The proverb


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an interdisciplinary approach to a biblical genre

By Ted Hildebrandt

Gordon College, Wenham, MA

August 15, 2005

1. Introduction

This study will examine the literary genre of the biblical proverb from an interdisciplinary approach that will include contributions from biblical studies, Hebrew poetics, ancient Near Eastern history, linguistics, folklore paremiology, and cognitive and computer sciences. After offering several definitions of the proverb, the nature of proverbs in collections will be explored. The roots of the universality of this genre will be exposed both historically and cognitively within the functioning of the brain. How proverbs are used and the variegated nature of their authority will be discussed. While focusing on biblical proverbs, several situations of origin will be given and various Hebrew poetic techniques will illustrate the crafting of the sentence sayings via sound, parallelism, figures/tropes, themes, vocabulary and deep structures. Various proverbial sentence structures will be described and then the collectors’ handiwork will be discerned in proverbial pairs, clusters, mini-collections and collections. Finally, suggestions will be made about future directions of proverbial study.

The questions addressed in the paper will be: what is a proverb? how does it come to meaning? does cognitive science help explain why proverbs are so universal in almost all cultures and all known historical time periods, from Sumer to the Internet? How does the proverb function in a collection differently from when it is used in a story? How is a single proverb changed when stripped out of its original story, decontextualized and resituated in a collection? How does a proverb’s meaning change when it is recontextualized, being taken from a collection and merged back into a new, and often diverse, story? How does a proverb differ from a promise? What is the nature of its authority? How do these pithy sentences intersect with truth? Do all proverbs move with and invoke the same level of authority? Where do the biblical proverbs originate (schools, family/clan, court/sages)? What factors play a role in shaping Hebrew proverbs? What literary forms occur in the biblical text of Proverbs (better-than, abomination, numerical sayings, etc.)? Do the proverbial sentences of Proverbs 10-29 have any order? Do larger edited units of pairs, strings/clusters, mini-collections and collections actually exist? Can we detect editorial tendenzes in the way the proverbs are collected and ordered? The goal will be to crack open the core nature of the pithy proverbial sayings by wrestling with these and related questions.

This study will attempt to make four contributions to the study of the proverbial genre: (1) the nature and virtuality of proverbs in collections will be revealed in relation to their becoming decontextualized in collections; (2) a five-level approach to proverbial authority will be developed; (3) an integrative approach combining the contributions of biblical wisdom studies with folklore paremiology, cognitive science and computer science will shed unique light on why these traditional sayings are so potent in most cultures; and (4) a link will be suggested between the underlying meaning of the acrostic literary form and the core wisdom theme of order/ma’at.

A twenty page condensation of this paper will be published in Inter-Varsity’s new Dictionary of Old Testament Wisdom and Poetry in 2006/7. A “Proverbs” website has also been developed in order to make broader resources available and provide a fuller context for this discussion (vid. currently at

1.1 Introduction to the Proverb

From the ancient clay tablets of Sumer (ca. 2500 B.C.) to post-modern Internet pop-ups, the proverb has crossed all cultural, linguistic and literary boundaries. It appears embedded in epics, poems, songs, plays, novels, and modern advertising and stands solo in a myriad of international and regional proverbial collections (Mieder, 2004, xii). These pithy sayings have been studied across the academic spectrum from the perspectives of linguistics, literature, religion, psychology, cognitive science, sociology, cultural anthropology, folklore, art, music, education, history, business management, communications, public relations and, of course, paremiology, which is the discipline devoted to the study of the proverb (paremia: Greek for “proverb”). Thus the proverb provides a fertile field for interdisciplinary dialogue. The basic corpus for this study of the proverbial genre will be those proverbs found in the Old Testament along with their relevant ancient Near Eastern parallels.

