Bite-Sized Exegesis: Proverbs 10:3


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לאׁ־יַרְעִיב יְהוָה נֶפֶשׁ צַדִּיק וְהַוַּת רְשָׁעִים יֶהְדּׂף׃


lōʾ-yarʿîb YHWH nepeš ṣaddîq wəhawwat rəšāʿîm yehdōp.


Yahweh will not let the appetite of the righteous one go hungry, but the desire of the wicked ones he will push away.


* One of a number of proverbs declaring that, while Yahweh always makes sure the righteous have enough, he actively makes things harder for the unrighteous.

* Like the previous verse, with which this one forms a couplet, the internal parallelism is chiastic by part of sentence: verb (+ subject), object, object, verb. Unlike the previous verse, the middle pair are the objects of the verbs rather than their subjects.

* The H-stem of רָעֵב (rāʿēb) occurs only twice in the Hebrew Bible, the other occurrence being Deut 8:3. Its use in Deut shows that the circumlocution נֶפֶשׁ צַדִּיק (nepeš ṣaddîq) is stylistic rather than grammatically necessary (removing נֶפֶשׁ (nepeš) leaves the sense of the sentence intact). It forms a parallel with הַוַּת רְשָׁעִים (hawwat rəšāʿîm), which is not a circumlocution (רְשָׁעִים (rəšāʿîm) alone does not mean the same thing as הַוַּת רְשָׁעִים (hawwat rəšāʿîm).

* The first half of the verse is difficult to translate with satisfaction. The NET Bible takes this phrase as an example of tapeinosis, which is, properly speaking, an understatement (not “a figurative expression stated in the negative to emphasize the positive” as the NET Bible’s translation note says). I disagree. Like the preceding verse, the contrast is between the apparent end of the righteous and the apparent prosperity of the wicked. The proverb does not say that Yahweh fulfills all the desires of the righteous. The negative, along with the use of the noun נֶפֶשׁ (nepeš), which here refers to appetites of necessity, like hunger and thirst, put the first half of the proverb at the righteous one’s point of need rather than his or her point of abundance. Removing the negative in translation also conceals the parallel structure of this verse with the preceding one. While it is difficult to achieve natural English, it is best to maintain the negative in an English translation.

* On the other hand, the second half of the verse is at the wicked one’s point of abundance. The noun הַוָּה (hawwāh) is not rhetorically neutral, as is נֶפֶשׁ (nepeš). Rather, הַוָּה (hawwāh) casts a negative light on the desires to which it refers (the NET Bible translates as “cravings” in order to try and capture this negative value). Yahweh pushes away not the necessities of the lives of the wicked but the objects of their greed.

* The image of Yahweh “pushing away” (הָדַף (hādap)) the desire of the wicked could either be taken as him pushing it away from himself or away from the wicked. The former image would seem to show Yahweh rejecting the requests of the wicked. The latter image, which, in my opinion, is more likely, depicts Yahweh driving the desired things away from the wicked as they futilely chase after them.

* This verse is, therefore, both structurally and thematically parallel with Prov 10:2. Thematically, both verses contrast futility of the apparent security or abundance of the wicked with the certainty of safety and satiation of the righteous. Structurally, both verses begin with a negated prefix verb (both H-stem) which is contrasted with a non-negated prefix verb (the first H-stem, the second G-stem). The focal point of Prov 10:2 moves from unrighteous to righteous, and that of 10:3 moves from righteous to unrighteous to create an overall chiastic structure. Both of verses contrast nouns or substantive adjectives from the roots רשע and צדק, whereas neither of the surrounding verses (Prov 10:1 and 4) do. These features tie the two verses together as a couplet in their present setting.

* It is impossible to assert anything more about the pre-Proverbs history of the two verses. It cannot be ascertained whether these two verses always went together, or whether the compiler of this section of Proverbs put them together because of their similarity (in which case, did the the compiler leave them untouched or did he edit them somewhat to make them more compatible?), or even whether this was just a happy accident.

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