Friday, June 24, 2011

Proverbs 14 Part VII: Ancient Hebrew Poetry

How do you appreciate ancient Hebrew poetry?  The enjoyment for me can't come from my being an expert on it.  I'm not.  And yet there are many bridges in. 

The poetry of Sappho, of Homer, and even of Dionysius the Brazen was more familiar to me than ancient Hebrew poetry when I first started blogging.  Little did I know at the time that the one provided for a me a bridge to the other.  Likewise, much of the English language poetry and even some of the bits of Vietnamese language poetry I'd grown up with (my earliest school teachers taught me) was informed by the brilliant ways with words of others from so very, very long ago.   Early on in my schooling, I learned that even our old English word poetry derives from the powerful, generative, creative wordplay of Greek imagination.  It wasn't until I started reading posts by one of my blogger friends, however, that I started a new appreciation for ancient Hebrew poetry in its profound and multi-dimensional richness.  Notice the appreciation for orality and for translation, two bridges into poetry, in this post she's written today:  "To write, to speak, to sound out alliteration, ... that is the power of alliteration. Don't let the textbooks tell you anything else....  my Pagnini Psalms again, that missing link in the history of translation....  he too loved the alphabet, that out of which the world was created....  Here is Psalm 122:6-7 in various translations... not ... the Hebrew tonight, but only compare the Latin and English."

This sort of public sharing of ancient Hebrew poetry in Bible blogging is itself another bridge in for me.  And that is our segue into Part VII in this biblioblogging series on Proverbs 14.  Proverbs poetry?  Ancient Hebrew poetry in proverbs?

Well, my bridge into this sort of appreciation starts with this kind and helpful announcement from another blogger friend:  "Robert Alter just published the latest in his series of translations entitled The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes."  And then from Alter and his recommended book, I enjoy reading this surprise:
Proverbs is the only one of the three canonical Wisdom books that might conceivably reflect the activities of some sort of academy.  Composed in verse from beginning to end, it often seems to utilize the mnemonic function of poetry to inscribe in memory principles of right and wrong, and one can plausibly imagine a teacher imparting instruction of this sort to his [or her] disciples.  The poetry in Proverbs, however, is by no means restricted to serving as an aid to memory, and we shall have occasion to observe a variety of arresting and at times surprising purposes to which poetry is put in this book.  [page xvi]
Academy?  mnemonic function?  memory principles?  right and wrong?  variety?  arresting and surprising?  poetry in Proverbs?  Well, some of this is where I work (i.e., in "some sort of academy" especially for language learners and teachers), and much of what Alter is describing is also where I've gained more of a first appreciation for poetry to begin with (i.e., the poetry of my childhood and school days and higher education days with Aristotle's academic instruction in poetics and ethics and rhetoric).  How very surprising for me, and exciting.  Hopefully it is as full of excitement for you too, in this series on Proverbs 14.

Here's something fascinating in the proverb we call Proverbs 14:22.  It has many of the elements that Alter discusses for the entire book of Proverbs in general.  Alter translates this proverb into this English with no need for any footnote:
Surely those who plan evil do stray,
        but steadfast kindness for those who plan good.
The parallelism is obvious.  Here is the certainty in the first line strengthened by the sibilant English "s" sounds and the emphatic auxiliary verb "do":  "Surely . . . do stray."  Then here again is this same certainty in the second line also strengthened by the sibilant English "s" sounds:  "steadfast kindness."

And yet, in the parallels, the similarities, the samenesses, there is difference, contrast.  In the first line, the subject of the clause is "those who plan"; in the second line, however, the subject is "steadfast kindness."  In the first line the positive word "surely" begins it; in the second line, in contrast, the negative word "but" starts the clause.  The first line ends with "stray," the second with "good" - what a contrast in lexicon, in syntax.  And then the most punctuated difference of all, of course, is between "those who plan evil" and "those who plan good."  Semantically, the former actively "do stray" which assumes they have no ultimate control over their plans.  Semantically, the latter find themselves being, being in the position of receiving something like what they plan.  Have we begun to mine the depths of this poetry?  Have we exhausted its dimensions?  We're only considering, so far, the English translation!

The ancient Hebrew poetry of what we know as Proverbs 14:22 goes like this:

הֲֽלֹוא־֭יִתְעוּ חֹ֣רְשֵׁי רָ֑ע וְחֶ֥סֶד וֶ֝אֱמֶ֗ת חֹ֣רְשֵׁי טֹֽוב׃

How do you appreciate it?  What bridges into the proverb and its poetry do you find?

Another for me, besides Alter's wonderful translation, is the translation by somebody (or somebodies) long ago in Alexandria, Egypt.  We don't know the author of the Hebrew exactly, and according to the legend, we can't at all be certain of who the translator was.  It was translated from Hebrew into Greek.  And it goes, then, like this:

πλανώμενοι τεκταίνουσι κακά
ἔλεον δὲ καὶ ἀλήθειαν τεκταίνουσιν ἀγαθοί

οὐκ ἐπίστανται ἔλεον καὶ πίστιν τέκτονες κακῶν
ἐλεημοσύναι δὲ καὶ πίστεις παρὰ τέκτοσιν ἀγαθοῖς

What we all can see is how much longer this proverb is in Greek than it is in Hebrew.  To me, it seems that the translator is trying both to mirror the Hebrew some and then also attempting to elaborate on the meanings more.  Let me try to render the Greek into English to show this some:

The deviants construct evil
Mercy, however, and truth are constructed by the good

[which means:]
There's no understanding of mercy and of faith for the constructors of evil.  Shows of mercy, however, and of faithfulnesses are with those who construct good.

For whatever reason, the translator is wanting to expand and to expand on the Hebrew meanings.  NETS Septuagint translator and commentator Johann Cook believes that the LXX translator of Proverbs "14.22 elaborates on the perpetration of evil beyond MT."  What I hope is clear is that it's poetry, from and back to ancient Hebrew poetry, and that it's a bridge for us other readers.

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