Today our study will involve these verses. Read them carefully.
“A person’s behavior may be tortuous and strange, even while his deeds are pure and upright.”
“The way of the guilty is devious, but the conduct of the innocent is upright.”
“The way of a strange person is fraudulent, even as the work of the pure is right.”
Do you agree with some or all of these pieces of wisdom? Which is right; which is wrong?
But, before you answer, I want to let you in on a secret. These are not three separate verses in Proverbs. Rather, they’re different translations of the same verse, Proverbs 21:8! Pretty amazing, huh?
How can this be? And, what lessons do we learn from it?
First, Hebrew words are often so rich in their many meanings that they can lead us in several directions.
Second, the placement of Hebrew words itself can create multiple possibilities, especially where conjunctions between them appear to be missing.
Third, as a result, proverbs are structured to open us up to several, often seemingly conflicting, insights.
As we have seen, truth is often not found in simple or one-dimensional statements, but rather in a mix of several complex assertions. In this way, proverbs frequently help us shape our sense of truth by revealing many perspectives all at once, forcing us to consider them together, and then, through a reconciliation of ideas, putting us on the path to wisdom.
So, what do we make of the special challenge in this week’s proverb, with its diverse translation possibilities?
First, the easiest truth, I think, comes from the second translation. The guilty do tend to be devious, and the innocent tend to be upright.
But the word for guilty can also mean strange. Isn’t it so that we tend to think of the strange as not only different, but also bad, or guilty. But, as the first translation suggests, that might be wrong, that is, a bad judgment.
Don’t these “either/or” possibilities in translation caution us to refrain from reaching too quick a conclusion?
What I love the most is where the first reading leads us. It suggests that we should avoid judging people as doers of bad deeds simply because their ways are tortuous or strange.
Making this even more complex is the fact that the word for tortuous (implying merely one who twists and turns in certain ways) can also mean something much worse – crooked. So, which is it? If it’s merely tortuous, and the person, though strange, is actually the doer of upright deeds, it would be wrong for us to judge the person in negative, hurtful ways. The first translation would offer a wise lesson in that case.
But if instead it is true that a person is crooked and strange, this first translation doesn’t make sense. We’d be pressed to look to the second or third translations for meaning in the second clause.
At bottom, I think the translation complexities here are intended, in part, to teach us we must show the greatest care in judging others.
Given the awful divisions in our polity these days, this seems like advice we all should consider: judge with care, rightness, and love, as we would want others to judge us.