I finally finished The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues. The author of the chapter on “The Wisdom Books,” Kathleen Farmer, states the following (page 139):
The rabbis (cf. b. Shabb. 30b) were disturbed by conflicts [in Proverbs] that seemed impossible to harmonize. For instance, it is clear that Prov. 26:4 and 26:5 give completely opposite pieces of advice to anyone who wants to know how to respond to fools…Most critical scholars in the first three quarters of the twentieth century have attempted to explain these discontinuities as the result of multiple authorship and editorial additions.
Proverbs 26:4-5 states (in the NRSV): Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself. Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.In the rabbinic passage that Farmer cites, the rabbis reconcile the conflicting commands as follows: “Do not answer fools” relates to the matter of learning Torah, whereas “Answer fools” applies to general matters. Their rationale may be that something sacred and elevated like the study of the Torah shouldn’t dignify foolish statements with a response.
I’m surprised that critical scholars from the early twentieth century attempted to explain this discontinuity in Proverbs 26:4-5. Personally, I don’t deny that the Bible has contradictions, which are a result of its multiple sources, but I never sought a source critical solution to Proverbs 26:4-5. I mean, the contradictory passages there are side by side! It’s like a single author or editor is deliberately contradicting himself, even if there’s a chance that he’s inserting two proverbs that he found from different sources.
Fundamentalists and atheists act as if the Bible has to be thoroughly consistent to be the authoritative word of God. But perhaps there’s a place for biblical contradictions that convey nuance. In some cases, it’s inappropriate to respond to a fool, since a response only dignifies his foolishness. At other times, however, a fool needs to be corrected, lest he think he’s wise and cause all sorts of damage. Both commands make sense, along with their rationales, even if they contradict each other. Which one to apply in which situation is the judgment call of the reader.
That brings me to another point: Is the Bible supposed to be like a cookbook that we mechanically follow, which lays out specific instructions for us to obey? Or does it offer us guidelines for us to apply, using our own minds? I think it has a little of both.