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OKHMAH . The Hebrew feminine noun okhmah (variation of okhmot, Prv. 1:20, 9:1, 14:1) reflects a common Semitic root, attested in Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Arabic. okhmah is conventionally rendered as "wisdom," though biblical usage has a broader semantic range than the English term. In itself an ethically and religiously neutral term, okhmah denotes, along with intellectual prowess and sagacity, the mastery of crafts ranging from such concrete skills as spinning cloth (Ex. 35:25), working in metal, wood, and stone (Ex. 31:36), and navigation (Ps. 107:27), to the more subtle arts of dream interpretation (Gn. 41:8), ritual wailing (Jer. 9:16), sorcery (Is. 3:3), epigrammatic speech (1 Kgs. 5:914), diplomacy and court politics (2 Sm. 20:1622; 1 Kgs. 2:6, 2:9; cf. Eccl. 9:1318;), and the exercise of kingship (1 Kgs. 5:26; cf. the ironic use in Is. 10:13 and Ez. 28:45, 28:12).

okhmah in Biblical Piety

Human okhmah is also interpreted as and identified with piety (literally "fear of the Lord") in the so-called wisdom literature (i.e., Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ben Sira, Wisdom of Solomon ) and elsewhere (e.g., Is. 33:6). In Proverbs, okhmah indicates ethical virtue and character as well as practical accomplishment: wisdom and its antithesis, folly, are equivalent to the paralleled righteousness and wickedness found in other proverbs. okhmah is evident in industry; integrity; circumspect behavior; felicitous, effective, and truthful speech; respect for parents; and care for the poor. To some degree these are pragmatic measures that make for successful living, with promised results in societal honor, security, and protection from the divine wrath attendant upon transgressions. Thus the formulation that "the beginning of okhmah is the fear of the Lord" reflects, on one level, utilitarian self-interest. But the notion also takes a more speculative turn: fear of the Lord is the means to life and knowledge of God (e.g., Prv. 9:1011, 14:27, 19:23; cf. Ps. 111:10).

okhmah is attributed to the deity, especially to the technical skill with which God created the world (Jer. 10:12, 51:15; Prv. 3:1920; Ps. 104:24). Extraordinary wisdom of mortals can merit the hyperbole of divinelike okhmah (1 Kgs. 3:28; Ezr. 7:25; cf. 2 Sm. 14:20, "like the wisdom of a divine angel"), and exceptional human okhmah is sometimes considered God's gift (Ex. 28:3; 2 Chr. 1:1012). God also may impart the "spirit" of okhmah, as to the anointed king (Is. 11:12) or to Joshua, Moses' charismatic successor (Dt. 34:9). The exemplar is Solomon in 1 Kings 3 who, when offered a boon by God in a dream, asks for a "listening heart" and is granted riches and honor as well. (Much of the biblical wisdom literature thus claims explicitly or implicitly to come from Solomon, though this is pseudonymous attribution.)

More typical is wisdom gained through human efforts (e.g., Prv. 3:13, 4:5, 4:7, 23:23, 29:15). Though aware of ambiguity and human limitation (e.g., Prv. 16:1, 16:9, 16:33, 26:45), Proverbs ' ethos remains optimistic about this quest. The tradition takes a skeptical turn in Ecclesiastes, however, where injustice and death lead the author to a sense of meaninglessness ("all is vanity") and the opinion that one who increases wisdom increases sorrow (Eccl. 1:18). The Book of Job also severely relativizes human wisdom in comparison to God's.

The Female Personification of okhmah

The paradox of wisdom sought by humans and also conferred by God appears strikingly in passages that personify okhmah as a woman. The theme's most restrained treatment is found in Job 28. This elegant poem treats of the rarity and elusiveness of true wisdomhere perhaps only an abstraction rather than a full personificationwhose place in the created order is known only to the Creator. In contrast to Job 's hidden wisdom is itsnow "her"easy accessibility in Proverbs 19, where she is met in the streets, the markets, the city gates, and her house, offering life to followers of her ways (Prv. 1:3233, 8:3536, 9:16, 9:11). This message, as well as the female figure itself, unites the several personification poems in these chapters; however, there are also variations in okhmah's portrayal.

