhetoric
appropriates the synchronic and diachronic findings of hermeneutics. And
the hermeneutical process is not complete until this is accomplished.47
Hans Georg Gadamer has also acknowledged the centrality of rhetoric
to hermeneutics. He maintains that rhetoric pervades all hermeneutic
Convincing and persuading, without being able to prove- these
are obviously as much the aim and measure of understanding
and interpretation as they are the aim and measure of the art of
oration and persuasion . . . .
44 Michael. J. Hyde and Craig. R. Smith, "Hermeneutics and Rhetoric:
A Seen but Unobserved Relationship," Quarterly Journal of Speech 65
45 Hyde and Smith 348
46 Hyde and Smith 354
47 Hyde and Smith 357
The ubiquity of rhetoric, indeed, is unlimited.48
Dale Patrick and Allen Scult affirm that hermeneutics is a central
realm of rhetoric. They define rhetoric "as the means by which a text
establishes and manages its relationship to its audience in order to achieve a
particular effect."49 That is, rhetoric empowers a text to continue to address
audiences at different times and in different places.
But while affirming the central role of rhetoric in hermeneutics, Scult
moves beyond Hyde and Smith and Gadamer to offer a corrective to their
view. While Hyde and Smith and Gadamer ground hermeneutics and
rhetoric in the hermeneutical situation, Scult argues that they neglect the
rhetorical situation, that at least in the case of sacred texts the rhetorical
grounding must take precedent.50 For Hyde and Smith the function of
rhetoric in the hermeneutical act exists first in the intrapersonal realm,
between text and interpreter. But Scult affirms that the interpretive process is
interpersonal since the intention is to make a text relevant to a contemporary
audience from the start. The interpreter is guided by the rhetorical situation
and not the hermeneutical situation to make known his or her
interpretation. So the interpreter is not only affected by his or her own
interpretations but by the predispositions and values of the audience. Scult
articulates this point well:
48 Gadamer in Philosophical Hermeneutics, 1976, p. 24.
49 See Dale Patrick and Allen Scult, Rhetoric and Biblical
1nterpretation, (Decatur, GA: Almond Press, 1990), p. 12.
50 See Scult, "The Relationship Between Rhetoric and Hermeneutics
Reconsidered," Central States Speech Journal 34 (1983): 221.
If an audience, distant in time and place from the original text, is
somehow "intended" by the text to be included in the purview
of its meaning, then that audience's predispositions to
understanding indeed would be a legitimate and necessary
framework for ascertaining the text's meaning. We shall see that
this is precisely the case with Scripture.51
Scult proposes that what has been left out of the process of
hermeneutics in some accounts is that the interpreter's interpretation is
shaped by who the audience is and the values they hold. The audience affects
the way in which an interpreter constructs the interpretation; it is audience
conditioned. Thus the motive for interpreting a text is not simply to bring
that which is distant closer because many ancient texts lie dormant. But
rather the motive lies in the interpreter understanding that when the text is
properly understood it speaks to an exigence.52 Therefore, Scult concludes
that hermeneutics is an element of rhetorical invention. It is a place, a topic
if you will, to which one goes in order to discover a fitting response to a
Scult offers a further corrective to Gadamer's view. It appears that
Gadamer understands language as the repository of tradition. Gadamer,
however, makes no acknowledgment that language is spoken by someone
and the status of that person determines to a large degree how the language
will be received. Scult comments, "Texts that have greater status in our eyes
move us to delve more deeply into the language, to trust it as a means of
51 Scult 222
52 Scult 223
enlightening our own thought. . . . Once a text achieves sacred status, it
assumes the power to speak beyond itself."53 When a text achieves sacred
status, its words assume a new dimension and a power that enable them to
continue to disclose knowledge. The interpreter looks to it to locate an
appropriate response to the audience and in so doing carries on the function
that direct revelation once was thought to do.
The hermeneutical act is in its fullest form rhetorical because from the
very beginning of the process such an act is related to a contemporary
audience. Gadamer, himself, continually maintains throughout his works,
that endemic to hermeneutics is application. It is therefore necessary for
rhetoric to claim and develop this territory if it is to flourish and expand.
Scull's thesis is appropriately succinct: ". . . interpretation is a species of
rhetorical invention chosen by the rhetorician-interpreter when there is
warrant to extend in time and space the meaning of a sacred text ."54 What
Scult affirms of sacred texts in general, I would also appropriate specifically to
Characteristics of a Rhetorical Hermeneutic
The point at which I would like to begin to describe a rhetorical
hermeneutic is with Roger Abrahams' succinct remarks in his essay on a
rhetorical theory of folklore. I would like to apply his theory specifically to
53 p. 224. Scult refers to the power of a text to speak beyond itself as
"textuality" (p. 224).
54 Scult 223
written texts.55 Abrahams says that there are four ways in which scholars
approach a work of art. The first way emphasizes the importance of the
shaping hand of the author and the effect of what he or she says upon the
audience. The second underlines the work of the text as an object, divorcing
the author and the original audience from consideration. This perspective
"implies that once a work is created it is capable of speaking for itself and
must be analyzed in terms of its internal characteristics and the
interrelationships of its parts."56 This is a structuralist view. The third
approach is interested in how the text influences the audience. And the
fourth centers on the way the audience affects the text, the performer or the
piece of art. This last approach analyzes the way in which public values and
conventions affect what is perceived in the text and how it is shaped by such
tastes. Abrahams concludes by maintaining that the last two approaches
emphasize the public nature of the text while the first two have more private
Abrahams' point is that all four perspectives have value and a
rhetorical approach is able to incorporate all of them. He proceeds with an
example of a rhetorical analysis which, he correctly states, is not like the
scientific method that relies on a fixed set of procedures to investigate a test
situation.57 Rather it is "a point of view which proposes areas in which
55 Roger D. Abrahams, "Introductory Remarks to a Rhetorical Theory
of Folklore," Journal of American Folklore 81 (1968) : 143-158.
56 Abrahams 144
57 Abrahams 149
insights might be gained by using comparative or relational methodology."58
To say that a rhetorical approach is simply concerned with comparing one
genre to another is a gross simplification of the rhetorical perspective.59 But
Abrahams general theory proceeds in the right direction. And, with certain
revisions, it is this direction that I would like to develop and refine more
precisely in what follows.
A rhetorical hermeneutic is one that takes seriously the interaction
between text, interpreter and audience.60 A hermeneutic that honors these
elements is one that is compatible with a rhetorical perspective. In this
regard, Paul Ricoeur's project offers some hopeful possibilities. As Barbara
Warnick explains, "Ricoeur's approach . . . leads the critic to ask: What
elements of the text allow contemporary readers to encounter it in a
meaningful way? How has the rhetor touched upon universal themes and
values so that the discourse has lasting significance?"61 His agenda, on initial
reflection, seems to be commensurate with texts that are autonomous and
that have an enduring quality to them.
There are two elements in Ricoeur's hermeneutic that are well suited
to a rhetorical hermeneutic. These are the elements of distanciation and
58 Abrahams 149
59 In the remainder of his essay, Abrahams compares the proverb with
the riddle in order to gain a better understanding of how each one works.
60 Kathleen C. Boone says, "Like the famous tree falling in the forest,
texts are silent unless and until someone reads them." The Bible Tells Them
So: The Discourse of Protestant Fundamentalism (Albany: State University of
New York Press) 62.
61 Barbara Warrick, "A Ricoeurian Approach to Rhetorical Criticism,"
Western Journal of Speech Communication 51 (1987) : 228.
appropriation. Ricoeur's hermeneutic begins with distanciation. Rhetoric
respects the fixed nature of the text as it is received. One does not approach a
discourse believing that it can mean whatever one wants it to mean. The
text, because it has a set form and structure, provides constraints for its
interpretation. Ricoeur refers to this as distanciation. Distanciation is a part
of writing because such a text has already distanced itself from its original
author and audience. In fact, Ricoeur maintains that speech is inseparable
from writing if it really is to be understood: "It therefore appears that writing
must precede speech, if speech is not to remain a cry."62 Such a quality of
distanciation is not a detriment but an asset to interpretation. It enables the
discourse to be extended to new and different situations and not confined to
one time and place.
It is in attributing value to distanciation that Ricoeur has a quarrel with
the hermeneutic of Hans-Georg Gadamer.63 Ricoeur maintains that the
mainspring of Gadamer's work is the fundamental belief that there exists an
opposition on the one hand between alienating distanciation (objectivity) and
participatory belonging (subjectivity).64 With Gadamer, either one adopts
62 Paul Ricoeur, From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics. II,
trans. Kathleen Blarney and John B. Thompson (Evanston, IL: Northwest UP,
1991) 93-94. By speech remaining a cry, Ricoeur seems to be implying that
unless it is connected to a prior text it will remain insignificant and confined
to a one-time event.
63 It is interesting to note that Gadamer had attributed value to
prejudice (i.e. tradition). Ricoeur respects that but goes beyond and attributes
value to the distancing element that Gadamer thought was an obstacle.
64 Paul Ricoeur, Paul Ricoeur: Hermeneutics and the Human
Sciences, ed. and trans. John B. Thompson (New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1981) 131.
distanciation and a methodological approach to texts which results in
alienation or one adopts the perspective of belonging and renounces
objectivity. Ricoeur rejects this conflict and claims that his project is to bridge
the apparent gap between the alternatives.65
Ricoeur claims that Gadamer did not allow a place for distanciation.
Gadamer's aversion to distanciation was based on its close association with
method. And method alienates. Gadamer was concerned with the fusion of
horizons. Ricoeur maintains that there is a place for both distanciation and
belonging. He believes that distanciation is an inherent part of a text and the
task of writing.66 Distanciation is not the product of methodology; it is not
parasitical. Rather it is a natural quality of a text. The text, Ricoeur says, is
more than just "a particular case of intersubjective communication: it is the
paradigm of distanciation in communication."67 Ricoeur claims that writing
is "the consecration of distanciation more than its cause."68 Like prejudice in
Gadamer's scheme, distanciation in Ricoeur's system serves a positive and
productive role. It enables the interpreter to enter into a "participatory
belonging." Ricoeur's concept of distanciation "brings an 'objective' approach
to textual interpretation together with a 'recreative' or 'evocative approach to
65 Ricoeur, Paul Ricoeur: Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences,
(1981) p. 131.
66 Ricoeur, 1981, p. 140.
67 Ricoeur, 1981, p. 131.
68 Ricoeur, "Biblical Hermeneutics," Semia 4 (1975) : 67.
69 Warnick, "A Ricoeurian Approach to Rhetorical Criticism," p. 228.
What are the components of distanciation? First, distanciation
acknowledges that there is distance between the actual event and the
meaning of what is said. The reference is no longer a first order reference to
the original event. But the reference is now a second order reference. The
text is projected in front of itself rather than behind, rather than toward the
past. This is in stark contrast to Biblical scholars who are intent on getting
behind the text of a proverb to the original usage. This, for example, is Carole
Fontaine's task in her volume on Traditional Sayings in the Old Testament
A Contextual Study.70 In a later essay she makes the following observation:
. . . [S]ince the wisdom sayings collected in Proverbs and Qoheleth
were clearly in a secondary phase of usage, the 'prehistory' of the
role of wisdom literature had not been adequately addressed.
Ethnographic data for the use of sayings and proverbs was most
likely to be found in the narrative books, where these 'minimal'
bits of wisdom were shown in social interactions.71
Fontaine is representative of biblical scholarship in Wisdom Literature that is
concerned with understanding the original occasion in which the proverb
Second, there is distance between text and its psychological meaning,
that is to say, authorial intention. Ricoeur argues, "Hermeneutics no longer
is the search for the psychological intentions of another person which are
70 Carole Fontaine, Traditional Sayings in the Old Testament: A
Contextual Study, (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1982).
71 Carole Fontaine, "Proverb Performance in the Hebrew Bible,"
Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 32 (1985) : 91.
concealed behind, the text . . . ."72 The autonomous "world of the text,"
according to Ricoeur, "may explode the world of the author."73 This is in
contrast to Dilthey who said, "The ultimate aim of hermeneutics is to
understand the author better than he understands himself."74 Severing the
meaning of the text from authorial intention is also in direct opposition to E.
D. Hirsch.75 Ricoeur explains that "the thing of the text," that is to say the
"world of the text" is placed above all else and thus authorial intent is no
longer the criterion for interpretation. The "revelation" of the text is the new
world it unfolds before the interpreter and audience.76 "In other words,
72 Ricoeur, 1981, p. 141. Derrida maintains that written signs break
contexts and the further in time a discourse moves from its source or author
the less dependent it is on that source and the more power the interpreter
has. Jacques Derrida, Signature Event Context, The Rhetorical Tradition:
Readings from Classical Times to the Present, eds. Patricia Bizell and Bruce
Herzberg, (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1990) 1175.
73 Ricoeur, 1981, p. 139.
74 Quoted by Ricoeur, 1981, p. 151.
75 Hirsch argues that "On purely practical grounds . . . it is preferable to
agree that the meaning of a text is the author's meaning" (1967, p. 25).
76 Ricoeur, From Text to Action, p. 96. Ron Highfield, in a paper read
at the 1990 Christian Scholars Conference at Pepperdine University also
affirms this position: "An author's words mean more that [sic] he or she
consciously intends. Great poems and novels arise out of depths of which the
author has no conscious control or knowledge, depths which reach out into
the common human cultural experience and down into its genetic roots--
that vast body of tacit knowledge which provides the silent but powerful
context in which we "consciously think". Most of us who write have had the
experience of being "given" a story or a thought, or of not even knowing
what we think until we write it down or preach on it. Every time I reread
something I have written I find out something I think which I did not recall
"intending" to say. How much less should we expect authorial intention to
be an adequate aim when we are dealing with Holy Scripture in which a
revelation, if the expression is to have a meaning, is a feature of the biblical
world.77 It is the sense and new world of the text that is revelation and not
In regard to the texts that I am concerned with, one of the major foci of
biblical scholars of Wisdom Literature is the authorial origin of proverbs and
the wisdom corpus. The issues is, Was there in Israel a professional guild of
sages or not? R. N. Whybray argues that the wisdom books were not
authored by a professional group of sages.78 On the other hand, scholars such
as Gehard von Rad, Walter Brueggemann, and James Crenshaw argue for a
professional group of sages being responsible for the writing of the Wisdom
Literature.79 There may be value to exploring such origins. But more than
likely the issue will never be clearly resolved. And such a concern imprisons
and relegates the sacred corpus to the past. Ricoeur's focus is on how the text
unfolds itself to the present. There is sometimes considerable distance
between text and authorial origins.
Third, there is also distance between the text and the original audience.
The shared reality and world no longer exist. Sociologically the text is able to
decontextualize itself enabling the text to be recontextualized in a new
human mind is not only in touch with the well springs of human being but
is open to the being of God" (p. 21)?
77 Ricoeur, 1991, p. 96.
78 R. N. Whybray, The Intellectual Tradition in the Old Testament (de
Gruyter: New York, 1974).
79 Gehard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972);
Walter Brueggemann, In Man We Trust (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1972);
James Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction (Atlanta: John
Knox Press, 1981).
situation. In a sense, Ricoeur is describing something that is opposite Lloyd
Bitzer's concept of the "rhetorical situation" when a particular discourse is
tied to a specific exigence. Another one of the major debates in Wisdom
Literature and the book of Proverbs is, What is the Sitz im Leben for the
material?80 Did the book of Proverbs arise in a clan or family setting, a court
setting or a school setting? With the last proposal, the school setting, the
debate is extended further, Were there schools in ancient Israel? If so when
did they arise?81 Again such issues are not central for Ricoeur. For him the
80 John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue have edited a series of essays
addressing the different cultural and social contexts of Israelite wisdom. See
The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns,
81 The amount of material written on this issue is too prolific to cite
here. But I cite just a few simply to demonstrate that it continues to dominate
the focus of scholarship in Wisdom Literature. James Crenshaw maintains
that there was considerable diversity in education in ancient Israel. See James
L. Crenshaw, "Education in Ancient Israel," Journal of Biblical Literature
104 (1985) : 601-615. Bernard Lang looks at three wisdom poems in Proverbs
(1:20-33; 8:1-36; 9:1,-18) and concludes that there were schools in ancient Israel
and uses these texts to describe the educational system. See Wisdom and the
Book of Proverbs: An Israelite Goddess Redefined (New York: The Pilgrim
Press, 1986). However his conclusions were attacked by other scholars who
questioned whether the highly metaphorical language of these poems can be
relied on for an accurate account of Israelite pedagogy. Nili Shupak
summarizes the arguments used to conclude that schools did exist in ancient
Israel. Then he gives additional support to the argument by looking at the
terminology used and the "semantic equivalents" associated with Egyptian
schools. His conclusion is that a "comparative study of the terminologies of
Hebrew Wisdom literature and the literature associated with the Egyptian
Wisdom cycle confirms the existence of a link between Biblical Wisdom
compositions and the educational context" (p. 117). See Nili Shupak, "The
'Sitz Im Leben' of the Book of Proverbs in the Light of a Comparison of
Biblical and Egyptian Wisdom Literature," Revue Biblique. 94 (1987) :98-119.
In December of 1992, Michael V. Fox read a paper at the Society of Biblical
Literature in San Francisco on "Unity and Diversity in Proverbs." His paper
concluded that Proverbs had its origin in the court with the king's men
text has been freed from its situational moorings; it is no longer closely tied to
the original audience, reference or authorial intention. Here there is
solidarity with Gadamer.
Scult advocates Ricoeur's decontextualization of the text forcefully and
clearly when he maintains that the original rhetorical situation must remain
dormant so as not to interfere with the text's capacity to speak to the present
with equal force.82 Scult says, "Interpretation that treats the text as sacred
'forgets' the original rhetorical situation in order to enable the text to
continue to fulfill its sacred rhetorical function."83 Literal interpretations
bring us back to the original rhetorical situation of the text and thus cut off
the life of the text in time. Much scholarship on Proverbs has focused on
issues such as whether or not there were schools or whether there was a
professional guild of sages or whether wisdom originated with the clan, the
court, or the school or whether the wisdom material originated with the
upper socio-economic class.84 While all of this has value, it primarily treats
because that setting best explains the diversity in a book that has an overall
uniform perspective. In other words, the redactors, or king's men,
incorporate a diversity of folk sayings that were in circulation at the time.
82 Scult, 1983, p. 226.
83 Scult 226
84 In regard to this last issue, there has been a debate as to whether
wisdom literature is the product of the upper class or another economic
strata. Robert Gordis argued powerfully for the former in an essay written in
1944. See Robert Gordis, "The Social Background of Wisdom Literature"
Hebrew Union College Annual 18 (1944) : 77-118. R. N. Whybray has more
recently argued that the book of Proverbs expresses the view of the poor. See
R. N. Whybray, "Poverty, Wealth, and Point of View in Proverbs,"
Expository Times 100 (1987) : 332-336. Michael V. Fox has argued for the elite
of society as the origin of Proverbs. "Unity and Diversity in Proverbs,"
unpublished paper, Society of Biblical Literature, 1992.
Proverbs as a resource for the insight it can shed on the past. Robert Alter is
one biblical scholar who has rejected this quest for wisdom's life-setting:
. . . because it is, necessarily, a will-o'-the-wisp and, even more,
because it is a prime instance of the misplaced concreteness that
has plagued biblical research, which naively presumes that the
life-setting, if we could recover it, would somehow provide the
key to the language, structure, and meaning of the poems.85
From the above it is obvious, but important, to observe that Ricoeur's
approach is different from a traditional neo-Aristotelian perspective which
places the original source, message, and receiver or audience in close
proximity. For Ricoeur the authorial intent and the original audience are
eclipsed by the fusion of the text and the contemporary interpreter/audience.
How does the rhetorician-interpreter proceed to affirm the
distanciation of a text? It is through structural analysis that this is
accomplished. A structural analysis of the text honors its autonomy, exposes
its arrangement, genre, and stylistic features, and uncovers what Ricoeur calls
its sense. This stage of the hermeneutic process is mainly descriptive.
Warnick clarifies the function of structural analysis when she remarks,
"In performing a structural analysis, the critic distances him- or herself from
the text and attempts to expose its underlying structure and implicit
85 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books,
Inc., 1985) 186. Alter makes a similar point earlier in this work when he
argues that "it is idle to speculate about what went on in the Wisdom schools,
if in fact they really existed as schools, because we simply don't have enough
evidence to go on" (p. 176).
meaning."86 Structural analysis leads one from a naive understanding of the
text to a more mature understanding. Ricoeur uses the example of a musical
score to illustrate what he means.87 A musical score can be played in a
number of ways. But the musician has constraints placed upon him by the
text of the music. For example, various cultures and subcultures have sung
the hymn "Amazing Grace" in ways that are most fitted to their own style
and tradition.88 But the song is still immediately recognized by all because of
the constraints placed upon the musician-interpreters by the musical score.
In the same way, a sacred text may be interpreted by various people
differently. But it is still immediately recognized because its fundamental
structure remains constant.
In a series of essays in Semeia in 1975, Ricoeur detailed the task of
structuralism. Suffice it to say here that such a task involves uncovering the
patterns, themes, moves, plots, and genres embedded in texts. Ricoeur seems
especially sensitive to the importance of literary genres. He maintains that a
"structural analysis is truncated if it does not proceed from message to code
[genre] and from code to message."89 The surface-structure of the plot is not a
secondary phenomenon but the message itself. The literary genre secures the
survival of the meaning after the disappearance of its Sitz im Leben and in
86 Warnick,1987, p. 233
87 Ricoeur, 1981, p. 174.
88 Bill Moyer's special program on PBS "Amazing Grace," 1989.
During the course of the documentary, Moyers makes comments on a verse
of the song that was later added by saying that the "hymn takes on a life of its
89 Ricoeur, 1975, p. 71.
that way starts the process of decontextualization which opens the message to
fresh reinterpretation according to new contexts of discourse and of life. The
form preserves the message from distortion. So for Ricoeur genre is not
perceived as a means of classification, but as a means of production. A form
or a genre makes a text into a complex organism that enables it to speak to a
To summarize, distanciation is a descriptive stage in the process of
interpretation that honors the autonomy of the text as it is decontextualized
from its original setting and that gives the text a quality of "objectivity." A
structural analysis enables a text to display its fixed nature, its sense. But
Ricoeur takes issue with the radical structuralists who are content to end the
process at this stage.90 Distanciation is a necessary prerequisite to the next
move which Ricoeur calls appropriation.
For Ricoeur appropriation is commensurate with distanciation
(explanation). With appropriation the rhetorician-interpreter does not seek
something hidden behind the text, but something disclosed in front of it.
According to Thompson, it is to "move from that which it [the text] says to
90 Warrick offers a timely explanation of the distinction between
radical structuralists and phenomenologists in her QJS article in 1979. I am
also opposed to structuralists who according to James S. Sanders "disdain the
use of biblical criticism and focus on the overall structure of a biblical passage
no matter when or how it was first composed, or for what purpose." See
James S. Sanders, God Has a Story Too, in Theories of Preaching, ed. Richard
Lischer (Durham, NC: The Labyrinth Press, 1987) 190-191. A rhetorical
approach is sensitive to the findings of higher criticism. For example Allen
Scult, Michael McGee, and J. Kenneth Kuntz in their essay use source
criticism to aid in understanding the relationship between Genesis 1 and
Genesis 2-3. See "Genesis and Power: An Analysis of the Biblical Story of
Creation," Quarterly Journal of Speech 72 (1986): 113-131.
that which it says it about."91 It is a move from sense to reference. Warrick
observes, "In appropriating the text, critics come to account for how texts
endure and communicate meaning beyond and apart from the circumstances
in which the discourse was originally expressed."92 This dimension Ricoeur
refers to as the reference (not primary but secondary reference). Warrick
observes, "The move of external reference, in which the work discloses a
world, is appropriation."93
What is finally to be understood in a text is not authorial intention,
nor the structure of the text, but rather the world intended beyond the text as
its reference.94 In Essays on Biblical Interpretation Ricoeur elaborates on this
concept: "The issue of the text is the world the text unfolds before itself."95
The result of writing is that it removes a discourse from the finite horizons of
its author and first audience. Ricoeur explains that such an autonomy opens
up the potential of new worlds to those who read the text:
And the intended implicit reference of each text opens onto a
world, the biblical world, or rather the multiple worlds unfolded
before the book by its narration, prophecy, prescriptions,
wisdom, and hymns. The proposed world that in biblical
language is called a new creation, a new Covenant, the Kingdom
91 John Thompson, ed. trans. Paul Ricoeur: Hermeneutics and the
Human Sciences (New York: Cambridge UP, 1981) 15.
