Restoration Quarterly 35.3 (1993) 147-158
Copyright © 1993 by Restoration Quarterly, cited with permission.
"Wise Women" or Wisdom Woman?
A Biblical Study of Women's Roles1
MICHAEL S. MOORE
Scholars remain divided today over the origin and identity of the
Wisdom Woman in Prov. 1-9. Many roads run back to her door through
mythological,2 sapiential,3 apocalyptic,4 rabbinic5 and early Christian6 circles
of tradition. Attempts to pursue her prior to the book of Proverbs remain
difficult, a problem for which at least four solutions have been proposed.
 This is a revision of a paper read to the Hebrew and Cognate Literature section
the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature,
The myth of the Sybil at
utterances, animates pagan (Ovid, Metamorphoses 14.132) and early Christian sources
(Herm. Vis. 1.2.2-2.4.1). At Nag Hammadi, Sophia appears as a goddess-figure in Ap.
John 8.20; 9.25-10.19; 23.21-35; 28.11-21; Hyp. Arch. 94.29-34; 95.18-31; Orig.
World 98.13; 112.1-9; Gos. Eg. 57.1-4; 69.3; Eugnostos 77.4-6 (divine consort);
81.23-83.1; 88.6; Soph. Jes. Chr. 101.16; 102.13; 114.15 ("mother of the universe").
For further study, see Pheme Perkins, "Sophia as Goddess in the Nag Hammadi
Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism, Karen King, ed. (
See Sir 1:4-20; -19;
I' 8:1-21; 9:9-11; 10:1-21. See also Jdt: ; -23. Recent overviews from a
Christian perspective appear in M. Goulder, "Sophia in 1 Corinthians," NTS 37
(1991): 516-534; and P. Lampe, "Theological Wisdom and the 'Word about the
Cross': The Rhetorical Scheme in 1 Cor. 1-4," Inter 44 (1990): 111-131.
4 See Sib. Or. Prologue 30-49; 2.1-5; 3.1-7, 809-829; 7.150-162; 11.315-324;
Herm. Vis. 2.4.1 (where he sibylla becomes he ekklesia). At Nag Hammadi, see
1 Apoc. Jas. 35.7; 36.6-8; Great Pow. 44.19-20.
On the symbolic role of Rachel as "mother" in
sources cited by Yael Levin, "The Woman of Valor in Jewish Ritual (Prov. 31:1-31),"
Beth Mikra 31 (1986): 339-347 (Hebrew).
6 On the symbolic background to the cult of Mary, see Marina Warner, Alone
All her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (
1976); and Geoffrey Ashe, The Virgin (
148 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
First, some see an indigenously Hebrew goddess beneath the surface of
Prov. 1-9, hypothesizing this goddess to have been a vigorous participant in a
quasi-Canaanite pantheon in prehistoric Israel.7 More than mere observer at
creation, this goddess is herself Co-Creator,8 a divine being who, in the words
of Samuel Terrien, is no less than "mediatrix" of the divine "presence."9
Demythologized of her power by monotheistic Israelites, she now survives in
the Hebrew Bible as a shadow of her former self.
Second, some agree with the essentials of this goddess theory but look
Proponents of this school compare the Wisdom Woman in Proverbs to Inanna
a polytheistic Yahwism in 5th century Egypt13 and 9th century Sinai14 are
7 This is the extreme position of Bernhard Lang, Wisdom and the Book of
Proverbs: An Israelite Goddess Redefined (New York: Pilgrim, 1986), pp.126-131.
8 See Kathleen O'Connor, The Wisdom Literature (
Glazier, 1988), p. 83.
9 Samuel Terrien, The Elusive Presence: Toward a New Biblical Theology
(San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978), p. 357.
10 See H. Donner, "Die religionsgeschichtlichen Ürsprunge von Sprüche 8,"
Zeitschrift Für Aegyptische Sprache und Altertumkunde 82 (1958): 8-18; C. Bauer-
Kayatz, Studien zu Proverbien 1-9 (WMANT 22; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener,
1966); G. von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972), pp. 153-155; J. S.