In Proverbs 1 okhmah's rhetoric is much like the angry diatribe of a scolding prophet. Woman Wisdom threatens to turn a deaf ear to those who reject her in good times but seek her counsel when calamity strikes. She will ignore their pleas, laughing scornfully at their downfall (Prv. 1:2033). Although women (e.g., Deborah, Jgs. 45; and Huldah, 2 Kgs. 22:1420) as well as men could be prophets, okhmah's female gender predominates in passages that cast her as the wife or lover and source of honor to the man who loves and embraces her (Prv. 4:59, 7:4). This relational imagery links her with the sexually desirable wife (Prv. 5:1519) and with the industrious worthy woman depicted in the book's concluding poem (Prv. 31:1031), who is herself a paragon of okhmah. Both the wife and Wisdom protect their mates from the dangerous "strange woman," who lures the unsuspecting man into sexual misadventure (Prv. 5:2023, 7:523, cf. 2:2619). Social commentary regarding proper family bonds finds expression here, although these poems are one of the few places in the Hebrew Bible where the sexual double standard is not in evidence: men are enjoined to fidelity as much as women. The patriarchal mindset nonetheless emerges in the binary opposition of good woman and bad woman.

Other poems use the female imagery to constitute competing superhuman forces. The path of the strange woman, who appears as personified Folly in the concluding poem of Proverbs 19, leads to death: "her guests are in the depths of Sheol" (Prv. 9:18, cf. 2:1819, 5:56, 5:23, 7:27). Wisdom, in contrast, offers life, an offer whose credibility is enhanced by the remarkable poem in Proverbs 8. As in chapter 1, she speaks in the first person, here offering a calmly reasoned exposition of her merits. The setting is once again a public one (Prv. 8:23), and her appeal is universal (if gendered), to all "men" (Prv. 8:4). The words of her mouth represent the timeless virtues of truth and justice. Her self-assertion builds in power as she claims to be the source of just governance (Prv. 8:1517), before touching back to the love language of the earlier poems. Her worth exceeds that of gold and silver, yet she will also fill the treasuries of her righteous lovers (Prv. 8:1821), an allusion perhaps to the story of wise Solomon. The climax of her argument (Prv. 8:2231) asserts nothing less than a cosmic pedigree, placing herself with God before creation.

The language of this section is dense with multiple meanings, creating a complex and shifting picture of her relationship to the deity. Following the Greek translation of Proverbs 8:22, most English versions read, "The Lord created me at the beginning of his work." The verb (qnh ) more typically means "acquire," however, and is used of a man acquiring a wife. It can also be construed as "engender," biological conception language that continues in Proverbs 8:2425, where Wisdom says she was "brought forth" (ll), the usual term for birthing. Is she then God's creation, God's wife, God's daughter? Another crux comes in Proverbs 8:30 with the unusual word ʾamon, translated by some as "darling child," by others as "master architect." She plays before the deity, delighting him, but finds her own delight in the human world (Prv. 8:3031).

In Proverbs 9:16 the images of the wise homemaker and the divine companion at creation conjoin in the accomplished architect of her own seven-pillared edifice, a structure that has received diverse interpretations (architectural, cosmic, astrological, mythological). From her house she sends out her maids to call to the simple to come partake of the food and wine she has prepared, thus obtaining the life-giving substance of Wisdom herself.

Personified Wisdom in the Ancient Context

While Wisdom's association with acceptable human female rolesincluding village leaders identified as "wise women" (2 Sm. 14:120, 20:1622)may have contributed to her appropriation into a largely patriarchal culture and monotheistic text, the ancient understanding of this figure has been the subject of much scholarly debate. The personification of okhmah may be compared to the personified attributes Faithfulness (esed), Truth (ʾemet), Well-being (shalom), and Right (tsedeq ) in Psalms 85:1114 and thus understood as merely a literary device, female by virtue of its grammatical feminine gender. Reference to the "spirit of wisdom" provides a further biblical parallel (e.g., Ex. 28:3; Dt. 34:9; Is. 11:2). First Kings 22 depicts a vision in which God holds court, surrounded by the hosts of heaven; the "spirit" of Falsehood steps forward, volunteering to do the divine bidding. This ancient belief in independent divine beings attendant upon Yahweh may suggest that okhmah 's personification is no mere literary trope but reflects a view of wisdom as "hypostasis," an independently existing manifestation of divine wisdom, or of the order inherent in the divine creation. The Aramaic Book of Aiqar (fifth century bce), where okhmata is spoken of as "of the gods," "precious to the gods," and whom "the lord of holy ones has exalted," provides a close parallel in extrabiblical literature.

