11 September 2012

Proverbs 8:14-31

"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 marked out the foundations of the earth, then 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." (vv. 22-23, 29-31))


The passage from Proverbs concerning Woman Wisdom has been one of the more controversial texts in the entire book. The passage personifies divine wisdom in a style similar to Hellenistic (Greek) praise of the goddess Isis, and here Wisdom is seen as underlying political power. The gift of wisdom to Solomon (1 Kings 3), who was not the son expected to succeed David, legitimises his reign, and the book of Proverbs is closely related to Solomon in Israelite thought, although the book was composed much later, in the post-exilic period (6th century BC).

In Proverbs 8, Wisdom's role in creation is explored. The Hebrew verb for "created me" (v. 22) is normally understood as 'begot me', but it might better be translated 'conceived me' because the clause following ("I was brought forth"verses 24 and 25) refer to the female act of giving birth. But another equally valid translation might be 'The Lord God acquired me at the beginning of his way'.Both are metaphorical images meant to be understood together, but the problem is to avoid the understanding of wisdom as a sexually conceived child of God on the one hand, and wisdom as some sort of pre-existent entity acquired by God in order to begin creation on the other. Both nuances are possible understandings of verses 30-31, where wisdom was "beside"God during the act of creation, and where the image of wisdom as "master worker" can also be translated 'darling child.' Wisdom as a pre-existent entity or attribute, with God before creation, and participating in God's life-giving power ("whoever finds me finds life", v. 35) is an important source for the theology of the Word ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1)).

However we understand this image of Wisdom, she is the source of human pleasure and prosperity for those who love her. As God delights in her, she delights in humanity. She is at home in the world, a link between heaven and earth who brings divine blessing to humankind.

To Ponder

  • How does the Old Testament understanding of Wisdom compare with the New Testament understanding of Christ and the Holy Spirit? How important to you is the female image provided here?
  • Wisdom 'rejoices' in the world and delights in the human race. To what extent should this be the Church's position? How does it reflect your own views?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Susan Graham

As the training officer and development enabler in the Bristol District, Susan's work has focused recently on developing new ways to train local preachers, which enables her to combine her love of teaching and her passion for excellence in theological education. She is a New Testament scholar who specialises in historical Jesus study, and she has just published her first (and probably only!) book on the subject.