Column: ‘Wisdom’ plays unique role in old testament

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

The Books of Proverbs is noted for its personification of wisdom as a woman.

“Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the open squares she raises her voice; Down the crowded ways she calls out, at the city gates
she utters her words” (Prv 1: 20- 21). That image reappears several times in the book: “Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven columns; She has dressed her meat, mixed her wine, yes, she has spread her table” (Prv 9: 1-2).

The personification of wisdom as a woman is partly based on the fact that the Hebrew word for wisdom is feminine in gender. But beyond that, it is also possible that the writer of the Book of Proverbs knew a flesh-and-blood woman who exhibited that virtue to a high degree. The passage from the Book of Proverbs which we will hear as Sunday’s first reading — Prv 31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31 — paints the portrait of such a woman.

Her wisdom is not the esoteric wisdom of the ivory tower. Rather, she uses an extremely practical wisdom to benefit her husband, her family, the poor and needy and, indeed, the whole community. She is extremely resourceful. That is why her praise resounds at the city gates.

That location might strike us as a strange place to receive praise. But the open space in front of the city gate was very public. The city elders would gather there to make decisions for the community. They would sit there in judgment as a law court.

For this woman to receive praise at the city gates means that her wisdom has attracted the attention of the entire community. It is not limited to the privacy of her family.

This is extremely significant because in the ancient Near East, as in much of the modern Middle East, women usually spend most of their time in the family home.

That was their arena of operation. They were not intended to play a role in public life.

In contrast, the woman of our reading stands out as a public figure, praised at the city gates. As such, she can provide an example for others to imitate and aspire to.

And now, even though those city gates fell into ruins long ago and turned to dust, even though the woman herself is long dead and buried, her example continues to speak to us through the words of Scripture.

Wisdom still calls out to all who would listen.

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