Proverbs 26:1-12: A Hermeneutics of Proverb Reception and a Case Study in Proverb Performance Response

Proverbs 26:1-12, with eleven verses about the fool, constitute the longest sequence of verses on the same topic in Proverbs. Six of these are “variant repetitions,” repeated elsewhere in altered form. Moreover, they all appear together: 26:1b is repeated in 26:8b, 26:4a in 26:5a and 26:7b in 26:9b. This points to a deliberate editorial strategy. The paper will apply three methodological steps: (1) an analysis of parallelism in the six variants; (2) a study of similarities and differences between the repeated verses; (3) an investigation of the impact they have on 26:1-12 as a whole. This leads to the following conclusions: The wider context explains what it means to “honor” a fool (vv. 1b and 8b). In particular, a fool is honored when he is employed (“hired,” v. 10b) and entrusted with important tasks (“messenger,” v. 6b) and when he succeeds to influence others through traditional wisdom (“proverb,” vv. 7b and 9b). The wider context thus clarifies under what circumstances it is advisable to “answer” (v. 5a) or “not to answer” (v. 4a) a fool. When the fool’s proverb is harmless (= dangles from his mouth like a disabled person’s legs hang limp, v. 7b), it can be ignored (v. 4b). When the fool’s proverb is dangerous (“like a thorn in the hand of a drunkard," v. 9b), a more aggressive response is required (v. 5a). The section as a whole, then, provides two things: (i) a crash course in the hermeneutics of proverb reception, the skills that are necessary for discerning the validity and applicability of proverbs; (b) a case study in proverb performance response, the correct strategies for dealing with inappropriate or abusive proverbs.