For most of this month, so far, our Daily Office Lectionary has been leading us through the book of Proverbs in Evening Prayer. It’s a different style of writing than most of the rest of the Bible, but it’s not all that difficult to read.
Or at least it wasn’t for the first 9 chapters. Over the weekend we reached chapter 10, and something in the style has changed – you may find it suddenly more of a slog to get through. The ideas are jumping around, the analogies and pictures aren’t consistent anymore, it’s as if the nice writing style suddenly collapsed and we’re stuck with a high school student’s bad attempt at plagiarism. What happened?
Chapters 1-9 of the book of Proverbs are a series of speeches or coherent discourses – usually a paragraph or two long – extolling the virtues of wisdom. “Listen to your father” (that is, your teacher), the writer opines, “Wisdom calls to you from the streets; receive her invitation“. It may not be everyone’s favorite or familiar writing style, but at least the sentences connected to each other.
Starting in chapter 10, most of the rest of the book is comprised of individual proverbs, or sayings. Occasionally you’ll find a bunch grouped together with a discernible logic, but much of the time they seem random. The good news is also the bad news: they are random.
Okay, that’s not 100% true. Writings like these are preserved oral teachings. A teacher would recount strings of proverbs to his students, who would memorize them in turn. The book of Proverbs makes this abundantly clear when you read it in Hebrew: from one proverb to the next, there is usually a word in common, or a case of rhyme or assonance, or a thematic link, or some other mneumonic device to help you remember what comes next. Translated into Greek or Latin or English or any other language, most of those subtle memory-helpers are simply lost; all we can see is perhaps the occasional repeated word or repetition of a theme or metaphor. The intricate word-play is usually lost in translation.
Now, unless you have a personal goal of memorizing the Proverbs, that isn’t a big deal – you don’t need those memory markers if you’re not planning on memorizing them anyway. After all, this is the age of print and of digital data; you can read these almost anywhere you go. However, the fact that these proverbs are presented in virtually random order can make them difficult to read. How can you process and internalize one idea when the very next verse hits you with a completely different idea?
The book of Proverbs, therefore, is one of the few parts of the Bible that is not really served very well by a daily lectionary. Most of the proverbs in and after chapter 10 are literally stand-alone verses, and are thus best read and considered individually. The chapter-a-day approach of a daily lectionary like ours is like a fire-hose of proverbs! So if you want to study and/or meditate on the proverbs, you’ll need to do so outside of the liturgy. Perhaps you can grab a verse or two from the evening’s reading and revisit them after Evening Prayer concludes (or even during Evening Prayer in an appropriate period of silence). Perhaps you can devise your own reading plan through this book that works more slowly, and thus spend time with smaller batches of proverbs apart from the Daily Office.
In the meantime, enjoy the fire-hose of divine wisdom!