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Woman as Wisdom in Proverbs, Sirach, and Baruch

Updated on August 13, 2012
Barak consulting Deborah  Image credit http://www.biblestories4kids.com/01OTS/pics/deborah%20barak.jpg
Barak consulting Deborah Image credit http://www.biblestories4kids.com/01OTS/pics/deborah%20barak.jpg

Wisdom Defined

According to the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, Woman Wisdom is mature, sensible and truthful; insightful, and knowledgeable with sound judgment. She is understanding, strong, and follows justice and righteousness. Proverbs is not alone in labelling wisdom as female. Texts such as Sirach, and Baruch of the apocrypha also explore wisdom as feminine.

 

While Wisdom literature is found in several books of the Old Testament, her feminine nature is more explicit in Proverbs chapters 1, 8, and 9, Sirach, and Baruch 3;9 – 4:4. Dates for these texts are often uncertain. Proverbs, a collection of writings “may not have been complete until Hellenistic times (332-198 BCE), …[but contains] … older literature as well” (Crenshaw 4), whereas Sirach’s date  is fairly firm at around 180 BCE. Baruch again is a collection with differing dates, and despite a Babylonian exile setting it appears to have been written around 200 – 100 BCE. These texts provide a variety of attributes of Woman Wisdom. In Proverbs 1:20-33 she speaks directly to the people, and is described as a teacher.

 

Wisdom in Proverbs

Interestingly, the more modern Good News Bible uses no feminine pronouns in verses 20-21 to identify wisdom as woman, yet in the King James version there is no doubt as to her gender; “she uttereth her voice in the streets; she crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates”. In direct speech Wisdom calls to her students, and by “using threats and intimidations, she tries to get students to cooperate, to learn willingly, and to come to their senses” (Lang 20). Not only is what she attempting to teach important, but her setting in the streets , and at the gates is particularly significant.

Because the street came to symbolise public life in the Old Testament, Wisdom’s presence speaks to all people (Lang 22-23). In the streets many functions of society were seen and performed; prophets preached, people traded, and victory and defeat were proclaimed there (Lang 22-23). Thus, Wisdom speaks directly to society, yet she also speaks “in the chief place of concourse … [or] … in the openings of the gates” (Proverbs 1:20-21). While the city square “was the center of public life, … the epitome of public life …[was] … the adjoining city gate” (Lang 23). According to Lang “the whole of public life used to take place at the city gate. Legal issues were decided, business was discussed and negotiated, and the elders often met at the city gates. At the city gate Wisdom would be assured of finding an audience (Lang 26). Despite the various texts referencing woman as wisdom, it is noteworthy that “women were excluded from these public, democratic institutions … [and the] … public life of gate and square … was public just for men” (Lang 26). Women who were found in the streets and at the gates were “looking for men”, and did not illustrate “the ideal wife of Proverbs 31” (Lang 26). This antithesis of Woman Wisdom is illustrated in Proverbs 9.

Chapter nine includes both Wisdom and Folly, and both invite, or tempt, their listeners. They are given almost equal attention, although Wisdom edges out Folly in having eight couplets, compared with Folly’s six couplets. Yet they each “call from the highest places of the city” (Proverbs 9; 3 and 14). While calling from similar places, Wisdom’s goal is one of life or Heaven, whereas Folly’s “guests are in the depths of hell” (Proverbs 9:18). By comparing the two, “they define and secure the boundaries of the symbolic order of patriarchal wisdom” (Day 157). And by depicting “the strange woman [or Folly] as a threat provides a basis for solidarity between [the] father and son” (Day 149) of Chapter Two. In Chapter Eight we find a more detailed definition of Wisdom, as well as an added dimension.

