A Literary Reading of the Book of Proverbs: God as One Half of a Two-Career Household

By Miles, Jack | Commonweal, March 10, 1995 | Go to article overview

A Literary Reading of the Book of Proverbs: God as One Half of a Two-Career Household


Miles, Jack, Commonweal


The Bible is the great repository of the sacred rather than the secular wisdom of our culture, or so we habitually think. Secular wisdom we expect to find elsewhere. And, accordingly, any conflict between the sacred and the secular that involves the Bible at all we expect to be a conflict between the Bible and something else, not a conflict within the Bible.

At least one book of the Old Testament, however, is a collection of Near Eastern secular wisdom rather than of Jewish religious wisdom. And what gives this work, the Book of Proverbs, a particular literary interest is that its secular wisdom seems to be carried in feminine rather than masculine hands. The Book of Proverbs does not explicitly oppose its secular wisdom to religious belief, much less its feminine perspective to any masculine perspective. But if one reads the Hebrew Scriptures in the traditional Jewish order, the Book of Proverbs is preceded by the Book of Psalms, and the sense of contrast - religious to secular and, subtly, male to female - as one moves from the one collection to the next is intriguing. (The Jewish order of the Scriptures places Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets in the middle, not at the end of what Christians call the Old Testament.)

God's law, which in Psalms is regarded as his most important, most abiding, and most deeply personal self-expression, yields much of its space in Proverbs to a more loosely defined, anonymous, impersonal tradition of secular wisdom, which is "preached" by Lady Wisdom, a mysteriously allegorical combination of goddess, prophetess, and angelic messenger. The emergence of Lady Wisdom as God's handmaiden or consort is accompanied by Proverbs' paradoxical reversal of the role that Psalms assigns to God.

In Psalms, God is the guarantor of justice in a world of karma without samsara - a world, that is, in which God rewards the good and punishes the evil within their own lifetimes or, at most, in the lifetimes of their children or grandchildren. Not quite so in Proverbs, where God appears for the first time (regarding the Hebrew Bible in the Jewish order) as the mysterious being to whom reference must be made and recourse had when just the opposite occurs - that is, when the good are seen to be punished and the wicked rewarded.

God continues to be honored as the creator, through Wisdom, of the moral as well as the physical world, but the moral world he has created, like the physical world, enjoys an immanent order. It is a world, in other words, in which reward for the good and punishment for the wicked is on the whole a natural and therefore automatic outcome. It is not usually necessary for God to insure the functioning of this moral order by intervening ad hoc with rewards and punishments. These come about as the intrinsic result of mankind's cultivation, or otherwise, of human wisdom, a pursuit sometimes characterized as devotion to Lady Wisdom. God created the world through her, Proverbs says, and the world's normal and normally benign functioning is in her custody. God takes or is presumed to take a direct hand only in counterintuitive, unpredicted, unwelcome limit cases. In brief, when things go right automatically, as Proverbs expects that they will, God is honored as the creator of a world in which things go right automatically, while when things go wrong, God is acknowledged as the source and explanation of exceptions to the rule. In Proverbs, God is marginal as a picture frame is marginal. He is not often in the picture, but the picture requires him.

This quasi-negative but necessary framing function for God is the meaning of a proverb - "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord" - which is repeated almost as a mantra three times in Proverbs (1:7, 9:10, and 15:33). Its meaning, in a secular formulation, might be: "The first thing a man of understanding must understand is that there is much that he will never understand." Mankind will ever strive to bring life under control, and Proverbs commends that effort. …

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