92 Warnick, 1987, p. 230.
93 Warnick 234
94 Ricoeur, 1980, p. 100.
95 Ricoeur, 1980, p. 100.
of God, is the 'issue' of the biblical text unfolded in front of this
The text as decontextualized comes to have its own world. The
reference of poetic language97 projects ahead of itself a world in which the
reader is invited to dwell, thus finding a more authentic situation in being.
Ricoeur claims that if the interpreter takes only the prophetic genre98 in
Scripture as the paragon of revelation, then the approach is a psychologizing
interpretation of revelation. But if one takes the variety of genres seriously
then we are delivered from this authorial constraint to a sensitivity to the
sense of the text, to the world-reference it opens up before it.99 From this
perspective the genre of the text makes sense by projecting a reference as a
possibility for the present.100 For an example, Ricoeur considers the parable:
"A parabolic metaphor, in the strangeness of its plot, institutes a shock which
96 Ricoeur, 1980, p. 103. Elsewhere Ricoeur has said that the primary
task of a hermeneutic is not to bring about a decision in the reader but first to
allow the text to unfold the new vision of the world: "In this way, above
feelings, dispositions, belief, or unbelief is placed the proposal of a world,
which, in the language of the Bible, is called a new world, a new covenant,
the kingdom of God, a new birth. These are realities that unfold before the
text, unfolding to be sure for us, but based upon the text. This is what can be
called the 'objectivity' of the new being projected by the text" (Ricoeur, From
Text to Action, p. 96).
97 This is a term Ricoeur uses to include all genres (1980, p. 100).
98 Such a genre focuses on the voice behind the prophet's voice, and
this then is extended to all other genres.
99 Ricoeur, 1980, p. 25
100 Ricoeur 26
redescribes reality, and opens for us a new way of seeing and being."101 The
Kingdom of God is said to be like something that is quite common. This
form of metaphorical process opens an otherwise matter-of-fact situation to
an open range of interpretations and to the possibility of new
commitments.102 The referential power of the text, in the sense that it opens
a "world in front of it" which we may inhabit, is likened to a "model" that
might be a heuristic device, an instrument for the redescription of reality,
which breaks up an inadequate interpretation of the world and opens the way
to a new, more adequate, interpretation. Such a model permits us "to
'decode' the traces of God's presence in history."103
The foregoing has been an attempt to summarize Ricoeur's
understanding of appropriation. He argues convincingly that it is
commensurate with distanciation. The two are inseparable sides of the
hermeneutic process. One of the criticisms that could be leveled against his
view of appropriation is that the text is placed under the domain of the
contemporary reader. Ricoeur anticipated that criticism and responds to it in
one of his essays on "Appropriation."104 He objects by claiming that
appropriation is not a kind of possession. It actually is a moment of
dispossession. In seeking to clarify Ricoeur's position John Thompson says
that " . . . appropriation is not so much an act of possession as an act of
101 Ricoeur 26
102 Ricoeur 26
103 Ricoeur, 1980, p. 26
104 Ricoeur, 1981, p. 192
dispossession, in which the awareness of the immediate ego is replaced by a
self-understanding mediated through the text."105 With appropriation the
reader risks being changed by the world the text envisions. The reader
relinquishes self in order to submit to the possibilities of a new world
proposed by the text. In Essays on Biblical Interpretation Ricoeur says it a little
To understand oneself before the text is not to impose one's own
finite capacity of understanding on it, but to expose oneself to
receive from it a larger self which would be the proposed way of
existing that most appropriately responds to the proposed world
of the text. Understanding then is the complete opposite of a
constitution for which the subject would have the key. It would
be better in this regard to say that the self is constituted by the
issue of the text."106
The text offers a lively threat to "decenter" the self and its aspirations, to strip
us of our desire for power, possession, and honor.107
105 Ricoeur, 1981, p. 19
106 Ricoeur, 1980, p. 108
107 Regarding the posture of the interpreter, Dale Patrick and Allen
Scult maintain that the "ideal interpreter seeks to learn from the text rather
then [sic] to use it to confirm and propagate what he or she already knows. If
the text renders a world we potentially or actually share, or sets forth an
argument we are willing to adopt, our own thinking is deepened and
broadened in proportion to how well we listen to and even 'strengthen' the
text. If it opposes us, we should state the strongest case against ourselves and
thereby strengthen our own thinking." See Patrick and Scult, Rhetoric and
Biblical Interpretation (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1990) 84.
Both these qualities of distanciation and appropriation are rhetorical
because they necessitate interaction between text, interpreter, tradition and
audience as a part of the hermeneutic process. The process of interpretation is
not done in isolation nor intrapersonally. The process of interpretation is
public, engaging a number of partners in discourse. Keeping the text as the
primary focus and allowing such a text to have the priority in the dialogue,
the interpreter enters into the tradition of the ongoing interpretation of the
text. Thus the hermeneutical process is never ending. Ricoeur acknowledges
the qualities of distanciation and appropriation to be a part of the
hermeneutics of Scripture.108 Ricoeur also acknowledges the dependence of
faith on hermeneutics (a rhetorical hermeneutics). In an eloquently written
passage using different descriptive phrases for faith, Ricoeur highlights the
centrality of faith and its inseparable connection to hermeneutics:
The 'ultimate care' [faith] would remain mute if it did not
receive the power of speech from an endlessly renewed
interpretation of the signs and symbols that have, so to speak,
educated and formed this care throughout the centuries. The
feeling of absolute dependence [faith] would remain a weak and
inarticulated feeling if it were not the response to the proposal of
a new being that opened for me new possibilities of existing and
acting. Unconditional trust [faith] would be empty if it were not
108 This will be made more obvious in the next section on "The
Hermeneutics of Scripture." But Ricoeur explicitly states that distanciation
was "already constitutive of primitive faith itself." There was distance
between the first witness and the event (1987, p. 181). The modern meaning
of hermeneutics "is only the discovery . . . of the hermeneutic situation
which was present from the beginning of the gospel but hidden" (p. 181).
based upon the continually renewed interpretation of the sign-
events reported by Scripture, such as the Exodus in the Old
Testament and the Resurrection in the New Testament. These
events of deliverance open and uncover the innermost
possibility of my own freedom and thus become for me the word
of God. Such is the properly hermeneutical constitution of faith
Hermeneutics is that which gives voice to faith and appropriates it to
new situations enabling faith to be a living dynamic faith. This is a rhetorical
hermeneutic in which the interpreter mediates between text and audience
enabling the text to speak to the present and giving vitality to biblical faith.
Such a hermeneutic is therefore natural to biblical texts. It is not a foreign
object or a template that is forced onto Scripture. Ricoeur himself correctly
acknowledges that Scripture itself engages in this hermeneutic when he
speaks of the relationship between speech and writing. First, speech is related
to an earlier writing that it interprets: Jesus interpreted the Torah; Paul
interpreted the "Christic event in light of the prophesies and institutions of
the old covenant. More generally, a hermeneutics of the Old Testament,
considered a given set of writings, is implied by the proclamation that Jesus is
the Christ."110 The relationship between writing and the spoken word
appears only through a series of interpretations. Ricoeur affirms that "to the
degree that Christianity is dependent upon its successive readings of Scripture
and on its capacity to reconvert this Scripture into the living word" is the
109 Ricoeur, 1991, pp. 99-100; brackets are my insertions.
110 Ricoeur, 1991, p. 93
degree it is dependent on hermeneutics.111 He uses the New Testament as
an example of this process. It is a reinterpretation of the events of the Old
Testament.112 In deciphering the spiritual meaning of the Old Testament
"'faith is not a cry' but an understanding."113 The kerygma of Christianity is
first and foremost not the interpretation of a text; it is the announcement of a
person (Christ). But the kerygma is expressed in the stories and texts of
Scripture and involves a rereading of those stories.114 "Hermeneutics is the
very deciphering of life in the mirror of the text."115 Scripture itself is
engaged in a rhetorical hermeneutic, to which Ricoeur is sensitive.
Just how commensurate is Scripture with this hermeneutic? The
sacred text itself may offer a model for the kind of hermeneutic necessary for
understanding and appropriating its message.
The Hermeneutics of Scripture
Scripture is a veritable textbook of the appropriation of ancient texts
which continued to give new vision and life.116 Scripture continually
111 Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations, in Theories of
Preaching, ed. Richard Lischer (Durham, NC: The Labyrinth Press, 1987) 176.
112 Ricoeur, 1987, p. 178
113 Ricoeur 178
114 Ricoeur 177, 179-180
115 Ricoeur 179
116 James Sanders views Scripture as a hermeneutic paradigm.
"Contextual Hermeneutics," Theories of Preaching, ed. Richard Lischer
(Durham, NC: The Labyrinth Press, 1987) 190.
reappropriates the tradition. It is a series of critiques of the communities for
which it was written. Indeed as Leander Keck has observed:
Had the faith of Israel been on target the prophets would not
have denounced it. The prophets are a protest against the
prevailing faith and life of Israel. In the same way, the New
Testament is a critique of early Christianity. This is especially
true in Paul's letters. Had the church in Corinth, for example,
been developing properly he would not have written his letter
to it. The letters of Paul are nothing less (though considerably
more) than a trenchant critique of his own churches.117
Scripture continually decontextualized its own tradition. In line with a
rhetorical hermeneutic, it is not concerned with first order referent, historical
situation or authorial intent.118 A couple of examples illustrate this
One example is found in the New Testament in the letter to the
Hebrews. The Hebrews writer fills his work with references, which are fairly
lengthy, from the Old Testament text. What is his method of interpretation?
He is not concerned with a distinction between what the text meant and what
it means. The words spoken long ago in a different setting are quoted as
117 Leander Keck, "The Presence of God Through Scripture,"
Lexington Theological Quarterly 10 (1975) : 12.
118 James Sanders points out this fact: "One might rightly point out
that the biblical authors themselves did not rehash the original meaning of
the traditions or scripture they cited; usually they simply interpreted the
tradition quite directly for their own time. There are interesting exceptions,
but for the most part the biblical authors sought value in the tradition directly
rather than recovering the points it first scored and then applying those
points to their time" (Sanders, 1987, p. 191).
words to the author's own community. So he does not make a distinction
between exegesis, hermeneutics, and exposition. When the author interprets
he never asks "What did the text mean to the original audience?" For him
the meaning of a text is not determined by its earliest form.119
The author's "word of exhortation" (Hebrews 13:22) is nothing less
than making the ancient words contemporary. The Hebrews writer interprets
the ancient text within the context of the community of faith. By interpreting
it in this context he does so in a spirit which is fully consistent with the
nature of the documents. He approaches the texts, not as the objective
scientist who stands outside the claims of these texts, but as one who is
absolutely open to the claims which they make about God and his summons
to the believing community. The texts open out in front of themselves and
119 John Henry Newman made this appropriate observation: "It is
indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever
use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a
philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and
stronger when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full" (p. 63). Later in
his treatise Newman makes specific remarks about the text of Scripture: "It
may be objected that its inspired documents at once determine the limits of its
mission without further trouble; but ideas are in the writer and reader of the
revelation, not in the inspired text itself; and the question is whether those
ideas which the letter conveys from writer to reader, reach the reader at once
in their completeness and accuracy on his first perception of them, or
whether they open out in his intellect and grow to perfection in the course of
time" (p. 78). Externally, he says, Scripture is an "earthen vessel" and as such
"it grows in wisdom and stature" (p. 79). As a a religious leader of the
nineteenth century, Newman's statement was especially radical. See
Development of Christian Doctrine (1878), reprint, (Westminster, Md:
Christian Classics, Inc., 1968). James Sanders says that it is the general "trait of
the post-Enlightenment era . . . to find authority only in the most primitive
meaning of a passage" (Sanders, 1987, p. 191). But Sanders also goes on to
offer a warning that neither is the meaning we may discern out of our
immediate modern contexts the only authoritative one.
offer the possibility of a new world to those willing to dispossess themselves
in order to hear what it has to say.
The way in which the Hebrews writer interprets ancient texts is not
atypical of the way in which Scripture is appropriated throughout its pages.
One consistently discovers that when the New Testament quotes Old
Testament Scripture, especially the prophets, there is little or no regard for
how it was used in its original context. One example will serve to
demonstrate what is typical. In Hosea 11:1, Hosea, speaking of what God did
for his children Israel in the past, says "When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son." The Gospel writer Matthew quotes this
passage (2:15) and applies it to Christ fleeing down into Egypt during the time
of Herod's persecution. There is no interest in authorial or historical context.
In fact it might be argued that Matthew is playing pretty loose with the
tradition. However, Matthew is simply calling attention to the similarities.
What God did with Israel is a type or a parallel to what God is doing with
Jesus. The ancient tradition is viewed from a new perspective as it points
forward toward the future.
The ancient traditions of Israel are developed, expanded, and
appropriated to the changing circumstances always looking forward. Recently
Michael Fishbane has demonstrated this in a profound way. Modern biblical
scholarship has long been persuaded that Scripture is founded upon tradition.
Tradition history is a salient feature of higher criticism. Tradition criticism
moves back from the written sources to the oral traditions which make them
up.120 Fishbane inverts the process and focuses on what he calls "inner-
biblical exegesis" which starts with the received Scripture and moves forward
to the interpretations based on it (p. 7). His goal is to show how the handing
down (traditio ) has modified what was handed down (traditum ). The
traditum is the received tradition as codified in Scripture and the traditio is
the appropriation of that tradition to new situations. Fishbane concludes that
there is no one model or mold that characterizes the relationship between
traditum and traditio . ". . . the Hebrew Bible is the repository of a vast store
of hermeneutical techniques which long preceded early Jewish exegesis."121
Fishbane believes that all religions, including the biblical ones, renew and
regenerate themselves via a "parodoxically dynamic" process. This process is
dynamic because the imagination animating it is enormously creative and
flexible. Yet it is paradoxical because all of this creativity, however
innovative, is grounded solely in earlier tradition--thus placing it, for him, in
the category of exegesis.122 Fishbane cites several examples to prove his point.
Among legal texts, he sees the process in the way earlier laws are repeatedly
updated and expanded.123 Among the historical texts, he notes how Moses'
120 Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985) 7.
121 Fishbane 14
122 See Michael Fishbane, The Garments of Torah: Essays in Biblical
Hermeneutics (Bloomington, IL: Indiana UP, 1989). This work is largely an
abbreviated and popularized version of his earlier work Biblical
Interpretation in Ancient Israel.
123 E.g. compare the careful definition of what a "field" is in Deut. 22:9-
11, updating Lev. 19:19; or the lawyerly reexamination of Exod. 23:10-11a in
speech to Joshua in Deuteronomy 31:7-8 is exegetically transformed into a
hymn of praise to the law in Joshua 1:7-8. Among the prophetic texts, the
prophets often cited earlier tradition.124 The Hebrew Bible is described by
Fishbane as a multi-layered phenomenon whose outer layers, like outer
garments on a person, are most easily seen and analyzed, but whose ever-
deepening internal layers "conceal deeper and less-refracted aspects of divine
truth," the core of which is "God himself."125
The Hebrew Bible, when viewed holistically, vividly and creatively
carries forth a rhetorical hermeneutic. It is quite clear that such a
hermeneutic is commensurate with the way in which sacred texts engage in
the interpretive process and vice versa. My approach to the book of Proverbs
will take seriously this rhetorical process as a way of enabling this genre of
literature to continue to speak. Thus my specific aim is to offer an
understanding of proverbs in the book of Proverbs that unfolds their
meaning and influence before contemporary audiences.
The Contribution of a Rhetorical Paradigm
The rhetorical hermeneutic that I have explicated above will serve as
the foundation for my investigation of biblical proverbs. Such a hermeneutic
does not eclipse the cognitive paradigm but seeks to extend its boundaries in
order to be more holistic in its investigation. Such a rhetorical hermeneutic
will enable me to investigate four fundamental aspects of the collected
124 E.g. the way in which Jer. 23 updates and applies Exod. 19:5-6 to a
radically new situation.
125 The Garments pf Torah, p. 35.
proverbs that the cognitive paradigm simply eluded or, more correctly, was
unable to address.
First, it will enable me to explore those internal qualities of a proverb
that equip it to influence behavior. By design proverbs are intended to
manage social behavior, to create order. The hermeneutic paradigm I am
using takes seriously this rhetorical function of the proverb. In addition, a
rhetorical hermeneutic does not approach the proverb as a static and
determinate form. Rather it understands its fundamental nature to be
dynamic and relatively indeterminate. A rhetorical hermeneutic identifies
those qualities that enable the proverb to persuade, to function effectively and
to speak to many different contexts. Such an investigation is the focus of
Second, a rhetorical hermeneutic that is based on Ricoeur's scheme is
interested in disclosing the power of the text as it stands and not primarily in
the historical issues that lie behind it. The hermeneutic that I am engaging
underlines the work of the text as an object, divorcing the author and the
original audience from consideration. Once again in the words of Roger
Abrahams, this hermeneutic "implies that once a work is created it is capable
of speaking for itself and must be analyzed in terms of its internal
characteristics and the interrelationships of its parts."126 I would argue that
Proverbs is especially suited to a synchronic investigation because the
individual proverbs are already decontextualized by the very fact of being
placed in a collection. In addition, the proverbs collected here are
anonymous. There is also no reference to their historical situation nor to a
126 See above page 24.
primary reference. Proverbs are universalized. Therefore a rhetorical
hermeneutic fits naturally with the canonical collection of proverbs. In line
with this perspective, I will use a structural analysis to locate possible macro-
structures that might organize the collection of biblical proverbs. My analysis
does not seek to create a structure where no structure exists. But its goal is to
honor the natural organization of the text. Chapter three will explore the
texts of Proverbs in this way.
Third, as I explore the texts of proverbs, a rhetorical paradigm will
enable me to discover what they have to say about the role of discourse and
possibly about the interpretive process itself. A rhetorical hermeneutic will
attend to a careful reading of a text giving it an interpretation that enables it to
be the "best possible text."127 I have selected five texts of Proverbs to engage
in interpretive dialogue. They include the following: 10:13-21; 16:21-24; 25:11-
28; 26:17-28; and 26:4-10. The reason for selecting these is that they all have an
interest in the proper or improper use of discourse. They are actually
representative of the central focus of Proverbs on speech. In addition, the last
three of the above texts address two central topoi of speech in which Proverbs
has special interest: ethics and kairos. These passages will be used in chapter
three as I attempt to do a structural analysis of Proverbs.
Fourth, a rhetorical hermeneutic will enable me to engage the
dialogical dimension of the proverb and observe the proverb at work in the
broader canonical context. It will demonstrate how on the one hand there is
an element of constancy to the familiar proverb but on the other hand it also
127 Dale Patrick and Allen Scult, Rhetoric and Biblical Interpretation.
Sheffield: Almond Press, 1990, p. 25.
is able to change shape and substance to fit the occasion and the audience.
Such a focus does not, as in the cognitive tradition, focus on the past and
what the proverb meant, but on its ability continually to unfold new meaning
to new situations. In the broader canonical context, proverbs are ever
expanding and extending their meaning in time and space. Scripture itself
witnesses to proverbs being appropriated and reappropriated. In chapter four
I want to demonstrate how the dialogic nature of proverbs serves as a
rhetorical model of the hermeneutic process.
Underlying all four of these foci is an interest in how biblical proverbs
influence individuals, contexts and tradition. First, their influence derives
from their internal dynamic, their structure, content, and reasoning pattern.
Second, their influence also derives from the immediate context in which
they are placed in the Hebrew collection of Proverbs. That is, an individual
proverb influences and is influenced by the surrounding proverbs it touches.
They take on new meaning, an added dimension if you will, when they are
considered in clusters. Third, their influence stems from how, when and by
whom they are used. The texts of Proverbs witness to these important factors.
Finally, their influence derives from the larger canonical contexts in
which they are found as they continue to unfold new meaning when placed
in these situations.
Selection Criteria for the Biblical Proverbs Studied
The following is a rationale for the constraints that I will place on the
way in which I select the biblical proverbs for this study. The one general
criterion that will govern the selection process is that I will focus primarily on
sentence proverbs. Sentence proverbs are found in chapters 10:1-22:16 and 25-
29 of the book of Proverbs. The sentence proverbs are small two line units of
discourse and stand in contrast to the longer paragraph length instruction
proverbs which dominate the first nine chapters, the last two chapters and a
middle section of the book (22:17-24:22). Thus the general constraint is based
Since each of the following chapters in my dissertation has a slightly
different focus, the specific criteria will vary with the respective chapters. As I
investigate how the proverb works in chapter two, the overall guiding
principle of selection will be to include a sufficient number of proverbs to
reasonably conclude that certain strategies are part of the makeup of biblical
proverbs. That there is a sufficient number is a judgment call on my part.
The criteria for proverb selection in chapter three is dictated by my
focus. The criteria are twofold. First, selected texts in Proverbs will be chosen
whose macro-structure appears to unite a series of proverbs into a cohesive
unit. Second, I will select certain texts of proverbs that appear to be clustered
around an interest in discourse and two key themes: ethics and proper
timing. I have chosen five that have already been mentioned above: 10:13-
21; 16:21-24; 25:11-28; 26:4-10; and 26:17-28.
In chapter four I will investigate how proverbs are used and
interpreted in different canonical contexts. An adequate number of examples
will be used from three different contexts of Scripture (Proverbs, Hebrew
Scripture, New Testament) to demonstrate their hermeneutical function.
Again what determines an "adequate" amount will be a judgment call on my
These criteria, I believe, will enable me to proceed in a relatively
consistent and orderly manner. They will also enable me to maintain the
focus I need as I progress.
A rhetorical analysis of the book of Proverbs will be of heuristic value
for both biblical and rhetorical scholars. It can offer insight into how proverbs
function. In addition, my aim is to offer an understanding of the proverb and
the book of Proverbs that unfolds its meaning and influence before
contemporary audiences. An ongoing criticism that is leveled against both
the discipline of rhetoric and biblical studies is that little research in these
respective fields is practically oriented.128 My focus is intended to
demonstrate the value of proverbs and the text of Proverbs to contemporary
In the past decade an increased interest in studying Scripture from a
rhetorical perspective has been manifested by both biblical and rhetorical
scholars. The need for and receptivity to quality research in this area
continues to increase. But it is still relatively new territory. Though the
enthusiasm for such research is great, there is uncertainty regarding how it
should be done. The tendency is to approach Scripture mechanistically by
simply imposing rhetorical jargon onto biblical texts and genres. In addition,
though the value of such a perspective is acknowledged, there is
apprehension about where it leads. Rhetorical analysis of biblical texts is still
a pioneering field. As such there is a need to continue to explore the territory.
