One of the changes I can chart over the course of my career in the Bible as literature is a growing appreciation for the proverb as literary genre. Implicit in that statement is that I began with an undervaluing of proverbs as a form of literature.
I want to reach back to my earlier years and start with a discussion of the obstacles that stand in the way of giving biblical proverbs their due. The goal is to clear the path of roadblocks.
A shift in cultural sensibility
Certain cultures are oriented toward proverbs and aphoristic thinking. Ancient cultures were proverbial cultures. Much of their knowledge and wisdom was preserved and passed on in the form of proverbs. One reason for this is that they were oral cultures rather than print cultures, and oral cultures depend on forms of speech that can be remembered and disseminated.
The modern age is not an oral age and is not oriented toward proverbial knowledge. We live in an age that does not think easily in terms of proverbs. Proverbs thrive in cultures that have a certain sensibility of thought and speech, and our society does not meet that criterion. It is not just a matter of not valuing proverbs; it is also a matter of lacking the mental equipment to cultivate them as a literary form. An advertising slogan is not a proverb.
Loss of memorizing
The reason oral cultures developed such forms as proverbs and the verse form of parallelism is that these are mnemonic devices (aids to memory). By contrast, we are a print and digital culture. Only a small segment of contemporary society memorizes in the old sense. Merely reading a succession of proverbs is of very limited appeal or usefulness. The true context for a proverb is not a collection or anthology of proverbs but actual situations of life. For a proverb to rise to our lips on such occasions, we need to be able to call the proverb to mind. Our cultural situation makes that difficult.
Indifference to wisdom
There is a sense in which proverbs were the ancient version of information storage and retrieval. I use that terminology to highlight the function served by proverbs. But the word “information” comes from our own age and is incorrect when applied to proverbs. Proverbs do not convey information; they convey wisdom. By contrast, we live in the information age.
So wisdom starts with a strike against it: whereas “wisdom” and “folly” were dominant concepts in Bible times (as seen in the frequency with which those words appear in wisdom literature), in the modern age we have no clear understanding of what wisdom is. Before we can relish the proverb as a literary form, we need to understand what wisdom is because the proverb is the natural vehicle for expressing wisdom.
The disparagement of proverbs by biblical scholars
When I see the condescending attitude that some biblical scholars display toward the proverb, it is no wonder that the rank-and-file Christian does not value it. A well-known book on the genres of the Bible calls proverbs “catchy little couplets.” Who is likely to summon enthusiasm for catchy little couplets? Other familiar sources assert that biblical proverbs “do not reflect moral laws that are to be applied absolutely,” and that “proverbs are worded to be memorable, not technically precise.”
There are, indeed, interpretive guidelines and cautions that need to be stated, but these are not the first or only things we should say about the proverb as a literary form. It is a qualifier that we should add at the end of the discussion to prevent possible misinterpretation; the first thing to assert with conviction is that proverbs express truth.
The brevity of the form
The strength of the proverb is its conciseness. It expresses truth with a punch. But that is also a limitation. Literature is something we read and analyze and teach. What can be done with a concise proverb in these contexts? It is a problem that we need to solve. A common subtype in the proverbial literature of the Bible is proverb clusters, and these can be treated as we do other familiar forms such as a lyric poem or a meditation on a subject. But many of the proverbs appear in lists of individual proverbs, each on a different subject. Such a passage poses genuine problems for devotional reading and teaching.
The true value of Proverbs
While the Proverbs can be overlooked for these reasons and more, they are uniquely beneficial and perpetually relevant:
- Proverbs are apt and memorable
- Proverbs are simple
- Proverbs are complex and profound
- Proverbs are simultaneously specific and general or universal
This post is adapted from Short Sentences Long Remembered by Leland Ryken (Lexham Press, 2016).