Commentary on Proverbs 9:1-6
On the surface, Proverbs 9:1-6 reads as positive instruction for those seeking to live an ethical life, one that leaves aside “naivety” (Hebrew peta’im) and is grounded instead in “understanding” or “insight” (binah; verse 6).
Verses 1–5 present this choice of living as a feast or great banquet. Before the invitation is even offered in verse 4, it is clear that great preparation has gone into making this banquet hospitable and desiring. The reference to a “seven-pillared” house is not meant to be read literally, for there is little archaeological evidence that such a structure would have existed in the ancient world. It may be a metonymy for a grand house (see also Judges 16:25), or the reference to “seven” may metaphorically suggest strength and security. Slaughtered animals and mixed or spiced wine (verse 2; see also Song of Songs 8:2) are typical features of a feast, and impart the significance of hospitality to the reader (see also Genesis 18:1-16; Psalm 23:5-6; Luke 14:16–24; John 2:1–11). Overall, the passage presents wisdom—“understanding”—as a thing to be desired.
What is more, the passage suggests that choosing to attend this feast has broad consequences for one’s whole life. The invitation of verse 5 shifts to command in verse 6: those who accept the invitation must eat and drink, thereby choosing to “live” a life that embraces wisdom. Moreover, this invitation and instruction is aimed at life now. Wisdom instruction generally, and Proverbs in particular, is this-worldly, offering pragmatic insight on societal living, and is not primarily concerned with matters of afterlife.1 The three imperatives are thus simultaneous rather than consequential: “lay aside” naivety, “live” (an ethical life), and “walk straight” in understanding.
Again, it seems on the surface that Proverbs 9:1-6 leaves nothing to be desired. Indeed, it describes an ethical life as a thing most desirable.
Below the surface, however, lies a trap for any preacher. At the center of this potential pitfall is the one who, in Proverbs 9:1-6, offers the invitation: Woman Wisdom (that is Wisdom, personified as a woman).
Proverbs 1-9 is a distinctive section within the book, containing longer sections of instruction for ethical living (as opposed to the short quips located throughout chapters 10-29).2 The instruction is presented as advice from a parent to a son (1:8). The tendency of some English translations (for example, the NRSV) to translate the Hebrew word as “child” is commendable; however, the intended audience was decidedly male. This factor is essential to remember when interpreting Proverbs.
There are two dominating rhetorical tools utilized in Proverbs 1-9, and they relate to the historically male-centric audience of the instruction. The first is personification, that is, the attribution of human characteristics onto something that is nonhuman; in this case, wisdom (khokmah) is personified as a female entity. In Proverbs 9:1-6, then, it is Woman Wisdom who invites guests to her house, and to her feast with her food and her wine. Elsewhere in the instruction, Woman Wisdom calls for the reader to walk in her ways (8:32) and to listen to her words (1:33; 8:4-8).
The second rhetorical strategy used is comparison. In general, making comparisons allows for the reader to find order in experience, analyze options, and make an informed decision. As a teaching tool, it enables agency and promotes retention of knowledge and application of instruction. The comparison to be made in Proverbs 1-9 is that of a life led by wisdom versus one guided by folly.
Just as wisdom is personified, so too does the book of Proverbs create a personified version of folly: the “strange” woman (‘ishah zarah; 7:5). The “strange” woman, or Woman Folly, is identified in varying ways throughout chapters 1-9: adulterer (2:16–19; 6:24); prostitute (6:26; 7:10); fool (7:21); foreign (2:16; 5:20; 6:24; 7:5). She is, for lack of a better descriptor, the “other” woman. This “othering” sets up the comparison between wisdom and folly.
The comparison is particularly striking in chapter 9, where Woman Wisdom’s invitation is paralleled almost exactly with Woman Folly’s (9:16-17). The reader, then, is presented in Proverbs 9—after hearing many comparative descriptions throughout the earlier chapters—with a choice. Recalling that this is presented as advice from parent to son, the image of two women as choices thus becomes an exercise in voyeurism: which “woman” will the son choose?
These days, one cannot read the comparisons of personified Wisdom and Folly in Proverbs without being mindful of how male voyeurism pervades the book of Proverbs. The instruction presents women as wholly good (Wisdom) or wholly bad (Folly), and such stark categorization is dangerous and misguided, especially if these categories are maintained. Preachers of this text must be mindful that they do not perpetuate these stereotypes, or participate in voyeurism themselves.
Even for all her positive qualities, Woman Wisdom is still presented here as an object for a male student’s consideration. In the age of #MeToo, a preacher must be attentive to how wisdom in Proverbs is to be presented. Calling out and condemning the male-centrism of Proverbs is essential. Moreover, it is possible (as I’ve demonstrated above) to glean meaning from the text without resorting to the male gaze.
- Proverbs does make frequent use of a life-death trope (for example, 2:18-19; 3:16-18; 4:13; 7:27; 8:35-36; 9:11; 11:19), that emphasizes for the reader the benefit of an ethical life.
- Proverbs 1-9 is framed on the other end by 31:10-31. Many of the attributes of “woman wisdom” in chapters 1-9 are visible in the description of the “worthy woman” (Hebrew ‘eshet khayil) in chapter 31.
August 15, 2021