All cultures have proverbs. They often contradict each other, like the two I’ve jumbled up in the title of this post. Too many cooks spoil the broth; many hands make light work. Part of the wisdom of using proverbs is working out what the appropriate saying for any particular situation is. The biblical book of Proverbs contain a number that fall into the same category as our English proverbs. However, it also contains some more extended reflections on the nature of wisdom, which work rather better as readings.
While the continuous alternative lectionary provides a few readings from Proverbs, the main related provision offers only two for Sundays. These passages come from one of those extended reflections. This one concerns the personified figure of wisdom, and it provides a key text for the development of Christian thinking about God as Trinity.1
There are two themes about wisdom which are picked up in the writings of the early church. One is of a companion with or through whom God creates. The other is as the provider of the food with which God nourishes his people. This is not understood as another God, but as a way of talking about the importance of God’s wisdom to both his work of creation, and to his provision for people who live the light of that wisdom.
It was fairly common to present ethics as two ways of life and death.2 In the wisdom tradition these ways are personified as Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly. Sometimes, the opposite of Lady Wisdom is portrayed as a temptress, a good-time girl who wants nothing better than to persuade the young man to stray from the path of wisdom in her direction. For some people, the idea that instruction in wisdom is given by an older man to a younger man, while women are either the ideal to be sought, or temptresses to be avoided, creates some fairly obvious problems for reader and interpreter. Others find much that is positive in the association of God’s own wisdom being portrayed as feminine.
The figure of wisdom, presented as a woman companion of God,3 is the beginning of God’s creative activity. She is also portrayed as the one who prepares a free meal of bread and wine to attract those who might otherwise miss the point of wisdom. It is a nicely subversive picture to have God’s wisdom and rationality portrayed as female, when so much of history has identified such characteristics as masculine. Rationality, Proverbs seems to suggest, belongs to God’s feminine side.
The attraction of this passage to the early church should be clear: a first-begotten companion of God who offers people bread and wine as the food of wisdom. Lady Wisdom becomes a type for how the church would think about Jesus. She is the outline black and white sketch. He is the technicolour reality. It is for this reason these high points of Proverbs make it into the lectionary.
The rest of the book is more varied: the early sections are poetry that lead up to these key chapters, the later sections more conventionally proverbial. Like our proverbs, you wouldn’t want to read many of them together in a row. They are a repository of ideas out of which a wise person might select the right guidance for the occasion.
- The first consists of selected verses from Proverbs 8. It is used as a reading at the Easter Vigil, and on the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, Year C, and Anglicans also use it for the 2nd Sunday before Lent. The second is what follows on in Proverbs 9, the invitation to eat at wisdom’s table: it relates to a gospel on Jesus as the bread of life (Year B, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 15).
- See the post on Deuteronomy for more on this theme.
- This is no doubt helped along by the fact that the Hebrew and Greek words for wisdom are feminine nouns.