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Regardless of interpretation, I find it intriguing that Proverbs 8:22 mentions how Wisdom was the first created by the LORD (apparently even before mankind). This Wisdom is present as a feminine entity given the use of words "her" further in Proverbs. Why is this so?

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! We're a little different from other sites. You asked two very interesting questions, but we've already addressed one of them in the past, check out Interpretation of Genesis 1:26 and What does “image” in Genesis 1:26-27 mean?. I've edited this question to ensure that your initial question that has not been addressed elsewhere on this site remains. –  maj nem ɪz dæn Jan 5 at 6:46

4 Answers 4

Great question! I had never thought about that before, so I dug in a little. And as I examined the passage, I found a very significant literary device that I had never previously noticed:

Set Proverbs 7 and 8 side-by-side and you will notice several remarkable similarities/parallels between the two passages. Both present a long speech by a woman. Both women are described as "roaming the streets" (7:12, 8:2,3); both are inviting men into their homes (7:14-19; 8:34, 9:4), both have set an inviting table (7:14; 9:2,5), both chapters end with the word "death" (although chapter 8 has a postlogue in the first verses of chapter 9 that ends with "life"). Both mention the woman's "path" (7:8,25; 8:20), her "kiss/lips" (7:13; 8:6), her "love" (7:18; 8:17), and (maybe) even her "husband" (7:19; 8:22,30).*

Perhaps most significant is the contrast between how the speech in 7 begins and the one in 8 ends:

He was going down the street near her corner, walking along in the direction of her house (7:8)

vs.,

Blessed are those who listen to me, watching daily at my doors waiting at my doorway. (8:34)

So, from just this cursory comparison I think it is evident that Solomon was intentionally juxtaposing these two women in order to make a stark contrast between the two "voices" that all men must choose between. (Both voices make one more curtain call in chapter 9 as well). In one, seduction is personified; in the other, it is Sophia personified -- both beautiful, attractive ladies.

I guess it is Solomon's way of asking: "So who's door are you going to knock on?"

*All of these references are from the NIV; I haven't checked the original language to see what parallels occur there.

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Why is Wisdom personified as a woman?

That's a straightforward question that admits of no simple answer. Nor is it possible to answer it from within the Hebrew Bible itself. And, it must be added, all answers to this "why?" question contain an element of speculation.

This is "Biblical Hermeneutics.SE", so it is important to identify the kind of question this is. I see behind the "why" a matter of historical enquiry, although it obviously also has linguistic and literary parameters, and theological import.

(Be aware, too, that there is a large scholarly literature on this question, and any answer here can only be partial.)

The Data

So, we want to find an historical explanation for Wisdom's personification in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (HB/OT). We need to know what we can call upon as evidence. That evidence needs to be explained, and in that we find our explanation.

Inner-biblical : Your question was prompted by our prime evidence - the presentation of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 in particular, but elsewhere in Proverbs 1-9 as well, especially 1:20-33 and 9:1-6.1 By contrast, the level of "personification" in Job 28 -- often taken in tandem with Proverbs 8 -- is quite muted. And that's about it from within the Hebrew canon!

There are, as other answers here point out, comparators in, e.g., "Daughter Zion" (personified city). This language is a closer parallel than that of Ezekiel 16 and 23 which uses a "marriage" metaphor to portray the relationship between God and people (see also, Hosea 1-3; Jeremiah 2:1-3, etc.). The "personified" city is probably the closest parallel in the Hebrew Bible, in fact.2

Also noted already is the fact that the biblical Hebrew term, chokma (חָכְמָה) (with the "ch" as in "Bach") is grammatically feminine. So too, as it happens, is its reflex in Greek, sofia (σοφία), which is convenient and probably "helps", but ... we hold evaluation back for the moment!

Extra-biblical - There is indisputably a relationship between ancient Egyptian wisdom literature and the Hebrew Bible, although evaluating that relationship (which extends beyond Proverbs) is a matter for discussion, even debate. It needs to be noted, however, that Egypt has a goddess, "Ma'at", who is the embodiment of wisdom: not merely understanding, but concretely as "right deportment" or even manners, and in a more specialized sense as "right judgment", thus shading into justice. Most would see this range as extending more broadly than biblical "chokma", but that too is debated.

