Third Place
Student Essays in Christian Wisdom Competition

The eighth annual Student Essays in Christian Wisdom Competition attracted 19 papers from nine Anglican seminaries and university divinity schools in the United States, Canada, and England.

Rebecca Bridges Watts of Seminary of the Southwest took the top prize with her paper, “‘They are no less capable of our Christianity’: 16th-century Catholic Missions in Indigenous Cultural Contexts,” which TLC was pleased to publish in its Oct. 8 edition.

Second place — Edward Watson, Yale Divinity School: “Seeking Wisdom in the Spaces of Schism: How Hooker and Coleridge’s Accounts of Reason Can Support Christian Unity.”

Third place — Martin Geiger, Virginia Theological Seminary: “History, Theology, and Mediation: Wisdom’s Female Character in Proverbs 1-9.”

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We are grateful to the judges of this year’s competition: the Rev. Matthew Burdette, curate for student ministry at Church of the Good Shepherd, Dallas; the Rev. Zachary Guiliano, associate editor of TLC; the Rev. Beth Maynard, rector of Emmanuel Memorial Church, Champaign, Illinois; and the Rev. Katherine Sonderegger, William Meade Chair in Systematic Theology, Virginia Theological Seminary.

By Martin Geiger

The figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 1-9 is one of the most distinctive aspects of the wisdom tradition in part because it is personified as a woman. Proverbs describes her as a woman who is both public and powerful — calling out in the streets, teaching the (presumably male) child who is being addressed by Proverbs, and even declaring her presence with God during creation. As a distinctly feminine image claiming an intimate relationship with God, she is a particularly attractive target for feminist analysis. At the same time, she sits within a strongly patriarchal text, within a frame narrative of a father educating his son. Carol Newsom’s quip that Proverbs 1-9 is “a father talking to his son, mostly about women” suggests that the text’s feminist potential is much more limited.[1] There are multiple ways of thinking about the female figure of Wisdom, but two in particular offer possibilities that move past the divide between straightforward celebration and reduction to another voice of patrirarchy. One is to examine the historical background of Israelite women, asking if the roles Wisdom plays can be connected to anything in what can be reconstructed of their lives, or if the figure is completely disconnected from women’s lived experiences. Another is to examine the complications of the divides the text appears to set up, between Woman Wisdom and the “Strange Woman,” and between human and divine, reading Wisdom as speaking in multiple registers and voices rather than just one. While neither technique can fully resolve the question of Woman Wisdom’s feminist potential, both Wisdom’s connections to women’s lives and her multivalence as a symbol allow her to be a symbol that brings the complex position of the feminine in close proximity to the divine.

Although there is a long history of scholarly interest in the female figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 1-9, Claudia Camp notes that much of the early work was limited to looking for similar figures elsewhere in Near Eastern religion as possible sources. Camp suggests that while this may offer possible explanations for the origin of Wisdom as a female figure, it has tended to distance that figure from the larger picture of Israelite theology.[2] In contrast to that, her own work is an effort to ask what a female Wisdom might mean both in the context of the Proverbs collection and for Israelite theology more broadly. Her conclusions focus in part on the role of Wisdom as a mediator, functioning as the primary or even only point of contact between God and humankind.[3] For Camp, Wisdom serves as a substitute for the king, absent from Israel after the exile, and the female imagery of Proverbs is a particularly effective response to the nature of the Israelite situation in the post-exilic period, particularly as a figure which can suggest the working of power through subtlety and indirection.[4] While this reading of Wisdom as a mediating figure does not ignore its placement within a patriarchal text, it does point to the power and centrality of female imagery for the post-exilic period’s grapplings with how to think about their relationship to God.

In contrast to a Camp’s focus on wisdom as a mediating figure that crosses boundaries, Carol Newsom reads Woman Wisdom as a female extension of the patriarchal voice. She notes that the text of Proverbs 1-9 is presented as the words of a father to a son, and that the speeches of personified Wisdom share the same views and voice as the father figure.[5] She notes particularly the role of the Strange Woman as an earthy and dangerous contrast to the exalted and transcendent Wisdom. Newsom reads both figures as being on the boundary of the patriarchal symbolic order, one “the gate of Sheol, and the other the gate of heaven,” and as establishing between them the limits of that system.[6] The exalted imagery of the female Wisdom, Newsom argues, anchors her in the transcendent, sitting with God somewhere distant from humanity. This reminder of the patriarchal background out of which the female Wisdom imagery springs serves to suggest distance between Woman Wisdom and the lived experiences of Israelite women.

The distance between Camp and Newsom’s evaluations of the value of the female Wisdom for feminist interpretation reflects the difficulty of making sense of an exalted female figure in a patriarchal text. One way of moving past that divide is to look at the roles of women in ancient Israel in relationship to personified Wisdom. Silvia Schroer makes an effort at this by looking at Wisdom’s role as a counselor in Proverbs, and finding a history of women playing that role.[7] Her citations of “wise women,” wives and mothers playing counseling roles to the monarchy suggest a experiential basis for the Wisdom who says “By me kings reign” in the lives of at least a few Israelite women (Proverbs 8:15 NRSV). The mentions of mothers as teachers within the text of Proverbs (1:8, 6:20) add to the sense of historical reality behind the portrayal of Wisdom as a counselor and teacher.[8] In the context of the redaction of Proverbs in the post-exilic period, Schroer can further suggest that the symbol of Wisdom can move beyond that of counselor. Because both the king and the (male) court counselors are absent in the post-exilic period, the position formerly occupied by the king can now be taken by wisdom herself, moving from the position of counselor to a more directly monarchical position.[9] While this theological move does not disentangle personified Wisdom from the patriarchal structures identified by Newsom, it does point to the reality of female voices that held positions of influence within that system, and suggests that the post-exilic period offers an opportunity for the symbolic system to change in response to the changed political system.