128 Stanley Deetz levels this criticism against the field of speech. See
Stanley Deetz, "Conceptualized Human Understanding: Gadamer's
Hermeneutics and American Communication Studies," Communication
Ouarterly 26 (1978) : 13-14. In biblical scholarship the dominant
hermeneutical paradigm tends to confine the book of Proverbs to the past and
thus is only secondarily concerned with the contemporary scene.
In 1981 James Crenshaw, one of the most distinguished biblical scholars
in America on Wisdom Literature,129 wrote an introduction to this corpus
simply entitled, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. In the preface of
that volume he discloses his motives for writing it: "I have written this book
as preparation for a more ambitious project, a study of the art of persuasion in
Israelite wisdom, which I hope to complete in the near future [emphasis
mine]."130 Later in chapter one he once again refers to this forthcoming
volume.131 However, that volume has not come forth. In a personal letter I
received from Crenshaw, dated September 29, 1988, he offered a very brief
explanation as to why it had not yet been published. He remarked that other
tasks had delayed its completion and "perhaps also, my conviction that it
needs further reflection. One of these days I do intend to turn that study
loose, but not yet." Even now, this volume still has not been produced. His
hesitancy demonstrates the doubts that many biblical scholars have about
taking a rhetorical perspective, how to proceed with it, and what it is really
supposed to accomplish. But it also affirms that there is a strong interest in
pursuing such a focus. It is for this reason that I enthusiastically take on such
129 Wisdom Literature in Scripture primarily includes Proverbs, Job,
Ecclesiastes, and Sirach.
130 James Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction
(Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981) 7.
131 Crenshaw 34. In footnote 15 in chapter one he has even given the
volume a tentative title, The Art of Persuasion in Israelite Wisdom, and says
that it will be published by Fortress Press (p. 246).
The Biblical Proverb and Its Micro-Dimensional Influences
By design proverbs function within various cultures to manage social
behavior and maintain the order of the community. Clearly this makes them
rhetorical. But what internal qualities of the proverb, and specifically the
biblical proverb, enable it to carry out its work? How is it that proverbs are
able to influence the thoughts, feelings and actions of those who hear them?
Such a focus is not easy to address because of the multitude of factors at work
simultaneously within the dynamics of proverbs. However, such an
undertaking can be fruitful if approached with rhetorical sensitivity and with
the understanding that the work that proverbs do is not accomplished
mechanistically nor can the way in which they work be completely explained
and rationalized. Because of their multidimensional character there is an
element of mystery that will always be a part of their makeup.
In order to begin to understand the action of the proverb, one must
approach it holistically, taking seriously the polysemous nature that has been
denied the proverb by the cognitive paradigm. Roger Abrahams understands
the rhetorical quality and the relationship between the component parts
when he makes the following statement: "The rhetorical approach deals with
all levels of style simultaneously in order to show how they interrelate
through the direction of argument."l The rhetorical character of the proverb
involves a synergistic relationship between a series of components. These
components include its structural nature, reasoning patterns, content, and
situational character. Each of these four elements will be explicated in this
1 Roger Abrahams, "Introductory Remarks to a Rhetorical Theory of
Folklore," Journal of American Folklore 81 (1968) : 146.
chapter. But again it must be kept in mind that no one element is at work
without the others. Only for the sake of analysis are they here separated.
The Structural Character of Biblical Proverbs
In order to put the structure of biblical proverbs in perspective, I want
to begin with an analysis of the structure of the proverbial genre at large.
Then I will return to a more finely tuned analysis of biblical proverbs. So in
this section focus will first be given to discovering an archetypal or universal
structure to proverbs. Then second and in greater detail, attention will be
turned to a comparison of biblical proverbs and a probing into the richness of
their rhetorical structure.
Roger Abrahams describes the structure of the proverb succinctly: "The
proverb is generally a sentence that is perceptibly broken in the middle."2 It
has a binary or two part construction that, for the sake of rhetorical effect, is
strategically divided. Alan Dundes analyzes this binary structure in more
detail. He concludes that there is a close relationship between the structure of
the proverb and the structure of a riddle. That which they have in common
has to do with what he calls a "topic-comment" format: "A minimum
proverb or riddle consists of one descriptive element, that is to say, one unit
composed of one topic and one comment."3 Thus a proverb must have at
least two words, one being the topic the other the comment. Typically,
2 Roger Abrahams, "Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions," Folklore
and Folklife: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972)
3 Alan Dundes, "On the Structure of the Proverb," The Wisdom of
Many: Essays on the Proverb, eds. Wolfgang Mieder and Alan Dundes (New
York & London: Garland Publishing, 1981) 43-64.
however, proverbs are longer than this. Dundes elaborates further by saying
that there are oppositional and non-oppositional proverbs. Oppositional
proverbs have the basic formula which says that A does not equal B (Two
wrongs don't make a right; One swallow does not make a summer). Proverbs
based on the formula that A is greater than or less than B (e.g., the
"better/than" proverbs: Hindsight is better than foresight) are also
oppositional proverbs. Examples of non-oppositional proverbs would be the
following: honesty is the best policy; the customer is always right; haste makes
waste; experience is the best teacher. Equational proverbs (A = B) are also
non-oppositional: time is money; seeing is believing. Proverbs which contain
a single descriptive element are usually non-oppositional. Proverbs with two
or more descriptive elements may be either oppositional or non-oppositional.
For Dundes, the lowest common denominator in the structure is that ". . . all
proverbs are potentially propositions which compare and/or contrast.
Comparing originally referred to finding similarities or identifying features in
common; contrasting referred to delineating differences."4
To compare biblical proverbs to this general description of proverbial
structure is helpful. There is a general topic/comment pattern that is a part of
their structure. But a more refined analysis of biblical proverbs is still
necessary. In biblical proverbs, in the collection assembled in the book of
Proverbs, the common element is their binary structure. And as folklorists
and anthropologists struggle to describe the relationship of the two parts of a
proverb (eg. topic/comment), in like manner an important issue with biblical
4 Dundes 54
proverbs has to do with the relationship between the couplets. To attend to
this relationship can reveal much about their structural strategy.
Since Robert Lowth's work, On Sacred Hebrew Poetry (De sacra poesi
Hebraeorum) published in 1753, biblical scholars have identified the
dominant characteristic of Hebrew poetry in general as that of parallelism.
Lowth was the first to use this term to explain the two part structure of all
poetic language in Scripture which includes Psalms, the Prophetic books and
Proverbs. Hebrew poetry consists basically of two lines standing in a
particular kind of relationship to one another. This relationship is referred to
as parallelism. To take a proverb that opens the sentence collection in
Proverbs chapter ten will illustrate the point. The proverb is structured in
"A wise son makes a glad father/ but a foolish son is a sorrow to
his mother//" (10:1)
The saying clearly has a binary structure. Two lines make up the proverb.
The second line stands in some kind of relationship to the first. The structure
can be diagramed like this: __________ /____________//.
Since Lowth's time the principle of parallelism has been refined and
standardized. Many works on Hebrew poetry have codified a half-a-dozen
different kinds of parallelism.5 First, there is parallelism that is synonymous.
5 As examples see the following: Philip Johannes Nel, The Structure
and Ethos of the Wisdom Admonitions in Proverbs (Berlin and New York:
Walter de Gruyter, 1982) 16; Clyde M. Miller, "Interpreting Poetic Literature
in the Bible," Biblical Interpretation: Principles and Practice, eds. F. Furman
Kearley, Edward P. Myers, and Timothy D. Hadley (Grand Rapids: Baker Book
House, 1986) 164-165; Roland E. Murphy, Wisdom Literature & Psalm
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983) 37-38; John T. Willis, Insights from tbs.
Psalms (Abilene, TX: Biblical Research Press, 1974) 8-16.
The second line in synonymous parallelism states the same thought as the
first only using different words. An example used to illustrate this might be:
"The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof/ the world and
those who dwell therein / /" (Psalm 24:1)
A second type is antithetic, parallelism in which the second line forms a
contrast with the first:
"Yahweh knows the way of the righteous/ but the way of the
wicked will perish / /" (Psalm 1:6)
Third, synthetic parallelism consists of the second line advancing the thought
of the first:
"I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God/ than
dwell in the tents of wickedness / /" (Psalm 84:10)
Fourth, emblematic, parallelism uses metaphoric language in one of the two
"For as the heavens are high above the earth/ so great is his
steadfast love toward those who respect him / /" (Psalm 103:11)
And fifth, chiastic parallelism structures the two lines of poetry in an ABBA
"Because he cleaves to me in love (A), I will deliver him (B) / I
will protect him (B), because he knows my name (A) / /" (Psalm
These were considered to be the typical kinds of parallelism. A poetic verse or
proverb could be plugged into one of these categories. In all of these
categories emphasis is stressed on similarities, especially semantic
similarities. The second line reiterates the first in some way or another. T. H.
Robinson described the function of the second line in the following way: "So
the poet goes back to the beginning again, and says the same thing once more,
though he may partly or completely change the actual words to avoid
monotony."6 The feature of parallelism is simply providing variety.7
The problem with this system of classification is twofold. First, this
model of parallelism, as well as other current models, completely omits any
consideration of how the binary structure serves as a rhetorical strategy.
However, this appears to be a primary function of such a structure. Second,
this model, based on a cognitive mind set, is too rigid and inflexible. All
poetic verse is forced to fit into one of these categories. But not all parallelism
fits so neatly. The result is that the dynamic and rhetorical dimension of the
proverb is stifled. There is no room for flexibility and creative movement. In
addition it can be argued that there is no such thing in Hebrew poetry as one
line being exactly synonymous or antithetic with another. Even words that
are characterized as synonyms or antonyms are not exactly synonymous or
antithetic because they will carry a slightly different shade of meaning than
their counterparts. For example, Proverbs 11:12 says "he who despises, his
neighbor lacks sense/but a man of understanding will be silent." If this were
purely antithetic then we would expect praise or encouragement to be the
antithesis of despise or belittle. But it is not. We are surprised to find that an
6 T. H. Robinson, The Poetry of the Old Testament (London: np, 1947)
7 In following this scheme, Philip Johannes Nel has identified a two-
fold element of what he calls the admonition proverb. The twofold structure
includes an admonition followed by a motivation, a reason given for the
admonition. While his findings are helpful, they are mainly based on the
content of the proverb even though he argues that one cannot separate
content from form (pp. 72-74). The Structure and Ethos of the Wisdom
Admonitions in Proverbs (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1982).
understanding man is silent. Another way of describing the structure and
function of Hebrew poetry must be sought, one that sees such a structure as a
In 1981 James Kugel published a volume entitled The Idea of Biblical,
Poetry: Parallelism and Its History. In it he took issue with the long standing
way of describing Hebrew poetry. He argued that the term "parallelism" is
misleading because it implies that each half must parallel the other in
meaning or that each word of the first line must be matched by a word in the
second.8 This view flattens out the dynamic nature of parallelism. After
perusing through the poetic material of Scripture (his examples are primarily
from Psalms but they also include a few examples from Job, Proverbs,
Ecclesiastes and some of the Prophets), Kugel concludes that "the ways of
parallelism are numerous and varied, and the intensity of the semantic
parallelism established between clauses might be said to range from 'zero
perceivable correspondence' to 'near-zero perceivable differentiation' (i.e., just
short of word-for-word repetition)."9
Kugel calls the first part of the two part poetic form A and the second
part B and proceeds to elaborate on what he perceives to be a more natural
description of the relationship between the two. In the standard description
of parallelism described above, the medial pause or break that is visible in the
Hebrew text between the first (A) and the second (B) line has been taken to be
8 James Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History
(New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1981) 2.
9 Kugel 7.
a kind of equals sign. But, Kugel maintains, it is a pause and its true character
might be more graphically symbolized by a double arrow (<-->):
for it is the dual nature of B both to come after A and thus add to
it, often particularizing, defining, or expanding the meaning,
and yet also to harken back to A and in an obvious way connect
to it. One might say that B has both retrospective (looking back
to A) and prospective (looking beyond it) qualities. . . . . . . by its
very afterwardness, B will have an emphatic character.10
In Kugel's structure the focus is on the emphatic or "seconding" quality
of B. B does not simply repeat A but in some way, shape or form
complements it. The relationship is that there is a statement made in A and a
"what's more" statement in B. Note this "going beyond" nature of the second
line (B) in the following examples that Kugel cites:
You brought up a vine from Egypt / you banished nations and
planted it / / Psalm 80:9
Let your love, Lord, be upon us / since we hope in you / /
If a camp encamp about me / my heart shall not fear / /
My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction /
those closest to me stand far off / / Psalm 38:12
Of the primacy of this two-part binary form, Kugel argues that
. . . we are asserting, basically, a sequence: first part-pause-next
part-bigger pause. . . . But even this sequence is a bit of a
10 Kugel 8
shorthand for the real point, for what those pauses actually
embody is the subjoined, hence emphatic, character of B. The
briefness of the brief pause is an expression of B's connectedness
to A; the length of the long pause is an expression of the relative
disjunction between B and the next line. What this means is
simple: B, by being connected to A-carrying it further, echoing it,
defining it, restating it, contrasting with it, it does not matter
which- has an emphatic, "seconding" character, and it is this,
more than any aesthetic of symmetry or paralleling, which is at
the heart of biblical parallelism.11
In Kugel's eyes, the lines are parallel not because the second line is
symmetrically parallel to A nor the same length as A, but because B completes
it or carries it further. Thus this phenomenon is flexible and dynamic, not
flat and rigid. This explains why the practice of paralleling is so
inconsistent.12 Such unpredictability, I would argue, is intentional and
rhetorical. "Our point," Kugel concludes, "is hardly that parallelism does not
exist, but that care must be taken to see it in the proper terms, as part of a
larger, overall rhetorical structure."13 Kugel maintains that there is a
11 Kugel 51
12 Many scholars have tried to impose a metrical structure on Hebrew
poetry. But there has been no consensus on what this meter is. The reason
for no consensus is that the principle of parallelism is inconsistent and a
metrical system relies on consistency.
13 Kugel 56. Kugel takes a whole chapter in his book to argue that this
phenomenon of parallelism is not something confined to poetry. It is also a
characteristic of biblical narrative as well. He goes so far to say that there is
little distinction between poetic and narrative material in the Hebrew
"sharpness"14 that is connected with parallelism. "Its sharpness," he explains,
"has nothing to do with spurring to action."15 Rather it has to do, he says,
with "the delight in creating a B half which both connects with, and yet
cleverly expands, the meaning of A. 'Sharpness' represented the potential
subtleties hidden inside juxtaposed clauses."16 Kugel's description of the
"sharpness" of the proverb though appropriate is too constricted. If there is
this quality within the structure of the proverb itself, does it not naturally
follow that the "sharpness" of its quality extends beyond its internal structure
to its external ability to penetrate the ear and the mind of the auditor?
In spite of this constriction in Kugel's model, his assessment of
parallelism is revolutionary. It opens the door to understanding much more
clearly the structure and nature of Hebrew poetry. However, Kugel's
treatment focuses primarily on the poetry of the book of Psalms. How might
his structural analysis help illuminate a more detailed investigation of the
nature of proverbs in the book of Proverbs? I would maintain that his
analysis can be helpful in understanding their rhetorical structure as well.
Scriptures. Such a position, however, is extreme and leads to lumping all
genre of Scripture into one conglomerate.
14 By sharpness, Kugel is referring to the frequent association of the
quality of sharpness with the word proverb. hnAyniw; is used in
Deut. 28:37; I Kings 9:7; Jer. 24:9; II Chron. 7:20. See Brown, Driver, Briggs, A
Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 2nd printing (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1975) 1042. Also the idea of sharpness is connected with the
proverb in Proverbs 26:9: "Like a thorn that goes up in the hand of a
drunkard/ is a proverb in the mouth of fools / /." Also compare Ecclesiastes
12:11 "The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the
collected sayings which are given by one shepherd."
15 Kugel 11
16 Kugel 11-12
From a cognitive perspective, biblical proverbs are often perceived to be
quite pedestrian in nature. Part of the reason for this disrespect is the lack of
awareness of their rhetorical form. Alter observes that when biblical proverbs
are brought into contemporary culture, there is the tendency to use only one
line of the proverb rather than both halves thus defusing their force.17 But
when both halves are taken seriously they are not so pedantic. However, I
take issue with Alter on this point. Using only one half of the proverb does
not necessarily lead to their blandness. In actuality their binary structure
equips them to undergo a process of fission that enables them to adapt to ever
changing situations.18 What I would like to do is brush away the deposits
from the surface of the proverb and expose the underlying beauty of its
rhetorical shape. I want to demonstrate its multidimensional form by
identifying some overarching structural patterns that are common to it. And
in highlighting these I also want to emphasize its fluidity by showing the rich
variety of forms that reside within these general patterns.
There are five different types of parallelism that I want to highlight.
These include static, antithetic, extension, formulaic, and riddle-form
proverbs.19 I am not proposing these as a new set of categories to replace the
old set. But these are simply dominant structural patterns that have surfaced
17 Alter. 165
18 For further development of this quality, see chapter four.
19 Elizabeth Huwiler maintains that there are basically two general
structural patterns: correspondence and distinction. In the former the second
line shows a similarity in relationship with the first. In the latter the
difference between the two is highlighted. Elizabeth Huwiler, Control of
Reality in Israelite Wisdom, unpublished dissertation Duke University (1988)
in the course of my study and that demonstrate the paralleling principle of
"seconding."20 Nor are these categories completely distinct from one another.
There is much overlap between them. The one common denominator that
ties them all together is the principle that in some way, shape or form the
second line builds on the first.21
First, there are those proverbs that are more static in nature, with the
second line coming close to a verbatim repetition of the first. However, there
is no true synonymity because even verbatim repetition has a heightening
effect as, for example, is observed in the last two poetic lines of Psalm 90:17:
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us/
and establish thou the work of our hands upon us/
yes, establish thou the work of our hands / /.
Though the last line repeats verbatim the former, it is not because the poet is
simply repeating himself so readers will get the point. The second line is a
way of intensifying what is being said. So even though there is no true
20 Kugel 51
21 An additional common element has to do with their compactness.
As one author comments, proverbs are a "maximum of meaning in a
minimum of words." See Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An
Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature (New York: Doubleday, 1990) 20.
Typically there are four words to the first line and three to the second. This
pattern does vary and sometimes there are four in the first and four in the
second. And on a few occasions there are more in the second than in the first.
But more often than not the second line is shorter than the first. Sometimes
there is a punch word as in 15:23 "An apt answer is a joy to a man/ a word in
its time- how good!" (mah-tob). Such structural qualities are strategic and are
simply another way of demonstrating the seconding or heightening function
of the second line.
synonymity, there are certain proverbs that do come close. The following is
an example of this more static structure.
"A deceiving witness will not go unpunished/ and he who
utters lies will not escape / /"22 (Prv. 19:5)23
In the above, the "deceiving witness" of the first line is matched by "he who
utters lies" in the second. And "not go unpunished" is quite similar to "not
escape."24 There is little development from the first to the second line, nor
does there seem to be much, if any, heightening effect. However, the phrase
"not escape" may be an intentional abbreviation of "not escape punishment."
If that is the case, the abbreviation allows the audience to complete the
thought thus creating a type of heightening effect. In any case, the proverb
comes as close to being synonymous as will be found. The following are
further examples of static parallelism:
"He who gathers in the summer is a prudent son/ he who sleeps
in the harvest is a shameful son / /" (Prv. 10:5)
"A soft answer will turn away anger/ but a harsh word will bring
up anger / / (Prv. 15:1)
In both of these proverbs, the second line is antithetical to the first. And in
both the words and terms of the second come very close to being antonyms of
22 It is good to note here that this same proverb is repeated in 19:9. But
"not escape" in the second line is changed to "perish" which intensifies the
23 The translations of proverbs in this chapter are my own and are
made from Kittel's Biblia Hebraica text.
24 To add weight to its static nature the proverb contains an equal
amount of words in each line (four).
the first. The syntax and word order are also quite similar.25 In perusing
through the sentence sayings in proverbs there are other examples that could
be given. But the static proverb is by no means a dominant form. Richness
in structure, a proverb that teases and entertains the mind, is much more the
A second general structural pattern is the antithetic proverb. The last
two proverbs cited above introduce this type. The antithetic proverb is
scattered throughout the collection of biblical proverbs. But they are most
concentrated in chapters 10-15, chapters that are a part of what is known as the
Solomonic collection. Like the static proverbs they are not as colorful as
others, especially those found in chapters 25-27. In fact, it could be argued that
most of the static-like proverbs are antithetic in form. The following is one
"A man who is kind benefits himself/ but he who is cruel hurts
himself / /" (Prv. 11:17)
Even though the antithetic proverbs are not as colorful as many others,
neither are they as jejune as some would claim. There is a subtle richness to
them when they are closely examined. Many display the principle of
intensification in the second line. In the following proverb
"The righteous one will seek out his friend/ but the way of the
wicked ones will wander/ /" (Prv. 12:26)
the second line intensifies the first by moving from singular in the first to
plural in the second. Furthermore the first line is focused on seeking out a
25 In addition both proverbs contain an equal amount of words in each
particular kind of person, a friend. Thus the objective is clear. However, in
the second line there is a lack of focus; the wicked ones are those who have
no direction. They are those who wander. The antithetic proverb of 14:24
demonstrates another way of intensifying:
"Wise ones are crowned with their wealth/ but the folly of fools
is foolish / /"
Here, as in most of the antithetic proverbs, the proverb is marked by
succinctness with three words in the first line and three in the second. The
second line intensifies the contrast with the first. All three words in the
second line are different forms of the term for fool. Such repetition heightens
the stupidity of the fool in contrast to the wise. Something similar, as well, is
seen in the following:
"In all a prudent man acts with knowledge/ but a fool spreads
out his folly / /" (Prv. 13:16)
There are four words in the first line and three in the second. Two of the
three words in the second line are words for folly. In addition, notice again
how in the first line the prudent one is focused in direction but in the second
line the fool has no direction. The fool spreads out his folly like a peddler
spreads out his wares. Sometimes intensifying is accomplished by the use of a
punch word or phrase that concludes the proverb. This is illustrated in the
"When the just man prospers, a town exults/ when the wicked
perish-shouts of joy! / /" (Prv. 11:10)26
26 What is translated into English as "shouts of joy" is one word in
Hebrew. One is also surprised to find in this proverb that there is no
antithetic to "a town exults." The antithetic would be something like
"A false balance is an abomination to Yahweh/ but a just
weight— his delight! / /" (Prv. 11:1)27
Intensification also occurs when the second line contrasts that which is
salient with that which is evanescent:
"Truthful lips will endure for ever/ but only for a moment is a
lying tongue/ /" (Prv. 12:19)28
The second line of Proverbs 15:8 "seconds" the first in still another way:
"The sacrifice of the wicked ones are an abomination of
Yahweh/ but the prayers of the upright ones—his delight//"
This proverb moves from a general form of worship to a specific form,
namely from sacrifice to prayers.29 The second line also intensifies by using a
punch word: his delight.
Some antithetic proverbs move from singular to plural:
"A rich man's wealth is his strong city / the poverty of the poor is
their ruin / /" (Prv. 10:15)
mourning or weeping. Instead there is the word "shouts of joy" which again
is a subtle witness to the dynamic nature of these proverbs.
27 Again the phrase "his delight" is one word and is placed in an
emphatic position at the end of the proverb. It is worthy of also mentioning
here that throughout the Proverbs "abomination" and "delight" are
formulaic contrasting pairs: 11:20; 12:22; 15:8.
