Good Advice: Proverbs 21 – 31

There is a fundamentalist fear of the “slippery slope of liberalism,” which consists of the worry that allowing one fringe “immoral” behavior creates precedence to permit anything and everything wayward. In college, I wrote a short story satirizing the notion. In my ill-conceived tale, our young generation has become so difficult to engage – due to the Internet age and the immediate nature of our culture – that teachers begin using sexually explicit material as a pedagogical device. Yeah like they develop educational forms of pornography since the kids seem to be so obsessed with sex anyway. The story sums up with the students becoming increasingly bored with the salacious lessons, until the method becomes as equally ineffective as traditional teaching.

My creative writing classmates thought the story was “a little extreme.” The professor thought it was “oddly amusing at best.” Can’t win them all.

I actually understand the logic behind the fear; “We have to have some standards,” the conservative would say. This ties in with the idea of the infallibility of God’s word – that by allowing one crack in the foundation of the Bible (by disagreeing with a single verse or even word), the rest will inevitably crumble. Post-modern writers refer to this as the “destruction of the meta-narrative” – meaning that there really cannot be one singular ideology that fully applies to the universe. Instead, there must be a bunch of micro-narratives that apply to individual situations or time periods. This is a smack in the face of the Christian God – after all, His command, as well as that of most monotheistic deities, is for unilateral faith. There simply is no room for dissent among the beliefs of His followers. This presents a problem to the logical brain, something I’ve spent 5 months now trying to wrap my mind around.

So why not throw the baby out with the bath water? Remember my gay friend who warned me against this project? The one who said, “Why engage in a book that hates you?” The Bible does not hate me. It is one of the most enigmatic books ever composed, and it has been used as the inspiration for the greatest acts of love and evil on the planet. Yes, there are lots of people who read the Bible and hate me based on it, but the ones closest to me feel the opposite. They read it and love me for it.

In light of that, here is some of the great advice in the Proverbs. I have stated the danger in taking any one passage out of context, but I think that risk is mitigated when it motivates good behavior (rather than condemning evil).

A good name is more desirable than great riches;
to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.
Proverbs 22:1 (NIV)

Be a good person rather than a rich person.

Do not exploit the poor because they are poor
and do not crush the needy in court.
Proverbs 22:22 (NIV)

This seems to be something our courts often screw up.

Rescue those being led away to death;
hold back those staggering toward slaughter.
Proverbs 24:11 (NIV)

Help those in dire circumstances.

Without wood a fire goes out;
without a gossip a quarrel dies down.
Proverbs 26:20 (NIV)

Boy do we as a society like to over share, particularly about each other.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Proverbs 31:8 (NIV)

Perhaps one of the most important verses in the Bible.

And finally, my favorite bit of advice:

Let beer be for those who are perishing,
wine for those who are in anguish!
Let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
Proverbs 31:6-7 (NIV)

Thanks Solomon! I’ll get a case of Charles Shaw on the way home!

I’m going for a bit more positivity. And given how tomorrow’s reading in Ecclesiastes begins with “Everything Is Meaningless…” I pray that it won’t be short-lived.

Value v. Behavior: Proverbs 11 – 20

There is a way that appears to be right,
    but in the end it leads to death.
Proverbs 16:25 (NIV)

Any good advice taken out of context instantly becomes bad advice, or at the very least misguided.

This may come off as a harsh critique of Proverbs, one of the most beloved books of the Bible (and also one of the gentlest of the Old Testament in terms of language), but I mean it much more as an endorsement with a small, but important, asterisk. The modernly applicable advice in Proverbs is vast, covering the near whole of the book, but it is inherently dangerous to throw any of the passages around at face value, especially when defending potentially selfish behavior.

Let’s take a look at two verses that have the same overall value:

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
    but whoever hates correction is stupid.
Proverbs 12:1 (NIV)

And:

Whoever spares the rod hates their children,
    but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.
Proverbs 13:24 (NIV)

These two verses perfectly exemplify the biblical difference between value and behavior. On the shallowest reading, this passage appears to require parents to physically beat their children in order to enact discipline. With that interpretation – and the earlier advice for children to unilaterally submit to their parents’ wisdom – any parent is justified in striking their child in a punitive way. Actually, they are more than justified… they are universally encouraged.