Kloppenborg, "Isis and Sophia in the Book of Wisdom, "HTR 75 (1982): 57-84.
11 See W. F. Albright, "The Goddess of Life and Wisdom," American Journal
of Semitic Languages 36 (1919/20): 258-294; ibid., "Some Canaanite-Phoenician
Somces of Hebrew Wisdom," VTSup 3 (1955): 1-45; G. Boström, Proverbiastudien:
die Weisheit und das fremde Weib in Sprüche 1-9 (Lunds Universitets Arsskrift 30, 3;
12 This and other possible Greek parallels are cited by Martin Hengel, Judaism
and Hellenism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), pp. 153-154.
13 Note the compound name 'Anatyahu in A. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the
Fifth Century BC (Osnabrock: Otto Zeller; repr. of Oxford: Clarendon, 1923) 44.3.
Claudia Camp questions whether the entity designated "precious" to the gods and
"exalted" by the "lord of holiness" in the Aramaic version of Ahiqar (Cowley, line 95)
is, in fact, the "wisdom" mentioned three lines above it (line 92); but it is difficult to
imagine something else as the source for these descriptions; see Claudia Camp,
Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs (Sheffield: Almond, 1985), p. 293.
14 The Kuntillet 'Ajrud inscription discovered in the Sinai has been translated
"To Yahweh of Samaria and his A/asherah." The controversy centers on whether to
capitalize "A/asherah." See Z. Meshel, "Did Yahweh Have a Consort?" BAR 5/2
30; and Saul Olyan, Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in
MOORE/”WISE WOMEN" OR WlSDOM WOMAN? 149
often cited as corroborating evidence.15 Intramural debates within this camp
tend to focus on whether the relationship of this goddess to the Wisdom
Woman is organic and close, or inorganic and distant.16
Third, many believe her merely to be an extension, or "hypostasis" of
the one true God, much like the Shekinah, the Metatron, or the Memra of
Yahweh.17 This view represents a continued resistance to radical questions
about the plausibility, antiquity, and homogeneity of monotheism in ancient
Fourth, questions about origins are for many today at least subsidiary,
and at most irrelevant, to questions of literary structure and semiotic function.
Thus the Wisdom Woman is a personification or, more technically, a
metaphorical symbol for the wisdom tradition itself, brilliantly conceived and
structurally woven into the "book" of Proverbs in order to unify the several
anthologies which make up this "book" into a coherent whole.19
As debates go, this one seems more productive than most. Proponents
of the various goddess hypotheses have forced Old Testament scholars to
reassess the reality of Israelite religion in both its official and its popular
forms, and this, at least, is good.20 Recent advances in literary criticism also
15 See Mark Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities
C. de Moor, The Rise of Yahwism: The Roots
of Israelite Monotheism (
16 For a discussion, see Tikva Frymer-Kensky, In the Wake of the Goddesses:
Women, Culture, and the
Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (
Press, 1992), pp. 179-183.
17 On Shekinah, see m. 'Abot 3:2; b. Yoma 9b; b. Ber. 6a; b. B. Bat. 25a. On
Memra, see m. Sanh. 6:4. On Me!atron, see 3 Enoch 1:4; 3:1-2 and passim.
18 See Helmer Ringgren, Word
and Wisdom (
Boktryckeri, 1947; M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism, pp. 153-156. For more recent
discussions, see Lang, Wisdom, 137-140; Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine, pp. 34-36;
Frymer-Kensky, Wake of the Goddesses, pp. 83-183.
19 See Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine, pp. 71-77, 179-222; and Gale A. Yee,
"An Analysis of Prov. 8:22-31 According to Style and Structure," ZAW 94 (1982):
58-66; ibid., "'I Have Perf1.uned My Bed with Myrrh ': The Foreign Woman Issa zara
in Proverbs 1-9,"JSOT 43 (1989): 53-68.
