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Proverbs chapter 8 uses a personification of Wisdom. Some people take this personification as a description of God, or of the Messiah. Is there any textual justification for this?

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+1 great question. Are you referring especially to v22ff? You may find this thoughtful article interesting. –  Jack Douglas Aug 20 '12 at 19:41
    
thought for answer-ers - isn't the word wisdom in hebrew feminine in gender? –  Jesse Ledbetter Aug 21 '12 at 17:45
    
Related question: Why is Wisdom personified as a woman? –  Davïd Mar 23 at 16:28
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2 Answers

This personification of Wisdom can't refer to either God or to the messiah.

Verse 8:22 says:

The LORD made me as the beginning of His way, the first of His works of old.

God made Wisdom, so Wisdom can't be God. (God didn't make God; God just always was.)

Under Christianity, the messiah is part of God and so this can't mean the messiah either. Under Judaism, the messiah will be an ordinary man -- definitely not God, and also far from the first thing God created.

So if Wisdom isn't God or the messiah, what is she? Consider the following verses:

15 By me kings reign, and princes decree justice.

20 I walk in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of justice; 21 That I may cause those that love me to inherit substance, and that I may fill their treasuries.

32 Now therefore, ye children, hearken unto me; for happy are they that keep my way 33 Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not.

Wisdom is Torah, the law. (The word "torah" literally means "teaching" or "instruction".)


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Although many translations translate the verb as "made," the Hebrew verb קנה is not the one most often translated as "made." That verb would be עשה. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jun 14 '13 at 21:37
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קנה seems to have the sense of "to possess," and by implication, it often means "to buy." Thus, the phrase should preferably be translated as "YHVH possessed me..." Of course, when we think about it, if we say that God made wisdom, which means that wisdom did not exist at one point, then it also reasons that God lacked wisdom at one point. Is that something one really wants to admit? –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jun 14 '13 at 21:38
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@H3br3wHamm3r81 reminds me of "If you have wisdom, what do you lack? And if you lack wisdom, what do you have?" Leviticus Rabbah) –  Frank Luke Jun 17 '13 at 17:29
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@H3br3wHamm3r81, good point. There are multiple words for many words, including "make" (also bara here, for instance). Your possession angle is interesting; I'll need to think more about that. I don't think saying that God "made" wisdom necessarily means that God wasn't wise before, though; the ingredients had to come from somewhere/one, after all. :-) "Made" could mean "made as a separate thing". –  Gone Quiet Jun 17 '13 at 18:09
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The key to understanding Wisdom's identity lies in both the genre of the book itself and the textual clues within the book.

Genre

The Book of Proverbs is classified as wisdom literature. This genre existed prior to the generation of the proverbs or the compiling of the book itself. The society into which these proverbs were written was already familiar with the concepts of "wisdom" and "proverbs," and they sought for wisdom and valued it dearly. No one wanted to be a fool. Everyone wanted to be wise and successful.

The Book of Proverbs presents the wisdom of God as the true wisdom. Essentially, its function is to point the wisdom-seeker back to God. Thus, the function of the Book of Proverbs in the canon of Scripture is (...no surprise here...) redemptive in nature. (And so we discover that the book is not so out of place in the canon as scholars have traditionally thought.)

Textual Clues

Throughout the book the term "wisdom" is used interchangeably with "righteousness", and likewise, the term "foolishness" is used interchangeably with "wickedness." For example, Proverbs 10:18-21:

He who conceals hatred has lying lips,
  And he who spreads slander is a fool.
When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable,
  But he who restrains his lips is wise.
The tongue of the righteous is as choice silver,
  The heart of the wicked is worth little.
The lips of the righteous feed many,
  But fools die for lack of understanding.

(Notice that hatred, lying, and slander in the first verse would normally be characteristic of the "wicked," but here the wise man names the "fool." In the second verse, the man of transgression is contrasted not with the "righteous," but with the "wise." In the third verse we might expect the tongue of the "wise" to be as choice silver, but he instead names the "righteous." In the fourth verse, righteousness is explicitly contrasted -- not with "wickedness," but with "foolishness.")

This is why the wise woman of Proverbs 31 is characterized by the fear of the Lord, and why the wisdom of Proverbs so often points us in the exact same direction of the rest of Scripture: to humility, ministry, love, Godly character, compassion, etc.

Lower-Case "wisdom"

It isn't hard to see during a quick read through the book of Proverbs that true "wisdom" is to walk in God's ways.

Upper-Case "Wisdom"

Who would qualify as the "personification of God's ways"? Well, God, I suppose. It isn't hard to make the connection to Jesus, the perfect God-Man. The following verse comes to mind:

[Jesus:] "For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” -Matthew 11:18-19

The question in my mind is whether Wisdom is Jesus or the Spirit, but I suppose I'm splitting hairs at this point.

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