The thing to note here is that, where in the ancient Near East we find an embodiment of "wisdom", there is a divine feminine figure, and that in a culture that was known well by Hebrew sages.

Beyond the Hebrew Bible - later "deutero-canonical" (or "apocryphal") wisdom books also speak of personified "Wisdom" in feminine terms. Ecclesiasticus (= Ben Sira) 24 echoes Proverbs 8 in some ways.3 This is developed even further in the Wisdom of Solomon 6-8, where the feminine portrayal of wisdom, and Solomon's pursuit of her, is about as "embodied" as it possibly can be.

Summary - so we have (a) only a few relevant biblical texts; (b) the linguistic features of the key term; (c) the comparative evidence from the historical/cultural environment, and (d) the subsequent development of this motif beyond the Hebrew Bible itself.

Assessment

This, of course, is where the fun begins! Historians are not simply interested in "what happened in the past", although that is part of it, of course. They are also concerned to account for our historical record, especially when there are pieces of evidence tugging us in different directions.

How to explain what we have outlined, above?

Most would not see the grammatical gender of the Hebrew noun chokma (or sofia in Greek) as playing anything more than a supporting role in any case. It didn't hurt, but neither is it sufficient to explain this development. (EVERY noun in classical Hebrew is gendered; quite a number refer to the Deity - why personify just this one?)

Probably the current explanation that enjoys widest adoption among biblical scholars is that Wisdom personified in the Hebrew Bible is a reflex (or remnant, if you will) of the "missing" Hebrew goddess.

This picks up the Egyptian influence to explain Proverbs 8 (etc), via a couple more bits of evidence, one biblical (I'll limit this to the leading item), the other extra-biblical. Within the Bible, you have Jeremiah's language of the "queen of heaven" (Jer 7:18; 44:15-26) which is portrayed as the long-standing, wide-spread customary worship of the Judaeans.

Outside the Bible, you have the pithoi (pot inscriptions) from Kuntillet 'Ajrud with the striking phrase: "I bless you by YHWH of Samaria and his Asherah". Now, the meaning of this blessing has been much debated, but those who argue for "Wisdom = missing goddess" see in the "Asherah" of Kuntillet 'Ajrud something corresponding to the "queen of heaven" referred to by Jeremiah.

Not everyone finds this explanation convincing, however. (Surprised?) Here the wider trajectory of "wisdom personified" in the Hebrew/Jewish tradition is sometimes seen as too variegated to admit of such an explanation. Others find the conjunction of the lines of evidence needed to sustain this conclusion to be too disparate chronologically to work.

Those who reject the "Hebrew goddess" explanation must then revert to one of the older constructs. The most prominent one to do with the treatment of divine attributes in the biblical tradition: just as later rabbinic tradition almost "personified" God's righteousness, God's "wisdom" was earlier personified (and God's "spirit" (ruach) in the HB/OT fits into this scenario, too).

Conclusion

There is no final answer to the "why?" question as a matter of historical enquiry. Many scholars who are satisfied with the "Hebrew goddess" explanation recognize that it stops well short of having final "proof": it is just the hypothesis that many today find best explains the data available to us in the absence of more persuasive alternatives.


Further reading - as I mentioned there is a vast literature on this question. To plunge deeper, I would recommend starting with two chapters in: Wisdom in Ancient Israel, edited by John Day, R.P. Gordon, and H.G.M. Williamson (Cambridge University Press, 1995). See:

  • R.E. Murphy, "The personification of Wisdom", pp. 222-233;
  • Judith M. Hadley, "Wisdom and the goddess", pp. 234-243.

This book should be available in most seminary or university libraries.

Probably the latest full, scholarly treatment is the published version of an Oxford doctoral thesis:

These both have a limited "preview" on Google Books.


