Wising Up to Lady Wisdom
The Book of Wisdom (sometimes called the Wisdom of Solomon) doesn’t mention any women by name. (You can find the Book of Wisdom in the Apocrypha of Protestant Bibles or in the Deuterocanon of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles.) What it does do, however, is refer to Wisdom, in concept, as a feminine entity.
In the Christian sense, wisdom isn’t the same as truth or knowledge. Wisdom isn’t just intellectual insight or book learning, either. Wisdom is the ability to make good judgments. A wise person doesn’t have to be the most intelligent or the most accurate but does have to be someone who knows what to do with the knowledge he or she has, where to find more, and how to apply it. The author of the Book of Wisdom underscores the connection of wisdom with righteousness.
The personification of Wisdom
The Bible, of course, is a collection of different books, by different authors, in different places and times, with different narrative formats. Besides the historical narrative of straight storytelling, the Bible also includes various literary devices, including the following:
- Personification: Attributing personal qualities and characteristics to abstract ideas or inanimate objects
- Allegory: Using symbolic fictional figures to represent abstract concepts
- Metaphor: Using an implied comparison between objects or events to indicate an analogous relationship
- Typology: Usingthe Christian doctrine that says that events and people in the Old Testament prefigure the events, particularly the coming of Christ, in the New Testament
The Book of Wisdom uses personification. In this case, wisdom is spoken of as a woman, even beyond using simple feminine grammatical endings. The Hebrew word chakmah, like its Greek (sophia) and Latin (sapientia) equivalents, is a noun with feminine gender. Even outside the Book of Wisdom, this device is employed — Proverbs 1–9 not only uses the word wisdom but also speaks of wisdom as if it’s a she.
- “The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her” (Wisdom 6:17).
- “I will tell you what wisdom is and how she came to be, and I will hide no secrets from you, but I will trace her course from the beginning of creation, and make knowledge of her clear, and I will not pass by the truth” (Wisdom 6:22).
- “For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things” (Wisdom 7:24).
- “With you is wisdom, she who knows your works and was present when you made the world; she understands what is pleasing in your sight and what is right according to your commandments” (Wisdom 9:9).
- “Wisdom rescued from troubles those who served her” (Wisdom 10:9).
Wisdom is called the “fashioner of all things” (Wisdom 7:22). She has a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, humane, steadfast, sure, and free from anxiety (Wisdom 7:22–23). She is easily found and quickly recognized. She swiftly goes to anyone who earnestly seeks her.
Why the alluring image?
Wisdom is presented as more than an abstract concept like justice. By personifying wisdom as a woman, the abstract idea becomes more immediate and attainable. And the description, beautiful and poetic as it is, makes Lady Wisdom someone you want to know and know well. As described, wisdom becomes someone whose company you enjoy and look forward to. She is approachable to anyone and everyone. The goodness of your heart and purity of your spirit — not your I.Q. — is what attracts wisdom. The desire and resolve to do what is right and just in the eyes of God are the first steps toward wisdom that anyone and everyone can take, if they so choose.
Deciphering biblical intentions
Wisdom is portrayed as a lady— a woman of social status, refinement, charm, and wit. But why? Some Bible scholars believe that the feminine is used because in ancient Old Testament times many women weren’t taught to read and write as were their male counterparts. Knowledge, especially gained through reading, was described in masculine terms, whereas wisdom, which wasn’t derived from book knowledge but from experience and from communication with God, was described in feminine terms because women had access to wisdom even if many of them were illiterate. Other scholars propose that the “lady” terminology is a literary device to depict wisdom as an honorable, noble, beautiful, elegant, and cultured object in itself while using a personification technique to give some intimacy to wisdom as well. But the Bible never actually explains why wisdom is portrayed as a lady, just that it does.
Although a few contemporary authors have proposed some controversial theories, like the idea that Lady Wisdom is the feminine side of God, most accredited scripture scholars offer a deeper reason why wisdom is referred to as a feminine concept. God is a pure spirit, unlike human beings, who are body and soul. Our sexuality and gender are a part of who we are because they’re important components of our physical makeup. God, however, is neither male nor female, neither masculine nor feminine (Galatians 3:28). Wisdom can’t be the feminine side of God. Neither is wisdom a goddess to parallel God the Father, as believe some philosophies. If not a deity, then who is wisdom? Here are some ideas that scholars have proposed:
- Wisdom as described in the Book of Solomon is a type of lady suitable to become the bride of an equally honorable, virtuous, intelligent, and respected groom. (Type refers to someone or something in the Old Testament that prefigures someone or something in the New Testament.) Who’s the lucky guy? Christ. Wisdom was intended to be the image of the future bride of Christ — the Christian church. The image of Christ as groom and of the church as his bride is first used by Paul and later by many of the fathers and doctors of the church. In this scenario, wisdom is united to Christ but distinct and separate from him. Wisdom is considered created by God and endowed with the highest authority and respect.
- The Gnostic sect of the ancient church did in fact deify wisdom to the level of a goddess, or at least a demigod. For Gnostics, salvation was secret knowledge (gnosis in Greek), which only the few and elite could possess. Logos (Greek for “word” and often used in reference to Christ as the Word of God) and sophia (Greek for “wisdom”) were seen as complementary powers that only the learned could appreciate.
- Wisdom is a type (biblical prefigure) of the Holy Spirit, which is revealed only in the New Testament. The Holy Spirit gives the gift of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to the apostles at Pentecost.
- Lady Wisdom is a type (biblical prefigure) of the Virgin Mary, who becomes intimately connected to the Logos, the Word, often used to identify Christ: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”(John 1:14).
Christ is given the name Logos, which denotes knowledge of truth: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Wisdom (sophia) is a little different, however, because it’s considered the bride of the Word made flesh, or Jesus Christ.
Bride and bridegroom is an image used heavily in the Bible, not just at a realistic level, as in the case of Adam and Eve, but also in the typological sense. For example, the relationship between God and the Hebrews — the “Chosen People” — is described as a spousal union. Even when the people become unfaithful by experimenting with idolatry, the covenant is not dissolved, and the union is intact. Later, when Paul uses the same image, both bride and groom are portrayed as faithful partners in this covenant of love. Similarly, the Word and Wisdom are faithful partners — the ultimate biblical bride and groom.