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Parables and Proverbs


PARABLES AND PROVERBS . Proverbs are brief, memorable sayings that offer ethical direction in specific situations from generation to generation. They are a feature of almost all cultures, historically, as well as today. The proverb is tailor-made for primary oral cultures where, with no system of inscription, what cannot be remembered is lost, but even in contemporary literary cultures new sayings continue to be coined. A parable is a more expansive cousin to the proverb. It is a short narrative fiction that expresses a moral or religious lesson. Like the proverb, parables are memorable and inspire listener participation: applying the parable to situations in one's daily life.

Key Features of Proverbs

Proverbs arise out of the experience and observation of repeated patterns in daily life. A famous definition attributed to Miguel de Cervantes holds that "a proverb is a short sentence founded upon long experience." Proverbs are useful in contexts outside of their time and place of origin, most often serving to inculcate traditional values of self-control, hard work, and cautious speech. They are, however, also capable of subverting traditional wisdom. A proverb which, though of rather recent coinage, reflects traditional values, "Life is short, play hard," is subverted by "Life is short, pray hard."

A key quality of a proverb is that it is able to transcend the situation of its origins to illuminate situations in the lives of contemporary hearers. This ability is ascribable to several linguistic features. They include brevity, generalized syntax, and vivid imagery. Many proverbs employ metaphor and imagery: "A city set on a hill cannot be hid." Nonmetaphorical proverbs are often called maxims ("What can't be cured must be endured"), whereas widely known sayings whose author we know are called aphorisms.

Proverbs are context-transcending on account of their inclusion of several memorable features of oral communication. These include repetition ("All's well that ends well"), alliteration and rhyming ("Haste makes waste"), use of opposites, ("What goes up must come down"), and use of the present tense. From this context-transcending quality comes the eloquent anonymous definition of the proverb as "a winged word, outliving the fleeting moment."

Nonetheless, proverbs express only a partial truth appropriate for certain situations and not for others. As proverbs scholar Alan Dundes points out in Folklore Matters (1989), proverbs are a genre that expresses the worldviews of the social group from which they come. Paremiologist (collector and analyst of proverbs) Wolfgang Mieder, in his extensive research on American proverbs, has explored the ways in which sayings like "The grass is always greener on the other side," "Money talks," and "There's more where that came from" convey much about, respectively, American discontent, the tendency to reduce everything to its monetary value, and the belief in limitless abundance. In the United States, proverbs often express and inculcate the secular gospel that initiative and self-reliance lead to the good life, defined narrowly as financial prosperity: "Do unto others before they do unto you"; "It's no sin to be rich"; "If you need a helping hand, look on the end of your arm." In any culture, proverbs, though brief, are by no means innocuous. They both reflect and shape how we experience our world.

African Proverbs

More than a thousand languages are spoken in Africa, and proverbs have been found in every African language studied so far. African proverbs often employ animal metaphors and point out the foibles of human conduct: "The higher the ape climbs the more he shows his tail" (Yoruba proverb). Historically, proverbs have been the most important expression of human wisdom and knowledge of nature, psychology, and reality for the traditional cultures of Africa. They cover topics such as family relationships, luck, and survival by one's wits in a harsh environment. They are used for teaching and correcting the young and for consoling the suffering.

Jan Knappert, in The AZ of African Proverbs (1989), points out that, even among the literate peoples of Africa, such as the Zulus, the Yorubas, the Swahili, and the North African Arabs, proverbs are a vital part of conversation in everyday life, conveying the condensed experience of past generations. The function of proverbs in some African societies is so fundamental that no negotiations can take place without them (Knappert, 1989, p. 6).

In his book Swahili Proverbs (1997), Knappert points out that religious proverbs are especially prevalent among the Swahili. Many of their proverbs refer to the rituals and philosophy of Islam: "God does not forget the hour" (meaning the hour of death, prayers, or other duties that people tend to forget); "Mortal man cannot erase what has been written," meaning that God has written down our fate and destiny in a secret Book in Heaven. The Swahili view this life as a preparation for the next: "Happiness is obeying God's will, for following His law will open the gates of Paradise." Many Swahili proverbs stress the importance of avoiding dangerous habits and the value of trusting in God (Knappert, 1997, p.21).

Religious proverbs are widely found among other African peoples as well. They emphasize the sovereignty of God: "There is no appeal against an act of God" (Kenya); "Planning is man's, doing is God's" (Yoruba); "God does not sleep" (Congo). Another theme is God's care for the helpless: "God will prevent flies from stinging the tailless cow" (Yoruba); "God does not put a brave man to shame" (Somali). Yet another is the need for human action and our accountability for what we do: "God gave us the seed of every plant, but we must sow it" (Zande); "God will not save the man who breaks the ties of brotherhood and friendship" (Guinea) (Knappert, 1989, pp. 5253).