20 On goddess religion generally, see Susanne Heine, Christianity and the
Goddesses: Systematic Criticism of a Feminist Theology (London: SCM, 1988);
Hurtado, ed., Goddesses in Religions and
Modern Debate (
in Religion 1;
between official and popular religion when discussing Israelite culture, see T. J.
Cults of the Dead in Ancient
1989), pp. 5-34.
150 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
enable us to read the book of Proverbs as something other than a jumbled
assortment of disconnected sentence--statements.21
Theologically speaking, the importance of the contemporary debate
over women's roles in both church and society makes the study of all the
biblical texts, not just the New Testament texts attributed to Paul, imperative.
The Old Testament has a contribution to make to this discussion, too, a
contribution we may choose to ignore only to our peril.22
In the ancient world "wise women" enact a number of culturally
diverse and socially important roles.23 The prologue to the Sybilline Oracles,
for example, lists no less than ten Sybils by name, "wise women" whose roots
run deep into the soil of ancient belief and practice.24 Oliver Gurney notes at
least thirteen (and perhaps as many as thirty-two) of these specialists by name
in the Hittite literature.25
This paper will reflect on the portrayal of actual "wise women" in
anthropological rather than a mythological, historical, or purely literary
perspective. It reopens the comparative question about origins by drawing
more attention to the human rather than the divine elements which structure,
mediate, and animate their respective environmental matrices.
Three questions will structure the following discussion. First, what
roles do wise women play in ancient
which we have the most evidence of her activity? Second, what functional
do wise women play in
most interested? Finally, what affinities, if any, exist between the functional
21 Camp's Wisdom and the Feminine is a major step forward.
22 For further study of the American social context, see the incisive history of
John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in
23 For an introduction to the activities of female magico-religious specialists in
the ancient Near East generally, see H. B. Huffmon, "Prophecy in the Ancient Near
IDBSup: 697-700. For the view that
"wise women" are indigenous to
AllaiturafJ(o)i und verwandte Texte (AOAT 31; Kevelaer: Butzon und Bercker,
1978), pp. 22-23.
24 Sib. Or. Prologue 30-49.
25 O. R. Gurney, Some
Aspects of Hittite Religion (
1977), p. 45. For a comprehensive set of transcribed texts about Anatolian wise
women, see V. Haas and I. Wegner, Die Rituale der Beschworerinnen SALSU.GI
(Corpus der Hurritischen Sprachdenkmaler I/5; Roma: Multigrafica Editrice, 1988),
MOORE/”WISE WOMEN" OR WISDOM WOMAN? 151
roles these specialists play in the real world and the imaginary literary world
empowering the Wisdom Woman in Proverbs 1-9?
Wise Woman in
The Anatolian "wise woman" enacts a wide variety of roles. Her
presence is required at most rites of passage and other unexpected points of
crisis (like plague, war, royal illness, or other calamity).26
As exorcist she is responsible for freeing clients from the demons of
the Netherworld. This is one of her most important roles. The wise woman
of Mukis in northern
name: the spell which is called "paralysis"
the "thing which sticks to the mouth"
the "fear before the lion,"
the "terror before the snake."27
As incantation-reciter the wise woman is responsible for preserving,
interpreting, and applying the myths of antiquity to the needs of real people.
Often she accomplishes this by weaving the themes of a particular myth into
the fabric of a purification ritual. It is difficult, at times, to tell whether she is
talking about the "release" of a god or hero in the imaginary world or the
"release" of a suffering client in the real world.28
As purification priestess the wise woman is responsible for cleansing
clients from impurity, whether it be caused by sin against the gods, by contact
with a defiled substance, or by the diabolical spells of an evil sorcerer. This is
done by washing clients with water, anointing them with salves, or releasing
them from demons through the construction and destruction of homeopathic
Mastigga, a wise woman from Kizzuwatna, uses both animate and
inanimate images in a complex ritual to resolve domestic conflict.30 To
identify the evil which poisons her clients she takes soft wax and molds it
into the shape of human tongues. Then she magically transfers the evil from
her clients into these wax images by a series of incantations. After this, she
26 Gurney, Some Aspects of Hittite Religion, pp. 44-63; Haas and Wegner, Die
Beschworerinnen, pp. 1-4.