While Chapter Eight also has wisdom standing “in the top of high places” (vs. 2), crying “at the gates” (vs. 3) she “takes on a much greater role than that of a teacher” (Lang 55). Here “she is also a goddess who judges the rulers and dwells in the presence of the creator god” (Lang 55). Between verses 23 and 29 we are told “in about a half-dozen ways the origin of wisdom before creation is affirmed” (Murphy 136). This suggests not only her oneness with the creator god, but that her role “befit[s] a minor goddess” (Lang 79). It has been theorized that Wisdom’s description “has clearly been borrowed … [from] … the Egyptian idea … of Ma’at” (Murphy 138). Ma’at’s importance in Egypt was all encompassing, and is found in much of Egyptian literature including narratives, instructions, and autobiographies. She embodied justice, balance, and order. Only through Ma’at could the king rule well. Woman Wisdom of Proverbs 8 echoes this in verses 15-16; “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth”.

Ruth gleaning in the fields.  Image credit: http://www.oneil.com.au/lds/pictures/ruth.jpg
Ruth gleaning in the fields. Image credit: http://www.oneil.com.au/lds/pictures/ruth.jpg

Wisdom in Sirach and Baruch

Like Proverbs, Sirach personifies and praises wisdom. Unlike Proverbs, Sirach’s wisdom is not found in the streets or by the gates; she is found in “the assembly of the Most High” (Sirach 24:2). While it would be easy to label Sirach as misogynistic, the beauty of its poetic language, and the author’s more cohesive structure soften the misogynistic leanings somewhat (Murphy 70). There is no Woman Folly in the text. Folly’s role is exemplified instead with the dangers of woman herself. In a twist, Ben Sira urges his readers to actively pursue Woman Wisdom like a man might pursue a potential lover, yet Wisdom also “actively beckons her pursuer, much as the dangerous seductress” (Newsom and Ringe Eds., Eisenbaum 304) of Proverbs. These ambiguous leanings are explained by Pamela Eisenbaum as “Desire … redirected … [where] … male sexual desire has been, in psychological terms, sublimated in the pursuit of Woman Wisdom” (Newsom and Ringe Eds., Eisenbaum 304).

Unlike Sirach and Proverbs, wisdom in Baruch is something that can’t be had, or found, by mere mortals. Only Yahweh knows her, and unlike the previous wisdom texts there is no opposing Folly. Baruch is unique in that it personifies both Wisdom and Zion/Jerusalem. Here we see Israelite monotheism again modifying borrowed pieces of neighbouring cultures while “maintaining both their gender and intercessory roles” (Newsom 307). Future generations “are invited to reclaim … Torah Wisdom… [and] … Mother Zion … [who] … will once again fulfill their divine calling” (Newsom 308).

According to Bernard Lang, Woman Wisdom, despite a great deal of scholarly research, is still a mystery where “we have no clear conception of her identity and origin” (Lang 113-14). Whether she is taken from a pagan tradition, or is “a half-independent figure … revealing the deity itself”, or simply the result of  “poetic imagination” (Lang 114), Woman Wisdom’s mystery remains an integral part of Wisdom Literature. The enigma as to why wisdom is frequently described as female in these texts especially in the context of a patriarchal society can only be understood if one could decipher the ancient mind – something we, in our modern understanding, are unlikely to comprehend.

.

Bibliography

1) Crenshaw, James L. 1998. Old Testament Wisdom, An Introduction. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.

2) Day, Peggy L.. Ed., 1989. Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis. Fortress Press. Newsom, Carol A. “Woman and the Discourse of Patriarchal Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs 1-9”.

3) Good News Bible.1994. Toronto, Canada. Canadian Bible Society.

4) Holy Bible, King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee, Royal Publishers, Inc., 1968.

5) Lang, Bernard. Wisdom and the Book of Proverbs, An Israelite Goddess Redefined. 1986. New York, The Pilgrim Press.

6) Murphy, Roland. E. 1990. The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature. New York, Doubleday.

7) Newsom, Carol A. and Ringe, Sharon H. Eds. 1998. Women’s Bible Commentary. Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster John Know Press.

--Eisenbaum, Pamela M. “Sirach”, pp. 298-304.

--Tull, Patricia K. “Baruch” , pp. 305-08.

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