views updated May 23 2018


PROVERB (Heb. מָשָׁל, mashal; pl. מְשָׁלִים, meshalim). The term "proverb" as a translation of the biblical Hebrew word mashal denotes certain specific literary forms, particularly of wisdom literature. Several of these forms are also referred to by the words pitgam and mikhtam in post-biblical Hebrew (although in the Bible these two terms have other connotations). The literary forms referred to in the Bible by the term mashal are of different types, and scholars are divided on the question of the connection between these forms, as well as on the basic meaning of the biblical term mashal. In post-biblical Hebrew, mashal signifies several poetic forms, i.e., figures of speech or types of ornate style. The nature of these poetic forms, which are found particularly in classical literature, has been elucidated in Western thought. Parallels to these poetic forms are found in the Bible, although its authors were not conscious of them. Discussions of the term mashal, therefore, may fall into two sections: the first, devoted to mashal in its broader post-biblical sense, i.e., as referring to poetic forms in general, and the second, to mashal in its more limited sense, i.e., in its specific use in the Bible as a concept associated principally with wisdom literature.

Poetic Forms

Many examples of basic figures of speech, such as similes and metaphors, occur in the Bible. These are common in every language, and occur even in daily conversation. The complex literary forms known as meshalim in post-biblical Hebrew are structured on these basic figures of speech.


An allegory is a metaphor expanded to the dimensions of a narrative in which all the details reflect the actual subject of the metaphor. Examples of allegory in the Bible are to be found, in particular, in Ezekiel's account of the great eagle and the top of the cedar (17:3–12), of the lioness and her whelps (19:2–9), of the vine that was uprooted and withered (19:10–14), of the pot set on fire (24:3–5), of the cedar in Lebanon that was cut down (31:3–17), and of the shepherds who neglected the sheep (34:2–31), as well as others. The description of old age at the end of Ecclesiastes (12:2–6) is not allegorical, but consists rather of a series of metaphors which do not combine to form a narrative. On the other hand, there are expressions which, while they are not allegories, contain the elements of allegory, being extended metaphors which do not reach the proportions of an actual narrative, for example, Balaam's comparison of Israel to a lion (Num. 24:8–9).


A parable is an independent narrative in which a particular detail contains a moral that is applicable beyond the content of the narrative itself. Examples of parables in the Bible are Nathan's tale of the poor man's ewe lamb (ii Sam. 12:1–4), and, to some extent, Jehoash's story of the thistle and the cedar in Lebanon (ii Kings 14:9). Isaiah's song of the vineyard (5:1–6) may be either an allegory or a parable.


A fable is a story whose figures are taken from the animal or vegetable realm and are endowed with human characteristics; it has a moral which is applicable beyond the content of the narrative itself. Examples of fables in the Bible are Jotham's tale of the trees that sought a king for themselves (Judg. 9:8–15), and, to a certain extent, Jehoash's account of the thistle and the cedar in Lebanon (ii Kings 14:9). The sayings drawn from the animal realm in Proverbs (6:6–8; 30:24–31) and the descriptions of animals in God's reply to Job (38:39–39:30; 40:15–41:26) cannot be considered fables because they do not contain personification; they are rather didactic statements based on observation of natural phenomena.

Mashal in the Bible

The term mashal in the Bible can be elucidated either by means of etymological investigation or by examining its actual usage and combining the features common to all the literary forms to which it refers. These two methods have been accompanied by conjecture and differences of opinion among scholars, and neither has as yet produced any definitive results.


The root mšl, from which the word mashal is derived, has two etymologies, both of which have been used to explain the nature of the biblical mashal. Some scholars base their interpretation of mashal on one meaning of the root mšl, which is "resemblance" or "the equating of one thing to another," found in the Arabic mithl, and the Aramaic mtl. While some scholars maintain that this meaning indicates the primary tendency of the mashal which is to compare and allegorize (Koenig, Eissfeldt, Johnson, et al.), others find it an allusion to the element of sympathetic magic prevalent in the ancient proverb (Godbey). This meaning of the root mšl does not occur in Canaanite, but a trace of it is to be found in the Bible: "Upon earth there is not his like" (Job 41:25[33]), although the absolute state of the noun here is moshel (מֹשֶׁל), not mashal (מָשָׁל). The Bible contains examples of meshalim that are not allegorical in character but simply songs (see below). Another meaning of the root mšl implies government and rule; equivalents are found in Canaanite inscriptions, and in the Bible mšl commonly has this meaning. On the basis of this meaning of the root, some scholars seek to explain the primary significance of the mashal as the statement of an influential man who is endowed with authority (Pedersen, Bostroem, Bentzen). However, this explanation, too, is forced and cannot be completely reconciled with the examples of meshalim in the Bible.

