Commentary on Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
A Facebook friend recently posted an article on parenting entitled, “Good Parents, Bad Results: 8 Ways Science Shows that Mom and Dad Go Wrong When Disciplining Their Kids.”
As a mother of a five-year-old, I quickly clicked on the link to learn what motivates children to behave. Apparently yelling, reasoning with, and punishing children have absolutely no positive impact on their behavior. Instead, the “evidence-based” research indicates that a parent’s best bet is to “praise effusively, with the enthusiasm of a Powerball winner.”1 It strikes me that Woman Wisdom’s approach to raising children is similar. The lectionary text for this week features Woman Wisdom enthusiastically praising God, creation, and humanity.
One of my struggles with the text — and, I suppose, with parenting! — has to do with ethics and justice. In Proverbs 8, Woman Wisdom looks at the world and sees only the good. She does not speak with the voice of a prophet, condemning those who oppress and ignore the poor and the needy. She does not lament suffering, disease, war, violence, and apathy. She does not protest God’s apparent lack of interest in subduing the forces of evil and chaos that threaten to overcome the world. Instead she looks at humanity, the world, and God, and she delights in them all.
To appreciate the nature of Woman Wisdom’s praise, one must attend to the Hebrew Bible’s interest in wisdom in general. In the Hebrew Bible, to seek wisdom is to seek knowledge and understanding of the world and life because the world is permeated with God’s wisdom. That process of discovering God’s embedded wisdom in the world is crucial for the shaping of a good human life. By examining the workings of the world and reflecting on one’s experience in and of it, one is able to discern the will and desire of God more clearly.
Seeking wisdom is not, however, a purely intellectual exercise. In Proverbs 8, the holistic and relational qualities of wisdom are illustrated, in part, by the personification of wisdom as a human woman. Wisdom does not lie passively waiting to be discovered by scholars or philosophers. Instead, Wisdom calls out to “all that live” from the heights (8:2), then from the ways and the crossroads (8:2) until she makes her way to the gates where the people are gathered (8:3). Wisdom is not content to address the people from on high; she is not inaccessible or only for those who have the proper credentials or education. Instead, she walks directly into the people’s midst and styles herself in terms accessible and desirable to all (8:4-21).
In verses 22-31, we learn of this Woman Wisdom’s origins. It may surprise us to learn that there was someone else with God at the time of creation — a woman someone, no less. Those of us familiar with the creation accounts in Genesis might ask, “Where on earth did she come from?”
It may be that this text explores and fleshes out nascent images of God engaging others in acts of creation seen elsewhere in creation texts. In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us create humankind in our image – male and female.” Perhaps Proverbs 8 is like a midrash on Genesis 1:26, seeking to supply the voice of the one whose image resulted in the female half of humankind. Perhaps God’s desire to engage the man in the creative process, as God sought to create a proper partner for him, is here given fuller expression. Proverbs 8 may elaborate the divine inkling, evident in Genesis 2, to create, not by fiat as a single all-powerful being, but in a dynamic way that seeks creature’s response and participation. This emphasizes the connectedness and cooperation of the creator. Proverbs 8 stresses that God did not create the world in isolation.
By placing her with God at the beginning, the text is surely interested in establishing wisdom’s authority to speak. However, what this poem also communicates is that wisdom was present with God at the beginning of creation, and she continues to be present not only with God but with humanity. Woman Wisdom represents God’s desire to continue to delight in, interact with, and renew God’s creation. By calling all people to seek her, Woman Wisdom offers humanity access to the living God. She is at once the embodiment of God’s delight in the world and a dynamic portal to the creating God.
Could viewing the world as good and seeking the divine in all aspects of life have negative consequences? Could it lead one to conclude that when evil things happen in the world, it is “God’s will”? It is crucial to emphasize that wisdom is always provisional. That wisdom is dynamic and ever-changing is evident in the fact that wisdom is personified as a living, breathing human being. Like a human woman, who grows and changes and is different in different places at different times, wisdom cannot be pinned down or spoken of in absolute terms. The person who pursues wisdom knows that pursuit must be grounded in humility and fear of the Lord. The wise person knows that she will not always be able to perceive God’s will and work in the workings of the world. The wise person also knows that God’s creation is on-going; it is not perfect and complete for all time. Evil persists, and God is opposed to it. As Woman Wisdom says in Proverbs 8:13, “fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.”
Through Woman Wisdom, God expresses the enthusiasm of a Powerball winner for humanity. In inviting all humans to join her in her dance of delight, Wisdom invites humanity to engage in a joyful search for God’s dynamic presence through and in the world. God willing, the process of seeking the divine in the world and in each other just might drive out some of the darkness.
1Nancy Shute, “Good Parents, Bad Results: 8 Ways Science Shows that Mom and Dad Go Wrong When Disciplining Their Kids,” U.S. News and World Report, June 2, 2008.