28 The phrase "only for a moment" is literally "while I would twinkle"
and emphasizes the brevity of the deceptive tongue. We would say "In the
twinkle of an eye." The proverb is also built on a chiastic structure with an
29 There is also a movement from the singular sacrifice to the plural
"There is a way which seems right to a man/ but its end is the
ways of death / /" (14:12)
Some move from plural to singular and from less vivid to more vivid
"Wise men lay up knowledge/ but the babbling of a fool brings
ruin near / /" (Prv. 10:14)
Others move from feminine to masculine:
"A gracious woman will grasp honor/ but violent men get
riches / /" (Prv. 11:16)30
Still others from exterior to interior:
"A woman of strength is the crown of her husband/ but like
rottenness in his bones is she who brings shame / /" (Prv. 12:4)31
The woman of worth gives her husband a crown which can be seen by all.
The shameful woman affects the interior of her spouse, his health.
In all of these examples of antithetic proverbs, intensification is
achieved in a variety of creative ways, through chiastic structure, punch
words, movement from feminine to masculine, from singular to plural, from
external to internal and vice versa. Intensification is also achieved by
compactness, with the first line typically containing four words and the
second three. As I have already affirmed, there are those that are more static
in nature. But their presence is simply witness to the variety of the
proverbial structure. The above examples could be multiplied. These are,
30 This proverb not only moves from feminine to masculine but also
from singular to plural.
31 this proverb is also chiastic in structure with an ABBA pattern.
however, sufficient to demonstrate certain patterns that surface and the subtle
rhetorical nature of the antithetical proverb, which first appears to lack
vitality. But when the residue is brushed aside, a form unfolds before us that
is aesthetically pleasing to the mind and rhetorically attractive to the ear.
A third structural form is the proverb that is developed from the
principle of extension. Like many of the antithetic proverbs, the second line
of the extension proverb elaborates on, heightens, specifies, focuses,
concretizes or intensifies the first line but not in a contrasting way. The
"Gracious words are like the honey of a honey comb/ sweet to
the soul and healing to the bones//" (Prv. 16:24)32
is an example of the second line extending or elaborating on the first. The
second line expounds on and specifies what is meant by the honey metaphor
in the first and reveals how gracious words impact a person.
One of the primary types of extension proverbs are those that contain a
narrative impulse.33 The first line of the proverb expresses a thought or a
32 There is no contrast intended in the second line between soul and
bones. Unlike the Greeks, for the Hebrews "soul" was simply another word
for the whole of the individual or the self.
33 Roger Abrahams says, "Many of the most widely known and
interesting proverbs tell a condensed story; these items often function
metaphorically when used in a conversational context. That is, in the
proverb ‘People who live in glass houses should not throw stones’ we are
given an image suggestive of a story, but the comparing effect of the
metaphor is not present. Yet when this proverb is used it does imply that the
person in the glass house is to be compared to the one to whom the saying is
directed" (p. 120). "Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions," Folklore and.
FolkIife: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).
Thomas Long has also claimed that the element of narrativity lies behind
moral principle followed by the second line which traces through its effects or
consequences. Many proverbs display a narrative form by presumably
encapsulating a variety of similar experiences into one brief vignette. In fact
the New Testament writers use particular proverbs out of which to create a
story.34 The following is one such sample of the narrative form:
"The beginning of strife is like letting out water/ so quit before
the quarrel breaks out / /" (Prv. 17:14)
Numerous other examples can also be given. The following are just a few:
"Do not boast about tomorrow/ for you do not know what a day
may bring forth / /" (Prv. 27:1)
"He who rises early in the morning to bless his neighbor with a
loud voice / it will be counted as verbal abuse / /" (27:14)35
"The consequence for humility and fear of the Lord/ riches and
honor and life / /" (Prv. 22:4)36
many of the proverbs. Thomas Long, Preaching the Literary Forms of the
Bible 1989 Fortress.
34 For example, Proverbs 25:6-7 is used by Jesus in Luke 14:7-11 to create
35 The first line contains six words the second three. Using humor and
compactness in the second line, this narrative vignette moves from the
superficial facade of what the person does to how it really affects the neighbor.
In commenting on this proverb, William McKane says "The person who goes
to such extravagant lengths to create an impression of aimiability is to be
reckoned as a curse to the one to whom he is excessively civil." McKane p.
36 The narrative flow of this proverb is clear with the second line
heightening the results of the first by stacking on top of one another three
positive terms. Line one contains four words, line two three.
"Train up a child in the way he should go/ for when he is old he
will not depart from it / /" (Prv. 22:6)37
"The lazy person says, 'There is a lion outside/ I shall be
murdered in the midst of the plaza / /" (Prv. 22:13)
"A lazy person buries his hand in the dish/ he will not even
raise it to his mouth / /" (Prv. 19:24)38
"A man who is reproved yet who is stubborn/ will suddenly be
broken–and there is no healing / /" (Prv. 29:1)39
"A poor man and one who oppresses the poor/ a beating rain –
and there is no bread / /"(Prv. 28:3)40
Some narrative proverbs conclude with the element of surprise. Such is the
case with Proverbs 21:31:
"The horse is made ready for the day of battle/ victory belongs to
37 The narrative impulse of this proverb lives on in contemporary
versions such as the following: "As the twig is bent/ so grows the tree/ /;" or
"The acorn does not fall far from the tree;" or "He is a chip off the old block."
38 Within this encapsulated narrative is a hyperbole that conjures up a
humorous image of a person who is so lazy that he cannot even lift his hand
to his mouth to feed himself.
39 This narrative vignette is capped by a punch phrase in the second
line, a two-word phrase in Hebrew "there is no healing."
40 The narrative of this proverb is completed with a vivid metaphor of
a torrential rain that destroys crops and fruit. Such a metaphor intensifies the
proverbial plot. It is more typical, however, as will be seen later, for the
metaphor or image to be placed in the first line with the second line clarifying
its reference. In this proverb, the metaphor is placed in the second line.
In this proverb horse serves as a metonymy for battle preparations. The first
line conjures up images of the detail, energy, time and strategy that goes into
the preparations for an encounter with the enemy. Both horse and rider are
trained and outfitted for war in order to insure a successful campaign. But
suddenly there is a turn of events. A third party enters the picture, Yahweh.
He is the one who really determines the outcome. This surprise ending is
intensified even more by the fact that the second line contains only two
words in Hebrew.41
The extension proverbs engage many of the subtle moves that were
observed earlier in the antithetic proverbs. It is not uncommon to find the
binary structure moving from singular to plural, internal to external and vice
versa. They can also move from general to specific as in Proverbs 19:29:
"Justice will be ready for scoffers/ and blows to the back for
fools / /"
Here what is meant by justice in the first line is specified in the second as
referring to a whipping. Frequently the move from general to specific is
accomplished by the use of vivid metaphors in the second line such as is
found in these proverbs:
"He who verbally abuses his father and his mother/ his lamp
will be extinguished in utter darkness/(20:20)
"In the light of the king's face is life/ and his good will is like a
cloud that brings spring rain/ /"42 (16:15)
41 The first line contains four words.
42 Line one contains four words, line two three.
With the extension proverbs one begins to delve even further into the
depth of the proverbial structure. Their structure is primarily characterized
by a development from one line to the next. This development takes place in
a variety of ways: in the form of a narrative plot, from abstract to concrete,
from cause to effect, and sometimes in terms of a surprise turn of events. As
Robert Alter has insightfully observed ". . . Proverbs . . . requires close reading
because within the confines of the one-line poem nice effects and sometimes
suggestive complications are achieved through the smallest verbal
A fourth type are those proverbs that use some kind of formulaic
phrase or term to structure the saying. In what follows I will isolate two
major and two minor forms.44 The first and most frequent formulaic type is
the "better/than" sequence. These proverbs take some desirable physical
situation or circumstance and place it in the context of strife or chaos.
Suddenly a reversal takes place and the less desirable physical surrounding
becomes the better way because it is accompanied by an atmosphere of peace
and tranquility. This formulaic type is based on the reversal motif which
pervades Scripture. Experiences are not always what they seem.45 There is an
43 Alter 175
44 The distinction between major and minor is based on the frequency
of appearance in the book of Proverbs and not a judgment statement about
their worth. In addition to these four, one could probably add one or two
more depending upon how flexible one wants to be with what is considered
45 Proverbs 14:12 summarizes this concern clearly: "There is a way that
seems right to a man/ but its end is the ways of death." A number of
unexpected reversal that takes place. The reversal motif is not only a part of
the content of the proverb but of its structure as well. In the "better/than"
proverbs the sages make a value statement about what are the more
important things in life:
"Better is a dry crust of bread and quietness with it/ than a house
full of feasting and strife / /" (Prv. 17:1)46
"Better a meal of vegetables where there is love/ than prime beef
with hate / /"47 (Prv. 15:17)
"Better is a little with the fear of the Lord/ than much treasure
and confusion with it / /" (Prv. 15:16)
"Better is a poor one who walks with integrity/ than a wealthy
one who is perverted in his ways / /" (Prv. 28:6)
"Better to be a common man who has employment/ than to
make a show of grandeur and be short of bread / /" (Prv. 12:9)
In addition to these there are several "better/than" proverbs that increase the
structural complexity by employing the formula in both the first and second
lines of the proverb:48
contemporary proverbs also express this thought: "you can't judge a book by
its cover" or "all that glitters is not gold."
46 A contemporary French proverb built on the same structure
conveys a similar sentiment: "Better an egg in peace than an ox in wartime."
47 The phrase I render "prime beef" is literally a "fattened ox."
48 Intensification in the second line is achieved by the surprise
discovery that that which seems to be the more desirable state is really not.
"Better is one who is slow to anger than the mighty/ the one
who has self control than one who captures a city/ /" (16:32)49
"How much better to acquire wisdom than gold/ to acquire
understanding than choosing silver//" (Prv. 16:16)50
"A good name is better than great wealth/ and to be gracious
than silver and gold / /" (Prv. 22:1)
Several "better/than" proverbs deal with a particular domestic problem: the
"Better to dwell upon the corner of a roof/ than in a spacious
house52 with a contentious spouse/ /53 (Prv. 25:24)
49 Besides the double "better/than" form, there is also the
intensification from "mighty" in the first line to "capturing a city" in the
second. Further, within each line there is a move from the internal to the
external, from one who has control over his or her emotions to one who is
able to control others.
50 Once again there is a movement from the internal qualities of
knowledge and wisdom to the external elements of gold and silver.
51 A rhetorical hermeneutic that is concerned with how the text looks
forward to the present can continue to see the power and relevance of these
sayings by rendering them gender neutral which is how I interpret the
following. In addition Proverbs itself acknowledges that "nagging" was not a
trait characteristic only of women. Men as well can be quite contentious
("drippy") as Proverbs 26:21 affirms: "As charcoal to hot embers and wood to
fire/ so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife / /."
52 Here I accept the emendation that Kittel recommends in his note to
this proverb in his Biblica Hebraica, text. I render rhb (bHarA) for hrb (braHA). hrb
refers to that which is common or to company.
53 In this proverb there is a spatial movement from small to large,
from the cramped and seemingly hideous conditions on the corner of a roof
to the openness of a roomy house. This proverb has a doublet in 21:9.
"Better to dwell in a desert land/ than with a quarrelsome and
angry spouse/ /" (Prv. 21:19)54
Numerous other "better/ than" sayings could be added to these
examples.55 Elizabeth Huwiler classifies these sayings into two general types:
simple (better X than Y) and coordinating (better X with A than Y with B).56
Within this form, the surprise motif is the central element of the structure.
The structure reverses normal expectations in a way that is satisfying to the
auditor and gives voice to what the common person would affirm as the
more important things in life. These proverbs invite us to reconstruct
reality,57 to look at life from a different perspective by focusing on the value
54 Here the spatial movement might be the opposite as was seen in
25:24. but the real contrast is between deprivation on the one hand and the
comforts of a house on the other. Line one contains four words, line two
55 "Better open rebuke/ than hidden love/ /" (Prv. 27:5). See also 16:8;
16:19; 19:1; 19:22; 25:7; 27:10; 28:6. In the instruction sayings of Proverbs 1-9
there are several "better/than" sayings: 3:14-15; 8:10-11, 19.
56 Elizabeth Huwiler, Control of Reality in Israelite Wisdom,
unpublished dissertation Duke University (1988) 86. Glendon Bryce, in
addition to a historical survey, also does a structural analysis of the "better"
sayings. " ''Better'--Proverbs: An Historical and Structural Study," The Society
of Biblical Literature Book of Seminar Papers (L. C. McGaughy, ed.; Missoula:
SBL, 1972) 343-354.
57 This is one of Walter Brueggemann's main agendas in his most
recent work entitled Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern
Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) pp. 12-25. His thesis is that
biblical texts from a postmodern perspective offer a healthy and radical
recreation of our materialistically construed world.
of internal qualities over external appearances, on relationships rather than
A second formulaic type is the "how much more" proverb.59
There are a number of examples of these:
"If a righteous one is rewarded on earth/ how much more are
the wicked and the sinner / /" (Prv. 11:31)
"Sheol and Abadon are open before Yahweh/ how much more
are the thoughts of men / /" (Prv. 15:11)60
"Choice speech is not becoming to a fool/ how much less61 is
lying to a noble/ /" (Prv. 17:7)
"The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination/ how much more
when brought with evil intent / /" (Prv. 21:27)
The "how much more" sayings62 serve as well as good examples of the
principle of intensification. The pattern is if ________ is true, bad, difficult,
58 I have focused on the micro-structure of the "better/than" proverbs.
G. Ogden looks at the the function of these kinds of proverbs in terms of the
macro-structure of the book of Ecclesiastes. His conclusion is that the
"better/than" proverbs serve as either an introduction or a summary of a
particular unit of text in which they are found. See G. Ogden, "The 'Better'-
Proverb (Tob-Spruch), Rhetorical Criticism, and Qoheleth," Journal of
Biblical Literature 96 (1977) : 491-492.
59 In Hebrew the phrase is yKi Jxa.
60 Sheol and Abadon are terms for the grave and the place of the dead
in Hebrew thought.
61 The Hebrew phrase is the same
62 Other "how much more" sayings include 19:7 and 19:10.
unlikely, or inconsistent then how much more is ________. It is a way of
"upping the ante," of increasing the intensity of the movement.
The" better/than" and "how-much-more" sayings are two of the most
prominent formulaic types of the sentence proverbs. There are two minor or
less frequent types that are also observed in the sentence collection. One of
these is the numerical proverb. They are much more prevalent in the
wisdom poems63 than in the sentence sayings64 Proverbs 20:12; 25:3; 20:10 are
reminiscent of numerical sayings:
"The hearing ear and the seeing eye/ the Lord makes both of
them / /" (Prv. 20:12)
"The heavens for height and the earth for depth/ and the mind
of kings is unsearchable / /" (Prv. 25:3)
"Unequal weights and unequal measures/ both are an
abomination to Yahweh / /" (Prv. 20:10)
The structure of these proverbs are built on a climactic movement of a
narrative type plot built into the two lines.
A second minor formulaic type is one that is structured around an
imagined conversation and patterned after the formula "as X said to Y." Such
a formula may be the predecessor to the more well known Wellerism.
According to William McNeil, the Wellerism is "always a quotation in which
the saying is assigned to a fictitious author. It is always intentionally
63 The wisdom poems are found at the beginning, chapters 1-9, middle
chapters 22-24, and the end, chapters 30-31, of the book of Proverbs.
64 Proverbs chapter 30 is a collection of numerical proverbs which are
built on the formula "three things . . . four . . . ." There is also a numerical
saying in 6:16-19 which uses the numerical formula "six things . . . seven . . . ."
humorous."65 While none of the biblical proverbs could be classified as full
blown "Wellerisms," the Wellerism seems to be structured after their pattern.
The formulaic conversation is observed in some of the following biblical
"As a madman shooting missiles and deadly arrows/ so a man
deceives his neighbor and says 'Was I not simply joking?' / /"
" 'It is no good, no good!' says the buyer/ but as he goes away he
congratulates himself / /" (20:14)
"Says the lazy one, 'There's a lion outside!/ I shall be slain in the
streets!' / /" (22:13)
"Says the lazy one, 'A lion in the way!/ A lion between the
plazas!' / / " (26:13)
"He who robs his father and his mother and says 'There is no
transgression!'/ he is united with a man who destroys/ /" (28:24)
Like the Wellerism, these proverbs contain hyperboles, ridiculous
excuses or observations by someone who plays the role of a fool.66 Traces of
other formulaic structures might also be found in the sentence sayings.
However, the above mentioned seem to stand out more readily.
65 William McNeil "Proverbs in American Folklore" audio cassette,
Everett/Edwards Inc. Deland, FL, 1979.
66 Examples of typical contemporary Wellerisms may include the
following: "'Everyone to their own taste,' said the old lady as she kissed the
cow;" or " 'All's well that ends well,' said the monkey as the lawn mower ran
over his tail."
A fifth structure is what Robert Alter calls the riddle form.67 These are
proverbs based on the principle of a riddle with the first line making a cryptic
like statement and its referent being revealed only in light of the second
line.68 It is quite common, however, for translations to cover over this
structure by reversing the order of the two lines in order for the proverb to
sound better in English. The Revised Standard Version often does this as
seen in the following example:
"A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left
without walls" (25:28)
The proverb actually begins with the image of a conquered city and not until
the second line is the image related to one who is without self control. This
again is an example of the rhetorical power of the proverb being glazed
over.69 What is lost is the subtle structural touch of the proverb that enables
it to penetrate the mind of the listener.
In the riddle form, a perplexing statement is made or a striking image
created in the first line and it is left to the second line to resolve the dilemma.
Different nuances of the riddle structure are creatively employed to achieve
different effects. For example, frequently there is the use of a shocking or
illogical metaphor in the first line to heighten the illogical and ridiculous
67 Alter 175
68 Proverbs chapters 25 and 26 are especially rich in riddle form.
69 The same reversal of structure occurs in a number of other proverbs
including 25:18 and 25:19. R. B. Y. Scott frequently reverses the two lines of
the proverb making the image come after that to which it refers thus diluting
the proverb's structural sharpness. See for example his translation of
Proverbs 25:20; 25:25; 26:7; 26:9; 26:10; 26:11; etc.
nature of the phenomenon in the second line. Such is the case in the
"A golden ring in a pig's snout/ a lovely woman lacking
sense / /" (11:22)
When we hear and imagine the picture given to us in the first line of this
proverb we laugh a mocking laugh and are perturbed at such misuse of one's
possessions. Such feelings, then, are intended to be transferred and related to
the image in the second line. Or take the shocking image of this proverb:
"As a dog returns to its vomit/ a fool repeats his folly/ /" (26:11)
How repulsive and disgusting is the image portrayed in the first line! But
such repulsiveness is really intended to be transferred to the person who is a
Sometimes the riddle image is not shocking or perplexing but the first
line simply calls for an explanation as in the comic characterization of the
"The door turns on its hinge/ and the lazy person on his bed//"
The image of the first line is not surprising by any means. In fact it is a very
pedantic observation that needs no explanation even to the most simple. But
when this image is placed along side that of an indolent person lying on his
or her bed, it conjures up a whole new set of images and creates a whole new
cluster of emotions. Just as a door moves easily and naturally on its hinges so
a lazy man or woman turns easily and naturally over and over in bed. Other
70 There are a series of sarcastic proverbs about the slothful person that
have been collected together with this one. See Proverbs 26:13-16.
mental pictures, as well, can be imagined from this vignette. The feelings
that are surfaced by this proverb could range all the way from pleasure to
indifference to disgust. There are numerous other riddle proverbs that
connect everyday experiences with a virtue or vice in order to intensify the
image and drive home the moral lesson:
"Iron sharpens iron/ and a man sharpens his friend / /" (27:17)
"He who seizes a passing dog by the ears/ he who meddles in a
quarrel not his own / /" (26:17)
"The crucible is for silver and the furnace is for gold/ and a man
for his reputation / /"71 (27:21)
Some riddle forms do not use figurative language but are so odd that
they need explanation. Some examples include these:
"Let a man meet a bear robbed of her cubs/ and not a fool in his
folly / /" (17:12)72
"Better to dwell in the corner of a roof/ than with a nagging wife
in a spacious house/ /" (21:9)
"He plunders his father, drives out his mother—/ a son who
disgraces and shames/ /" (19:26).
71 McKane comments that "the point of the simile then is that the
processes at the disposal of the community for testing a man's reputation are
as rigorous and reliable as those employed for testing silver and gold . . . . A
man will enjoy such public esteem as he deserves" p. 608.
72 One meaning of this proverb is that it is better to be waylaid by a bear
enraged at the loss of her cubs than to be embroiled in the foolishness of a
person who has no common sense.
"Weight and weight and ephah and ephah / the abomination of
the Lord are they both" (20:10)73
"The poor and the oppressor have met/ he who lights the eyes
of them both—Yahweh//" (29:13)74
In each of these proverbs, the first line envisions something rather
unusual or strange. And, as in the previous riddle proverbs mentioned, it is
left to the second line to explain it. For example, in the last one quoted above,
one sees an example of a riddle that is not a metaphor. The question the
hearer has is, What possibly could the oppressed and the oppressor have in
common? Why do they meet? We are surprised to find that what is
common to both is Yahweh himself! This commonality is heightened by the
position of the name Yahweh at the end of the line as a punch word.
Sometimes a statement about the physical world is simply placed along
side a moral statement without explanation. Then the auditor is required to
do the satisfying work of making the connection between the two. Kugel says
"Sometimes, especially in proverbs and sayings, finding the precise
connection between two apparently unrelated parallel utterances is the whole
point."75 Such proverbs trust the hearer to make the connection. When such
73 The first line is a reference to the use of unequal weights and
measures and speaks of deception and economic abuse.
74 Compare Proverbs 22:2:"Rich and poor have met/ Yahweh is the
maker of them all / /" and 14:31
75 Kugel 10
connections are made the result is that new insight and understanding are
created.76 The following are further examples of such a rhetorical strategy:
"A broken tooth and one whose foot slips/ one who trusts in
deceptive ones in difficult times / /" (25:19)77
"A city which has been broken through and there is no wall/ a
man who has no self control / /" (25:28)
"The north wind will bring forth rain/ and a whispering tongue
angry looks" (25:23)
"Cool water upon a thirsty soul/ and good news from a distant
land / /" (25:25)
"Coal to embers and wood to fire/ and a quarrelsome man to
kindle strife / /"78 (26:21)
"Silver dross covering an earthen pot/ smooth lips and evil
intent / /" (26:23)79
76 Here is the enthyineme at its best. These riddle proverbs are
exemplary models of the enthymematic principle at work as they typically
bring together two unrelated items and require the hearer to make the
connection between them. This enthymematic principle will be addressed
more directly at a later point in the essay.
77 A decaying or broken tooth and an unsure foot are both impotent.
They cannot be relied upon to perform their tasks. Neither can one rely on
faithless ones in difficult times.
78 This proverb moves in climactic order from coal to wood to
79 McKane understands "silver dross" to be a glaze or enamel that is
"spread over a piece of earthenware. The surface is pleasing, smooth and
brilliant and it obliterates the nature of the material over which it is coated"
(604). Smooth speech, in like manner, covers over hostile intent.