Henry H. Mitchell and Nicholas C. Cooper-Lewter, in their book Soul Theology (1986), point out that brief sayings and lines from scripture, hymns, and spirituals were used proverbially in the religion of the slave quarters among Africans transported to America during the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. They expressed trust in God the Creator, who gives the people strength to cope with their suffering. Many of these sayings persist in African American communities today. For example, the goodness of God and creation is expressed in the proverb, "Well, I wouldn't take nothing for my journey now." The omnipotence of God is expressed in the saying, "My God is so high, you can't git over him; He's so low, you can't git under him; He's so wide, you can't git around him" (Mitchell and Cooper-Lewter, 1986, p. 44). Such proverbial wisdom informs the autobiographical reflections of contemporary poet and novelist Maya Angelou.

Native American Proverbs

Native American proverbs reflect reverence for the earth, concern the gifts and expectations of the Great Spirit, and outline the types of conduct that should be avoided or embraced: "It is easy to be brave from a distance" (Omaha); "We will be known forever by the tracks we leave" (Dakota); "Each person is his own judge" (Shawnee); "The Great Spirit is always angry with those who shed innocent blood" (Iowa); "Dreams count, the Spirits have pitied us and guided us" (Cree); "The Rainbow is a sign of Him who is in all things" (Hopi); "God gives us each a song" (Ute). The worldview constructed by Native American proverbs is one in which personal and communal harmony is achieved when individuals live in harmony with the Great Spirit. That plays itself out in words and actions that evince a respect for the sacredness of nature, animals, and other human beings. Such a manner of living is undergirded by the realization that one is responsible for one's actions in the present that form one's legacy for the future.

Proverbs and Parables in World Religions

Proverbial discourse characterizes the sacred writings of a broad spectrum of world religions, including Bahāʾī, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Christianity, Shintoism, Sikhism, Sufism, and Daoism (see Griffin, 1991, for a broad sampling of religious proverbs). Major religious texts in which proverbs play an essential part include the Analects (Confucianism), the Dhammapada (Buddhism), the Qurʾān (Islam), the Upaniads (Hinduism), Ibn ʿAāʿ Allāh's The Book of Wisdom (Sufism), the Hebrew Scriptures and Talmud (Judaism), the Dao de jing (Daoism), the Nihongi (Shintoism), the Gurū Granth Sāhib and the songs of Kabīr (Sikhism), and the Old and New Testaments (Christianity).

The proverbs embedded in these sacred writings commend attitudes and actions that align one's life with the presence of the divine and lead to individual and communal harmony. On some topics, their advice sounds remarkably similar. For example, a compilation of proverbs from various world religions lists twenty-four versions of the Golden Rule ("Treat others as you would like to be treated") (Griffin, 1991, pp. 6769).

Likewise parables are a form found across the board in various religions of the world. They are often reported as having been uttered by the religion's founder. Like proverbs, they express aspects of the worldview of that particular religion and offer guidance to individuals wishing to become disciples.

Confucian Proverbs

Buddhism, both in India and Japan, featured proverbs that spark questions rather than provide answers: "When you reach the top, keep climbing"; "When you are ready to learn, a teacher will appear." However, no religion has given a more central role to proverbs than Confucianism. Confucius, born in China in 551 bce, taught moral ideals through sayings and anecdotes in an attempt to redress the ill effects of the social anarchy that plagued his country: "Human beings are by nature good"; "What you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others"; "Do not wish for quick results, nor look for small advantages." Confucius's sayings commend a mature respect for others: "Measure the feelings of others by one's own"; "Approach others not asking 'What can I get from you?' But 'How can I accommodate you?'." They also encourage the honorable fulfillment of one's social roles, moderation in personal habits ("nothing to excess"), and respecting others in familial relationships, especially the aged ("The duty of children to their parents is the fountain from which all virtues spring"). Confucius and his followers believed that a society could thrive peaceably if it abided by these guidelines. Their teachings developed an intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual foundation for familial and social dealings. Generations of Chinese school children have memorized his sayings and stories (see Smith, 1994, pp. 102111). Half a century after Confucius's death, his disciples compiled dialogues between the Master and his disciples in the Analects (Lunyu).

