Sophia in the Old Testament

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament includes Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs. Job and Ecclesiastes are extended reflections on the mystery and meaning of life: Job protests to God about the cause of his suffering, and the "Great Teacher" of Ecclesiastes (known as Qoheleth) resigns himself to see no meaning in anything "under the sun."

The book of Proverbs, on the other hand, looks back to the time of creation when God established an orderly world. It starts with an extended meditation on the worth and ways of wisdom (chapters 1-9), and finishes with a collection of short, memorable sayings called proverbs (hence, the name of the book). So Proverbs is a kind of primer on how a person can grow up to live a good, long life as a productive contributor to the common good of the whole neighborhood.

When the Old Testament was originally compiled and written down, it was done in Hebrew. Later, between the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., it was translated into a Greek version known as the Septuagint (or LXX). This little historical fact brought Sophia into the Israelite imagination.

Here's what happened:
The Hebrew word for wisdom is hokmah (alternatively spelled chokmah). So in the Hebrew version, Proverbs 1:20 (NLT) reads, "[hokmah] shouts in the streets. She cries out in the public square." But the Septuagint uses the Greek word for wisdom, which is sophia. Now let's read that verse again and see if it strikes us differently. "[Sophia] shouts in the streets. She cries out in the public square."

I'd say there's a difference in how that sounds! And given that wisdom was expressed as a feminine noun, and wisdom was highly desirable, it isn't hard to see how wisdom was quickly personified into the figure of Sophia: the playful, elusive, intriguing, helpful partner of God. So in the Old Testament and later Apocryphal books (specifically The Wisdom of Solomon), sophia, which simply means "wisdom," becomes Sophia, the personality and voice of God's wisdom at work throughout creation.

The clearest passage of this sort is in Proverbs 8 where Sophia says, "The LORD formed me from the beginning, before he created anything else. ... I was there when he set the clouds above, when he established springs deep in the earth. I was there when he set the limits of the seas, so they would not spread beyond their boundaries. And when he marked off the earth's foundations, I was the architect at his side. I was his constant delight, rejoicing always in his presence" (vv. 22-31 NLT).

Now please hear this: Sophia is a personification of God's wisdom, and nothing more. I know all about the comparisons between Sophia and the goddesses of the Ancient Near East, and I think they miss the major function of the personification. Sophia was not an imitation of a foreign deity, and she was more than a clever word-play. She disrupted the inevitable connections between deeds and consequences outlined in Proverbs, which, when taken at on their own at face value, could become a bit too firm, too mechanical, and too predictable. Taken to the extreme, they could lead a person to stop altogether expecting God to act in dramatic ways that create radical newness in situations otherwise locked in desperation.

Sophia showed up, broke into the closed system of deeds-consequences, and created space for the grace of God to emerge in new and surprising ways. We must realize that there's a limit to what all of our plotting and planning can do. "The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD" (Proverbs 21:31 ESV).

In the same way that our complex lives can't be reduced to a Bible story of dramatic intervention, Sophia reminds us that neither can they be reduced to an automated system without room for the wonder of God's grace or the freedom of God's sovereignty.

So imagine Sophia calling out to you. She invites you to come, sit, and share a meal at her table. She beckons you to inquire, listen, and respond to her guidance. Ultimately, the wisdom teachers offer us a vision of life in which our choices place us on the path of wisdom or the path of folly. Every choice we make in the present converges with choices we made in the past to form a future that is perfectly aligned with the sum total of all those choices. But God, in his freedom and grace, is able to take even the worst of decisions and bring good out of them. Sophia reminds us that God is never truly absent, outcomes are never truly final, and hope is never truly lost.

All we can do at any given moment, then, is seek Sophia, consider the consequences, choose wisely, and trust God with the future.


Related Posts:
The Wisdom Tradition: Seeing God from the Ground-Up
Spatial Relationships, Belonging, & the Church

1 comment:

  1. My name is Sophia so profound I always knew that the was a deeper meaning of my name.

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