27 Haas and Thiel, Die Beschworungsrituale der Allaiturah(h)i, 104:4'-5';
146:47-48. Other demons are listed in Haas and Wegner, Die Beschworerinnen,
28 Haas and Thiel, Allaiturah(h)i, 140.
29 See M. Vieyra, "Le sorcier hittite," in Le monde du sorcier (Sources
Orientales 7; Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966), pp. 105-106.
30 See ANET 350-351.
152 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
burns these contaminated images in fire in order to release her clients from
the "evil of the tongue." Finally she brings in a sacrificial animal, makes the
disputing parties spit into its mouth, and slaughters the animal to make
doubly sure the evil is removed. Thus, by means of both substitutionary and
expulsionary magic, the wise woman resolves the dispute.
Two points need to be underlined before the Hebrew tradition is
examined. First, the Anatolian wise woman enacts many roles for many
reasons, but fundamentally she is a mediator, a culturally recognized expert in
the art of conflict resolution. Behind all the rituals, incantation, and
divinations, the reason that kings and commoners come to her is their
fundamental need to resolve disputes with warring enemies.
Second, homeopathic magic is fundamentally based on the concept of
parallelism. If an abstract evil can be transferred into a concrete image of clay
or wax, then the action taken to deal with the image can simultaneously deal
with the abstract evil which contaminates the image. To destroy, expel, or
curse a homeopathic substitute is to destroy, expel, or curse the evil it
represents. Parallelism lies at the heart of homeopathic magic.
Wise Women in
The Hebrew Bible preserves four stories in which wise women play
major roles in mediating disputes. This paper will focus on one of them. In
two of these stories, the mediator in question is expressly called a "wise
woman," namely, the "wise woman" of Tekoa in 2 Samuel 14 and the "wise
woman" of Abel in 2 Samuel 20.31 In 1 Samuel 25, Abigail enacts the role of
"wise mediator" in the dispute between David and Nabal, though she is never
called a "wise woman"32; whereas in 1 Samuel 28 a woman from Endor,
familiar with the professional art of necromancy, attempts to resolve a dispute
between Saul and Samuel-a difficult task inasmuch as one of the parties to
this dispute is already dead.33
In 2 Samuel 14 the family of David is caught up in a crisis of
staggering proportions. Amnon, David's son by Ahinoam, an Ephraimite
31 See J. Hoftijzer, "David and the Tekoite Woman," VI 20 (1970): 419-444;
Camp, "The Wise Women of 2 Samuel: A Role Model of Women in Early
CBQ 43 (1981): 14-29.
32 P. Kyle McCarter thinks the affinities are strong enough to read the story of
Abigail intertextually with the story of the Tekoite woman; 2 Samuel (AB 9; Garden
City, NY: Doubleday, 1984), p. 345.
33 Andre Caquot thinks that an Israelite censor has deliberately sanitized
1 Sam. 28 of its "original" homeopathic elements in "La divination dans 1'ancien
universitaires de France, 1968), p. 100.
MOORE/”WISE WOMEN” OR WISDOM WOMAN? 153
woman, has brutally raped Tamar, David's daughter by Maacah, an Aramean
princess.34 Tamar's brother, Absalom, has murdered Amnon in retaliation.
Three years have passed-uneasy, painful years-in which the conflict between
David and Absalom has been allowed to fester.
Joab, David's general, realizes that something has to be done, not only
because this conflict has the potential to paralyze a family, but because it has
the potential to paralyze a nation. So he does what other leaders do when
facing crises like this: He hires a magico-religious specialist, in this case a
wise woman from Tekoa, to resolve this conflict.35
A comparative anthropological reading of this text proves fruitful on at
least two levels.
