28 August 2012

Are these Bible passages self-contradictory?

Where in the Bible are we told in one verse not to do a thing and in the next to do it?
‘Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.’
--Prov. xxvi. 4.
‘Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.’
--Prov. xxvi. 5.
---Samuel Grant Oliphant, Queer Questions and Ready Replies, 1887.

I don't know the answer to the question I posed in the title; there may be a subtext or translation subtletly that is not evident in the brief excerpt.  Someone with a theological training or a better understanding of Proverbs may be able to explain this apparent discrepancy.

Found in the Futility Closet.


  1. Check out the last paragraph here for the explanation:


  2. The explanation in that paragraph Graham cites is good. Another thing to keep in mind is that "Proverbs" is a "wisdom" book. As such, one of the goals of the instruction is to learn discernment. As we know, life is pretty complicated and witty one-liners rarely give us the guidance we need in each situation. I think that this Proverb highlights what the author of Ecclesiastes writes:

    "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

    a time to be born, and a time to die;
    a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
    a time to kill, and a time to heal;
    a time to break down, and a time to build up;
    a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
    a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
    a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
    a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
    a time to seek, and a time to lose;
    a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
    a time to tear, and a time to sew;
    a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
    a time to love, and a time to hate;
    a time for war, and a time for peace."

    Only wisdom can tell when to answer the fool and when not to. Sometimes it is appropriate, and sometimes it isn't.

    Hope that quotation wasn't too long. I love the Wisdom literature of the Bible and couldn't help adding my two cents.

  3. I think Brad hits the nail on the head. It is all about the timing and situation. There are some situations when it is appropriate to answer a fool, and there are other times it is simply best to keep one's mouth shut.

    BTW, I double-checked the Hebrew just in case there was something I was missing. The same words in English in both passages are the same words in Hebrew.

  4. I think it's kind of poetic to put (apparently) contradictory advice together like that. We do similar things in modern day writing fairly often.

    The Bible, Book of Proverbs: Wisdom and advice, not a legal document.

  5. The two lines together sound like a koan.

  6. Thank you everyone. That all makes sense.

  7. They men who translated the bible for the King James version were probably the smartest men in England at the time and I'm pretty sure they would have debated every verse. So, anything in there probably has a pretty good reason for being there. As I understand it, there are many inconsistencies in the Bible that are far far worse.

  8. Brad is right. It is an issue of discernment. Sometimes when you answer a fool, you become like him. Sometimes if you don't answer a fool, he will walk away thinking he was right (and it may also influence others to follow the foolishness). So the plan of action is:
    1) If by answering the fool you stoop to his level and become like him, then don't answer.
    2) If by answering the fool you can reveal his foolishness, then answer him.

  9. Or, simply, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. Fools are foolish; steer clear.

    PS This new CAPTCHA is bloomin' difficult!

  10. A collection of contradictions some trivial (e.g. snails don't melt) and some seem more serious (e.g. Jesus last words).

  11. Reminds me of the opening passage of Herzog, one of my favorite novels of all time, where he contemplates the possibility that he's losing his mind. Excerpted at the bottom of the page at this link: http://www.npr.org/2009/05/18/103846270/head-in-a-fog-reach-for-herzog

  12. We do NOT have the original writings on which the Bible is based. We don't even have a copy of a copy of a copy. Indications are that a lot of margin notes ended up being inserted as verses,ETC. You definitely need discernment when referencing the Bible.


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