Studying Proverbs 9 1-6, 8-10, 13-18

We are studying Proverbs 9, focusing on verses 1-6, 8-10, and 13-18, for Sunday, June 28. The month of June has taken us through the introduction to the book of Proverbs, introduced us to Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly, and perhaps primed us for the rest of the wisdom studies this quarter, since by now we surely know that we need to “get wisdom.” [Here are some questions over the text.] Here are some notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This chapter concludes the introductory section of the book of Proverbs, personifying and summing up the themes that have been woven together in the preceding eight chapters.

After this comes the larger collection of sayings, the accumulated wisdom of the people of Israel, as distilled by king and court.

A recurring theme in the wisdom literature is the “two ways,” the way of wisdom, which is the way of YHWH and of righteousness and justice and of life, and the way of folly, which is the way away from YHWH, the way of unrighteousness and the way of death. Psalm 1 is a clear example of the theme. Proverbs 9, our chapter, is another.

Several commentators point out that chapter 9 shows signs of having been edited, and that those exposed “seams” affect our understanding of this passage in some way. Wisdom’s feast is the subject of verses 1-6, and probably also verse 11; the feast of Folly occupies verses 13-18. In between are several aphorisms that seem to have to do with teaching and perhaps with the ultimate benefits of wisdom. As it stands now, the mathematician of additional days and years (verse 11) seems to be YHWH. The blessings of life, in the end, accrue to the individual who obtains them. The overall effect of the interlude as we now have it seems to encourage us to meditate on God’s curriculum and philosophy of teaching, which may well differ for those who walk in God’s way and those who take a different path.

CLOSER READING: Alice Ogden Bellis, in Proverbs, points out that the description of Wisdom’s preparations for the feast in verses 1-2 indicates a noble, affluent figure – the “house” is large (indicated by the seven pillars), and seven is a number of completion, perfection; the “meat” indicates a special occasion; the mixed wine, which most commentators tell us was probably mixed with spices, promises a rich, enjoyable experience. She is wealthy enough to have servant-girls to spread the word of the feast.

In verse six, she promises life to those who “lay aside immaturity.” [“The life that really is life,” maybe.]

We can think about how we would understand verse 11 if we read it here, immediately after verse 6; in that case, how would we understand the source of long life?

Rashi reads this whole account symbolically, as signifying God’s creation, identifying the seven pillars with the seven days of creation – although alternatively as the seven books of Torah (which can apparently be multipled, because some parts are books unto themselves) – and the handmaidens as Adam and Eve. That seems to make Wisdom’s feast the life of the righteous students of God’s Torah in this created world. There is something profound and lovely in that.

There is also, however, something a little frightening about Wisdom’s invitation, in particular lurking in the word she uses for “eat,” which seems to be a late use of a word that almost always in the old days meant “fight” – as in, “devour by the sword.” What exactly does an invitation to this banquet hold in store?

The Jewish Study Bible recommends skipping ahead to verses 13-18 now, and coming back to the aphorisms in verses 7-12. This seems like a wise procedure to me, too.

If we do this, we will see that the verses describing the Feast of Folly are a direct contrast with those describing the Feast of Wisdom. The “foolish woman” is loud – notice that her loudness is the clamoring that characterized public life back in Proverbs 1:21, the place where Woman Wisdom first caught our attention by crying out. This figure is not “foolish” in the very worst way, but she is “stupid” and “naïve” or “simple” (translated “ignorant” in our version) and she has no knowledge – perhaps, “what doesn’t she know?!”

So her call in verse 16 to “those who are simple and those without sense” has an entirely different, ironic import than the exact same words uttered by Wisdom in verse 4. Wisdom’s call to “you who are simple” is a call that promises to remedy that need with instruction and life. Folly’s superficially identical call is one that hides an intent to exploit that lack and take advantage of that naïveté, hides it behind a promise that will appeal to them precisely because they don’t know any better.

Her speech in verse 17 promises something “sweet,” and then something “pleasant” or “delightful” – a word that can also mean “sweet” – but all also illicit. As we might say, it’s a fool’s bargain. That kind of sweet delight leads to death, not life.

We might feel here like joining Wisdom in crying out “Don’t fall for it! It’s a scam!!”

It probably didn’t impress the ancient readers as much as it might impress us that the specific realm of death here is the ancient Hebrew Sheol of the gray, unconscious, insensate, persistently lifeless. In our 21st century context, when the clamorous promises of various addictive pleasures lead so many into the literal unconsciousness of narcotized “life,” or the zombie-like compulsions of consumerism, or the mindless pursuit of meaningless “influence” via social media, that particular bitter detail might mean more.

If we go back now to verses 7-12, they might sound to us like advice on teaching, or maybe on staying out of pointless arguments on the internet: you’ll only hurt yourself. Who is doing the teaching here, though? Especially if “the fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom” – the word used for “beginning” being a word that seems to imply “the first time” for something … in whatever context.

[That is, there’s some “knowledge in the Biblical sense” implicit in this text, both here, and in the “stolen water” and “bread eaten in secret” that will be on offer at Folly’s feast, and perhaps even in the other insinuated meaning of Folly’s lack of knowledge – that implication that maybe she knows too much, “in the Biblical sense,” and for that reason, not enough. On the other hand, maybe we don’t have to slut-shame Woman Folly to realize that intimacy and love and the consequentiality of choices and the irreversible quality of experience are all at stake in this passage in some obscure way.]

Not too many of us manage to be as wise as serpents AND as innocent as doves, both at once.

If we are going to manage it, or anything like it, it seems we will need to spend some time at Wisdom’s seven-pillared house, her beit midrash, with her “set table,” her Shulchan Aruch, which, perhaps coincidentally, but my guess is not, is also the title of Joseph Karo’s 1563 compilation of rabbinic halakhah – “the way to walk.”

Christians, on the other hand, will be more familiar with a different school associated with this tradition, that also called itself “the way,” early on.

icon of Saint Sophia with other figures

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