Ancient Near Eastern literature also depicts a number of goddesses who have been argued, with varying degrees of success, to provide a model, or perhaps a repressed background, for female Wisdom. Both the literary forms and iconography associated with the Egyptian Maat (the term designates both the concept of cosmic order and its divine hypostasis) parallel to some degree the presentation of biblical Wisdom, but it is difficult to establish a direct linkage. Closer yet is Isis, who gains international currency in the Hellenistic period, perhaps a bit later than the Proverbs poems but clearly reflected in the Greek-language Wisdom of Solomon 's rendition of okhmah as Sophia (see below). Inscriptional evidence discovered in the late twentieth century shows the ongoing presence of the Canaanite goddess Asherah in Israelite religious practice (perhaps as Yahweh's consort); the ultimate success of her suppression in the biblical literature leads some to suggest that she appears in sublimated form in Woman Wisdom.

The larger literary role played by the female imagery in Proverbs may provide one window into the social setting of those who deployed and developed the okhmah concept. The book consists of twenty-one chapters (1030) constituted mainly by collections of individual two-line proverbs. The proverb (Hebrew, mashal) is a constant feature of verbal rhetoric across all oral cultures (see, e.g., Jgs. 8:21 and 1 Sm. 16:7 for proverb performance in Hebrew narrative). Proverbs were taught in the home and village environment by mothers and fathers (cf. Prv. 1:8) as well as used by society's leaders. In the Book of Proverbs, however, the collected meshalim are removed from their life contexts and shaped into bilinear parallel form, probably by the educated elite in the royal court. The instructional poems in chapters 19 and 31 then bracket the proverb collections, providing structure to the book as a whole. Here their situational, utilitarian wisdom is construed as an exemplar of a universal Wisdom, embodied in both divine and earthly female form. This literary work is no doubt that of scribes, probably connected with the Jerusalem Temple during the period of Persian and Hellenistic rule (likely fifth through third centuries bce). Ironically then the female imagery that is excluded from the Second Temple Judaean cult is maintained, if also tamed, in the okhmah of the scribes who produce the Bible.

Female Wisdom in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

The Wisdom figure constitutes a unique and surprising elevation of the feminine in the Hebrew Bible that reappears in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, sometimes with striking elaboration and innovation. In Ben Sira 24:121 (composed by a Temple scribe about 180 bce), Wisdom again speaks on her own behalf, telling of her origination before creation "from the mouth of the Most High." Seeking a resting place, she makes her dwelling in Zion, this focus on the temple replacing Proverbs ' focus on creation. Following okhmah's own words, the narrator explicitly identifies her with the law of the covenant (v. 22). So too a hymn to Wisdom in Baruch (3:94:4) declares Wisdom to be "the book of God's laws," God's special revelation to Israel. While Ben Sira 's Wisdom finds a home in Jerusalem, fragments of a okhmah myth preserved in 1 Enoch 42 recount how Wisdom, not finding any suitable dwelling place among humankind, returns to her original place among the angels.

In Ben Sira 51:1330 the scribe celebrates his acquisition of Wisdom, making novel reference to her "beauty" and the desires it arouses. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain another version of this passage that speaks through bolder, more suggestively erotic double entendre (11QPsa cols. xxixxii). In the Wisdom of Solomon (8:2), composed in Greek, the wise king recalls how he sought to take Wisdom (Sophia) as his "bride." This Alexandrian text from the first century bce or ce depicts Wisdom as an independent being, seemingly radiated out from the deity, an auralike emanation of God's glory and light (Wisd. of Sol. 7:2526). Articulating what is only suggested in Proverbs, she is an associate, if not the active force, in creation (Wisd. of Sol. 7:22, 8:4), sitting by God's throne (Wisd. of Sol. 9:4). The rehearsal of Israel's early story in Wisdom of Solomon 10 goes so far as to place Sophia in God's saving role.

