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In Hebrew poetry, especially proverbs, we see examples of monotonically increasing numbers that set up parallels. For instance Proverbs 30:15 (NJPS):

The leech has two daughters, “Give!” and “Give!”
Three things are insatiable;
Four never say, “Enough!”:

So the progression in this case is:

N
N + 1
N + 2
Where N = 2

For a proverb about an insatiable leech, this is pretty clever technique. The two daughters each say "Give" (or are named "Give"?), then one more thing is insatiable, and finally, one more never says "Enough!" The proverb itself threatens to outstay its welcome.

But a bit later, we get a proverb where the numerical parallelism doesn't have anything to do with being insatiable. Proverbs 30:18-19 (NJPS):

Three things are beyond me;
Four I cannot fathom:
How an eagle makes its way over the sky;
How a snake makes its way over a rock;
How a ship makes its way through the high seas;
How a man has his way with a maiden.

Are we meant to imagine that there are 5 or 6 or more things that the poet doesn't understand? Or is the idea that all four things can be explained the same way somehow? Or is it just a way to introduce a list in a memorable fashion?

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  • "...The vampire may be mentioned in Proverbs 30:15: "The alukah (ʿaluqah) hath two daughters, crying, 'Give, Give.'" Hebrew ʿaluqah may simply mean "leech," but since ʿaulaq occurs in Arabic literature as a name of a vampire, this fabulous creature and her two daughters may be referred to in this rather difficult passage...." - jewishvirtuallibrary.org/demons-and-demonology – Ruminator Jan 27 at 14:21
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In "Living by the Book" (chapters 19-23), Howard Hendricks emphasizes several points used in observation of a passage:

  1. What things are emphasized?
  2. What things are repeated?
  3. What things are related?
  4. What things are alike?
  5. What things are unalike?
  6. What things are true to life?

A literary device like this allows us to see aspects of all of these.


The author or speaker in this chapter (identified in verse 1 as Agur) uses this structure frequently. (Verses 15-16, 18-19, 21-23 and 29-31) In some cases it appears that the entire list is his focus, while in others it appears that the final item is the emphasis and the previous items are instructive toward that final item in some way. For example, verses 29-31 use a lion, rooster and ram as comparisons to a king leading his army.

There are several other sections in this chapter that follow a similar structure, even though they do not use a numeric progression. (4, 11-14, 24-28, 33)


So to answer your question, I think it varies by context but the basic ideas seem to be:

  1. A group of things that are emphasized as equivalent or comparable in some way.
  2. A specific item that is better understood through comparison to several other things. When used in this way, the final item seems to be the emphasis.
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  • In the case of the first example the horseleach is the emphasis since it is the deepest riddle and has the most comprehensive statement about Christ. – Bob Jones Nov 16 '11 at 23:54
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Are we meant to imagine that there are 5 or 6 or more things that the poet doesn't understand? Or is the idea that all four things can be explained the same way somehow? Or is it just a way to introduce a list in a memorable fashion?

Proverbs is a book of comparisons between common, concrete images and life’s most profound truths. The comparisons are often contrasts, as are most of the comparisons in the previous chapter.
vv18-19 talk about 4 things which are wonders, and the 4th one is the deeper one.
The word “wonder” is a very positive word. It is the same word used for the name of the son to be born in Isaiah 9:6: “And they shall call his name Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Father of Eternity, the Prince of Peace.”

When I look up at an eagle gliding through the air, I feel the awesome beauty of God in His creation, because the eagle glides so gracefully, and effortlessly.

How about a serpent gliding across a rock? It looks like the serpent is gliding effortlessly uphill over a rock. It looks like he is flowing like a liquid uphill.

The same with a big sailboat powered by the wind in the heart of the sea.

Then comes the way of a gibor (mighty man or hero – a positive word) with an almah (innocent young woman).
When is the relationship between a man and a woman seemingly effortless? It is in proper courtship, where the woman is innocent of the intimate knowledge of a man.
Jacob labored like a slave without pay for 7 years for Rachel, and the 7 years seemed to him like a few days because of his love for her (Gen 29:20). This is not something supernatural. It is the power of the God-created virgin love.

The next section of verses are in contrast to the ones just mentioned.

