Monday, December 19, 2005

Of Proverbs

One can recognize a number of patterns in proverb-types. Here are a few:

The biggest group consists of what might be called feature proverbs. Feature proverbs contribute to our mental profile or paradigm ofa given type or characteristic; they identify some aspect or feature that should be remembered. Feature proverbs can be divided in a number of different ways. Some literal ones are indicative, e.g., Hatred stirs up strife; but love covers all sins (Pr 10:5); some are predictive, in the sense that they identify not a mark but an effect. Others are less literal, edifying similes and metaphors, e.g., As vinegar to the teeth, and as smoke to the eyes, so the sluggard to those that send him (Pr. 10:26). Whereas literal feature proverbs tell, the figurative ones evoke: The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly (Pr. 26:22).

Others are what I call rather proverbs. They differ from feature proverbs in that they indicate right preferences, and are thus always comparative. For example:
Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble therewith. (Pr. 15:16)
Open rebuke rather than secret love. (Pr. 27:5)

Yet others are paternal or magisterial exhortations, e.g., My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent (Pr. 1:10); Do not be envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them (Pr. 24:1); Open your mouth, judge justly, and plead the cause of the poor and needy (Pr. 31:9). The point of such imperatives is to save us from error based on the long experience of others, which may or may not be given a formulation in the imperative itself. They are straightforward counsels.

Another kind of proverb is the query proverb; they are rhetorical questions whose point is not to tell but to press the one addressed to form their own insight. (Not all questions are query proverbs; some are other forms of proverbs in question format. The distinctive aspect of a query proverb is that it leaves the insight to the hearer, whereas question-format feature proverbs, e.g., don't.) While there are a few in the book of Proverbs, they aren't common; for a bit of wisdom literature that makes rather effective use of them, see the epistle of James.

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