1. There is an excellent, brief treatment of how the other female figures in Prov. 1-9 (esp. chs. 5-7), and the "ode" to the wife of valour in 31:10-31 fit into this scenario by one of the major scholars of OT Wisdom Literature of the 20th C., Roland Murphy, "Wisdom and Eros in Proverbs 1-9", Catholic Biblical Quarterly 50 (1988), 600-603. If you have access to a university or seminary library, it's well worth a read. In sum, he argues that there is a double movement between the literal and metaphorical female figures, so that "sexual fidelity is also a symbol of one's attachment to Lady Wisdom" (p. 603).

2. There is a fairly large corpus of extra-biblical literature on the personified city, but that's not the question here. I only mention it to show that it is not unique to the Hebrew Bible.

3. I link the apocryphal texts as I assume that while most/everyone will have a canonical text to hand, that might not be true of the Apocrypha.

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PS I created the 200 point bounty to specifically award it to this answer (but for various reasons, the system won't let me award it for 24 hours). GREAT JOB! This is an exemplary response. I'm really looking forward to reading your questions and answers here. –  maj nem ɪz dæn Jan 14 at 0:29
    
!! Goodness. Many thanks, Daи. I hope this means I'm catching on to the BH.SE ethos :) although I have a ways to go yet. I'm grateful for your edits and comments which have been a big help to me. (Comparing edit diffs and reading Meta has helped, too.) Thanks for this encouragment! –  Davïd Jan 14 at 0:43
    
there are several guidelines, it takes awhile to learn them all. Don't sweat it - it's more important that you enjoy your participation here. If it begins to feel like work, well then.... Not to say we don't want you to work hard at writing good answers, but having to comment/edit minor things every now and then is no big deal (and thanks for not taking it personally, we edit stuff to improve the content, not to 'correct' you). –  maj nem ɪz dæn Jan 14 at 0:48
    
As it stands, your rep is now 666 (tee hee hee!). –  maj nem ɪz dæn Jan 15 at 22:16

In English we have three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter - "he", "she", and "it". Hebrew only has masculine and feminine. So just as a German would call a house a "he" because the word "house" in German is masculine in gender, so Hebrew calls wisdom "she" because it is feminine in gender. So when personified, wisdom becomes a woman.

Short version: The Hebrew word for wisdom, "chochmah", is feminine, and is therefore personified as a woman. Further speculation is unwarranted.

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"Das Haus" is actually neuter..... –  fdb Sep 27 at 20:55

Good question.

In the context of the first few chapters of Proverbs, the compiler of the proverbs makes it very clear the book had its genesis in the throne room of Israel. Picture King David carving out some quality time with one of his children, Solomon, for the express purpose of teaching his son some of the lessons he has learned over the years. David, you'll recall, was a "man after God's own heart" (Acts 13:22; 1 Sam 13:14), and he learned many things in his relationship with his God, some the hard way.

David's purpose, then, was to instill in his son Solomon the godly principles which would guide and guard him throughout his life and his future reign as king of Israel. The pithy and memorably constructed proverbs of the day served to encapsulate important life-lessons in short, relatively easy-to-memorize stanzas.

Historically, at about the same time as Solomon was composing, pondering, searching out, and arranging many proverbs (perhaps 3000 or more), Amenemope had already written his The Wisdom of Amenemope, a collection of teachings in proverb form on civil service, which may have predated Solomon's collection of proverbs. Some of Solomon's proverbs bear a striking resemblance to some of Amenemope's aphorisms (see the NAS Bible, Updated Edition, Introduction to Proverbs, under "Author"). These "family resemblances" suggest Solomon searched all the proverbs to which he had access in his day and "cherry picked" the ones which suited his purposes (and God's purposes, of course!)

Since an important theme of the entire book is sexual morality and the importance of young people (particularly the male of the species; i.e., guys) keeping their lives free from the polluting effects of unprincipled and unbridled sexual activity, Solomon chose a woman to personify wisdom to serve as a righteous counterpart to the "immoral woman" who appears and reappears throughout the book. She is alternately labeled "the evil woman," "an adventuress," the "flattering foreigner," an "adulteress," and perhaps many other titles, depending on which version of Proverbs you happen to read.

