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IT was another aimless Saturday morning in Fall 1991 when a client walked in on a pair of legs that went on for three-thousand years. This was a case with legs when I’d never had a leg to stand on. I was intrigued, and after some nosing around I was hooked. I’d have to scrap the day job, the moonlighting, and the gaslighting. This one’d take all my faculties. After Bloomington whet my appetite, Jerusalem cut my teeth, and Princeton gave me my first REAL taste, Chicago was just the place to dig in for the long haul. I’ll give you my take on some of my favorite biblical poems, translating, formatting, and explaining how I got there and why I bothered. If you want to follow me while I unravel this TANGLED YARN piece by piece, go ahead and subscribe. (email & click) ☞☞☞

By the way, if you’re on one of those hi-tech government-issue shoe-phones like Agent 86 (you know him, Maxwell Smart, on the original Smart-phone), most of the file will come out alright, but you’re going to have trouble seeing how some of the poems are laid out. For that you’re better off old-school style with a computer. Anyway, look, sleuthing is a plodding business. Flashy sleuths don’t really solve cases; they just stamp themCLOSED.” I try to keep the word-count down and talk without jargon, but it’s all about the details. To understand a case you have to READ SLOWLY. It’s how the business works. So you can keep up, I’ll keep the pace light and drop you another piece every so often. But don’t expect it to make no sense.

Proverbs 1

Miss me? Sure you did. Every so often I go off-grid. It’s something I gotta do from time to time, now and then, now and again. I was working a top-secret government case 🗄. Or I was tracing the grains of wood on my floors end to end 🪵. A spaghetti slop like mine 🧠 needs what it needs, and I can’t go yapping and spilling the beans about it, if you catch my drift 🤐. Silence is golden, they say 💰. My silence never got me more than a few dim coppers. But the hoity-toity have it different, see. Discretion, they opine pithily, is the better part of wisdom. And pithy wisdom is the case we’re on tonight.

There once was a man named Solomon. No one knows what he actually did in life, but the spin put on his memory will make you dizzier than a dog in heat chasing tail on the sweating blacktop under a simmering moon one summer city night 🐶. Scientist, philosopher, poet, lover; dreamer, judge, biz-wiz, builder; legend-in-his-own-time celebrity king 👑, this guy did everything. What ties it all together is his tongue. Memory upon memory of the guy made him into a consummate talker 🎙. You know the type. There’s nothing he can’t discourse about 😱🙉.

Well, I did some of the digging that I do and, sure enough, there’s this anthology of poetry called Proverbs. It brings together seven separate works of “wise” speech — it’s a book of books, if you will. Now three of the works are ascribed to silver-tongued smooth-talking Solly:

  • Chaps. 1–9 “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel etc.” 🗣
  • 10:1–22:16 “The proverbs of Solomon” 🗣
  • Chaps. 25–30 “These too are proverbs of Solomon, which Hezekiah king of Judah’s people collated” ✍️

The second and third of these are long series of clever one-liners that anyone might use in their own speech to sound witty and wise, quotables I call them. The first work is different. It’s a series of dramatizations, where parents give long instructional speeches to their son or sons. This not the kind of material you can reuse, quoting it as if you’re saying it. It’s readables that someone will analyze for their technique and message.

Now the ascription to Solomon can mean: 

either☝️ that he composed all the speech, which others collected, collated, and wrote down as books,

or ✌️ that he collated and wrote down as books the clever speeches that were composed by others,

or 🤟 some variation of those options.

Sounds like I don’t know much, right? Right. I know. Because I don’t. And I never pretended like I do. I barely know the little that I know and I’ve been up front about that all along.

ANYWAY, back to the first work, the one with the readables. It has introductory material and this material is the case I want to tell you about. Introductory material is an example of paratext, material around the text that is about the text; and paratext can be poetic too, complete with patterning and voicing. What makes this poetic introductory material interesting is that you can slice its patterning in so many different ways. It’s so thick with patterning it’s like a seven-layered cake 🍰 you spot before the wedding ceremony and just have to sink your teeth into 😬  even if they throw you out 🚫👉 without so much as an “I do” — or a “No, you don’t,” as the case may be.

