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?
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.
It is important to identify the kind of question this is. Behind the "why" there lurks a matter of historical enquiry, although it obviously also has linguistic and literary parameters, as well as theological import. (Caveat lector! There is a large scholarly literature on this question, and any answer here can only be partial.)
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 will require an explanation, in that that explanation lies (potentially) the answer to our question.
Our evidence comes from different sources:
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, ḥokmâ (חָכְמָה) 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 ḥokmâ, 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. 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.
This, of course, is the difficult part. Historians are not simply interested in "what happened in the past", although that is naturally part of it. 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 חָכְמָה ḥokmâ (or σοφία 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. (1) 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.
(2) 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,3 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.
This explanation has not had universal assent, however. For those left unconvinced, 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 far apart chronologically to work.
Those who reject the "Hebrew goddess" explanation must then revert to one of the older constructs. The most prominent one has to do with the treatment of divine attributes in the biblical tradition: just as later rabbinic tradition virtually "personified" God's righteousness, so (this argument goes) God's wisdom was earlier personified (likewise, God's "spirit" (ruach) in the HB/OT fits into this scenario).
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 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 mentioned above, 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.
The latest full, scholarly treatment is the published version of an Oxford doctoral thesis:
- Alice M. Sinnott, The Personification of Wisdom (Ashgate, 2005).
These both have a limited "preview" on Google Books.
- 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. 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).
- 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.
- For an early account, see William G. Dever, "Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? New Evidence from Kuntillet ʿAjrûd", Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 255 (1984): 21-37. Judith Hadley's comprehensive study is also available; see J.M. Hadley, The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess (CUP, 2000; an extract from the introduction is available as a PDF).
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)
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.
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.
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.