Question: Why is wisdom referred to as a “she” in Proverbs?
Answer: Greetings friend. It will be a pleasure to respond to your question today—especially because many people are curious and/or confused about this issue. We will look at Proverbs 8 in particular since it seems to be a jumping-off point for some “creative” proof-texting by cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses (and even well-meaning Christians) who attack this text literalistically and then make connections that have no textual warrant. We shall cover the three main issues that are often abused when considering these verses: figure of speech, genre, and grammatical gender, all to focus on the question, why is wisdom a she?
Let us start with figures of speech. These, by definition, should not be taken literally. For example, “And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Gen. 4:10) Do you think that Abel’s blood actually cried out from the ground in that verse? No. The Lord was using personification to help Cain understand the inescapable nature of sin. We realize that Abel’s blood was inanimate, non-articulate, and in no way capable of speech; it was just a literary figure. What you cannot do with this verse is to formulate a doctrine that says blood actually speaks after a person dies. Sound silly? People do this type of thing…and more! We must always be alert to figures of speech, because in figure (as seen in Gen. 4:10), God’s exact words will not equal his exact meaning.
In Proverbs 1-9, wisdom is not literally a woman who prepares a banquet; wisdom is an intangible quality. But Proverbs describes it as if it were an actual person. But why a “she” person and not a “he” person? Before we answer that, let us consider genre.
Proverbs 8 is a poem—one of the many genres found in the Bible. Is this important to know? You bet! If you do not know what you are reading, you will not know how you should read it. A reader will always make some sense of the words (c.f. Gen. 4:10 above), but if genre is not considered, the reader will likely miss the author’s intent…and if you do not understand the author’s intent, then you do not understand God’s intent. This, of course, is all that matters when it comes to interpreting his word.
Proverbs 8 is a specific type of poem called an Encomium—a poem of praise. You may be familiar with some others, such as 1 Corinthians 13’s praise of love, Hebrews 11’s praise of faith, and Proverbs 31:10–31’s praise of the virtuous wife. This is important to know because we cannot interpret the Bible’s poetry in the same way as we do its historical narratives, its prophecies, its apocalyptic passages, etc. For instance, you cannot consider “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant” (1 Corinthians 13:4, ESV) as equivalent to ““When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a case of leprous disease on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests,” (Leviticus 13:2, ESV) for purposes of instruction or doctrine. The first is effusive, the latter exacting. And these are just two examples of types of writings that must read with sensitivity to their genre, their purpose, and their contexts. So, when you read that wisdom is a “she,” understand that Proverbs is heavily artistic. Therefore, you are not likely reading a technical definition.
Finally, let’s talk about this “she” business. In considering this, it is important to note that we native English speakers are at a disadvantage in understanding grammatical gender. Why? Because about ¼ of the world’s languages use grammatical gender (classifying all words as masculine, feminine, or neuter), but English (by and large) does not. As for the Bible, the Hebrew and Greek languages do use grammatical gender, and herein is our problem. “She” as you understand it, is not necessarily “she” as it was intended.
To show how we native English speakers are ambivalent concerning grammatical gender, consider this. We would naturally think of the noun girl to be feminine and the noun boy to be masculine, so when assigning supporting structures like pronouns, we would use she/her for the girl and he/him for the boy. Easy enough. But what about a car? Is that masculine or feminine? Neither. It is neuter. So, you might refer to its gas mileage, its interior, etc. How about a Navy ship? Well, it too is neuter, and we might refer to its displacement or its paintjob. However, these ships are often named after men (like the USS Ronald Reagan)…but that does not make them masculine. In fact, mariners usually refer to a ship in feminine terms. She is a fine ship; head her into port, etc. I bring all this up to show you that gender is a relatively arbitrary part of English grammar, but this is not so for many other languages.
In Spanish, for instance, “el coche” (car) has a masculine grammatical gender, and “la guitarra” (guitar) has a feminine grammatical gender. Now in English, since these are both objects and not people, so we do not think of them in terms of gender at all. (Technically, these words are in the neuter gender for us…but so aren’t most of our nouns.) In these gender based languages, most nouns have a strong gender component—but it is grammatical, and it does not necessarily indicate the sexual gender of the object. In fact, you can have the grammatical gender of a word fight against its natural gender, like in the Spanish word masculinidad which means masculinity. It is a feminine noun! Therefore, when translating, we native English speakers must balance grammatical gender against our notions of sexual gender.
In English, the word wisdom is grammatically neuter, but in Hebrew, Greek and Spanish, it is grammatically feminine. Let’s go back to Proverbs to finish up. As previously mentioned, the author used the literary tool of personification to change the inanimate and abstract idea of wisdom into a virtual person. Once wisdom was personified and extoled, it became necessary to refer to “it” by the appropriate pronoun—and by appropriate, I mean that it must agree in grammatical gender. To do this, our “it” had to give way to the Hebrew’s “she.” As we can see, the writer is not saying that women are intrinsically wiser than men. The grammatical construction is an artifact of the process of personification. In other words, since the word wisdom is feminine by grammar, when we personify it, it becomes a she to satisfy diction—not to add information to its object.
That being said, there are other feminizing factors. Proverbs also shows us the personified wisdom performing acts that are usually associated with woman (like preparing a meal). This transcends the technical grammar.
“Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her young women to call from the highest places in the town,” (Proverbs 9:1–3, ESV)
It is impossible to tell whether or not the author intended a feminine portrayal of wisdom from the outset. Perhaps the feminine underpinnings of the word wisdom influenced his choice, or perhaps he just found himself awash in the feminine grammar and ran with it. Either way, the grammatical necessity of using “she” was not necessarily driven by any intrinsic femininity within wisdom. As such, men should not be insulted nor women puffed-up at its reading.