Now remember, I always divide the lines and number them by following things like syntax and rhythm, not according to the biblical verse divisions and numbers, which were added long after the work was composed. I don’t do this because the verse-system is wrong; it’s not “wrong.” I do it because the verse-system was made for liturgical purposes, not poetic ones. Look, it’s like mittens or boxing gloves 🥊. They are good for some things, they’re not “wrong,” but you just can’t use them for things that need normal gloves 🧤. Take a look at my garden 🥀; that’s what happens 🤦. They don’t fit right for those things and they weren’t meant to, even if they seem like they’re doing the same thing, covering your hands. Biblical versification is like mittens: it fits the material for certain things and gets in your way for others.

 

Proverbs 1:1–7

1   The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel              ‏מִשְׁלֵי שְׁלֹמֹה בֶן־דָּוִד מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל

2      For knowing wisdom and discipline;                                                      לָדַעַת חָכְמָה וּמוּסָר

3      For comprehending perceptive statements;                                              לְהָבִין אִמְרֵי בִינָה

4      For receiving intelligent discipline,                                                       לָקַחַת מוּסַר הַשְׂכֵּל

5         righteousness, justice, and integrity;                                             צֶדֶק וּמִשְׁפָּט וּמֵישָׁרִים

6      For giving to simpletons craftiness,                                                    לָתֵת לִפְתָאיִם עָרְמָה

7         to the untutored knowledge and foresight;                                          לְנַעַר דַּעַת וּמְזִמָּה

8      — Let the wise hear and also infer,                                                   יִשְׁמַע חָכָם וְיוֹסֶף לֶקַח

9         And the perceptive will intricate ideas acquire —                              וְנָבוֹן תַּחְבֻּלוֹת יִקְנֶה

10    For comprehending wise speech and turn of phrase,                             לְהָבִין מָשָׁל וּמְלִיצָה

11       the words of the wise and their riddles.                                          דִּבְרֵי חֲכָמִים וְחִידֹתָם

12    Fear of Yahweh is primary to/the primary part of knowledge;        יִרְאַת יְהוָה רֵאשִׁית דָּעַת

13    Wisdom and discipline fools spurn.                                                חָכְמָה וּמוּסָר אֱוִילִים בָּזוּ

 

Like any normal introductory material, like a title or a preface (that’s “paratext” again), this introductory material tells the audience about the content they will encounter (the “text”). Three pieces of information that it gives stand out pretty quickly:

☝️ The content: “proverbs”

✌️ Who is responsible for it: Solomon

🤟 What it’s good for: knowing, comprehending, inferring — powers of the mind.

 

Unlike most such introductory material, this has a bunch of different patterns overlaying and criss-crossing each other.

☝️ is a prosaic pattern made by the syntax and the meaning of the whole: “The proverbs of Solomon…for knowing…for comprehending…for receiving…for giving…for comprehending…” Like most titles and headings, this is not actually a sentence, but a sentence fragment. It’s just pretty long and gives a lot of information that seems extra. But don’t go getting all huffy about it 😤. Until recent times, book headings and chapters headings made of sentence fragments were all the rage. Get out your Norton’s Anthology of Some Literature or Other 📖 (what a racket that series is) and see for yourself (Cliff & Spark Inc. can’t save you time here, another racket if you ask me and one that keeps the number of sleuths way down).

Now our case in Proverbs is pretty unusual, because the sentence fragment is interrupted by a parenthetical remark that is a full sentence, lines 8–9: “Let the wise hear and also infer, and the perceptive will intricate ideas master.” This makes the point that proverbial material isn’t just for wisening the simple; the wise get wiser and sharper from it too. Now if that situation isn’t strange enough for you — a sentence fragment interrupted by a full sentence — the sentence fragment also ends with a full sentence, which is there to illustrate the last thing mentioned. The last thing mentioned is the confusing double-speak of the wise (lines 10–11 “For comprehending wise speech and turn of phrase, the words of the wise and their riddles”), and what comes next is an example of wise double-speak, lines 12–13:

Fear of Yahweh is primary to/the primary part of knowledge;

Wisdom and discipline fools spurn.

