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Answer the fool, or not? (Proverbs 26:4–5) - Mondays with Mounce

Some people say they don’t trust the Old Testament because of all the so-called contradictions. One of the apparent contradictions often pointed out is found in Proverbs 26:4–5. Should you, or should you not, answer a fool?

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him. (v. 4)

Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes. (v. 5)

The placement in the book of these two verses and the similarity of grammar and content clearly suggest they are meant to be read together. Common sense suggests that thinking the verses are contradictory must be a misreading; no editor would put two contradictory statements side by side. The key is to understand the ambiguous Hebrew preposition ke, translated below as “according to.” The Septuagint suggests the proper understanding:

μὴ ἀποκρίνου ἄφρονι πρὸς τὴν ἐκείνου ἀφροσύνην, ἵνα μὴ ὅμοιος γένῃ αὐτῷ.
Do not answer a fool in accordance with his folly, lest you become like him. (italics added)

ἀλλὰ ἀποκρίνου ἄφρονι κατὰ τὴν ἀφροσύνην αὐτοῦ, ἵνα μὴ φαίνηται σοφὸς παῤ ἑαυτῷ.
But answer a fool according to his folly, lest he appear to be wise to himself. (italics added)

The inclusion of “but” (ἀλλά, alla) and the shift from “in accordance with” (πρός, pros) to “according to” (κατά, kata) show the correct meaning. Do not respond to a fool by speaking the same way he speaks; otherwise, you become like him. However, do respond to a fool so he will not think he is correct (“wise”).

As is so often the case, correct interpretation and a little common sense shows that this is not a contradiction.

This blog is an extract from my upcoming book, Why I Trust the Bible, due out in September, 2021.

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