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Woman Wisdom and the Woman of Substance

A translation of Proverbs 31 showing the alphabetic acrostic found in the Hebrrew text.  The words in the center read "woman of valor" (eshet hayil).

Two portraits of women frame the book of Proverbs: wisdom (personified as a woman) in Prov 1-9 and the “woman of substance” of Prov 31:10-31. Similarities in themes and vocabulary indicate that readers should identify these two women with each other. Note, for example, that both women are difficult “to find” (Prov 1:28, Prov 8:17, Prov 31:10) and are “more precious than jewels” (Prov 3:15, Prov 8:11, Prov 31:10). Both women have a house (Prov 9:1, Prov 31:15, Prov 31:21) and a staff of servant-girls (Prov 9:3, Prov 31:15). Both women provide food (Prov 9:5, Prov 31:14) and a life of security (Prov 1:33, Prov 31:11). Their “fruit” is valuable (Prov 8:19, Prov 31:16, Prov 31:31); indeed, the noun “merchant profit” occurs in the book of Proverbs only in Prov 31:18 and Prov 3:14. Both women are known at the city gates (Prov 1:21, Prov 8:3, Prov 31:31) and bring honor to their companions (Prov 3:16, Prov 4:8, Prov 31:25). Both are physically strong (Prov 8:14, Prov 31:17, Prov 31:25) and despise wickedness (Prov 8:13, Prov 31:12). Both reach out to the needy (Prov 1:24, Prov 31:20). They laugh (Prov 1:26, Prov 8:30, Prov 31:25). And both women teach (Prov 1:23, Prov 1:25, Prov 8:6-9, Prov 8:14, Prov 8:32-34, Prov 31:26); they and their instruction are associated with the “fear of the LORD” (Prov 1:29-30, Prov 8:13, Prov 31:30).

The nature and extent of these parallels suggest that readers who first meet personified wisdom in the city streets (Prov 1-9) greet her again at the book’s end (Prov 31:10-31) and glimpse what life looks like for those who accept wisdom’s invitation to dwell in her household (Prov 9:1-6). Portraits of wisdom as a woman thus envelop a book that was intended primarily for men (the prologue to Proverbs identifies its primary audience in masculine plural terms: “naïve ones,” “young men,” “the wise,” and “the discerning” [Prov 1:4-5]).

Such complex and potent portraits of wisdom as a woman do not end with Proverbs. Sages would redraw her for generations to come. Wisdom becomes identified in Judaism with Torah (Bar 3:9-4:4, Sir 24:23-34) and in Wisdom of Solomon she is the “spirit of Sophia,” the breath of the power of God (Wis 7:7-10:18). Kabbalistic writings of medieval Judaism drew on depictions of her to portray the Shekhinah, the female element of the divinity, as did the Talmud and midrash to depict Knesseth Yisra’el, the personification of the community of Israel. Early Christians described the person and work of Jesus Christ using language and imagery associated with wisdom (for example, John 1:1-18, Col 1:15-20, Heb 1:1-3). And some theologians evoke her to describe the Holy Spirit. In short, personified wisdom—who first takes her stand in Proverbs—strides with increasing boldness across time, texts, and testaments, captivating the imaginations of many and taking on a robust life of her own.

  • Christine Roy Yoder

    Christine Roy Yoder is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and serves as professor of Old Testament language, literature, and exegesis at Columbia Theological Seminary. She is the author of Wisdom as a Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 1-9 and 31:10-31 (de Gruyter, 2001) and Proverbs (Abingdon, 2009), in addition to many articles and chapters in books.