20 Such is the way of an adulterous woman: she eateth, and wipeth her mouth, and saith, I have done no wickedness.
21 Under three things the earth is disquieted, and under four it cannot bear up:
22 Under a servant when he reigneth, and a churl when he is filled with meat;
23 under an odious woman when she is married, and a handmaid when she is heir to her mistress.

This is contrasted to the relation between a mighty man and an almah.
The adulteress is not one of the 4 wonders in v18. It is in contrast to the proper courtship relationship between the gibor and the almah.
v20 is a memorable verse. It shows the ugliness of an adulterous woman. She has no feeling, conscience, remorse nor honesty.
v20 links the 4 wonders in vv18-19 to the 4 things that disquiet the earth in vv21-23, ending with the odius woman and female servant who inherits her mistress’ position (probably because the husband committed adultery with his wife's servant).

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Using the methods of sensus plenior:

Pr 30:15 ¶ The horseleach hath two daughters, crying, Give, give. There are three things that are never satisfied, yea, four things say not, It is enough:

one The horseleach is a word riddle representing God. The five letters of the word give us five statements about God. There is one God who has divided Holiness and Grace who has the heart of knowledge, and is the light of creation. He is the only Holy God who gives of himself. This speaks of Christ.

two The word for 'give' also means 'ascribe'. We are to ascribe to the Lord Holiness and Grace. This is how we "acknowledge God as God". Two always represents an earthly and heavenly aspect of a thing.

three The three things which are unsatiable are the Father, Son and Holy Ghost since of the increase of His Kingdom there will be no end. Three is always related to the Trinity.

four Always relates to the four voices of God as Prophet, Priest, King and Judge, therefore the four solutions given in v. 16 relate to the voices:

v.16

  1. The grave;
  2. and the barren womb;
  3. the earth that is not filled with water;
  4. and the fire that saith not, It is enough.

five Why did it stop before five? Five is the number of man. The first four speak of Christ. But the question points us back to one which has five letters. The meaning of horseleach is buried deeper than 2,3, and 4. It requires the meaning of letters to come into play, not just of the words and metaphor. So the riddle closes the loop by pointing back to the beginning. Is there any reason to believe that all numerical parallelism will use the same 'tricks' of riddle? No. But the same metaphors used here will be used everywhere they are found.

The second riddle again mentions the Trinity. The four things that follow each represent the Word of God, and are related, each one, to one of the voices of God as Prophet, Priest, King and Judge. The resolution of the riddles give deeper insight into the Word. The Trinity speaks in four voices which is the meaning of 12. The Trinity is the one speaking, the four voices are the whole revelation of God.

Hints:

  • Eagle is the Spirit
  • the word for serpent also means 'brass' as in the 'tinkling of a brass'
  • ship is a pun for 'me' or 'I'
  • and the man and the maid are Christ and his bride

Happy meditating.

The main question is "how do we interpret graded numerical parallelism." The parallels are overlaid using drash so that they speak of one topic. In this case (and all cases) Christ. The the clues given by the numbers are used to match the verse with known metaphor which is consistent through scripture. Ultimately, the composite with all the clues from others scriptures are used to produce a Christological interpretation.

So effectively, graded numerical parallelism should be interpreted the same way as all other sensus plenior.

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    I'm sorry Bob, I really don't buy any of this. Plus the answer fails to addresses my question. Why does the author use progressive numerical parallelism? If it's about the Trinity, why are there four things, not three? – Jon Ericson Nov 16 '11 at 5:22
  • @Jon It is about God. 1- his unity, 2- his Holiness and Grace, 3- The Trinity, 4- The word of God through four voices. – Bob Jones Nov 16 '11 at 5:39
  • 'progressive numerical parallelism' says that all four things are parallel. I have shown how they all speak of God. – Bob Jones Nov 16 '11 at 5:47
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    Oh... and you don't 'buy' sensus plenior. You show how it does or does not agree with all the other metaphor of sensus plenior. You 'get' a riddle or you don't. And the only answer is the one the author intended. It speaks of Christ. – Bob Jones Nov 16 '11 at 6:29
  • One through four work in this specific case. However, in Proverbs 6:16-19 Solomon uses 6/7 items. Job and Psalms use this structure with 6/7 as well. – GalacticCowboy Nov 17 '11 at 1:33

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