< September 16, 2012 >

Commentary on Proverbs 1:20-33

 

Wisdom is introduced to the reader as a female character in Proverbs 1:20 and the following verses.

But her introduction is really in the opening lines of the book; the proverbs attributed to Solomon are for the purpose of learning about Wisdom. (The lack of capital letters in Hebrew leads to confusion about where to use the capital; I suggest that the opening verses are a prologue to the unit about Wisdom as an entity.)

Wisdom is simultaneously a characteristic or charism of/from God and a Divine One herself, part of and an extension of God. Proverbs is not a theological treatise on the nature of God but rather a poetic reflection on that nature with no need to clarify or even explain its claims and assumptions.

Wisdom is singing loudly, joyously, in the streets when we meet her; the verb in verse 20 (r-n-n) is distinct from the verb "to proclaim," in verse 21 (q-r-'). And when she calls out, it is not a genteel ladylike invitation; Wisdom is unacquainted with our stereotypes. Her shouting of a rather sharp invitation suggests the rhetoric of a prophet; proverbs, mishlei, are one genre of prophetic speech. She asks the young, naïve, uneducated how long they will choose to remain young, naïve and uneducated and even more sharply accuses them of being scoffers who hate knowledge in verse 21. The entire unit, verses 20-33, is her prophetic proverbial oracle, delivered in the first person.

Wisdom continues to command in verse 23: "Pay attention!" Her language is strong; "reproof" is synonymous with "rebuke" and "punish." In a Pentecostal moment she pours out her spirit (not "thoughts" as in NRSV) in a gushing torrent, making her words known as the Torah was similarly made known on Sinai. Continuing to evoke the Exodus narrative, Wisdom stretched out her hand as God did against Pharaoh and against Egypt, (see Exodus 3:20; 7:5; 9:15), but her conversation partners ignored her, verse 25. She will laugh at those who reject her instruction -- a hard image to be sure -- in verse 26. Here distress and difficulty, "calamity," is utterly avoidable had the young, naïve and uneducated chosen to listen to and learn from her. This blaming of the unfortunate is not a terribly useful or even pastoral response, but it is an understandable one for many, the need to say, "I told you so!"

Sadly, when the afflicted realized that (divine) Wisdom is what they needed all along in verse 28, she will not be found by them, perhaps evoking Is 55:6, "Seek the LORD while God may be found," or Hosea 5:6, "...they shall seek the LORD but shall not find God for God has withdrawn from them." Those who rejected, ("hated"), knowledge in verse 29 will be free of the blessings of wisdom and knowledge -- intentionally lowercase here. Like Pharaoh of old, they will be given over to their hearts' own destructive desires in verse 31. This is a common biblical motif, albeit one that does not translate easily to contemporary understandings.

In contrast to those who essentially bring hard times upon themselves by rejecting Wisdom -- including Torah and the God of Torah and Wisdom, those who listen to Wisdom will live at ease and not fear evil, ("disaster" in NRSV), in verse 33. The text does not say what it means to "live at ease," leaving room for interpretation. I suggest that we not read being at ease as not having any difficulty or distress -- which would be unreasonably beyond human experience -- but rather as being at ease no matter what comes. Secure in our relationship with Wisdom we are not insulated from disaster or evil, but perhaps we are inoculated; immune from fear and thereby enabled to endure, survive and thrive in (spite of) whatever life brings.