One of the many passages often brought up to support the idea that the Bible contradicts itself is Proverbs 26:4–5. This is a kind of staple example that I think is pretty weak, and yet, it gets used over and over again in conversations.
However, rather than contradiction, there is actually a play on the kaph preposition in Hebrew here. Obviously, the two verses are placed side by side, so that the reader would understand that this is not a contradiction but a play on words in the use of the preposition. That’s part of the beauty of poetry. k can be used as a preposition of similarity “as, like, in a similar way, etc.”or it can be used to express a parallel trajectory “according to, as, in the way that, like, etc.” In this way, the editor of Proverbs has placed both of these together in order to get the following result:
Do not answer a fool [k] in a similar manner as his folly, lest you also be like him.
Answer a fool [k] as his folly [deserves], lest he be wise in his own eyes.
In the first instance, the kaph is used as similarity. This is the use of the preposition that is one of agreement: X kY means X is similar to Y. In other words answering a fool “like” his folly means to answer a fool in a foolish way. Hence, this proverb means that one should not answer a fool using the same type of foolishness that he uses. In other words, one should not answer a fool as though he were a fool too. This is teaching its readers to not stoop to the low level of irrational argumentation to which fools often run.
In the second instance, however, the kaph is being used to express a parallel trajectory, meaning “in accordance with what has been called for by folly X.” This is the correspondence use of kaph. X kY means X in response or relationship to Y. In other words, this statement is telling one that, rather than engage the fool using foolish arguments, to instead engage him according to the manner that his folly deserves. To put it more plainly, this means to meet his folly directly with the logic that refutes it.
Notice how each verse ends with the Hebrew particle pen “lest.” Failure to adhere to the instruction in the main clause has a negative effect in the dependent clause. The phrase, “lest you be like him” supports the idea that this refers to answering the fool with equally irrational arguments. The analysis of the second independent clause in the series, then, is also supported by what is said in the dependent clause: “lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
In other words, if someone says something stupid, you should correct that stupid statement, because if you don’t, the fool will continue to think that he is a smart guy for saying it. Instead, show him the error of his ways by meeting it with the wisdom/logic that refutes it specifically. But don’t do this by using irrational and stupid arguments yourself, lest you also train your mind to think foolishly and be like him.
Notice here that this is extremely applicable to the way we argue with one another. The common adolescent, foolish, way to argue is by attacking everything but the actual arguments being made. People will commit all sorts of fallacies to support their positions and never touch the actual issues at hand (either to directly refute the other person’s stance, or to support their own). Proverbs tells us that only fools do this. The wise man is to address the real issues involved in foolish thinking and deal with it head on. He does not need to use fallacious reasoning, since he is the one who has the truth on his side. If he chooses to get irrational and emotional, however, he will become like the fool, and the conversation will be worthless.
What we have here, then, is not a contradiction, but a clever way to express what one’s arguments should look [k] “like” when he answers the fool.