In other words, the evil woman serves as a foil** for the woman who is wisdom personified. Or, they act as foils for one another, as the contrast between the two serves to clarify the differences between them. One woman, for example, is out to bring a young man to ruin, whereas the other woman has only his best long-term interests at heart. One represents immediate gratification followed by regrettable consequences, and the other, delayed gratification followed by gifts that keep on giving. Contrast, for example, the adulteress who is mentioned throughout the book with another woman, this time the virtuous woman, who is described in detail in chapter 31!

Was the personification of virtues a common feature of literature in Solomon's day? Frankly, I do not know. I will leave the answer to that question to another contributor who desires to research it. I will say, however, the Scripture does use "stock characters" who serve in pedagogical/analogical fashion to drive home some hortatory content (e.g., the "story" of two women--again!!--called Oholibah and Ohola, in Ezekiel 23).

Female imagery is used in both positive and negative ways throughout the Scripture. Positively there are both the woman Wisdom who lifts up her voice in Proverbs 8 and the "virtuous woman" in Proverbs 31, and negatively there are both the Great Harlot (or "Babylon the Great," of John's Revelation of Jesus Christ), and the

"woman clothed with the sun, [with] the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars . . . who gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron . . ." (Rev 12:1,5).

The Great Harlot serves as a foil for the pregnant woman who gives birth to a son.

Solomon's choice of a woman to serve as wisdom personified may have been his own invention, or perhaps he borrowed the concept from Amenemope or another writer either from or before his time. That he used a woman for his pedagogical purposes is certainly consistent with other such rhetorical tactics in Scripture, as I have already pointed out.

In conclusion, you will notice I have connected the woman wisdom to other personifications which use women to communicate certain truths, and I have done so purposely, in part, to avoid eisegesis. While your question focuses on the Book of Proverbs, the Scripture comprises 66 books, and more than occasionally the imagery which is used in one book or context is also used in another book or context, giving the Scripture a marvelous unity amidst diversity. That fact, however, is one which is worthy of development, albeit at another time.

**For an interesting (and short) article on the use of foils, see this web page.

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I DV'd for a few reasons: 1. Denigrating the need to 'show your work'. That's the whole point of SE. These comments are unnecessary. 2. Drawing on a variety of biblical texts without truly 'showing' how they help us understand the specific text(s) in Proverbs. A systematic connection between Proverbs and those texts can't be assumed. 3. A (perceived) lack of PC in the bible isn't relevant to the question. Bringing this into four of ten paragraphs is unnecessary. I do think this is a good answer (pointing us to Amenemope is a good thing!), but these things seriously detract from the quality. –  Mark Edward Jan 6 at 4:43
    
@Mark (1) was easily fixed: do feel free to edit in a case like this if you feel able. –  Jack Douglas Jan 6 at 8:41
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@MarkEdward: Thanks for your comments. I'm still stinging from some rebukes I've received recently about my failure to "show my work," hence the somewhat snide remark, which I've excised. As for the PC references, I've excised them as being irrelevant. As for linking the woman-wisdom to other uses of female personification, I do this to prevent eisegesis. The OP's question focuses on Proverbs, but that book is but one of 66, and a literary device one author uses in one book of Scripture is often used by another author elsewhere. Such linking is encouraged in any thoroughgoing hermeneutic. –  rhetorician Jan 6 at 16:10
    
@rhetorician-Hi Don. I liked your answer the best because it stated the actual truth; the 'woman' is a trope, a figure of expression the author uses to get his point across. Because he must 'court' her in order to gain her favors, she must be treated as a woman and not a man; although all true wisdom comes from God who takes the masculine gender. You might have shortened this up a little bit, but you are on the right track-unlike the 1st answer. –  Tau Jan 18 at 5:19
    
@user2479: Thanks. We all need a whup up the side 'o the head occasionally (some of us, more than occasionally!). Some folks call it an "attitude adjustment." –  rhetorician Jan 18 at 16:46

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