1.2. Definition

The proverb is portrayed by Lord Russell as “The wisdom of many, the wit of one” and by Cervantes as “Short sentences drawn from long experience.” Ibn Ezra describes the proverb as having “three characteristics: few words, good sense, and a fine image.” The world’s leading paremiologist, Wolfgang Mieder, while acknowledging the difficulty of providing a comprehensive definition, defines the proverb as “a short, generally known sentence of the folk which contains wisdom, truth, morals, and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed and memorizable form and which is handed down from generation to generation” (Mieder, 2004, 3).

Neal Norrick, using a linguistically crafted matrix, isolates the key features of the proverb as: (1) a propositional statement (hence eliminating proverbial phrases such as “bite the dust” and larger units such as fables); (2) sayings woven into the fabric of a conversation (as opposed to riddles, jokes or tales which are set off from a conversation); (3) a traditional and spoken statement (in contrast to aphorisms [statement of insight, often paradoxical and thought provoking] and epigrams [a brief poem of a single point] which are typically written, non-traditional, and attributed to a particular author); and (4) a fixed form with didactic intent and completeness of thought (dissimilar to cliches that lack didactic intent). Furthermore, a proverb is a generalization, unlike a curse or blessing that is personal and particular. A proverb may be figurative when it uses metaphors or similes or plainly literal (maxim). Usually it is poetically enhanced through such techniques as rhyme, alliteration, ellipsis, paronomasia, repetition or parallelism which aid in making it memorable and quotable (Norrick, 66ff; cf. Fox, 14f; Williams, 37-39, Mieder, 2004, 7).

Structurally a proverb is often composed of a topic and comment (Dundes):

Topic Comment

“a simple person” + “believes anything” (Prov. 14:15)

If the proverb is metaphorical its common, non-metaphorical meaning must be deduced. For example, “don’t cry over spilled milk” literally means, one should not waste time worrying about things that cannot be undone or changed. This literal meaning then may be employed in a diverse range of situations. So a soccer coach quotes this proverb to encourage her team to move on after a loss. In a totally different situation, a friend taunts a friend who has just lost a round of scrabble quoting the saying as he lays out the winning letters for “milk.”

Anna-Leena Kuusi, proposes that proverbs are characterized by binary oppositions and Milner adds that many have a quadripartite structure. While the quadripartite structure is not universal as Richard Honek notes, it fits with many of the biblical antithetic proverbs (Honek, 21; Kuusi, 1972, Milner).

“Lazy hands [-] make a person poor [-],

but diligent hands [+] bring wealth [+]” [Prov. 10:4]

2. The Virtual Potential of Collected Proverbs

Though a precise “definition” of a proverb is elusive most readers are easily able to recognize one. Its disjuncture from the contextual flow calls for its recognition, identification and interpretation. The proverb is frequently foregrounded from the surrounding context allowing it to be easily distilled out of its literary surroundings.

Mieder concludes that proverbs taken out of their original situations and placed in collections are dead (Mieder, 1974; 892; Heim, 23). This study maintains that a proverb is not dead when it is decontextualized into a collection, however. Once detached or de-contextualized into a collection, the collected proverb becomes much more flexible and poly-situational in terms of its potential use.

Insight into how a collected proverb is related to the proverb used in an interactive situation can be gained from the study of virtual reality by Pierre Levy. Levy describes that which is virtual as a seed having new multi-faceted potentials not possessed by the actual (cf. Levy passim). By being derealized a new collection of possibilities and potentialities is opened up. Similarly, when a proverb is taken out of a specific interactional situation, it does not die in the collection, but rather, it takes on new potentials and possibilities by becoming virtual. The collected proverb gains flexibility, multi-semanticity, and poly-situational potentiality when detached from a particular situation and placed in a collection. Its potential is virtual in the collection and actualized when it is reattached and recontextualized in a host of diverse specific situations. The collected proverb’s virtuality is actualized in each new textual or situational usage.

Computers science has also given another way of conceptualizing this movement from the collection to the use in a particular situation. In modern programming languages objects are defined in a program. Once defined these code objects can be used in hundreds of new parts of the program by just referencing their name. The collected proverb is like a class object which can be called into use in a host of new situations once it is known by the user. This is called “instantiation” as it provides an “instance of” a proverb or object in actual use. The proverb is not dead in collection but virtual awaiting its instantiation in a new particular situation.

