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The Bible

Woman-Wisdom
from the beginning

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06 February 2021

Almost everyone knows Solomon’s name. If, for no other reason, than of the stratagem in the first book of Kings (3:16-28) of the story of the disputed child to be cut into two that was being contested by the two mothers.  Others, perhaps, also know that the wisdom of the son of David and Bathsheba, the adulterer, became proverbial because Solomon's reign assured Israel not only peace and stability, but also contact with the other great cultures of the Near East, which led to an era of great cultural vivacity and civil progress.  For this reason, Israel has attributed to King Solomon all the sapiential reflection that lies at the basis of certain books in the Bible, which were actually written in different periods (from the fifth to the second century before Christ), and contain rulings, guidelines and rules aimed at a fruitful and happy life.  However, few know that the wisdom that made Solomon famous is a female figure who, alongside two others, namely the Law and the Messiah, helps us to understand why –and above all how-, God becomes present in the history of his people. And this is a female figure.

Woman-Wisdom


Among the many things worthy of amazement that emerged thanks to the restoration of the Sistine Chapel (1980-1994) one is, in my opinion, anything but marginal. In the fresco of the creation, which occupies the vault, the attention is captured by the Adam’s vigor and by the grandiose expressive power with which Michelangelo was able to account for the relationship of closeness and at the same time of distance between the creator and the creature made in his image and likeness. However, the restoration has brought to the surface a detail that for too many centuries had remained completely obscured: among the putti that surround and support God in his creative act, there is a female figure that God binds to himself in an embrace. Eve? Inevitably, many claim it is she, even if, in reality, the painter dedicates a specific panel to the creation of Eve in the stories of Genesis that accompany the vault.

If art historians tend to identify the figure as Eve, biblical scholars venture another hypothesis, which is anything but fanciful because it is extensively accredited by the sapiential books in the Bible.  

We read in the book of Proverbs: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 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. (Proverbs 8, 22-31).

It is Wisdom itself which presents itself as that which presides over creation, as the creative force that makes creation a work that - as the account that opens the book of Genesis tells us - God considers  “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). The reciprocity that God establishes with the work of his hands reflects, in short, the playful relationship that exists between God and Wisdom. It would take a long time to discuss this. Suffice it to say that, despite the fact that Israel's social structure was strongly characterized by patriarchy and that this often imposed heavy restrictions on women, in biblical literature, evidence emerges, albeit in a karstic way, of the decisive role played by women in the development of God’s history with his people. In addition, reflections, hints and allusions that reveal a religious imagery in which the female presence plays a leading role. In this regard, the sapiential writings are a veritable treasure trove.

The Italian word ‘Sapienza’, like the Greek word ‘Sofia’, can be misunderstood in relation to the Hebrew word 'hochmah', which has a very ancient history and refers to a superior quality that some people possess, while others do not. Therefore, the aspiration to know how to direct our basic behavior in the act of living are present in the most ancient roots of our culture. Wisdom is not taught, but this does not mean that wisdom cannot be learned.  The most archaic meaning of hakam is the skilled man, the artisan, in particular, the goldsmith, the one who knows a trade well.

Therefore, traditional biblical wisdom does not claim to be the fruit of divine revelation, which is why it has been called secular wisdom. Moreover, the wisdom books do not contain mythical tales, nor are they philosophical or speculative works, like those of the great Greek thinkers. Instead, they are a distillation of practical knowledge and reflections on experienced reality; there are no edifying speeches, much less devout exhortations. Wisdom itself does not convey an easy religious moralism either, but rather requires, and in very demanding terms from the human point of view, the ability to reflect and take a stand against teachings that are sometimes even contradictory. This is why the value of wisdom is inestimable.

An eloquent example


The division of the book of Proverbs into seven sections could recall the statement at the beginning of chapter 9: “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. “Thus, allude to the fact that those who read the proverbs and admonitions contained in the book accept Wisdom’s invitation to be welcomed into her house. There is much to be said about the undoubted traits of misogyny in the text, but it should not be forgotten that, even more than in the text, androcentrism has been one of the dominant features of the history of its interpretation. Hence the significant mistrust especially towards a passage like that in praise of the strong woman (31, 10-31) which appeared as a recognizable exaltation of the ideal wife who lives only to serve her husband and her children. The chapter is entitled Words of Lemuel, king of Massa, “An oracle that his mother taught him” and one must therefore assume that these are teachings that the mother of a king passes on to her son. It is not surprising that the portrait of the strong woman who seals the book was also interpreted as a collection of suggestions from the mother to the future king to choose an appropriate bride for a long time.

On closer inspection, however, the poem closes with a direct reference to one of the ‘many daughters’. This suggests that, while the first part of the mother's discourse is addressed to the future king, the last part is instead in praise of a daughter who “has done excellent things”, to whom one should “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands” and for whom the public should “praise her in the city gates”. Far from being the eulogy of a future daughter-in-law by an illustrious mother-in-law, therefore, the passage contains teachings functional to the ideal of education of Prince Lemuèl and a princess, whose name is not given but who is directly addressed. Archaeological and socio-historical studies have also shown that, at the time, women were landowners and were active in all the areas mentioned in our text, from trade to the production and sale of luxury fabrics, far removed from the homely ideal that made them the queens of the hearth. Finally, it goes without saying, that the “fine linen and purple” of her “coverings” (v. 22) are the same ones that decorate the ark that guides the people in the desert or that the priests wore in the Temple and that, apart from her (v. 25), in the whole Bible only Yahweh is “girded with strength” (Psalm 93, 1).

Therefore, described with the characteristic features of the time, the strong woman with whom the author of the book of Proverbs seals his writing is the Woman-Wisdom, the personification of the Wisdom of God. She is the personification of God's Wisdom. The king must bind himself to her, as shown by the extraordinary prayer to obtain wisdom, which, not by chance, is attributed to Solomon (Wisdom 9:1-18). She is not the housewife, but she who, having “built her house”, […] has also set her table.  “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, 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”. (Proverbs 9:3-6).

By Marinella Perroni
Biblical scholar, Pontifical Athenaeum of Saint Anselm


The Proverbs


A good wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from afar.
She rises while it is yet night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her maidens.
She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds her loins with strength
and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid of snow for her household,
for all her household are clothed in scarlet.
She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the gates,
when he sits among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them;
she delivers girdles to the merchant.
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all”.
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the gates.

Proverbs 31, 10-31