The Enigmatic Lady: Wisdom in Judaism

The Jewish Notion of WisdomPart One

Wisdom, the erotic young maiden, calling in the streets. 

I’m in a guys small group at KU with InterVarsity and we are going through Proverbs. At our first meeting last week we all were struck by the power of the writer’s personification of wisdom. (Was Proverbs written by Solomon? Maybe. Probably not. This could be a post in itself, but for now all I will say is that we need to get over this idea though that psudeopigrapha somehow lessons the authoritative nature of the scripture in question. It was a common ancient practice and there is nothing deceitful about the writer calling himself ‘Solomon’ when in fact it may not have been. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of psuedopigrapha.)

Elizabeth Huwiler, professor of Old Testament at Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (NIB) says that “perhaps the most striking theological aspect to the book is the personification of Wisdom in feminine form.” We all felt the same in our initial read-through of Proverbs one. It is hard to ignore the seductive imagery of Wisdom “cry[ing] out in the streets” (1:20, NRSV) of her “pour[ing] out my thoughts to you; mak[ing] my words known to you” (1:23). What else dos a young man want but to have a young woman crying out to him in the streets and then pouring herself out to him? There is all kinds of sexual tension going on here.

In a helpful excursus on the “person of Wisdom” Huwiler does not shy away from the obvious sexual, erotic nature of this feminine personification of Wisdom: “the presentation of Wisdom as a woman would have appealed to the audience of Proverbs. If the sages sought to describe wisdom as desirable and yet elusive to an audience of young men [which would have been the intended audience for the book, see 1:4], then allusions to a woman would have been apt. The listeners are urged to seek Wisdom, find her, and make her their own as if she were a wife.”

This erotic element of wisdom is particularly striking in the context that I am reading Proverbs – all male, single, college-age. As the lone married (almost) not 20-something, I was struck by how effective this literary device is and gained a new appreciation for the genius of this writer. But now here is the question, is this just a literary device or does it signal something else going on? Some scholars think that personified Wisdom is an Israelite goddess “or at least Israelite flirtation with goddess worship” like the Egyptian goddess of wisdom, Ma’at, the Canaanite goddesses Astarte and Asherah,, and the Sumerian goddess Inanna. Other’s see the personification as a hypostasis – a bringing to life – of one of God’s attributes. This is a kind of middle way between outright goddess worship and the notion that Wisdom is just a clever literary device like the Psalmist makes use of when he speaks of “righteousness and truth kissing each other in Psalm 85:10.” That is clearly meant as nothing more than a literary anthropomorphism. So shouldn’t Wisdom be seen as a similar device?

Not so fast. The history of the concept of Jewish Wisdom is a complex and fascinating one and contains much more significance than it may appear at first. This notion of Jewish Wisdom sheds light on Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, and what it might mean for God Himself to somehow be embodied and personified. We will dive into that in the next part.


Author: Mark Wampler

Books, Jesus, and family. With coffee and rain. I've got two little boys, Jeremiah and Isaac and a ridiculously smart and good-looking wife named Rebekah. I'm an InterVarsity campus pastor and write at which you should contribute to. Shoot me a message. :)

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