I quoted this verse to someone the other day, and they couldn’t remember it, so I looked it up in the Stone Edition of the Tanach, and it didn’t say what I remembered. Good old King James (KJV) says:
Proverbs 23:1 When thou sittest to eat with a ruler, consider diligently what is before thee: 2 And put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite. 3 Be not desirous of his dainties: for they are deceitful meat. [NIV substitutes the word “gluttony” for “appetite”, meaning about the same. Even the old JPS says “given to appetite”.]
But Stone’s translation says “put a knife to your throat if you are a master of [your] soul.”. When I read that, I HAD to go to the Hebrew, and take a look.
The Hebrew is “IM-BAAL NEFESH ATAH”. Literally, “if you are a soul-master”. Stone correctly puts the word ‘your’ in brackets because it’s not there in the Hebrew, but it could be implied. “Master of soul” would be an ordinary noun-construct, but in this case the definite article is not used.
Now, how is this different. At first, you might think that “being a master of your soul” is one who is “not given to appetite/gluttony”, and with that I would agree. But PLEASE NOTE – they are opposites!!! Being a glutton is generally considered a bad character, and being a master of your soul, sounds like a good trait.
A) Put a knife to your throat if you are a master of your soul
B) Put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite/gluttony
The verse does NOT say:
C) Put a knife to your throat if you are NOT a master of your soul.
In other words, if you mastered your appetite, you would not have to put a knife to your throat. So what is this verse trying to say??? Why would one need to put a knife the throat, if indeed the guest at the king’s banquet was a “master of his soul?” He would already know what to do, and would have to regulate himself with a “knife”, because he would already be accustomed to self-discipline. It would seem that only the lower, more carnal man would need to resort to the “knife tactic”. Of course, putting a “knife to your throat” is figurative, not literal. But to me, it basically means “constantly remind yourself”, or “be on guard”, or “tie a string around your finger so you don’t forget.”
Stone has a brief comment: “Before dining with an absolute ruler, or anyone with considerable power, one should consider the consequences of incurring the host’s displeasure, or the moral harm that can come from being subservient to an unscrupulous person.”
I found one obscure reference here: http://clclutheran.org/library/jtheo_arch/jtmar2000.html#jtv.3. The author is researching the word “NEFESH”, and makes a comment: “Only he who is master of his soul will be able to resist the temptation.” This would suggest that only the “master of his soul” would heed advice, and put a knife to his throat; any lesser man would just eat and ignore, or not be wise enough to handle himself in such a situation.
In any case, I prefer the more literal translation, which seems to give an entirely different understanding of this verse. Remember, “All translation is commentary”. Read it for yourself in Hebrew!