Solomonic wisdom or partisan politics? Here’s a word to the wise about Proverbs.
If the books of the Bible could vote, which would be most likely to cast a Republican ballot? According to one professor at Yale Divinity School, the book of Proverbs would be a card-carrying member of the GOP.
Joel S. Baden, a professor of Hebrew Bible, calls the Old Testament’s largest collection of wise sayings “the most Republican book of the entire Bible.” Writing at Politico, he rakes Florida senator Marco Rubio over the coals for tweeting verses from Proverbs.
Rubio’s tweets include verses like Proverbs 16:3: “Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and your plans will succeed,” and Proverbs 26:11: “As dogs return to their vomit, so fools repeat their folly.”
Of course, anyone who’s read Proverbs knows that it’s more than a collection of pithy sayings under 140 characters. It’s a treasure trove of inspired wisdom on trusting God over our own understanding, of raising godly children, and even finding a spouse, of avoiding the devastation of sins like anger and promiscuity.
It’s part of the biblical genre called wisdom literature, which contains maxims for shrewd and righteous living. This is why they’re called “proverbs,” not “promises.” The point of a proverb is to communicate a general truth about God’s world, and how it typically works. You would think a professor of Hebrew Scripture would understand this. But Baden treats the teaching of Proverbs as a kind of right-wing, alternative worldview, divorced from the rest of the Bible:
In Proverbs, explains Baden, “the righteous are rewarded, and the wicked are punished…everyone gets what is coming to them…[and those] who succeed in life must be more righteous than those who struggle.”
He contrasts this with passages about caring for the poor in Ecclesiastes, Amos, and the gospels, implying (though never saying) that the Bible as a whole leans left.
Pointing to past presidents like Gerald Ford and candidates like Ben Carson, he concludes that Republicans have a long-term love affair with Proverbs, and that they ought to “read, and tweet, more widely.”
First of all, no one who has ever heard Senator Rubio talk about his Christian faith could suggest with a straight face that he doesn’t know the Bible beyond Proverbs. I’m thinking in particular of a meeting with pastors in Iowa during caucus season, where Rubio gave one of the most eloquent explanations of the Gospel I’ve ever heard from a politician.
I do wonder, though, why in his article Professor Baden ignored those New Testament passages that sound every bit as “right-wing” as Proverbs. I think of Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, in which servants who invested their master’s money wisely were commended, or 2 Thessalonians 3:10, in which Paul writes, “If anyone will not work, neither should he eat.”
This Old Testament scholar even insists that Jesus “repudiated” a portion of the Mosaic Law when He instructed His followers to “turn the other cheek.” Never mind that Moses was talking about civil justice while Christ was talking about personal revenge. Isn’t it worth noting that earlier in the very same chapter of Matthew, Jesus says that “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law…”?
Now, I’m not going to pretend either major party is a model of biblical faithfulness. I’m also not going to pretend they’re identical, nor am I suggesting that proof-texting is a responsible way of living out your faith in the political sphere.
But perhaps Professor Baden is doing precisely what he is suggesting the Republicans do: that is, “concentrating exclusively on the parts of [The Bible] that affirm one’s own perspective.”
The Most Republican Book of the Bible?: Proverbs and Politics
As Eric points out, the Bible doesn’t have a political slant, whether quoted by politicians or pastors. Check out Proverbs, and then discover the story arc of the whole Word of God beginning in Genesis.