Over the summer, the lectionary has offered us multiple excerpts from biblical wisdom literature. We read of the Holy Wisdom of God as both the creating and governing principle of the universe, and the guiding force of human life. We noticed the themes of vice and righteousness, friendship, marriage and choice of spouse, decision making, life priorities, child rearing, illness, acceptance of suffering, eternal life, and death. These fit into the overarching Biblical framework of embracing a covenantal relationship with God -- the main concern of the prophets, and of Jesus’ own teachings. But, one might notice that sapiential witings give more a philosophical tone to this concern, and tend to emphasize consistently that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”.
How this is accomplished, of course, differs across the many texts that comprise the tradition and utilize a range of literary devices including aphorisms, poems, oracles, discourses, and parables. The English word “proverb” that gives the title to what is likely the most famous wisdom text stands for the Hebrew mashal, only as an imperfect equivalent. Much of the book does include rules for living and supporting examples. But, the text is also allegorical, and includes two stand-alone poems that personify Wisdom. Similar personifications appear throughout sapiential literature,in three categories: 1) prophetic, where Lady Wisdom guides us to herself and, thereby, to God; 2) mystical, where she stood beside God -- was God! -- at Creation, or constitutes God’s breath and power; and 3) human, where she is a lover and wife. Specifically in Prov, ch. 1 – 9 is devoted to the first two types of personifications, and the epilogue in the final ch. 31 gives her a definitively human portrait. The two, of course, complement each other.
First, as a prophet, Lady Wisdom sets the table with bread and wine, and invites us to attend her wedding feast. Yet, as we read last week, she also warns us of what happens if we don’t embrace the fear -- or loving respect -- of the Lord. Second, wisdom is directly identified with God, which we haven’t yet had a chance to explore too closely; but recall that earlier in the summer, we noted striking parallels between biblical references to Lady Wisdom and Christ himself. Finally, the poem we read today grounds the prophetic and heavenly Lady Wisdom in describing her daily, earthly life, and refers to her as a “capable (virtuous, ideal) wife”, or a “wife of noble character”.
This woman of the Epilogue to Prov. embodies real practical and business wisdom. As this poem is, in fact, an acrostic, in which every line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, we may as well say that she does so “from aleph to tav” (i.e., from A to Z… or from alpha to omega, as Jesus does!). Yet apparently, it does not even cover the entire range of ancient Israelite women’s responsibilities! So, perhaps, the acrostic shows us something even greater. Consider the similarities in the book of Prov. between this specifically earthly expression of wisdom, and the more metaphysical references to heavenly Sophia: both women are difficult to find and more precious than jewels; manage a house and staff; provide food, security, and valuable fruit; known at the city gates and bring honor to their partners; strong physically and morally; help the needy, laugh, teach; and of course, inspire the “fear of the LORD”. Clearly, there’s no task on earth that is too small or base that it doesn’t need to be done wisely. We tend to dream of lofty achievements and consider our jobs too menial, but in the words of Gandhi, “Whatever you do will be insignificant; but it is very important that you do it because you can't know the meaning of your life”.
What's important though? Why is this ability to provide for your household considered an epitome of wisdom, and therefore a link to a meaningful life, especially for a woman? Here she is called chayil, the word also applied in the Bible to speak of male warriors, in which cases it gets translated as “valorous” or “strong”. Most of us appreciate that it does take considerable strength of mind and spirit to encounter daily challenges of running a household, while also balancing it with participation in the public sphere of life. But aside from inspiring the “fear of the Lord”, at the end of the day, isn’t it all just “vanity” (Ecc 1:2), as another well-known sapiential text asserts?
The biography of the Teacher -- Qoheleth in Hebrew, and Ecclesiastes in Greek -- an auto-biography, perhaps, as along with the book of Prov, this text is traditionally (though unlikely) attributed to Solomon. The Teacher’s description of himself as a successful man -- and that unencumbered by false modesty! -- seems to mirror that of the capable wife: “I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil.” (2:4-11) The harem and slaves are, of course, problematic, but what’s key is that the sage admits that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow” (1:18). The sorrow is in the realization that in heaven, there’s no room for anything material we work so hard to achieve; it is all to be handed over to a successor, who might be even less wise than we are (and in this, history proved Solomon right).
As depressing as this sounds, let us not be discouraged. Solomon finally realizes the true antidote to the perception of life’s meaninglessness: “remember your Creator” (12:1). This bit of wisdom is precious, but it’s not that hard to find. That’s where Jesus’ wisdom comes in. Simply, “be like the little one”: admit that when it comes to the knowledge of “the things unseen” we are but children, even those of us who’ve got great command of “the things that are seen”. Solomon’s great testimony about his own need for prayer is found not in Eccl., which we read so often and out of context, but in the 6-7th chapter of the Wis of Sol, where his persona comes across extremely humbly. This passage, I leave to you as “homework”, along with this question: if you were to compose a prayer for the specific sorts of wisdom that you need, what would you include in your request?
Remember him [your Creator]—before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. (Eccl. 12:6-7)