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Lady Wisdom, a poetic portrait

· ​Symbols in the Bible ·

“For he who finds me finds life and obtains favour from the Lord” (Proverbs 8:35). These words are spoken by Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 1-9, where we find three illustrations of a female figure of Wisdom (in Hebrew hokma; in Greek sophia), described in a long poetic portrait. It is one of the richest female images in the Hebrew Bible, not only with regard to sapiential literature but also in the larger canon of Scripture. It is taken up in the following reflection and inparticular in Ben Sira and in The Wisdom of Solomon. The female aspect is central: on the one hand Wisdom is a normal woman, a good wife and an effective counsellor; by contrast on the other hand she is a female representative of the divine with a role in the Creation, in an orderly world and society, and a bridge between God and humanity, communicating good relations and the moral imperative.

Andrea Sacchi, “Divine Wisdom”

The idea of a female figure of Wisdom is first presented to us in Proverbs 1:20-33, where Wisdom cries aloud in the streets and squares and at the entrance of the city gates to all those who need to hear her call. This is often likened to a prophetic portrait, since it is largely a warning to all who reject her exhortation and do not listen to it. But “he who listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of evil” (Prov 1:33). Then in Proverbs 3:13-20 we find a description in the third person of this elusive lady. She is more precious than gold and jewels: “Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honour” (3:16); her paths are peace and all those who walk on them can discover her in serene contemplation; she is a “tree of life” (3:18) for those who abide by her. Wisdom becomes ever more attractive: the way towards riches and honour and even more the way towards a long life or even something more, if the image of the “tree of life” depicts eternity. In Genesis 3:22 the tree of life represents immortality in the Garden of Eden and it is the second tree forbidden to Adam and Eve. The tree also symbolizes Wisdom at the heart of the Creation, as it expresses the culminating moment of the passage, according to which the “Lord by wisdom founded the earth” (Prov 3:19). Wisdom becomes part of God’s act of creation, the means by which the earth was made. Indeed, the qualities of understanding and wisdom are linked to the creative acts that we know from Genesis (1:3, 20). Then comes the warning: do not let them escape! (cf. Prov 3:21). Abide by these qualities and “they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck” (Prov 3:22). This is the way to follow, the sure way of wisdom.

In the first part of Proverbs 8 Wisdom is described as an ideal woman; beside the city gates she urges exhorts “O simple ones learn prudence; O foolish men, pay attention” (8:5). She must be heard; her words are words of truth and better than all precious things. She is the principle of truth by which kings reign and rewards with riches and abundance those who “love” her. She Wisdom is thus associated with justice and truth, as well as with wealth and abundance. She is in opposition to all that is evil. In the second part of the chapter, however, her role seems to pass from that of the one who urges people to follow her path to that involved the Creation, as we learn in Proverbs 3:19. She is described as being present beside God in the creation of the world, “rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men” (8:31). She is even described as having been created by God at the beginning of his work, before the beginning of the created world as we know it. This is a surprising change and affords an opportunity for a hymn to God’s creative acts: “depths”, “water”, “mountains”, “hills”, “the earth” and “fields” are mentioned. Wisdom looks on while God draws a circle on the face of the depths and divides the firmament, delineates the seas and defines the earth. Her reaction to the Creation and to God is delight and wonder. She is Wisdom, the principle of rationality and order in the world as revealed by creation itself and as expressed in activity and in human society. She is the principle of solid judgement, wise relations, the search for education and knowledge and for the acquisition of awareness. She is the way of truth and life, in the fullest sense.

Wisdom is at the same time earthly and heavenly, at one moment a concrete human guest, and at the next instant close to God. She is described as being present “when [God] marked out the foundations of the earth” (8:29), like one who every day expresses delight in God’s presence and offers prudence and understanding to those who pass by where she stands, beside the gates in front of the city. Thus it is she who “at the entrance of the portals […] cries aloud” (8:3), a sometimes enigmatic figure who seeks to influence those who stand beside the gates, those who make the decisions in the town. “Those who seek me diligently find me”, she says in Proverbs 8:17. “On the heights beside the way, in the paths” (8:2) of life’s numerous ways Wisdom takes her stand. In her turn she offers us many paths to explore and many fleeting visions of other wayfarers.

Luca Giordano, “Allegory of Divine Wisdom” (detail, early 1680s)

So where does the idea for this figure of Wisdom stem from? Is she a vestige of the figure of a goddess? In Proverbs 3 she is described as holding long life in her right hand and “riches and honour” in her left, similar to other ancient divinities of the Near East, such as the Canaanite goddess Astarte, who hold symbolic objects in their hands. Or is this figure perhaps an abstract principle? An interesting parallel exists in the Egyptian principle of order and justice, which was later portrayed as a goddess – Ma’at (which means “truth”) – who in one hand holds a sceptre and in the other hand the ankh (the Egyptian symbol that denotes eternal life). Ma’at is described as a necklace or garland of the great God, Ra-Atum precisely as Lady Wisdom beside God (Prov 8:30). Ma’at was depicted on both the amulets and necklaces placed round the necks of supreme judges in Egypt: similarly, Wisdom is described as a “garland” for the neck [head] of her followers (Prov 1:9;). Or, what is more likely, she may be a poetic metaphor used by the scribes who wrote Proverbs 1-9, an extension of the image of the good wife whose antithesis is the adulteress who leads ignorant young men down the path of destruction. There are two alternatives: follow the teachings of Wisdom, listen to her it and find life; but woe betide those who do the contrary, for “all who hate me love death” (8:36). There is no doubt that all these passages are packed with images of the kind that inspire artistic creation.