literary forms

The following are the literary forms called mashal in the Bible:

The Folk Saying

The characteristic features of the folk saying are its widespread use and its pithy, concentrated formulation, which gives pointed expression to popular experience and wisdom. In the Bible, such sayings are prefaced by expressions attesting to their popular character. At times the identical saying occurs in two different passages, further evidence of its widespread use. The saying, "Is Saul also among the prophets?" is quoted in two narratives and is introduced by the statements: "Therefore it became a mashal" and "where-fore they say" (i Sam. 10:12; 19:24). A folk saying of the period of the Babylonian Exile, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge," is mentioned in two prophetic books (Jer. 31:29; Ezek. 18:2–3). Another contemporary saying current in Palestine is quoted by Ezekiel (12:22–23), while David repeats to Saul the mashal of the Kedemites, "Out of the wicked comes forth wickedness" (i Sam. 24:13). There are introductory expressions hinting at other folk sayings quoted in the Bible which, by analogy, may presumably also be regarded as meshalim, although they are not called such in the Bible, for example: "Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord" (Gen. 10:9). There are other statements which have the characteristics of folk sayings even though they are not prefaced by introductory expressions, for example, "For as the man is, so is his strength" (Judg. 8:21) and "Let not him that girds on his armor boast himself as he that puts it off" (i Kings 20:11).

The Literary Saying

The literary saying does not differ in form from the folk saying, except that it is not in common use, being coined by a wisdom writer who uses a fixed formula in which to cast conventional thoughts of his school. Compilations of literary sayings are extant in the second and fifth collections of the Book of Proverbs (10:1–22:16; chs. 25–29) and segments of them are embodied in other collections of that book (see *Proverbs). These sayings inculcate the particular outlook of wisdom literature. Groups of literary sayings have also been incorporated in Ecclesiastes as quotations from its author's wisdom compositions, their conventional contents frequently contradicting Ecclesiastes' essentially pessimistic reflections. One passage attests that Koheleth "also taught the people knowledge, weighing, and studying, and arranging proverbs [meshalim] with great care" (12:9), that is, he redacted and composed many meshalim that are not included in this book. At times it is impossible to know whether a saying is literary or popular, such as the following statement by Ezekiel concerning Jerusalem: "Everyone who uses proverbs will use this proverb about you saying, 'Like mother, like daughter'" (Ezek. 16:44), and Jeremiah's remark, "What has straw in common with wheat?" (Jer. 23:28). It cannot be determined whether in these passages the prophets are quoting current sayings or coining new ones. Sometimes a literary saying may be adopted and widely used by the people, as is the case with many biblical verses which in the course of time became popular sayings.

The Poetic Utterance

The poetic utterance is also called mashal in the Bible. Sometimes such an utterance contains obvious metaphorical and allegorical features, as in Ezekiel's statements about the great eagle and the top of the cedar (17:2–10), the forest of the South (21:1–5), and the pot set on the fire (24:3–11), all of which he calls meshalim. Sometimes, although the poetic utterance lacks these features it is still termed a mashal. It may have been popular – a sort of folk saying, like the song which the ballad singers uttered on the overthrow of Heshbon by Sihon king of the Amorites (Num. 21:27–30). In some cases the poetic utterance may not even have been popular and yet been called a mashal. The first collection in Proverbs (1–9) contains about a dozen poeticalrhetorical units, all of them literary compositions bearing the imprint of the wisdom school; most of these have no allegorical features; their contents are evident and explicit, yet all are called meshalim (Prov. 1:1). Two psalms that are referred to as meshalim have neither a folk character nor employ allegory – the one speaks of the fate of the wicked (Ps. 49), the other reviews the history of Israel from the Exodus until the building of the Temple in Jerusalem (Ps. 78). Job's last two monologues are similarly called meshalim, and from their superscriptions: "And Job took up his mashal, and said" (Job 27:1; 29:1), it seems that his earlier utterances during the discussion are also regarded as meshalim. At the same time, several poetic utterances that are called meshalim do not even seem to belong to wisdom literature, e.g., Balaam's songs (Num. 23:7–10, 18–24; 24:3–9, 15–24); the derisive elegy on the fall of the king of Babylon (Isa. 14:4–22); and the song of the ballad singers on the overthrow of Heshbon, referred to above.


