The Proverbial Tale

This is how Robert Alter translates Proverbs 11:8: The righteous is rescued from straits, and the wicked man comes in his stead.

His comment is then that the little narrative the verse implies does not readily correspond to observable reality. The comment rather begs the question, but not a whole lot. One wishes he would say it does not always correspond to observable reality, because the truth is that it sometimes does. But it takes a rather embittered view of things to believe it usually does not. I don’t think Alter is embittered, but perhaps a bit too detachedly ironic.

I think the truth is that we wish Proverbs 11:8 always or at least mostly worked out the way it is stated, and that is perhaps where I concede that Alter has a point. I can only really wish it were mostly true.

Here’s were I want to go with it: first, there is the consideration that the book of Job offers and that tempers our approach to Proverbs: that if you take the Proverbs as statements of fact you will miss the point and end up in the position occupied by Job’s friends. The righteous is not always rescued from difficult circumstances only to be replaced by the wicked man. Bad men get away with bad things and good men are often caught in tragic circumstances.

The point (this is ‘second’, if the ‘first’ has you awaiting that) at which this Proverb is true is as a poetic truth. It would make for a satisfying story if the narrative implied in the verse were to be worked out as a complete story. We would cheer and be glad; we would be satisfied with the story (unless we were embittered and preferred nihilist outcomes–which there is a market for). It is something we wish for, something to which our hearts consent, something we desire. The point of the proverb is an expression of justice. In the ultimate sense that Proverb is true–the righteous will be rescued and the wicked will occupy the place of calamity. We hope for that and base our hope in Scripture’s promises; but this hope is not, as Alter points out, based on observable reality. Or as another homely way of putting the proverb goes: this is the worst the righteous will ever have it, but this is the best the wicked will ever get. And believers feel cordial consent.

That is the level at which the proverb operates–or perhaps it is better to say that that is the way proverbs have to be taken. I read them and I think sometimes that here is a manual for good stories. And this is because good stories, in order to work best, must be true in the sense of being sub-creations (Tolkien) that manifest the wisdom on the basis of which creation was created.

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