In later Jewish thought Wisdom was identified with law (torah), so that respecting the Jewish law is synonymous with acquiring wisdom, associating the Torah with God’s Creation. Then with this identification the Torah, like Wisdom, was pre-existing, a delight of God, a word of God communicated. Thus in Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 24, a better known passage in which the Lady Wisdom is described, a line is traced from the primeval order to Yahweh’s specific revelation to Israel. She is described as having “[come] forth from the mouth of the Most High” (24:3) and having “covered the earth like a mist” (which might be an allusion to Moses in the cloud in Exodus 34). She is described as dwelling in high places and having her throne in a pillar of cloud (24:4). It is said of her that she has made the “circuit of the vault of heaven” and has “walked in the depths of the abyss” (24:5), that she has gained dominion over the whole world, over the seas and the earth, “in every people and nation” (24:6). At a cosmic level she is therefore higher in comparison with what has previously been described, resembling an angel of the heavenly council rather than the created being in Proverbs 8. Paradoxically, the search for a dwelling place leads Wisdom to settle in Israel, in the tabernacle within the Temple in Jerusalem (24:8-11). Verse 23 says explicitly: “All this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law which Moses commanded us as an inheritance for the congregations of Jacob”. Wisdom is therefore at Israel’s disposal; even though she once dwelt among other nations, she is now essentially hidden to them. Only God knows her to the core (cf. Sir 1:1-10). The gift is of a more specific kind, but unites all the benefits of the portrait presented in Proverbs, namely honour and riches, knowledge and so forth. The search and desire by human beings are also underlined, comparing them to a tree, a cypress or a cedar, a plane, a terebinth and a palm; a rose plant, an olive; a vine. She is described in seductive terms as a sweet and fruitful fragrance. There is a sort of eroticism in her attraction.

Incipit of the Book of Wisdom, Gigas Codex (13th century)

Yet in other writings the concept becomes deeper, so that in The Wisdom of Solomon, a work of the first century BCE, Wisdom is seen as a true and proper attribute of God. Here we find a precise progression in the idea of Wisdom, probably influenced by Greek thought and perhaps in opposition to the cult of Isis which at that time prevailed in Alexandria. In Wisdom 7:25 we read “For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty”; In this text the Lady Wisdom is hypostatized rather than merely personified. Here she is God’s manifestation to men and women, an emanation of divine attributes. In Wisdom 7:21-23 we read: “I learned both what is secret and what is manifest, for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me. For in her there is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen […], free from anxiety”. She orders and is the fashioner of all things (cf. Wis 8:1, 6). She is a teacher of virtues such as self-control and […] justice (8:7) and a bestower of all teachings (7:17-22), including information in the sphere of the natural sciences. The poem on Wisdom in 7:22-8:2 begins with a cosmological description of Wisdom’s relationship with God. It speaks of her action in creation and of her superiority with regard to all created things in her ordaining role. Wisdom exists to teach those who follow her to respond to her and this is what the author does: “I loved her and sought her from my youth” (8:2). Then a description follows, in 8:3-16, of what Wisdom can give to those who respond to her: knowledge, riches, understanding, righteousness, experience; nothing can exceed her benefits. Here too we find erotic language in words of love and desire: “I loved her more than health and beauty” (7:10); “I desired to take her for my bride, and I became enamoured of her beauty”, the probable author, Solomon, says (8:2) Another connection is made with the Torah – “love of her is the keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality” (6:18) – and a further step is taken, an association with immortality. Here Lady Wisdom offers even greater gifts, but then she is an attribute of God himself, his creating agent, his word of command.

Lady Wisdom, therefore, is offered to anyone who wishes to follow her path. She is a gift for those who want to accept this offer, and her words are true. And yet she is also linked to God’s creative act, “[The Lord created me] at the beginning of his work” (Prov 8:22). At the same time for human beings she is a representative of the divine, fully accessible to them and a means through which God himself brought about the Creation, whom of course only God can fully know. Wise men and women seek to acquire knowledge of the world, its numerous marvels are open to scientific research and yet the ultimate knowledge always lies in God alone, and there are hidden secrets which are not so easily accessible, including how God not only created the world but also supports it and interacts with it.

Lady Wisdom symbolizes a bridge, a meeting place between the divine and the human. Wisdom as a woman rejoices before God and before human beings, delighting in the created world and expressing wonder in the face of humanity’s exploits. However, Wisdom is essentially practical, hence ends on a concrete note, namely, seek me, find me, pursue all that is good, love knowledge: “Take my instruction instead of silver and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels and all that you may desire cannot compare with her” (Prov 8:10-11).

Katharine J. Dell

The author

Katherine Dell is a lecturer in Literature and in New Testament Theology at the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St Catherine’s College. She is an expert in sapiential literature and has written books on Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. She is currently working on a commentary on Ecclesiastes. 

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