A Rhetorical Perspective on the Sentence Sayings of the Book of Proverbs




                                                   Dave Bland



                          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)







Program Authorized

            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

            Conclusion                                                                                                     52

Chapter Two: The Biblical Proverb and its Micro-Dimensional

            Influences                                                                                                      54

            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

            Influences                                                                                                      138

            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


Bibliography                                                                                                              260







                                           Chapter One

                      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,

1960) 26.

            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,

1972) 24.

            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

is approached.

            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,

1982) 84-126.

            13 Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical

Wisdom Literature, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New Yok:

Doubleday) 15.

            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

(1989): 199.

            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

individual parts."38

            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

following observation:

                        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

(1979): 347.

            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

particular exigence.

            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

the proverb.

                        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

textual significance."69


            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

was used.

            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

the author.

            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

specific situation.

            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

decontextualization approach.

            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

Lev. 25:3-7.


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

chapter two.

            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

on structure.

            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

a task.


            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).


                                                 Chapter Two

                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

this way:

                        "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

parallel lines:

                        "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

rhetorical strategy.

            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 / /

                        Psalm 33:22

                        If a camp encamp about me / my heart shall not fear / /

                        Psalm 27:3

                        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

second line.

            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

stich (four).


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

following proverbs:

                        "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

ABBA pattern.

            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

a parable.

            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

"nagging wife:"51

                        "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

material prosperity.58

            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

following proverb:

                        "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

lazy man:

                        "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

quarrelsome man.

            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//"

                        (26: 8)

                        "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

standard two.


                        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

Proverbs 27:19:

                        "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.


                                                Reasoning Patterns

            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

this way:

                        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

following proverbs:

                        "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

of joy:

                        "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

negative together.

            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.


                                            Proverbial Content

            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

God disposes."


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)

                        Broadminded (open-minded)

                        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)

                        Happiness (contentment)

                        Self-respect (self-esteem)

                        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

agricultural community:

                        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

(1988): 207-224.

            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.


                                                Chapter Three

                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

appropriate time.

            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;

                        emphasis mine).


            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,

December 1992.


                        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

needed referent?


            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

labels C.


            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

is "glory."

            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.

23, 70).


components: its structure, its poetics, and its sense. In terms of its structure,

Van Leeuwen divides the unit in the following way:

                        25:2-5 Introduction

                        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:

                        Body   I

                                    A:- (vv 6-10)

                                    S:+ (vv 11-15)

                        Body   IIA

                                    A:- (vv 16-17)

                                    S: (vv 18-20)

                        Body   IIB

                                    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