We are studying Proverbs 2:1-11 for Sunday, June 14 – the next chapter in Proverbs, and our next step into the Biblical wisdom literature. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Not much to add to the notes from last week.
The famous, or perhaps infamous, “Strange Woman” makes her first appearance in this chapter, but our selected verses don’t include her. I have heard lots of explanations of the character of this figure “Woman Folly,” an ancient world Femme Fatale, and the Jewish Study Bible recaps them all: that she has something to do with unauthorized worship, like the idolatrous worship of foreign gods; that she is a symbol for heresy, or unorthodox ideas, or disobedience, and so on. JSB says we should just stick with thinking of her as an adulteress, someone else’s wife, who is simply, for that reason, “off limits” to the naïve young man who is being addressed in this wisdom speech. Still, she does seem to be a figure for everything that is off limits to a wise worshipper of the God of Israel, just as Woman Wisdom is a figure for everything that ought to be embraced by the wise youth who is being counseled on how to become wiser. That’s also Rashi’s conclusion.
Certainly we seem meant to recognize that Torah, and its paths of justice and righteousness and equity, advocated by the wise parent, who directs the child-audience to the Holy One and to what comes from the mouth of the Holy One, is going to turn out to be the location and foundation of wisdom. That’s where everything begins, and ends; that’s the territory where anything of life-giving value can be learned.
The twenty-two verses of chapter two in Hebrew are “a single lecture,” according to JSB, and “one elaborate sentence of 22 lines, corresponding to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet” according to our lesson book. A single connected argument, certainly: “If you take my advice, and you really seek wisdom, you’ll find out that the fear of YHWH and the knowledge of God is where you will find everything you are looking for, and that wisdom will keep you safe from evil, from falling prey to the schemes of plausible but wicked men and women who promise success and riches and pleasure, but who are nothing but death in disguise, unlike the people who are walking in the paths of the just, and being guarded by God, and who will, in the end, inherit the earth while the wicked will be pulled out by the roots like the weeds they are.” Amen.
As in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Or perhaps, more recently, Trumbo.
CLOSER READING: In verse 1, the first verb is most often translated “take,” and that seems to be the sense here: take these words, and hide them within you, the way Moses’s mother hid him when he was a baby [or the way Mary treasured what the shepherds and the rabbis said about Jesus in her heart in Luke 2]. Just a very basic action: here, take this, hold on to it, do not lose it.
Both of the verbs in verse 2 can mean “incline,” the one used for the heart most often seems to mean “stretch out” or “reach out,” so there’s a sense here of physically leaning or stretching towards wisdom, and then in verse 3 calling out for it, and then in verse 4 of looking for, wanting, seeking … by now we are hopefully getting the idea that the speaker wants the audience to make wisdom the most desired and sought after object of desire.
If you do this, then (v5) you will understand or discern the fear of YHWH, because what you most want [wisdom] is exactly what YHWH gives.
If you do this, then (v9) you will also understand or discern [same verb as in v5] righteousness and justice and equity, that is, every good path.
So, the fear of YHWH and walking in the paths of righteousness and justice and equity are at least parallel here, and I infer equivalent.
In other words, you will discern the wisdom of goodness, and the folly of wickeness. It will be so obvious to you.
Of virtue ethics.
OK, literally, it says because wisdom comes into your heart – that is, wisdom will be what you love – and because knowledge is sweet to your soul – this is what delights you – and then discretion, which we could easily think of also as purpose, in other words, what people plot and plan for and work out how to accomplish – and that understanding or discernment that you got back in verses 5 and 9 – will keep you, the way a gardener keeps a garden or the way a shepherd keeps sheep or the way a Hasid keeps shabbat or the way a watchman keeps watch or the way we might keep from doing something we shouldn’t.
There’s a whole lot of keeping going on, both for good and from bad.
Understanding or discernment and discretion or purpose will do that keeping because what we love and enjoy and care about and want will now lie in an entirely different direction from that of folly, so the enticements of the wicked described in verses 12 through 19 become no enticements at all. Instead, they become obviously self-defeating and undesirable.
This is how virtue ethics works. Good people do good things for good reasons because they have become, through and through, over time, as a result of practice, the kind of people who do good things for good reasons and who are good at seeing the difference between what would be good to do and what would not be good to do, and who actually want to do what would be good to do and do not want to do what would not be good to do.
It’s circular logic: you would be wise to start off by making wisdom the thing you try to get, so that you will end up getting wisdom, so you will be wise.
But I wouldn’t want to call it bad logic.