Chapter 17: Beneath the Surface

17:1 Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.

      I am reading today's Proverb and writing these words this morning at the annual meeting of Biblical archaeologists, in Atlanta this year. I am the program chair for a series of presentations running throughout the conference. Its two hours before my sessions begin and I'm sitting at the speakers table in my meeting room with my breakfast from Starbucks – coffee, fruit bowl and some bran cereal. There is lots of activity all around me outside in the hallway and even the AV guys keep coming in and out of my room getting everything hooked up right.
      Last evening I flew in late, handled a series of arrangements and set up for the week. This is my few minutes of calm before the whole week's storm of activity begins. I appreciate the moment and this Proverb is especially talking to me right now.
      I am having much more than a dry crust of bread and I do have a bit of relative quiet for now. This week I will be around people, morning till night, but won't actually be embroiled in any real strife. I'm practicing at the Serenity Prayer says, "Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time."

17:3 The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the LORD tests the heart.

      The precious metals silver and gold were well-known to the ancients. While the average Israelite would have known almost nothing about mining or refining them, they did know their end value.
      Genesis indicates that artisans understood about metals and had the skills to extract and refine them in the pre-Flood world (See Gn 4:22). Gold is first mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 2:11-12 (also the pre-Flood world), while silver is first mentioned along with gold as being some of the wealth of Abram in Genesis 13:2 (the post-Flood world).
      To purify these precious metals and prepare them for use, the crucible was used to refine silver and the furnace for gold (the same implements and the refining process are also seen in Proverbs 27:21).
      Physical evidence of both gold and silver appeared in the ancient world at about the same time, the fourth millennium BC. The earliest known evidence of silver mining comes from ancient Turkey and the Aegean Islands where slag piles indicate surface mining and the separation of silver from lead. Gold artifacts are first known from the Balkans but the earliest known mining was done in the Sudan (ancient Nubia).

17:6 Children's children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children.

      Three generations living in close proximity are suggested in this verse. Leviticus 18 talks about four generations of a family. It was probably commonplace in the Biblical world to have members of each of these generations living in the same house – or at least a single family compound.
      Leviticus 18 addresses inappropriate sexual relations within these four generations of a single family. The verses are written to a man who is told to treat the women of his father's generation (his mother and all of his aunts); the women of his own generation (sister or wife's sister); or the women of his son's generation (daughter-in-law); the women of his grandchildren's generation.
      Admittedly this passage mentions things that many of us are uncomfortable with discussing. But God, who made us, addresses these real life issues because it is for our own good.
      Our Proverb addresses family life as it should be lived. Yet in nations around the world, the family message of Leviticus in important. God has a better plan for our lives than this.

17:8 A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it; wherever he turns, he succeeds.

      While I have spent no time in the Far East, I know the practice of baksheesh in every Near Eastern country I have visited. Foreign to my western sensibilities, it is accepted practice in those countries and I have learned to respond accordingly.
      Sometimes baksheesh is not for any real service, but it is frequently expected – even demanded. I particularly remember landing in Cairo years ago and having to pay some money just to get my luggage from one part of the airport to another. It wasn't clear to me if it was law or just a local custom. But guys who didn't look like they even worked there would not allow my bags to be moved without "baksheesh," (their term and I didn't have any idea what they were talking about). Meanwhile, those who appeared to be government officials all around us just busied themselves with other things. My baksheesh was just a small amount, but I did have to pay 3 times! Still, I felt extorted, almost violated. But I had to learn that, if I was ever going to spend much time in that part of the world, I just had to get over it.
      Baksheesh can also be something you do in order to get something you want, which really should be considered a petty bribe. I also remember times when we got "special permission" from an "attendant" at an archaeological site to take a peek at something or to take a photo. In reality we weren't even sure he was even official, but it was the simplest, most direct way we knew to get to see what we wanted to see at the time. Welcome to the Near East.

17:12 Better to meet a bear robbed of her cubs than a fool in his folly.

      The bear of the Bible world was the Syrian brown bear and were known in Palestine all the way to the beginning of the 20th century in that region. Their habits suggest that they subsisted on a diet of vegetable rather than meat diet. They are generally understood to not be a threat to humans, except when annoyed or extremely hungry. The numerous Old Testament references suggest they were well known. The singular New Testament mention (Revelation 13:2) is a symbolic reference.