John J. Pilch in ‘Introducing the Cultural Context of the Old Testament’ focuses on Wisdom literature, and to help his readers understand how important honour and shame were in Ancient Israel, Pilch takes them on a journey of discovery around the book of Proverbs (Pilch: pp49-70). He comments: “The core values of Mediterranean culture are ‘honor and shame’” (Pilch: p49). He explains it like this:
“The central or core value of our Mediterranean ancestors in the faith is ‘interpersonal contentment’. This value dictates that people should be content with what they have and not worry about getting ahead of others, achieving more than others, or being better than others. This, in fact, is what Mediterranean people are ‘anxious’ about: not to infringe on others, and not to allow others to infringe on them.
“Such anxiety revolves especially around the value feeling of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’. Whatever the status into which a person is born is ‘honourable’ and must be maintained throughout life. Indeed, being born into honour is the chief way of getting it. The reason for genealogies in the Bible is to let the reader know that the person to whom this genealogy is applied is honourable because the entire ancestral line is full of honourable people.” (Pilch: p52.)
Pilch then goes on to help his students reflect on a whole series of different verses from Proverbs (3:9, 16, 35; 4:8; 5:9; 6:33; 8:18; 11:16; 13:18; 14:31; 15:33; 18:3, 12; 20:3; 21:21; 22:4; 26:1, 8; 27:18; 29:23). His asertion is that these proverbs are intended to direct and control people’s behaviour and to do so they include sanctions and rewards. It seems as though the writer of Proverbs ‘carrot and stick’ (my words) are honour and shame. Take Proverbs 13:18 as an example:
“He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame,
But whoever heeds correction is honoured.”
“Honor is contrasted with disgrace (shame). … Honor results from heeding instruction, particularly reproof (discipline). The book of Proverbs is … ‘wisdom literature’ which is practical, down-to-earth advice on successful living. Such wisdom helps a person maintain honor” (Pilch: p57), and avoid being shamed.
Pilch then encourages his readers to look at references to shame in Proverbs ( which include: Proverbs 10:5; 12:4; 13:5; 14:35; 17:2; 18:3; 19:26; 25:8-10; 28:7; 29:15). Shame, he says, “in a positive view, is a sensitivity to one’s honor and a determination to guard and maintain it. In a negative view it is the result of a loss of honor” (Pilch: p61). Consider Proverbs 28:7 as an example:
“He who keeps the law is a discerning son,
but a companion of gluttons disgraces his father.”
“Gluttony bespeaks having more than enough. The Mediterranean cultural obligation when one has more than enough is to share with those who do not have enough. To be capable of gluttony means one has refused to share, and this is shameful. Notice who bears the shame. The father is tainted by the son’s misbehaviour.” (Pilch: p63). Pilch goes on to explain that shame and honour are never purely personal matters. The son shames the father, the father bears that shame as a deep pain negating his honour, his place in the community, he is reduced as a person.
Shame in Proverbs, then, is a sanction. It seems to as much affect the family of a miscreant rather than necessarily just the miscreant him/herself. For those who are shamed, there is little they can do to change the circumstances. Shame overwhelms them but they have nowhere to turn to resolve their predicament. Their honour has been taken away.
Please see the bibliography on Honour and Shame on this blog.