From Christine de Pizan & Biblical Wisdom: A Feminist-Theological Point of View
Wisdom strides across the pages of the Hebrew Bible with a delightful audacity and aura of authority that rather astounds the reader when first attempting to read these pages without the burden of embedded presuppositions regarding what the Bible is saying. Here within the Bible, in the very literature that most past historians and scripture scholars have considered a grand tribute to the triumph of monotheism, and a decisively male monotheism at that, emerges a figure who clearly resembles a goddess. Her person is ambiguous. In some instances she is an emanation from the most high God, and clearly subordinate; at other times she is conflated with God; and at still others she is a separate and seemingly autonomous divine entity.
The word for Wisdom is Chokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek, and Sapientia in Latin. Wisdom is found most predominantly in the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible, and, to a much lesser extent, in the book of Job. She plays a large role in the book of the Wisdom of Solomon, is found most vividly in chapter twenty-four of the book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), and is seen briefly in Baruch. The latter three books are not included in the Jewish and Protestant canon but are a part of the Catholic Old Testament. In the modern era the Wisdom writings of the Hebrew scriptures – until thirty years ago or so – garnered little interest, apparently because they were seen to pertain more to the practical human realm than to the theological or to salvation history. The female figure of Wisdom has often been viewed as a personification whose gender is derived simply from the grammatically feminine nouns Chokmah and Sophia in the original Hebrew and Greek texts and Sapientia in the later Latin Vulgate. However, in recent years scholars, mostly history of religions scholars and feminist biblical scholars, have detected in her persona much more than gendered grammar.
In the book of Proverbs, “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks; ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?’” (1:20-22) “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.” (3:17-18) They who embrace her will be exalted; “She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.” (4:8-9) Her table is set for those who heed her word: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (9:5-6) She was acquired (or created) by God in the beginning before the natural world was formed; “Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the Earth.” (8:22-23) Throughout the establishment of all of creation, “I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” (8:30-31)
The book of Proverbs was written in the post-exilic period, probably reaching its final redaction in the sixth century BCE or later. Because of the current feminist interest in expanded conceptualizations of deity, there has been much recent conjecture on the significance of the female figure of Wisdom in Proverbs. In a fine review and analysis of scholarship on Wisdom, Judith McKinlay remarks that, “Many scholars, recognizing the power of the Wisdom imagery, have made suggestions as regards its intent and purpose, but have necessarily built upon considerable assumptions, and the very variety of the suggestions illustrates the difficulty.” Many admit the likelihood that she is an echo of an Ancient Near Eastern goddess. In her “search of ancestry” for the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs, McKinlay highlights the interpretative work of history of religions scholars who posit a connection to the goddess Asherah, a goddess who may have been viewed as a consort of Yahweh in early Israelite culture. Other scholars suggest that Wisdom’s appearance in Proverbs is linked to elevated and respected teaching roles for women in school or home settings that were a result of societal reorganization in the postexilic era.
The book of Baruch is a compilation of biblical themes that scholars believe was composed between 200 and 60 BCE. In it Wisdom becomes Torah, the law of God; “She is the book of the commandments of God, the law that endures forever. All who hold her fast will live, and those who forsake her will die. Turn, O Jacob, and take her; walk toward the shining of her light. (4:1-2) For the author of Baruch she is also the emblematic bearer of social justice and right thinking; of strength and understanding; “Discern where there is length of days, and life, where there is light for the eyes, and peace. Who has found her place? And who has entered her storehouses?” (3:14-15) After decrying the immorality of those who “lorded it over the animals on Earth; those who made sport of the birds of the air, and who hoarded up silver and gold in which people trust,” the writer laments that Wisdom is nowhere to be found, “She has not been heard of in Canaan, or seen in Teman; the descendants of Hagar, who seek for understanding on the Earth, the merchants of Merran and Teman, the storytellers and the seekers for understanding, have not learned the way to wisdom, or given thought to her paths. (3:16-17, 22-23)