But that seemingly stimulated behavior does not speak to the value which these verses truly reflect. The value is that parents ought to guide their children, and children ought to accept that instruction. A careful observer can grab these lines and apply their content to their individual context. Grabbing a rod and slamming your son and daughter is not always justified. That cannot be an allowed behavior from an eternally loving God, because it provides carte blanche to adults to act harshly without any close observation of the situation. Without any judgment on the legitimacy of physical punishment to children, most would agree that not every correction warrants that type of response, because that notion is logically ridiculous. 

Take the value, and leave the behavior. Take the value of parental respect, and leave the behavior of always beating your children. How else can you read books like Proverbs and believe in their infallibility? The only way that I could ever believe in the total efficacy of God’s word is to allow room for context. Otherwise, the Bible disproves itself with its obvious contradictions (one moment telling us that God gifts the pure with long life, and the next saying he can take life whenever He deems). However, if you read the Bible by taking the values and leaving the behaviors, it instantly becomes understandable and even fortified against criticism.

If you need further proof, then look no further than this little bit:

Do not love sleep or you will grow poor;
    stay awake and you will have food to spare.
Proverbs 20:13 (NIV)

Come on Solomon. Now you’re just messing with us.

Advice: Proverbs 1 – 10

The opening of Proverbs states the purpose of the book. According to Solomon, the writer of Proverbs, these verses are:

For gaining wisdom and instruction;
        for understanding words of insight. (1:2)

This is another book of wisdom written in the form of poetry, just as we saw with Psalms. However, there is a very distinct difference between the two – Psalms focused on slippery nature of God and all of His actions and decrees while Proverbs is far less esoteric. This book is about advice in much more specific terms. Gone are the days of “Follow God and good things will happen;” no, here we are digging into the unambiguous, which makes it less open to interpretation from the reader.

Here are some highlights from the first ten chapters:

Follow your father and mother’s teachings. (1:8)
Wisdom will give you the heart to discern evil. (2:12)
Do not plot against your neighbor. (3:29)
Stay away from adultery. (5:8)
“Things” have no true value. (10:2)

These are strong overall values – it is not a surprise to me that Biblegateway.com lists Proverbs as one of the ten most visited books (Psalms ranks up there as well). While Solomon does not pull his punches in terms of rebukes, he does often rely on the positive effects of a holy life. Take a moment and juxtapose this with the language of the rest of the Old Testament Law, which consisted mainly of threats against the unrighteous.

As level-headed as Solomon seems, his book is not without its own head-scratches; in addition to the sound advice listed above, here are some others that leave a strange feeling behind:

Laugh when others hit calamity for ignoring your advice. (1:26)
Prostitutes are okay – when compared with sleeping with a man’s wife. (6:26)
Do not bother correcting evil-doers. Focus on the wise instead. (9:8)

Additionally, Solomon states seven times that those who follow God will live a long life, a fact that we know simply is not true [(3:2) (3:16) (4:4) (4:10) (4:22) (9:11) (10:16)].

I don’t feel disgruntled or even less faithful for reading these quizzical passages – quite the opposite actually. Reading these sections of the Bible often reinforce the feeling I have that the underlying values of God are meant to be applied to each cultural realm. Such is the nature of advice. It is often provided without much context, so it is up to the listener to discern the wisdom that applies.

Blanket statements like “Always listen to your parents” or “Never lie” have always felt strange to me, because they lack empathy for the situation. They beg for the reader to go “But, but, but, THIS is different.” This is the issue so many people have for the Bible. Black-and-white diagnoses in a seemingly gray world.

I have been looking forward to the poetry of the Bible, because it is far more positive and affecting than the previous sections. It is advice – it is non-threatening. It lacks a metanarrative. Take what applies and leave the rest for another day.

How post-modern of Solomon.