In all of the above, an external phenomenon is used to heighten the
understanding and feeling of an internal experience. Other riddle proverbs
are more explicit about the connection between the two lines and employ the
particle "like" or "as" (in Hebrew Ka) as the following proverbs do:
"Like the coolness of snow in the day of harvest/ a faithful
envoy to those who send him/ and he restores the spirit of his
masters/ /"80 (25:13)
"As a bird fluttering, as a swallow flying/ so undeserved verbal
abuse will not alight / /" (26:2)
"Like tying a stone in a sling/ so he who gives honor to a fool//"
"Like snow in summer and like rain in harvest/ so honor is not
fitting for a fool / /" (26:1)
Several riddle forms are more elaborate and extended in their
comparison, initially leading the hearer to believe that they are simply
observations on the physical world. But then they conclude with a pair of
lines that apply the observations to the moral realm:
"Remove the dross from the silver/ the smith will produce a
work of art / / Remove the wicked from the king/ and his
throne will be firm in righteousness / /" (25:4-5)
"When you find honey, eat what is sufficient for yourself/ lest
you become sated with it and vomit it// Make your foot rare in
80 This proverb is unusual in that it has three lines rather than the
your neighbor's house/ lest he will be sated with you and hate
you / /" (25:16-17)81
Because of their structure the riddle form is especially intriguing to
resolve. And there may be more than one resolution as is the case with
"As in water the face to face/ so the heart of man to man//"
This proverb, like many, is intentionally ambiguous though more cryptic
than most.82 This proverb can legitimately be interpreted in a number of
different ways. Some, like S. R. Driver, interpret the second line as
presuming to involve another person and conclude that "through the
observation of another, a man can know himself."83 McKane has a different
interpretation and says that the second line "has to do only with one man
whose self is mirrored in his 1eb [heart], and the meaning . . . is that it is
through introspection . . . that a man acquires self-knowledge."84 Robert
Alter's comment and analysis is especially apropos:
The terseness makes you work to decipher the first verset. Once
it dawns on you that what is referred to is the reflected image of
a face in water, further complications ensue: Does each man
discover the otherwise invisible image of his own heart by
81 This one is structured similar to the previous ones; both move from
the physical world to the relational world from natural experience to moral
82 Because of the figurative and metaphorical language used, proverbs
are by nature relatively indeterminate.
83 See McKane 616
84 McKane 616
seeing what others are like, or, on the contrary, is it by
introspection (as we say, "reflection"), in scrutinizing the
features of his own heart, that a person comes to understand
what the heart of others must be? And is the choice of water in
the simile merely an indication of the property of reflection, or
does water, as against a mirror, suggest a potentially unstable
image, or one with shadowy depths below the reflecting
This is truly the polysemous quality of the proverb. Even though Proverbs
25:20 is not as esoteric as the above one mentioned, it too can be translated
and interpreted in a number of ways:
"He who removes a garment on a cold day/ vinegar on a
wound86 and he who sings songs to a sad heart / /"
The vivid and rich imagery of the proverb opens it to a number of
different interpretations. McKane believes the last phrase refers to someone
who has to sing songs to an audience while very sad, like a clown making his
or her audience laugh when he or she is depressed.87 It is also very possible
to understand the proverb as describing the pseudo attempt of someone to
cheer up another who has suffered a great loss. Proverbs based on the form of
85 Alter 178
86 The Hebrew text says "vinegar on soda." But there is legitimate
grounds for emending it to "vinegar on a wound." However, with both the
idea and image is similar. The idea of adding vinegar to soda is that of adding
one bitter thing to another (cf. Ps. 69:21). The idea of adding vinegar to a sore
is that of an unpleasant and painful experience.
87 McKane 588-589
a riddle are infused with the power to have multiple meanings. Riddle
proverbs also come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they begin with a
shocking figure, sometimes with a figure that just needs explained, and still at
other times without figurative language at all but with an unusual experience
that needs further elaboration. In all of its varied shapes, the riddle form is
designed to actively engage the hearer in its discourse.
The five general structures explicated above and the variety of shapes
that each of those structures take are witnesses to the polysemous nature of
the quality of parallelism. When the traditional dross is removed from the
surface of the proverb's structure, the criticism of pedanticism so commonly
leveled against it no longer holds water. What is revealed is that its external
shape is simple. But housed within this simple form is a myriad of structural
dimensions that give it its creative power. A rhetorical hermeneutic opens
up a whole new dimension of possibilities that a determinate perspective
completely ignores. But there is more at work in the action of a proverb than
just its structure. Encased within its small frame are a variety of reasoning
strategies that are also used to accomplish its rhetorical purpose.
In regard to what the proverb is designed to accomplish, it is clear that
its primary function is to maintain a sense of order within a particular
community. In Arland Jacobson's words, the "primary function of proverbs
is as tools for a mild form of social control . . . ."88 The aim of the proverb is
88 Arland Jacobson, "Proverbs and Social Control: A New Paradigm
for Wisdom Studies" (pp. 75-88), Gnosticism and the Early Christian World
eds. J. E. Goehring, C. W. Hedrick, Jack T. Sanders, and Harts D. Betz
(Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1991) 79.
not simply to share information but to manage the attitude and actions of
other people. Such social control and management is concerned with
preserving the order of the community. In preserving the order of the
community, one also preserves the good of the individual. If this is its
primary function, then the work of the proverb is rhetorical. Roger
Abrahams says that ". . . the rhetorical approach considers techniques of
argument" and "assumes that all expression is designed to influence, and that
we must simply discover the design."89
What reasoning patterns do proverbs use to carry out their function of
managing an orderly society? A number of qualities are at work. I want to
first set forth three general patterns. Then, by using the scheme suggested by
Brockriede and Ehninger, I will describe in more detail their reasoning
There are three general reasoning patterns inherent within proverbs
that enable them to do their work. All of these are related to their overall
function of managing social order. First, proverbs manage a situation by
appearing to clarify it.90 Such a clarifying act is persuasive since it is
concerned with determining the way in which a listener will perceive the
occasion. In other words, proverbs interpret events and circumstances.
Kenneth Burke refers to this process as "naming."91 Burke says that
89 Roger Abrahams, "Introductory Remarks to a Rhetorical Theory of
Folklore," Journal of American Folklore 81 (1968): 146.
90 Abrahams 150
91 Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form, 3rd ed.
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973) 293-294.
just as Eskimos have fifteen or so different names for many different kinds of
snow, so proverbs are used to classify or name different situations. To have
different names for snow implies that one will hunt differently or wear a
different kind of foot gear. In fact, some names for snow will imply that one
should not hunt at all. In the same way proverbs name situations and in so
doing give direction as to our attitude and to how we should act in that
particular situation. To put a name or label on something is a strategy for
implying what to expect and what to look out for. The act of naming is also
rhetorical because it is concerned with how one will influence and be
influenced by the situation at hand. Thus Burke claims, "Proverbs are
strategies for dealing with situations. In so far as situations are typical and
recurrent in a given social structure, people develop names for them and
strategies for handling them."92
In the process of clarifying and naming experiences, a proverb becomes
a model of what is appropriate conduct. The proverb embodies and
epitomizes the ideal of stability and orderliness. This rhetorical stability is
then transferred to the exigence that is commented upon by that proverb.
Clifford Geertz maintains that there are two functions of a model. A cultural
model can serve as a model of reality or a model for reality.93 Such an
understanding can be applied to a proverb. On the one hand, when it
functions as a model f reality, it attempts to reflect or mirror reality in such
as way that participants can more clearly understand what has taken place:
92 Burke 296-297. Burke also refers to proverbs as "medicine" because
of their attempt to mend problems and restore order to chaos. (293).
93 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic
Books, 1973) 93.
this is the way things are. As a model of reality, one can better understand
what has happened. On the other hand, a proverb that functions as a model
for reality is forward looking. In fulfilling this function, it seeks to change the
course of events and shape the experience in the way the proverb thinks it
should be shaped. Roger Abrahams speaks of these two functions as passive
and active.94 If a job has been rushed and a mistake made, the proverb "haste
makes waste" is used to identify the problem and make it understandable or
possibly to provide consolation. This is a passive function. In the passive
function the proverb is more evaluative. Actively the proverb "haste makes
waste" is used to recommend an immediate course of action to someone who
is confronted with a problem of having to decide whether to rush a task or
not. Here the proverb is concerned with influencing the future course of
events. But not all proverbs are intended to produce an action immediately.
Many proverbs attempt to produce an attitude toward a situation that may
well call for inaction and resignation.95 This could be one of the uses of the
proverb "don't cry over spilled milk."
Roger Abrahams' remarks offer a fitting summary to this characteristic
of the proverb:
Proverbs are descriptions that propose an attitude or a mode of
action in relation to a recurrent social situation. They attempt to
persuade by clarifying the situation, by giving it a name, thus
94 Roger Abrahams, "A Rhetoric of Everyday Life: Traditional
Conversational Genres," Southern Folklore Quarterly 32 (1968) : 47.
95 Roger Abrahams, "Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions," Folklore
and Folklife: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972)
indicating that the problem has arisen before and that past
practice has come up with a workable solution.96
Thus the proverb can be used as a model to direct future activity or it can be
used as a model to alter an attitude toward something that has already
occurred. In either case the proverb clarifies, names, labels, or reframes the
problem situation in a way that enables order to be restored. The disorienting
experience is oriented.
A second important rhetorical feature of the proverb is its indirectness.
This indirectness is also connected with its use as a tool for social
management. Roger Abrahams has developed a diagram for conversational
genres enabling them to be placed into four possible classes based on whether
they are personal or impersonal on the one hand and whether they confront
inter-personal or extra-personal forces on the other. For example, the folk
genre of boasts and taunts use the rhetorical strategy of confronting an
interpersonal problem with a personal attack. Prayers, spells and charms are
concerned with confronting extra-personal forces with a personal front (a first
person point of view). In Abraham's scheme the rhetorical strategy of the
proverb is to confront inter-personal issues from an impersonal (third
person) perspective.97 Abrahams explains the reason for this strategy as well
as how they give the impression of being impersonal:
96 Abrahams "Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions" 121. Earlier
Abrahams made a similarly succinct remark: "Each proverb is a full statement
of an approach to a recurrent problem. It presents a point of view and a
strategy that is self-sufficient, needing nothing more than an event of
communication to bring it into play" (p. 119).
97 Roger Abrahams, "A Rhetoric of Everyday Life: Traditional
Conversational Genres," Southern Folklore Quarterly 32 (1968): 52.
. . . proverbs can be seen to regulate to a certain extent man's
relation to his neighbors; they do this by setting forth solutions
to the problems that arise between them repeatedly, phrasing
them in such a way that they are at one and the same time
concise, witty, memorable, forceful, and illustrative of past
usage. But most important for the implementation of their
rhetorical strategy, they are phrased impersonally, so that the
very personal problem becomes more universalized. The
argument of the proverb, in other words, achieves its ability to
influence by being couched in objective, third-person terms. The
appearance of objectivity is further heightened when they
employ analogic or metaphoric techniques of argument.98
Not only does Abrahams affirm the central quality of obliqueness, he
also identifies two characteristics that enable the proverb to work indirectly.
One is through the appearance of objectivity. In another essay he has
published, Abrahams says that the appearance of objectivity is able to be
conveyed through abstract terms like love and honesty and truth.99 The
other way is through the use of metaphors. Jacobson confirms this as well
when he concludes that "The metaphoric quality helps to give the proverb its
well-known out-of-context character . . . ."l00 Metaphors give a concrete
illustration of the problem or experience in a different setting. They place the
problem in a different setting so that it can be dealt with "objectively." Thus
98 Abrahams 48
99 Abrahams, "Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions," 122.
100 Jacobson 82
the conflict is addressed indirectly. Indirectness is especially necessary when
dealing with one's peers or superiors. According to Jacobson, "Proverbs allow
people to say what needs to be said without creating additional social
tensions"101 The protagonist recognizes that the assertion of a proverb may
not find agreement. To avoid potential disagreement over the assertion, and
to give the appearance of not being personally involved in the issue, the
counsel is couched in indirect rhetoric. Abrahams describes the process in
The controlling power of folklore, the carrying out of its
rhetorical intent, resides in the ability of the item and the
performer to establish a sense of identity between a 'real'
situation and its artificial embodiment. This sense of identity is
engineered through the exercise of control, allowing the
audience to relax at the same time it identifies with the projected
situation. This is done by creating a "psychic distance," by
removing the audience far enough from the situation that it can
see that it is not going to actively involve them immediately.
Presented with an anxiety situation but relieved from the actual
anxiety he [sic] listener gains control, and with this limited
control, relief. . . . Such controls make the problem seem more
impersonal and universal and less immediate. This is the
essence of play: the objectifying and impersonalizing of anxiety
situations, allowing the free expending of energies without the
threat of social consequence. This removal process serves
101 Jacobson 81
rhetoric by clearing the way for the production of pleasure and
the sympathetic response. Rhetoric in its turn serves society by
promoting accepted attitudes and modes of action.102
One of the rhetorical strategies of the proverb is to "play out" in an
indirect way a potential solution to an interpersonal problem or issue. The
proverb then applies that solution to a real situation. Jacobson's description
of proverbs as a "mild form" of social control is significant.103 Proverbs work
subtly and indirectly. He maintains that the "hearer is gently but firmly
confronted with the incongruity between her or his behavior or situation and
what she or he knows to be true."104 "Proverbs take a personal circumstance
and embody it in impersonal and witty form."105 They utilize the cognitive
dissonance inherent between thought and act or between an act and a
Third, and related to the principle of indirectness is that the proverb
works like a rhetorical enthymeme. According to Thomas Conley, the
"inventor" of the enthymeme is Aristotle.106 According to Aristotle
enthymemes are "the substance of rhetorical persuasion."107 In his
description of the enthymeme he implies that the premises in a rhetorical
102 Abrahams "Rhetorical Theory" 148-149
103 Jacobson 79
104 Jacobson 79
105 Abrahams "Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions" 119.
106 Thomas M. Conley, "The Enthymeme in Perspective," Quarterly
Journal of Speech 70 (1984) : 169.
107 Aristotle, Rhetoric 1354a 14-15.
argument should not be fully expressed. What he means by this, according to
George Kennedy, is that a "tight logical argument is not effective in rhetoric,
which is addressed to a popular audience."108 The enthymeme is like a
syllogistic argument but less rigorous because it is used in a popular context.
Conley refers to the enthymeme as a "rhetorical syllogism."109 In an earlier
essay Conley claimed that the enthymeme incorporates all three rhetorical
proofs: ethos, logos and pathos.110 Because of its nature, the enthymeme is
closely related to the endoxa of the people. The common opinion of the
people becomes the primary resource for the enthymeme's argument. It
reflects values, attitudes and probable facts. In Bitzer's words, "Owing to the
skill of the speaker, the audience itself helps construct the proofs by which it
is persuaded."111 Thus the enthymeme uses the popular beliefs of an
audience to argue its case and involves the audience in the process of self
The proverb functions in a similar fashion. Aristotle speaks of
different kinds of maxims112 but says that the best kind "are those in which
108 George A. Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular
Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1980) 71.
109 Thomas M. Conley, Rhetoric in the European Tradition (New
York & London: Longman, 1990) 317.
110 Thomas M. Conley, "The Enthymeme in Perspective," Quarterly
Journal of Speech 70 (1984) 169.
111 Lloyd F. Bitzer, "Aristotle's Enthymeme Revisited," Quarterly
Journal of Speech (1959) : 408.
112 For Aristotle proverbs (paroemia) and maxims (gnoma) are
practically synonymous. The first uses figurative language and the second
the reason for the view expressed is simply implied . . . ."113 The proverb
works enthymematically because it embodies those values that are commonly
held to be true by a particular culture. Because of this, a rhetor can use it to
prompt the audience to help him or her construct an argument. A rhetor
does not need to lay out the presuppositions which underlie a proverb,
because the audience already affirms them.114 The audience supplies the
presuppositions for the rhetor. Thus, the collaboration between the rhetor
and the audience that was the essential feature of the enthymeme is also the
essential feature of the proverb.
To take one example to illustrate how a proverb can work
enthymematically, one can look at Proverbs 17:16:
uses literal language. As enthymemes they function in a similar fashion. See
Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1968).
113 Aristotle, Rhetoric 1394b 20.
114 The enthymeme does not complete the process of synthesis as the
syllogism does. The syllogistic process is too involved and complex for the
common person needing to make an immediate decision. In this regard
Walter Harrelson's remarks are apropos: "Wisdom operates without the
necessity of synthesis. This is perhaps its most characteristic feature.
Humans need both disciplines of philosophy/logic and phronesis/wisdom
thinking" (p. 10). "They need the carefully articulated picture of the world
and its parts which comes from systematic thought that aims at synthesis.
They need equally--and this is my point--the mode of thinking that can stop
short of synthesis. That is what the ancient world called wisdom" (p. 11). "A
society needs to have a large number of observations that can be applied to
given situations unthinkingly, immediately, without necessary reference to
some coherent scheme of thought within which they fit" (p. 11). "People want
an answer to the immediate situation, guidance for today and tomorrow. The
right phrase, the apt analogy, the story that offers guidance without being
didactic--these often turn the trick" (p. 11). "Wisdom and Pastoral Theology"
Andover Newton Ouarterly 7 (1966); 6-14.
"What is this price in the hand of a fool/ to acquire
knowledge115 when there is no mind? / /"
As an enthymeme the premise lies behind the statement. The premise
is that one cannot buy learning. It is only acquired at the price of strenuous
intellectual effort. Therefore, someone who proposes to buy off their
education is foolish. Other enthymematic characteristics of this proverb
include its indirectness.116 Also underlying the proverb is an appeal to
universal values: the value of knowledge, wisdom and education, the value
of hard work, and the importance of honesty as opposed to deception. We
admire those people who develop the resources of their mind, who put
themselves through the rigorous discipline that is involved in the process of
learning. In contrast, we despise people who try to get something for nothing.
Not only do such premises lie behind the enthymematic nature of the
proverb, but a rich resource of images as well. This proverb conjures up in
the mind of its auditors pictures, examples and illustrations of individuals
who have violated the premises that are held dear. But it also may call to
mind individuals who have exemplified the process of acquiring wisdom.
All of the elements of indirectness, underlying premises, appeals to
universal values, and imagery are a part of the enthymematic quality of the
115 The Hebrew word is wisdom (hmAk;HA). Contemporary culture
distinguishes between wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge has to do with
information and facts and intellectual pursuits. Wisdom is knowledge
applied. This division was not so in Hebrew culture. Wisdom included both.
It included the head knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge in a
practical way. See Bernard Lang, Wisdom and the Book of Proverbs: An
Israelite Goddess Redefined (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1986) 13-14.
116 Note that the proverb is an interrogative.
proverb. Such qualities bring the auditor into the persuasion process and
allow the proverb to do its work. These three general elements of clarity,
indirectness and enthymematic quality are a part of the repertoire of the
proverb's rhetorical strategy.
Having looked at these overarching strategies, I want now to turn to a
finer and more detailed investigation of how they influence. What type of
rhetorical reasoning do they employ to do their work? As has already been
observed, this reasoning is not a formal or logical reasoning. But the pattern
is practical; it employs the principles of phronesis. That proverbs are
concerned with some type of practical reasoning is evidenced in their
emphasis on order. It has long been observed that in the book of Proverbs
there is a keen interest in social order. Whenever there is disorientation,
wisdom seeks to rectify the situation and bring about orientation. Wherever
there is chaos wisdom seeks to restore order. That is its function. Proverbs
portray creation itself as the epitome of orderliness. The world was believed
to have been made in a way that would reward actions that contributed to
order and punish those behaviors that did not. So when an individual's life
was in sync with order, success resulted. Neglecting order brought failure.117
The ethical duty of individuals was to prevent the hostile intrusion of
disorder into society.
With this heavy emphasis on order it is reasonable to assume that
there was a practical reasoning process at work not only in the world at large
but also within wisdom discourse itself and specifically within the frame of
117 The following biblical proverbs are just a few that attest to the
centrality of order: Proverbs 10:2, 4, 30; 11:21; 13:25; 25:23; 26:27.
the proverb. The very discourse that promotes order is itself an example of
order. Thus it should not be surprising to find that proverbs use an informal
reasoning process to argue their case. To discover this reasoning process, I
want to employ a scheme of classifying practical argument that is used by
Douglas Ehninger and Wayne Brockriede.118
Ehninger and Brockriede's scheme offers "a system for classifying
artistic proofs which employs argument as a central and unifying
construct."119 Inartistic proofs are those in which the datum used in making
a claim or coming to a conclusion are conclusive in themselves. The data can
stand alone. On the other hand, when the evidence is not conclusive, when
one is dealing with probability, the rhetor must rely on artistic proofs to help
carry the argument. Proofs for the argument are dependent upon the arguer's
ability to create them, thus they are understood as artistic. In artistic proofs
118 Douglas Ehninger and Wayne Brockriede, Decision by Debate,
(New York: Dodd, Mead &Company, 1963). In chapters 8 through 11 their
scheme is most specifically described. Earlier Brockriede and Ehninger
employed this scheme in a more condensed form in a journal essay:
"Toulmin on Argument: An Interpretation and Application," Quarterly
Journal of Speech 46 (1960) : 44-53. The limitation of their classification
system here is that it misappropriates Toulmin. They perceive their
classification of arguments as a universal system. That is, Brockriede and
Ehninger make the reasoning process field independent. For them, a
particular argument is independent of a particular situation; it can be applied
across the board to any circumstance. Any one argument will be equally
effective in any number of different situations. In contrast to this, I will
demonstrate below that proverbs are field dependent; they are occasional in
nature (See the last section in this chapter on "The Situational Character of
Biblical Proverbs."). The effectiveness of the argument of a proverb is
inextricably linked to the exigence at hand. Barring this misappropriation,
the classification system of Brockriede and Ehninger can aid in revealing the
underlying structure of proverbial argument.
119 Brockriede and Ehninger, (1960), 44.
the warrant becomes critical. Warrants are the stated inferences used to
support a claim or a conclusion. A warrant signifies a relationship between
evidence and claim.120 The warrant is based on three different kinds of
artistic proofs or arguments. First, the claim can be supported by
demonstrating that a relationship or connection exists between phenomena
in the external world (sometimes referred to as logos). Second, the warrant
can be based on assumptions concerning the quality of the source from which
the data are derived (ethos). And third, the warrant can argue from
assumptions concerning the inner drives, values, or aspirations which impel
the behavior of those persons to whom the argument is addressed (pathos).
Ehninger and Brockriede refer to the logical line of reasoning as substantive,
the ethical line as authoritative and the appeal to inner drives as
motivational.121 Substantive arguments are divided into seven different
kinds: cause, sign, generalization, parallel case, analogy, classification, and
statistics.122 There are no subdivisions for the authoritative and
motivational lines of argument because there is no relationship between
them and phenomena in the external world. Ehninger and Brockriede's
scheme is a helpful aid for classifying pragmatic argument and for
understanding the way in which common persons reason. Because the
essential function of a proverb is rhetorical, applying this scheme to the way
in which it reasons can also unveil its underlying strategy and instruct those
120 Ehninger and Brockriede (1963) 99.
121 Ehninger and Brockriede (1963) 125-126.
122 Ehninger and Brockriede (1963) 126. The use of statistics will not be
used in the scheme that I appropriate to proverbs.
who use it how to better argue. Paul Goodwin and Joseph Wenzel have done
this in regard to the practical reasoning of contemporary proverbs.123 They
take contemporary proverbs as they are collected in the volume The Home
Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases and show how they
demonstrate the three different kinds of argument.
Ehninger and Brockriede's classifying system can also be helpful in
discovering the argumentative strategy of biblical proverbs. It can reveal how
biblical proverbs call on substantive, authoritative, and motivational proofs,
to make their case, typically employing all three at the same time. For the
sake of clarity, however, each of these three types of warrants will be treated
To begin with, how do biblical proverbs use substantive arguments?
To classify proverbs according to Ehninger and Brockriede's six different types
of substantive arguments demonstrates the pervasive use of this argument.
