Scriptural Roles of Women: Lady Wisdom
There are two positive female personas in Proverbs: Lady Wisdom (also known as Sophia) and The Wife of Noble Character (aka Proverbs 31 wife). In the opening chapter of Proverbs (1-8), Wisdom is personified as a woman. This personification is significant because of the teaching and prophetic nature of Wisdom in Proverbs and that the original audience is male. You seemingly have a female model, at least abstract, teaching men. On the other hand, the Wife is described as, by Dorothy Patterson, “God’s ideal woman—committed homemaker, chaste helpmeet, upright and God-fearing woman of strength” and also that “[k]eeping the home is God’s assignment to the wife”. What do we make of the female teacher in the same book as the “homemaker”? In this post, I will explore Lady Wisdom in the world of Proverbs.
I will up front admit that I had a hard time finding a substantial amount of serious work on Lady Wisdom by complementarians. I am not saying there isn’t any, but it was surprising to me that the topic was not expounded in Piper and Grudem’s “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” when it is a strong persona that is employed by feminist theology.
The attribution of a female persona to Wisdom that “is likened to a street preacher” carries an atypical, maybe even a subversive, aura within a patriarchal setting. A strong statement is made by Lady Wisdom in the last stanza of Proverbs 8:
“Now then, my children, listen to me;
blessed are those who keep my ways.
Listen to my instruction and be wise;
do not disregard it.
Blessed are those who listen to me,
watching daily at my doors,
waiting at my doorway.
For those who find me find life
and receive favor from the Lord.
But those who fail to find me harm themselves;
all who hate me love death.” (Proverbs 8:32-36)
The imperative to “listen” (שָׁמַע) to Lady Wisdom’s instruction is structured the same when the speaker is male. In the book of Proverbs, שָׁמַע is connected with listening to an authoritative source or figure (“your father’s instruction” [1:8], “noble things” [8:6], “counsel” [12:15], “life-giving reproof” [15:31], “the truth” [21:28], “words of the wise” [22:17], “to your father who begot you” [23:22]). Inversely, to not שָׁמַע has negative repercussions (5:13, 13:1, 19:27, 28:9).
We see this trend within the teaching of Lady Wisdom: “Listen to my instruction and be wise… but those who fail to find me harm themselves; all who hate me love death.” The dichotomy of finding wisdom or loving death is tying the listeners’ destiny to Wisdom’s presence, which is theologically close to the language of God’s presence in terms of life and death. Wisdom is arguably setup as a mediatrix figure between God and man (“For those who find me find life and receive favor from the Lord”).
The idea of whether Lady Wisdom is actually a divine reality, a device drawn from the Ancient Near East and/or a hyperbolic literary personification is debatable. While Lady Wisdom is very prominent within the opening chapters of Proverbs, it is unlikely that she is based on a real persona, similar to how many Proverbs and the book of Ecclesiastes takes on the persona of Solomon.
Here is where we run into application issues: How do we apply Lady Wisdom, who is an abstract figure, to the real life roles of women, especially when Lady Wisdom was created in a patriarchal context? Is Lady Wisdom a feminine figure simply because the Hebrew word for “Wisdom” is feminine (חָכְמָה) and/or the (most likely male ) writer(s) of Proverbs needed a literary opponent for Dame Folly (Proverbs 7-9)? Lady Wisdom is not free from literary sexual device, either: “The idea of ‘embracing’ wisdom holds sexual connotations”. Why and how does the strong beginning of Lady Wisdom at the beginning of Proverbs give way to the Wife of Noble Character at the very end of Proverbs?
In my next post, I’ll look over the Wife of Noble Character (Proverbs 31) and its use by complementarians.
What is your take on Lady Wisdom?
 KT Aitken, “Proverbs”, The Oxford Bible Commentary. Editors: John Barton and John Muddiman, Pg. 407
 C.A. Newsom, “Woman and the Discourse of Patriarchal Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs 1–9,” Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel. Editor: Peggy Lynne Day, Pg. 142–60
 Dorothy Patterson, “The High calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective”, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Editors: John Piper and Wayne Grudem. Pg. 373
 Some works include: Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. C. Deane-Drummond, ‘Sophia: the Feminine Face of God as a Metaphor for an Eco-Theology’, Feminist Theology 16 (1997). And arguably most significantly, E. A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Divine Discourse.
 Bruce K. Waltke, “Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature”, Bibliotheca Sacra -July-September 1979, pg. 233
 שָׁמַע can also be rendered “Heed/Hear”. Translations from the NASB.
 Bruce Waltke, “Lady Wisdom as Mediatrix: An Exposition of Proverbs 1:20-33”, Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review 14 (Spring 1988)
 “While some view the figure as a personification or hypostatization of a divine attribute, others find her origins in goddess figures within the ancient Near East or within Israel itself. [Gerard] Von Rad argued rather that she was an attribute of the world, signifying ‘something like the “meaning” implanted by God in creation’. Certainly, she is an ambivalent and enigmatic figure. She belongs at God’s side, but she is also at home in the world (8:31—3). This ambivalence conceals her identity as much as it reveals her place as the link between heaven and earth and the mediatrix of divine revelation and divine blessing.” Aitken, “Proverbs”, The Oxford Bible Commentary. Editors: Barton and Muddiman, Pg. 411
 One notable exception, at least in the case of Proverbs 7, by Alice Ogden Bellis, “The Gender and Motives of the Wisdom Teacher in Proverbs 7”. Bulletin for Biblical Research 6 (1996) 15-22. She notes: “This paper takes a fresh look at the issues and concludes that the teacher is a F(emale) voice whose strategy of changing men’s sexual behavior is consistent with high female self esteem and, if successful, would have strengthened the entire community.”
 John H Walton, Victor H Matthews and Mark W Chavalas, “Proverbs”, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, pg. 562. Note on 3:18.