Woman Wisdom

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I’ve been reading about, thinking about Woman Wisdom.

I’ve always liked her as a biblical character even though she’s not embodied. She clearly has power.

 

She is with God at the beginning, bringing forth creation and delighting in it.

Michelangelo paints her at the very center of heaven’s womb, supporting God in the divine enterprise of creation. With her right arm around God’s waist, her left grasping his forearm, the kinetic force of this moment shows Wisdom as the counterweight allowing God to extend his reach toward the dustling. Without her, the ineffectual little cherubim would go tumbling out after God like birdies from their nest. 

 

In Proverbs, Woman Wisdom stands in the public places where prophets stand, and sounds very much like a prophet in this opening narrative. She calls to those who would attain wisdom and rebukes those who ignore her. Her warning is reminiscent of Isaiah, almost a direct quote. The main difference is her agenda. Justice isn’t her agenda, nor compassion – those are attributes of God. In Proverbs, her target audience is quite narrow. Woman Wisdom’s agenda is for the sake of the institution; her aim, the faith formation of sons of the religious elite.

“Does not wisdom call,  and does not understanding raise her voice?  On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;  beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: ‘To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it.  Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right … Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.

‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? …  Because I have called and you refused, I have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,  and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof,  I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.  Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.  Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof,  therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices.

 But those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.’ … if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures— then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.  For the Lord gives wisdom; knowledge and understanding;… guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones.” ~ from Proverbs 8;1;2

Job and Ecclesiastes are also books of the Wisdom genre. They offer arguments that run counter to this mechanistic view. Bad things do happen to the innocent, to the righteous, dutiful, faithful ones.  Wisdom’s speech highlights Job’s distress as a righteous one who never-the-less receives calamity as a whirlwind. What is the Woman up to?

The historical setting is helpful. While the two line sayings – the proverbs – of Proverbs are very old, the narratives about Woman Wisdom, Woman Folly, and Wonder Wife in the last chapter are the newest sections of the book. Scholars believe these date to post-exilic Judah. During this Persian period, the people have been allowed to come home, but the structures of life – the governmental, social, religious fundamentals are all gone. There is no temple, there is no king. Their homes and olive groves, vineyards and villages have either been razed or taken over by others who have now lived there for a generation. How do you start again? How do you teach your young their identity, their inheritance of faith? 

You go back to the beginning – to creation and the proper ordering of things – in Proverbs, with wisdom as the guiding principle – and back to the law. But their world view has changed during exile. Israelite thinking has unwittingly taken on the dualism of mind and body of their captor’s culture.  Purity, righteousness, obedience  – those head things – become the hallmarks of ‘fear of the Lord’ and the good life. One attains this Wisdom through instruction. Beginning with the parents at home and then with the sages, the traditionalist’s position is that righteous living will be rewarded with wealth and plenty; foolish living will undercut their society and end badly.

When culture is under stress, people find comfort in law, in ‘insider-outsider’ distinctions, in clear-cut, easy to discern wisdom. Stress is not a time for nuance and creative ambiguity. In times of tension, there is comfort in being told what to do, in having clear instructions and choices so simple that even fools don’t go astray. (Isaiah 35:8)

  Happy are those who keep my ways,” she says. “Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death.” (8:32 ff)

“Whoever finds me finds life; all who hate me love death. Choose life!  Live the good life!”

Woman Folly, then, is clearly the siren of the dark side.  She is Stranger Danger, who feigns wisdom, but her way leads to shame and death.

The foolish woman is loud; she is ignorant and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the high places of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, ‘You who are simple, turn in here!’ And to those without sense she says, ‘Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’ But they do not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.” 

This Wanton woman is woven throughout the proverbs variously described as an adulteress, a prostitute, a foreigner who would woo away vulnerable youth and seduce them into following false gods. She is competing religious traditions; she is frightening female otherness. Her name is Folly because it is folly for a young man to follow her, to give in to his desire for the Strange Woman – the women of these other people who now live among them with foreign gods and foreign rituals who would dilute and weaken Israelite identity and social structure.

Why is this pertinent?

Bring this forward to Jesus’ time – 500 to 600 years later.

Who were the law keepers, gatekeepers, instruction givers, the sages? Who carried on the black and white world view of good and bad, insider and stranger?

They were the priests, the scribes and Pharisees.

Whom did Jesus contend with? The priests, the scribes and Pharisees. 