First, it is significant that the Tekoite woman chooses to work with a
type of literary device Ulrich Simon calls a "juridical parable."36 Parables are
constructed to parallel situations in the real world with situations in the
imaginary world. Juridical parables specialize in reflecting instances where
justice has been grossly miscarried. In 2 Samuel 20, for example, Nathan the
prophet uses a juridical parable about a "little ewe lamb" to alert David to
Yahweh's anger over the murder of Urlah.37
Like all parables, juridical parables are based on the operative
principle of analogical parallelism.38 When those who hear the parable
attempt to resolve the conflict created within it, the intent is to effect real
change in the real world. To put it another way, the action taken to resolve the
imaginary, substitutionary situation has an immediate, operant effect on the
world of the real situation. Juridical parables are, in substance, imaginary
homeopathic images crafted by professional mediators in order to resolve real
conflict in the real world.
34 Phyllis Trible calls this story "the royal rape of Wisdom"; Texts of Terror
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), pp. 37-63.
35 R. Whybray argues that this story is about Joab's wisdom, not that of the
woman (The Succession Narrative [
p. 59). J. Hoftijzer believes her to be a "capable," ordinary woman, yet one of no
particular socio-cultural status ("David and the Tekoite Woman": 444). Camp
discusses her function in terms of political power in ancient Israelite communities
("Wise Women of 2 Samuel": 14-15).
36 U. Simon, "The Poor Man's Ewe Lamb: An Example of a Juridical
Parable," Bib 48 (1967): 208.
38 See O. Eissfeldt, Der
Maschal im alten Testament (BZAW 24;
Topelmann, 1913), pp. 45-71. Haas and Wegner summarily describe the incantations
of the Anatolian wise woman as "analogical sayings" (Die Beschworerinnen, 3).
154 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
The parable of the Tekoite woman is a classic example of this.
Disguised as a mourner, she tells David the story of a family, her family,
which has become the victim of tragedy. She is a widow, survived by two
sons to carry on the name of her husband. Yet one of her sons has killed his
brother in a violent dispute. This in itself is tragic enough; yet the evil
unleashed by this violence has begun to attract still more evil. Now the
woman's clan is demanding that she surrender her remaining son to the
avenger of blood and the canons of tribal justice.
The demands they make are terrifying. First, they demand that the
"lifebreath" (Heb. nepes) of the living son be handed over as a substitute for
the lifebreath of the dead son. Second, they demand the right to "annihilate"
her son's lifebreath altogether (and by proxy, that of her husband as well). In
other words, they demand that the evil in their midst be removed by both
substitutionary and expulsionary means.
To communicate the depth of her dilemma the wise woman uses a
revealing metaphor. She describes the clan's demands as an attempt to
"quench my coal which is left." Rykle Borger has pointed out that this phrase
is similar to an Akkadian phrase which describes a man without a family as
one whose "cultic oven as gone out."39 Thus it does not seem coincidental
that the Hebrew word for "coal" in this text (gahelet) is also found in the
Isaianic tradition in a passage mocking the use of cultic "coals" in
Babylonian purification rites,40 or that the Akkadian word for "cultic oven" is
a standard fixture in neo-Assyrian exorcistic ritual.41
Then, on the level of praxis the Tekoite woman enables David to
resolve his conflict by leading him through a series' of careful maneuvers.
her counterparts in
is determined by her ability to secure the attention of and lead a client to the
point of decision.
First, she lays out the problem in the real world by constructing a
literary homeopathic substitute for it in the imaginary world, namely, the
juridical parable about the two sons. David's initial response to this parable is
noncommittal. He tells her to go away, weakly promising to look into her
problem at a later date. Her response to this brush-off is immediate and
40 Isa. 47:14.
41 See E. Reiner, Surpu: A Collection of Sumerian and Akkadian Incantations
(AFO Beiheft 11;
p. 23; and G. Meier, Die assyrische Beschworungssammlung Maqlu (AFO Beiheft 2;
MOORE/”WISE WOMEN" OR WISDOM WOMAN? 155
pointed: "Upon me, my lord 0 king, be the sin and upon the house of my
father, and let the king and his throne be innocent!"42
This is the first time anyone has mentioned the word "sin," plus the fact that
this is the first time that anyone has even implied that "sin" might be at the
root of David's conflict The wise woman carefully introduces the concept of
"sin" in the imaginary world because it is far too sensitive a matter to be dealt
with in the real world-not yet Demonstrating her experience, she maneuvers
David firmly enough to attract his attention, yet subtly enough to avoid direct
confrontation. She does not yet say who might be responsible for this "sin";
she simply notes its existence. Yet by offering to call it down upon herself
and her family, she indirectly communicates to David the utter seriousness of
his dilemma. The result of her first maneuver is not simply to secure David's
attention, but also to raise his consciousness about the unresolved guilt which
divides his family.