The argument from cause:124 Many proverbs argue from this premise. This
argument can move from cause to effect or from effect to cause. Such
contemporary proverbs as "he who lies down with dogs, will rise up with
fleas" and "spare the rod, spoil the child" are examples of those that reason
from cause to effect. This line of argument posits a definite causal link
between two or more phenomena. For example, Proverbs 26:27 reasons, "He
123 Paul D. Goodwin and Joseph W. Wenzel, "Proverbs and Practical
Reasoning: A Study in Socio-Logic," Quarterly Journal of Speech 65 (1979):
124 Ehninger and Brockriede note that the determination of causes is
very difficult in most questions (1963, pp. 126-131). However, it is part of the
strategy of the proverb that it over simplifies and pinpoints causal effect in
order to make its argument more forceful.
who digs a pit will fall into it/ and a stone will come back upon him who
starts it rolling / /." Proverbs 24:33 argues from the same premise: "A little
sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest/ and poverty will
come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man / /." In both of
these cases the proverb attributes to a particular activity a predicted outcome.
Broadly speaking, in biblical proverbs, extension and narrative proverbs argue
from this premise as the following examples witness:
"Train up a child in the way he should go/ and when he is old
he will not depart from it//" (Prv. 22:6)
"A slack hand causes poverty/ but the hand of the diligent
makes rich/ /" (10:4)
"The reward for humility and fear of the Lord/ is riches and
honor and life / /" (22:4)
Often proverbs that begin with a Hebrew participle are proverbs that argue
from cause to effect. Such verbal nouns are indicative of a move from an
action to its consequence:
"He who verbally abuses125 his father and his mother/ his lamp
will be extinguished in utter darkness / / (20:20)
"He who oppresses126 the poor to increase his own wealth/ he
who gives to the rich will only come to poverty! / /" (22:16)
The argument from sign: In arguments from sign, the data consist of
clues which the warrant interprets to be indicative of some other
125 In Hebrew "he who verbally abuses" is the participle and is one
126 "He who oppresses" is the Hebrew participle.
phenomenon. Here the argument begins with some perception of the
outward appearance of a phenomenon and views it as a symptom of
something else.127 Contemporary proverbs such as "a person is known by the
company he keeps" or "the best carpenter makes the fewest chips" are
examples of sign reasoning,128 There is, however, a similarity in strategy
between sign reasoning and causal reasoning; both are concerned with
making connections between different types of phenomena. The difference is
that whereas causal reasoning connects two phenomena in the same order or
level of reality, sign reasoning infers the existence of one kind of
unobservable phenomenon from another kind that is observable. Ehninger
and Brockriede add that generally the corroboration of several signs is
required to establish the existence of a certain state of affairs.129 Many biblical
proverbs embody the sign reasoning mode:
"He who winks the eye causes trouble/ and a prating fool will
come to ruin / / (10:10)
127 Use of this kind of argument is easily observed in contemporary
"weather proverbs" where signs in nature lead one to make conclusions
about a particular course of action to take: "Red sky at night, sailors delight/
red sky in the morning sailors take warning/ /;" "When the wind's in the
north/ the skillful fisher goes forth / /;" "Rain before seven, fine before
eleven/ rain after seven, rain all day / /." There are no "weather proverbs" to
speak of in the book of Proverbs. In the NT Jesus refers to looking at the signs
in the sky as indications of the type of weather to come: "When it is evening,
you say, 'It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.' And in the morning, 'It will
be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.' You know how to
interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the
times" (Matthew 16:2-3).
128 Consider also such a proverb as "cleanliness is next to godliness."
129 Ehninger and Brockriede (1963) 133-134.
"He who winks his eyes plans trouble/ he who compresses his
lips brings evil to pass / /" (16:30)130
"When words are many transgression is not lacking/ he who
restrains his lips is prudent / /" (10:19)
In the first and second proverb the wink of an eye is taken as a sign of trouble
forthcoming. In the third, many words are indicative of the same thing –
The most abundant use of this mode of argument in Proverbs is seen
in faulty or hasty reasoning that stems from signs. Many proverbs warn
about the deceptive nature of sign/appearances.131
"What your eyes have seen do not hastily broadcast/ for what
will you do in the end/ when your neighbor humiliates you//?"
"He seems right who states his case first/ until his companion
examines him / /" (18:17)
"There are friends who pretend to be friends/ but there is a
friend who sticks closer than a brother / /" (18:24)
The largest category of proverbs that address fallacious sign reasoning are the
"better/than" proverbs. Here what one might normally deduce from the
130 The instruction proverb in 6:12-13 says "A worthless person, a
wicked man/ goes about with crooked speech/ winks with his eyes, taps with
his feet, points with his finger . . . / /."
131 Many contemporary proverbs warn against this kind of faulty
reasoning: "You can't judge a book by its cover;" "Just because there is snow
on the roof doesn't mean there is no fire in the fireplace;" "There's not always
good cheer where the chimney smokes;" "Beauty is only skin deep;" "You
can't judge a horse by its harness;" "You can't tell by the honk of the horn
how much gas is in the car;" etc.
outward appearance is not always the case. Things are not always as they
seem. This is the warning in many of the "better/than" proverbs:
"Better is a dry crust of bread and quietness with it/ than a house
full of feasting and strife / /" (17:1)
"Better a meal of vegetables where there is love/ than prime beef
with hate / /" (15:17)
"Better is a little with the fear of the Lord/ than much treasure
and confusion with it / /" (15:16)
The argument from parallel case: This is an argument which uses
example. One situation is intrinsically similar and compared to another.
That is to say, one case has a trait similar to another and therefore what one
concludes about the former must also be ascribed to the latter: "like father like
son."132 In the following biblical proverb, "A false witness will not go
unpunished/ and he who utters lies will not escape / /" (19:5), the parallel
argument is that if the one who is guilty of perjury in court is punished, the
same is true of one who utters lies in a social context. The following are
further samples of proverbs that use the parallel mode of reasoning:
"A friend loves at all times/ and a brother is born to help in
adversity / /" (17:17)
"A foolish son is a grief to his father/ and bitterness to her who
bore him / /" (17:25)133
132 Another contemporary proverb that illustrates this argument is
"the apple (acorn) doesn't fall far from the tree."
133 The numerical proverbs that are found in chapter thirty seem to
argue from parallel reasoning but in a more complex way by bringing in
several components: "Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not
Many proverbs simply describe a natural phenomenon in the first line
and place along side it a moral phenomenon in the second:
"Apples of gold in a figure of silver/ a word spoken at the right
time / /" (25:11)
"A muddied fountain and a ruined spring/ a righteous one who
gives way to the wicked / /" (25:26)
"Cool water on a thirsty soul/ and a pleasant report from a
distant land / /" (25:25)
"Coal to embers and wood to fire/ and a quarrelsome man to
kindle strife / /" (26:21)
The argument from analogy: This is typically based on a four part
resemblance of relationships. As Ehninger and Brockriede explain it: "The
warrant assumes that a similar relationship exists between a second pair of
items."134 So in the argument from analogy, there is a relationship that is
assumed to exist between two items and that relationship is imposed onto
another pair. One would diagram such a relationship in the following way:
"As A is to B so C is to D." Such reasoning seems to be at work in the
"As in water face answers to face/ so the heart of man reflects the
man / /" (27:19)
"Iron sharpens iron/ and one man sharpens another / /" (27:17)
"Remove the dross from the silver/ the smith will produce a
understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the
way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden" (30:18-
134 Brockriede and Ehninger (1960) 50.
work of art / /. Remove the wicked from the king/ and his
throne will be firm in righteousness//" (25:4-5)
"When you find honey, eat what is sufficient for yourself/ lest
you become sated with it and vomit it/A Make your foot rare in
your neighbor's house/ lest he will be sated with you and hate
you / /" (25:16-17)
"How much better to acquire wisdom than gold/ to acquire
understanding than choosing silver / /" (Prv. 16:16)
"He who loves transgression loves strife/ he who makes his
door high seeks destruction / /" (17:19)
The argument from classification assumes that what is true of a general
group of phenomena is also true of an unknown element related to the
phenomena. The argument moves from the general to the specific, from
more to some. Actually this mode of argument underlies all the biblical
proverbs since by nature they are concerned with summarizing experiences.
It is the character of a proverb to name or label a series of experiences or a
group of phenomena. This quality of naming is a type of classification
system. Goodwin and Wenzel claim that the proverbs of classification "could
be easily categorized by the label or type with which they deal."135 So when it
comes to biblical proverbs one can look at the type of individuals it addresses:
wise/fool, lazy/diligent, rich/poor. For example, what is true of the class of
the lazy is true of the individual. This is the reasoning used in the following
135 Goodwin and Wenzel 297
"The sluggard buries his hand in the dish/ it wears him out to
bring it back to his mouth / /" (26:15)
"The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes/ than seven men who
can answer discreetly / /" (26:16)
In other words, when one lazy person is observed, all have been observed and
the conclusion is that they are all alike. These proverbs classify lazy persons
as all being the same.
In arguments from generalization, one sees the characteristics of a
small group of people and events as representative of the larger class of
phenomena.136 What is true of the smaller sample is true of the larger group.
Thus the argument moves from some to more. Often times proverbs are
viewed and used as statements of generalization about life experiences: "He
who sows injustice will reap calamity/ and the rod of his fury will fail / /"
(22:8). The internal structure of this proverb does not move from some to
more. But in a particular context, it can be used by a person to move from a
specific experience to make a broad statement about every experience: "you
will always get what you deserve." The following proverbs could also be
used in a particular situation to move from the specific to the general:
"Misfortune pursues sinners/ but prosperity rewards the
righteous / /" (13:21)
"The fallow ground of the poor yields much food/ but it is swept
away through injustice / /" (13:23)
136 Contemporary proverbs that reason from this perspective: "Once a
crook, always a crook."
"The glory of young men is their strength/ but the beauty of old
men is their gray hair / /" (20:29)
The six divisions above are all different ways in which proverbs can
argue substantively.137 The divisions demonstrate the different directions
proverbs can go when using logos in argument and when relating
phenomena from the external world to the situation at hand.
The second major type of argument is the argument based on authority
or ethos.138 Here the argument focuses on the character, reputation and
credibility of the one making the statement or using the discourse. The
authoritative status of the proverb is significant because it is based on the
wisdom and experience of many and appeals to the common opinion of the
people. The very foundation of proverbs is based on authority: the wisdom of
many. So proverbs can be used as effective arguments because they appear to
embody the wisdom of the past. Roger Abrahams says that this appearance of
collective wisdom is the most important of the persuasive characteristics of
proverbs.139 Aristotle maintained that ethos "may almost be called the most
effective means of persuasion . . ." available to a speaker.140 Proverbs argue
137 Ehninger and Brockriede include a seven division, statistics (1963,
148). However, that argument is not pertinent to proverbial lore.
138 Ehninger and Brockriede deal with authoritative and motivational
arguments in chapter eleven of their work (1963).
139 Abrahams "Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions" 122.
140 Aristotle Rhetoric 1365a 13
traditionally and use "arguments and persuasive techniques developed in the
past to cope with recurrences of social problem situations."141
In addition, not only do proverbs do their work from an established
base of authority, some directly promote the use of authority. Many proverbs
advocate the importance of listening to the counsel of others:
"Where there is no guidance, a people falls/ but in an abundance
of counselors there is safety / /" (11:14)
"The way of a fool is right in his own eyes/ but a wise man
listens to advice / /" (12:15)
"Listen to advice and accept instruction/ that you may gain
wisdom for the future / /" (19:20)
The one who is really wise is the one who seeks out and listens to the advice
of other trusted individuals. So the appeal to authority that is a part of the
proverb is demonstrated in two ways. The most significant is the authority
that underlies it. The work of the proverb flows out from an established base
of authority, a base that is founded on tradition and endoxa. This is the
proverb's indirect appeal to authority. But the proverb also directly appeals to
authority through its exhortation to seek the counsel of others.
The third major type of argument is that which uses motivational
appeals. These are appeals to values, emotions, desires, and inner drives, or
to a combination of any or all of these elements.142 The motivational appeal
141 Abrahams "Rhetorical Theory" 146
142 In terms of emotions, Aristotle listed some fourteen different
emotional traits and their causes that an audience or listener can experience.
Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. W. Rhys Roberts (New York: Random House, Inc.,
1984) Book II chapters 1-11.
is concerned with putting the audience in a particular frame of mind. It is
also concerned with raising feelings of dissonance in the mind of the listener
in order to move the auditor to action or to a change of attitude. As with the
appeal to reason and to authority, the motivational appeal does not operate in
isolation but in conjunction with other strategies of persuasion.
Biblical proverbs are jaded with appeals to the emotions, the values,
and the desires of people. But it must be kept in mind that if one of the
persuasive strategies of the proverb is that it is situational, then one and the
same proverb can conjure up a plethora of emotions in different contexts.
Take the following proverb for example:
"The heart knows its own bitterness/ and no stranger will share
in its joy / /" (14:10)
Depending on the context, one can imagine that the proverb can incite a
number of different feelings. In some situations it might create feelings of
despair as it conveys the idea that I am all alone in my grief or in my joy: "No
one understands me." But in a different context, the proverb could be used to
convey just the opposite emotion. One who has suffered a loss similar to
another could say to her or him "the heart knows its own bitterness"
confirming the loneliness of the experience. This person at least understands
that no one understands. And such confirmation could be a word of
encouragement. On another occasion the proverb could be said to someone
as an expression of apathy conveying the idea "you made your bed, now you
must lay in it." Numerous scenarios could be given in which other kinds of
emotions or frames of mind are triggered or intended to be triggered by this
Not only does the situational use of the proverb appeal to a variety of
emotions, but within the frame of its structure and content it is laden with
emotional appeal. Proverbs are satiated with metaphor and those which
reason from parallel and analogous arguments. Such language and argument
is especially rich in pathos. One can move through the biblical proverbs and
list the different kinds of emotions that are conjured up in light of the image
or comparison used. For example, many of the proverbs that have to do with
the fool and the lazy person raise odious feelings:
"Like a dog that returns to its vomit/ is a fool that repeats his
folly / /" (26:11)
"The lazy man buries his hand in the dish/ it wears him out to
bring it back to his mouth / /" (26:15)
Some proverbs could be used in contexts in which they would arouse feelings
"Oil and perfume will make the heart rejoice/ and the sweetness
of friendship strengthens the spirit143 / /" (27:9)
Some could arouse feelings of confidence and security:
"Better is a neighbor who is near/ than a brother who is
distant / /" (27:10c)
Others are capable of arousing uneasiness or dissonance in the mind of the
143 The second line of this proverb is obscure in the Hebrew text. I
have adopted William McKane's translation. See Proverbs: A New Approach
p. 612f. R. B. Y. Scott translates the second line "So a friend's cordiality
strengthens one's spirit." Scott, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes: Introduction.
Translation, and Notes, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965) 161.
"One who takes a passing dog by the ears/ he who meddles in a
quarrel not his own / /" (26:17)
And so one could continue on through the proverbs identifying and
classifying those that could create a particular frame of mind in the listener:
hurt, pain, pleasure, surprise, shock, consolation, anger, revenge, delight, etc.
In addition many proverbs speak about the necessity to control
emotions and thus indirectly witness to the influence and power of emotions.
The following proverb epitomizes such concern for restraint:
"One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty/ and he who
has self control than he who takes a city//" (16:32)144
One of the primary emotions needing to be controlled is pride. Many
proverbs speak to this. The following is one of the more familiar:
"Before destruction—pride/ before stumbling— a haughty
spirit / /"145 (16:18)
Other emotions that must be reigned in include anger, jealousy, greed, and
Proverbs appeal to emotions from several angles. They acknowledge
the power of emotions by the way in which they urge constraint. In many
proverbs there is also direct reference to various emotions. And when a
proverb is put to work in different situations it excites different feelings and
creates different frames of mind.
144 Compare Proverbs 25:28: "A breached city and without a wall/ a
man who has no self control / /."
145 The contemporary proverb phrases it thus: "Pride goes before a
Potentially the richest area of investigation, however, is to be found in
the various motivational appeals that are endemic within the deep structure
of the proverb. Typically because the sentence proverbs are primarily
descriptive, they have been viewed as appealing to little if any motivational
element. However, on closer examination underlying the surface are strong
motivational appeals. J. Atkinson describes what he calls "approach
motivation" and "avoidance motivation."146 If his scheme is taken and
overlaid on the antithetic proverbs there is a doubling of motivational
potency by combining both approach motivation and avoidance motivation.
Ted Hildebrandt makes the following affirmation in this regard: "Through
the use of antithetic parallelism the sages maximize the motivational forces
by presenting the negative and positive consequences of both wisdom and
folly."117 Ninety percent of Proverbs chapters 10-15 is in the form of antithetic
parallelism. It has generally been argued that because of the lack of a specific
motivation clause introduced in Hebrew by a particle (because, for, that, yKi l;),
there was little or no motivational appeal. But when Atkinson's
approach/avoidance scheme is considered, the antithetic proverbs appeal to
potent motivational forces. The first proverb in the sentence collection
demonstrates the double force: "A wise son makes a father glad" encourages
the positive behavior with an approach motivation. "But a foolish son is a
sorrow to his mother" discourages the negative behavior with an avoidance
motivation. Most of the proverbs in chapters 10-15 are built around this
146 J. Atkinson and D. Birch, An Introduction to Motivation (New
York: D. Van Nostrand, 1978) 239, 288-289.
147 Ted Hildebrandt, "Motivation and Antithetic Parallelism in
Proverbs 10-15," Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 35 (1992) : 440.
construction. In addition, some proverbial structures use an
approach/approach incentive. The formulaic "better/than" proverbs and
"how much more" proverbs are based on this move.
There is also appeal to extrinsic and intrinsic motivations.148 Initially
it might appear that biblical proverbs are extrinsically oriented. It is true they
do utilize extrinsic rewards (wealth and poverty). However, there is a strong
thrust toward being intrinsically driven. Wisdom itself is understood to be
the goal of the sage (11:2; 13:20; 14:6-7, 18, 23; 15:33). Character development is
held up as its own reward: ". . . fear the Lord and turn away from evil. It will
be healing to yourself and medicine to your inner being" (3:7b-8; cf. also 4:7;
31:10)). Proverbs 11:17 also utilizes this motive: "A man who is kind benefits
himself/ but he who is cruel hurts himself / /." Motivational appeals are
more central to the sentence sayings than has traditionally been assumed.
The appeals, in addition, are rich in variety and strength. This is a fertile area
for further inquiry and research.
In focusing on logos, ethos, and pathos, what has been discovered is
that proverbs illustrate and comment on specific patterns of reasoning. They
are demonstrations of the process of informal reasoning used by the common
In spite of all the respect for and acknowledgment of the power of
informal reasoning in biblical proverbs, one qualification must be made.
Though biblical proverbs place a premium on order,149 reasoning and
148 Hildebrandt 442
149 Some scholars have believed that Israel's concern for order was
imported from Egyptian culture. Egyptian sages referred to this as ma'at. The
concept or god of ma'at had to do with order, justice and truth. When an
phronesis, they also recognize the constraints of such elements. Their
approach is not rigid and mechanical, static or determinate. They do not hold
completely to the idea that one who follows the rules of reason will always
win out and be successful. No, because the practical reasoning of proverbs is
dynamic and not mechanistic.170 There are experiences and situations
beyond one's control. There is also another force at work that moves beyond
the realm of reason. The wise recognized these limits and the limits of
reasoning to which the following proverbs witness:
"There is no wisdom and no understanding/ and no counsel
that can stand against Yahweh / /"
The horse is made ready for the day of battle/ victory belongs to
Yahweh / /"(21:30-31)
The sages frequently acknowledged the ambiguities of life and the
tentativeness of wisdom:151
individual's life was integrated with order, success resulted. Neglecting order
brought failure. It was a rigid structure of life. Thus in this scheme of
thought, the central polarity was order and chaos, and the ethical duty of
individuals was to prevent the hostile intrusion of disorder into society.
150 The "better/than" proverbs are witness to this. The typical formula
coordinates negative qualities along side positive: better X (negative) with A
(positive)/ than Y (positive) with B (negative) / /. Under normal
circumstances one might be able to make a choice between a positive on the
one hand and a negative on the other, with the "better/than" sayings the
choice is more difficult because both choices contain elements of positive and
151 For others see Proverbs 14:12; 16:1-2, 33; 19:21; 20:24; 21:1, 31; 22:12;
"A man's mind will plan his way/ but Yahweh will order his
steps / /" (16:9)152
The sages do have an interest in discovering certain patterns of experiences
and reasoning, to which Proverbs 10-15 especially is testimony. There is order
underlying the experiences of life but this order is not fate producing. The
sages acknowledge the uncertainties of life. The world and life is viewed
dynamically. Wisdom, with its concern for practical reasoning, seeks
creatively to manage life not to control and dominate it. The former leads
one to a sensitivity to a variety of views and experiences. The latter leads to
The majority of this chapter has, by design and intention, been devoted
to the structure and the reasoning patterns of the proverb. These are two
important rhetorical strategies the proverbs use to accomplish their work.
They are also the more neglected components in proverb studies due to the
hermeneutic that has dominated biblical scholarship. However, the structure
and reasoning patterns of the proverb are not the only strategies employed in
its action. Two others are also essential if the proverb is to make an impact
on its hearer. These include its content and the situation in which it is used.
An essential strategic quality of the proverb is related to its content.
Since the primary focus of biblical scholarship has been on content and the
concern has been to classify and catalog them according to themes, it is not
necessary to give content as much attention. However, it must not be
152 The contemporary proverb built on this one is "Man proposes/ but
inferred from this that content is not as important an element in the
rhetorical influence of the proverb as the other elements. Its content plays a
vital role in the way in which it is able to gain a hearing and thus influence
thought. But rather than simply discovering and classifying the themes and
topics that are central to proverbial lore as other scholars have done, my
purpose will be to demonstrate how their content continues to reflect the
values of the common folk. There are universal themes and values to which
proverbs appeal that enable them to continue to influence thought and
action. Thus my purpose is more narrowly focused. It is concerned with
demonstrating how proverbial content contributes to its overall rhetorical
In order to understand the continued relevance of the cognitive
dimension of biblical proverbs, it is first necessary to ask what are the
universal themes and values to which contemporary Americans espouse.
Milton Rokeach and Sandra Ball-Rokeach employing a series of studies over
a period of thirteen years (1968-1981) discovered a hierarchy of values to
which the general population of Americans hold. Two sets of eighteen
values were ranked in the order of importance. One set of terminal values
related to the "ultimate end-goals of existence, such as wisdom, equality,
peace or family security."153 The second set is related to instrumental values
153 Milton Rokeach and Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach, "Stability and Change
in American Value Priorities, 1968-1981," American Psychologist 44 (1989):
776. Edward Steele and W. Charles Redding compiled a list of sixteen
standard American values in the early 1960s. But their list is dated and not a
hierarchical ranking of values. Thus its value is limited. See Edward D.
Steele and W. Charles Redding, "The American Value System: Premises for
Persuasion," Western Journal of Speech Communication 26 (1962): 83-91.
or the behaviorial means of reaching the end-goals. Such values include
being honest, ambitious and forgiving. Listed below are these two sets of
values. The results for the instrumental values were taken in 1968 and 1971
and are listed according to the average ranking given them during this time.
