Biblical wisdom literature emphasizes the desirability and the elusiveness of true wisdom (Hebr. hokmâ, a feminine noun). Job 28.25–27 even locates wisdom with God at creation. Thus it is of interest that a series of poems in Proverbs 1–9 metaphorically personifies wisdom as a woman in a variety of positive female roles; see Women, article on Ancient Near East and Israel.
The female figure of Wisdom first appears in Proverbs speaking as a prophet (Prov. 1.20–33), a profession to which both men and women were called. In Proverbs 9.1–6, Wisdom is a high‐ranking woman who can employ a messenger (cf. 1 Kings 19.2; 21.8–11); on her own initiative (cf. Esther 5.4) she invites the “simple” to a banquet in her substantial seven‐pillared house.
Wisdom is also a “sister” (Prov. 7.4), a word with two connotations: a literal sister with whom a man may associate on the intimate level of family, or alternately a wife or lover (as in the Song of Solomon). In the book of Proverbs, both the ideal wife (31.10) and the woman Wisdom (3.15; 8.11) are “more precious than jewels,” and Proverbs 4.6 enjoins the listener not to forsake Wisdom just as Proverbs 5.15–17 demands marital fidelity. Like wives and mothers in ancient Israel (Prov. 1.8; 4.6–9; 6.20; 31.1, 26), Wisdom is a counsellor and teacher (8.6–10, 14). Interestingly, she is not a child‐bearer, although she is regularly described as a life‐giver or life‐preserver (Prov. 3.16, 18, 22; 4.13; 9.6).
The dividing line between Wisdom the woman and God can grow hazy. Without the introductory verses to Proverbs 1.22–33 one might easily assume that the speaker is not Wisdom but God! Theologians have observed that Wisdom functions as a mediator between God and humanity. She is God's companion (Prov. 3.19; 8.22–31) before the beginning of creation; yet God offers her, as she offers herself, to God's human subjects. If they accept her, they will find that God is protecting and guiding them (Prov. 3.26). Scholarly consensus places the book of Proverbs in the postexilic period (fifth‐fourth centuries BCE), although it is generally agreed that Proverbs contains motifs and themes that were part of preexilic Israelite culture. Wisdom's mediating role may have answered a spiritual need earlier fulfilled by the king (see Ps. 72; 1 Kings 8.22–53).
Scholars have pursued the theory that Wisdom the woman is in some way related to an ancient Near Eastern goddess or goddesses. Evidence is lacking for the suggestion that a goddess, Wisdom, was worshiped in preexilic times in Israelite scribal schools. She does however share some attributes with the Egyptian goddess Maat, “Truth,” and with certain ancient Near Eastern goddesses who protected the king and his officials (cf. Prov. 8.1–21).
Wisdom the woman's most striking affinities, however, are with Asherah, the Canaanite fertility goddess. Wisdom is the tree of life (Prov. 3.8), and Asherah's primary symbol was a tree of life. Wisdom's banquet invitation (Prov. 9.1–6) recalls Asherah's banquet in the Ugaritic myth of Baal. Proverbs 9 may consciously play on the ambiguities of the word “house,” which can also mean temple (see 2 Sam. 7.5–6); in ancient Near Eastern mythology, the construction of a house/temple for the gods is often the climax of cosmogony, notably also the theme of Wisdom's preceding address in Proverbs 8.22–31.
At the same time, there are clearly similarities between Wisdom's corrupt counterpart, the “foolish woman” of Proverbs 9.13–18, and several goddesses in ancient Near Eastern myths whose seductive blandishments and promises of life to the young male hero can lead to death (cf. Prov. 9.18; also 2.18–19; 5.5; 6.26; 7.26–27). It has been suggested that throughout Proverbs 1–9, in a particularly Israelite twist, the description of the evil seductive/adulterous woman (Prov. 2.16; 5.3–20; 6.24–35; 7.5–27) may deliberately employ Canaanite goddess imagery in order to undercut it.
It is not impossible that Lady Wisdom represents an irruption in the Bible of the persistent but biblically suppressed Israelite worship of a female counterpart to Yahweh (see Israel, Religion of). In the book of Proverbs, however, both Wisdom the woman and the “foolish woman” seem to be literary creations in which goddess language has been artfully transformed and recombined with imagery from other elements of Israelite female experience.
The motif of Wisdom the woman subsequently played a notable part in Jewish and Christian thought. She appears, for example, in the Wisdom of Solomon, in Sirach, in Baruch 3:9—4:4, and in the nonbiblical texts from Qumran, and her words are echoed in the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 11.28). Perhaps most resonant of all was Wisdom's speech in Proverbs 8.22–31, stressing her presence at the beginning of creation. Sirach equates Wisdom with the creative word of God (24.3) and with Torah (24.23). Readers of the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (first century CE) have found it difficult to disentangle the properties of God's word (logos) from wisdom (sophia). Paul calls Christ the wisdom (sophia) of God (1 Cor. 1.24). The mini–creation story in John 1.1–3 consciously evokes Proverbs 8. And for gnostic Jews and Christians, the female principle Sophia was a figure of great complexity and primary importance.
Mary Joan Winn Leith