Proverbs and fart jokes and other ancient wisdom literature

Proverbs and fart jokes and other ancient wisdom literature November 20, 2014

Flatulence joke is world’s oldest,” the BBC reports:

Academics have compiled a list of the most ancient gags and the oldest, harking back to 1900BC, is a Sumerian proverb from what is now southern Iraq.

“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap,” goes the joke.

Nearly 4,000 years later and that’s still pretty funny, confirming what we already knew: fart jokes never get old.

The structure of this joke is familiar to anyone who’s read the book of Proverbs in the Bible. That little preface — “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial …” — echoes a similar structure used in many biblical proverbs. “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him …” Proverbs 6:16 says. “Two things I ask of you, do not deny them to me …” (Prov. 30:7); “Three things are too wonderful for me, four I do not understand …” (Prov. 30:18).

Those passages in Proverbs follow the same time-honored structure: set-up, punchline. The set-up announces that we should pay attention because there’s a proverb coming, and the punchline puts a little twist on it to drive the point home. And like that earlier Sumerian example, some of the proverbs in Proverbs are also jokes:

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a woman.

Women — watcha gonna do? Amirite fellas? That is, literally, one of the oldest jokes in the book. Thousands of years later it’s still kind of a lazy joke, but that part of Agur’s routine still gets worked and re-worked in comedy clubs the world over. “The way of a man with a woman,” like flatulence, is apparently an endless source of comic material.

There's probably also a joke in here somewhere, which would push the oldest joke back another 20,000 years.
There’s probably also a joke in here somewhere, which would push the oldest joke back another 20,000 years.

“Agur” himself is a bit of a mystery. The 30th chapter of Proverbs is usually titled “The Sayings of Agur,” but we don’t know who he was, or if he wrote these sayings or collected them. In any case, we owe him. Think of all the times you’ve heard a comedian say, “Here’s another thing I don’t understand …” That’s Agur’s bit. An oldie, but a goodie.

I love the book of Proverbs even though it’s a bit of a mess. The editors who put it together didn’t seem to think repetition was a problem, so big chunks of it get repeated throughout. And, like any joke book or almanac or collection of quotations, the whole thing can be a bit hit or miss.

Sometimes Proverbs is wonderful, sometimes it’s frustrating. In some places it’s fiercely insightful, funny, wise and profound. In other places it reads like it was written by a slightly less clever version of Job’s foolish friends — preaching their same disproved theory of rewards for the righteous and suffering for the wicked (and, thus, blame for the victims).

That’s why it’s important to read Proverbs in context and in contrast with the books that accompany it in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures. Read Job, the Psalms and Ecclesiastes and you’ll have a proper perspective for reading those platitudes in Proverbs.

“The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous,” Proverbs 3:33 says.

“Funny you should say that,” says the Psalmist. “I just came from the house of the wicked, and they’re doing pretty well. They’re expanding the place, actually, since they just took over the abode of the righteous and sent those poor saps packing.”

“Trust me,” Job adds, “the world does not work that way.”

“Righteous, wicked, what’s the difference?” Qoheleth chimes in. “They’re both gonna die soon enough, their houses and abodes will crumble into dust, and they will both be equally forgotten.”

You have to read Proverbs with those other books in mind. It’s part of a set and without the commentary and correction provided by those adjoining books, it can be misleading. Read Proverbs in isolation from them and you can wind up with exactly the sort of hollow Bildadism that the book of Job mocks, the Psalms mourn, and Ecclesiastes demolishes.

In the private Christian school I attended growing up, we read through Proverbs in our class devotions for two straight years. The book of Proverbs has 31 chapters, so every day we’d read the chapter in class that corresponded to that day’s date. This is a popular practice in evangelical churches, and I’ve often wondered how very different those churches might be if, instead, it were the book of Ecclesiastes that had been divided into 31 calendar-friendly chapters.

I may have lost some of my evangelical Christian readers a few paragraphs ago when I described Proverbs as “hit or miss” (if any of those readers managed to get past the phrase “fart joke” in the title). The suggestion that anything in the Bible could be a “miss” will strike them as amiss. All together now, let’s recite the requisite incantation of 2 Timothy 3:16:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

(Oops, my mistake there. I went on to quote verse 17 as well and we’re never supposed to do that. That undermines the whole point of excerpting verse 16 as a contextless exhortation defending the excerpting of any other verse from the Bible as a contextless exhortation.)

Anyway, I’m not saying that all of Proverbs is notprofitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in [justice].” Jesus certainly seemed to think it was, since he borrowed big pieces of it in his Sermon on the Mount. I’m not telling you that I think parts of Proverbs are mistaken and misleading — or that in my opinion, some of the proverbs in Proverbs confuse the way we want the world to work with the way the world actually is.

This criticism of the shallower platitudes in Proverbs isn’t coming from me — it’s coming from the biblical texts that were wisely placed alongside Proverbs in the wisdom literature. The Psalms offer a critique of those shallow platitudes. Job offers a rebuttal of those platitudes. Ecclesiastes calls those platitudes “vanity.”

And if we’re going to invoke 2 Timothy 3:16 in defense of every word of Proverbs, then we also must do the same in defense of every word of Job, Psalms and Ecclesiastes. In these books of wisdom literature, the Bible is having an argument with itself. Job and parts of Proverbs disagree about how the world works — and if you’ve read both, and also spent any time living in the waking world, then you’ll recognize that Job makes a stronger case.

The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.” That’s wonderful as inspiration and aspiration, but it’s just plain wrong as description.

“The wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous will stand.” Would that it were so.

 

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