Photo of a beautiful library.
Science library of Upper Lusatia in Görlitz, Germany. Photo by Ralf Roletschek via Wikimedia Commons.

How to Read the Book of Proverbs

We don't read it in synagogue, and we aren't used to reading collections of maxims like this — so how should we get the most out of reading Proverbs?

The Book of Proverbs, Mishlei, is a collection — at times hodgepodge — of short, didactic teachings. This is both one of the most common and most unfamiliar forms of writing we are likely to encounter today. Inspirational quotes, maxims, and epigrams sprinkle our daily life, from trendy motivational posters (and the even more popular satirical de-motivational posters inspired by them), to the side of your favorite coffee mug, to the colorful squares on your social media feed — sayings swim all around us. At the same time, collections of such insights and lessons, printed at book length between two covers, is rare today, if not unheard of. How many of us regularly crack Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations? Or have even heard of it?

Most of us are simply not used to reading works like Proverbs, which is a short composite work, mixing poetry, observation, warnings, and all kinds of advice into a short book of, well, proverbs. Deriving from the Hebrew mashal, or parable, the book is a collection of lessons and guidance, often direct and searing. And while there is a big market for self-help literature today, there is less of one for works which involve frequent rebukes, even if such corrections are a sign of wisdom:

He who loves reproof loves knowledge; He who spurns rebuke is a brutish man.

Proverbs 12:1

Finally, many Jews today are especially unused to reading Proverbs because despite being part of the canon, it is not read in the synagogue as part of our liturgy. You aren’t likely to hear anyone ascend the bimah and read it out in full.

So, in the words of the literary critic, scholar and translator Robert Alter, how should we read this “anthology of anthologies”? One way is to examine how others have read similar sorts of works of adages, maxims and aphorisms. In early modern Europe (from approximately the 15th century through the 18th), the genre of insightful pithy sayings experienced a renaissance (following, of course, the actual Renaissance) with works in this genre ranging from the outstanding humanist Erasmus’ Adages, a monumental annotated collection of Greek and Roman sayings first published in 1500, to the heroic couplets and quips the great 18th century English poet, Alexander Pope, responsible for coining such proverbs as “To err is human; to forgive divine,” and “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” But the most notable work in this vein, which is not often read today, was the famed Maxims of the French gentleman, François de La Rochefoucauld, a work about which the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire said that it was “one of the works which most contributed to form the taste of the [French] nation.” Maxims was a collection of hundreds of tart and taut maxims and proverbs reflecting on human nature, like: “If we had no faults we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.” And how did people read La Rochefoucauld, then, who was wildly popular in his era?

One example can in found famous letters of the 18th century English gentleman Lord Chesterfield, who wrote letters of instruction to his son as part of the latter’s education: “Till you come to know mankind by your experience, I know no thing nor no man that can in the meantime bring you so well acquainted with them as Le Duc de la Rochefoucauld. His little book of maxims, which I would advise you to look into, for some moments at least, every day of your life …” This sounds remarkably similar to the opening of Proverbs, which we are told is “For endowing the simple with shrewdness, and the young with knowledge and foresight” (Proverbs 1:4) and which is framed as advice offered by a parent to their offspring: “My son, heed the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the instruction of your mother.” (Proverbs 1:8)

Like the proverbs of Mishlei itself, there are multiple points to unpack here in Lord Chesterfield’s advice to his son. The first is the most obvious, which is to read this kind of rich collection in dips and drabs, in small bursts. If you try to read the book cover-to-cover, it will wash over you too quickly. Instead, pick a single proverb and think about it. Of course, this is not how we usually read. Generally, we try to consume books from beginning to end, sometimes skimming. And even when we encounter pithy proverbs in our social media feed, we are apt to keep scrolling quickly. But in this case, our strategy should be the opposite. Pick one idea, and sit with it.

Proverbs, those who pay close attention soon discover, is not just a collection of collections. It contains advice that doesn’t always cohere simply, and at times is flatly contradictory. Indeed, the rabbinic sages even considered excluding Proverbs from the canon because of its contradictions. For instance:

Do not answer a dullard in accord with his folly, else you will become like him.

Proverbs  26:4

And then immediately below that:

Answer a dullard in accord with his folly, else he will think himself wise.

Proverbs 26:5 

There are many ways to resolve this, of course, and the sages have their own way. But are contradictions even a problem? The individual proverbs are themselves small gems of wisdom (and “wisdom is better than rubies” – Proverbs 8:12). They are their own stars, giving off their own life, and large enough to meditate on themselves, and to consider as to how to use it in one’s own life.

Second, Chesterfield instructs, read this collection of maxims all the days of your life. Works of wisdom speak to many ages and on many levels — when you are young and learning wrestling with your emotions and attractions and trying to make your way in the world — and when you are old and considering your triumphs and disappointments, anticipating your legacy. A collection like this is meant to speak to all ages, and that is rare. Daily contact with its lessons and insights, however small, will pay dividends in unexpected ways.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Chesterfield draws an equivalence between experience and the lessons of the book. This is very helpful to keep in mind when thinking of Proverbs, and the whole genre of works which employ epigrams and aphorisms offering insights about how the world works and how one should behave. Unlike many of the works in the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs is one of the few works traditionally attributed to a sage and a politician, namely King Solomon. Kings are not prophets, nor rabbis, nor teachers per se. Their interactions and decisions mostly concern people and power directly, in the rawest of ways. Their wisdom and actions must be apt for dealing with others. And much of Proverbs is about how not only to fear the Lord (famously the beginning of wisdom — see Proverbs 9:10 and many other verses in this work) but who to listen to, and who to shy away from, who to work with, and who to avoid. One must be wary. One must have discernment. And in order to do that, “one must take in my words, [so that] you will have many years of life.” (Proverbs 4:10) 

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