Wisdom: for us

waterandspiritPlace in Our Tradition. The Book of Proverbs can make an important contribution to Christians and Jews today.

  • First, it places the pursuit of wisdom over the performance of individual wise acts. To seek wisdom above all things is a fundamental option and a way of life.
  • Second, it portrays the quest as filled with obstacles. There are men and women who offer a substitute for the real thing; discernment is required.
  • Third, the book teaches that acquiring wisdom is both a human task and a divine gift. One can make oneself ready to receive by discipline, but one cannot take so divine a gift.
  • Fourth, wisdom is in the world but it is not obvious to people entirely caught up with daily activities. The instructions and the aphorisms of the book can free the mind to see new things. Christians will see in personified Wisdom aspects of Jesus Christ, who they believe is divine wisdom sent to give human beings true and full life.
  • Yet there is a universal dimension to Proverbs, for in its attention to human experience it creates a link to all people of good will.

The genres and themes of Proverbs continued on in Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, and the later Pirqe Abot (The Sayings of the Fathers), a treatise in the Mishnah, which became the object of commentary in Abot de Rabbi Nathan. The New Testament saw Jesus as a wisdom teacher and employed the tradition of personified wisdom of chaps. 2 and 8 to express his incarnation. The Letter of James is an instruction resembling those in Proverbs. Wisdom traditions influenced the Gospels of Matthew and Luke through a common source (see, e.g., Mt 11:25–27 and Lk 10:21–22, which seem to derive their father-son language, at least in part, from the parental language of Proverbs). The Gospel of John regards Jesus as incarnate wisdom descended from on high to offer human beings life and truth and make disciples of them, a view largely reflected in Proverbs 1–9. In later Judaism, Hebrew ethical wills, in which parents hand on to their children their wisdom, borrowed from the genre of instruction.

Commentary

Many commentaries refer to 8:22-31 as a celebration of Wisdom even in the primordial. It is as though the scribes are saying, “Look, we are only celebrating in our day, what the Lord has provided for us since the dawn of creation.” This shift of focus is marked by the change from “I” (vv.12, 17) to the Lord (vv. 22–31). The section begins with “the Lord” and ends with benê ʾādām (“I found delight in the sons of men”), the climax and aim of God’s creative works.

This section, unified thematically by wisdom’s connection with God’s creative works, falls into two equal stanzas. The first pertains to her origin before creation (vv. 22–26); the second, to her presence and celebration during the creation (vv. 27–31). These two halves are linked by a thematic chiasm:

A, wisdom’s origins (vv. 22–23);
B, the negative state of the creation (vv. 24–26);
B′, positive presentation of the creation (vv. 27–29);
A′, wisdom’s celebration of humanity’s origins (vv. 30–31).

22 “The LORD begot me, the first-born of his ways,
the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago;
23 From of old I was poured forth,
at the first, before the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water;
25 Before the mountains were settled into place,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
26 While as yet the earth and the fields were not made,
nor the first clods of the world.

The first stanza establishes that wisdom’s has precedence in rank and dignity over the rest of the creation. Wisdom’s precedence is both qualitative (i.e., begotten, not created) and temporal (i.e., existing “before” any other creature). As a result she is competent to counsel and authoritative when she speaks. The stanza’s first strophe represents Wisdom’s begetting in the primordial past (vv. 22–23), and its second strophe represents her begetting before the sea (v. 24), land (vv. 25–26), and implicitly sky (v. 27).

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