Proverbs 12 – “Proper/Improper Behavior/Speech; The Righteous/Wicked”

kissinghorseHebrew-English Text
I. Summary
Proverbs 12 is a collection of 28 individual sayings. While there doesn’t seem to be a uniting theme, many speak about proper/improper behavior and speech, or about the ways of the righteous/wicked.

II. Photo
V. 10 contrasts how the righteous and the wicked treat their animals: “A righteous man knows the needs of his beast, But the ‘compassion’ of the wicked is cruelty.”

III. Important Verses
v. 4: A capable wife is a crown for her husband, But an incompetent one is like rot in his bones.
v. 10: A righteous man knows the needs of his beast, But the compassion of the wicked is cruelty.
v. 15: The way of a fool is right in his own eyes; But the wise man accepts advice.
v. 16: A fool’s vexation is known at once, But a clever man conceals his humiliation.
v. 18: There is blunt talk like sword-thrusts, But the speech of the wise is healing.
v. 23: A clever man conceals what he knows, But the mind of a dullard cries out folly.
v. 24: The hand of the diligent wields authority; The negligent are held in subjection.
v. 25: If there is anxiety in a man’s mind let him quash it, And turn it into joy with a good word.

IV. Outline
1. Accepting criticism
2-3. Divine judgment
4. A capable wife
5-7. The righteous/wicked
8. Wisdom
9. Be happy with what you have
10. Proper treatment of animals
11. Reward for hard work
12-13. The righteous/wicked
14. Good people
15. Accepting criticism
16. Humiliation
17. Witnesses
18-19. Proper speech
20. Plotting
21. The righteous/wicked
22. Lying
23. Remaining silent
24. Reward for hard work
25. Anxiety
26. Giving advice
27. Reward for hard work
28. Righteousness gives life

V. Comment
Proverbs 12 is a collection of sayings, and most of them employ antithetical parallelism. While there is no uniting theme, there is a strong emphasis on the ways of the righteous/wicked (vv. 3, 5-7, 10, 12-13, 17, 20-21, 26, 28). There is also an emphasis on proper/improper behavior, with special attention to speech in vv. 13-23.

Chapter 12 is the third chapter in the “core” of the book, i.e. it falls within chapters 10-29 which consist of short one-line wisdom sayings. Before dealing with its individual verses, one might ask, how did a chapter like ours, which contains so many disparate sayings, come about? Scholars point to the nature of “Wisdom Literature” for answers. Collins writes (pp. 488-489), “There is a well-attested genre of Wisdom instruction, especially in Egypt, that dates back to the third millennium BCE. Examples include the teachings of Amenemhet and Ptahhotep (third millenium), those of Amenemope and Ani (second millennium), and numerous others (Translations of these texts can be found in ANET, 412-24; and in M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature 1:58-80; 2:135-63.) These instructions were copied in the scribal schools, and new instructions were composed, down to Hellenistic times. They typically deal with relations with other people, both superiors and inferiors, friends and enemies. They often caution about relations with women. They are by no means opportunistic. On the contrary, they seek to inculcate moral virtues, in the belief that these ultimately lead to success.”

While the Bible never mentions Israelite schools, it seems that they existed as early as the time of Ben Sira (early second century BCE): “Draw near unto me, ye unlearned, and dwell in the house of learning” (Sir. 51:23).  While many proverbs must have originated from the people themselves, Collins writes (p. 490), “If we may extrapolate from the case of Ben Sira, we might suppose that sages in Jerusalem offered instruction, whether on a tutorial basis or in a more formal school. The book of Proverbs would have provided material for such instruction. This kind of education was evidently distinct from that offered by the Levites, who taught from the Torah (according to 2 Chron 17:7-9). There are no explicit references to the Torah in the books of Proverbs, Qoheleth, and Job. Ben Sira, early in the second century BCE, appears to have been the first Jewish Wisdom teacher to include the Torah in his curriculum.”   Thus, according to scholars like Collins, it is possible that chapters like ours were created and used in Israelite Wisdom schools, much like their Egyptian counterparts. It is therefore fitting that king Solomon, traditionally considered the patron of Israelite Wisdom, is associated with Egyptian Wisdom in 1 Kings 5:10: “Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the Kedemites and than all the wisdom of the Egyptians.” King Solomon, who married an Egyptian woman (1 Kings 3:1), might have formed Wisdom schools patterned in the Egyptian style. See Collins pp. 487-488.

Like the previous chapters, Proverbs 12 has certain verses juxtaposed because of content, catchwords, or both. For example, vv. 2-3 speak of the success of the wicked/righteous, and both verses use the word resha’ “wicked.” Other examples of catchwords are ‘ewil “fool” in vv. 15-16, lashon “tongue” in vv. 18-19, and ra’ “evil” in vv. 20-21. Vv. 13-23 seem to focus on the topic of speech. Like other sections of Proverbs, they also mention body parts: lips (vv. 13, 19, 22), mouth (v. 14), hands (v. 14), eyes (v. 15), tongue (vv. 8-9), and heart (v. 20). Some subtopics of speech are honest testimony (v. 17), soft and “healing” words (v. 18), and remaining silent (v. 23).

Another important theme in the chapter is the reward for hard work. V. 11 says, “He who tills his land shall have food in plenty, But he who pursues vanities is devoid of sense.” V. 27 says, “A negligent man never has game to roast; A diligent man has precious wealth.” V. 24 asserts that hard work is the difference between what we might today call “social classes”: “The hand of the diligent wields authority; The negligent are held in subjection (mas).” The same word for subjection, mas, is found in 1 Kings 5:28 where it indicates forced labor: “He sent them to the Lebanon in shifts of 10,000 a month: they would spend one month in the Lebanon and two months at home. Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor (hamas).”

VI. Works Used
Word Biblical Commentary Proverbs (Murphy)
Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Collins), ch. 24
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