“Wisdom.” We can see from the scope of Proverbs and from the context of this verse that “Wisdom” is being used figuratively—it is being portrayed as a person; a woman. Taking a concept and speaking of it as if it were a person is the figure of speech “personification,” and personification zoomorphisms are quite common in the Bible, especially in Hebrew poetry (zoomorphism is described below).
“Personification” occurs when something that is not a person is described as a person or ascribed the attributes of a person. We humans relate so well to other humans that referring to something as a person often makes a complex subject easy to understand. Personification can also make an abstract idea or thought easier to understand than literal narrative does because it uses concrete imagery from human experience, so the Bible often uses personification when describing intangible concepts.
Whereas stating something factually gives us information, the figure of speech personification communicates both information and emotion well. For example, saying the people of Israel broke their covenant with God gives us information but does not communicate much emotion. In contrast, referring to Israel as a woman and saying she deserted her husband and committed adultery with her pagan lovers gives us the information but also brings up a host of emotions. Similarly, we can very factually say the earth will be blessed when it is restored to a pristine state in the Messianic Kingdom, or we can communicate the joy and excitement by personification and say, “the mountains and the hills will break forth into singing…and all the trees of the fields will clap their hands” (Isa. 55:12).
There are many dozens of examples of personification in the Bible. Wisdom is portrayed as a woman calling out for people to listen to her (Prov. 8:1). Ethiopia is portrayed as a woman stretching out her hands to God (Ps. 68:31); The blood of Abel is portrayed as a person crying out from the ground after Cain killed him (Gen. 4:10). The waters of the sea, which split to let Israel escape from Egypt, are portrayed as being afraid of God and thus running away: “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid” (Ps. 77:16 ESV).
Wisdom is personified in the book of Proverbs so that the reader can better understand the virtuous qualities that wisdom can offer and the role it played in God’s acts of creation. Similarly, “Folly” (foolishness) is personified in Proverbs (cp. Prov. 9:13) so we can see how foolish people think and act, and also see the disastrous consequences of their actions.
We should also pay attention to the fact that Wisdom is personified as a woman, not a man, and so is “Folly” (Prov. 9:13), and also Wisdom’s female attendants, such as “discernment” (Prov. 2:2, tebunah #08394 [תְּבוּנָה]); “understanding” (Prov. 2:3, 1st stanza, biynah #0998 [בִּינָה]); and “discretion” (Prov. 2:11, mezimmah #04209 [מְזִמָּה]), which are all feminine nouns. In fact, one cannot read Proverbs in the Hebrew without getting the feeling that God has gone out of His way to find feminine nouns that support the personification of Wisdom and her attendants.
Casting “Wisdom,” “understanding,” “discernment,” and “discretion” as women adds to the overall sense of what God is saying in Proverbs about desiring those things and following after them in life. Culturally, the readers of Proverbs would be men because women (and lower-class men) typically were not taught to read, and Proverbs is specifically for the young and inexperienced, thus the young men, although to others as well (Prov. 1:4). The young men should be interested in, and desire, the godly women, but will they? Wisdom and her female friends call out to them, but they are godly and demand things like being wise and exerting self-control. Alas, Wisdom has a rival: Folly. Folly (Prov. 9:13) uses her sex and sensual pleasures to appeal to the young men, and despite Wisdom’s warning that those who “visit” her end up dead, many foolish young men ignore the consequences and follow their fleshly desires.
One thing that is important to understand when reading a personification, such as Wisdom, is that even though it is portrayed as a woman, “Wisdom” refers to any wise person, male or female. Thus, when Proverbs 14:1 says that “Lady Wisdom has built her house,” the person who understands the figure personification knows that “Lady Wisdom” refers to both women and men. The verse is saying that the wise woman or man builds up their house, but “Folly,” the foolish woman or man, tears it down.
Culturally, Proverbs portrays Lady Wisdom doing things that women would not do, or almost never do, in the biblical culture. For example, women would almost never be calling out at the city gate, which is where the town elders gathered, who would have been men (Prov. 1:20; 8:3); nor would a woman send her young female servants out into the town to gather people for a feast; male servants would be sent to do that (Prov. 9:3). Similarly, “Wisdom,” as an advisor would be either a man or woman depending on who was getting the advice (Prov. 13:10). These verses are not a cultural aberration giving women jobs they culturally would not do; the reader would understand they applied to wise men, who are included in the figure personification.
Every person makes the decision to follow either God or the flesh, and how we decide is reflected in what we think, say, and do, as Jesus said, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16).
To more accurately understand the Bible it is worth noting the difference between the figure of speech personification and the figure of speech zoomorphism. “Personification” gives human qualities to something nonhuman. For example, here in Proverbs, by the figure personification, the qualities of wisdom and folly are given human characteristics and portrayed as women, which makes those qualities more personable and easier to relate to.
In contrast to personification, the figure of speech zoomorphism gives animal qualities to things that are not animal, including people, or giving the qualities of one animal to another animal. Giving an animal quality to a person or concept brings action and emotion to the situation. For example, note the different feel of the situation between a person giving orders, barking out orders, or purring their request. Or, the different mind-picture between a person walking across the room, slithering across the room, or galloping across the room. Zoomorphisms often occur in similes or metaphors, such as, “you eat like a pig” or “what you said ruffled my feathers.” An example of zoomorphism of a concept occurs in Genesis 4:7 when sin is portrayed as an animal “crouching” at the door of Cain’s tent. Zoomorphisms are often inherent in other figures of speech, such as when the Devil is called “the serpent”—which is a zoomorphism—by the figure of speech hypocatastasis.
[For more on the three figures of comparison, simile, metaphor, and hypocatastasis, see commentary on Revelation 20:2].
“raises her voice.” The Hebrew is literally, “gives forth her voice,” but it is an idiom for speaking loudly, raising one’s voice, or shouting. Idioms can be hard to spot when the literal seems to make sense, and this is one of those places. That is why a scholar has to know the language very well.
Although it would not necessarily be common to hear women raising their voices in public in the biblical culture, it was not unheard of. Throughout history there were wise women who rose to prominence and were given a voice in the city and even in the whole country. Deborah became the judge over Israel because of her wisdom and prophetic ability (Judges 4 and 5). A wise woman saved the city of Abel Beth-maachah from Joab and David’s army (2 Sam. 20:16-19). A read through the Old Testament shows a number of wise women, especially prophetesses, who rose to prominence through their wisdom and actions.
When Scripture gives human characteristics to inanimate objects, that is a figure of speech called “Personification.” This figure helps simplify complex ideas, abstract concepts, human emotion, and poetic interpretation in Scripture.
Verses: many examples
Teacher: John Schoenheit