Humour In The Proverbs - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

Humour In The Proverbs - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

Humour In The Proverbs

Discretion counsels the suppression of this chapter. Justice insists that it shall be written, for the Hebrews, on the evidence of the Scriptures, have been accused of lacking humour; a much more serious offence than being inartistic. Humour, divine gift, is no merely ornamental or superfluous quality we can easily afford to do without, but is the active antagonist of many deadly sins. From inordinate ambitions and peacock vanity humour is a strong deliverer. If only Germany could have laughed at herself now and then these past thirty years! Of course the mere fact that the accusation has been levelled against the Hebrews is nothing serious, for the same charge has actually been made against the Scotch; but whilst the Scot is well able to take care of his own reputation, few have been concerned to defend the Hebrew on this score.

The Bible is on the whole a solemn book, but remember the nature of its subjects. British humour is plentiful enough; but you will seek it in the pages of Punch rather than in our volumes of jurisprudence or in official histories or in impassioned orations urging the redress of wrongs, or in The Book of Common Prayer, or in the hymnaries. It is not fair to expect that Hebrew humour will show itself to full advantage in the Scriptures. However, the least promising material has a way of supplying against its will one form of humour—the unintentional; we can all quote some examples from the hymn-book. Of this unconscious humour, the Bible has its share. Many no doubt will recall that stricken Assyrian army of whom it is naïvely said in the Authorised Version that “when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.” So in the proverbs there are numerous sayings which to us are provocative of a laugh or a smile, or at least bring to memory certain amusing incidents of life, but which probably were uttered by their authors without a thought of anything comical in the words. Thus, the following, There is one that toileth and laboureth and maketh haste, and is so much the more behind (E. 1111), may be meant as a solemn inculcation of the doctrine “More haste, less speed,” but we conjure up a vision of our fussy friend and see the fun in it. Again the remark (Pr. 2617), He that passeth by and vexeth himself with strife not belonging to him is like one that taketh a dog by the ears (and then finds he dare not let go!), is to us amusing but to its author may have seemed merely a shrewd or apt comparison; and yet in this instance we may suspect the Sage also had a smile for the impulsive man’s predicament. Is the humour of this unconscious: Houses and riches are an inheritance from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the Lord (Pr. 1914)? Far be it from a prudent man to say.

The question of Hebrew humour, however, goes much deeper. Doubtless there is a philosophy of laughter, and an ideal humour, possibly a standard joke to which all other jokes imperfectly conform; but what the definition of this perfect humour may be who dare yet say? At present the nations have each their own opinion and the divergencies are great. We must ask of the Hebrew no more than Hebraic humour, and it does not necessarily follow that his notion of fun will coincide with ours or even nearly resemble it. Was he humorous in an Eastern way?—nothing more can reasonably be required.

What then was the way of humour in the Semitic East? Fortunately life in Palestine has altered so little that modern observation can help us to an answer. “The first appearance of an Eastern”, writes Dr. Kelman, “is grave and solemn, with an element of contempt in it rather trying to the stranger. The Eastern does not understand chaff, his wildest outbreak of humour reaching no further than those solemn and laboured puns of which he has always been so fond.... Perhaps it is due to the ever-present remembrance of danger that the Eastern—especially if he be an Arab—so often assumes a show of superiority and bullying swagger, which seem to the uninitiated quite impervious to any thought of fun. But the mask is easily laid aside, and the gravest and most contemptuous Syrian will suddenly collapse into harsh laughter or forget himself in childish interest. Their notion of entertainment differs so much from ours that Eastern “festivities” may appear to us only wearisome or even ridiculous. On one occasion we arrived at our tents to find a ‘poet’ or improvisator, waiting for us. The minstrel seated himself on the ground, while we formed a wide circle round him, and the camp-servants stood behind. From a cloth-bag he produced an instrument which bore close resemblance to a domestic shovel, much the worse for wear and perforated with little irregular holes as if it had been shot. He began to play, and sang a selection which soon conquered any levity that may have greeted his beginning. He had but a few tunes and they all ended in the Minor doh si lah, the lah being prolonged, diminuendo and tremolo, in a long wail that had a sob in it. While the wail was dying away his head was thrown forward and his face uplifted, the upper lip quivering rapidly and the eyes rolling from side to side. Then just as he seemed to have reached silence, came a quick spasmodic outburst, very loud and clear, with vigorous accompaniment, which in its turn died off in the same long wail. All this must be imagined with a wonderful sunset of gold in a sky of indigo and grey, against which the figure of the Arab sat in dark silhouette.” A pleasure so ludicrously sad would certainly seem to imply a lack of humour in those who can enjoy it; but—“the minstrel whom we have described was quite open for joking when he had emerged from his ecstasy.... Often at night there is singing among the servants of the camp and outbursts of hilarity can be heard.... When a fantazia (to celebrate the gift of a fatted sheep) was held there was no possibility of mistake as to the mirth.” Thus there is good reason to mistrust appearances. And certainly it is inherently improbable that the Hebrews should have been devoid of humour; for, as Dr. Kelman goes on to insist, “the East is full of provocatives to mirth. Take the one instance of the camel. Much has been written about him from many points of view, but justice has never been done to the camel as a humorous animal. Yet he is the most humorous of all the inhabitants of the East. Beside him, with his sardonic pleasantry, the monkey is a mountebank and the donkey but a solemn little ass. He has been described as ‘the tall, simple, smiling camel’; but on closer acquaintance he turns out to be hardly as simple as he might be taken for, and if he smiles, he is generally smiling at you. The camels you meet in Syria are carrying barley with the air of kings and regarding their human companions with, at best, a contemptuous tolerance.” Dr. Kelman in conclusion comments on, and cites examples of the camel’s unsanctified capacity for conduct bearing a horrible resemblance to that abomination of human invention—the practical joke.

