Job and Woman Wisdom by Amy Erickson

Woman Wisdom appears in the book of Proverbs, where she plays a variety of roles: good wife, desirable sex partner, preacher, prophet, and even an aspect of God's self. Although she is not explicitly present in the book of Job, echoes of Woman Wisdom appear in God’s speeches to Job.

But who is Woman Wisdom? Even regular Bible readers are often surprised to learn of her existence. She is not a “real” woman or even a literary character on the model of Ruth or Esther; rather, Woman Wisdom is the feminine personification of wisdom. The authors of Proverbs, who were teachers of wisdom, presented the abstract idea of wisdom in terms their young male students would find compelling—women. In Prov 1-9, a father figure encourages his son to pursue Wisdom because if he acquires “her,” he will gain all sorts of advantages, including wealth, health, status, divine favor, and a life of sexual bliss. Although men “created” Woman Wisdom as a teaching tool to socialize boys, it is significant that they granted a feminine figure such tremendous authority and presented her as leading people to God through her teaching and wise ways.

In an extraordinary speech in Prov 8:22-31, Woman Wisdom claims to have been present with God during the creation of the world. Echoes of this creation speech in Prov 8 reverberate in God’s first speech to Job (Job 38). The theme of wisdom, along with images of chaos, birth, and order in creation, pervade both speeches. Comparing the creation and birth imageries in Prov 8 and Job 38 highlights the differences between the worldviews each represents.

In Proverbs, Woman Wisdom speaks of her birth and origins repeatedly but enigmatically: “I was set up” (or “knit together,” Prov 8:23) and “I was born” (Prov 8:24, Prov 8:25). Although Woman Wisdom does not say precisely who gave birth to her, she does present God as intimately involved in her creation. She emphasizes that God created her as “the first of God’s acts” (Prov 8:22). In this speech, God is present during her birth but not explicitly active in it.

While Proverbs presents a feminine figure as intimately associated with God during creation, Job applies that feminine element of creation more directly to God. In God’s speech in Job 40:19 God claims that “the first of the great acts of God” was creating not Woman Wisdom but the frightening mythological beast Behemoth. Further, in Job 38:8-11, it is the sea’s birth that takes center stage. And God takes a more active parental role, acting as midwife in the sea’s birth, swaddling it like a baby and disciplining it. Applied to the sea, this divine nurturing imagery is unique because the Hebrew Bible typically associates the sea with chaos and disorder.

In God’s speeches in Job, however, God questions Job’s firsthand knowledge about the world’s origins (“Where were you…?” Job 38:4), and the creation of humanity is altogether absent. In fact, these orations culminate by celebrating the mythological sea creature Leviathan, who, like the sea, symbolizes chaos. Both Proverbs and Job depict God as intricately crafting the world, but the Joban environment is less accommodating to humanity.

Proverbs’ Woman Wisdom, speaking as an eyewitness to God’s creative process (“I was there,” Prov 8:27), paints a stable and serene landscape. God marks out clear boundaries between the sea and the rest of creation. Humanity appears at the climactic moment of the poem (Prov 8:31). In such a world, humans can thrive.

Amy Erickson, "Job and Woman Wisdom", n.p. [cited 19 Nov 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/job-and-woman-wisdom

Contributors

Amy Erickson

Amy Erickson
Assistant Professor, Iliff School of Theology

Amy Erickson is assistant professor of Hebrew Bible at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. Her dissertation explores the metaphor of God as enemy in Job's speeches. Erickson has written articles on Job, the Psalms, Zechariah, and Amos. She is a regular contributor to workingpreacher.org and the Huffington Post ON Scripture. She is currently working on a commentary on the book of Jonah for a new series, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans, entitled Illuminations.  

The personification of Wisdom as a woman in the book of Proverbs.

Absence of order. In the ancient Near East, chaos was believed to precede and surround the order of the known world.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

Caring, kind, supporting the flourishing of another.

Application of human-like qualities to a concept, object, or nonhuman being; also called "anthropomorphizing."

Any method or excercise used in teaching.

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