Shush – Wisdom’s still Speaking

The book of Proverbs belongs to a genre of Biblical writing known as the Wisdom Literature. Proverbs belongs with Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), Job, and Sirach or sometimes known as Ecclesiasticus.  Although adapted to Jewish issues and concerns Wisdom literature is not Hebrew in origin. Similar material is also found in Egyptian and Babylonian sources.

Wisdom focuses on the challenge to live life skillfully in a spirit of enquiry and wonder. In the face of suffering, Wisdom is unsatisfied by the conventional answer: because God wills it. Wisdom challenges suffering and the apparent futile and fleeting nature of life and says: yes, but why?

Wisdom presents a complex and multilayered worldview – sitting in tension with more conventional biblical voices. We see this tension playing out again and again throughout Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach. Personified in the feminine – Wisdom expresses the feminine principle – the anima of the divine – later to find an echo in the Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit – the pneuma – the breath of God. The Greek term for Wisdom is sophia. Sophia, expressing creation’s feminine principle has been affectionately known in English literature as Lady Wisdom.

Proverbs 31, enumerating the qualities of the good wife appears to have been written as the inspired utterances of the Queen-Mother for her son, King Lemuel (identity unknown) in his search for the ideal spouse. Thus, the depiction of the capable wife found from verse 10 onwards is in its original context a description of the ideal virtues to be found in a great queen. It is definitely NOT a description of the virtues of ordinary wifeliness which the patriarchal tradition of Jewish and Christian interpretation has embraced.

Last week I stressed the importance of words. Words matter! This week I want to draw attention to two Hebrew words isshah and chayil.

All wives are women but not all women are wives. In the word isshah, ancient Hebrew does not distinguish between wife and woman. In English, as well as other languages with Germanic roots, isshah has been rendered as wife. The difficulty here is that this is an interpretive gloss which reflects the patriarchal bias. All wives are women but not all women are wives. But in patriarchy, that is,  the social structures headed by the father and privileging the power and status of men over women – that all wives are women but not all women are wives becomes all women may not yet be wives – emphasis on the yet. The essence of womanhood is to be fulfilled only through becoming a wife. Hence Proverbs 31’s traditional interpretation as a hymn of praise extoling the attributes of the good wife.

English translators have for 500 years struggled with the Hebrew word Chayil – variously translating it as good, virtuous, valiant, or as the NRSV does – capable. Yet, all these translations miss chayil’s clearest meaning of warrior-like. There is quite a difference when verse 10 if instead of a capable wife, who can find we read a warrior-like – strong woman – who can find?  Wouldn’t this introduce a novel twist to The Handwife’s Tale let alone challenge Evangelical notions of male headship?

Proverbs 31 nowhere presents a picture of dutiful and obedient wifeliness. Neither does it in any place extol the virtues of motherhood. This woman is not chained to her stove or her children, she is not domestic at all but seems to be something of a combination of a wise and frugal merchant, creative artisan and provider, and social philanthropist. The text notes that her husband is well known at the city gates – who with a woman like this at his side – would not be?

When chayil is rendered warrior-like, strong, invincible, Amazon-like, as opposed to merely virtuous or capable, the exhausting list of this woman’s social and domestic productivity is only capped by her crowning glory – which resides not in her industriousness, neither in her physical beauty, nor her cocktail-hour social charm and wit. According to Wisdom, her crowning glory lies in her fear of the Lord – as in holding the Lord in proper esteem. Hence the saying: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Never mind her husband’s honor among his peers, Proverbs 31 concludes with:

Give her a share in the fruit of her hand, and let her works praise her in the city gates!

Proverbs 31

In the 21st-century, this is a difficult text for the unwary preacher. It is a text that speaks to both the hopeful expectations as well as the enduring pain and struggle lying at the heart of contemporary issues of gender and power.

It’s extraordinary when considering that such a text, read for centuries as a patriarchal hymn to wifely virtue is one of the clearest biblical endorsements for what we have come to refer to as the emancipation of women. Such a reinterpretation rests on the strength of what the text says. Words Matter! Strip away Tradition’s male-dominated wifely fantasies and we are compelled to allow the text to speak anew into our own gender-contested context.

The emancipation of women and the emergence of the woman’s voice in our political and theological context constitutes not simply a new social awakening – but a return to the vision of womanhood in Proverbs 31. The emancipation of women in our own time is a veritable tsunami that continues to sweep before it centuries of women’s experience of injustice and oppression at the hands of both the female as well as the male supporters of patriarchy. Much of the energy of the anti-abortion movement is understandable only when the age-old patriarchal fear of women being in control of their own reproductive choices is factored in.

In its original context, Proverbs 31 constituted an idealized image of royal womanhood. Nevertheless, allowing for such idealization, the text expresses Wisdom’s image of womanhood not domesticated to the home and hearth but as strong, vital, and socially engaged in all aspects of civic life.

Wisdom’s worldview deeply informs the shape of Jesus ministry and teaching. Wisdom’s challenge to worldly values of dominance and power echoes loudly in Jesus’ deeply countercultural honoring of women.

In Mark 9:30-37, we find Jesus sternly castigating his disciples for masculine preoccupation with power and dominance. His response comes straight from the heart of Wisdom’s playbook. In his day children were even more oppressed than women in the hierarchy of patriarchy. Driving home his point- he -takes a little child and in Wisdom’s voice proclaims:

whoever welcomes one such a child in my name, welcomes me; and not only me, but the one who has sent me!

