Wisdom: begotten

waterandspiritBegotten, Not Created. The language of “begetting,” “created,” and the like has, historically, been the source of great controversies. Beginning at least as early as the apologist Justin Martyr (A.D. 125), Christians, almost without exception, identified Sophia/Wisdom in Proverbs 8 with Jesus Christ. This almost universal interpretation of the passage embroiled the church in controversy about the precise nature of the relationship between God and Christ. From the time of Origen (ca. A.D. 180) patristic exegesis interpreted Wisdom’s birth in Proverbs 8:25 as Christ’s continual coming into existence. Not all agreed with such understanding. Lead by the Alexandrian deacon Arius, a group called the Arians held that there was a time when the Son “was not” and thus the Son was created as God’s most exalted creature. They concluded this using Prov. 8:22, “the LORD begot/created me,” as their primary text. In contrast, orthodox Christians held that Christ was of the same substance as the Father, the true Son of God, and not a creature. Orthodoxy interpreted Prov. 8:22 by explaining that the ever-existing Son was “created” when he became incarnate. According to his second strategy, the “creation of Wisdom was actually the creation of Wisdom’s image in creatures as they were brought into being.”

Before all else. The expression “the first born”(rēʾšît) can also be translated as “in the beginning” which has appeal to the Christian ear given the Prologue of the Gospel of John. Verses 22-25 point to Wisdom (Sophia) as perhaps the agent or creative force of all creation. The creation is first described a “what there was not” – depths, fountains, mountains, hills, and fields

Many have noted the movement from the subterranean depth (v. 24a) to the springs leading to the surface (v. 24b) to the visible mountains rooted in the depths (v. 25a) to the hills (v. 25b) to the land and its fields (v. 26) to the sky and its horizon (v. 27)..Sea, land, and sky depict the entire universe of the living. All of this is described with reference to human habitation: from the oceans, which is most remote (v. 24), to mountains, which is less remote (v. 25), and climactically to land, where human beings dwell (v. 26). The latter is progressively intensified from “land” to “open fields” to “arable soil.”

An Order from Chaos

27 “When he established the heavens I was there,
when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep;
28 When he made firm the skies above,
when he fixed fast the foundations of the earth;
29 When he set for the sea its limit,
so that the waters should not transgress his command;
30 Then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
Playing before him all the while,
31 playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the sons of men.

Contextually, in contrast to vv. 22-26, which presented the panorama of the Lord’s creative actions in a movement from below to above, vv. 27–29 present them in the reverse direction, moving from the heavens (v. 27a) and its horizon (v. 27b) to the sky and clouds (v. 28a) downward to the fountains of the deep (v. 28b) and the seashores (v. 29b) and finally to the foundations of the earth (v. 29b). Thematically, Wisdom represents the Lord as firmly establishing the cosmic entities that both sustain and threaten human existence. In both section (vv. 24–27 and 27–29), however, the earth as the realm of human life is the aim of the presentation. All the metaphors for creation in vv. 27–29 signify that each of the cosmic entities on which human life depends are so firmly fixed within the created order that they cannot overreach themselves or be transgressed by another. Were it otherwise, the cosmos would crumble into chaos. Humanity’s physical existence depends on a firmly structured universe. The Lord’s fixed created order serves as a model of his fixed moral boundaries for human beings to prevent society from collapsing into anarchy.

Wisdom’s Role. The previous verses’ “I was there” gives way to a more intimate description: “I was beside…” underscoring Wisdom’s pre-existence to the creation and her close proximity to the Creator at the time.

30 Then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
Playing before him all the while,
31 playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the sons of men.

Wisdom is again referred to it her creative capacity as “craftsman” – but is a trade that is anything but laborious, but rather joyful, leading to delight.

Notes

Prov 8:22 The LORD begot me: the Hebrew qānānî is variously translated as “brought forth,” “begot,” and “created.” The meaning of brought me forth (qānānî) has been hotly debated since the Arian heresy. Three interpretations merit consideration. Some scholars contend that qānâ means “to acquire or possess,” for good reasons.

  • This is its meaning in the other occurrences in Proverb and more specifically in connection with acquiring wisdom/knowledge/truth (1:5; 4:5, 7 [2x]; 16:16 [2x]; 17:16; 18:15; 23:23) or of acquiring sense (15:32; 19:8), and once in a commercial sense (20:14).
  • It is the normal use of qānâʾ in the rest of the Old Testament.
  • Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, beginning a translational tradition that was continued by the Vulgate so interpreted it.
  • This interpretation best harmonizes with the statement in Job 28:27 that God discovered wisdom, not that he created it.

The second interpretation, however, “to create,” has wider acceptance

  • This is a better meaning of qnh than “possess” in at least Deut. 32:6 and Ps. 139:13, and probably so in Gen. 4:1; 14:19, 22.
  • It better suits the other verbs in Prov. 8:22–26 that speak of Wisdom as coming into existence.
  • The LXX, Targumin, and Syriac rendered qnh “create.”
  • Its derivative qinyān in Ps. 104:24 most probably means “creatures,” for its parallel is maʿaśeyka (“your works”). More precisely, however, qnh probably means “to beget,” “to bring forth,” in Prov. 8:22. Procreation is not the same as creation.
  • In Gen. 4:1 qānâ has a biological sense, “be parent of.” A birth context, and so a similar sense, is also found in Deut. 32:6, where God is compared to a begetting Father, and in Ps. 139:13 (cf. Exod. 15:16; Ps. 74:2).103

Sources

Bruce K.Waltke The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1–15 in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004)

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