Sat | Sep 18, 2021

Using and abusing Proverbs

Published:Friday | September 11, 2015 | 12:00 AM

I thought The Gleaner was a little rough on Audley for not having the biblical citation exactly right when he was waxing lyrical in Parliament recently. I thought it was only a very slight mistake. Maybe it was his colleagues in Parliament that were being prickly. But before you all go and sentence Audley to Bible study class in Christiana, remember that the parliamentarians can be quite hard markers.

The Gleaner reports that Audley said: "Sacrifice, do your best, teach your children to read your Bible. It says 'the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom', teach them that. And teach them to read." I understand Audley perfectly. He was trying to send the message "not angrily, but resolutely, to the society: 'Look here! Manage your own children! Do not send leggo beasts to our schools" ... . What? That was Audley's message, and it didn't seem to offend the PC police. I guess that's a different chapter and verse.

Audley's 'mistake' seems to be that he put 'wisdom' where the Bible says 'knowledge'. Except that the Bible contains numerous such formulations, and sometimes substitutes one for the other. So whereas Proverbs 1:7 says, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction", later on at Proverbs 9:10 we learn that "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding."

It was minister of water, Robert Pickersgill, who fact-checked Audley. And let's be honest, Minister Pickersgill's minute knowledge of Proverbs is quite impressive. However, more pertaining to the water situation that I'm suffering with at the moment, I draw his attention to this other Scripture. Matthew 10:42: "And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward."




So what is this difference between knowledge and wisdom that it exercises our Parliament? Is it pedantry to talk of a difference? Well, here we enter the realm of deep philosophy. First off, the use of the words and concepts overlap. But knowledge ordinarily means having facts about a specific domain or piece of the world. Wisdom, however, speaks to something more, and something more important.

It seems to me that sometimes, though not too often, knowledge and wisdom also overlap in the same person. However, it is also instructive how infrequently that is so. Nowhere is this more evident than in academia, where, annually, vast reams of garbage are produced, at taxpayer's expense, and with little discernible benefit to the society.

Meanwhile, and on the other hand, I have always been very impressed by the great stores of wisdom to be found in traditional Jamaican aphorisms and sayings. And these were developed by people without much, or any, formal book learning.

The people who coined gems such as 'wen mawga plantin wan' fi dead, 'im shoot' or 'if goat did know de size ah him b***y-h***, him wouldn't swallow mango seed' (to just take two random, but charming and handy examples) were observant participants of the natural and social worlds. They took their experience and chiselled them into hardy and memorable phrases to teach. That is wisdom.

The net effect is that I prefer Audley's formulation of the quote. It also has the added attractiveness of being the wording referenced by Papa Levi in Mi God Mi King.




Anyway, Shaw's response wasn't to apologise, but to go slightly wrong and strong:

"I am being told that I misquoted the Bible. I want to tell the minister, the Bible, in the Book of Proverbs, chapter 3 verse 5, it says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. It goes on to say fools despise wisdom and instructions."

By that recovery, it seems Shaw fixed one mistake, but committed another. The Gleaner wryly notes: "The passage that Shaw referenced as Proverbs 3:5 actually states: 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.'" What a serendipitous finding!

Perhaps Audley or Bobby could give me some guidance on another Proverb that I've been ruminating on recently. Proverbs 31:6: "Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish." I thought of it while listening to commentary on the latest audit of the island's health facilities. I'm not sure how sound it is as medical advice, but it sounds like way more fun than what people are enduring in some of the hospitals. I'm guessing that if we observed the Bronze Age Proverb, it might be an improvement to some of what is going on.

It puzzles me that the Government would try to keep the findings from the public, or rather, that it would want us to be satisfied with a mere summary. Who could have taken that decision? No doubt some knowledgeable decision-maker. But again we have that distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and we could do with a little more of the latter. Surely, these deficiencies aren't a complete surprise and were known, at least in outline, when the audit was ordered. In other words, ram goat would have thought about that before swallowing the mango seed.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to