September 13, 2015
Last week we examined several individual proverbs that were found in chapter 22 of the book of Proverbs. As we saw, those sayings were examples of advice, some of which were potentially helpful and others of which were potentially dangerous. The basic claim I tried to make was that the wisdom of proverbial statements is seldom universal; they contain truth but are by themselves rarely true in full. The book of Proverbs is replete with such maxims.
However, in today's reading we find something quite different. Here we confront Lady Wisdom, a figure with a long history in Israel, a personification of the very stuff that makes the good life possible and the very stuff that helps its adherents to avoid certain attractive and seductive dangers. It might be said that in this chapter 1 we discover the basic reasons for the proverbs themselves; if one heeds the call of Wisdom, life lived by means of the many maxims in the book can be fulfilled and fulfilling. We can learn to live such a life by understanding more clearly just what Wisdom is in Israel, and by addressing those terms that cloud the way to achieving it: simpletons, scoffers, and fools.
We must first take a look at Wisdom. I capitalize the noun, because in this context the word plainly means far more than human discernment or insight. There is something foundational about the term here; Wisdom is a kind of glue that holds the worlds together. In ancient Egypt, the concept known as ma'at bears a similar meaning. Ma'at, like Wisdom, stands at the very heart of life and living, a material reality upon which life depends for its very existence. This idea of Wisdom is made clear in Proverbs 8: "By me (Wisdom) kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me (Wisdom) rulers rule, and nobles, all who govern rightly" (Prov. 8:15-16). And what is the origin of Wisdom? "YHWH created me at the beginning of God's work, the very first of God's acts long ago" (Prov. 8:22). Wisdom was the very first thing that YHWH created as the worlds were spun into being, "before the mountains and hills, before the earth itself and the fields on the earth, before the skies" (Prov. 8:25-29). "I (Wisdom) was beside God as a trusted one, daily rejoicing in God's presence, rejoicing in the inhabited world, delighting in the human race" (Prov. 8:30-31).
Lady Wisdom is a primordial creation of YHWH, a sort of witness to and worker with the acts of creation. This extraordinary figure comes very close to being a consort of YHWH, a companion in creation, a helper in those activities that are usually ascribed to YHWH alone. Hence, when Lady Wisdom "cries out in the street" (Prov. 1:20), all would do well to listen carefully to her call, since she is as close to YHWH and YHWH's desires as any can ever be.
I assume, given this understanding of Lady Wisdom as a primordial figure, that a Christian reader would easily and readily connect her with the understanding of Jesus of Nazareth promulgated by John's Gospel, chapter 1, as well as the letter to the Colossians, both of which ascribe to Jesus a similar sort of existence, a primordial figure, pre-existent with God. The fact that Lady Wisdom is without doubt a female figure greatly enriches our most basic understanding of the equality of gender to be found in Hebrew reflection on the Godhead. We are no longer confined to male references to YHWH once we embrace the picture of Lady Wisdom presented to us here.
So, this is the Lady Wisdom who calls to us "in the street, in the city squares, at the very busiest corners of our towns" (Prov. 1:20), urging us to seek what she has to offer and to give up our own desires to accept simplemindedness, scoffing, and foolishness. Just what are we being asked to surrender if we are to embrace Wisdom?
"Simplemindedness" (p'thi) contains the quality of openness to every whim that comes down the road. It possesses also the idea of being easily deceived (Prov. 24:28), or readily persuaded, or even seduced or enticed (Ex. 22:15). The result of such openness results in speaking loosely, literally "opening wide the lips" (Prov. 20:19). Following Lady Wisdom can cure this dangerous proclivity to accepting without question or critical reflection the thoughts of others. How often in our own day does such "mob mentality," fueled by the simplemindedness of the internet, characterize so much of our discussion and debate. Lady Wisdom calls for us to divest ourselves of such trusting simplicity.
"Scoffers" (latsim) who "delight in their scoffing" (Prov. 1:22) are described as those who scorn anything that could be considered wise. Proverbs is filled with rebuke for these people. The scoffer is "proud and haughty" (Prov. 21:24), incapable of discipline (Prov. 9:7), rejects reproof or rebuke (Prov. 9:8, 13:1, 15:12), cannot find wisdom (Prov. 14:6), should be avoided (Ps. 1:1), and finally in summary is an "abomination" (Prov. 24:9). Scoffers are nay-sayers, cynical curmudgeons who find the bad in everything and have no eye for the good and wise. "Happy are those who do not sit in the scoffer's seat," announces the very first Psalm, and Lady Wisdom warns that spending time with such people will corrupt and deaden.