Both parts of the statement have two possible meanings that contradict each other. The first part’s ambiguity turns on the meaning of a word (semantics), and the second part’s ambiguity turns on the roles and relations of the words (syntax). 

The first part’s ambiguity turns on the word reshit (from rosh = “first, prime, primary”): Fear of Yahweh is the reshit of knowledge. Reshit could have the chronological sense “first”: fear of Yahweh is the first thing a person needs in order to gain knowledge, a prerequisite just to get going. A mangy dirtbag will never learn 🦹. This makes sense in the book of Proverbs, which is precisely all about how moral habits bring good material results. Fear of Yahweh is essential to building moral habits. But reshit can also have the qualitative sense “best part; main part,” like prime meat, so that fear of Yahweh is the chief result of gaining knowledge. See the difference? Does fear of Yahweh come first, as a prerequisite; or does it come second, as a goal and a result? Now the only reaction this riddle will get down at the club is a clubbing 🏏, but it’s the kind of riddle liked by the wise 🤓. They’re still talking about this kind of stuff over on Socrates Corner. Can’t get me to drink from that bowl of punch ☠️🥤, but it’s what Proverbs is all about.

The second part’s ambiguity turns on grammar: Which is the subject and which is the object? Who is spurning and who is being spurned? Who’s the perp and who’s the victim? Classic case of confusion for a sleuth to get all a-tingle. Do fools spurn wisdom and discipline? Or do wisdom and discipline spurn fools? The Hebrew allows both options, and the personification of wisdom as something that can spurn or beckon is something that happens in proverbs generally and in Proverbs in particular.

✌️ The introduction is a sentence fragment, but it has that classic patterning of the Hebrew Bible, parallelism. Surprising, I know. But that’s how it is. You roll with the punches in this line of work 🤜🥴 or you end up a footnote in some dusty old archive no one cares to remember 🪦. Like most cases of parallelism, there isn’t just straight-up repetition here. There is a whole bunch of ways that the second line continues the first. First, take a look at the five purpose phrases of proverbs.

2–3      For knowing wisdom and discipline /

                              for comprehending perceptive statements  //

4–5      For receiving intelligent discipline /                            

                              righteousness, justice, and integrity //

6–7      For giving to simpletons craftiness /                            

                              to the untutored knowledge and foresight //

10–11   For comprehending wise speech and turn of phrase /   

                              the words of the wise and their riddles //

 

In lines 2–3, there are two purposes: improving your behavior (“knowing discipline”) and improving your understanding of others’ clever speech about behavior (“comprehending statements”). These two purposes are elaborated in what follows.

2–3      For knowing wisdom and discipline /

                              for comprehending perceptive statements  //

 

In lines 4–5, “intelligent discipline,” discipline that leads to success, leads to “righteousness, justice, and integrity.” The list in line 5 extends the list in line 4 as a result. The relationship, that knowledge improves behavior, is the idea in line 2. So both lines 4 and 2 have the word “discipline.”

2–3      For knowing wisdom and discipline /

                              for comprehending perceptive statements  //

4–5      For receiving intelligent discipline /                            

                              righteousness, justice, and integrity //

 

In lines 10–11, there is repetition: “wise speech and turn of phrase” = “the words of the wise and their riddles.” But the repetition sharpens the point: Why does one needs to comprehend wise speech and turn of phrase? Because the wise speak in riddles. This idea, becoming attuned to wise speech, is the idea in line 3. And both line 10 and line 3 have the word “for comprehending.”

2–3      For knowing wisdom and discipline /

                              for comprehending perceptive statements  //

4–5      For receiving intelligent discipline /                            

                              righteousness, justice, and integrity //

10–11   For comprehending wise speech and turn of phrase /   

                              the words of the wise and their riddles //

 

In between these, at lines 6–7, there is outright repetition: “simpletons” = “untutored” and “craftiness = knowledge and foresight.” This is an in-between stage of wisdom, not just doing what is right in the moment and not understanding others’ clever sayings, but being able to envision results of a situation, planning ahead, and controlling how it unfolds.

