In the first chapter of his book The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the Divine in Christian Scripture, R. W. L. Moberly deals with “The Wise God: The Depths of Creation in Proverbs 8.”
For the complete review of the book, visit my previous post, Book Review: “The God of the Old Testament.”
Moberly begins his study of Proverbs 8 by providing a brief introduction to the concept of wisdom in Proverbs. The book of Proverbs uses the words “knowledge” and “wisdom” as synonyms as it seeks to instruct its readers on issues of righteousness, justice, and equity. The use of the words “knowledge” and “wisdom” is found in Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10:
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7).
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10).
According to Moberly, the purpose of the book of Proverbs “is to teach people—especially the young—the correct way to orient themselves in life.” Moberly defines wisdom as “a quality that is inherently intellectual, ethical, and practical; it develops moral character and enables one to understand and cope with the world and the possibilities of everyday life.” Its opposite is folly, “which brings blinkers and distorted vision and always threatens to shipwreck life” (p. 16).
The expression “Fear of the Lord” represents “a right response to God” which leads “to a deeper grasp of living and handling the world well” (p. 17). However, this “desirable goal of wisdom” is not easy to attain. The reason “is because of the ubiquitous and superficially attractive nature of wisdom’s opposite, folly. Ways of life that initially appear attractive can in fact be deeply destructive, but it is not immediately self-evident that this is so. One needs to learn to tell the difference between wisdom and folly” (p. 18).
The instructions of Proverbs are addressed to all people, “male and female, young and old, and every generation down the ages” (p. 19). The instructions found in the book of Proverbs are designed to help people live a righteous life: “In other words, Wisdom is intrinsically bound up with a moral way of living” (p. 22).
When it comes to the readers of the book, they have a decision to make, they can either accept or reject wisdom. Those eagerly looking for wisdom will find it (Proverbs 8:17) and those who do will live. Those who reject wisdom harm themselves and this rejection will lead to death (Proverbs 8:36).
For many readers today the personification of Wisdom and Folly as female poses problems because these characterizations are viewed as patriarchal and sexist. This stereotyping of women “projects onto women all that is good and bad in human nature” (p. 19). However, Moberly believes that personified Wisdom rejects this stereotyping of women because Wisdom is not a “representative of historical women.” Wisdom becomes a symbol of God and in biblical tradition, Wisdom becomes “increasingly identified with God, and standing as God in the world” (p. 19). According to Moberly, scholars believe that the personification of Wisdom is intended to establish Wisdom’s authority and antiquity. Others believe that it is to affirm Wisdom’s reliability.
Moberly emphasizes the role of Wisdom in creation: “Before there was anything else, there was Wisdom.” The writer of Proverbs is clear about the role of Wisdom in creation. He says that before the earth began Wisdom was there. Before there were oceans, before there were springs filled with water there was Wisdom. However, the writer of Proverbs never explains how God brought forth Wisdom.
Moberly provides a fuller reading of Proverbs 8:22-31 in order to ascertain what it means to say that Wisdom was present at creation. The writer of Proverbs says that when God began to create, Wisdom was there with God, “When he set up the heavens, I was there” (Proverbs 8:27). One question that Proverbs does not reveal in detail is “how Wisdom was involved in God’s actions.” The NRSV reads, “I was beside him, like a master worker” (Proverbs 8:30).
Moberly discusses the problem dealing with the proper understanding of the Hebrew word ʾāmōn in Proverbs 8:30. The Hebrew root for the word ʾāmōn carries the meaning of constant or faithful. Moberly translates the word as “faithfully.” However, the translations differ in their view of Wisdom’s role in creation. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates as “like a master worker.” The Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) translates as “someone he could trust.” The Jewish Publication Society (TNK) translates as “I was with Him as a confidant.”
According to Moberly, the presence of Wisdom in creation “says something about how God created,” that is, Wisdom “should be seen as in some way God’s agent in that act of creating: God creates in/by/with/ through Wisdom” (p. 27).
Moberly says that the poet in Proverbs 8 desires to establish that Wisdom existed prior to all else that God created and was with God as He created; this articulates the intrinsic relationship between God and Wisdom and creation (p. 30).
