Bite-Sized Exegesis – Proverbs 10:14
Wise people store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool is imminent ruin.
חֲכָמִים יִצְפְּנוּ־דָעַת וּפִי־אֱוִיל מְחִתָּה קְרֺבָה׃
hăkāmîm yiṣpǝnû-dāʿat ûpî-ʾĕwîl mǝḥittâ qǝrōbâ
- Rhythmically unbalanced: [stressed syllables = 2-3] (note: this is not necessarily remarkable, but it is a category of observation I wanted to start making and recording). Also, there are no grammatical or phonetic parallels between the two clauses. What is interesting to me about these observations is the very flexible and intuitive aesthetic they hint at existing behind these proverbs and motivating their poetic structure.
- Let me try and unpack that last statement. Proverbs are, in many ways, like haiku. Haiku are short and highly structured poems, originally Japanese, that make observations about nature and, ideally (meaning the best ones do this really well), about reality beyond that moment in nature. Though they are structured in three phrases of more or less definite syllabic values, what is perhaps the more important structural idea (aesthetically speaking) in a haiku is a turning point somewhere in the middle between two juxtaposed images or ideas. The juxtaposition of these images or ideas is where the magic of the haiku really opens up.
- Coming back to Hebrew meshalim, or proverbs, the most important defining feature of the bulk of the sayings in the book of Proverbs is a contrast between related realities as connected to a number of conceptual poles (in particular, wise/foolish, righteous/unrighteous, and wealthy/poor). That contrast can be expressed through a variety of parallelistic devices … or not, as is the case in Proverbs 10:14. In other words, what makes a mashal a mashal, and beyond that what makes a mashal a good mashal, is not first and foremost its parallelism. The essence of Hebrew poetry and wisdom is not as concrete and definable as that. This is why many of the suggested text-critical emendations for Proverbs from late 19th century and early 20th century scholarship are not worth a whole lot. Very often, these emendations are an attempt to bring the aesthetic of the Hebrew more in line with either modern Western sensibilities or (and this is the tricky one) what modern Western scholars think are Classical Hebrew sensibilities.
- Sometimes you get quite a direct contrast (a wise person does X while a foolish person does the opposite of X), but more often what we have seen and will continue to see is that the contrast is indirect or oblique (a wise person receives X while a foolish person does Y, or something along those lines). This indirectness allows an individual proverb to open up to a world far exceeding that which one would expect from a mere six to ten words, just like the juxtaposition of two nature images or ideas in a Japanese haiku has a multiplicative effect on the haiku’s meaning.
- Let’s explore this a bit in this proverb. A wise person stores away knowledge, while a fool ‘s mouth is ruin just waiting to happen. This juxtaposition is very oblique, and there are several contrasts inherent in it.
- First, the wise person is depicted as receiving and learning. On the other hand, the defining feature of the fool, here, is his mouth, what he says or sends out with respect to ideas. A recurring idea in Proverbs is that wise people are slow to speak and never speak everything on their mind. The fool, on the other hand, is always speaking, speaks on every subject, has an opinion on everything, and the sum of the fool’s knowledge can be found in what he says.
- Second, the wise person is storing away knowledge. This is the same word you would use for storing away money or supplies. Why do you save up money and supplies? For security. In other words, knowledge is depicted as a kind of commodity that can be stored away for a rainy day and which provides stability in lean times. It prevents ruin. The fool, on the other hand, is always near to ruin because of his mouth. He humiliates himself, he burns bridges in relationships, he gets himself dismissed from his job, he shows that he really knows very little about a subject that he claims to know a lot about when, if he had just stopped talking and listened, he would have preserved his dignity in public and maybe learned something from someone else.
- חֲכָמִים – substantive adjective, masculine, plural, absolute of חָכָם (hākām). Translated “wise ones/men/people”
- יִצְפְּנוּ – verb, G-stem, prefix conjugation, 3rd person, masculine, plural of צָפַן (ṣāpan). Translated “they store up/hide away”
- דָעַת – noun, feminine, singular, absolute of דַּעַת (daʿat), with pausal vowel lengthening. Translated “knowledge”
- וּפִי – noun, masculine, singular, construct of פֶּה (pê), with prefixed conjunction w. Translated “but the mouth of …”
- אֱוִיל – substantive adjective, masculine, singular, absolute of אֱוִיל (ʾĕwîl). Translated “the fool/the foolish one”
- מְחִתָּה – noun, feminine, singular, absolute of מְחִתָּה (mǝḥittâ). Translated “ruin/destruction”
- קְרֺבָה – adjective, feminine, singular, absolute of קָרוֺב (qārôb). Translated “nearby/imminent”