Woman Wisdom sets down a firm foundation.
She builds a house, pillars, windows, grand rooms.
She slaughters animals, the best for her guests, an ancient practice of generous hospitality.
Woman Wisdom mixes wine, a common practice of the time, mixing water with wine.
She sets her table, plates and glasses for each person invited.
Finally, she sends out her servant-girls to invite the masses, to gather, in the words of Proverbs, the simple, the senseless, the immature.
Woman Wisdom invites the whole people of God to come and sit at her table, to eat and drink what she has to offer, to set aside immaturity and live and walk in insight.
Of course, the language of feast is metaphor here. Proverbs is not telling the story of a woman named Wisdom who built her own home, slaughtered animals, mixed wine, and sent out invitations to the community around 950 before the common era in Israel. At that time and in that place, women possessed no such power to build homes, employ servants, or write a guest list. No, in the Hebrew language, nouns take genders, and the Hebrew word for wisdom, hokmah, is feminine. Biblical scholars now routinely refer to wisdom here in chapters 8 and 9 of Proverbs as Woman Wisdom, not only because of the gender of the noun hokmah but because the writer also uses feminine pronouns. In Proverbs chapter 9, Hokmah, wisdom, invites the people of God, not to a passing acquaintance with wisdom, not a fast food wisdom, but a sit down, push in your chair, feasting on wisdom. And that’s the only way wisdom actually comes, right? Fast food wisdom just doesn’t exist.
As a teenager, I collected quotes. I’ve always been a reader, and when I found something I liked, I would jot it down. Not only that, I remember time spent in the school library reading books of quotes. In a time before google and widespread internet availability, students used these quote books as a source for witty contributions to papers and essays our English teachers required us to write. When I had collected enough quotes to type up a page, I would sit down at my family’s Apple II computer and print them out on our dot-matrix printer—and then rip off those hole-punched sides. Into my green binder the page would go, and I’d sit on my bed and read my collection of wisdom, stray sentences from various continents, time periods, and genres of literature, completely out of context, instructing teenage me in small town Minnesota circa 1992. Sorry to burst my own bubble, but that’s not wisdom.
My green binder full of quotes completely out of context, winnowed from a vast savannah of literature because it sounded beautiful or meaningful or because it contained a certain word—like love or beauty—is honestly how some of us read scripture, how most of us read scripture at least some of the time. I do it too. A meeting I had this week comes to mind where we actually did just google a certain word to find a Bible verse that would fit our task at hand. No one is immune to such folly!
By contrast, Woman Wisdom invites us to sit down, to dig in, to feast on wisdom. A feast requires a substantial investment of time and, quite often, includes an invitation to think more imaginatively and broadly about the event at hand, whether the feast be Thanksgiving and its national significance, Christmas and its religious significance, or a wedding and its significance not only for the couple but for all who share love. Woman Wisdom invites us to explore not fortune cookie wisdom but the wisdom gained from a deep dive into the most meaningful text of our lives: scripture, God’s word.
I invite you to actually do this. The easiest way I have found to do a deep dive into scripture is simply to read one book from beginning to end within the course of a few days, weeks, or months, depending on the length of the book. You might choose a short book, like 1 John, a letter from the New Testament that is all about love. You might choose a longer book with many stories that would be familiar, like Genesis. When we read a book from beginning to end in a continual fashion, we understand more fully the aims and the perspective of the author.
We, of course, understand this completely if we read mysteries or novels or biographies. I wouldn’t read pages 20 through 25 of The Outsider by Stephen King one day and then pages 126 through 128 of Tailspin by Sandra Brown the next, followed by any ten pages of Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdaine the day after that and consider myself knowledgeable about any one of those texts. While the Bible has lots of good one-liners, I give you that, it’s not meant to be read one line at a time or even one passage at a time. Rather, the Bible weaves a centuries-long story with characters who (mostly) are real people, with events that resonate in different ways over time, people and events that get referenced again and again. But in order to understand their significance, we must read the origin story of that person or event. For instance, when the people gather round Jesus with palm branches and lay their cloaks on the road in front of him as he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey just a few days before his death, the people shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” If we don’t know who David is, what significance he has for Jews in the first century, how can we understand this story? Well, I guess we can come to church and listen to a sermon, but there’s no possible way that any preacher can share all that needs to be shared about any particular passage in the short time we have on Sunday mornings. Well, at least not in a Lutheran church.
Sitting down at the table of Woman Wisdom and feasting allows us to see scripture not as a set of laws or a series of archaic teaching but as a centuries-long story that invites us to imagine ourselves as part of that woven fabric. We are the people of God, and the centuries-long story of scripture is our story too. Not just the one-liners but the whole thing from In the beginning and It is good to Amen! Come, Lord Jesus. This story, quite honestly, has some strange moments; perhaps we don’t understand them because we don’t understand the contexts in which various parts of scripture were written. Perhaps these strange moments just highlight the humanity of God’s people, throughout the generations. But what does ground us in lives of faith are the lives of these ancient, broken, beautiful people with whom we can identify. What does ground us are the ways God seeks the liberation of God’s people from every type of bondage and justice for God’s whole people and whole creation. What does ground us is the grace of God poured out again and again, towards Noah, towards Abraham, towards the people during the devastating time of the Judges, toward King David, toward the prophets in the difficulty of their work, and especially poured out through the life and ministry of Jesus. What grounds us is the love of God that permeates every nook and cranny of scripture—even the difficult parts, even the legalistic parts.
Woman Wisdom invites us to sit down, to dig in, to feast on the wisdom of God’s word, a word that not only orients our lives but is life itself.