The Old Testament: Proverbs I – Messages Need Proper Context

I was never into crafts but I did experience a brief taste for painting.  We’re not talking paintbrush dabbing oils to canvas.  I was young and made do with what I had, which amounted to little jars of paint and a bunch of old, unused picture frames.  I ditched whatever picture was in the frame and doodled on the glass.  Bam, framed picture for a present.  For Christmas 1986, I gave one to each of my parents, something that represented one of their interests.

For Mom, I painted: “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”  I think I added a shopping bag in the corner (though I might have painted something resembling a credit card).  She was pleased.  For Dad, I painted: “When the going gets tough, the tough get drunk.”  I painted a beer mug in the frame’s corner, complete with a few bubbles over the rim.  Dad was gracious but a bit confused.  Later, I find out, he stashed it in a file cabinet drawer.

Didn’t he like my present!?  So I asked him, and he said sure, he appreciated the effort, but the problem was in the message.  Perhaps I didn’t realize that I was suggesting that he was a drunk (which he wasn’t).

So what inspired the message? Like most men we knew, dad enjoyed a few beers on the weekend, especially when other guys were over to watch football or an HBO-televised Mike Tyson fight.  During BBQs, sure; and perhaps one 7-and-7 after a long day’s work.  But our trashcan was never littered with beer cans.  His behavior seemed in line with the other friends of the family and even in what I saw in commercials and in movies. What was wrong with suggesting a man liked to drink? Isn’t that what drunk meant?

Words have power, because of what they communicate, and as such, you have to make sure that what you say is what you mean (and that the words you use can’t be interpreted in a different way).  This is why you need to pay attention to what you’re saying, especially if you’re in a position to influence an impressionable person.

That’s why, in Proverbs, when the advice constantly bashes women, the message is problematic, and it overrides the one hint of them being positive.

Proverbs is basically a listing of brief morsels of life advice.  They read like a series of fortune cookies collected in book form, and some convey the repeated ideas with slightly different words: “The righteous will never be uprooted, but the wicked will not remain in the land” (10:30); “A kind man benefits himself, but a cruel man brings trouble on himself” (11:17).  Some of these are useful, as they advocate: being honest, kind to your neighbors, tell the truth, seek wisdom, discipline your children, avoid fools, don’t be vain, wicked people will die, etc.

The ones that are not so useful are the messages about women.  Although from a certain perspective, say, people who disrespect women, see their place as subservient to men, etc. will probably see wisdom in these ideas.

The set-up of this book is to pass knowledge from a father to a son, and one of the nuggets of wisdom is to avoid “quarrelsome wives,” as they are a headache (27:15-16, for example).  This particular notion is uttered several times.

Sure, who wants to fight, but there’s no mention of being the man who avoids creating the situation that would make a woman (or any person) “quarrelsome.”  The implication is that wives like to fight and create friction out of nothing.  Basically, no consideration is paid to being a good husband.   So it seems the potential to see women who have something to say as problematic. This is a good message?

The looking down on women (or a “type” of women) continues with the blame on “bad” women who prey on vulnerable men who lack self control.  The son is told to avoid the temptress, the lowest of the low (apparently), for she lures good men astray (5:3). Whatever happened to men taking responsibility and just saying no?  Apparently, it’s up to the women to do the thinking when it comes to sex, for men are powerless.

Perhaps this is somewhat of a backwards compliment to women.  Proverbs does (perhaps unintentionally?) provide a positive role of a strong female, however.  Much space is devoted to the power of Wisdom.  Interestingly enough, Wisdom is gendered female (referred to as “she”).  Casting a female as someone with power is a departure from the tone of the rest of the book, where it concerns women.  The problem for some is that since Wisdom is not shown to be human, the compliment might get lost in favor of seeing how much a pain in the ass women are going to be for (straight) men in the future.

Although the message to maintain a righteous path is beneficial, there’s some context missing.  All people should be taught that there are bad (i.e. morally questionable) people to avoid.  But unless you play up the good ones to embrace, the message might be understood to be that all strong women are to be avoided and that men are blameless.

About virgowriter

Brad Windhauser has a Master's in English from Rutgers University (Camden campus) and an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He is an Associate Professor (Teaching/Instruction) in the English Department at Temple University. His short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Santa Fe Writer's Project Journal, Ray's Road Review, Philadelphia Review of Books, Northern Liberty Review, and Jonathan. His first novel, Regret (a gay-themed thriller set in Philadelphia) was published in 2007. You can read more about (and buy) it here: His second novel, The Intersection, is being published by Black Rose Writing September 2016. He is one of five regular contributors to On his solo blog, he is chronicling his experience as a gay writer reading the Bible for the first time: Follow his work at:
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2 Responses to The Old Testament: Proverbs I – Messages Need Proper Context

  1. Harrod says:

    I think avoiding quarrelsome wives is excellent advice. I’m surprised proverbs doesn’t say anything about ‘cruel men’.

    • virgowriter says:

      Here here to your last point. My issue with the quarrelsome wives point was that someone who challenges or speaks up as being labeled quarrelsome (as opposed to someone who ALWAYS looks to start a fight).

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