Laziness Ancient and Modern

Laziness Ancient and Modern March 2, 2015

In an essay earlier this semester, a student quoted Proverbs 18:9 as evidence that laziness was viewed negatively in ancient Israel, expressing themselves in a modern way which seemed to envisage someone who relies on handouts or the system and refuses to work.

Prov. 18:9 says:

One who is slack in work is close kin to a vandal.

Or in another rendering:

A lazy person is as bad as someone who destroys things.

Can't someone else just do itI offered a comment asking about what this verse actually shows. Proverbs is written by and for a wealthy ruling elite. And so it might well be that only such wealthy ruling people had the luxury of being lazy. For the majority of people, laziness meant certain death, since even with hard work there was no guarantee of survival.

Reading Proverbs as a person with a relatively elite status today, but also one that inhabits a very different socio-economic reality, makes it likely that a text like this one will be misunderstood.

But discovering what it is likely talking about makes the text take on new relevance to the present day. It seems quite common in the United States for those who today, by ancient and global standards, are wealthy, to seek to justify the fact that they have while others do not by claiming that many of the poor are lazy, with many happy to live off of welfare. That that seems so plausible to so many tells us this: that those people have never been poor, and that they have a blind spot for the lives of the most wealthy, who may be able to afford to play golf all day, while a poor person will most likely be working two jobs in that same day.

And so perhaps the warnings about laziness in Proverbs, even though they come from a very different place and time, are still as relevant as ever. One doesn’t even need to recognize that the rich are its original audience. One simply needs to take to heart the message of the Book of Job – that the kind of wisdom found in Proverbs is only helpful as a guide to personal self-assessment, and is dangerous when foolishly used as a weapon to condemn others.

As Proverbs 26:9 says, “A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like a thorny branch brandished by a drunk.”



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  • Michael Wilson

    James, it is true that Proverbs was written for a wealthy elite and that this advice was meant for the children of the ruling and middle class that even if they alrwady have their daily bread they still should be productive. This especially important for youths that might be tempted to skip scibal lessons for leisure, once their folks are buried they need to make a living. But in our affluent society even a low wage worker such as my self can be tempted to idleness, and truth be told, I’m under utilizing my time. In our society one can be fed and inebriated for very little and for some, being fed and entertained is enough. If your working multiple jobs in America you clearly aspire for more and in all likelihood will not be under the poverty line personaly, through any children you have may. I think its a mistake to look at people making $12-13000 a year and lump them in with people earning $400-6000 a year in in China or Egypt as poor yet this is common. If your working 2 minimum wage jobs in America you may be poor next to Trump, but your rich compared to a traditional peasant and I bet even Solomon might be pretty jealous of the things I own.

    • Michael Wilson

      Related, an article on how Americans define being rich

  • Jack Collins

    I know in Greco-Roman discourse, it was very common to complain about the laziness of the poor, especially slaves. (Gee, you make someone work for no pay to make you rich, and they aren’t giving it 110%? Go figure.) Likewise, in the middle ages, peasants were seen as “unproductive” and parasitic because they worked someone ELSE’s land. The land-owners were the productive members of society, because they owned the fruit of the labor of others. You can even see it in Downton Abbey, where the rich people basically think their job is to give the servants somebody to serve, because what else are they going to do?

    And don’t get me started on “job creators…” today.

    • Michael Wilson

      Thats human nature, everyone thinks they’re fine and someone else needs to do more, especially if their money depends on the other guys work. On the other hand their is a tendency for us commoners to assume the guy in the big house, be it warren Buffett or Barrack Obama does nothing but glad hand and play golf. I think its surprising how much work these guys really do.

  • Gary

    Unfortunately there are people who cannot relate to the society most of us live in. Some seem to not be able to work in a “regular” job. Can’t call them “lazy”. Surviving in the wilderness requires different skills. Just ask John the Baptist. I bet John couldn’t tolerate the 9 to 5 work routine at McDonalds. His social skills were not normal. Some people can’t operate normally in our society, for whatever reasons. But certainly not lazy.