The Proverbs Of The Jews - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

The Proverbs Of The Jews - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

The Proverbs Of The Jews

Of the facts we have been considering one is specially relevant to the subject, not only of this volume but of the series in which it forms a part—namely, the intimately human quality of proverbs. Mr. Morley has called them “The guiding oracles which man has found out for himself in that great business of ours, of learning how to be, to do, to do without and to depart.” The Humanism of the Bible ought therefore to be visible nowhere more clearly than in Israel’s proverbs, if these are to be found within its pages. But stay! What right have we to expect their presence? Surely little or none, if the Bible is what many persons conceive it to be—only a book of religious teachings.

For consider the reasonable expectation, and contrast the extraordinary facts. In such a book we might reasonably expect to find a few proverbs: that a king should quote a saying to suit his purpose, a counsellor press home his wisdom with some well-known maxim, or a prophet edge his appeal by the use of a popular phrase—that would be quite natural, and indeed occurs. But actually (and here is the astonishing matter) there are proverbs by tens and by hundreds, gathered together in one Book of the Bible, following verse by verse, chapter by chapter, till they choke one another through sheer profusion, like flowers in an unkept garden.

Thus in five chapters of the Book of Proverbs (13-17) there are 154 separate adages. So strange a phenomenon challenges attention. It might be supposed that the Hebrew language had been ransacked for proverbs, but that suggestion will not stand scrutiny. On investigation, the Book proves to be no deliberate, systematic, attempt to collect the Hebrew proverbs. Thus, when we look for the few, but famous, popular sayings that occur in the historical and prophetic writings of the Old Testament, we find that not one of them is included. As for system, a casual glance will demonstrate its absence. In most chapters of Proverbs not even an effort is made to classify the material.

The Book cannot be explained as an anthology of Hebrew sayings—the most witty or worldly-wise, the most moral or religious. Whatever the explanation, here assuredly is something less artificial than an anthology. Good, bad, and indifferent proverbs alike are present. Many of the sayings unmistakably reflect a conception of morality more practical than exalted, and some appear grossly utilitarian. Time and again the consequences of sin are naïvely presented as the reasons for avoiding it, whilst the rewards of virtue are emphasized unduly. Later on we shall find reasons for holding that the utilitarian attitude is not fundamental, and therefore not so destructive of the ethical value of these proverbs as it might seem. But until both the circumstances which gave rise to the proverbs and the ends they were meant to serve are understood, until (as it were) we have seen the men who spoke the maxims and the people who repeated them, that more generous judgment is scarcely possible; and meantime, be it freely admitted, there are many things in the Book not agreeable to modern ethical taste.

Religiously, too, the Book of Proverbs is on the surface disappointing. Neither the fire of the Prophets’ faith is visible, nor the deep passion of the Psalmists’ longing after God. Who amongst us, seeking spiritual help, would choose a chapter in Proverbs when the Gospels or the Letters of St. Paul are open to him? So then on literary, ethical, and religious grounds there are plain reasons why this Book has lost something of its former favour. Contrast the estimation in which it was held only two generations ago. Ruskin records that four chapters of Proverbs, the third, fourth, eighth and twelfth, were amongst those portions of the Bible which his mother made him learn by heart and “so established my soul in life”; they were, he declares, “the most precious and on the whole essential part of all my education.” Not so long ago, Proverbs was a text-book in many schools; probably it is nowhere so used to-day.

Even if neglect of this part of the Scripture is partly chargeable to heightened standards of ethics or theology, the loss incurred is great. As a matter of fact, depreciation of its ethical temper is often based on inaccurate notions, often is exaggerated. In comparison with our fathers, who without commentaries read through their Bibles from cover to cover, we have not gained as we should; for, whilst we pride ourselves (with what measure of justice is uncertain) on being more sensitive to religious values, they were far better acquainted with the religious facts. They at least knew the contents of Scripture; we, who have at our disposal abundance of interpretative help whereby to learn the nature of the Bible and with instructed minds consider its spiritual worth, too often are ignorant both of text and commentary. Doubtless the fault is due to certain characteristics of our time.

