By Jeff Martin• Proverbs 1:10, Proverbs 1:15–16, Proverbs 1:22, Proverbs 2:7, Proverbs 3:13, Proverbs 3:25, Proverbs 3:33, Proverbs 5:16, Proverbs 8:7, Proverbs 8:10, Proverbs 9:10–11, Proverbs 10:27–30, Proverbs 11:3, Proverbs 11:6, Proverbs 11:8–9, Proverbs 12:1, Proverbs 14:18, Proverbs 15:19, Proverbs 19:24, Proverbs 20:15, Proverbs 22:5, Proverbs 22:13, Proverbs 22:17, Proverbs 22:20, Proverbs 24:5, Proverbs 24:10, Proverbs 24:30–31, Proverbs 24:33, Proverbs 25:18, Proverbs 26:13, Proverbs 27:5, Proverbs 28:14, Proverbs 28:18
There was a great deal of consternation and much protest at the announcement of the quiz.
It can’t be helped, I said. Put away everything but a piece of paper and something to write with.
C’mon, Winebibber said, they’d just had a quiz yesterday, and I hadn’t even graded that one yet. How could I give another one today?
Winebibber always noticed things like this. I’d sat him by the window hoping someday he might fall out of it.
Author Jeff Martin shares his short story, “Winebibber,” crafted with forty passages interwoven from the book of Proverbs.
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10 ¶ My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.
15 My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path: 16 For their feet run to evil, and make haste to shed blood.
22 How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge?
7 He layeth up sound wisdom for the righteous: he is a buckler to them that walk uprightly.
13 ¶ Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.
25 Be not afraid of sudden fear, neither of the desolation of the wicked, when it cometh.
33 ¶ The curse of the LORD is in the house of the wicked: but he blesseth the habitation of the just.
16 Let thy fountains be dispersed abroad, and rivers of waters in the streets.
7 For my mouth shall speak truth; and wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
10 Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold.
10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding. 11 For by me thy days shall be multiplied, and the years of thy life shall be increased.
27 The fear of the LORD prolongeth days: but the years of the wicked shall be shortened. 28 The hope of the righteous shall be gladness: but the expectation of the wicked shall perish.
29 The way of the LORD is strength to the upright: but destruction shall be to the workers of iniquity. 30 The righteous shall never be removed: but the wicked shall not inhabit the earth.
3 The integrity of the upright shall guide them: but the perverseness of transgressors shall destroy them.
6 The righteousness of the upright shall deliver them: but transgressors shall be taken in their own naughtiness.
8 The righteous is delivered out of trouble, and the wicked cometh in his stead. 9 An hypocrite with his mouth destroyeth his neighbour: but through knowledge shall the just be delivered.
1 Whoso loveth instruction loveth knowledge: but he that hateth reproof is brutish.
18 The simple inherit folly: but the prudent are crowned with knowledge.
19 The way of the slothful man is as an hedge of thorns: but the way of the righteous is made plain.
24 A slothful man hideth his hand in his bosom, and will not so much as bring it to his mouth again.
15 There is gold, and a multitude of rubies: but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.
5 Thorns and snares are in the way of the froward: he that doth keep his soul shall be far from them.
13 The slothful man saith, There is a lion without, I shall be slain in the streets.
17 Bow down thine ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply thine heart unto my knowledge.
20 Have not I written to thee excellent things in counsels and knowledge,
5 A wise man is strong; yea, a man of knowledge increaseth strength.
10 If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small.
30 I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding; 31 And, lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down.
33 Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep:
18 A man that beareth false witness against his neighbour is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow.
13 The slothful man saith, There is a lion in the way; a lion is in the streets.
5 Open rebuke is better than secret love.
14 Happy is the man that feareth alway: but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into mischief.
18 Whoso walketh uprightly shall be saved: but he that is perverse in his ways shall fall at once.
As a fiction writer, the wisdom books of the Bible often frustrate me because of their lack of narrative—that is, there’s no story to be found in Proverbs, just as there isn’t any to be had in Wisdom or Sirach or the Psalms. If you want a plot in this stretch of the Old Testament, your best bet is Job, which has cause and effect, even if the causes are ultimately inexplicable. If you’re willing to scrap a bit more for your plot or like unusual narrative structures, you might be able to do something with Song of Songs or Ecclesiastes. But for the most part, what you’ll be reading is lists, many of which, as in Proverbs, are happy to repeat their ideas ceaselessly and with only the slightest variations. Nor are those repetitions necessarily profound—in some ways, Proverbs could be whittled down to this: “The righteous and the just will be okay. But the wicked and the slothful are up the creek.”
This drove me nuts. Why spend 920 verses making the same few generic points?
So it interested me to learn that Hebrew has a number of variations for the term “byword”—a word or phrase (like a proverb) that we use frequently. Of course one of those variations can be translated as “proverb.” But another can be translated as “taunt.” And that’s what struck me the most about Proverbs—that the overabundance of generic advice felt like a taunt to the reader.
Once I had that focus, the challenge was to herd the 40 verses I chose into a short story, i.e, a narrative, which is not their natural environment. Doing so was a blast.
Lastly, I’ll say this: the story’s engine runs almost entirely on taking the verses literally, which is probably the worst way to read any kind of religious text. But I also think there’s something to be gained from exploring how these sayings would fare when dropped into the living world.
Jeff Martin co-directs the UVA Young Writers Workshop and has been published in New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and No Tokens Journal, among others. Find more of his work online at readjeffmartin.com.