by Al Maxey

Issue #433 ------- February 26, 2010
We think caged birds sing,
when indeed they cry.

John Webster {1580-1625}

Puzzling Partridge Proverb
A Reflective Study of Jeremiah 17:11

The biblical writers (in both OT and NT documents) made extensive use of a good many figures of speech (sometimes called figures of words) and figures of thought. The former is when the image or resemblance is confined primarily to a single word, whereas the latter might require for its expression a great many words, phrases and sentences. A metaphor, for example, would be a "figure of speech," whereas a parable would be a "figure of thought." A proverb is similar to a parable, but is generally more of a wise statement than an extended story. In the Hebrew language, however, there is just one single word that signifies both a proverb and a parable, which has led a number of biblical and linguistic scholars to define a proverb as "a condensed parable" [Dr. Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, p. 328]. Dr. D. R. Dungan observes, "A proverb may be regarded as a short, pithy sentence, containing a complete and valuable thought" [Hermeneutics: The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures, p. 314]. The apostle Peter gives us a couple of memorable proverbs in 2 Peter 2:22 --- "It has happened to them according to the true proverb, 'A dog returns to its own vomit,' and, 'A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.'"

Many proverbs find their origin in the common perceptions and practices of the common people. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" likely arose from the experiences of those seeking game birds for the dinner table, and a loss suffered when they got a bit greedy. As people observe the world about them, some events and happenings, with which most would be familiar, lend themselves quite readily to "short, pithy" statements that express valuable, life-guiding insights in a manner easily remembered, and thus often quoted. It should also be noted that the perception from which the proverb emerged does not even necessarily need to be true. If the perception is commonly accepted as true within the minds of the people for whom that proverb is intended, then the wisdom conveyed is just as valid. It's not uncommon, in the teaching of both Jesus and His disciples, to take a common perception of the people (even though it may not be objectively factual) and use it as the platform from which to launch a greater spiritual truth. Paul, for example, used the sad misconception about baptisms performed for the dead [1 Cor. 15:29] to show the inconsistency of one's denial of a resurrection of the dead (never bothering to refute the former doctrine). Jesus never commented on the Jewish notion of the pre-existence of souls, and the idea that such souls might sin in such a way as to cause them to be placed in defective bodies at birth, but took that perception in a new direction [John 9:1-3]. It is my belief that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus was also just such a case: Jesus taking a common fable of the people, and from that fable illustrating a deeper spiritual truth about ultimate accountability (Reflections #28). We today might do something similar by preaching spiritual truths derived from such common stories as "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Three Bears."

This has greatly troubled some disciples of Christ today, as they feel no spiritual insight conveyed should ever be drawn from events or accounts that are in any way contrary to objective reality. Thus, if each of the many particulars of a proverb or parable, for example, are not true (factual, real) in every respect, then the insights and truths conveyed are "tainted," and the one doing the conveying is being deceptive. Such a view, however, truly fails to grasp the beauty of figurative expression (which was quite common among the ancient biblical peoples). It is the insight or wisdom conveyed that is the focus, not necessarily the scientific accuracy of the perception that may have motivated that insight to be expressed proverbially. A really good case in point may be found in Jeremiah 17:11. The prophet employs a proverb that many scholars have found to be rather problematic as it doesn't seem to find its basis in fact. "Many commentators have said that Jeremiah's reference to the partridge shows his ignorance of this bird's habits and his acceptance of a popular misconception" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 486]. We can quickly jump to some very wrong conclusions here, hermeneutically, if we are not careful. A reader wrote to me just this week about this very passage, asking, "Is Jeremiah's comparison legitimate? Did he borrow the thought from a 'current belief'? If all Scripture is given by inspiration, is there a problem here?"

Yes, there is significant difficulty with our understanding of what precisely may have motivated this particular proverb, although the truths conveyed by this proverb are reasonably clear. "Unfortunately, the ornithological allusion is obscure, however the point is clear if the allusion is not" [Andrew Blackwood, Commentary on Jeremiah, p. 146]. In addition to some confusion about the actual habits of the partridge, "the translation of the proverb of the partridge is difficult, for the Hebrew is extremely terse, and one of the verbs is of uncertain meaning (brood, gather or lay)" [The Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 1075]. Thus, even among the various Bible translations on the market today there is significant disagreement over what the partridge is actually doing. Consider the following:

  1. "As the partridge sitteth on eggs, and hatcheth them not ..." [King James Version]. In this case, the bird is seen sitting on eggs that do not hatch.