To understand more fully the meaning of mashal in the Bible, the features common to all the abovementioned literary forms may be combined and in this way the essential characteristics of the concept determined. The first, and indispensable, characteristic of the mashal is its poetic form. All the meshalim quoted or alluded to in the Bible take the form of a song, while the mashal and the song (shir) are mentioned as analogous concepts in i Kings 5:12. Folk sayings of a few words (see above) must thus be understood as versets of poetry. Prose statements are never termed meshalim in the Bible. Thus the story of Jotham in Judges 9:8–15 and that of Nathan in ii Samuel 12:1–4 are not called meshalim. The difference between a mashal and a song (shir) apparently lies in the fact that the song was set to a tune and its recitation accompanied by musical instruments, whereas the mashal may have been associated with some melody, but was generally simply declaimed. The wisdom psalm is an exception, however, insofar as it has the form of a mashal and yet is at the same time a psalm (Ps. 49:5). Another characteristic of the mashal is its rhetorical aspect. It is intended for oral recitation only. Every mashal quoted in the Bible is accompanied by a statement indicating that it was, or was supposed to be, uttered aloud. Frequently it is prefaced by the phrase "to take up a mashal" (Num. 23:7, 18; 24:3; Isa. 14:4; Micah 2:4; Hab. 2:6; Job 27:1; 29:1). In Ezekiel, the usual phrase employed is "to use [or speak] a mashal" (Ezek. 12:23; 16:44; 17:2; 18:2–3, et al.). The Bible says that Solomon "spoke three thousand mashal" (i Kings 5:12). Of the literary compositions assembled in Proverbs and called meshalim – the poetic units in the first collection (Prov. 1–9) and the literary sayings in the second and the fifth (10:1–22:16; chs. 25–29) – some bear a clear rhetorical stamp, and all were apparently intended to be declaimed and memorized in the wisdom schools (see *Proverbs). Also characteristic of the mashal is its essentially secular nature. It is not the word of God but specifically the product of human "wisdom." A prophetic statement in the name of God, even if in the form of a poem, is never called a mashal, unless the prophet is commanded to compose meshalim, as in Isaiah 14:4 and in Ezekiel. In such instances, the prophet employs, as it were, his own wisdom and creative talents to proclaim the word of God specifically in the form of a mashal. Balaam's meshalim are similarly to be understood as the product of his occult science, as the expression of his skill in cursing and blessing (cf. Num. 22:6; Josh. 13:22; see *Balaam). These characteristics lend probability to the view that the mashal originated either in wisdom circles, or in those close to it, or in ancient folk wisdom (as distinct from aristocratic wisdom whose compositions have been assembled in the Book of Proverbs), the occurrence of the mashal in the prophetic books being explained as the use by the prophets of readymade formulas. The figures of Balaam and of the ballad singers who on important occasions expressed themselves in mashal (Num. 21:27) point to pre-Solomonic times. The figure of Balaam also suggests that the ancient mashal was connected with sorcery and magic, those who practiced them being likewise included in the category of wise men (cf. Gen. 41:8; Ex. 7:11; Isa. 44:25; Ps. 58:6; cf. Isa. 3:3: "the skillful enchanter"). In the course of time the mashal apparently developed in several directions. Mention has been made above of the pithy saying and the poetic utterance. Other changes of nuance in the character of the mashal are expressed in the Bible by combining mashal with another word thus producing hendiadys or parallelism. The words mashal and ḥidah ("riddle") in parallelism allude to a mashal whose contents are somewhat obscure and for whose comprehension some knowledge and ability are necessary (Ezek. 17:2; Hab. 2:6; Ps. 49:5; 78:2; Prov. 1:6). Accordingly, it may be inferred that the ḥidah, too, in particular one which is in the form of a poem and whose solution takes a poetic form (cf. Judg. 14:14, 18), is in essence close to the mashal. The combination of mashal and sheninah ("byword"; Deut. 28:37; i Kings 9:7; Jer. 24:9; ii Chron. 7:20; and in elliptic form in Ps. 69:12) refers to a mashal marked by derision and irony. This characteristic is also alluded to in the combination of ʾot, "sign," and meshalim (Ezek. 14:8) and of mashal and menod rosh ("shaking of the head"; Ps. 44:15). An example of the derisive mashal occurs in Isaiah 14:4–23. Another term used in the Bible to express irony is meliẓah, "taunt," and hence the combination of mashal and meliẓah (Hab. 2:6; Prov. 1:6). Some maintain that the moshelim, mentioned by the prophet in Isaiah 28:14, refer to composers of meshalim. According to this interpretation, they composed taunting meshalim, as is also evident from the verses that follow. The parallelism of mashal and nehi, "lamentation" (Micah 2:4), alludes to a mashal which has the characteristics of an elegy. An example of this type of mashal occurs in Isaiah 14:4–23, and to some extent in Numbers 21:27–30. Another possible tendency in the development of the mashal is the emphasis on metaphorical and allegorical features, which are the determining characteristics of Ezekiel's meshalim and are found, to a certain extent, in other meshalim as well. The verse which says of Solomon that "he spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall; he spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish" (i Kings 5:13 [4:33]) may refer to meshalim of an allegorical and fabulous nature. On the other hand, it may simply refer to didactic sayings and poems. It is difficult to assume that originally the allegorical aspect determined the essential character of meshalim.