Accepting, then, her invitation to enter this imaginary world, David
responds to her first request with a stereotypical promise of royal assurance:
"If anyone says anything to you, bring him to me and he will never touch you
again."43 By setting in parallel the Hebrew verbs dabar ("to speak") and
naga' ("to touch, injure") David signals back to her that he, too, understands
the relationship between the world of words and the world of politics. He
knows that the threatening words of the clan have a certain power to them.
Thus he opens the door to the possibility that he might be willing to do
something to check this power, though he still refuses to take direct action.
This reaction of David encourages the wise woman to take a final,
crucial step. She asks the king to speak a specific kind of word on her behalf:
a royal oath, a word with enough power in it to protect her son's lifebreath
from the avenger of blood. Finally, David gives in and pronounces this oath
of protection in the name of Yahweh.44 Thus the Tekoite woman skillfully
leads David to decide whether the lifebreath of her last remaining son is more
important than the clan's need to expel evil.
Having accomplished this, she moves swiftly to apply David's
in the imaginary world to the unresolved conflict still plaguing
in the real world.
First, she warns David of the consequences of indecision. By refusing
to bring back his "banished one" from exile, David prohibits Absalom from
enacting his role as crown prince. Indeed, his indecision is fueling a climate
42 2 Sam. 14:9.
43 2 Sam. 14:10.
44 2 Sam. 14:11.
156 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
in which Absalom has become something of a "guilt offering" for Amnon.45
David needs to realize how dangerous this course of action is and to make the
necessary decision to bring him home.
Second, unless David makes the right decision, havoc and chaos will
intensify and his kingdom will be destroyed. Just as the death of the son in
the imaginary world leads to disaster, so the death of Absalom in the real
world has the same potential. The wise woman warns David of this by means
another revealing metaphor, one which portrays
poured out on the earth, so that it cannot be gathered up again."46
This metaphor, like her earlier one about the quenching of coals, seems
also to have its roots in the technical language of the incantation literature. A
parallel can be found in a description of a mourning ritual at
the legend of Kirtu, Kirtu becomes ill, calls his son Ilhu, and tells him not to
mourn for him. This task he wishes to entrust to Thitmanat, because she is
well-practiced in putting "her water in the field. ..the issues of her lifebreath
the heights."47 Most ritual texts at
in images very similar to those used by the Tekoite woman.
In short, a master mediator is at work in this text. When the wise
woman accepts Joab's request to mediate this dispute, when she fashions a
juridical parable, when she embellishes the parable with revealing metaphors
and potent symbols, when she succeeds in inviting her client to enter this
imaginary world and resolves the conflict which has hitherto paralyzed him,
she stands squarely in the shadow of other mediators in the ancient Near East.
To be sure, there is no trace of actual homeopathic magic in this text, just as
there is no trace of such in the story of the encounter between Saul and the
woman of Endor. The role of mediator, however, is common to both
Wise Women and Wisdom Woman
What, therefore, is the nature of the relationship between the roles
enacted by wise women in the real world and the Wisdom Woman in
Proverbs? Space restrictions prevent presenting a full-blown analysis of
Proverbs 1-9 here, but a close reading of the poems in Proverbs 1, 8, and 9
this word the king (makes) his banished one like an ‘asam by not bringing him back."
Other possible translations of this difficult text are discussed by McCarter, 2 Samuel,
pp. 340, 348.
46 2 Sam. 14:14.