This is a feverish impatient age; if our mental fare is not served us like our daily information, put up into easy paragraphs, so that he who runs may read, we will not stay to seek it; and the Old Testament is not an easy book, though it answers patience with astonishing rewards. Candidly, how does it stand with knowledge of the Bible at the present time? In charity let the question be addressed only to those who have a genuine interest in the Christian religion, desiring to rule their lives by its ideals and cherishing its promises. Even to such persons what is the Bible? A few there are who have found or made opportunity for serious consideration of its Books, and these have certainly felt the fascination of the vast and varied interests that have won and retained for biblical study the life-long service of many brilliant scholars. But to the others, and obviously they are thousands of thousands, the Bible is essentially the book of religion.

As such, the New Testament means the Gospel narratives, some immortal chapters from St. Paul, a few verses in Hebrews, and St. John’s vision of that City where death shall be no more. And what—religiously—in similar fashion is the Old Testament, except a few, comforting, beautiful Psalms; some childhood memories of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, generous David and brave Daniel; a tale or two of Elijah; a procession of Kings, and an uncharted sea of grand but most perplexing Prophets? Asked for a more general account, some would describe the Old Testament as a record of the laws, history, and religious ideas of the Hebrew people; others would answer that it is “part of the Word of God,” but they might all be at a loss to say what is the religious value of Leviticus, what the spiritual relation between Genesis and the Gospel, between Kings and Chronicles, between Job and Revelation. Probably the great majority of men at the present time would be quite willing to confess that their knowledge of the Bible is vague and insufficient, but few, we believe, would suspect that there is anything wrong with the basis from which their thinking proceeds: so firmly is it fixed in men’s minds that the Bible is merely the book of religion.

The Bible is that, but more also, more and yet again more. And how easily we might have realised the fact! Ought not the presence of these surprisingly heterogeneous proverbs alone to have stirred our curiosity, and so compelled the enlargement of our thoughts about the Old Testament? Without needing to be urged, men should, of their own accord, have perceived the astonishing range of interest and the wealth of literature the Bible contains, and should have seen in this variety a clue that would lead them by pleasant paths to treasures artistic and intellectual as well as religious. Thereby no loss could ensue religiously, but on the contrary gain. The greater our recognition of the artistic qualities of the sacred literature, the more exact and full our understanding of the history of the Jews and of their beliefs and interpretation of life, so much the more wonderful will the actual development of religion in Israel be seen to be.

This is the point to which the above remarks are meant to lead. If the Biblical proverbs compel as a first conclusion the recognition of how much more the Old Testament is than a text-book for theology, that is a minimum and an initial discovery; our appreciation of its meaning will assuredly not end there. The growth, in Israel, of the knowledge of God into a high and holy faith is an indisputable fact. Increase your comprehension of the circumstances attending this development, and your faith in the reality of a self-revealing God should increase also.

So much for the presence of these proverbs in the Bible. Now consider the affirmation with which the first chapter concluded: that proverbs have once been literature. That claim may be advanced on behalf of the sayings of the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus. It is of course obvious that the difficulty which has to be overcome is the essential independence of proverbial sayings: each is so relentlessly complete in itself. How can they be so related to each other as to acquire the higher unity indispensable for literature? The lack of system in the Book of Proverbs has already been admitted frankly; but the point must again be emphasized. So far from the five chapters with the 154 maxims, referred to above, being exceptional they are typical of the greater portion of the Book. Continually we encounter the same astonishing disregard for consecutive, or even cognate, thought in the grouping of the proverbs. And yet, despite this fact, the attentive reader will become conscious of a subtle unity pervading the Book.