Another focus of Moberly’s concern is the Christological debate that came out of the application of Proverbs 8:22–31 to Christ. Proverbs 8:22 says, “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.” The issue raised by verse 22 is whether there was a time when Wisdom was not yet created.
Moberly studies Proverbs 8:22-31 because of its use in the Christological debate of the fourth century. In Proverbs 8:22-31 Wisdom is personified and is described as having a role in God’s creation, “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work” (Proverbs 8:22). Moberly writes, “Because the New Testament appropriates this language of Wisdom for articulating the significance of Jesus, especially in John 1:1–5 and Colossians 1:15–20, an unchallenged consensus had developed by the fourth century that this voice speaking in Proverbs 8 is the preincarnate Christ.”
To Moberly, the words “creating” and “beginning” were the focus of the Christological debate because these two words raised in the mind of many people whether Jesus the Son was eternal or whether there was a time when the Son was not.
The belief that the personified Wisdom was Jesus meant that some Christians believed that Jesus was created, That was the view adopted by Arius. “The key question became: If the speaker of 8:22, understood to be Christ, was ‘created’ by God, does this mean that there was a time when the speaker ‘was not’? Much attention was focused on the verb ‘created.’” Arius interpreted Proverbs 8:22 as a reference to Jesus. According to Arius, Jesus the Son of God, did not always exist. Arius believed that Jesus was subordinate to God the Father because God had created him.
Moberly says that his reading of Proverbs 8 is focused on its original, pre-Christian frame of reference. Moberly writes, “The poet in Proverbs 8 is concerned to establish that Wisdom existed prior to all else that God created and was with God as He created; this articulates the intrinsic relationship between God and Wisdom and creation. Nothing indicates that the author was also interested in the possible implications of his scenario in terms of what it might mean for God that there was a time when Wisdom ‘was not—even if this is the strict logic of his scenario, if pushed” (p. 30).
Moberly proposes that the capable woman of Proverbs 31 may be a personification of Wisdom. He asks the question, “what might Wisdom look like if she actually took on human form?” (p. 31). The capable wife of Proverbs 31 has all the desired qualities that lady Wisdom possesses.
Moberly deals with the association of Wisdom with Christ in the New Testament. His main focus is the prologue of the gospel of John but he also addresses Colossians 1:15-17; 1 Corinthians 8:6, and Hebrews 1:1-2. Moberly writes that when John appropriates the language of Proverbs 8 “to portray the Word who became flesh, it means that the reality of God as seen in Jesus is in some way an intrinsic or inherent or immanent dimension of the world” (p. 35).
Moberly concludes his study of Proverbs 8 with a discussion of modern accounts of a world without meaning. His discussion is a dialogue with two thinkers, John Gray and Thomas Nagel, who “represent an intellectual and cultural world which no longer believes in God” (p. 36).
Moberly says that “Gray contends that secular notions of freedom and progress are unwarranted prolongations of a Christian worldview that is no longer held.” According to Moberly, “Gray holds that contemporary mainstream secular thought represents the triumph of Gnosticism” (p. 37). Thomas Nagel believes that the “understanding of the world and the universe that has developed in modernity through the natural sciences cannot accommodate the sense of meaning that characterized earlier religious overviews” (p. 39).
Moberly reframes Gray’s and Nagel’s concerns by developing an imaginative conceptualization of Proverbs 8 and John’s gospel. He also provides a comparison between biblical and secularized conceptualities about God and the world. Moberly says that “human realities of trust, hope, and love are reflections of the divine reality of the Creator, and are our best way of accessing whatever meaning there is in the world” (p. 46).
Moberly’s discussion of Proverbs 8 is extensive and instructive. One can learn much about the role of Wisdom in creation and how it relates to God as the Creator. In the end, however, I was a little bit disappointed. In a book dealing with The God of the Old Testament and in a chapter dealing with “The Wise God,” this chapter deals mostly with Wisdom and little with God. Moberly says that “the LORD is the wise Creator of the world” but the focus of this chapter is on the role Wisdom had as the wise Creator created all things.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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