To sum up. Eastern humour is by no means non-existent, but being often deliberately concealed or restrained in the presence of strangers and being of a different temper from our own, it may easily fail to be observed by Western eyes. Generally speaking, it is apt to be of the most awkward Order of the Camel’s Hump, tending to other people’s disadvantage, fond of personalities, often coarse because primitive, and, it may be, cruel. This being so, it will now readily be understood that the Bible held for its contemporaries much more wit than we are wont to perceive in it. Thus to many a Hebrew the incidents of Jacob’s clever, and none too scrupulous, dealings narrated in Genesis would seem not only edifying but also extremely amusing. From this point of view such a saying as (Pr. 1712) Let a bear robbed of her whelps meet a man rather than a fool in his folly is a merry jest; other examples from the proverbs will be given below.

But however plentiful this fierce and bitter kind of fun, the sting of the original accusation is not drawn. After all, our conviction remains deep-rooted that there is only one real humour—our humour; and no other brand is genuine. What men miss, and complain of missing, is that fine impartial sense of the ludicrous which is just as ready to see the disproportionate in ourselves as in others. The humour we demand is that kindly, tolerant, variety which can laugh at our own folly with profit and enjoyment, and at our neighbour’s without malice. But is even this best of all humour absent from the Bible? Rare it may be; absent altogether it is not, and with a certain triumph we venture to claim its presence in not a few of the Wise-men’s sayings, to which may be added an occasional proverb from the Rabbinic literature.

Beginning, however, with examples of the dry or caustic type of wit, camel-humour, let us take some of the sayings on Woman to illustrate the point. Doubtless the ladies had a great deal to say in reply, but with the customary meanness of man their remarks have been suppressed by the Sages:

As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout,

So is a fair woman without discretion (Pr. 1122).

It is better to dwell in the corner of the roof

Than in a wide house with a fractious woman (Pr. 2524; cp. 219).

A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike (Pr. 2715).

One saying there is on this topic, which comes nearer to our thought of humour, its bitterness being forgotten in the quaintness of the simile employed:

As the going up a sandy way is to the feet of the aged,

So is a wife full of words to a quiet man (E. 2520).

Some of the characters pictured in Chapter VII. lent themselves to sarcasm, particularly the Sluggard, and the Fool; but, if certain of the proverbs about them may seem too heavy-handed, touched with the camel brand of humour, others surely come near to being “the real thing.” Of the Sluggard the remark, He that is slack in his work is brother of him that is a destroyer (Pr. 189) is true, undeniably true, but a trifle icy in its wit. More amusing and much more genial were these sayings, which we may repeat from Chapter VII.: The sluggard saith, “There is a lion in the way; a lion is in the streets” (Pr. 2613)—The sluggard burieth his hand in the dish, it wearieth him to bring it again to his mouth (Pr. 2615)—and, above all, the Sluggard’s Anthem, Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep (Pr. 2433). Of the Fool, some observations are almost savage, such as Pr. 1712 (quoted above), and this—Though thou bray a fool in a mortar ... yet will his folly not depart from him (Pr. 2722). The following are more subtle and on the whole more kind: The legs of the lame hang loose, so doth a story in the mouth of fools (Pr. 267)—The eyes of a fool are in the ends of the earth (Pr. 1724)—He that discourseth to a fool is as one discoursing to him that slumbereth; at the end of it he will say, “What is it?” (E. 228). But the Fool and Mr. Lazybones were ever an easy target: it needed a prettier wit to slay the Self-Advertiser with a word, but does not this saying despatch him neatly, It is not good to eat much honey; so for men to search out their own glory is not glory (Pr. 2527)?

Here is a pleasing pair of contrasts—to the disadvantage respectively of a would-be “silent Solomon,” and of a Chatterbox:

There is that keepeth silence, for he hath no answer to make;

And there is that keepeth silence as knowing his time (E. 206).

There is that keepeth silence and is found wise;

And there is that is hated for his much talk (E. 205).

In conclusion we give some proverbs that seem to the present writer still more clearly to come within the category of modern humour, whether by reason of their sly shrewdness or some droll comparison, or even a frank intention to rouse our sense of fun:

He that pleadeth his cause first seemeth just, but his neighbour cometh and searcheth him out (Pr. 1817).

Better is he that is lightly esteemed and hath a servant, than he that makes a fine show and lacketh bread (Pr. 129).

There is that buyeth much for a little and payeth for it again sevenfold (E. 2012).

In the city my Name, out of the city my Dress (C. 265).

Sixty runners may run, but they will not overtake the man who has breakfasted early (C. 86);

Thy friend hath a friend, and thy friend’s friend hath a friend (C. 258)—a canny hint on Gossip.

Confidence in an unfaithful man in time of trouble is like a broken tooth or a foot out of joint (Pr. 2519).

If one person tell thee thou hast ass’s ears, take no notice;

Should two tell thee so, procure a saddle for thyself (C. 191).

If our predecessors were angels, we are human; if they were human, we are asses (C. 141)!

As for this last observation, it may have been well enough once upon a time, but of course one would not dream of asserting it now-a-days—as regards the present generation it would be, yes, altogether inappropriate. Well, let us not dispute the matter. Ancient and modern, East and West, we can all unite to enjoy the honest fun and good counsel of Ben Sirach’s advice (E. 1910) to that distracted individual the man with a secret:

Hast thou heard a word? Let it die with thee. Be of good courage, it will not burst thee!

Excerpt From Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs By W. A. L. (William Alexander Leslie) Elmslie