Studying Proverbs 8 8-14, 17-21

We are studying, or focusing on, Proverbs 8:8-14 and 17-21 for Sunday, June 21 – continuing our exploration of wisdom, this time with part of this long speech by Woman Wisdom praising herself and her relation to God and creation. Here are some notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are still in the book of Proverbs. My take, following Claudia Camp: this means we are reading a post-exilic redaction of collected sayings, aphorisms, etc., fitted out with a contextualizing introduction and conclusion, a frame that situates all of that material in a context of Torah observance, situated in the life of the exilic community, which importantly included the development of the domestic rituals around sabbath observance. That might be more than we actually know, but it’s what I have in my head from having worked on this text … about 20 years ago. Reader be warned, therefore: there’s a chance that what I have in my head is not state of the art.

This dramatic speech by Woman Wisdom is part of that contextualizing introduction, and really is its climax. The speeches in chapter 9, which dramatize the contrast between Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly, their two different houses and their two different ways, then cement the clear evaluation of the text in favor of Woman Wisdom and her way, which is the way of and to YHWH, since Wisdom – as we’ll see in chapter 8 – has a really intimate relationship to YHWH.

I don’t want to be too precise about what that relationship is. Let’s leave that to the theological speculators who want to make a lot out of not enough text. [“Is Wisdom an emanation of God?” “A ‘hypostasis’?” “A true hypostasis?” “Is Wisdom really a divine figure? Would this support Trinitarian interpretation?” etc. etc.] There really isn’t enough to go on to settle that issue, although that hasn’t kept people from writing a lot about it.

Some of the energy for these speculations has come from our recent historical readerly context, in which this figure of Woman Wisdom – chokhmah in Hebrew, sophia in Greek – has been important in establishing a Biblical foothold for feminist re-conceptualizations of the divine, especially in the Christian tradition, maybe most notably Elizabeth Johnson’s in She Who Is as well as Johanna Bos’s Reimagining God.

The first chapter of the gospel of John probably does reflect the imagery and mood of this text, so Christians have had a long history of associating this figure – historically, modified for gender, but we might not have to do that any more – with Jesus. Rashi is clear from the first verse that this is a personification of Torah. In either case, Jewish and Christian readers have been thinking of Woman Wisdom as at least closely connected to, if not equivalent to, the Word of God for a long time.

Richard J. Clifford’s really nice essay in Oxford’s Access study Bible concludes that the personification of Woman Wisdom is modeled on an existing Mesopotamian mythic figure, the umannu or heavenly sage, who teaches humanity some vital skill: writing, metallurgy, ritual. This would make her a Promethean figure, as I read it, but without the crime and punishment.

What’s clear no matter how we read Wisdom’s identity is that any competent reader ought to be drawn to Woman Wisdom, and to recognize her as a cosmic figure, closely associated with YHWH right from before the beginning of time, friendly and beneficial to humanity, and finally unambiguously good, and good to know.

We should probably try to remember that Woman Wisdom is a personification, not a literal person. On the other hand, we rarely issue that reminder about other personifications in the Bible, like Satan. That seems frankly discriminatory to me, and the Supreme Court of the US just reminded us that it really is against the law to discriminate on the basis of sex. So my position on how hard we ought to try is something like:

Our focal text follows some introductory verses in which Woman Wisdom enters – calling and raising her voice on the heights, and announces her purpose: “Hear, for I will speak noble things …” We read the verses in which she describes herself, that precede her account of her involvement with creation, and her motivating conclusion: here I present before you today life, or death; choose life. Find Wisdom.

CLOSER READING: Verse 8 may be either an announcement, which would be reassuring, or a sign – we will recognize Wisdom’s speech by its righteousness, and straight-ness (or perhaps directness, non-crookedness). On the other hand, v9 might caution us that wisdom’s straightness is perceptible to those who find wisdom and understanding, which might imply that fools have a harder time “getting” it.

Verses 10 & 11 reiterate the surpassing value of wisdom. Her audience is advised to care more for wisdom than for silver, gold, jewels – the word doesn’t tell us which precise kind; Rashi says pearls, others translate rubies, but it’s some kind of expensive jewel – and anything else. The audience, per verse 4, is literally men, simple ones at that, but we probably may read here humans, whoever would hear someone calling from the heights.

In verse 12, the prudence she dwells with is the same shrewdness or cunning that characterized the serpent back in Genesis 3. That will give us something to think about. [As in … that might not have been the serpent’s worst quality.]

It’s not clear to me why we are skipping verses 15-16: the note that rulers rule by wisdom. Space constraints? Just a coincidence that it’s also a political statement? Rulers who rule by wisdom decree what is just, and govern rightly; by implication, rulers who do not rule by wisdom do not do that, or at least, we have no good reason to expect them to.

In a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, in which the people are, ultimately, the rulers … that takes us well past the Biblical text, of course, which precedes any such form of government.

A different implication may be that the Ruler of Rulers also rules by means of wisdom. That would be consistent with everything we know about Wisdom, and helps explain why seeking wisdom leads us to YHWH, and to the fear of YHWH. Or all of these implications could be wrapped up in these verses, which are not, perhaps fortunately, included in our lesson.

Verses 17-21 are a statement about rewards. Let’s remember that Wisdom dwells with cunning in thinking about what it means that Wisdom tells her audience that “riches and honor” and “enduring wealth and prosperity” are in her gift, and in the next breath that her “fruit is BETTER THAN gold”.

Proverbs is usually categorized as “optimistic wisdom,” and as being part of the “do well by doing good” school of ancient thought. But whether we should accept this without ANY reservation … that hint that there is something people ought to be seeking first and more than riches and honor, something much better than all of that, might ought to make us wonder … whether it would be a little foolish to think that Wisdom is really promising to make her acolytes rich in the ordinary way.

Maybe there is some other way. A better one. A wiser one.

icon of Saint Sophia with other figures

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