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"Wisdom Is More a Who Than a What" -- Proverbs 8, Woman Wisdom's Call (18th Sunday After Pentecost)





In the reading I’ve done about Wisdom, there’s this sentence that has stuck with me: “Wisdom is more a who than a what.” To be sure, wisdom is words on the page: Wisdom spoken from generation to generation – written down – handed down – in Proverbs, and letters, and stories – “Here are the ways we have found that lead to more life.” There’s Wisdom in the words that we speak – and sometimes in the words we refrain from speaking – and in the words we write down.


But Wisdom also is embodied. Wisdom is ways of living that lead to more life – and at some point, that Wisdom has to come to life. It can’t just stay on the page – just words on the page. At some point, Wisdom rises up off that page and comes to life.

That’s what happens here in the poetry of Proverbs 8 – Wisdom rises up off the page– and calls out – to all who will hear – to all who will listen – to all who will live. And the first thing we notice about Wisdom... is that Wisdom... is a Woman. Woman Wisdom.


And, Woman Wisdom is everywhere, from the very beginning of time, right up to now.[1] She’s at the crossroads, and the city gates, and the portals – everywhere that humans journey, and meet, and enter in, and encounter each other – Woman Wisdom is there.

On the heights, beside the way, Wisdom calls out. She calls out, welcoming us, encouraging us, inviting us into life: “I will speak of noble things,” she says – words of life more valuable than silver or gold or any riches. Woman Wisdom loves those who will love her – delighting in all creation. By her, kings rule and discover what is just. Those who find her, find life.


And it has been so from before the very beginning. As Woman Wisdom sings on – she tells creation’s story. Woman Wisdom was there from before the beginning – before God made heaven and earth – before the first bits of soil. In the beginning was Woman Wisdom, and Woman Wisdom was with God – as God arced the sky over the world, and set the boundaries between land and sea, and brought forth life – Woman Wisdom, there, in the creating and ordering of all things. And then, in this creation story, Woman Wisdom says, “I was with God, a skilled maker, delighting in God, God delighting in me; rejoicing in God’s inhabited world; delighting in humanity.


Woman Wisdom, God, us, all creation in this dance of delight.


Later wisdom writings that made it into the Catholic and Orthodox canons, but not ours, say even more: Woman Wisdom is “the shaper of all things” – unique, manifold, moving, clear, loving the good, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, all powerful.[2] For those poets, Woman Wisdom is “the breath of the power of God,” “a reflection of eternal light,” “an image of God’s goodness.” Woman Wisdom reaches from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.


This wisdom we’ve been talking about for some weeks now – the ways of living that lead to more life – In Proverbs 8 – she rises up off the page – alive in the world – from the very beginning until now – creating, shaping, instructing, guiding, and delighting.

Now, scholars don’t agree on what to make of Woman Wisdom. [3] Some say she’s God’s helper. Others suggest she’s the way that we pulled ancient goddess traditions into our monotheistic faith. Others, that she’s an attribute of God – God’s wisdom – described in female imagery. And still others – Elizabeth Johnson, leading among them – describe Woman Wisdom – Hochma in the Hebrew Scriptures, Sophia in the New Testament – as “a female personification of God’s own being in creative and saving involvement in the world.”[4] Woman Wisdom is one way to speak of God, and of God’s creating work in the world.


Wisdom is where God and humanity meet in the midst of real life.


In Proverbs 8, Wisdom rises up off the page... God’s creating, delighting work – beckoning us into life – and she’s a woman.


Now, why take note of that – Woman Wisdom? Well, remember, the Bible is an ancient text – a collection of ancient texts – written out of their ancient patriarchal world. And the Scripture we receive reflects the world in which it was written – including the patriarchal power of that world.[5] What we see is a world where men have structural power, and women, for the most part don’t. Far too often in Scripture (and we’ve talked about this before – most recently this past June, I think) – women are considered property to be owned – not free human beings created to live and thrive in the fullness of their individuality. And the voices we hear in Scripture – far more often than not – are male voices. The voices of women – and so many other marginalized peoples – are far too often silenced.


So, when we hear a woman’s voice in Scripture – or any marginalized voice – breaking through that patriarchal world – it is no small thing – and we ought take note. And those voices – from the margins – miraculously – they are there. In Scripture. We may need to look to find them. But they’ve survived.


In Genesis: Hagar – thrown out of the tribe because she’s one woman too many – left in the desert with her son to die – she’s rescued by God, and Hagar has the audacity to name God, “The God who sees.”


Ruth and Naomi – bereft of all the men in their life – left to wander in a wilderness, in a world where they have no power – Ruth and Naomi speak words to each other that create a world of commitment and nurture that will bring forth life – on down through David, on down to Jesus.


Hannah – believing herself unable to have a child – sings out to God and will not be silenced – and the song she births, and the child, change the course of kings and history.


Centuries later, Mary will sing a song not unlike Hannah’s – announcing that the poor will be lifted up, and the rich brought down – proclaiming in her woman’s voice the turning of the world rightside up – bearing Christ into the world in her voice and in her body.


