“It’s in the Book”

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you. Matthew 7:6, KJV.

IMG_0135 (3).jpgAs you can almost tell, even with the way I cropped the picture, this is a front yard display. It is in my neighborhood in the sense that I drive by it on 35th Avenue every morning on my way to Starbucks. And one morning at Starbucks, my friend Paul McKay said, “Hey, you know that house on 35th that has that pig in the front yard? You know what that is? It’s ‘pearls before swine,’ like in Matthew.”

I hadn’t ever seen that because you don’t see the “pearls” from the road. They are too small.  I took this picture standing in their front yard. From the road, you see only the large white spheres and I just assumed they were mushrooms. This is a truffle hunting pig, I guess. Once Paul said they were pearls, I went there and saw for myself. They are pearls.

Ordinarily, that would be the end of the story. It really should be the end of the story, but as I got to thinking about this very short and ambiguous text, I remembered a record (45 rpm) from my own youth. It is by Johnny Standley and it’s called “It’s in the Book.” [1] Standley plays the part of a southern revival evangelist, with the overdone gestures and the quavery voice. The part I am interested in today—the part, that is, that comes before his leading his imaginary congregation in a hymn called “Grandma’s Lye Soap”—is his exegesis of “Little Bo Peep.” He gives it all:

Little Bo Peep/Has lost her sheep/And doesn’t know where to find them/Leave them alone and they’ll come home/ Wagging their tails behind them.

pearls 1

Then he works each phrase in that tremulous mock-sincere voice. He notes how sad it is that Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep. He is offended that the text says both that she has lost them AND that she does not know where to find them. That seems obvious to Preacher Standley. If she has lost them then obviously, she doesn’t know where to find them. But after all, “It’s in the Book.”

Then he comes to the advice “the Book” offers her. “Leave them alone.” He muses over that a little. If she doesn’t know where to find them, what else could she possibly do than leave them alone?

And finally, he gets to “they’ll come home (“Ah yes,” he assures us, “there’ll be a brighter day tomorrow; they WILL come home.”) wagging their tails behind them. “Behind them,” he repeats with emphasis. “Did we think they’d wag them in front?”

OK, you get the idea. That is the attitude that came back to me when my friend Paul deciphered the front yard display of the “pearls before swine.” When I began thinking about “pearls before swine” with Preacher Johnny Standley whispering in my ear about Little Bo Peep,  I began to think of quibbles that might be made. Five came immediately to mind. [2]

So the question is this: in the prohibition recorded in Matthew 7:6, what exactly is prohibited and does this display violate those prohibitions?

Quibble 1: I learned when I started playing with this that in English, the word swine may be either singular or plural. In English, we can say “that swine” or “those swine.” That’s not true in Greek: tōn choirōn, which is the Greek expression translated “swine,” is plural. Of course, “they” indicates that we are talking about a number of pigs, as in “they will turn again and rend you” and I could have figured it out that way. But I didn’t.

So does this display illustrate a casting of pearls before swine (pl.)? No. Obviously, there is only one pig here.

Quibble 2: What is the rationale given? It is implied that there is something inappropriate about casting something valuable before animals, especially ritually impure animals. But beyond what is implied, only one part of the rationale is certain and that is that it is dangerous. “They might,” Jesus implies, “do you harm.” Now if that is something that herds of pigs do but that individual pigs do not do, then casting pearls before this particular pig might be completely safe and since safety is the only explicit criterion, I would say that this display does not show anything Jesus forbade.

Quibble 3: It says not to cast your own pearls before the swine, but it doesn’t say anything about casting anyone else’s pearls. I can see that there are pearls there in the front yard, but I have no way of knowing whose they are. It is entirely possible that Matthew meant to represent Jesus as saying, “Remember now. Don’t throw your sister’s pearls before swine.” That would be a very prudent piece of advice—almost as prudential as the previous one.

Quibble 4: Does this display show pearls that were cast before “the pigs,” or even this one pig? Certainly not. They may have been cast there. They may have been dropped accidentally. They may have been placed there with great care. There is no way to know that they were “thrown.” Of course, they might have been.

Quibble 5: Does this show pearls that were cast before the swine? Unfortunately, no. It shows that they are now before the swine. It is entirely possible that the pearls were cast behind the swine and that the swine turned around. They do that. I have seen it myself.

And in closing, a final word on silliness. It turns out that Matthew 7:6 has some really interesting meanings—serious meanings—that I was entirely unaware of. You can be as committed to silly as you like, apparently, and it doesn’t keep really interesting ideas at bay.

[1] I remembered (incorrectly) that Andy Griffith had done that recording. I think I was confusing it with his “What it Was Was Football,” which was released about the same time. I remembered correctly that Griffith was known at the time as Deacon Andy Griffith.
[2] I do, from time to time write on scriptural topics in unconventional ways. I remember the time I invented Dewey Decimal classifications for the “books” of the Bible. Today’s musing isn’t one of those. This is just silly.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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