©2014 by Charles Strohmer
In the previous post, we looked at one of two instances in Proverbs 8 that are noteworthy for understanding the wisdom norm of human mutuality and that raise urgent questions about why we limit the reach of wisdom to some people but not to others. Here we will look at the second instance. The passage is remarkable in its implications.
Wisdom, again speaking in the first person, reveals: 1) her presence with God before the process of creation, (2) her presence during the process of creation, and 3) her presence in the inhabitable world among human beings.
I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. . . . I was there when he [God] set the heavens in place . . . when he gave the sea its boundaries . . . when he marked out the foundations of the earth. . . . I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in [all] mankind [bene ‘adam] (8:25-31).
Among scholars, this may be the most debated passage in all of the wisdom literature. We’re not going into that debate here, but it does seem safe to conclude that the creative task wasn’t any sort of drudgery! The image is one of the great joy that Lady Wisdom had in God and in creation, and in the great delight she took in human beings. How contrary this is to some words from Hamlet on the subject. Having just brilliantly praised man as “the quintessence of dust” – How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! How like an angel! How like a god! – he suddenly turns and declares with disgust, “Man delights me not.” Apparently he was in a bit of a blue funk in that scene. But whatever else the passage in Proverbs conveys, it is not Hamlet’s view.
But what we really need to see is that, in the text, wisdom is being depicted as both personal and relational: to God; to creation; to human beings. In other words, wisdom is not being presented here as any sort of abstract idea, or abstract entity, or as ideological, or as any sort of -ism but, rather, as personal and relational. Again, there is no scholarly consensus on just what this means, and this short post is not the place to start down that road. Ontological difficulties aside, the fact remains that wisdom is portrayed with an otherness that is somehow both personal and relational to God, to all of creation, and to all humankind.
I like the way Hebrew scholar Alan Lenzi puts it. When discussing Proverbs 8, Lenzi writes that wisdom is a personality; she is a “me” (Proverbs 8:22) who speaks at length in her own name, about having been created by God before the beginning of the world, about her primacy in nature, and about her delight in all human life. Lenzi concludes that wisdom is no “intellectual tool or abstract instrument.” She is, instead, a “personal presence” in the world. (Lenzi, “Proverbs 8:22-31: Three Perspectives on Its Composition,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125, no. 4, 2006: 687-714; his emphasis.)
It is both assumed and repeatedly indicted throughout the biblical wisdom literature, in a wealth of images and contexts, that wisdom has a personal relational presence with all human beings, with all of creation, and with God. Because of this strong emphasis, I have summarized this in my writings, elsewhere, as the “wisdom norm of relations.”
It is also important to grasp the kind of mutuality that is being implied in the text. It is not, for instance, uniformity. Neither are human distinctions considered illusory. Nor is the text indicating that human diversity is in a process of being eliminated, such as by being subsumed into a universal sameness. Rather, paradoxically, one might even say miraculously, the text indicates a oneness of humanity in its diversity, and that she, Lady Wisdom, is God’s agency (means) for handling that. Human difference and diversity is a good and praiseworthy thing.
In other words, because wisdom is a vital agency in the holding together and sustaining of a multifarious, variform earth, she is also a vital agency supporting the good, creational unity-in-diversity of human life. As a huge fan of human mutuality, not of uniformity or sameness, wisdom delights in “all humanity” (Proverbs 8:4, 16, 31; 9:4).
As an aside, and although I’m not a expert on the Qur’an, it seems somewhat to correspond in at least two places to the good unity-in-diversity being depicted in the Proverbs 8 text. Surah 5:48, for instance, reads: “Had Allah willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works.” And Surah 49:13: “We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another” (Pickthall’s translation). (If I’m amiss in recognizing this correspondence, someone say why.)
In the next post we will look at ways in which Jesus and the New Testament affirm the wisdom tradition’s norm of human mutuality.