Hokhma

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Hokhma

Hokhma is the feminine personification of Wisdom found in Jewish and other ancient Near Eastern literature. She is distinct from the personifications of other abstract concepts, such as Word, Spirit, Truth, or Faithfulness, because Hokhma reaches the more fully developed status of an independent manifestation, or hypostasis, of divine wisdom. Although Hokhma is closely associated with God, she is a powerful character in her own right. In ancient Near Eastern society, and Judaism in particular, she plays the roles of creator of the world, the educator of humanity, and the savior of Israel. These theologically significant responsibilities, her close relationship with God, and relative prominence among other religious personifications have caused scholars to speculate that within Judaism, Hokhma is an expression of the feminine divine, a counterbalance to the masculinity of God.

The literature in which Hokhma appears can be divided into three categories: the canonical Ketuvim (Writings) of the Hebrew Bible, Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and non-Jewish ancient Near Eastern writings. Each category of literature contributes something to the overall character of Hokhma.

In the Ketuvim, the book of Proverbs makes the most frequent references to Hokhma. The first chapter of Proverbs recounts Hokhma's appearance as a prophet in the market of Jerusalem, preaching a message of reproach and punishment for those who fail to accept her knowledge and authority. For those who listen to her and follow her teachings she promises safety from evil. In chapter eight, Hokhma shows up again to describe herself as a force of righteousness, the creator of just leadership, and the punisher of evil. Proverbs also names Hokhma as God's first creation and claims she was the master crafts-person responsible for aiding with the rest of creation. Finally Proverbs describes a banquet thrown by Hokhma where she invites humanity to leave behind foolishness and adopt her teachings. The book of Proverbs portrays Hokhma as a formative divine figure who benevolently provides people with the knowledge they need to achieve salvation. The parallels between Hokhma's roles and behavior and those of God were clear to the Jewish reader.

Hokhma reached the height of her popularity in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Jewish literature not included in the Hebrew Bible. The book of the Wisdom of Solomon includes detailed descriptions of Hokhma that call her a lover of humanity, omnipotent, mother of all good things, giver of life and immortality to the just, and the creator of prophets. Chapter ten completely elides any distinction between Hokhma and God by retelling the story of Israel's salvation so that acts of salvation traditionally associated with the Hebrew god YHWH (Yahweh) are attributed to Hokhma. For instance Hokhma delivers Adam from sin, punishes Cain for forsaking her, guides the righteous man to safety during the flood, strengthens Abraham, rescues Lot, and uses Moses to free the Israelites from slavery. In this version of the Genesis story, Hokhma has replaced God.

In other Pseudepigrapha writings, Hokhma comes to live amongst humanity in order to give them instruction so that they could live a religiously proper life. The book of Sirach notes that in her role as teacher of religion, Hokhma is equated with the Torah. Later, in Rabbinic Judaism, when the influence of Hokhma had waned, the rabbis used the Hokhma-Torah equation to assign to the Torah roles such as creator and savior that had previously been associated with Hokhma.

Outside of Jewish literature, hokhma appears as a descriptive phrase in the Aramaic book of Ahiqar (5th century bce), meaning of the gods, precious to the gods and exalted by the lord of holy ones. Elsewhere in ancient Near Eastern literature parallels to Hokhma as an independent feminine divinity are found in the Egyptian goddess Maat (Truth, Order), the Babylonian-Canaanite Kittu (Truth) and Mīsharu (Justice), Babylonian-Hurrian Hasīsu (Understanding, Intelligence), and Siduri, the goddess of Wisdom in the Epic of Gilgamesh. All of these figures are indicative of the existence of a feminine component of the divine in ancient Near Eastern culture.

The notion of the feminine divine in the ancient Near East was strong enough that even the monotheism of Judaism could not completely erase it; rather it emerged in the form of Hokhma, divine Wisdom. It is likely that Hokhma was also a model for the Gnostic Christian figure of Sophia.

see also Christianity, Early and Medieval; Gnosticism; Goddess Worship; Judaism; Sophia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Matthews, Shelly; Cynthia Briggs Kittredge; and Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre. 2003. Walk in the Ways of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.

                                                Jennifer Hart