The results for the terminal values are from 1968, 1971, 1974 and 1981 and are
listed according to the average ranking given them over this thirteen year
Honest (sincere, truthful)
Ambitious (hard-working, aspiring)
Responsible (dependable, reliable)
Forgiving (willing to pardon others)
Courageous (standing up for your beliefs)
Helpful (working for the welfare of others)
Clean (neat, tidy)
Capable (competent, effective)
Self-controlled (restrained, self-disciplined)
Loving (affectionate, tender)
Cheerful (lighthearted, joyful)
Independent (self-reliant, self-sufficient)
Polite (courteous, well-mannered)
Intellectual (intellignet, reflective)
Obedient (dutiful, respectful)
Logical (consistent, rational)
Imaginative (daring, creative)
A world at peace (free of war and conflict)
Family security (taking care of loved ones)
Freedom (independence, free choice)
Wisdom (a mature understanding of life)
Equality (brotherhood, equal opportunity for all)
Salvation (being saved, eternal life)
A comfortable life (a prosperous life)
A sense of accomplishment (lasting contribution)
True friendship (close companionship)
National security (protection from attack)
Inner harmony (freedom from inner conflict)
Mature love (sexual and spiritual intimacy)
A world of beauty (beauty of nature and the arts)
Social recognition (respect, admiration)
Pleasure (an enjoyable, leisurely life)
An exciting life (a stimulating active life)154
Rokeach makes some important observations about the study. First, it
is amazing that the values remain so stable over a period of thirteen years.
This is especially true of the first six and last six values on each list. But
second, even though there is stability in the value system as a whole,
Americans are undergoing value change. The most noteworthy is a sharp
decline in the importance attached to equality. There was also increased
value placed on a comfortable life, a sense of accomplishment and an exciting
What is important, however, for the purposes of this study is how
Biblical proverbs make cognitive connections with many of these values. In
terms of the instrumental values listed, numerous proverbs could be cited
that espouse and promote these values. Honesty, at the top of the list, is a
deeply cherished value to which proverbs give voice (eg. 10:9; 19:1; 20:7; 11:3;
28:6). Ambitious (6:6-10; 26:13-16), forgiving (17:9) and responsible (10:5; 19:22;
27:10) are high priorities in Proverbs. Other value laden proverbs follow suit:
helpful (21:13), capable (25:19), self-controlled (17:27; 25:28), loving (10:12),
(cheerful (12:25; 17:22; 18:14), independent (the capable woman of 31:10-31)),
154 Rokeach 778
155 Rokeach, 779. Rokeach describes this change between 1968 and 1981
"as a shift away from a collective morality value orientation to a personal
competence value orientation" (783).
obedient (13:1), polite (20:11). The proverbs that voice these values could
easily be multiplied.
Proverbs also reflects many of the terminal values that Rokeach ranks.
Though Proverbs does not philosophize about world peace and though it has
no vision of global unity, it does place heavy priority on the absence of
interpersonal conflict and strife. Many proverbs deal with the disruptive
nature of domestic strife (17:1; 15:16-17). Both the quarrelsome man (27:17-23)
and the quarrelsome woman (25:24; 21:9; 27:15) are not to be tolerated by the
community. The value of the individual, which is concerned with the
uniqueness and worth of every single person, is emphasized in Proverbs. In
other portions of the Hebrew canon, the focus is on the corporate personality
of Israel.156 Unique to wisdom and to the book of Proverbs is an emphasis on
the individual. When one reads Proverbs there is no rehearsal of the mighty
acts of Yahweh. There is no Exodus, no Sinai, no Conquest, none of the
significant events in the life of Israel as a community. The focus is more
personal, more on the responsibility of the individual. The book of Proverbs
can be read and understood apart from any understanding of ancient Israelite,
Proverbs has no tolerance for a man who does not take care of his own
family (27:8). It defines happiness as being content and as such places a high
156 The concept of corporate personality has to do with an individual's
identity being intimately connected to the community. See H. Wheeler
Robinson, Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel, rev. ed. (Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1980).
157 This is why some New Testament Bibles include the book of
Proverbs at the end of the work. It does not need to be connected with Israel's
history to be understood.
priority on contentment (14:30). And, of course, wisdom is the primary end-
goal of life (24:3-7). Proverbs also espouses the goal of living a comfortable life.
The mature person avoids both poverty and riches. He or she lives a
comfortable "middle class" existence (30:7-9). Other terminal values are also
reflected in the proverbs. A more detailed comparison would also reveal
differences between American and proverbial values as well. But, at least, it
has been demonstrated that proverbs continue to reflect many of the values
deemed important by contemporary American culture.
One element of surprise to me is that not ranked as one of the top
eighteen American values in Rokeach's findings is health. In a day and time
when fitness, weight loss and health food seems so dominant, it is amazing
that such a value is absent. It may simply be that this value is incorporated
under other values such as happiness, self-control, clean, self-respect. But for
whatever reason it does not rank independently on the hierarchy for
Americans, it does rank high on the sage's value chart. Holistic health
(physical, mental, emotional, spiritual are all interrelated in Proverbs) is a
central part of living a fulfilled life for the sapient:
"A cheerful heart is good medicine/ but a gloomy outlook dries
up the bones / /" (17:22)
"Contentment makes a body healthy/ jealousy rots bones / /"
158 For other proverbs addressing this subject see: 15:13; 18:14; 15:30;
16:24; 29:1 etc.
Proverbs speak to the notion that one's emotional and psychological state
affects the well-being of the physical. Such a belief has popular appeal among
contemporary American culture.
Not only can one go to a list such as Rokeach's to discover
contemporary values, but one can look at biblical and contemporary proverbs
themselves to discover those values. In fact, this content dimension of the
proverbs continues to be used to shed light on the values of American
culture.159 Morris E. Massey and Michael J. O'Connor have developed a test
to help individuals determine their own particular value system based on
proverbial lore.160 They list forty common sayings and ask participants to
respond to them by answering from a range of strongly agree to strongly
disagree. Even though they do not use biblical proverbs, the fact that they use
contemporary proverbial type material acknowledges the capacity of this
genre in general to express and reflect the values of the common person. The
content of the biblical proverb is rooted in experience,161 and its focus is
practical. Thus they reflect and invoke widely shared values.
The contents of biblical proverbs enable them continue to influence
mind and behavior. The values espoused to by biblical proverbs have
universal appeal. The relatively indeterminate nature of the proverb further
159 The principle is stated in the proverb: "Tell me the proverbs of a
people and I will tell you their character."
160 See Morris E. Massey and Michael J. O'Connor, "Values Profile
System," (Minneapolis: Carlson Learning Company, 1989).
161 Again I am reminded here of the popular definition of a proverb::
"A short sentence based on a long experience."
enables its content to be adapted to different cultures and settings. The biblical
proverbs continue to reflect the voice of the common folk.
The Situational Character of Biblical Proverbs
The rhetorical structure, reasoning pattern, and content all have to do
with the internal action of the proverb. But one final and external dimension
is at work in its action. It is the situational factor. This dimension serves as
the catalyst for activating the other internal qualities.
It is only when the proverb is activated for a specific occasion that it is
able to influence. The proverb needs a context to do its work. Unlike a
cognitive hermeneutic that claims that gathering proverbs into a collection
leads to their demise, a rhetorical hermeneutic sees collections serving a
legitimate function by preparing the proverb for use. First, the collection
liberates the proverb from its original context so that it can be used in other
contexts. Second, within the collection itself, the proverb may be given a
context.162 Proverbs may not be randomly placed together. That is, the
context of the proverb within the collection may suggest one way the proverb
can be interpreted.163 So rather than placing a limit on the proverb, the
collection frees it from its original context to unfold and work anew in a
plethora of other contexts. Consigning proverbs to a collection has the
potential of enabling them to do their work in different situations.
162 Another value of collections is that they enable a contemporary
culture to cash in on the sagacity of previous generations.
163 This particular line of thought will be explored in greater detail in
chapter three. For the sake of developing the argument of this chapter, the
context outside the collection of Proverbs is the focus.
However, the relationship between the situation and the proverb is not
unilateral. Not only do situations actualize proverbs, proverbs shape and
control situations.164 The relationship between the proverb and the situation
is dynamic. Neither one is determinate but each works together in a dialectic
manner to make sense out of the experience at hand. The situation is a
central element in the process of the proverb working to influence and
The situational character of the proverb is seen in the way in which the
same proverb can have an indeterminate number of meanings based on the
context in which it is used. For example, the proverb "A rolling stone gathers
no moss" means different things in different cultures. Barbara Kirshenblatt-
Gimblett has identified three meanings. 1) In England "the allusion is to the
desirable qualities of the moss found draped over stones in a peaceful
brook."165 Thus, from this angle, the proverb affirms the positive role of
164 Richard Vatz and Lloyd Bitzer's dialogue in Philosophy and
Rhetoric is pertinent at this point. Bitzer argued that the controlling factor in
the rhetorical act is the situation. It is determinate. One speaks to a situation
because of its exigence. There is an imperfect situation that demands an
immediate response. Thus the situation gives rise to the discourse. See Lloyd
Bitzer, "The Rhetorical Situation," Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968) : 1-14.
However, Richard Vatz took issue with Bitzer's idea of the situation
dominating a rhetorical act. He emphasized the creative role of the rhetor.
The rhetorical situation rather than determining what is said is created by the
rhetor. See Richard Vatz, "The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation,"
Philosophy and Rhetoric 6 (1973) : 151-161. In applying their dialogue to
proverbial discourse, I would maintain that both experiences can occur. On
the one hand, a situation can give rise to a proverb. On the other hand, the
proverb can shape and "name" a particular situation thus determining how it
is to be perceived and acted upon.
165 Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, "Toward a Theory of Proverb
Meaning," The Wisdom of Marty: Essays on the Proverb, eds. Wolfgang
stability and the productivity that results. 2) A "rolling stone gathering no
moss is like a machine that keeps running and never gets rusty and
broken."166 And 3) "a rolling stone is like a person who keeps moving and is
therefore free, not burdened with a family and material possessions and not
likely to fall into a rut."167 Depending on the situation and depending on
what the rhetor wants to accomplish will determine what the proverb means
and how it is used.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett also expounds on the multi-level meaning of
the proverb "A friend in need is a friend indeed (in deed)." When she asked
eighty of her University of Texas students the meaning of this proverb, she
received four general types of responses.168 To take another example, the
proverbial phrase "silence is golden" can be used in several different
contexts.169 It can be used by a parent to order a child to be quiet. It can be
used by a person to console a shy partner when awkward pauses enter their
conversation. It can be used to express satisfaction or peace of mind when in
the stillness of a forest. Or it can be used to express disgust at the constant
Mieder & Alan Dundes (New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1981)
166 Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 113
167 Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 113
168 The four meanings include "(1) Someone who feels close enough
to you to be able to ask you for help when he is in need is really your ;Friend;
(2) Someone who helps you when you are in need is really your friend; (3)
Someone who helps you by means of his actions (deeds) when you need him
is a real friend as opposed to someone who just makes promises; (4) Someone
who is only your friend when he needs you is not a true friend" (113414).
169 I heard Jeff Arthurs at Multnomah Bible School in Portland,
Oregon use this example.
chatter of a friend or peer. The situations are endless. Taken at face value the
proverb has the appearance of making a simple once-and-for-all categorical
judgment on a particular experience. Its meaning is self-evident. But its
meaning is activated when, as Kenneth Burke says, the rhetor uses it "for
promise, admonition, solace, vengeance, foretelling, instruction, charting"170
or for whatever the situation calls.
There is strong evidence that the Israelite sage understood and took
seriously the situational character of the proverb. The two line structure of
the proverb ideally equips the proverb for adaptation to different
circumstances. For example, it is not infrequent for one of the lines of the
170 Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in
Symbolic Action (3rd ed. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973)
296. Earlier in this work Burke gives an example of the "endless variety of
situations, distinct in their particularities," which a proverb may "size up."
He says, "To examine one of my favorites: 'Whether the pitcher strikes the
stone, or the stone the pitcher, it's bad for the pitcher.' think of some
primitive society in which an incipient philosopher, in disfavor with the
priests, attempted to criticize their lore. They are powerful, he is by
comparison weak. And they control all the channels of power. Hence,
whether they attack him or he attacks them, he is the loser. And he could
quite adequately size up this situation by saying, 'Whether the pitcher strikes
the stone, or the stone the pitcher, it's bad for the pitcher.' Or Aristophanes
could well have used it, in describing his motivation when, under the threats
of political dictatorship, he gave up the lampooning of political figures and
used the harmless Socrates as his goat instead. Socrates was propounding
new values– and Aristophanes, by aligning himself with conservative
values, against the materially powerless dialectician, could himself take on
the role of the stone in the stone-pitcher ratio. Or the proverb could be
employed to name the predicament of a man in Hitler's Germany who might
come forward with an argument, however well reasoned, against Hitler. Or a
local clerk would find the proverb apt, if he would make public sport of his
boss. These situations are all distinct in their particularities; each occurs in a
totally different texture of history; yet all are classifiable together under the
generalizing head of the same proverb" (pp. 2-3).
proverbial couplet to be altered in another part of the collection. Such
overlapping is the case with Proverbs 17:3: "The crucible for silver, the
furnace for gold/ but he who tries hearts: Yahweh / /." In Proverbs 27:21 the
second line is changed: "The crucible for silver, the furnace for gold/ and a
man for his reputation / /." In these two proverbs the first two lines are
duplicated. But the overlapping does not stop there. The second line of 17:3
overlaps with another proverb, 21:2: All the ways of a man are right in his
eyes/ but he who regulates hearts: Yahweh / /. Another example is seen in
Proverbs 10:15 and 18:11 where the first line in both proverbs is "A rich man's
wealth is his strong city/." But the second line is different. In 10:15 it is "the
poverty of the poor is their ruin / /." And in 18:11 it is "and like a high wall
protecting him / /." Many other examples of overlapping could be cited.171
One explanation for this phenomenon is that in Israelite schools, for
instructional purposes, the teacher would quote the first line and the student
was expected to complete it with a second line.172 The problem with this
explanation is that sometimes it is the first line that is changed with the
second being duplicated. A more likely explanation for the overlapping
sayings is that it is an indication of the flexibility of the proverbs. One line
can be substituted for another depending on what the situation demands.
The binary structure of the proverb equips it to be adapted to different
171 Compare 13:14 with 14:27; 16:2 with 21:2, 14:12, and 16:25. Compare
10:6 with 10:11; 11:14 with 15:22; 15:8 with 21:27; 24:23 with 28:21; 28:112 with
28:28; 19:12 with 20:2; 15:11 with 27:20; 19:5 with 19:9. In the Hebrew text, the
second line of 10:8 is the same as 10:10.
172 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, 163.
situations and enables it to continue to work.173 The overlapping sayings
suggest that the proverbs are to be memorized yes, but not always to be
repeated verbatim. They suggest that the proverb is occasional nature and
that the proverb user has the responsibility to be creative and flexible in its
William McKane acknowledges the situational nature of the biblical
proverb in the following statement:
As a means of breaking the ground for this enquiry, I have
developed an exact definition of 'proverb' in which the
emphasis is laid on representative potential and openness to
interpretation. The 'proverb', in virtue of its concreteness,
sometimes in virtue of the organization of imagery, has a
representative capacity which can be intuited by future
interpreters. The paradox of the 'proverb' is that it acquires
immortality because of its particularity; that because of its lack of
explicitness, its allusiveness or even opaqueness, it does not
become an antique, but awaits continually the situation to
illumine which it was coined.174
173 A contemporary example of this is the proverb "An apple a day
keeps the doctor away/ a dozen or more he's right at your door / /." Or "An
apple a day keeps the doctor away/ an onion a day keeps everyone away / /."
The familiar one line proverb, "look before you leap," is given a second line,
"and listen to the learned." "Birds of a feather flock together" is given an
additional line, "and fools fair ill with the wise."
174 William McKane, Proverbs: A New Approach (Philadelphia: The
Westminster Press, 1970) 414.
To illustrate this situational dimension, McKane chooses a proverb that
appears to have limited use: "A son who gathers crops in summer is
competent/ but one who sleeps through the harvest is a disgrace//(Proverbs
10:5)." It is possible, says McKane, to take this proverb "literally." As such it
deals with the laziness of a son which is regarded as a cardinal sin in an
But v. 5 is much more than such a limited, exact statement
concerning the particular duties of a son in a peasant economy.
It is also a representative saying about any son who displays
acumen and mettle when his father most needs him . . . . A
further universalizing of the 'proverb' would be its use to say
that it is the testing or critical situation which constitutes the
sifting process and provides a reliable indication of ability and
The proverb that McKane uses here is a rather mundane one; it is not
as colorful nor as metaphoric as others such as those found in chapters 25-27.
If one can imagine a more pedestrian proverb stretching the bounds of its
original context, how much more would a proverb that is metaphorically
packed! Think for example of the unlimited contexts of the following
proverb: "As iron sharpens iron/ so man sharpens his friend / /" (27:17). In a
general way the proverb addresses the influence one person has on another.
The proverb could be appropriated in either a positive or negative context.
Further it could be addressed to the one who is influencing or the one who is
being influenced or both. To whomever it is directed the contexts are
175 McKane 415
multiplied further by the way the proverb is used. It could be used as a
rebuke, a praise, an excuse, consolation, warning, counsel, promise, revenge,
reminder, and so on. In addition the binary nature of this proverb enables
one to drop the second line and substitute any number of relationships:
“. . . so a parent influences a child;" ". . . so a teacher influences a student," etc.
What is true of the multiple contexts of this proverb is also true of
most of the sentence proverbs, especially those in chapters 25-27 that are more
metaphorically loaded. One cannot completely appreciate its nature until the
proverb is seen at work in a specific context. The particular situation becomes
the essential component for unleashing the power of the proverb.
What are the characteristics of a proverb that enable it to have such
multivalent use? The different meanings are derived from different
situations as well as the indeterminate nature of the proverb itself. One factor
that makes proverbial discourse relatively indeterminate is its metaphorical
nature. Metaphors equip proverbs to be utilized in many different situations.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett identifies several characteristics of a contemporary
proverb that show how the proverb is able to be relatively indeterminate.
The proverb, "A friend in need is a friend indeed (in deed)," can be
interpreted a number of different ways because of its indeterminate nature.
The sources of multiple meaning stem from
(1) syntactic ambiguity (is your friend in need or are you in
need); (2) lexical ambiguity (indeed or in deed); (3) key (Is
proverb [sic] being stated 'straight' or 'sarcastically'? Does 'a
friend indeed' mean 'a true friend' or 'not a true friend'?).176
176 Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 114
These kinds of qualities along with the rhetor and the interpreter-listener
give the proverb the ability to adapt to many different situations and contexts.
Claudia Camp has acknowledged the importance of contextualizing the
If performance keeps proverbial truth relative, it is also that
same capacity to be adapted to and employed in many different
situations that keeps a proverb alive. It is precisely its contextual
adaptability, as well as the openness of a single context to more
than one proverb, that gives this form of speech its special
'openness to experience.' "177
Jacobson affirms the "openness" of the proverbs by declaring that
"wisdom sayings have a tendency to lead as contextless an existence as
possible, so as to prove useful in ever new contexts."178 Jacobson adds, "To
preserve multivalency, proverbs are best strung together in such a way that
their interpretation does not become fixed but remains open."179 This does
not deny the use of catch words, "proverbial pairs,"180 and even thematic and
177 Claudia Camp Wisdom and the Feminine 166
178 Arland Jacobson 85
179 Jacobson 86
180 Ted Hildebrandt argues against the atomistic nature of Proverbs 10-
29. He says that there are certain collectional features at work. One of these
features is the unit of proverbial pairs. A "proverbial pair" is defined as two
proverbial sentences that are bonded together into a "higher architectonic
unit." He claims to have discovered sixty-two examples of proverbial paring.
This accounts for 124 verses out of a total of 595 in Proverbs (21%). The pairs
are bonded together by means of phonetics, semantics, syntax, rhetorical
device, pragmatic situation, or theme. See Ted Hildebrandt, "Proverbial Pairs:
syntactical clusters that are found throughout the collection.181 Such unified
clusters may simply offer suggestions for how the proverb can be used. But
they do not fix it to one setting.
To deny the situational quality of the proverb is to open it to abuse. The
book of Proverbs itself acknowledges this fact. One proverb laments:
"A lame man's legs are limp/ so a proverb in the mouth of
fools / /" (26:7)
So a proverb used in the wrong way is as useless as the limbs of a paraplegic.
Soren Kierkegaard tells the parable of a man who escaped from an insane
asylum. He knew he must disguise himself otherwise he would be caught
and sent back to the asylum. He thought if he could come up with a phrase
that everyone would acknowledge as true, they would not recognize his
insanity. The phrase he settled on was "the world is round." So to everyone
he met he uttered this phrase. Needless to say he was discovered and
returned to his former confinement.182 Even though the phrase he uttered is
not strictly speaking a proverb, the parable is still apropos and illustrates the
uselessness of a proverbial type phrase in the mouth of one who does not
understand its situational nature. To use proverbs appropriately is a mark of
social intelligence. Even though some may be more adept in using them
than others, to a certain degree, everyone can develop elementary skills in
Compositional Units in Proverbs 10-29," Journal of Biblical Literature 107
181 See the next chapter for development of the idea that there are
contexts for the proverbs within the biblical collection.
182 Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1941) 174.
actualizing proverbs in discourse. The rhetor is not wise because he or she
knows a lot of proverbs but because he or she knows the appropriate time and
context in which to use them.
As the proverb does its work, its structure, reasoning pattern, content,
and context are synergistically functioning together. No one strategy is
hierarchically more important than another. All of these elements combine
forces to empower the proverb to manage social order and influence thoughts
and actions. But not only is an internal micro-dimension at work in
empowering the proverb, an external macro-level within the proverbial
collection is also at work. It is to this dimension that I now turn.
The Biblical Proverb and Its Macro-Dimensional Influences
By nature the proved is most fulfilled when engaged in active duty.
Therefore, it is always seeking a context in order to do its work. In the
preceding chapter I established this situational quality. When the proverb is
taken out of the collection and is put to occasional use, its influence is
activated. Because of the proverb's strong character, it does not wait around
to be pressed into service in some context outside the collection. It sees action
within. The dynamic activity that occurs outside the book of Proverbs is
already occurring within the book. By design the proverb clusters itself with
other proverbs of like mind and, to its delight, finds itself engaged in spirited
dialogue. But this dialogical and structural dimension within the collection
of Proverbs has been ignored. When such a dimension is explored, a whole
new understanding of proverbs and of the nature of discourse is revealed.
In order to explore this neglected dimension, I first will search for those
occasions where the proverb appears to be in dialogue with its surrounding
context. That is, I will seek to discover structural patterns in. the proverb
collection that go beyond the level of the individual proverb. Second, because
these texts of proverbs have such a keen interest in the use of discourse, I
want to overhear what they have to say about how speech, words, and
proverbs influence. In keeping with this twofold purpose, the chapter is
divided into three parts. First, because I am interested in understanding what
proverbs have to say about the use of speech, I want to establish the fact that
this subject is not a foreign template that is being forced onto the material.
Rather discourse as a tool for influencing others is of central importance to
the whole Wisdom corpus. Second, I want to apply a rhetorical hermeneutic
to two sample texts, Proverb 25:11-28 and 10:13-21, to discover any
overarching structure that might create a textual context for the individual
proverbs in each unit. In addition, the primary reason for selecting these two
pericopes is that they appear to have a general interest in the use of words and
their value as a form of art. Third, I will look at two central topoi of speech
addressed in Proverbs by structurally analyzing Proverbs 16:21-24, 26:17-28,
and 26:4-10. Pursuing these three areas will enable me to evaluate the
fruitfulness of a rhetorical hermeneutic and will lead to a better
understanding of the role and power of discourse as it is described in
The Centrality of Speech in the Wisdom Corpus
Even with only an elementary knowledge of what sapience involves, a
solid case can be made for saying that wherever a corpus of wisdom material
resides or wherever the quality of phronesis is vested, the site of that body
will offer a rich repository of information regarding the role and function of
rhetorical practices even though such practices may not be systematized. For
example, Gerald Phillips has perused the five books of wisdom literature and
observed the substantive amount of effort devoted to the proper conduct in
speech.l Among other things, Phillips' essay demonstrates that an interest in
proper speech is not an isolated phenomenon but pervades the wisdom
Central to the concept of wisdom is the proper use of speech. It could
even be argued that one of the primary functions of the sage was to train
1 Gerald M. Phillips, "Rhetorical Gleanings from the Wisdom
Literature," Western Speech (1962). The five books of wisdom literature are
Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and Wisdom of Solomon.
young men in its use. The sage's function was more rhetorical than
exclusively cognitive.2 Dianne Bergant offers a valid description of the sage.