An illustration of the virtual potential of a proverb may be seen in the use of Prov. 14:15: “A simple person believes anything.” One can easily imagine recontextualizing this same proverb in a wide range of speech-act contexts utilizing it to expose, humiliate, rebuke, mock, warn, offer guidance, encourage, evaluate, humor, cause reflection or instruct, among others. A parent may cite this proverb to warn a young child about the tricks played by older siblings on the younger. In another situation, a friend might use the same proverb to mock a friend that just fell for a sales pitch. The potential of the virtual is actualized when the proverb is reconnected or instantiated within each alternative context of use. The proverb’s unique ability to be detached from its context of creation facilitates its collection (Abrahams, 417).

In order to understand the use of a proverb the communicative intention of the user as well as the cultural readiness and familiarity of the hearer must be known. This interaction between the user and hearer will be a determining factor in what the proverb comes to mean in a particular situation. Carol Fontaine describes how traditional sayings or proverbs are used in the historical narratives. She cites examples from Judges (8:2, 21) and 1 Samuel (16:7; 24:14) describing how the “interaction situation” functions in relationship to the “proverb situation” in the Bible (Fontaine, 57f; Lieber, 111).

The historical narratives containing proverb situations also shed light on the process of proverb creation and formulation. A proverb is created when there is a situation from which a pattern is observed, after which a detachable generalizing inference is distilled inductively, deductively or analogically into a single statement. This distilled saying is formulated by metaphoric imagery and poetic sound techniques. The crafted saying is then detached from its situation of creation and placed in a collection thereby gaining virtual potency and poly-situational flexibility ready for instantiation in a myriad of new situations.

Honek, a cognitive scientist, while acknowledging the inductive-like inference in the generalization process, redefines it as analogical reasoning where one realm is mapped metaphorically onto another via the proverb (Honek, 114). He further penetrates the source of the proverb by noting that the proverbial generalization encapsulates some cultural ideal or value that is either confirmed or disconfirmed by the saying (Honek, 140ff). This cognitive linking of inductive/ analogical generalization and ideal fits very well with the biblical proverbs. So the proverbial parent looks out the window of his house and distills a generalized lesson for life about how the simple are seduced (Prov. 7:6). Similarly, the sluggard is encouraged to go to the ant, observe, reflect and through analogical reasoning from the realm of the ant draw conclusions in the realm of humans on whether the sluggard should have need of close supervision (Prov. 6:6f; 24:30-34). Both of these are ideal confirming. On the other hand, in Proverbs 26:1 the sage, using an analogically based simile, draws a comparison of the inappropriateness of snow in summer to the inappropriateness of bestowing honor on a fool.

A proverbial generalization is crafted into a saying by using architectonic structures of the genre (e.g. Like x, like y; cf. Like mother, like daughter) as well as poetically enhancing it via sound (e.g. assonance, consonance, alliteration, paronomasia), imagery (e.g. metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, simile) or perhaps repetition or ellipsis (cf. “a stitch in time saves nine” or “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”). Once it is encapsulated, the proverb’s compactness allows it to be detached, become virtual and then to function as a metonymic tag as it is instantiated in a host of new situations. Familiarity with a saying facilitates a hearer’s ability to efficiently process its meaning (Honek, 98).

3. Universality of the Proverbial Form

3.1. Historical and Cultural Universality

The detachable and collectable proverbial form was early bound into Sumerian proverb collections, including the Shuruppak Instructions, dating back to 2600-1800 B.C. (Alster) shortly after the invention of writing itself. Old Babylonian proverbial clusters were copied from Sumerian unilingual collections into bilingual lists even maintaining the same sequence thereby reflecting the international movement of early proverbial wisdom (Lambert, 223). Old Babylonian copies of Sumerian proverbs found at Susa, Ur, and Nippur show the sayings’ geographical diversity. Later, Ahiqar, who served as a sage in the Assyrian courts of Sennacherib and Esarhaddon (ca. 700 B.C.), recorded proverbs that were widely transmitted across ancient Near Eastern cultures. Copies of Ahiqar (Assyria) were discovered deep in Egypt at Elephantine and quoted in the Jewish pseudepigrapha book of Tobit. Later, they were even translated into Arabic. Many have noted parallels between Ahiqar and the biblical book of Proverbs (Day, 43ff). Thus proverbs have been transmitted internationally since ancient times (vid. Lambert and Alster for English translations of Mesopotamian proverb collections).

