Bible: Who listens when Wisdom speaks?

Jun 1, 2020 by

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I don’t know how many teenage boys will read this column, but these texts are addressed to young men your age! Even though the NRSV says, “hear, my child . . .” (Prov. 1:8; 2:1), in this case the word “son” is intended.

Reta Halteman Finger

Finger

This is a patriarchal society, and this section of Proverbs is ­directed toward well-off sons who have too much time on their hands. They are apt to join criminals to “ambush the innocent” (1:11) and fill their houses with stolen “booty” (1:13).

I grew up learning that King Solomon wrote the book of Proverbs (as in 1:1), but the reality is more complicated. Other authors are named in 22:17, 24:23, 30:1 and 31:1. Prov. 25:1 says Solomon’s proverbs were compiled during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah about 200 years later. Parts of this book even reflect the period after the Babylonian exile.

Our June texts are all from chapters 1-9, which are not two-line proverbs but longer poems about seeking wisdom. After the prologue in 1:1-7, John W. Miller in the Believers Church Bible Commentary credits the poems in 1:8-3:35 to Hezekiah’s officials. Old Testament scholar Alice Ogden Bellis suggests a post-exilic period when life in Judea was more chaotic and unpoliced.

This book communicates wisdom through poetry. Hebrew poetry does not rhyme but is usually composed of two-line teachings that reinforce each other or that present an antithesis. For example:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7).

After the prologue, a rather shocking poem is told by both parents to their son (1:8-19). Life on the streets must be pretty rough, because they fear their son may be seduced by a street gang who steals and kills, much like the Central American gangs that families flee from today.

The poem closes with a sad truth: “Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors” (1:19).

The second poem (1:20-33) introduces a major character in Proverbs. Nouns are gendered in both Hebrew and Greek, and “wisdom” is feminine (hokmah in Hebrew, sophia in Greek). Wisdom is then personified as a woman, whom we rightly call “Lady Hokmah” or “Woman Wisdom” or just “Sophia.”

Here, Woman Wisdom stands in the public square (verse 20), calling to all who will listen, though most have deaf ears. She’s a feisty lady, offering much but warning the simple, the scoffers and the fools that in the end she will show no mercy.

“I will mock you when panic strikes you like a storm” (26-27). “For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them” (32). Does this sound like our current COVID-19 struggle between science and disinformation?

In the next poem, Prov. 2:1-11, the mood shifts to the value of wisdom. Because of phrases like “the fear of the Lord” and “the knowledge of God” (2:5), I hear this as the voice of the divine figure of Wisdom herself.

In any case, the speaker has the power to make a deal. “If you accept my words” and search for wisdom “as for hidden treasures” (verse 4), “then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity.”

Here there are no sticks, only carrots. Everything is presented in positive terms. After the poem of 1:20-31, perhaps a few “sons” actually heeded Woman Wisdom’s warnings, so she promised them great blessings in the second poem.

Questions for discussion:
1. What kind of fear is “fear of the Lord”?
2. Do the promises of Woman Wisdom always work out in this life?
3. What poetic lines do you find the most appealing or persuasive?

Since retiring from teaching New Testament at Messiah College, Reta Halteman Finger adjuncts at Eastern Mennonite University, is a contributing editor at Sojourners magazine and writes a bimonthly Bible study blog, Reta’s Reflections, at eewc.com.


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