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May 26, 2013
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Proverbs is one of the “Writings” or books of wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible. It consists of collections of sayings or proverbs, most of which are couched as teaching for a young man to find his way in life. Like the other wisdom books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and some psalms, Proverbs sees wisdom as surpassing the boundaries of Hebrew culture. It draws on sayings from the surrounding cultures, especially collections from Egypt. The collections of sayings were originally in oral circulation, and some are quite ancient. It is generally thought that chapters 10-29 can be dated roughly to the monarchical period of Israel and Judah, i.e. from the 10th to the early 6th centuries BCE, while chapters 1-9 and the latter half of chapter 31 are exilic or post-exilic, i.e. mid-6th century on. The book as a whole was given its final shape during the years following the Exile.

Theologically, there is an overarching belief in retributive justice that runs through Proverbs.  Wise choices lead to life, while foolish choices lead inevitably towards death. It is not so much the view that God punishes the wicked directly, as that the very fabric of the universe is woven so that good follows the good, and evil, the wicked. The post-exilic context of final editing may have contributed to a perspective of cautious hindsight that sought to insure future compliance with God’s ways (and hence avoidance of possible punishment).

In the passage from chapter 8 set down for Trinity Sunday, wisdom is personified as Woman Wisdom (or ‘lady wisdom’, as the older commentaries suggest). She stands in marked contrast to ‘the strange woman’, or ‘Dame Folly’, who represents the other choice a young man might follow in the patriarchal culture of the day, to his destruction. Chapter 8 is part of the collection of proverbs in the first nine chapters which is ascribed to Solomon. Solomon was seen as the epitome of the wise man, so proverbs attached to his name were viewed favourably by the redactors of the final text of Proverbs.

In the first four verses, wisdom is seen as a prophetess or preacher at the crossroads of the city, who vies for the attention of all who pass by. She is set up as calling the simple to wisdom, to the way that leads to life. In vv. 22 and following, the genesis of the person of Wisdom is further elaborated in a hymn in praise of her part in creation. She asserts, ‘The Lord (Yahweh) created me at the beginning of his work’, before any part of the creation. She was created ‘ages ago, …at the first, before the beginning of the earth’. The ensuing verses show wisdom as already present before each part of creation, first the springs of water (v. 24), then the mountains and hills, then the earth and soil (vv. 25 and 26). She was present when God created the heavens, the skies above and the fountains of the deep, when God marked the boundaries of the chaotic sea and the pattern of the earth’s foundations (vv. 27-29).

Not only present at creation, Wisdom was ‘beside him, like a master worker’, if the NRSV translation is followed. This suggests not a co-creator per se, but perhaps a helper in creation. The translation ‘like a master worker’ is open to nuanced interpretation, with other readers ascribing the characteristic of ‘master worker’ to God himself. The Hebrew term ‘mn is enigmatic, and can be rendered ‘like a little child’, which accords perhaps better with the youthful exuberance of wisdom’s delight in creation in the ensuing verses. The latter translation would minimize any hint of wisdom as part of the creative force, seeing it rather as a witness to the wonder of God’s creation.

Whichever translation one adopts, the passage is a striking addition to what is the Hebrews’ otherwise overwhelmingly monotheistic creation theology. Feminist scholars note the rare inclusion of female imagery related to God and creation found here. In Michelangelo’s painting of the creation in the Sistine chapel ceiling, there is a female figure near the arm of God who may be an allusion to the figure of woman wisdom present at creation.

In the context of Trinity Sunday in the Christian tradition, one may hear echoes of the logos in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, ‘In the beginning was the Word…and without him was not anything made that was made’.  The Proverbs 8 passage was problematic in the christological controversies of the early church, with its assertion that while wisdom was first in creation, it was indeed created.

The Proverbs passage concludes with a sense of delight in the dance of creation, as wisdom was ‘daily [his] delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race’. Again, there are overtones of a (female) partner in creation, something that would have been more imaginable in the other wisdom cultures of surrounding nations. Feminist scholars such as B. Lang and C. Camp have proposed the possibility of Woman Wisdom as a repressed archetype of the feminine, surfacing amid the turmoil of the profound social reconstruction in the years following the exile. Alongside this, there is also the recognition by many scholars that in pre-exilic days there may have even been a goddess seen to accompany Yahweh. This was likely the case at the level of popular theology, that is, what people believed privately and not necessarily as promoted by the Jerusalem Temple. Woman Wisdom could well be another manifestation of this phenomenon.

There is also a sense of a bridge between humanity and God being formed by the person of wisdom, which may suggest possible parallels with the figure of the logos in Christian tradition. In the context of Trinity Sunday, the preacher may want to explore the insights for Trinitarian theology suggested by this text, while acknowledging that in its original context a Trinitarian framework would not have been envisioned. This suggests broader issues of how the Christian community reads and appropriates Hebrew scripture for its own confessional purposes.

Psalm 8

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