Proverbs and Parables of the Hebrew People

The Hebrew people were by no means the only Ancient Near Eastern people to cherish proverbs. In fact, scholars have long noted the evident debt Proverbs 22:1724:22 owes to the Instruction of Amenemope, an Egyptian wisdom collection (Murphy, 1990, p. 23).

Proverbs occur most frequently in what is known as the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible, a genre whose focus is on practical strategies for daily living in the present. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, biblical scholars of both the Old and New Testaments began to pay more attention to wisdom genres.

Hebrew biblical wisdom literature is primarily identified with the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Proverbs and parables in the Hebrew Scriptures are a subset of a wisdom genre that comes under the heading of the Hebrew noun mashal, the root of which (m-sh-l) means "to be like" (Scott, 1989, p. 9). This term is used in the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to a number of literary forms that arise from the close observation of daily life and are characterized by vivid, evocative language. These forms include similitudes, popular sayings, literary aphorisms, taunt songs, bywords, riddles, allegories, and short narrative fictions or parables. The proverb, a wisdom sentence based on observation of experience, is the most common form of mashal in the Hebrew Bible. It is far more common there than the parable.

The Book of Proverbs, traditionally ascribed to Solomon, is a collection of wisdom sayings culled from hundreds of years of Jewish experience. Proverbs represents the wisdom passed down by the older and wiser to the young, and emphasize attitudes and behaviors that make for communal harmony and order. Such proverbs are often antithetical in their formthat is, they oppose wise and foolish behavior in the sharpest of terms: "A wise child makes a glad father, but the foolish despise their mothers" (Prov. 15:20). They may also express the superiority of wisdom to folly: "Better is a dry morsel with quiet, that a house full of feasting with strife" (Prov. 17:1). They may also come in the form of rhetorical questions that beg an obvious answer: "Can fire be carried in the bosom without burning one's clothes?" (Prov. 6:27). Yet another form is that of the beatitude, or statement of blessing. It affirms that wise activities bestow on the doer a condition of spiritual blessing: "Happy [or blessed] is the one who is never without fear, but one who is hard-hearted will fall into calamity" (Prov. 24:18).

Wise behavior includes measured speech, control of one's temper and appetites for food, drink, and sex, kindness to the poor, and avoidance of foolish companions: "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Prov. 15:1); "Can one walk on hot coals without scorching the feet?" (Prov. 6:28); "One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city" (Prov. 16:32).

The parable is a narrative variation on the mashal theme, sharing the proverb's rootedness in daily life and its evocative language. No mashal in the Hebrew Bible, however, not even Ezekiel's tale of the eagle (Ezek. 17:310) or Nathan's warning to David (2 Sam. 12:16), offers an exact parallel, in terms of its narrative structure and purpose, to the parables of the New Testament Jesus.

Rabbinic Parables

In the literary work of the rabbis (second through fourth centuries ce), parables take center stage. They are narratives, usually told in the first person, that focus on the action of a main character and describe a general situation, not a specific past event. These vivid narratives were usually told to illuminate a particular verse in Scriptures. They do not normally include elements of paradox and hyperbole. The term midrash describes the body of exegesis of scriptural texts as well as the activity of interpretation as it was practiced during the third and fourth centuries ce.

Medieval Jewish philosophers employed the parable, most notably Moses Maimonides (1135/81204) in his "Parable of the Palace" (Stern, 1991, p. 226).

The literature of Qabbalah, Jewish mysticism as it developed in Spain in the thirteenth century, employed parables that mimicked earlier rabbinic parables in form, but were mystical and esoteric in content.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Eastern European rabbis continued the rabbinic parabolic tradition. Three names associated with this tradition are Eliyyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman (Vilna Gaon; 17201797), Maggid of Dubno (1740/411804), and Rabbi Naman of Bratslav (17721810) (see Naveh, 2000, pp. 107ff).

The Proverbs and Parables of Jesus

Jesus as a teacher of proverbs and parables is particularly emphasized in the Gospel of Matthew. Together, the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) contain over 102 proverbial sayings and 40 parables (see Carlston, 1980, pp. 87105).

The proverbs

Jesus' proverbs do not counsel moderation or advocate seeking security. They eschew negative assessments of women as sources of temptation and trouble in life, to be avoided by the wise man. Jesus' most distinctive use of proverbs seems to be the way in which he infuses the traditional proverbial form with paradox and hyperbole. Sometimes he points to a dramatic future reversal of human conditions: "Many are first that will be last, and the last will be first" (Mark 10:31; Matt. 19:30; 20:16; Luke 13:30); "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all" (Mark 19:4344; Luke 22:26; Matt. 20:2627).

