Proverbial Abomination

Proverbial Abomination June 19, 2015

In Torah, “abomination” (to’evah) fits into the lexicon of holiness, purity, defilement. It often describes an act that transgresses created boundaries and confuses created categories (homosexual sex, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; a man wearing woman’s clothing, Deuteronomy 22:15). Specifically, sexual sin (Leviticus 18:26-30), idolatry (Deuteronomy 7:25-26; 12:31) and shedding innocent blood are abominable.

Abominations defile the land, not merely the sanctuary. They so sicken the land that the land vomits them out. According to Deuteronomy, that’s what happened to Canaanites (Deuteronomy 18:12; cf. 2 Kings 16:3; 21:2, 11), and it’s what stands to happen to Israel if they defile the land with their abominations. It’s no accident that after Deuteronomy, we don’t meet the word again until 1 Kings 14, when Israelite kings begin the long slide toward exile. Bad as the period of the judges was, bad as Saul was, they didn’t commit abominations that defile the land.

We expect this “ceremonial” and cultic terminology to appear in places like Leviticus, Ezekiel, and Deuteronomy. We don’t expect it in wisdom literature like Proverbs. But in sheer statistical terms, the word is used more in Proverbs (21x) than in any book of the Hebrew Bible except Ezekiel (43x).

Not only does Proverbs use the word repeatedly; it immensely broadens and deepens the scope of abominable behavior. Proverbs 6:16-19 lists seven abominations: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed blood, a heart devises wickedness, feet that run to evil, false witnesses, those who spreads strife among brothers. In Solomon’s view, one’s whole body can become abominable, and if an individual body can become abominable, so can the national body (cf. Isaiah 1:6).

Not only the body. A perverse heart is abominable (11:20), as are wicked plans (15:26) and pride (16:5). The actions of the wicked can become abominable, including their pieties (21:17; 28:9). Cheating in business is abominable (11:1; 20:10, 23). Rulers can become abominable by their abuse of power (16:12; 17:15). Scoffing is abominable (24:9). Proverbs indicates that abomination is in the eye of the beholder: “An unjust man is abominable to the righteous, and he who is upright in the way is abominable to the wicked” (29:27).

We should import the Torah-based definition of abomination to these cases: All these practices, habits, social patterns, injustices, evil desires – all of them defile the land and threaten Israel’s status in the land. There is a prophetic edge to the notion of abomination in Proverbs, which the basis for the penetrating social critiques of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

And the use of this term raises a question mark over the common generic distinction between Torah and wisdom literature – as if Torah were revelatory and cultically-centered and Proverbs were the product of reflection on nature and human life. There is certainly a difference of emphasis, but Solomon the sage is also Solomon the temple builder; Solomon the wise man is also Solomon who meditates on Torah day and night.

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