Wine and Social Justice

I was reading Proverbs 31:2-9 just now, and the structure of the poem struck me. Here’s the text from the NRSV, adjusted slightly for poetic formatting.

The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:

No, my son! No, son of my womb!
No, son of my vows!
Do not give your strength to women,
your ways to those who destroy kings.
It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to desire strong drink;
or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed,
and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted.

Give strong drink to one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty,
and remember their misery no more.
Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

So, apparently, Lemuel was a pretty dissolute king when he was young, until his mother called him to the path of wisdom and justice. Lemuel’s mother doesn’t take too kindly to her son wasting his kingship on wine and women; it seems that young Lemuel cared more about having fun than caring for the poor and downtrodden.

So what does Lemuel’s mother tell him to do?

First, she tells him not to take so many wives/concubines/consorts/lovers/what have you. These women, she says, will destroy him. Second, she tells him to lay off the sauce. Being a playboy will corrupt him.

And then comes the interesting part. She takes the image of wine and turns it on its head. Instead of hoarding wine for himself and living a lavish and sumptuous life, he should give that wine to those who live in poverty and despair. The image of wine and carousing becomes a metaphor for social justice. And finally, so as to make sure that her metaphor isn’t lost on young Lemuel, she makes her point explicit: lighten the burdens on the poor and needy, and make sure they are treated justly.

The overall point is that Lemuel, as ruler of his country, should forego the creature comforts his position affords him, instead working to make sure that the poor and destitute get those same comforts.

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