Jesus' distinctive wisdom voice seems to come through most clearly when he takes an antithesis or oppositional saying and intensifies it to the point that it equates opposites. The result is a paradox, a form (interestingly, absent from Proverbs ) that goes to extremes to make a point: "Those who want to save their life will lose, and those who lose their life will save it" (Luke 17:33; Mark 8:35; John 12:25); "To those who have will more be given, but to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away" (Luke 8; 18; 12:48b; Matt. 13:12; Mark 4:25); "What is prized by humans is an abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15b).

Jesus' beatitudes (Matt. 5:111; Luke 6:2026) continue the pattern of pairing what is viewed as negative by conventional wisdom (being poor, mourning, being persecuted, being hungry and thirsty) with a state of blessedness. Jesus' versions of Old Testament admonitions are extreme, vivid, and specific, portraying a specific scene and making a command relative to it. In Matthew' s sermon on the mount (chapters 57) such admonitions concerns judging others (Matt. 7:35), inward motives and outward behavior (Matt. 5:2126; 5:2730), retaliation (Matt. 5:3942), and private piety and public opinion (Matt. 6:17).

Jesus also employs what some scholars have called "impossible questions" as part of his proverbial repertoire: "Which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?" (Matt. 6:27; Luke 12:25); "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" (Mark 8:35; Matt. 16:26; Luke 9:25).

The parables

Jesus' parables, like his aphorisms, subvert traditional wisdom by the use of paradox and hyperbole and make metaphorical connections between everyday life and a new reality, the kingdom of God (Scott, 1989, p. 14).

While parables can be allegories, stories in which everything stands for something else, recent parables scholars agree that parables are better described as narratives with metaphorical qualities. In his Parables of the Kingdom (1935), biblical scholar C. H. Dodd defined a parable as " a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought" ([1935] 1961, p. 5).

Dodd's definition expresses the force of the New Testament parables: they are realistic, yet strange, metaphorical, paradoxical, challenging, and open-ended. The paradox in Jesus' parables lies in their strange twists, often an equation of something we normally think of as odd or negative with something positivesomething, in fact, that points to an aspect of God's presence and power in the world: someone looked down on and despised is the one who acts as the neighbor (Luke 10:3035); a wily steward's dubious business practices are commended to those who would enter the kingdom of God (Luke 16:18a); workers who work for one hour are paid the same as those who have worked all day (Matt. 20:115).

Proverbs and Parables in the Modern Era

Philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (18131855) considered parabolic communication an integral part of his philosophic method, which held that the truth is to be found in the process of reflection and appropriation of insights that arise from experience. His parables are intended to increase the reader's capacity for self-examination, leading in turn to increased moral sensitivity and intensified spirituality (Oden, 1978, p. xv). He ranks among the best of the great parabolists of the Western tradition.

Many poets, philosophers, and religious thinkers in modern Western culture have attached great importance to proverbial thinking. They include Blaise Pascal (16231662), Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (17421799), Jean Paul (Jean Paul Friedrich Richter; 17631825), Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), Oscar Wilde (18541900), Franz Kafka (18831924), Karl Kraus (18741936), Paul Valéry (18711945), and Stanislaw Jerzy Lec (19091966). A deliberately proverbial style informs the work of Martin Buber (18781965), Abraham Joshua Heschel (19071972), and Norman O. Brown (19132002) (Williams, 1981, pp. 1314).

Kahlil Gibran (18831931), the Lebanese philosopher, artist, and poet, expressed his insights in parables, most notably in the volume The Madman: His Parables and Poems (1918). Other recent parabolists include Argentinean novelist Jorge Luis Borges (18991986), Italian novelist and short story writer Italo Calvino (19231985), and Israeli novelist S. Y Agnon (18881970).

In the twentieth century Franz Kafka, through his parables, expressed the radical estrangement of human kind from the divine. One of his most famous parables is a story entitled "An Imperial Message," in which a message from a dying emperor symbolically represents his own impossible quest for knowledge (Naveh, 2000, p. 150).

Proverbs continue to be important bearers and shapers of meaning in more recent times. New proverbs, sometimes subversive versions of existing proverbs, are continually being coined. "A woman's place is in the home" has recently been subverted by "A woman's place is in the House and in the Senate!" The value of both proverbs and parables for the instruction of children and youth is appreciated across a spectrum of faiths and cultures. The continuing vitality of proverbs and parables in contemporary religions and cultures is a tribute to their pithy, poetic, participatory qualities.

See Also

African Religions; Jesus; Kierkegaard, Søren; Literature, article on Literature and Religion; Rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity.



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Alyce M. McKenzie (2005)

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