47 See KTU 1.16.i.34-35, reading mmh as "her water."
from an anthropological perspective reveals a character which is complex,
composite, and highly stylized.48
In Proverbs 1:20-33 the Wisdom Woman is an angry prophet who rails
against her audience for rejecting her words and choosing panic, calamity,
and anguish in their stead. She does not appear to be in a mediatorial mood.
Instead, she is indignant and judgmental, pouring out on her audience
language which seems much more at home in the thundering day-of-Yahweh
prophecies than the relatively placid world of the scribes.
Another facet of her personality surfaces in Proverbs 8:1-21. Here the
Wisdom Woman is in a didactic mood, a cerebral professor who drops serene
couplets of wisdom from her lips like polished pearls, dispassionately
offering her message and herself to an eager audience of attentive male
students.49 Proverbs 8:22-36 expands and embellishes this role until the
Wisdom Woman towers like a "goddess" over her "devotees." Still, there is
no trace of a mediatorial role here.
In the confrontation between the Wisdom Woman and the Foolish
Woman in Proverbs 9:1-18, there is a conflict of sorts between entrenched
enemies. The Foolish Woman slavishly and diabolically imitates the Wisdom
Woman's message and demeanor in a concentrated attempt to lure students
away. But nowhere in this poem does the Wisdom Woman attempt to mediate
a resolution to the conflict which separates them. Instead, this conflict is
portrayed as an ancient, inevitable, and irresolvable dispute between cosmic
good and cosmic evil. Only those destined for Sheol fail to recognize it as
From a comparative perspective, therefore, there seem to be few
genuine affinities between the real world of the wise women and the literary
world of the Wisdom Woman.
First, in the real world, wise women in Anatolia
some kind of parallelistic technique in order to help clients resolve their
conflicts. Whether one is comfortable with calling these techniques
48 Claus Westermann see these poems as didactic, abstract, and rather late in
der Weisheit: Die altesten Spruche
Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1990), p. 130, conclusions which are all sharply
challenged by Michael V. Fox in his review of Wurzeln der Weisheit in JBL 111
49 The erotic element is picked up and elaborated by Sirach in Sir 51:13-21. For
further study, see C. Deutsch, "The Sirach Acrostic: Confession and Exhortation,"
ZAW 94 (1982): 400-409; and R. Murphy, "Wisdom and Eros in Proverbs 1-9," CBQ
158 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
"homeopathic" or not, they are certainly "parallelistic." In the imaginary
world of Proverbs 1-9, the Wisdom Woman speaks prophetically,
didactically, and majestically to an all-male audience of diplomats and
scribes, but there is no parallelism here, no parables-juridical or otherwise,
and certainly no trace of homeopathic praxis.
Second, wise women in Anatolia and
conservative when dealing with evil. As experienced professionals they
understand well the need for discretion, indirection, and caution when dealing
with complex human disputes, as well as with the unseen forces which were
almost universally believed to have caused them. By contrast, the Wisdom
Woman is direct and forthright, whether enacting a prophetic role
condemning the foolish, a professorial role enlightening the ignorant, or a
divine role recounting the mysteries of the universe.
Finally, there seems to be no real crisis at the root of Proverbs 1-9, no
thorny conflict, no bloody dispute at the center of this text. Wise women in
the real world are professional mediators hired to resolve messy conflicts.
Theirs is the world of human ambition and human pride. The Wisdom
Woman, on the other hand, is animated by an imaginary world where dispute
is marginal and conflict irresolvable. Hers is a world of scribes and sages, not
warriors. In her world, "wisdom" seems less a real person than a timeless
Consequently those who would look to scripture for guidance
regarding the role of women in the church today would better be served by
looking to the roles wise women play in the real world as well as the
portrait bequeathed us by
Whether one or the other of these portrayals is primarily responsible for the
statements attributed to Paul in Romans 16:1-2, 1 Timothy 2:8-15,
1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 is a question which needs
to be answered in the light of further study. Hopefully this study will be one
which is canonically broad, culturally aware, historically accurate and
theologically informed by all the relevant biblical texts, not just those left us
from the first century AD.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Restoration Quarterly Corporation
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