The impression will grow that the confusion is not absolute; somehow it is being held within bounds, whilst here and there chaos has evidently yielded to the command of a directing purpose. Obstinate independents as proverbs are, one discovers that here their masses, unruly though they still may be, have nevertheless become an army, a host sufficiently disciplined to serve a common end. As with a complicated piece of music through the intricacies of the notes runs ever an underlying theme, so here through the medley of disparate sayings can be heard the preaching of one great thought—“Wisdom.” Behind the proverbs, behind the Book, we discover men, preachers and teachers of an Idea, enthusiasts for a Cause—“Wisdom.” Just what that phrase implied, just what manner of men those advocates of Wisdom were, we shall see in due course.

The point for the moment is that these Jewish proverbs were not gathered haphazard, nor simply as a collection of Jewish proverbs; but for the express purpose of illustrating, developing, and enforcing the conception of Wisdom. Thus, through the influence of this specific intention, they received in sufficient measure the unity of literature. This fact is of the utmost importance for our subject, for it means that these proverbs may be considered not merely one by one but in their totality; that is, in their combination as text-books inculcating Wisdom. So regarded, they afford a glimpse of a remarkable class of men in the intensely interesting century or two when the intellectual foundations of Western civilization were being laid down. No doubt each proverb bears the impress of reality and has its individual interest, is (as it were) a coin struck out of active experience; but the same may be said of the collected proverbs as a whole, and because the whole has its own significance, the parts acquire a meaning and value they would not otherwise possess.

The Jews are an astonishing people. St. Paul perceived that they had a genius for religion, but they have had genius for many other things besides, as their strange fortunes testify. Their hand prospers, whithersoever it is turned. Who but the Jews can claim to have had a Golden Age in proverbs? In utilizing their popular sayings for a definite purpose, and in thus making them literature, the Jews succeeded in a feat that other nations have scarcely emulated, far less equalled. Moreover in the process the Jews made their proverbs superlatively good.

Some think that for wit and acuteness the ancient sayings of the Chinese are unsurpassed; for multitude and variety those of the Arabs and the Spaniards. But the Jewish proverbs of this “Wisdom” period excel all others in the supreme quality of being possession of all men for all time. They are marvelously free from provincial and temporary elements; and this is the more remarkable in that the Jews were intensely nationalistic, and their literature, as a rule, is steeped in racial sentiment. Of these proverbs, however, very few must be considered Hebraic in an exclusive sense, or indeed Oriental. The mass of them have been at home in many lands and many centuries, because they speak to the elemental needs of men. Again and again they touch the very heart of Humanity. They are universal.

But that is the characteristic of genius. If therefore proverbs be our study, we could ask no better subject than these proverbs of the Jews.

Even so our theme is far from easy. Life, when visible before us, can with difficulty be portrayed. Harder by far is it to recall life from literature, translating the symbols of letters into the sound of speech and looking through words into the color and movement of the scenes that by the magic of human language are there preserved, accurately enough, yet only like pale shadows of the reality. Hardest of all is it, when the documents to be studied are records of a far-past age and the life that of an alien people. But how well worth every effort is the task! “Many of us,” writes Mark Rutherford, “have felt that we would give all our books if we could but see with our own eyes how a single day was passed by a single ancient Jewish, Greek, or Roman family; how the house was opened in the morning; how the meals were prepared; what was said; how the husband, wife, and children went about their work; what clothes they wore, and what were their amusements.”

Information so detailed as Mark Rutherford desired will not be afforded by the Jewish proverbs. Nevertheless they are full of frank, intimate, comment on the ways of men and women, and of reflection on the experiences we all suffer or enjoy, and certainly should learn how best to encounter. If they yield less than might be wished for, still what they show is shown in the naïve and homely fashion that is so illuminating. Such being the difficulty of our task, and such the encouragement to pursue it, the reader will perhaps permit at the outset a short statement mentioning the writings where Jewish proverbs are to be found, and giving somewhat fuller information regarding the dates and composition of the two works from which the material of the following chapters will chiefly be derived.

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