The Book of Proverbs

King Solomon (or someone like him) brings wisdom to the people.

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Wisdom, Personified

One of the most defining characteristics of Proverbs is the recurring figure of Hokhma, Wisdom. This figure is a goddess-like being, similar to the Sophia of Greek philosophy. At first she appears almost like a prophet of Israel: "Wisdom cries out in the street, in the squares she raises her voice (1:20)."

She appeals to the people directly, urging them to follow her guidance, much the way that biblical prophets urged the sinning Israelites to atone for their sins. Her role shifts, though, when she speaks directly in Chapter 8. Her divine qualities come through, when she places herself right alongside God in the creation story: "When He established the heavens, I was there…when He marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker (8:27-30)."

The Book of Proverbs also presents, as a counterpart to Wisdom, the loose or "strange" woman, who is prominent throughout the book.

Nearly all of Chapter 5 is dedicated to warning young men away from this evil woman: "For the lips of the loose woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil…She does not keep straight to the path of life, her ways wander, and she does not know it (5:3-6)."

This figure might be a metaphor for the folly that opposes Wisdom, but it might also be a more literal fear. This would accord with some of the book's broader themes, such as preparing for adult responsibilities and choosing a suitable wife.

Warnings, Good Advice, & Righteous Women

In warning young men away from temptresses, the text assumes a parental tone. Fitting with the theme of constant parental concern (many chapters begin with some variation of the entreaty "My child, accept my teachings"), children maturing into adulthood are instructed to choose the right path.

For example, Polonius's words to Laertes in Hamlet are reminiscent of Proverbs 3:30, "Do not quarrel with anyone without cause, when no harm has been done to you." In Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3, Shakespeare writes: "Beware of entrance to a quarrel…give every man thy ear, but few thy voice." The parental investment in both texts is clear--a family that upholds the right qualities guarantees that God's will is followed.

All these themes are summed up in the final 22 verses in Proverbs, better known as Eshet Hayil. The simplest reading of these verses yields an acrostic poem that describes an ideal woman. While that simple reading might yield a lovely poem to read to one's wife, it may also be seen as a dedication to this figure of Hokhma that figures so prominently throughout the book.

The same qualities of courage, kindness, and piety expounded throughout Proverbs are embodied in this woman--or in the spirit of Wisdom. Some scholars point to earlier references to Wisdom, such as (31:10) "worth greater than jewels," which nearly replicates the "she is more precious than jewels" of Chapter 3, verse 15. Whether it's simply a song to one's wife, a dedication to an idea, or something else, the themes of Proverbs are neatly summed up in Eshet Hayil: build a worthy family, stay on the path of virtue, and you shall be rewarded.

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Elana Roth

Elana Roth is a graduate of Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she earned degrees in English Literature and Bible. She currently works as a literary agent in New York City.