Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to you about the Holy Spirit, and how the word in Greek for Spirit is pneuma – a word, which, like it’s Hebrew equivalent, ruach, means both “spirit” and “breath”.  And I told you that because, as this word in Greek is in the feminine case, it would be quite appropriate to speak of the Spirit in feminine terms; to pray, for example, that the Spirit remake us in her own image, rather than in “his” image.  And in today’s reading from The Book of Proverbs, we have another word – Wisdom – which, in Greek, is also rendered in the feminine form as Sophia.

Now, anyone who has been fortunate enough to travel to Istanbul – formerly Constantinople – will be aware that perhaps the greatest of the many wonders of that city is the magnificent building that used to be known as the hagia sophia – that is, the Church of the Holy Wisdom.  And in the hymn which we sang just before the Scripture Readings, in the last verse it characterised the Trinity as Wisdom, Love, Might.[1] So in these two examples, we have evidence of a personification of Wisdom within Christian spirituality; one which, whilst it might not often occur, is nonetheless present and replete with perhaps surprising possibilities.

But where does this tradition of the Holy Wisdom come from? What role does it play in our life of faith, and how can it aid us in our understanding of God?

To begin our exploration, I’d like to draw your attention to what is arguably the most fcreationamous and easily recognised painting in the history of Christian art: Michelangelo’s Creation, which is in the Sistine Chapel.  Most people tend to focus on the very centre of the picture – which is what Michelangelo intended us to do – and hone in on the narrow space between the outstretched hand of God and that of humanity, personified in Adam.  This point of almost-contact is the point at which the Spirit – the breath, ruach, pneuma – of God is poured into human life, giving it life – literally, animating humanity.

But there’s another aspect of this painting that I’d like you to examine.  If you move to the right hand side of the painting, you see God surrounded by angels, all of whom are creation detaildepicted as the cherubic children, which was typical of the Renaissance period. But look at the figure who is right next to God, and around whom God has God’s arm.  That figure is clearly not a child or a cherubic angel; it is clearly a woman.  And the fact that God’s arm is around this woman suggests a degree of intimacy, of relationship between the two.  But it is also suggestive of the fact that the woman is in some way supporting or helping God in the act of creation.  And some scholars believe this figure represents sophia, the Holy Wisdom after whom the famous basilica is named.  And they suggest it might possibly be an allusion to the Wisdom figure mentioned in today’s reading from Proverbs.[2]

Now, the Book of Proverbs is one of the most ancient parts of the Bible.  Although as a text it probably wasn’t written down until the period of the Exile or shortly thereafter[3], its roots stretch back into the distant past.  Those who study the history of human language and literature know that so-called “wisdom literature” – a genre to which Proverbs belongs – is probably the most ancient form of human literature.[4]  And so the Book of Proverbs as we have it today stretches back into a folkloric past that has its roots in deep history, before writing – possibly even before the invention of civilisation itself.

Today’s reading comes from a section of The Book of Proverbs that is traditionally attributed to Solomon.  We know that in Hebrew tradition, Solomon was the paradigm of a wise king, the archetype of sovereign wisdom. And in just the same way as the first five books from the Hebrew Scriptures – the Law – are traditionally attributed to Moses, so wisdom literature – and in particular, the section of proverbs from which today’s reading comes – is attributed to Solomon.[5]  And for much of Proverbs, it follows the pattern of an address to a young man who is given a choice between two female personifications: on the one hand, Lady or Woman Wisdom; and, on the other, Lady Folly – although the original Hebrew translates more accurately as “the strange woman”.[6]  And the choices which the young man makes will determine his fate: blessing and abundance, or misfortune and disaster.

Clearly we are talking about a text that is the product of a patriarchal society. We are also talking about a society in which a retribution/consequentialist theology prevails.[7] So there are obvious aspects of today’s reading from Proverbs which, from the perspective of modernity, are highly problematic. Which then raises the question: what is the point of today’s reading? Why has the Lectionary included it in the readings for Trinity Sunday? What is its relevance for us today?

To begin, there’s the figure of Wisdom herself.  As already mentioned, this is a tradition and a personification which, while it might not be terribly conspicuous, nonetheless persists within Christian spirituality today.  And yet this tradition and personification seem to exist apart from the way we speak about the Trinity: we speak of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  So what connection does Wisdom have to a Christian understanding of God?

Note how, in today’s reading, Wisdom declares that she was the first created of God and existed with God before all other things were made, before even the primordial waters from which creation itself arose.  Which is, of course, strongly reminiscent of the prologue from The Gospel According to John, when the author of that Gospel declares: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.[8]  Except, of course, that John uses the masculine logos, or “Word”, and not the feminine sophia, “Wisdom”. Why is a matter of scholarly dispute.  Some scholars think this transition from sophia to logos represents a replacement or even suppression of feminine imagery of the divine in the early church, possibly as a consequence of the problematic nature of the declaration in today’s reading that Wisdom was created by God[9]: a key dispute in the early church was whether or not Jesus was divine, and if so, was he created and therefore a lesser divinity than the Creator-God. The replacement of sophia with logos may represent an adjustment that was made when the early church concluded that Jesus, the Son, was divine and begotten of God – or, as the Nicene Creed says, begotten of the Father.  Other scholars believe the solution lies within Judaism itself: that the personification of Wisdom was an echo of a feature of popular piety within ancient Hebrew spirituality – that is, the spirituality embraced by ordinary people outside the formal theology of the Jerusalem Temple.  And this popular piety might have depicted or imagined YHWH as having a female consort, one who helped undertake the act of creation[10].