2–3      For knowing wisdom and discipline /

                              for comprehending perceptive statements  //

4–5      For receiving intelligent discipline /                            

                              righteousness, justice, and integrity //

6–7      For giving to simpletons craftiness /                            

                              to the untutored knowledge and foresight //

10–11   For comprehending wise speech and turn of phrase /   

                              the words of the wise and their riddles //

 

Now look 👁👁, if we throw in the full sentences, the parenthetical one and the example, we see that they are patterned as parallelism too and that they too are different kinds.

2–3      For knowing wisdom and discipline /

                              for comprehending perceptive statements  //

4–5      For receiving intelligent discipline /                            

                              righteousness, justice, and integrity //

6–7      For giving to simpletons craftiness /                            

                              to the untutored knowledge and foresight //

8–9      Let the wise hear and add inference /

                              and the perceptive will intricate ideas acquire //

10–11   For comprehending wise speech and turn of phrase /   

                              the words of the wise and their riddles //

12–13   Fear of Yahweh is the reshit of knowledge /

                              Wisdom and discipline fools spurn //

 

The parenthetical statement that the wise too should engage proverbs gives two related benefits. One is that they will read between the lines and see more than others. Proverbs have something hidden for the wise that only they can dig out. The other benefit is that the wise who engage proverbs will be able to master clever thinking. They will be able to compose their own intricate sayings, with hidden implications and multiple meanings. 🦉

The statement that exemplifies the wise’s riddles poses a conundrum in its parallelism: are its two parts related or simply juxtaposed? They share no words or phrasing at all. Is it the rhythm alone in a series of parallelisms that makes them parallelistic, or is there a topical connection between them, a hidden gem opposing fear of Yahweh and godless fools? 🤨🤔 Sharper minds than mine are going to have to work that one out 🧐.

🤟 Now there is more than two types of patterning here. Along with the prose pattern and the parallelisms there is a third kind, which is like a paragraph-level panlindrome. Now running backwards and forwards like it makes no difference what the direction is and like you’re not getting anywhere either way 🏃🏽, well that’s exactly what a sleuth’s life feels like 29 days a month 🫤. But in this introductory material, words repeat at carefully selected points so that when you look them over they give the whole the feeling of an elegantly shaped paragraph.

1   The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel

2          For knowing wisdom and discipline;

3          For comprehending perceptive statements (ᵓmr);

4–5       For receiving (lqḥ) intelligent discipline, righteousness, justice, and integrity;

6–7       For giving (ntn) to simpletons craftiness, to the untutored knowledge and foresight;

8–9       — Let the wise hear and also infer (ysp lqḥ), and the perceptive will intricate ideas acquire (qny) —

10–11    For comprehending wise speech and turn of phrase, the words (dbr) of the wise and their riddles.

12–13    Fear of Yahweh is primary to/the primary part of knowledge; wisdom and discipline fools spurn.

Lines 2–13 make up a series of seven units. You can see how the first and last units go together because they both have “knowing” and “wisdom and discipline.” The second and second-to-last lines go together too, through “comprehending” utterances, “statements” and “words.” The third and fifth units go together through terms about receiving, taking, and acquiring. And right smack in the middle is “giving” all by its lonesome. You see how that’s like a panlindrome? You start out progressing in one sequence (knowing wisdom and discipline —> comprehending statements —> receiving/taking —> giving) and then the terms repeat in reverse sequence (inferring/taking, acquiring —> comprehending words —> knowledge, wisdom and discipline). This repetition in reverse makes the whole symmetrical. Some compare it to concentric circles. Me? I can take it or leave it. The real point is that it structures the introductory material in a way that the content still makes sense, even though it’s different from the prose pattern and from the parallelisms. Language is a funny business full of slippery characters and double-speak you need a rat to find your way out of. Some would say sleuths are those rats 🐀. Me? I think that’s cheesy 🧀.