Robert Alter’s reading of Proverbs

I am at the moment still studying the Book of Job, but I wanted to make a quick note on an insight I picked up concerning Proverbs.

Proverbs is sometimes thought to offer simplistic morality, in which the righteous are rewarded for their faith in God and the wicked are reliably punished. When I read the Book of Job, I have a tendency to imagine that Proverbs is the place that best represents the thinking of Job’s false Friends, who do drop a very simplistic moral narrative on Job and hammer him with it.

But Proverbs is more complex than that. Job’s Friends, undoubtedly, have read it as a literal description of the way the world works. But is that was the Book of Proverbs is?

No one, for example, dismisses Jesus’ parables as a simplistic description of the way the world works. Parables are clearly teaching devices, not recordings of history. The same might be said of other wisdom devices like Zen koans.

So why should that not be the case with proverbs?

Robert Alter writes, in “The Art of Biblical Poetry“:

A good many proverbs prove to be narrative vignettes in which some minimally etched plot enacts the consequences of a moral principle.  This happens most frequently in lines based on equivalence, but one sometimes also finds it in a pair of antithetical versets, where the moral calculus of reward for the good and retribution for the wicked is turned into a seesaw of miniature narrative:

“The righteous is rescued from straits, / and the wicked man comes in his stead” (11:8). 

“Straits” or “trouble” (tzarah) means literally “a narrow place,” and rescued (nehelatz) is a verb that suggests pulling someone out who is stuck or trapped.  The two sequenced images, then, that the line evokes are of the good man, first seemingly pinned down and then popped out of the tight squeeze into which he has fallen, and the wicked man slipped into his place. 

This is very neat, but, we may ask, is that the way the world is?  Obviously not—obvious, I think, not only to us but also to the poet in Proverbs, who has chosen these emblematic images to represent an underlying principle of moral causation that he believes to be present in reality but that he knows would never be so perspicuous in the untidiness of experience outside literature.  This for him is precisely the advantage of literary expression, the possibility of understanding made available through “proverb and adage.”

I think Alter is saying that mere common sense, not any special literary insight, tells us that the author cannot have meant such a vignette as a straightforward retelling of what usually happens in the world.

Once this is allowed, you see that the author of the proverb is trying rather to illustrate, as Alter puts, “an underlying principle” or timeless truth, if you will.

And from there, as far as I’m concerned, the sky’s the limit, because it doesn’t matter for me then whether any proverbs in Proverbs are literal, or which ones, or to what degree. Simply to be reminded that any of them might not be literal, to any degree (and I don’t know how I forgot this), opens up a full range of reflections.

You then ask yourself, as you read any given Proverb —

Does this mean that the good ought to be rewarded? Does it mean that the good are sometimes rewarded? Does it mean that they are not rewarded justly and that both God and the wise person envisioned in Psalms has a role in making the world more just?


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