The Book of Proverbs says I should look after my flocks, because if I do my goats will take care of me in an economic time of trouble.
Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds, for riches do not last forever; and does a crown endure to all generations? When the grass is gone and the new growth appears and the vegetation of the mountains is gathered, the lambs will provide your clothing, and the goats the price of a field. There will be enough goats’milk for your food, for the food of your household and maintenance for your girls. (Proverbs 27:23-27)
If I take the Bible seriously, should I go buy goats?
No, because I take the Bible seriously, I will not go buy goats.
The path to liberalism is not paved with the taking the Bible in context. Instead, we take the Bible literally, when we take it in a literary manner. Genre matters. The idea that one can find science in the Psalms is foolish, because the Psalms are poetry and not science.
The Psalms no more teach a flat earth or a spherical earth, than the Charge of the Light Brigade (half a league, half a league, half a league on) gives the distances at the Battle of Baclava. To press the Psalms into scientific duty is an abuse of the Psalms.
In the same way, Proverbs is giving general advice, which is only generally true, to an ancient people group. The obvious fact that we do not live in an ancient agricultural society means that we have to contextualize the Proverb.
Goats are not the basis of wealth in our culture as they were in ancient times, though you can still get milk from them. It is obvious, of course, that the principle behind the Proverb still applies: make sure you watch after the thing that makes you money. If you are a goatherd, take care of your goats, if you are computer programmer, your code. If you program for Microsoft, your code may be figuratively goat-like, but it is not a literal beastie.
This is not particularly controversial amongst Christians, but oddly I meet few secularists who understand it. If you talk about “application,” then they think you are not taking the Bible “literally” or making excuses for the Bible.
Many Bible difficulties, though certainly not all, disappear if we understand that making a book say something it could not possible be saying is abusing the book, not taking it literally. The Bible forces an ancient people to progress and we get to witness these pilgrim’s progress.
It also contains timeless truth, ancient history, and a full explication of God’s plan of fixing and repairing a broken human race. Humans do not change in essence, but they do change in important ways.
It is hard for me to remember that I lived for a long time before the Ipod and before mobiles. They are now such a part of life that it seems they must have also been there, but to my kid’s shock Dad is too old to have had a favorite video as a child.
The odd thing is it seems odd to me as well.
We must struggle to put ourselves into a mindset where the very concept of monotheism was new and difficult to understand. This is pre-philosophy, pre-theology, pre-scientific thinking. These were not barbarians, because they gave us philosophy, theology, and science, but it did not come to them in a flash. When God did come with shock and awe to His people, it did not seem to help.
The same group that saw the Red Sea part was worshipping a golden calf later.
Some new atheists believe that ancient culture was just a stinking version of modern culture. Instead, ancient culture is what produced modernity. Salvation history is a long educational program between God and humanity where human free will is preserved, but God leads ancient people to truth.
In some areas, people cannot understand or recognize a concept until they have a word for it. God had to teach His people over time the concepts of liberty, salvation, and law. Progress was not steady as we are not very good learners. Just as with technological innovation, early ideas, which seem simple now, were easier to grasp, while a combination of simple ideas would eventually lead to rapid conceptual breakthroughs.
How valid are the lessons for an agricultural people today? Some are directly valuable, since cheating your neighbor has never been good for long term business and is still bad for the soul. Some are only indirectly valuable and have to applied.
Our political leaders are not despotic kings ruling for life, so we have to contextualize the advice we are given. Our economy is driven more by ideas than things, by thought than muscle power, and this also will change the direction of the advice.
Making an appropriate application of principles is not usually very hard, but does require training. This is a good reason for seminary and for the hard work a pastor puts into his sermon. Only a fool would urge his congregation to buy goats or think there was nothing to learn from this advice.
Proverbs are, of course, only generally true. They are not “promises,” but reflections of the way things generally turn out. You should obey a proverb except when you shouldn’t! They don’t so much tell you what you should do in a particularly situation, but what you generally should do in a situation of the sort.
A proverb is valuable advice, but not an iron law telling you what to do.
Going to the Goats
So what do we learn from the goats of Proverbs?
First, we learn that a leader should tend to his core business. Though diversification can be a good strategy, if it destroys or weakens the focus of the main money maker. A family farm might fund some foreign trade, but the trade had better not put the family farm at risk.
Second, Proverbs is reminding us that times change. Nothing good lasts and so a person needs a fall back plan. This sounds obvious, but anyone who watched the churning activity in California land knows that moderns can also fall for the idiocy that good times will last forever.
Finally, goats are tangible and there is something to be said for tangible assets. A point of this passage is Proverbs seems something like this: “If all else fails, at least you can drink goat’s milk.”
This seems right.
Buy stock in a worthless company and you have paper, but land is at least land. There are many things you can do with land in a crisis. Even gold, which seems so tangible, is in a severe crisis not something you can eat, wear, or which will shelter you.
Goats, or things like goats, at least partially cover very basic human needs. In ancient times, the economy was much more fragile and a more severe “fall back” position was necessary. Americans are much less likely to starve (at least at the moment) than ancient Israelis.
One bad harvest could spell doom for ancients, but we can weather more bad weather.
Having a fall back plan for emergencies is prudent even if it need not be as severe as an ancient needed. In our culture, it might include buying life insurance for the family, having sufficient savings, and in Southern California having an earthquake preparedness kit.
Nobody needs to prepare for the apocalypse, because it is so unlikely to happen and so difficult to anticipate the particular conditions if it does.
That doesn’t begin to exhaust the advice one can get from these Proverbs, but it does get me thinking: “What are my goats? How can I tend them? What is my plan for hard days?”