E. Koenig, Stylistik, Rhetorik, Poetik in Bezug auf die biblische Literatur (1900), 77–110; A. Wuensche, Die Schoenheit der Bibel (1906); O. Eissfeldt, Der Maschal im Alten Testament (= bzaw, 24 (1913)); idem, in: Einleitung in das Alten Testament (1964), 89, 109–13, 123–6, 166–70; J. Pedersen, Der Eid bei den Semiten (1914), 12; A.H. Godbey, in: ajsll, 39 (1922–23), 89–108; G. Bostroem, Paronomasi i den aeldre Hebreiska Maschalliteraturen (1928); M. Hermaniuk, La parabolé évangélique (1947), 62–189; J. Pirot, in: Recherches de science réligieuse, 37 (1950), 565–80; A. Bentzen, Introduction to the Old Testament (1952), 167–77.

[Menahem Haran]


views updated May 18 2018

PROVERB. A short traditional saying of a didactic or advisory nature, in which a generalization is given specific, often metaphorical, expression: A stitch in time saves nine, meaning that action taken now will prevent a small problem becoming larger. Proverbs are found in many languages and cultures. A common idea may be given different local references: English carrying coals to Newcastle equivalent to Greek sending owls to Athens. Proverbial sayings were popular in the Middle Ages and treated as accepted wisdom. In the 16c and 17c, they were often used in literature, to support arguments and give emphasis to the author's views.

Proverbs are often of linguistic interest and may show lexical change. The saying ‘Do not spoil the hog for a halfpenny-worth of tar’ is recorded in 1600, but changed to sheep in 1651 and ship in 1823. The mnemonic needs of oral transmission may appear in: rhyme ‘Birds of a feather flock together’; ASSONANCE ‘A stitch in time saves nine’; ALLITERATION ‘Look before you leap’. Two proverbs may seem contradictory when in fact they contain truths applicable to different situations: Too many cooks spoil the broth as against Many hands make light work. Proverbs in present-day usage may often be regarded as clichés, but their persistence indicates their sociolinguistic importance. Commonly, when they occur in informal conversation, only the opening phrase is used: Well, a stitch in time, you know; Don't count your chickens (before they are hatched). See METAPHOR, QUOTATION.


views updated May 11 2018

proverb XIV. — (O)F. proverbe or L. prōverbium, f. PRO-1 + verbum WORD, as if ‘a set of words put forth’.
So proverbial XV. — L.


views updated May 14 2018

pro·verb / ˈprävˌərb/ • n. a short pithy saying in general use, stating a general truth or piece of advice.


views updated May 14 2018

proverb a short pithy saying in general use; a concise sentence, often metaphorical or alliterative in form, stating a general truth or piece of advice.

Proverbs is a book of the Bible containing maxims attributed mainly to Solomon.

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