< August 19, 2012 >

Commentary on Proverbs 9:1-6

 

Wisdom has built her house... Proverbs 9 continues what might be called the "Acts of Wisdom" begun in Proverbs chapter 8.

Wisdom is presented as an independent and autonomous female entity, introduced in chapter 1. She is personified in terms of her agency or personhood and even appears to have a (physical) person. Wisdom is female, largely because the noun for wisdom, chokmah in Hebrew, is grammatically feminine, (this is also true of Sophia in Greek).

The relationship between grammatical gender and functional gender is complicated by the fact that non-animate objects have gender in many languages, including biblical languages. For example, in this chapter the crossroads in verse 2 are feminine while the gates and portals in verse 3 are masculine in Hebrew. Animate but non-corporeal entities are also gendered in the scriptures; most of the basic nouns for God are grammatically masculine -- a few have feminine form yet behave as though they were masculine -- while the Spirit of God is always feminine in Hebrew (and neuter in Greek).

Jerome's translation of the bible from Greek to Latin in the fourth century is the first to have a masculine Holy Spirit. Added to non-animate nouns, gendered people and animals, and names for God, are the personifications of cities like Jerusalem and characteristics or perhaps, charisms, like Wisdom (and Understanding, also feminine.) There is a rich collection of devotional and mystical literature in Judaism called the Kabbalah that focuses on ten of these with which God created the world in which Proverbs chapters 8-9 figures prominently: Sovereignty, Wisdom, Understanding, Kindness, Power, Beauty, Eternity, Splendor, Foundation and Divine Presence.

In Proverbs 9:1-9, Wisdom who has previously partnered with God in creation, (Proverbs 8:22-31), is now the host of a great banquet. But before she sets her table, she builds a house (or perhaps a banquet house). It seems that the whole purpose of her building is hospitality; she needs a place to host the banquet to which she will soon invite the world. Wisdom is no lady at leisure ordering the staff about -- she has staff but works with them and does hard, manual labor herself.

First in verse 1, Wisdom builds her own house, then she crafts seven decorative pillars -- either chopping down trees or carving stones. Then in verse 2 she butchers her own fresh meat, mixes her own wine and sets her table. In verse 3 she tasks her serving girls with an undisclosed task, likely invitations to specific guests -- who are they? -- yet she herself invites complete strangers en mass. She goes from place to place, specifically inviting those who are woefully unacquainted with her in verse 4, calling out to them, shouting loudly in public places, in so doing she models extraordinary yet perhaps acceptable behavior for human women. In verse 5 she explains that the way for those bereft of her to benefit from her is to feast at her table. And if they do so, they will live and walk in understanding, (translated as "insight" in the NRSV).

Wisdom's table is a metaphor for the acquisition of wisdom. But what is wisdom? It is more than innate intelligence or sense; for it can be gained by those who lack it. In Biblical Hebrew, wisdom is as much technical expertise or craft(wo)manship as it is intellectual knowledge. I tell my students that it is heart-and-hand knowledge -- for the Israelites, the heart (not the head) was the source thought and choice. The women (Exodus 35:26) and men (Exodus 31:6) who craft the Tabernacle in the wilderness are all called wise; if Israel keeps the Torah they will be a "wise and understanding people" in Deuteronomy 4:6; the wise woman who led her city seems to be the governing official who saves her people from certain death by shrewd and lethal political dealing in 2 Samuel 20:22, and of course the wisdom of Solomon was legendary, 1 Kings 4:29. So wisdom is craft: statecraft, Torah-craft craftwomanship, craftsmanship and craftiness.

The source of wisdom is Wisdom herself. And who (or what) is Wisdom? In rabbinic (Jewish) thought, Wisdom is the Torah. The rubric goes something like this: Both Wisdom and Torah are feminine nouns. Proverbs 3:18 says, "She is a Tree of Life," also understood to be the Torah. Torah-knowledge, fruit from that tree, should be feasted upon like the banquet at Wisdom's table: "taste and see" (Psalm 34:8), the sweetness of God's word(s) is compared to honey, (Psalm 119:103; Ezekiel 3:3), the notion continues in the New Testament in Revelation 10:9. Wisdom is also intimately tangled up with God, said to be both the first of God's creation (Proverbs 8:22) and God's co-worker/master-worker (Proverbs 8:30). God is the source of Wisdom (and Torah and life).

Wisdom continued to capture the exegetical imaginations of the framers of scripture; the Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-11:1 is largely a poetic interpretation of Proverbs 8-9. The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach has a number of scattered verses personifying wisdom such as "Wisdom teaches her children and gives help to those who seek her" in Sirach 4:9. She also appears in the Gospels as the vindicator (Matt 11:19) and parent (Luke 7:35) of Jesus of Nazareth, in both cases Wisdom is to be identified with God and not Mary of Nazareth. In addition, the Wisdom of God is the source of a text that Luke (11:49) quotes as scripture; it is otherwise unknown, but clearly authoritative for him.

Wisdom has built her house...she has set her table. So pull up a seat and sit down. Eat and drink your fill. And be satisfied.