Among the many women who accompany and support Jesus, a prophet-woman will break a jar of oil – and anoint Jesus – just before he dies – preparing him for his burial and anointing him the Christ – with Jesus saying, “What this woman has done will be proclaimed through the ages.”


Out of the patriarchal world of Scripture, when women’s voices and the voices of the marginalized sing through – take note – liberation is afoot.


Here, in Proverbs 8, the Woman’s voice we hear – Woman Wisdom’s voice – speaks God’s creating work – God at work in Woman Wisdom. A couple of folks on the worship team said this week that they’d never heard this Scripture read in church – Woman Wisdom’s story of creation. I checked and it does come up once in our three-year cycle of readings, but more like a side note – once on a Trinity Sunday – you know, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ..... and (aside) Woman Wisdom. I bet there aren’t many churches that turn regularly to this text – to this creation story. Woman Wisdom is calling out. We just aren’t listening often enough.


I do remember, a few years ago here, you all read together the Creation story from the children’s book – Big Momma Makes the World – envisioning God as Big Momma, birthing and loving the world she has made.


The Presbyterian Church has a stated commitment to using inclusive and expansive language for God. We know that what we say about God can never be complete – it’s but a glimpse. Using expansive language for God – means, among other things, that we think of God, and speak of God, beyond the confines of any one gender – that we speak of God across the broad spectrum of gender.


Not just he, but she, and they.

The more expansive God, instead of the male Lord.

Not just Father, but also Mother – brooding over her creation – birthing the world. Parent. Creator.


I get teased sometimes about calling God “She.” One friend lovingly calls it my “girl-God talk.” I hope I’m a good sport. And I hope that I’m also stone-cold serious. There are important, life-giving, dignity-affirming reasons for thinking expansively and inclusively about God and humanity. When we gather for worship, we want everyone who comes to see themselves as a part of God’s story – everyone included and embraced within God’s loving, saving work across history and in Jesus Christ. We want everyone – everyone – to see themselves as made in the image of God – each of us – female, male, non-binary, across the full spectrum of gender – made in the image of God.

We want Ceci, and June, and Anders, and Everett, and Paula – every child to see themselves as made in the image of God, embraced in the story of God’s love for the whole world. That’s the world we want to shape with the words we say and with the lives we live.


As Barbara Holmes writes, “if inclusion is to be meaningful, it must be based on the idea that everyone and everything is included from the beginning... included in a web of life, set forth from the foundations of the earth.”[6]


The creation story in Proverbs is different from others we read in Scripture because Woman Wisdom is there... from the beginning. When Woman Wisdom rises up off the page, and speaks God’s creating work, she invites us to move more expansively into the world – to think more expansively about God, and ourselves, and life. As one writer says: “Woman Wisdom opens up the world rather than closes it down... she invites us to recognize that God may be about new things for new times and places.”


I want to invite you to try something this week. I invite you to take one of your favorite Bible passages – maybe a Psalm – one that you remember from childhood – or one that you’ve recently read – one that speaks of God as “he.” Find it, and read it out loud, but wherever it says “he” – change that “he” to “she” – or to the singular “they.” Just give it a try – out loud. Here’s an example:


God is my shepherd, I shall not want.

She makes me lie down in green pastures.

She leads me beside the still waters.

She restores my soul.

She leads me in paths of righteousness for her name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

I will fear no evil.

For God is with me.

She prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

She anoints my head with oil.

My cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,

and I will come to live in God’s house,

forever and ever.

Try it. What do you notice? At first, it may feel strange, because you’ve never heard it like that. Or, maybe it will surprise you and not feel all that strange at all. How does it invite you to experience Scripture differently? What does it open up for you? What might it open up for others? Try it. What can it hurt? We know God isn’t a man. What could it hurt to speak of her as She, or They – to think of God – a little more expansively.


The texts of Scripture – and still, too much of our tradition – come to us out of a patriarchal word. When Woman Wisdom rises up off the page, she smashes through the confines of patriarchy and invites us into a more expansive, freer world. She invites us to rise up – in wisdom – to rise up and break through the patterns and the systems that oppress and hold folk back – to see each other – each and every other – as made in the image of God – all of us beloved.


Wisdom is more a who than a what. Wisdom rises off the page, and comes to life not only in Woman Wisdom, but in us – in you and in me – in all whom God has created – in all whom God delights – in all whom Wisdom calls to live for life and to set the whole world free.


© 2021 Scott Clark

* Trinity icon is by Kelly Latimore (image copyrighted, used with permission).


[1] See Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “The Book of Proverbs,” New Interpreters Bible Commentary, vol v (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997), p. 89, for this point and for general background on the text. [2] See Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-8:1. [3] Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1992, 2002), pp.90-91. [4] Id., p.91. [5] See Id., p.76. [6] Barbara Holmes, quoted by Richard Rohr at https://cac.org/included-from-the-beginning-2021-08-23/