Christine Roy Yoder offers another effort to connect Woman Wisdom to the reality of women’s lives in her socioeconomic reading of the passage together with the Woman of Substance of Proverbs 31.[10] She notes that both figures are presented as suitable women to marry, and that their placement at the beginning and end of Proverbs suggests that they can be read as converging into a single figure.[11] By reading the Woman Wisdom in light of the that connection, she can point to a close connection of Woman Wisdom to material wealth and political power. Her attention to the vocabulary of Proverbs 1-9 notes that Wisdom is presented as a figure to be pursued in marriage, because she makes her pursuers wealthy, filling “storehouse-treasuries” for those who love her.[12] Yoder suggests that Wisdom is given specificity as a Woman of Substance, with details drawn from the experiences of Israelite women of the Persian period. Like Schroer’s readings, this serves to connect the figure of Wisdom to the lives of at least a few actual Israelite women, suggesting that Woman Wisdom is not simply a restatement of patriarchal values in a different voice, but an image of the potential for women to hold at least some measure of economic and political power.

These connections of Woman Wisdom to historical realities suggest some possibilities for complicating the understanding of Wisdom’s place in the text in relation to the transcedent/immanent divide. While Newsom points primarily to Woman Wisdom as an exercise in binaries, the relation of Wisdom to both concrete historical realities and a transcendent theology of creation can instead suggest that Wisdom can serve as a mediating figure across those binaries. Gerlinde Baumann suggests that the post exilic period created a sense of distance between God and humanity within Israelite theology, and encouraged expressions of doubt about humans’ ability to comprehend God’s plans, as in Qoheleth and Job.[13] Wisdom, personified as a woman and presented as a teacher, became a way of offering access to God in a new way, even if the knowledge Wisdom offered was theologically consistent with older traditions. If the most pressing problem of the post-exilic period was “the question of how YHWH’s world order can be valid in times of injustice,” Wisdom answers through her speech in Proverbs 8 as a witness to the existence of divine order.[14] Wisdom’s presence at Creation becomes both a claim of her presence with a transcendent God, and a way of offering access to that transcendence through a specifically human term. What grounds and gives credibility to Woman Wisdom’s role as witness to creation is the historical role of women as counsellors suggested by Schroer. The reality of those roles make Wisdom more than simply a symbol that happens to be feminine, but a persona that draws on the memory of women who really did witness to the doings of power. Wisdom is thus not tied solely to the term of the transcendent God, but brings to her presence with God a grounding in the ordinary social experience of the post-exilic period. Her presence with God recalls that of a counselor to a monarch, while her address to humans as “my children” recalls the role of the mother as a teaching authority (Proverbs 8:32 NRSV).

The role of Wisdom as mediator also suggests a new way of looking at the divide between Wisdom and the Strange Woman that Proverbs sets up. Baumann notes that some of the elements assigned to the strange woman, particularly her cunning, can be found within wisdom traditions more broadly despite their ethical dubiousness.[15] While the separation of the two figures Proverbs 1-9 may allow it to sidestep the ethical ambiguities of the wisdom tradition, of Wisdom, it suggests that the “Strange Woman” cannot be entirely separated from Woman Wisdom as though they are simply opposites. Supporting that reading of the two figures, Camp cites some close connections in the language describing the two figures as part of her reading of Proverbs as offering a “literary unity” between them.[16] For Camp, the connections and confusions of the two figures suggest a relationship to good and evil more complex than surface readings of Proverbs might suggest. In uniting imagery of death and life, they suggest that wisdom literature can offer a sense of ambiguity both within human and within divine life.[17]

Despite the straightforward moral declarations Wisdom makes in her speeches, she is anything but a straightforward figure. Her representation incorporates aspects of the economic and political life of women in Israel, while her role as witness to creation suggests puts her in close proximity with the divine. Rather than attempting to declare her straightforwardly as a female voice of patriarchy or an unabashedly feminist figure of divine femininity, this analysis suggests she is best read as a figure of mediation and complication, working to incorporate the paradoxes and complexities of women’s lives into the work of theology, and making space for a God who is “rejoicing in his inhabited world.” along with Wisdom. (Proverbs 8:30, NRSV).

Footnotes

[1] Carol Newsom, “Woman and the Discourse of Patriarchal Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs 1-9” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, ed. Peggy Day (Fortress Press, 1989), p. 142

[2] Claudia Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs (The Almond Press, 1985), p. 12.

[3] Camp, p. 282

[4] Camp, p. 281

[5] Newsom, p. 146.

[6] Newsom, p. 157

[7] Silvia Schroer, “Wise and Counseling Women in Ancient Israel: Literary and Historical Ideals of the Personified Hokma” in A Feminist Companion to Wisdom Literature, ed. Athaya Brenner. (Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), pp. 67-84.

[8] Gerlinde Baumann, “A Figure With Many Facets: The Literary and Theological Functions of Personified Wisdom in Proverbs 1-9” in Wisdom and Psalms: A Feminist Companion to the Bible., eds. Althaea Brenner and Carole Fontaine (Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), p. 51.

[9] Schroer, p. 80

[10] Christine Roy Yoder, Wisdom as a Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 1-9 and 31:10-31 (Walter de Gruyter, 2001).

[11] Yoder, p. 93

[12] Yoder, p. 98

[13] Baumann, p. 68

[14] Baumann, p. 69

[15] Baumann, p. 54

[16] Claudia Camp, Wise, Strange, and Holy. The Strange Woman and the Making of the Bible (Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), p. 76.

[17] Camp, p. 87.

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