Whatever the case may be, we are confronted by the fact that different parts of the Bible keep apparently referencing one another, throwing back and forth unlikely connections that give us pause for thought.  We’ve seen one such between today’s reading from Proverbs and The Gospel According to John.  And we see another in today’s reading and the opening chapters of Genesis.

We tend to think that creation narratives are only found in Genesis – but we are wrong.  There are numerous creation narratives in the Hebrew Scriptures: when God appears to Job out of the whirlwind, for example, and lays before him the whole of the universe; and in Psalm 8, which we’ve also heard today, when the Psalmist marvels at the wonders of creation.  And the same is true of today’s narrative from Proverbs, in which the Creator creates a fellow-worker in the labour of creation.  And that, of course, is strongly reminiscent of the passage in Genesis in which Eve is created from Adam in order to be his helpmate in the work of tending to the creation that God had wrought.  Which, as noted above, was problematic for the early church as it struggled to respond to the question: “Who was this person Jesus?”, and which may therefore have resulted in the feminine sophia being replaced with the masculine logos.[11]

And how does all this fascinating, interesting background speak to us today – especially as 21st Century Christians who may not accept either the patriarchal social background to Proverbs, or the retribution theology by which it is underpinned? It seems to me there are four ways in which today’s passage speaks powerfully and relevantly to us today.  The first is a note of caution: we cannot simplistically transpose the images and notions within the Hebrew Scriptures and appropriate them for the purposes of Christian theology.[12]  The Hebrew Scriptures are not a mere precursor to the Christian Scriptures: they stand within their own integrity and complexity, and Christians must treat them with the respect which this reality demands.  The second is that all creative, generative acts are joyous acts.  Ask any person who has produced a work of art or completed a difficult task or brought a life into the world, and they will speak of the profound satisfaction, the sense of accomplished joy by which such occasions are accompanied.  Today’s reading from Proverbs reverberates with joy: Wisdom declares that God delighted in her work and in creation. And the passage which the NRSV translates as Wisdom describing herself as a “master worker” is, in the original Hebrew, ambiguous: it could also be translated as Wisdom described as a small child, which more closely resonates with the child-like joy with which this passage is imbued[13]. Even the smallest creative act rings with joy; and God shares this joy with us.  We are linked to God through creativity.

The third way in which today’s reading speaks to us is in the sense of God’s presence in human life. Wisdom is depicted as standing at the gates of the city, calling out to passers-by to heed her advice and follow her ways.  And in this rather mundane image we have an encapsulation of what the life of faith demands of us all: attention to the will of God through an intentional life of discipleship. A life of daily and constant engagement with God, in which we allow our hearts and minds to be open and receptive to God’s call on our lives.[14]  This will not make us perfect or prevent us from being human in all the ways that humans are mistake-prone and subject to their particular points of brokenness.  But it will enable us to walk genuinely with God, to return sincerely and contritely to ways of being that affirm the dignity of our humanity as beings created in God’s likeness and image.  Perhaps that aspect of ourselves which most people inchoately call their “conscience” is, in fact, the sophia, the Wisdom of God calling to us to live more abundantly, more intentionally with God.

The fourth and final point revolves around the notion of connectivity.  Everything is connected: through the creative capacity and joy that God shares with humanity; and through the ever-present call of God in our lives. Creation is not a conglomeration of isolated phenomena; our connection to God through creation connects us to one another as participants in creation.  Therefore, everything we do has consequences. Not in the sense of the retribution theology by which Proverbs is underpinned; rather, in the sense that all of creation is interconnected, therefore nothing we do occurs in isolation.  And as a nation which is presently in the midst of an election campaign that will decide who our future government will be, this notion of connectivity is critical. As a community of faith, we need to set aside our individual political preferences, because there is no monopoly of wisdom on left or right or centre.  Rather, as a people conscious of our being embedded in creation, and the interconnectivity of creation, we are called to scrutinise the policies and promises which our prospective leaders make in order to ascertain if they have a sense of the interconnectivity of all things.  We need to discern whether those who would lead have an understanding of the impact of their policies and promises – which, in a world increasingly beset by the reality and consequences of climate change, there is no more important imperative.  For our interconnectedness in this case stems, not just to ourselves in the present, but to future generations as well.[15]

 

Ultimately, what Wisdom does today is call upon us to think, to practice and not merely talk about discernment.    Politics is the obvious example; but the call applies to everyday life.  And despite the reservations we might hold about Proverbs’ social background or theological underpinnings, this ancient text articulates our connection to God in creation, Cruciform Shape of Loveand our obligation to utilise discernment because of our connection to one another through creation.  And the shape in which this discernment and practice comes is the cruciform shape of love: of the Spirit that is operative in both directions between God and humanity; and, latitudinally, which operates through Wisdom between human beings.  And the fulcrum and grounding of this shape is Christ. Wisdom may not be at the forefront of our minds as 21st century Christians, but in the cruciform shape of love, we see the fundamental Wisdom that is grounded in the essential Christian understanding of God as Triune, as a Trinity of love which is operative in all the world, and which calls on us to do and be the same.

[1] Lord, Your Almighty Word. Music adapted from Felice Giardini (1716-96); words by John Marriott (1780-1825)

[2] Wallace, Howard “Year C: Trinity Sunday – Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31”. Located at http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/OrdinaryC/TrinityProv8.html, accessed 20.5.16

[3] Ibid.

[4]Coogan, Michael D, A Brief Introduction To The Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible In Its Context.  Second Edition.  New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, p.381

[5] Wallace, Howard, op. cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Brueggemann, Walter “First Sunday After Pentecost/Trinity Sunday”. On Scripture – The Bible, located at http://www.onscripture.com/walter-brueggemann-wisdom, accessed 20.5.16

[9] Wallace, Howard, op. cit.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Brueggemann, Walter. op. cit.

[15] Ibid.

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