Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes. (Proverbs 26:4-5)
Could there be a more obvious example of a Biblical contradiction than these two verses, one after the other, telling me, on the one hand not to answer a fool according to his folly, while on the other hand telling me to answer the fool according to his folly? The defender of inerrancy cannot take refuge in the old “Well, you see, in the original Hebrew…” argument, since the Hebrew in both verses is identical except for the negative in verse four. Surely, the skeptic says, even the most ignorant Bible advocate must confess that in this situation, the Bible is self-contradictory.
Yes and no. As a parent, I’ve found myself giving contradictory advice to my children at various times: “Get home quickly! And drive slowly!” or “Get your homework done before you do anything else! And take out the trash before you do anything else (including your homework)!” Am I a confusing, hopelessly inconsistent parent? My children might say that I am, but they typically understand that my instructions come from a reasonably consistent set of principles and totally different situations.
To understand the Proverbs we really have to understand the genre of proverbs. A proverb is generally not something to be taken as an absolute and immutable law. It is instead a generally true piece of wisdom. Does the proverb writer expect us to beat the fool without ceasing (26:3) or claim that no fool can ever turn from his folly (26:11)? Not at all. Instead, the writer tells us that fools, like horses and donkeys, need to be constrained and controlled. Fools, like dogs with their vomit, have a tendency to revisit the same foolishness again. To take a non-biblical example, is the proverb, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” completely invalid just because some old person manages to learn a new language? Of course not. Instead, it is generally true that older people have a harder time changing their ways than younger ones.
The genre of the proverb should not be treated as if it were Mosaic Law. When God gives instructions about how things should be done in the Torah, He expects those instructions to be followed. To illustrate this, we need simply look at the case of Nadab and Abihu being struck dead for offering “unauthorized fire” in the Tabernacle. If the law were to say, “Do work on the Sabbath” and then say “Do not work on the Sabbath,” we’d have something to discuss. The law genre is to be taken very literally. The proverb genre is to be taken seriously but not quite so absolutely.
Surely my skeptical friend would not believe the compiler of the book of Proverbs so clueless as to have placed these apparently contradictory verses next to each other without noticing it. Quite the contrary, we should assume that the compiler had some message to convey through the arrangement. Living in wisdom can be messy. Sometimes you need to let the fool speak foolishly lest you too look like a fool. Other times, you need to call the fool out on his foolishness. When do we follow course A and when course B? That’s not so clear, but nobody said that the acquisition of wisdom would be easy.