The Talmud and early midrashim devote little attention to speculation on personified okhmah. There she is effectively replaced by personified Torah, though there is the odd remnant from Proverbs. "If one dreams he has had intercourse with his sister, he may expect to obtain wisdom, since it says, Say to wisdom, thou art my sister" (Berachoth 57a). More typical is R. Eleazar: "The deduction is made from this text: Say unto wisdom, 'Thou art my sister,' and call understanding thy kinswoman, devise [mnemonic] signs for the Torah" (Eiruvin 54b). In Genesis Rabbah 1:1, Torah rather than okhmah is made by God at the beginning of his way and serves as God's architect in creation. Similarly the bread and wine offered in Proverbs 9:5 is Torah, with Wisdom's first person reference assimilated to God's voice. The rabbinic interpreter of Torah nonetheless is known as a akham, a wise man or sage. Rabbinic reticence about okhmah 's personification may have been partially conditioned by Wisdom's prominent role in the cosmology of Christian and non-Christian Greek Gnostic traditions, which further incorporated the Hebrew term into their system in the form of Achamoth, said to be a daughter or lesser form of Sophia.

In Jewish mystical literature, Qabbalah, okhmah is the second of the ten sefirot, or divine emanations, hearkening back to its important role in Greek Jewish and Gnostic speculation. The imagery varies. The ten sefirot sometimes form a tree, growing downward from the first sefirah (keter, "crown"). Here okhmah may be part of the trunk or the water that makes the tree grow. When the sefirot form a human, okhmah is part of the head.

In another system the first sefirah is nothingness, zero, and okhmah is the primordial point intermediate between nothingness and being, imaged as the center of a palace, as a river's source, or as a seed in the womb, with the third sefirah (binah, "understanding") comprising, respectively, the palace, the river, or the womb. Whereas in the Bible these two terms are essentially synonyms, here okhmah represents a masculine principle, described as Father in the Zohar, requiring the balance of binah, the metaphorical Mother. The sefirot sometimes reveal different forms of the divine name, with okhmah as Yah. Relatedly the divine emanations may be of language as well as creation, tying okhmah again to Torah. The preexistent Torah, its most secret aspect, is sometimes identified with God's primordial wisdom. Qabbalah's personifications of Shekhinah (God's presence) and Sabbath also took on motifs similar to those associated with personified okhmah in biblical and apocryphal literature. The praise of the wise wife in Proverbs 31 became a hymn to Shekhinah, which was in turn identified with Queen Sabbath, met as the mystic Bride.

See Also



Cady, Susan, Marian Ronan, and Hal Taussig. Wisdom's Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration. San Francisco, 1989. A comprehensive review of the texts as well as contemporary feminist theological reflection on female Wisdom.

Camp, Claudia V. Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs. Decatur, Ga., 1985. Connects the female imagery for okhmah to biblical images of human women.

Fox, Michael V. Proverbs. Anchor Bible vol. 18A18B. New York, 2000. A detailed discussion of the meanings of wisdom and its synonyms in the Book of Proverbs along with a critical review of the scholarly literature on personified Wisdom.

Gammie, John G., and Leo G. Perdue, eds. The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East. Winona Lake, Ind., 1990. Scholarly literary and sociological treatments of the sages who produced both biblical and extrabiblical wisdom literature.

King, Karen L., ed. Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism. Philadelphia, 1988. Many of these articles deal with Gnostic Sophia.

McKinlay, Judith E. Gendering Wisdom the Host. Sheffield, U.K., 1996. Traces okhmah's ancestry back to the goddess Asherah and forward into the New Testament Gospel of John.

O'Connor, Kathleen M. The Wisdom Literature. Wilmington, Del., 1988. A more popular but still perceptive introduction, casting wisdom as a "spirituality for the marketplace."

Rad, Gerhard von. Wisdom in Israel. Translated by James D. Martin. Nashville, 1972. A classic and influential study of biblical and ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature that includes Rad's highly original views on the nature of personified Wisdom as "the self-revelation of creation."

Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. Jerusalem, 1974. The definitive treatment of these often arcane texts.

Murray H. Lichtenstein (1987)

Claudia V. Camp (2005)