In the wake of the tsunami of women’s emancipation, and the growing recognition of the rights of the child – we are awakening to a tidal wave of repentance for the way we have been deaf to the age-long cries of women and children. Open your ears – can you hear Wisdom is still speaking?


When we lived in Phoenix, our granddaughter, Claire, attended a very alternative Montessori school founded by members of the Western Sikh community – you know the men and women clothed in white and sporting impressively high white turbans. One day while collecting Claire I witnessed an argument between two children.

The other children standing around, instead of egging them on  admonished the protagonists to: use your words! Use your words!

I was deeply impressed by these relatively young children – I guess they must have been under 10 years of age – diffusing conflict by urging their peers to process their feelings into words – and avoid unthought out action.

It’s the failure to process feelings into words that lies at the root of a great deal of violence in our society. Instead of feelings being processed into verbal communications – the failure to find words results in feelings remaining unprocessed.

Our unprocessed feelings avoid our conscious scrutiny – taking an end run around our power to choose -becoming acted out in behaviors that unleash the intensity of the feelings through spontaneous action.

Use your words! Use your words! – could well be the motto by which we all seek to live. Through processing into words, we begin to exercise conscious choice over our unconscious or hidden feelings – creating a space between feeling and action for choice.

Our nation’s journey since 9/11 – highlighted more recently during the Trump presidency – has shown us how much words matter and the damage that the wrong words can cause. Words matter!

There are pivotal moments in history when time divides into a time before and time after – a time when nothing again was quite the same. The question: where were you on 9/11? has joined the question: where were you when JFK was assassinated? as two key historical pivot points in our collective memory.

On 9/11, not since Pearl Harbor, had such a devastating wound been inflicted upon the nation – a wound that would evoke a dark desire for reckoning. After Pearl Harbor the desire for a reckoning took a predictable shape against a clearly defined adversary. Following 9/11 – the dark urgency for a reckoning had no clearly defined object. Consequently, our leaders conjured up an imagined adversary – setting us on an unpredictable path – a path from which we are only now finally exiting some 20 years later.

Words matter, and none more so than when President Bush proudly proclaimed those four fateful words: the war on terror. Like President Reagan’s earlier war on drugs, the war on terror –was a phrase – seemingly meaningless in content – yet huge in destructive import.

Words matter – and it’s the wrong words – paradoxically – that sometimes matter most.

  • If our leaders had been able to find words to communicate the complexity of a nation in shock- words capable of giving voice to the confusion and fear of a nation in pain – words of leadership and vision capable of processing the pain and confusion of a nation into positive action.
  • If our leaders had been able to find the words of a Lincoln at Gettysburg, or Churchill in 1941, or MLK at the head of the Washington Mall, or Robert Kennedy standing before a crowd primed for violence – in those moments when the news reached them that MLK was dead – what then – what different direction might history have taken in the years following the events on 9/11?

There were other words uttered in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks – words easily drowned out by a bellicose cacophony. Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against giving President Bush unsupervised war powers, standing alone on the floor of the House uttered these words

Only the most foolish and the most callous would not understand the grief that has gripped our people and millions across the world. This unspeakable act on the United States has really forced me, however, to rely on my moral compass, my conscience, and my God for direction. September 11th changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning…Let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control.”

She concluded:

I have agonized over this vote. I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful yet very beautiful memorial service. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, ‘As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore’.

Words matter. Taking time to pause before acting leads us to find the right words – giving us the power to exercise conscious choices over which actions to take and which to refrain from taking. The power of human conscious thought -ushering forth in considered and well-chosen action is all we have to resist the clamoring and unruly need to assuage the dark collective unconscious desires for reckoning.

Looking back, we can now see 9/11 as a tear in the fabric of time – dividing between a time before and a time after. After 9/11, in the moments that followed we as a nation failed to find the right words to express the gravity of the moment, and consequently took a momentous wrong turn.

Let us imagine for a moment that in the days and weeks following 9/11 -if the leadership and nation had listened to Barbara Lee rather than George Bush – how might her words rather than his have set us upon a different 20-year trajectory? – We know that the fruit of the war on terror was – forever wars.

Even though this is a question we can only speculate upon with a deep sense of regret – yet another of the what-if-conundrums of history – it’s the vital question of this moment – and we must not allow our remembrances to avoid addressing this question of the moment.

In doing so we can find no better guide than the apostle James, brother of Our Lord and leader of the fledgling Jerusalem Church speaking to us through the Epistle set for the Sunday after 9/11.

The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! With it we bless the Lord of earth and heaven, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and curse. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?

Words matter because from them consequences flow. On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – with the hindsight of 20 years of forever wars, we give humble thanks with repentant hearts for the end of our intervention in Afghanistan. We remember all who over two decades gave their live. For the many more who returned scarred in body and disturbed and disillusioned in mind.

We cannot escape the vital question – which is not what went wrong in the painful extraction of our forces – but out of the trauma of Afghanistan and Iraq have we managed to create a better future?

Words matter because as the Apostle James boldly states – words bear fruit.

Wise God, on this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – we are invited to examine what we failed to reflect upon then - and to face the consequences of our past actions filtering into future challenge. We pray that we may never again lose sight of the significance of words to process feelings at the pivotal moments that still lie ahead- lest when we act we once again become the evil we deplore.

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