The personification of wisdom in Proverbs

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Hebrew Exegesis course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

In the book of Proverbs, wisdom is given a voice and personified as a woman, “Woman Wisdom” (WW). She holds a central role in the book as she provides two key addresses (1:20-33 and 8:1-36; cf. 6:22; 7:4; 9:1-6) in the discourse section of Proverbs (1-9), which serves as the introduction, even “hermeneutical prism,” for interpreting the rest of the book (Longman, 58, 61). This foundational role in the book speaks to her exegetical significance.

Determining her precise identity, persona, and origin has been the subject of much discussion and controversy among scholars. Various proposals have been suggested. The apocryphal writings Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon are the first to provide a development (interpretation?) of the theme. Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, describes WW in terms of Jewish particularism (24:8) and correspondingly understands the Mosaic Law as the embodiment of WW (15:1; 19:20). Wisdom of Solomon, on the other hand, “uses the figure to try to assimilate Jewish with Hellenistic wisdom, in particular a Stoic and Neoplatonic mind-set. . . .” (Longman, 70), e.g., “she is a reflection of eternal light” (Wis 7:25-26; NRSV).

Various theological interpretations have also been made. Some suggest that WW represents a hypostasis of the divine. However, as Schnabel points out, “wisdom is not given the status of an independent entity” but “is a vivid poetic personification” (845). Unsurprisingly, feminist scholars treat WW, or “Sophia,” as a feminine alternate to the male Christ. Representing this position, Paula Johnson states, “Sophia is a female personification of God’s own being in creative and saving involvement with the world” (cited in Waltke, 85). However, such an interpretation pushes the text beyond its poetic intent, making WW a literal description rather than a literary personification. (Wisdom is personified as female most likely because חָכְמָה is a feminine noun; Waltke, 83). Arius, the early church leader who was declared a heretic, used a similar hermeneutic in contending for his view of Christ as a creature. Noting the connection between WW and Christ (e.g., Mt 11:16-19; 12:42; Mk 1:21-22; 6:2; Lk 2:39-52; 7:31-35; 11:31-32; Jn 1:1, 10; 1 Cor 1:24, 30; Col 1:15-17; 2:3), Arius pressed Prov 8:22-26 to a literal extreme in order to argue that Christ was created (Longman, 70). However, Prov 8 is not a prophecy of Christ; and therefore, one should be cautious to draw Christological conclusions from it, especially in ways that contradict clear NT passages.

Many have sought to explain the origin of WW by theorizing that Israel borrowed religious aspects from surrounding cultures. For example, Bernard Lang sees a Syro-Palestinian goddess as Israel’s model for WW (cited in Clifford, 23-24). Clifford understands WW as “derived from mythological bringers of culture in Mesopotamian mythology. . . .” (24-28). However, despite correlations between WW and these suggested origins, such relationships appear distant from the concerns of Proverbs; these theories are largely supported by correlations found in other ANE sources but not ultimately from exegesis of Proverbs itself. Nonetheless, Fox’s observation is beneficial to a proper understanding of WW: “Lady Wisdom can gather a variety of phenomena from the mundane and literary domains without herself representing any singly known reality” (625). Therefore, for example, she possesses characteristics of a prophet-teacher-preacher (1:20-33); she is portrayed as a hostess (9:1-6); by her rulers rule well (8:15-16); and she played an intricate role in creation (8:22-31).

Evangelical scholars bring the discussion closer to home. Waltke rightly suggests that WW is the personification of wisdom, understood in terms of the book’s appended proverbs (83, 86-87; cf. 4:5). But going beyond Waltke’s interpretation, one must recognize that wisdom is not limited to the literary unit of Proverbs, but transcends it. The book itself recognizes that wisdom is rooted in God’s character and is therefore woven into the very fabric of creation. As Longman notes, WW personifies God’s wisdom. But contrary to Longman’s conclusion that WW “ultimately stands for Yahweh himself” (58-59, 79), Proverbs 8 portrays wisdom as distinct from and subordinate to YHWH in some sense.

In sum, this examination leads this author to the following conclusion: WW is the personification of wisdom, the communicable attribute of God, rooted in God’s character, portrayed in diverse personas, and demonstrated in (but not limited to) the various parts and literary whole of Proverbs.