  2. "As the partridge that sitteth on eggs which she hath not laid ..." [American Standard Version]. According to this translation, the bird is sitting on eggs that she herself did not lay (i.e., they come from another bird, and possibly from another nest).

  3. "Like a partridge that hatches eggs it did not lay ..." [New International Version]. Now we've gone from sitting on eggs that do not hatch, to hatching eggs she did not lay.

  4. "Like the partridge that gathers a brood which she did not hatch ..." [Revised Standard Version; English Standard Version]. This seems to imply robbing young chicks from another's nest.

Does a partridge (and there were two or three varieties in Palestine at that time) do any of these things, or were these ancient beliefs based upon misconceptions? If the latter, does this in some way invalidate the insights conveyed by this proverb? Does it bring into question the inspiration of this passage? Does it mean Jeremiah was deceived, and that he was then intentionally seeking to deceive others? The answer to each of these speculations is a resounding "NO." Once again, if one truly perceives the nature of figurative language, especially as employed by the Hebrews, one will understand that the particulars of the illustration need not necessarily be factual for the truths and insights derived therefrom to be valid. In other words, whether partridges actually did any of these things or not is not the issue. The issue is: the people believed they did, and based upon that belief one could build valid statements of life-guiding wisdom. Proverbs were not designed to be testimonies to scientific fact. Their true purpose and worth was in employing comparisons and contrasts with the common events and beliefs within one's environment to convey maxims that would motivate the people to certain attitudes and actions.

Yes, there is some uncertainty about the specifics that motivated this proverb, but there is little debate over the message of the proverb itself, and that is where the incredible value of this "short, pithy" statement lies!! With regard to the former, however, "explanations of the allusion to the actions of partridges in Jeremiah 17:11 are numerous" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 672]. Many scholars feel "the prophet assumes the truth of a popular belief respecting the partridge, a common bird in Judea, that it brooded upon eggs which it had not laid" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 11, p. 417]. Other scholars have "rejected this explanation on the ground that the statement is not true to natural history; the partridge neither steals the broods of others nor needs to do so, as it lays a very large number of eggs" [ibid]. Some have speculated, "May not the unusually large number of the eggs laid by the partridge have led to the fancy that they could not be all its own?" [ibid]. V. C. Holmgren opined, "Perhaps the meaning is that more than one hen laid eggs in the same nest. The hen that completed the incubation process would thus hatch a mixed brood, some of which did not belong to her" [Bird Walk Through The Bible, p. 134].

Dr. Charles Ellicott points out that the words of the proverb in Jeremiah 17:11 "point to a popular belief among the Jews that the partridge steals the eggs of other birds and adds them to her own, with the result that when the eggs are hatched the broods desert her" for their own species. "Modern naturalists have not observed this habit, but it is probable that the belief originated in the practice of the cuckoo laying its eggs in the nest of the partridge, as in that of other birds" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 5, p. 63]. Other scholars, however, insist that the practice of the partridge mentioned by Jeremiah is accurate. "The female lays between six and twelve eggs, and the partridge can be an intrusive bird that steals other birds' eggs" [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 1010]. The scholars behind The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible point out that "there may be some basis for" this belief by the ancient Jews, "although their deduction is probably wrong" [vol. 4, p. 603]. In other words, these people misunderstood what they were seeing, thus arriving at the wrong conclusion. The Arabs in that region today, for example, declare that the partridge hen "lays in two separate nests, one of which is looked after" by the male of the species. Thus, there is some egg gathering and chick gathering that takes place throughout the incubation, hatching and nurturing process that might give the appearance of stealing eggs/chicks, or sitting on eggs from another hen's nest, or hatching eggs not one's own.

Again, whether this popular belief, based upon the observations of the ancient Jews, is factual or not is really beside the point. "Jeremiah 17:11 is simply a passage quoting a curious natural history belief" [ibid]. Based upon what these people had observed, and the conclusions they had reached from those observations, certain convictions were formed in their minds. The prophet Jeremiah simply takes those convictions, which were well-known by them all, and uses them as the foundation for establishing certain spiritual insights (insights made all the more clear to these people by means of the comparison with their own popular understandings of the practices of desert partridges). As those who seek to convey God's Truths to those around us, we should be open to using any comparison or contrast (whether it be factual or merely the common perception of the people) to help them grasp these deeper spiritual insights. Jesus was a master of such illustrative instruction. Let us not hesitate to go and do likewise.