Egypt also has a long tradition of proverbial instructions, often in a parent-to-child format, extending from the Old Kingdom (ca. 2600-2100 B.C.; e.g. Hardjedef, Kagemeni), Middle Kingdom (ca. 2000-1600 B.C.; e.g. Ptahhotep) and New Kingdom (1500-1080 B.C.; e.g. Amenemope, Ani) and down to demotic and the Ptolemaic times (ca. 300 B.C.; e.g. Ankhsheshonq; vid. Lichtheim for English translations of these texts). Parallels between Amenemope and Proverbs 22-24 have been extensively researched, with the extent and direction of borrowing still a matter of debate (cf. Washington, Ruffle).

The adages from classical Greek and Roman times were assembled by Erasmus (ca. 1542). English collections have highlighted the plethora of proverbs from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Tilley). In recent times, modern English and American collections provide good evidence of the fecundity of this literary genre (cf. Wilson, Mieder, Whiting). The Chinese, European and Russian collections are also voluminous. Oral proverbial production is still very much alive in the folklore of the Akan, Igbo and numerous other groups on the African continent. Finegan, as a cultural anthropologist, has studied African proverbs and concluded that they reveal the “soul of a people” (Finegan, 35). As Francis Bacon puts it, “The genius, wit, and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs” (Obelkevich, 220).

3.2 Cognitive Universality

To understand the proverbial genre within a biblical context it is important to grasp the universality of proverbial materials documented in almost every language and historical period. Proverbs are internationally fluid and easily migrate across regional, temporal and linguistic boundaries.

The human urge to classify, generalize and codify experience, filtered through a culture’s ideals and values, help explain the universality of the proverb. These sayings are recorded in memorable, compressed formats that project their pithy ideals into the realm of the virtual--ready to function in a host of new situations (cf. Honek, viii). One might say that proverbs are an encoding compression schema of the mind.

Once known, the proverb must be decoded, unpacked and reattached to a new situation in order to unleash its meaning potential. Such unpacking places large demands on the brain as metaphor and images must be analogically related to present circumstances. A proverb is not unpacked as a lexical unit or frozen cliche but is linguistically linked by metonymical and analogical processes to the situation at hand. The complexity of these processes provide a cognitive basis for why proverbs are used to isolate mental disorders (vid. Gorham Proverbs Test), to study child/adult thought development (Nippold, 367), to measure mental status (Wechsler Adult Intelligenced Scale-Revised (WAIS-R) and Stanford-Binet; Honek, 238) and even are employed to aid therapeutic communities where individuals recite proverbial wisdom to identify and break addictive behaviors (Rogers, 159).

Cognitive scientists have noted a link between proverb interpretation and a properly functioning right hemisphere of the brain. Those with damaged right hemispheres often could not interpret proverbs quickly or correctly. Familiarity and age also play key roles in whether proverbs are used and processed instantly and meaningfully (Honek, 221, 229 253). Honek comments on the cognitive rudiments of proverbial expression: “The ability to use and understand proverbs draws on a high order of intelligence. Not only is a healthy brain required, but so are a number of subskills, each of which takes years to develop” (Honek, 237).

The reception of wisdom has moral and value prerequisites in addition to cognitive prerequisites. Recently, gerontologists, and others studying wisdom in adults, have recognized the importance of values in attaining wisdom. This fertile nexus between moral values and wisdom from the study of gerontology has yet to be explored in relation to classic Old Testament wisdom research (Sternberg, 1991, 2005; Baltes, etc.).

