New Proverbs for New Men


This is a modern "translation," or revision, of the Old Testament Book of Proverbs. It's not a translation in the usual sense--a faithful rendering of the meaning of the original Hebrew text. For one thing, I have no Hebrew; for another, my revisionism in this "translation" is an attempt not to be faithful to the patriarchal authoritarianism of the original text. I have worked with (and over) several English translations of the book, most particularly the Revised Standard Version, isolated phrases from which appear here and there in the text; but my true "original" is no written text at all, but the whispering of the god within me--the voice I have been urging readers to heed throughout.

Revising the Book of Proverbs for modern times makes it seem as if the Old Testament book were somehow outdated, no longer applicable to our lives. Unfortunately, I don't believe this is true. Proverbs is in a sense--a very ironic sense--a modern text; certainly the value system recorded in it is still very much with us. Ours is a culture that, like the ancient Hebrew society of the Book of Proverbs, still condones corporal punishment in the home and in the schools; that still thinks of wisdom as a static "thing" or "possession" that can be taught in lecture halls where the professor talks and the students take notes and prepare for objective examinations on the material covered, in order to be graded on how well they have internalized what the professor said; that still values financial success above all else, and values knowledge only as a practical means to the goal of success.

And all this is in the Book of Proverbs, which argues somewhat along these lines: (1) to get ahead in this world (and to have all the good things that success brings, like money and health and long life), you have to have wisdom, which is defined circularly as that practical know-how which guarantees success; (2) this knowledge is best handed down from father to son; (3) the generational handing-down of wisdom requires the father to impose strict discipline, especially corporal punishment, on the son, and requires the son to obey the father implicitly in everything; and (4) the primary characteristics of the wise man are obedience, which is to say submission to the rulers of society, and discretion, or the unwillingness to do anything rash or impulsive (including hanging around with radicals). How much, I ask you, has changed since Old Testament times?

The rather repellent continuity between the Book of Proverbs and our own "modern" civilization is even more evident in a cento of quotations from the Revised Standard Version:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. (1:7)

He who spares the rod hates his son,
but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. (13:24)

A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of him who gives it;
wherever he turns he prospers. (17:8)
A foolish son is ruin to his father,
and a wife's quarreling is a continual dripping of rain. (19:13)
If one curses his father or his mother,
his lamp will be put out in utter darkness. (20:20)
A wise king winnows the wicked,
and drives the wheel over them. (20:26)
Blows that wound cleanse away evil;
strokes make clean the innermost parts. (20:30)
It is better to live in a corner of the housetop
than in a house shared with a contentious woman. (21:9)
Train up a child in the way he should go
and when he is old he will not depart from it. (22:6)
Do not withhold discipline from a child;
if you beat him with a rod, he will not die.
If you beat him with the rod
you will save his life from Sheol. (23:13-14)

My son, fear the LORD and the king,

and do not disobey either of them. (24:21)

(Or, in other translations: "My son, watch your step before the Lord and the king, and don't associate with radicals" [Living Bible]; "My son, revere the Lord and the king; do not mingle with those who are given to change" [Modern Language Bible])

Better is open rebuke
than hidden love. (27:5)
The rod and reproof give wisdom,
but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother. (29:15)
By mere words a servant is not disciplined,
for though he understands, he will not give heed. (29:19)

On the face of it, the New Testament would seem to challenge these principles: Jesus time and again places personal vision and integrity and love above blind obedience to the law ("The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath" [Mark 2:27]), and indeed is crucified for heeding the god within him rather than the high priests and the law they so jealously guard. But of course personal vision is no basis for a stable social structure; Jesus was crucified, no doubt, because his visionary message was so profoundly subversive of hierarchical authority, and the organized church since at least the fourth century A.D. (when Christianity became a state religion) has gone on crucifying him right up to our own time, through rigid legalistic institutions and corporal punishment in the service of blind obedience, in order to maintain social order. The more primitive assumptions of the fundamentalist New Right--that a democratic society cannot allow its citizens to question its leaders, and that anyone who is disinclined to support a Republican President uncritically should be incarcerated or sent to Siberia ("America, love it or leave it"); that the solution to the problem of bored, ignorant schoolchildren (spit 'n image of their parents and the all-too-obvious products of a robotic school system) is more rote memorization, longer school days, and stricter discipline; that sex education causes teenage pregnancy; that minorities and the poor bring their own misfortune upon themselves, through laziness--all these perpetuate the authoritarianism of the Book of Proverbs in our supposedly advanced state of civilized modernity.

