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Wise Women in Proverbs



Interestingly, the frame of the book of Proverbs consists of two women. Perhaps that is, in part, because the Hebrew word for “wisdom” is the feminine noun ḥokmah,and Proverbs casts it in the role of a woman. Woman Wisdom begins her call to fools to get wisdom in Proverbs 1:20-33. In the book, she will serve as the opposite of her feminine opponent, Woman Folly (kesiluth), and in contrast to the adulterous woman of chapter 7. She will reach her denouement in the final passage of Proverbs, not in an abstract personification of a woman, but in a real, flesh-and-blood wife who accomplishes hyperbolized feats. In this woman, Wisdom captures all of the essentials of her nature—industry, trustworthiness, a positive attitude, organization, aptitude, goodness, benevolence, strength, honor, instruction, and, above all, the practical skill that the Bible styles as wisdom. Though Proverbs begins with instructions from a royal father to his son, the text attests to the fact that both father and mother teach wisdom to the young. “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction; don’t neglect your mother’s teaching” (1:8a, CEB). A mother’s instruction is echoed in the final chapter of Proverbs where King Lemuel of Massa quote’s his mother’s counsels, in a section that includes and ends with the “virtuous woman” passage.

This personification of Woman Wisdom is unique to the Hebrew wisdom literature; no wise woman exists in either Job or Qohelet (Ecclesiastes). Indeed, Woman Wisdom’s most sharply designated opposite outside of Proverbs could be Job’s characterization of his wife: “You’re talking like a foolish woman” (Job 2:10a, CEB), except that a different word is used there for folly (nevaloth). Of course, one could argue that Woman Folly serves as Woman Wisdom’s exact opposite, but surprisingly, Proverbs depicts Woman Folly far less than Woman Wisdom. While Woman Wisdom takes up fourteen verses in chapter 1:20-33, eight verses in 3:13-20 and entire chapter with 36 verses (8:1-36), and 12 verses in 9:1-12,[1] Woman Folly acquires a meager six verses in Proverbs 9:13-18 that follow the most major treatment of Woman Wisdom. And Woman Folly is not characterized grammatically quite exactly like Woman Wisdom. While Woman Wisdom is called “Wisdom,” yet is clearly personified in human terms, Woman Folly bears the title “woman of folly” (or “stupidity”), suggesting less abstraction. Woman Folly and her human representatives are almost always adulterous women or prostitutes in contrast to the “virtuous woman.” While “Woman Folly is noisy” (Proverbs 9:13, CEB), Woman Wisdom calls out in the street “above the noisy crowd” [of foolish people] (Proverbs 1:20, 21, CEB), pleading with them to use good sense. Appealing to their ability to reason from cause to effect, Woman Wisdom warns the crowd that by ignoring her advice, they have invited disaster. “Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them, but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm” (Proverbs 1:30-33, NIV). Like a wise mother, whose life experience has taught her the adage that we reap what we sow, Woman Wisdom understands that the moral universe is constructed upon maxims containing regulations as fixed and certain as those which governed the farmer’s crops.

Perhaps the presence of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs is one reason for the classification of “wisdom literature,” that is applied not only Proverbs but also to Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Job. Ostensibly a book of wise sayings and exhortations to get wisdom, Proverbs, more than any other work in the ancient Near East deserves this designation. Yet most scholars recognize that modern scholarship, not the authors themselves of so-called “wisdom” works, have created this label for a wide variety of literary documents. Nevertheless, literary documents comparable to Proverbs existed in ancient Sumer and later Mesopotamia (Babylonia and Assyria). One document containing proverbs very similar to the biblical Proverbs is titled, “The Instructions of Shuruppak.” This composition, containing a father’s instructions to his son in a teaching style, “goes back to Early Dynastic IIa, that is, around 2600 B.C.”[2] I have chosen to compare Proverbs with “The Instructions of Shuruppak” because of its number of points of similarity. This may seem surprising, considering that this Sumerian work was likely composed nearly a couple of millennium before the earliest possible date for Proverbs; yet it contains traditions that go back to the ancient oral societies who gave rise to its injunctions. It also seems to have enjoyed a long life: a fragment of an Akkadian version of it dated to the Middle Assyrian period has been found that aligns precisely with the opening lines of the Sumerian work, suggesting “a simple Babylonian translation of the original text.”[3]