Because intelligence has been characteristically associated with
speech, the one who knows what to say and when to say it is
often considered wise. This is particularly true in societies
where the spoken word assumes tremendous importance.
Hence, those whose intelligence is demonstrated in the artful
use of words are vouchsafed a prominent place in society. This
fact may account for the conventional but inadequate view that
the counselor, the teacher and the wisdom author are the official
In Proverbs the sage repeatedly affirms the power of words:
From the fruit of his mouth a man is satisfied/ he is satisfied by
the yield of his lip / /.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue/ and those who
love it will eat its fruits / / (Prv. 18:20-21).
The sapient gives his students this advice in Proverbs 22:17-18 at the
beginning of a section known as the Thirty Sayings:
2 Here I am defining rhetoric in its fullest form which includes the
concern for invention and the discovery of ideas as well as for style and form.
3 Dianne Bergant, What Are They Saying About Wisdom Literature?
(New York: Paulist Press, 1984) 8. Robert Alter claims that "the ancient
Hebrew literary imagination reverts again and again to a bedrock assumption
about the efficacy of speech," The Art of Biblical Poetry, 69-70. In Hebrew
thought there is little difference between what one does and what one says.
When one spoke one was acting. The Hebrew word rbaDA can be translated
"word" or "thing."
Incline your ear and hear the words of the wise one and
you will set your heart to my knowledge.
For it is pleasing when you will remember them and
when they are poised for shapely utterance (emphasis
The one who follows in the steps of the sage is the one who not only
remembers his words but who also is able to utter them articulately and at the
The sages themselves were ones who collected ideas, words, and
proverbs using them as tools to shape and mold the lives of their students.
They are stewards of speech. As a sage, Qoheleth4 is described as one who
. . . taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying
and arranging proverbs with great care. Qoheleth aught
to find pleasing words, and uprightly he wrote words of
truth. The sayings of the wise are like spur, and like nails
driven home with a mallet are those who master the
collected sayings of their mentor (Ecclesiastes 12: 9-11;
4 The Hebrew name given to the book of Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth, Job
and Proverbs form the corpus of the wisdom literature of the Protestant
canon. Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus) and The Book of Wisdom (also
The Wisdom of Solomon) are included in the Catholic Scriptures.
Qoheleth was one who collected proverbs.5 As a sage, he studied and
memorized traditional sayings. The sages were the ones who knew how to
use different forms of speech to influence others.
To further support this emphasis on training in proper speech there is
the striking parallel between the Hebrew Hokmah (wise one) and the Sophist
(wise one) of classical Greece.6 Though the Hebrew culture was preoccupied
with a religious consciousness and Greek life was predominantly humanistic,
there were resemblances between the two professional classes in instructional
techniques and goals.7 In the Platonic dialogue, Protagoras, the sophist
announces that his goal is to teach his pupils prudence in public and private
affairs, the orderly management of family and home, the art of rhetoric and
5 The root of the Hebrew word qhl means "to assemble." Qoheleth is
usually understood as one who assembles the people for worship or students
for learning in a school. However, based upon Ecclesiastes 1:1 and 12:9-11,
Crenshaw argues convincingly that Qoheleth refers to one who assembles or
collects proverbs (1987) , pp. 32-34.
6 Robert Gordis, "The Social Background of Wisdom Literature." The
Jewish Theological Seminary of America 18 (1943-1944) : 85.
7 Though it is doubtful that the Hebrew sage had direct contact with
the Greek sophist, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that Hebrew sagacity and
Wisdom Literature is international in character. Several sections in Proverbs
are adapted from non-Israelite sources. The Thirty Sayings in 22:16-24:22 are
adapted from an Egyptian source, Amen-em-opet. See James B. Pritchard
Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1.955) 421-424. The sayings in chapter 30: 1-9 and
chapter 31:1-9 are taken from sages who were not Israelites. Job and his three
friends in the book of Job are non-Israelites. So the Hebrew sages seemed to
have traveled around and learned from other cultures including Greek
culture. They were itinerant, much like the Greek sophists.
the ability to understand and direct the affairs of state.8 These are the goals of
the Hebrew sage as Proverbs attests:
By me [Wisdom] kings reign, and rulers decree what is just;
by me princes rule, and nobles govern the earth (8:15-16).
. . . that prudence may be given to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth
the wise man also may hear and increase in learning,
and the man of understanding acquire skill,
to understand a proverb and a figure,
the words of the wise and their riddles (1:4-6).
Like the Sophist, the Hokmah, was "the master of compressed, polished
epigrammatic utterance; he gathers his thoughts into memorable forms of
expression."9 Another wise man in later Israelite tradition, Ben Sira (or
Sirach), claims that the ancient sages would assiduously study the rhetorical
masterpieces of the past:10
He will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients and be occupied
with prophecies. He will observe closely the discourse of
renowned men and will enter into the intricacies of parables
(39:1-2; emphasis mine).
8 Plato, Protagoras, Loeb Classics 4 (New York, 1924) 124.
9 McKane, 1970, p. 267
10 Ben Sira is a work that is quite similar to the canonical Proverbs in
content and form. However it is primarily made up of instruction type
proverbs instead of sentence proverbs. Its date is 180 BCE.
The sages were those who were skilled in the proper use of speech and who
taught such skills to young men aspiring to be public leaders.11 This is a side
of the sage that I would claim has been marginalized and even ignored.
The sages' interest in speech is not peripheral. Their perspective on
oral discourse is understood as something essential for a successful life. Their
perspective is revealed in specific texts related to the subject of discourse.
Two Sample Texts: Proverbs 25:11-28 and 10:13-21
Before these texts can be explicated an awareness of the way in which
Proverbs has been studied needs to be explained. The dominant way of
understanding the book has been to see the collection of proverbs as quite
haphazard and the surrounding context in which the proverb is placed as
irrelevant for its interpretation. Carole Fontaine, in the forward of her book,
makes this observation:
While the most "basic" genre of wisdom, the saying, has always
been recognized as serving a social function, whether in the
Jerusalem court or the "tribes" of Israel, little progress has been
made in assessing the actual ways in which a saying might be
11 In a seminal work by Robert Gordis, "The Social Background of
Wisdom Literature," the author persuasively argues that the book of Proverbs
is written by and comes from the perspective of the upper class. The
collections of proverbs assembled in the book come from the collections of
kings like Solomon, Lemuel, Hezekiah's scribes, and the sages. The women
described throughout the book also appear to be from the well-to-do class. It
was the upper class that was the ruling class and involved in the politics of
the day. As such it was a rich environment for the development of speech
and oral discourse. Michael V. Fox supports a similar upper class milieu for
the book of Proverbs. Michael V. Fox "Unity and Diversity in Proverbs,"
Unpublished paper presented at Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco,
employed in a social context. The wisdom sayings found
collected in the book of Proverbs offer very little scope for such
study, since they are simply that– a collection without clear
contexts of use.12
Gerhard Von Rad, in a chapter in his book on Israelite Wisdom
Literature entitled "The Essentials for Coping with Reality," laments the fact
that in Proverbs there is no homogeneous view of reality which in part is due
to the random collection of the proverbs:
We find particularly aggravating the lack of any order
determined by subject-matter, of any arrangements in the
collection of sentences and teachings. Only rarely does the
reader come upon a group of proverbs in which related material
has come together. For the understanding of the sentences as a
whole, these small ordered arrangements are of no significance,
for they appear too sporadically.13
12 Carole R. Fontaine, Traditional Sayings in the Old Testament: A
Contextual Study (Sheffield: The Almond Press, 1982) vii. In a later essay
summarizing the current studies of proverbs by biblical scholars and
folklorists, she reaffirms the lack of context in collections of proverbs:
"Analysis of the intent or strategy of the use of proverbs and sayings as
rhetorical devices in traditional arguments shows the need to go beyond
simple collection of the item to give full contextual data about the situation
in which the saying is used. This, of course, is precisely what collectors of
proverbs have usually failed to do, since function in context had not been
perceived as a factor which might affect meaning as a whole." See "Proverb
Performance in the Hebrew Bible," Journal for the Study of the Old
Testament 32 (1985) : 97.
13 Gerhard Von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972)
John Thompson complains that this is one of the reasons for the decline in
popularity of the book of Proverbs:
As for our canonical proverbs in particular, they fail to reach us,
it would seem, for . . . they are jumbled together willy-nilly into
collections . . . . . . the phenomenon of a plethora of distichs,
many having little or nothing in common with what precedes
or what follows, is peculiar to this book, particularly to chapters
Kathleen O'Connor describes Proverbs 10-29 in an especially descriptive
Proverbs is like a collection of word pictures or verbal snapshots.
Unclassified and generally lacking in thematic or chronological
order, the collected sayings resemble a family's cache of photos,
placed randomly in a drawer year after year till remembrance of
relationships among them is lost.15
The view of a random order to the sentence proverbs continues to
dominate the way in which the book of Proverbs has been studied. As a
14 John Mark Thompson, The Form and Function of Proverbs in
Ancient Israel (The Hague, Paris: Mouton, 1974) 15.
15 Kathleen M. O'Connor, The Wisdom Literature (Wilmington, DE:
Michael Glazier, 1988) 36. Many other scholars and studies could be included
among those who see chapters 10-29 as a random collection. In the popular
and well used Daily Study Bible Series, the commentary on Proverbs
approaches chapters 10-29 topically. See Kenneth T. Aitken, Proverbs
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986). Derek Kidner comments on
Proverbs 10-29: "Here at last are the sayings that we recognize as proverbs:
short, self-contained, poured out apparently at random." An Introduction to
Wisdom Literature: The Wisdom of Proverbs. Job & Ecclesiastes (Downers
Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985) 24-25.
result, the most common way of studying the book is by gathering together
proverbs in the collection that deal with similar subjects under one heading
such as wealth, folly, friendship, speech, etc.16 There are several limitations
to the topical approach. First, it does not take the rhetorical and structural
sense of the text seriously. Any possible structure that might exist beyond the
level of the individual proverb is ignored. Second, such a topical approach is
exclusively cognitive. It focuses only on content. Third, dealing with
Proverbs 10-29 exclusively in a topical fashion runs the risk of overlooking a
number of proverbs because they do not fall within the specific categories that
one has listed. Several proverbs are quickly marginalized and get lost in the
topical shuffle. Fourth, many of the proverbs are judged to be quite jejune
because there is no referent or context. Thus, for example, the proverb, "He
who digs a pit will fall in it/ and he who rolls a stone, it will return to him/ /"
(26:28), is understandable enough but it seems rather trite and mundane
because it is not in any specific context. But if its textual context is taken
seriously, could this not possibly give it a new dimension and supply the
16 William McKane classifies the proverbs according to their cognitive
development. He identifies all the proverbs that focus on the individual into
one category and says that this was the earliest stage in their development
(proverbs in this category he simply labels A). The next stage of development
comes when there was demonstrated an interest in community. So proverbs
that are concerned about the welfare of the community he labels B. The final
stage in the process was when stages A and B received a religious or
theological orientation and thus included reference to Yahweh. These he
I would like to offer an alternative to the topical approach which takes
more seriously the context in which they are placed in the collection.17 It is
my view that a rhetorical hermeneutic that approaches the texts of Proverbs
synchronically can reveal an order to the proverbs that moves beyond the
sentence level.18 Raymond Van Leeuwen has maintained that "if the micro-
structures are aesthetically well-crafted, why not the macro-structures?"19 In
17 Most recently two biblical scholars have suggested such an approach.
See, for example, Ted Hildebrandt, "Proverbial Strings: Cohesion in Proverbs
10," Grace Theological Journal 11.2 (1990): 171-185. Raymond C. Van
Leeuwen, Context and Meaning in Proverbs 25-27, (Atlanta: Scholars Press,
18 An interesting and modern illustration of how individual proverbs
can be intentionally clustered together to form a coherent unit and even a
story is seen in the following poem by the American poet Arthur Guiterman,
entitled "A Proverbial Tragedy" (See The Laughing Muse, New York: Harper
& Brothers, 1915, p. 16):
The Rolling Stone and the Turning Worm
And the Cat that Looked at a King
Set forth on the Road that Leads to Rome-
For Youth will have its Fling,
The Goose will lay the Golden Eggs,
The Dog must have his Day,
And Nobody locks the Stable Door
Till the Horse is stol'n away.
But the Rolling Stone, that was never known
To Look before the Leap
Plunged down the hill to the Waters Still
That run so dark, so deep;
And the leaves were stirred by the Early Bird
Who sought his breakfast where
He marked the squirm of the Turning Worm-
And the Cat was Killed by Care!
19 Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, Context and Meaning, in Proverbs 25-27
(Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988) 31.
addition, since wisdom is concerned with discovering order and patterns in
the universe, does it not seem possible that to some degree there would be
order in the wisdom book of Proverbs?
The hermeneutic of Paul Ricoeur will aid in discovering the macro-
structure of texts in Proverbs. As noted in chapter one, his hermeneutic
involves two commensurate movements. The first, distanciation, is
concerned with an explanation of the text via a structural analysis. The
second movement is that of appropriation which extends the text out from its
internal structure to its external reference. This reference is the audience that
is here and now. Since these texts are a part of the Christian canon of
Scripture, throughout this chapter I will assume my secondary referent to be
the contemporary Christian community. I would like to apply my
hermeneutical perspective to two texts of proverbs that appear, on first
reading, to be clustered around an interest in the proper use of oral discourse.
Oral Discourse as Art: Proverbs 25:11-28
The first text is Proverbs 25:11-28. Is there an overarching structure that
can be discovered in the text? Two scholars have argued for a structure that
underlies the whole of chapter 25. It will be helpful to look at their analysis
before proceeding to the narrower confines of 25:11-28. In an article in
Journal of Biblical Literature written in 1972, Glendon Bryce maintained that
this chapter (25:2-27) was a small wisdom book.20 Bryce argued this on the
basis of a structural analysis of the text. His structural analysis revealed that
25:2-5 served as an introduction because it contained the two principle themes
20 Glendon E. Bryce "Another Wisdom-'Book' in Proverbs" Journal of
Biblical Literature (1972) : 145-157.
of these verses: the king (vv. 2-3) and the wicked (vv. 4-5). The two main
sections of the book deal with the ruler or king (vv. 6-15) and the wicked (vv.
16-27). Verse 27 concludes the unit because its first line echoes the first line of
verse 16, which is the first verse of the second section. In addition, the second
line of verse 27 reflects back to the first verse of the unit (v. 2).21 Thus verse
27 forms an inclusio with verses 2 and 16. Even though the boundaries of
Bryce's text (25:2-27) are different than the boundaries I will propose (25:11-213),
his analysis uncovers a structural plot that shapes these proverbs into a
coherent unit and lays the structural groundwork for my interpretation.
Raymond C. Van Leeuwen commends Bryce for his analysis but
believes that it is incomplete.22 The weakness of Bryce's structural analysis,
according to Van Leeuwen, is that it assumes that a structure of a text must be
a narrative structure and must reveal a narrative sequence. According to
Bryce, in Proverbs chapter 25 the king is involved in a quest for wisdom. The
narrative begins with a situation in which there is a lack of wisdom and
moves forward to discover that wisdom.
Van Leeuwen seeks to look at the structure of this passage from a
different light. He analyzes the structure of Proverbs 25:2-27 in terms of three
21 Bryce translates verse 27b in the following way: "But to search out
difficult things is glorious." Verse 2 is translated "It is the glory of God to hide
a matter/ and it is the glory of kings to search it out." The catch word in both
22 Raymond C. Van Leeeuwen, Context and Meaning in Proverbs 25-27
(Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988) 70. Van Leeuwen devotes chapter two in his
book to explicating Bryce's work (pp. 21-28). He calls Bryce's work "rhetorical
criticism" because it focuses on the poetic and stylistic features of the text (pp.
components: its structure, its poetics, and its sense. In terms of its structure,
Van Leeuwen divides the unit in the following way:
25:6-15 Section I
25:16-20 Section IIa
25:21-27 Section IIb23
The structure of these units is made up of an alternation between
Sayings (S) and Admonitions (A).24 The introduction consists of a solid block
of positive Sayings and then the body of the text alternates between positive
and negative Sayings and Admonitions:
A:- (vv 6-10)
S:+ (vv 11-15)
A:- (vv 16-17)
S: (vv 18-20)
A:+ (vv 21-22)
S: - (vv 23-27)25
The second component Van Leeuwen considers for his synchronic
analysis has to do with the poetics of the unit. By poetics Van Leeuwen has
reference to "those rhetorical or stylistic devices which relate the various
Sayings and Admonitions to one another."26 Van Leeuwen incorporates
23 Van Leeuwen 61-62
24 Sayings are proverbs composed in the form of the indicative. They
offer descriptions of experiences or teach a moral. Admonitions are in the
imperative. They issue a command to the listener or reader. There are
positive (+) and negative (-) Sayings and Admonitions.
25 Van Leeuwen 64.
26 Van Leeuwen 53. Van Leeuwen says that Old Testament critics
often use the phrase rhetorical criticism "as a name for what is more properly
Bryce's stylistic contribution in demonstrating how verse 27 is an inclusio for
the text tying the beginning, the middle and the end together.
The third component relates to the sense or the themes of the text.
Van Leeuwen maintains that
for all the diversity of its individual topics and themes, Prov
25:2-27 is a composition united by two main concerns: 1) social
hierarchy, rank, or position; and 2) social conflict and its
resolution. The primary address of this chapter is to the young
men of the royal court. . . . Yet by their very nature, these sayings
have a wide applicability beyond the court.27
Thus focusing on the components of structure, poetics, and sense, Van
Leeuwen makes a strong case for understanding this unit as a whole and not
as a haphazard self-contained collection of individual proverbs.
Not only does the structure, style, and sense point to the unity of this
text, but the type or genre of proverbs that make up this text also points to
such a conclusion. Proverbs 25:11-28 are riddle-like proverbs formed on the
principle of analogy. Such a type compares some relational or moral
phenomenon to a natural phenomenon. The natural phenomenon is
typically stated in the first line and the relational in the second. Actually the
majority of proverbs in chapters 25-27 are riddle-like proverbs. This
clustering together of proverbial genres is a common practice in the book of
Proverbs. For example, chapters 10-15 are primarily made up of antithetic
stylistic or poetic criticism. That is, the actual focus is on the literary work
itself as art object, rather than on its reader-relatedness, as 'rhetorical criticism'
in the strict sense implies" (p. 52).
27 Van Leeuwen 72-73
proverbs and chapters 16-22 of extension proverbs. The grouping of like
genres is witness to an imposed structure on the individual sayings.
Building on the insights of both Bryce and Van Leeuwen, I would like
to suggest, however, that the boundaries of the text in chapter 25 are verses
11-28. One reason for suggesting the text begin with verse 11 is that the
preceding verses are structured more along the lines of a narrative, more like
the instruction proverbs found in chapters 1-9. Verses 2-10 contains a trio of
narrative vignettes. Verses 2-5 are a narrative dealing with the responsibility
of the king. Verses 6-7b are a vignette addressing the relationship a young
man is to have in the king's court. And verses 7c-10 are a narrative about
one's ethical responsibility to one's neighbor. Chapter 25:11-28 is not
structured around any narrative sequence but around the common topos of
speech.28 Another reason for believing that the text begins with verse 11 is
that this is the beginning of the riddle-like proverbs. Prior to this the form of
the verses are extension proverbs.
The following is my translation of the text under examination.
v 11 Apples of gold in settings of silver/ (4)29
a word well turned / / (4)
v 12 A ring of gold and a trinket of fine gold / (4)
one who gives wise reproof to a listening ear/ / (5)
v 13 Like coldness of snow on the day of harvest/ (4)
is a faithful envoy to his senders/ (3)
and his master's soul he restores / / (3)
28 Elizabeth Faith Huwiler has argued that "speech and silence" is a
common theme that holds the text of 25:11-20 together as a unit. See
Elizabeth Faith Huwiler, Control of Reality in Israelite Wisdom,
unpublished dissertation, Duke University, 1988, pp. 214-230.
29 The number in parenthesis following each line refers to the number
of Hebrew words in each line.
v 14 Clouds and wind but no rain/ (4)
a man who boasts in false gifts / / (4)
v 15 Through patience a ruler will be persuaded30/ (4)
and a soft tongue will break a bone / / (4)
v 16 You have found honey - eat only enough for yourself/ (4)
lest you be sated with it and vomit it / / (3)
v 17 Make your foot rare in your friend's house/ (4)
lest he be sated with you and hate you / / (3)
v 18 A club31 and sword and sharpened arrow/ (4)
a man who answers against his neighbor, a false witness / / (5)
v 19 A broken tooth and a shaky foot/ (4)
confidence in a deceiver in the day of distress / / (4)
v 20 Removing a garment on a cold day/ (4)
vinegar on a wound32/ (3)
and singing songs to a sad heart / / (5)
v 21 If the one who hates you is hungry give him bread to eat/ (5)
if he is thirsty give him water to drink / / (4)
v 22 For you33 will snatch up coals on his head/ (6)
and Yahweh will reward you / / (3)
v 23 A north wind will produce34 rain/ (4)
and a secret tongue,35 angry faces / / (4)
v 24 Better to dwell upon the corner of a roof/ (5)
than in a spacious36 house with a contentious woman / / (4)
v 25 Cold water on a thirsty soul/ (5)
and a pleasant report from a distant land / / (4)
30 The Hebrew word is htaPA and literally means "to be open."
31 Both Kittel and Brown, Driver, and Briggs suggest emendation of
the pointing from Cpime to CPema. See BDB p. 807.
32 The Hebrew text reads "vinegar on soda." The idea is that the two
are incompatible, adding one bitter thing to another. However, the word can
also be translated "wound." See McKane p. 588.
33 "you" is emphatic in the Hebrew text.
34 The Hebrew root is lUH. See Brown, Driver, Briggs p. 297
35 The image here is of one who gossips.
36 I follow Kittel's recommendation of emending the text from from rb,HA
(hrb) to bHarA (rhb). hrb refers to that which is common or to company.
v 26 A spring which has been befouled and a polluted well/ (4)
a righteous one who slips before a wicked person/ / (4)
v 27 To eat too much honey is not good/ (5)
so be sparing of complimentary wards/ /37 (3)
v 28 A city broken into and there is no wall/ (4)
a man who has no self control / / (5)
What patterns, moves and images can be surfaced in this text of
proverbs? In the first line of verse 11 a beautiful piece of art work is
imagined, the centerpiece of which is "apples of gold." Such a masterpiece of
human art is compared to the artistic use of words. McKane suggests that the
second line might literally refer to a word upon its two wheels. If so, he
claims that the "reference is then to the compact elegance of expression
produced by the balancing halves of a wisdom sentence."38 That is, the "two
wheels" refer to the two parallel halves of a proverb. In any event, the second
line is somewhat cryptic but refers to the artful and creative use of speech. It
is a skill that can be taught and learned.
Verses 11 and 12 are a proverbial pair because both use the image of
precious metal as an analogy for proper speaking and listening. In both
proverbs the gold is crafted into something aesthetically pleasing and artistic.
In the context of verse 12, the gold is more than likely fashioned into an
earring. Such attractive jewelry is compared to advice that is seasoned with