What I have attempted to do in revising the book, then, is to consolidate certain "oppositional" (humane, democratic, open-minded, life-enhancing) notions in the aphoristic format of the original. Some of these notions I have, in fact, taken word for word from the original, with only the subtle modifications provided by context. Where the original says "The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; / they do not know over what they stumble" (4:19), for example, it means by the wicked those who do not blindly obey the authorities. I replace the "wicked" with the "fearful" (since I believe that "wickedness" is a defense against fear), but otherwise keep the proverb intact; in context, however, the reference swings 180 degrees to mean those who do blindly obey the authorities. In other words, in many places I have decided that the Book of Proverbs was quite right--only about the wrong people.

There are also conflicting commandments in the book. For example, in several places the writer says we should work like the ant and stint on sleep in order to get ahead (6:6-11, 20:13); elsewhere, "Do not toil to acquire wealth" (23:4). The praise for bribery I quoted earlier is followed almost immediately by a retraction: "A wicked man accepts a bribe from the bosom to pervert the ways of justice" (17:23). The most glaring conflict lies in the writer's simultaneous insistence that we shun the company of violent men and practice systematic violence against children, servants, and subjects. I haven't exactly tried to reduce the book to any bare logical consistency; indeed I hope my revision remains rich with contradiction and complexity. But where the original text gives conflicting advice I have typically favored one side over the other--for example, spiritual growth over workaholism, love over bribery, peaceful coexistence over child abuse.

So I have taken over some of the original advice, only adapting it to a more humane context. A lot of the material in this version, however, is "new" in most senses of the word. I have cut a great deal of needless repetition, especially in the middle chapters (12-24), and expanded what I have kept (sometimes just two or three aphorisms per chapter) into larger thematic treatments: facing up to pain, openness to others, friends (12); desire and fulfillment (13); scoffing, prudence, wealth and poverty (14); the dangers of a sheltered life, passion and dispassion (15); planning, honesty, pride, pleasant words (16); bribery, rebellion (17); self-sufficiency (18); self-protection and readiness for disaster, love for children (19); child abuse, workaholism and sleep (20); men and women (21); fathers and children (22); addiction to food, drink, and drugs (23); brotherhood (24). In the long introduction (chapters 1-9) and chapters 10-11 and 25-30 I have stuck as closely to the line-by-line structure of the original as I felt I could, only occasionally omitting a small clump of aphorisms or pausing to expand on one. I end the book at chapter 30 and omit the maternal pieties of chapter 31 altogether; anything I might have said there would have been a repetition of chapter 21. Besides, chapter 30 has a nice wrapping-up feel to it that I like.

The "new" material is not new in the sense that I made it up. Some of it is as new as the New Testament. Much of it I have learned from other people and confirmed it in my own experience; some of it I did "make up" myself (guided by the god) and had it confirmed by other people's experience. This latter material would include the idea that we must listen to the god within us despite the commandments of the fathers, who (as the original book makes clear) would teach blind, repressive obedience; the idea that women are not perverse alien creatures created solely to torment men but driven, afraid, hopeful, needy beings very like men and men's partners in healing; and the idea that truth is not so much passed down from father to son as it is discovered personally and shared among brothers.

I do address men, here--brothers. The "men" in my title are males, not people. ("The fathers" I attack throughout are a shorthand for patriarchal ideology; they work through real fathers and real mothers, but as I make clear in chapter 30, the son who is liberated from "the fathers" can come to love even a very oppressive father.) I address men partly because the original Book of Proverbs addresses men--but for the opposite reason. The Book of Proverbs did not address women because they were not worth addressing; they were nonpeople, their fathers' or their husbands' possessions, to be bought and sold. They did not need wisdom (although, significantly, wisdom is herself a woman, Sophia, the primordial goddess whom John, in the first chapter of his gospel, transformed into the Logos as son). I do not address women because I have learned from women, the women's movement, feminists, and do not aspire to teach them. The transformation of women's position and voice in society by the women's movement over the last two or three hundred years (in the "modern" or bourgeois era) is one of the key differences between my situation and that of Solomon or Hezekiah or whoever wrote or edited the Hebrew book. Men--some men, anyway--have been learning to listen to women's "contentious" voices, and have come to understand much more of relations between the sexes under patriarchy than the serenely contemptuous patriarchs of the Old Testament. The "new men" I address are in fact specifically members of the profeminist men's movement, official and unofficial--men engaged in the arduous process of gender liberation, of breaking free from the deathly, self-destructive macho attitudes imposed on us by patriarchal society. I can imagine a book of New Proverbs for New Women, and think one ought to be written; but I am not the person to write it. It needs to be written by a woman.

In any case, one of the things I hope I have been able to do in this revised Book of Proverbs is to consolidate in quasi-Biblical format some of the liberatory discoveries and achievements of the men's and women's movements--to record them not only for those of us who are already engaged in the struggle but also for those who come after, our younger brothers (not yet our sons--I'm afraid we are still too much made in our fathers' image to be able to teach new masculinities to our sons). It is to my own four living younger brothers, Mike, David, Jeff, and Tom, and to the memory of Steve (1964-1967), that I dedicate this book.

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