4. Paradoxical Character

The proverbial literary genre is paradoxical. Proverbs are easily recognized and commonly used but virtually impossible to define, even by the most erudite paremiologists. On the one hand, proverbs are simple sayings, often composed of concrete images, mundane common sense, and universally authoritative wisdom. They simplify complex issues. They are quoted by elders in what appear to be frozen, traditional, timeless formulas at critical points in conversations with didactic intent for the benefit of the young. On the other hand, proverbs are often complex, poetically crafted, multifunctional, poly-situational independent sayings, and open to formulaic variation and transformation. They express culturally relative ideals of often contradictory advice beyond the cognitive capacity of the young.

Proverbs have been disdained by some upper class literati. Creative writers such as Mark Twain viewed them as trite, trivial and stereotypical, mindless cliches quoted by simple uncreative folk without thinking. However, proverbs have also been collected and valued by kings and sages and employed by masters from Aristotle to Jesus (vid. Winton; Witherington), Erasmus, Shakespeare (e.g. “Brevity is the soul of wit”), Benjamin Franklin (e.g. “Early to bed...”), Dickens (e.g. “Procrastination is the thief of time”) and Emily Dickinson (e.g. “Every rose has its thorns.”). The life span of a proverb may be hundreds or even thousands of years. It is of interest that Robert Frost’s proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors” (“Mending Wall” [1914]) actually may have originated in correspondence between Reverend Ezekiel Rogers, the founder of Rowley, Massachusetts, and Governor John Winthrop on June 30, 1640 almost three hundred years earlier. (Mieder, 2004, 70).

On the surface proverbs appear timeless, fixed and trans-cultural, yet many of these individually time-locked and culturally frozen sayings have dropped from use as, for example, millers’ skills were antiquated with the arrival of the industrial revolution. Thus, Chaucer’s “An honest miller has a thumb of gold” i.e. he cheats) became extinct. Other more flexible sayings, which have been pruned and morphed, have become timeless and culturally transcendent. For example, Chaucer’s, “Whoso that first to mille comth, first grynt” became the more universal “First come, first served”, thriving as an international soft drink corporation utilized its proverbial punch in “Thirst come--thirst served” (1932, Coca-Cola; Mieder, 1981, 313).

5. Proverbial Usage

5.1. Importance of Proverb Usage

Proverbs are detachable units designed for conversational reattachment in new situations. The importance of proverbial usage is clearly acknowledged in the biblical book of Proverbs itself: “Like a lame man's legs that hang limp is a proverb in the mouth of a fool” (Prov. 26:7, 9).

Modern studies have revealed that proverbs are spoken usually by elders and rarely by the young (Finegan, 35; Obelkevich, 216). Honek, from a cognitive perspective, notes that proverb use among children below the age of ten is unheard of largely because citing a proverb is an indirect way of accomplishing social goals (Honek, 262). The linguist Norrick observes that older speakers usually employ proverbs when speaking authoritatively with didactic intent (Norrick, 1994, 149; cf. Prov 4:1ff; 23:22; Ps. 37:25).

Not only should the content of what is said be understood (the illocutionary act) but also the actual impact of the statement on the listener should be carefully noted (the perlocutionary act; Norrick, 152-53). For example, the perlocutionary effect of Proverbs 10:1b, “A foolish son is a grief to his mother,” may be consolation, encouragement, rebuke, warning, or even humor depending on who the speaker is and to whom it was spoken (viz. wife to a husband, husband to a wife, parent to a child, parent to another parent, grandparent to a scion parent, etc.). A proverb may be used to highlight ideals that are either confirmed or dis-confirmed (Honek, 144). Interestingly, Proverbs 10:1, as typical of many antithetic proverbs, gives both the ideals-confirming (wise son/joy to father) and the ideals dis-confirming (foolish son/grief to mother) sides, thereby doubling the impact by using both approach and avoidance motivational strategies in a single saying.