Hmm, so, what happened? How did the Wisdom of God twist around?

The 10 commandments were a divine gift to the people – ten things that could easily be memorized that would aid ancient Israel in keeping their lives in proper order. Love God first, provide for the vulnerable in society – older parents, servants and strangers are the exemplars, and treat your neighbors with respect and integrity. Follow these laws, this wisdom, “so that it will go well for you, and you will live long in the land.” Israel was not chosen because they were an example of purity or wisdom or righteousness. They failed miserably at those things. The histories, the prophets, the gospels, Pauls writings – all give ample evidence of the failure of Israel (and all people) to live according to the 10 basic commandments.

They weren’t chosen because they were a good example, Israel was chosen to be a living example, a community incarnation of God’s will and way and wonder and wisdom – to embody divine abundance in a desert land.

But by Jesus’ day, the laws were oppressive requirements not used to help but to oppress. The Law no longer functioned as a tool of compassion and justice, but a power tool for the elite to wield. Sabbath, instead of a gift of rest, became a day when the hungry could not eat, the sick could not be healed. Over time, the good law had become rigid, fear based, insular, abusive.

Jesus keeps going back to that list. Love God, love your neighbor. He finds remarkable faith in a Roman Centurion, their enemy occupier, saying, “Never have I seen such faith in all of Israel!” 

Jesus commends the despised Samaritans in the parable of the good Samaritan who shows mercy to his foreign neighbor after all the law abiding, righteous, ‘pure’ Israelites had walked by, and in the Samaritan woman at the well who listened, asked questions, was openminded enough to consider the view of this “totally other than herself” Jew. And then she invited her people to come listen. And they changed their minds about long held cultural grievances and prejudices – something even Jesus’ disciples couldn’t do. And there was the Syrophonaecian woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus said. She said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus said, “Woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” 

It seems that Jesus prefers the stranger, the other, the foreigner, the Samaritans with their mixed race and worship at Mt Gerizim. Maybe ‘prefer’ is the wrong word, but he treats them equally to the Jews. Jesus breaks down the “us and them,” raises the lowest of society to status of Friend – unmarried women, tax collectors, sojourners and leaves the religious elite to “eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices.”

Why is this pertinent?

Bring it forward to our day.

Who are the law keepers, gatekeepers, instruction givers? Who carries on the black and white world view of good and bad, insider and stranger?

How do we use Law, and for whose benefit? Are our laws intended to control and oppress the vulnerable while insulating the elite? (as in Jesus’ day) Or are they gracious and fair, meant to protect and promote all life, all creatures? (as intended) Do we uphold the letter of the law at the cost of children’s welfare, for example? At the cost of habitats and species being extinguished for industrial gain and the GDP? At the cost of our own species’ future life on the planet for political maneuvering and basic everyday laziness and greed? Are we again afraid of these other people who now live among us with foreign gods and foreign rituals who will dilute and weaken our identity and social structure. (remember that we were once those people, too)

Would you say our individual and communal ethics would put us in contention with Jesus, with God’s way and will and wonder and wisdom? Do they serve God?

It’s complicated, isn’t it?

Woman Wisdom and Woman Stranger embody the duality of mind and body, spirit and earth. In the beginning Wisdom delighted in all creation and creatures, but after the disaster of Babylon, Israel’s need for Wisdom changed; she spoke dispassionate, motherly instruction and she taught through fear and insider’s loyalty. She kept the young men safe.  

God didn’t come as a dispassionate, divine thought, however – or as an un-embodied or disinterested righteous one who would keep you safe. I like that about Michelangelo’s image: God is about to fall out of heaven in his reach to touch the human. God came among us (individual to family to clan to nation, through creation and words and prophets and finally in Jesus), to teach Wisdom as a human body that felt things, a human body who loved, who touched healthy bodies and wounded ones and dead ones. Jesus broke the purity codes and Sabbath laws and taught that the actual needs of people came first – hunger, suffering, thirst; their bodies came before rules and religion.

God said through the prophets – I don’t want your sacrifices or your solemn assemblies. I want a humble heart, a wise people to attract the nations, show hospitality to the sojourners in your midst. I want my people to be irresistible envoys of grace, and forgiveness and steadfast kindness. I don’t want to set you apart, but I set you right there in the thick of it where you belong.

How is this pertinent?

Fast forward to your life, your choices, your actions…. 

…how pertinent is it?