Special CD on the Book of Revelation --- A good many of you were aware that I was teaching a Sunday morning adult class on the Book of Revelation at the congregation where I serve as a minister and one of the elders. This was a six month study that comes to an end this Sunday morning (Feb. 28). In addition to providing the class with printed materials I had prepared over the years on this fascinating final book of the New Testament documents (and there are a good many such handouts that I provided them), I also prepared a PowerPoint presentation for each chapter of Revelation (as well as an Introduction file and a Summary file). There are hundreds and hundreds of pictures and graphics in these presentations, with every passage in Revelation covered. I have made all of this material available on a single CD, and it is now available for purchase. In addition to the above material, I have placed all my notes for my class "Jesus Evaluates His Church" (an in-depth study of the seven churches of Asia Minor) on this CD. Further, there is the full text of my debate on the nature of man and the nature of final punishment, as well as all of my Reflections articles (about a dozen) which deal with various passages and topics in Revelation. I think you will find this to be a very worthwhile resource. To find information on how to order your very own copy (or to get copies for friends) Click Here.

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

A 200 page book by Al Maxey
Publisher: (301) 695-1707

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Readers' Reflections

From a Doctor in Texas:

Brother Al, I was reading your latest Reflections article on Hebrews 12:23, and I followed your link over to Issue #32 regarding the distinction between spirit, soul and body. I have been studying this for about 13 years, and I found your comments very helpful. It seems very few folks are concerned with the topic, though. Your equation -- Body + Breath = Being -- is worded a bit differently than I had previously encountered, but it expresses man's constitution very well.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Brother Al, Let me again tell you how much my husband and I enjoy reading your weekly Reflections. You have enlightened us and given us many things to ponder over the years, and we enjoy the challenge that you afford us with your insights and knowledge of the Scriptures. You are truly a blessing to us!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Brother Al, I am 62, living in Oklahoma City, and was raised within the conservative Churches of Christ, although I was never really convinced of the "hell fire and damnation" position, nor of the exclusionist position taken by many within the Churches of Christ. You are a breath of fresh air, Brother Al Maxey!! I really enjoy your comments; they are very edifying for me. Keep up your open-mindedness.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Dear Brother Al, I just read your Reflections article on Hebrews 12:23. It is fantastic!! Thank you so much for writing it. I have come to the same conclusions you have, but your article really concretized everything for me. I also really appreciated the forceful tone of your article! You exposed the Platonic doctrine for all that it really is: a hideous indoctrination. Thank you so much, Al, for this study, and also for your continued advocacy of Conditional Immortality. I only wish that you would write more on the subject (not that you haven't already written a great deal). You are one of the very best contemporary authors on this important subject!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, I just wanted to let you know how much I love reading your Reflections each week! They are truly a blessing for me, and I tell my friends about you and your web site whenever I get a chance. Thank you!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Dear Brother Al, Thank you for this study!! I had always been taught that man is made of three parts: the body, the soul, and the spirit. And yet, I could never really believe there were untold billions of little "ghosts" flying all about just waiting for Jesus to return so they could get their bodies back!! The only sensible answer is that man is a single entity, but it took your study to tie it all together for me!! Thank you. By the way, we live about 90 minutes away from Tulsa, so we'll be driving over each day for The Tulsa Workshop. I am really looking forward to hearing your lessons, and to meeting you at last.

From a Reader in Connecticut:

Bro. Al, Your study of this topic (the nature of man) is, without question, the most in-depth and serious study of one of the most vital doctrines of the Christian faith that I have ever seen. Indeed, your lessons on a great many topics are truly thought-provoking and, if one is honest with himself, cannot be read without the readers experiencing one of two great emotions: fear or freedom! I am happy to say that it is, I believe, through divine providence that I experience a new sense of freedom and joy with every issue of your Reflections that I read. You are most certainly a gifted scholar. I am only sorry that it has taken me over two decades to become a serious student of the Scriptures.

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, I will be teaching an adult class beginning in March, and the idea is to discuss the position presented in Edward Fudge's book: The Fire That Consumes. I will also be using information from your own writings in the facilitation of this class, and I will probably begin the study with the discussion of the nature of man (on which you have written so much). I am also hoping to facilitate an adult class on your book dealing with divorce and remarriage --- Down, But Not Out. The idea will be for everyone in the class to purchase a copy of your book, and then we'll examine the material in your book together as a class. I am really looking forward to these two classes. Bro. Al, I want to thank you once again for making use of the talent God has given you (scholarly writing), and for allowing Him to spread His message of Truth through you!

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