Woman as Wisdom : Maturity in the Old Testament
Proverbs defines wisdom as being mature, insightful and knowledgeable; exhibiting sound judgement, strength, and found in one who follows justice and righteousness. Several women in the Old Testament embody one or more of these traits; whether or not they are traditionally seen as wise. One of the names most likely to surface first is Deborah. According to the Proverbs definition Deborah exhibits the qualities of strength, sound judgement, insight and maturity. She is also a leader whose authority is not questioned. This authority is demonstrated in her ability to summon Barak, yet another leader in the community. Her femininity does not seem to be a factor in her command role as “judge and prophet” (Mathews 64). This is probably due in part to her maturity. Maturity in this case seems to denote that she is postmenopausal, and therefore “functions as an elder”. Her femininity “no longer disqualifies … [her] … from serving in an authoritative role” (Mathews 64).
The time period in question may also be a factor in gaining her authority. Because usual forms of government did not exist “the line between the public and private sectors were not well defined”, and therefore women’s leadership often comes to the fore more than in “normal” periods” (Bellis 116). Yet even more prominent in Deborah’s story is her insight, or role as prophet, which again may be due to the time period. Mathews informs that the priesthood was corrupt and that her “authority was based on her credibility as a true prophet” (Mathews 65). Thus, Deborah’s natural talents for prophesy, and her divine communication through steadfast devotion, or fear, of Yahweh (yet another criteria for wisdom in Proverbs 8:13) sets her up in a time of volatility which demands that someone who exhibits wisdom through strength, insight and maturity take up the reigns of leadership “to meet the needs of the people and help ensure their survival”(Mathews 66).
Another woman who not only leads, but takes the initiative to help her people is Judith. Despite her fictional standing, Judith seems to “represent all biblical women … before her”, but “is a new kind of woman … who transcends the male/female dichotomy” (Bellis 221). While Judith embodies many traits seen in Deborah such as strength and reverence for God and the law, through her we see complete independence. Her status of rich widow gives her the time and resources necessary to actively participate in the salvation of her people. Yet she is also beautiful, which she uses to full advantage in defeating her enemies. In fact it is her beauty that gives her the edge.
Again we have a woman who, upon seeing the dire circumstances of her people, and the inappropriate leadership behaviour of the elders who are “too ready to compromise” (Bellis 219), takes action. While her independence and resources give her the means to defeat Holofernes, it is her natural abilities of strength, intelligence and beauty which allow her to carry out her bold plan. These natural abilities are initially demonstrated in her accumulation of wealth due to being “ a wise manager like the “good” wife in Proverbs 31” (Bellis 220). Her devotion to God and love of her people ultimately involve self-sacrifice. In using her beauty to get close to Holofernes, her very reputation is at stake. Yet, “Judith’s self-sacrifice is wise and careful” (Bellis 222) through her planning, adherence to law, and faith in God. These qualities of wisdom assure her victory in achieving “what no one else in her town dared to imagine” (Bellis 222). Not only does she appear to demonstrate wisdom, but both Uzziah and Holofernes comment on her wisdom in 8:29, and 11:21. Whether or not the Book of Judith was written by a man or woman does not seem to lessen her heroine status. She demonstrates what faith in Yahweh will do for Israel in time of great need, and how inherent wisdom can aid in accomplishing the insurmountable.
Huldah and Wise Women of Tekoa and Abel
While Judith managed to physically save her people from a foreign threat, Huldah prophesized Jerusalem’s eventual downfall due to its rejection of Yahweh. Huldah’s appearance in the Old Testament is extremely brief, yet her power as a prophet and advisor to King Josiah can’t be understated. It is because of her wisdom through faith and knowledge in being able to determine the authenticity of the Deuteronomy text, that one of the most important documents in Jewish history came to be passed down. Unlike Deborah, or Judith, Huldah does not accomplish grand or physical feats, yet her insight or prophesy help to determine the path of a people. Her wisdom is further verified through King Josiah's acceptance of her advice and prophesies, which would lead to his subsequent actions of reform.
Where the stories of Deborah, Judith, and Huldah are clearly within the realm of wisdom, the story of the woman of Tekoa is ambiguous in wisdom content. Whether she is wise or shrewd is debatable. According to Denise Carmody, the woman of Tekoa may simply be an example of woman’s often historic ability to reconcile antagonists. Yet Bellis points out that “many feminists are uncomfortable with this perspective” due to women traditionally filling “mediating roles … because society allowed them no other options” (Bellis 154). Patricia Willey sees the Tekoite woman as more shrewd than wise (Bellis 154). She believes that the Tekoite woman’s speech which “is filled with grammatical and syntactical problems … has not convinced David but rather has shrewdly manipulated him” (Bellis 155). Yet one might also argue that this ability of the Tekoite woman shows a high degree of intelligence, and insight into her audience, and this in itself may be considered a wise course of action when dealing with one’s king in a delicate matter.
Where the Woman of Tekoa’s wisdom might be debated, the Woman of Abel does indeed seem to be clearly wise. Susan Ackerman sees the woman’s “use of effective counsel to protect her city” (Ackerman 40) as a strong indication of wisdom. Not only is the woman, in a few words, able to convince Joab not to lay siege to their city, yet “the narrative … [also]… suggests that … [her] counsel was so convincing” when speaking to her own people that “they voiced no dissent” (Ackerman 41).
These five women have two commonalities. They are older women and most of them are clearly childless, and if childless the text does not support their desire to have children. Their wisdom comes in various guises, and fits the Proverbs criterion in one or several ways. If we were to confine our definition of wisdom to these women one might come to the conclusion that wisdom only comes through age without the distraction of children or the desire for them. Yet the Old testament holds many other examples of wise women of varying ages and stages of maternal development. Maturity is but one way the ancient text demonstrates the quality of wisdom.
1) Ackerman, Susan. 1998. Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel. New York, Doubleday.
2) Bellis, Alice Ogden. 1994. Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes. Louisville, Kentucky. Westminster John Knox Press.
3) Good News Bible.1994. Toronto, Canada. Canadian Bible Society.
4) Holy Bible, King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee, Royal Publishers, Inc., 1968.
5) Mathews, Victor H. 2004.Judges and Ruth. Cambridge, United Kingdom. CambridgeUniversity Press.