Culture also plays a role in determining how a proverb is to be understood. In Scotland, “a rolling stone gathers no moss” indicates the need to keep up with modern trends lest undesirable moss grows and reveals a lack of mental vitality. Thus the rolling stone/moss (keeping current) is the ideal confirmed. In England, on the other hand, the same proverb means that if things are continually in flux desirable traits (moss) will not have sufficient stability to thrive (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 821-27). Here the rolling stone/moss (lack of stability) ideal is disconfirmed. The image of the moss is culturally understood in two very different ways, one desirable the other undesirable, thereby demonstrating that culture impacts how proverbs are interpreted.

Norrick, from a linguistic perspective lists several typical ways proverbs are employed in speech-act performance situations: evaluative comments, evaluative argument, and narrative summation. In his proverb corpus taken from a collection, evaluative comments were in the vast majority. An interesting reversal is manifest in Shakespearian plays. The evaluative argument usage accounts for 70% and the evaluative comments only 30% of the proverbs used (Norrick, 17ff). This confirms the putative distinction between oral, collectional and literary functioning of proverb usage.

An African folklorist observes that Akan speakers of Ghana use proverbs as an indirect means of saving face, avoiding crises, and preserving politeness (Obeng, 261, Obelkevich 216-17). When the proverb is instantiated, it is cited as coming from a wider community rather than as originating with a specific author (“as they say” cf. 1 Sam. 10:11f; 19:24). Hence the locus of authority is moved from the speaker using the proverb to a collective indirect perspective (Norrick, 26). Proverbs also function phatically to establish, maintain and restore social relationships (vid., Obelkevich, 217; Norrick, 1994, 147) and to reinforce solidarity within a community (cf. Job’s “friends”).

Proverbs allow a speaker to avoid direct confrontation, yet express evaluative comments on current situations in an indirect manner. Westermann observes this occurrence in African proverbial legal usage (Westermann, 143). Beardslee elucidates how Jesus used proverbs to challenge his audiences. He expressed reversals in paradoxical proverbial formats that were designed to jolt hearers out of their lethargy. Sayings such as “Whoever loses his life will preserve it;” (cf. Lk 17:33) and “The first will be last” (Mk. 10:31; cf. Beardslee, 167f) illustrate this paradoxical format. Beardslee also notes the nexus between story--in this case parables--and proverbial summations (cf. Lk 14:7-11; Prov. 25:6f; Lk. 11:5-8; Prov 3:28; Beardslee, 165). Indeed, Mieder well observes that “One could go so far as to say there is a ‘story’ behind every proverb” (Mieder, 1994, 495; cf. Heim, 73).

5.2. Proverb Usage in Proverbs 1-9

While the biblical book of Proverbs contains several sentential sub-collections (Prov. 10:-22:16; 25-29), the initial chapters are composed of lengthy instructions (Prov. 1-9). These longer wisdom discourses provide examples of sentential proverbial usage that may be used as templates modeling how the proverbs from the sentence collections (Prov. 10-29) are to be recontextualized in larger literary units. Thus Proverbs 1:17 “How useless to spread a net in full view of all the birds!” is used as evaluative argument to turn the young person away from the lure of violent companions. The proverb is easily identified. There is a shift from a literal description of hoodlums shedding innocent blood to a proverbial metaphor in the image of a bird and a snare. Here the proverb is used to close an argument. Honek notes that proverbs are often used to close or open an argument (cf. Honek 118).

A second example of proverbial usage in the instructional discourses is found in Proverbs 5:15 “Drink water from your own cistern.” This embedded proverb provides the sage with a janus point or hinge that initiates a transition by pointing backwards to the description of the seductive moves of the adulteress. At the same time, it points forward to the sage’s advice directing the young person’s focus to the erotic pleasures flowing from his own mate. Ecclesiastes also provides many examples of proverbial texts embedded in a wisdom discourse (Eccl. 1:18, 4:5f; 9:12f; cf. Job 4:8; 8:20ff etc.).

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