Friday, January 20, 2012

Proverbs 26:4-5: Reading the Text More Closely

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.


  1. "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."

    Agreed. But (sorry that there's a but), but what all too often happens (and I think it's probably happened to you... as well as me) is that in choosing to answer a "fool"...

    it's akin to getting into a mud-wrestling match with a pig. The pig likes it and you end up getting slimed and dirty in the process despite you having bestowed logic/wisdom into the discussion.

    So then one has this decision calculus when faced with a "fool"

    A. Be silent and chance that "the fool will continue to think that he is a smart guy for saying it."


    B. Respond to the "fool" with logic/wisdom and chance that you will get slimed and dirty with a loss of dignity by mud-wrestling with the fool pig.

    Which option is preferable?

  2. Truth,

    Agreed. There's a certain amount of discernment involved. If one is a mocker, or just likes to argue, but there is no hope of correction, then I think we need to take the Lord's advice about throwing our pearls before swine.

  3. Hi Hodge,

    Have you ever been "slimed" and gotten dirty (figuratively speaking) by a "fool pig" after you've chosen to answer a "fool pig's claim/argument"?

    FWIW, I have.

  4. LOL. I'm sure I have, but I do try to stay out of the mud, even when others sling it at me. I'll either go silent in that case or just try to steer the conversation back to the real arguments. I'm sure I've given my share of tongue-lashings to certain people though, almost always when I thought they were unteachable and disingenuous (although usually I will try, at least, to deliver a valid argument along with it). ;-)

  5. Hi Hodge,

    In my mind's eye I picture you pontificating with wisdom and logic in a loving response to a fool's statement at a large dinner table. The "fool" then heaves a cream pie at you and it hits you straight in the face (ala the 3 Stooges). The "fool" laughs hysterically, and witnesses can't help but laugh as well at the absurdity of it all. In a moment of human weakness, you reach for a cream pie and chuck it at the "fool's head" to return the favor. Melee ensues. Your statements of logic/wisdom are promptly forgotten by all attending the event.

    Or you refuse to chuck a cream pie back at the "fool" and your statements of logic/wisdom are still promptly forgotten by all attending the event.

    Observation: A cowardly fool and his/her "drive-by shooting" can render logic/wisdom to ineffectiveness, or it can mute logic/wisdom from even ever opening its mouth.

  6. Truth,

    That's a good observation and way of putting it. I think that's why communication must be cooperative, and the fool is instructed throughout Proverbs to be so when corrected. Unfortunately, he is a fool, so he tends to not listen to those instructions, at which point, our correction becomes a kindling of God's fire against him, not on that day perhaps, but in the destruction of his life here, and certainly in the day of judgment.