Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Proverbial Drama

Peter Leithart on the dramatic structure of Proverbs
The first nine chapters are full of references to two women who compete for the prince’s attention and affection. Lady Wisdom is introduced in chapter 1, in the street exhorting the simpletons to abandon their folly and warning them of the consequences if they refuse to hear (1:20-33). Chapter 2 introduces the second woman, the adulteress, Dame Folly (9:13); her ways are the ways of death (2:16-18). She is a loud and boisterous woman who preys on the simple (9:13).

Throughout the early chapters, the father alternately encourages his son to pursue Lady Wisdom (3:13ff.; 4:1-9; 8:1-36; 9:1-6) and warns him about the dangers of following Dame Folly (5:1-23; 6:20-35; 7:6-27; 9:13-18). Wisdom brings life, riches, and honor. Folly bring poverty, shame, and ultimately death; her house is a highway to the grave. The Proverbs begin, then with the son confronted by a choice of two women who are bound up with two divergent destinies.

It should be recalled, too, that the Proverbs are written by a King to a Prince. The book largely consists of the Proverbs of Solomon and King Lemuel (chapter 31), and the king consistently addresses his "son." The dramatic premise of the book of Proverbs is this: A Prince must determine whether Lady Wisdom or Dame Folly will be his princess. The dramatic question, then, is: Whom will he choose? (In teaching this to children, I have suggested that the book of Proverbs is structurally similar to Disney’s version of Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Little Mermaid," in which a prince must choose between the mermaid, who cannot speak so long as she is a normal girl, and the sea witch, who has disguised herself as a desirable young woman.)

The answer to our dramatic question is given in the final chapter of the book, the well-known Proverbs 31. It is no accident that the Proverbs ends with a celebration of the excellent wife. In the drama of Proverbs, the excellent wife is Lady Wisdom from the earlier chapters. Her husband, the Prince, now sits in the gates of the city. The prince has successfully resisted the seductions of the adulteress, Folly. He has chosen well. Together, the Prince and his bride form the royal household.

This structure and these characters are generally analogous to the major structures and characters of the Bible. The first prince, Adam, chose to follow the word of his adulterous wife (2 Cor 11:1-3), and ended up, as the Proverbs say, in Sheol. The Last Adam listened intently to the Word of His Father, and died to win a spotless Bride. Now He praises His bride in the gates; she is an excellent wife.

1 comment:

  1. Proverbs is too often treated like a supermarket - grab a pithy saying off the shelf like "An endless dripping on a rainy day and a nagging wife are alike." (27:15), take it to the checkout and ignore the themes and context from the book (with this one is the big theme of Wisdom and Folly vying to be the Prince's bride - don't get the nagging one as a wife).

    "A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like lame legs that hang limp." (26:7)