Mostly the “Instructions of Shuruppak” contains concrete maxims that sometimes include motive clauses. Its beginning sounds very much like the Proverbs 1:1-2, 8-9 and 3:1-2. “The man from Šuruppak, gave instructions to his son; the man from Šuruppak—the son of Ubartutu—gave instructions to his son Ziusudra: ‘My son, let me give instructions; let my instructions be taken! Ziusudra, let me speak a word to you; let attention be paid to them! Don’t neglect my instructions! Don’t transgress the words I speak!  The instructions of an old man are precious; you should comply with them.”[4] Unlike Proverbs, however, what follows comprise practical, commonplace teachings with few moral implications such as “Don’t buy an ass that brays; it will split your yoke!” “Don’t place a well in your own field; the people will turn hostile against you.” “Don’t act as a guarantor; that man will have a hold on you.”[5] A few of the proverbs in Shuruppak seem similar to the biblical Proverbs. For instance, compare these two: “Stand aside from quarrels; when facing an insult, go around it on another road!” (Shuruppak 27).[6]  “The start of a quarrel is like letting out water, so drop the dispute before it breaks out” (Proverbs 17:14). Both Shuruppak and Proverbs discountenance similar things: slander (Shuruppak 65; Prov. 10:18); avoiding drinking beer when making judgments (Shuruppak 126; Prov. 31:4-7); envy (Shuruppak 134-135; Proverbs 14:30; 27:4), prostitutes (Shuruppak 154; Prov. 6:24-26); and hatred (Shuruppak 202-203; Proverbs 10:12).[7]

More than in Proverbs, women in Shuruppak do not fare so well, as expressed by these sayings: “A man [installs] a good woman as a fertile field.” “A woman who has a fortune ruins a house.” “Don’t choose a wife during a festival. Inside it is (all) borrowed, outside it is (all) borrowed: the silver is borrowed; the lapis lazuli is borrowed; the dress(?) is borrowed; the linen(?) is borrowed.” “A she-donkey recites words in the street [intended positively].”[8] “A sow suckles her young in the streets.” “A woman who prickles herself will be screaming; she holds the spindle on which she was hurt(?) in her hand; she enters all houses; she peers into all streets; and keeps saying from the roofs(?): ‘Get out!’; she keeps watching from all parapets….” Nevertheless, a son was to treat his mother, as well as his father, with respect (Shuruppak 208-212, 215, 224-231, 265-270).[9] However, unlike Proverbs, while the son is to “pay attention to the instructions of a father,”[10] nothing is said about paying attention to the words of a mother (cf. Proverbs 1:8).  Of course, Proverbs contains a number of aphorisms  that cast (some) women in an unfavorable light such as the adage roughly stated thrice in the book, “Better to live on the edge of the roof than with a contentious woman in a large house” (Proverbs 21:9, CEB; cf. 21:19; 25:24). And of course, there is the adulterous woman/prostitute that figures extensively as a temptress and seducer, leading her victims to death due to her husband seeking revenge upon his return (see Proverbs 2:16-19; 5:3-6; 24-35; 7:6-27). However, nowhere do the “Instructions of Shuruppak” highlight wisdom as a female persona nor do they extol a woman as Proverbs 31 does; neither does Shuruppak exhort his son in any fashion close to Proverbs 5:15-19: “Rejoice in the wife of your youth. She is a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts intoxicate you all the time; always be drunk on her love” (Proverbs 5:18b-19, CEB). Generally throughout the ancient Near East, men owned their wives sexually and adultery was deemed a sin against the other husband, not against the unfaithful husband’s own wife. This exhortation, therefore, stands out for its advancement of women to being deserving of a faithful husband.

Another work, known as the “Counsels of Wisdom,” written sometime after the First Dynasty of Babylon, contains a number of lines that resemble, at least in subject matter, the book of Proverbs. Like Proverbs, this work cautions against the misuse of speech, advocates kindness to one’s enemy, counsels against marrying a prostitute, and stresses proper worship.[11] Though these instructions appear to contain moral qualities, the kindness to be shown to an enemy does not seem to extend to the slave girl, who is to be kept strictly in her place without honor: “Do not honour a slave girl in your house; She shall not rule [your] bedroom like a wife.”[12] And wives do not seem to find mention in this work at all. Thus it seems that the book of Proverbs offers a greater consideration of women than comparative wisdom literature.

[1] Proverbs 8:1-9:12 stand as a unit since originally no chapter divisions (and no verses either) existed in the Hebrew Bible.

[2] Bendt Alster, Wisdom of Ancient Sumer (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 2005), 25.

[3] W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1996), 92, 93.

[4] Alster, Wisdom, 56-58.

[5] Alster, Wisdom, 58-60.

[6] Alster, Wisdom, 61.

[7][7] See Alster, Wisdom, 69, 78, 80, 83, 91.

[8] According to Alster (Wisdom, 139, 166), “The literal translation ‘a she-donkey recites words well in the streets’ can apply  there [line 224 quoted above] only if irony is intended, which actually seems to be the case. The reference seems ultimately to be a woman behaving like a donkey, so something like ‘screams/recites loudly’ would fit.” Therefore, “a braying ass stands for bad female behavior.”

[9] Alster, Wisdom, 92, 93, 94, 98.

[10] Alster, Wisdom, 98.

[11] See Lambert, BWL, 100-107.

[12] Lines 66, 67. Lambert, BWL, 102-103.

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