Question: "Why is wisdom referred to as a she in Proverbs?"
Answer: In Proverbs 1:20–33 and Proverbs 8:1—9:12, wisdom is personified as a woman who has much to offer—including “enduring wealth and prosperity” and “life”—to anyone who would heed her words (Proverbs 8:18, 35).
We will look at Proverbs 8 in particular, since it seems to be a jumping-off point for some creative “proof-texting” by cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses to arrive at conclusions with no textual warrant. We will cover the three subjects that are often disregarded when considering these verses—figure of speech, genre, and grammatical gender—to focus on the question, why is Wisdom a she?
Let’s 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’” (Genesis 4:10). Did Abel’s blood actually cry out, audibly, from the ground? No. The Lord was using a figure of speech called personification, or prosopopoeia, 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—its “cry” is just a literary figure. We cannot formulate a doctrine that says blood actually speaks after a person dies. This may sound like common sense, but people can and do invent such teachings! We must be alert to figures of speech, because in figure, God’s exact words will not equal His exact meaning.
In Proverbs 9:2 wisdom is not literally a woman who prepares a banquet. Wisdom is an intangible quality, but Solomon describes it as if it were an actual person—personification, again. But why is Wisdom a “she” and not a “he”? As we answer that, let’s consider genre.
Proverbs 8 is poetry—one of the many genres found in the Bible. This is important to consider, for, if we do not know what we are reading, we will not know how we should read it. A reader will always make some sense of the words, but if genre is not considered, the reader will likely miss the author’s intent. For example, if we’re reading Treasure Island, it’s important to understand it as a novel, that is, a work of fiction. This understanding will prevent our seeking out the family history of Jim Hawkins as if he were a real person. When reading the Bible, if we do not understand an author’s intent, then we will not understand God’s intent—which, of course, is what matters when it comes to interpreting His Word.
Proverbs 8 is a specific type of poem called an encomium—a poem of praise. Other encomia in Scripture are found in 1 Corinthians 13 (in praise of love), Hebrews 11 (in praise of faith), and Proverbs 31:10–31 (in praise of the virtuous wife). We cannot interpret the Bible’s poetry in the same way we do its historical narratives, its prophecies, its apocalyptic passages, etc. For instance, we cannot treat “Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4) in the same way as “When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a shiny spot on their skin that may be a defiling skin disease, they must be brought to Aaron the priest” (Leviticus 13:2). The first passage is effusive, the latter exacting. These are just two examples of types of writings that must be read with sensitivity to their genre, purpose, and context. So, when we read that Wisdom is a “she,” understand that Proverbs is heavily artistic; therefore, we are not reading a technical definition of wisdom.
Finally, let’s talk about gender in language. Except for some personal pronouns, English does not use grammatical gender (classifying words as masculine, feminine, or neuter). However, the Hebrew language (in which Proverbs was written) does use grammatical gender, much like Spanish, French, and many other languages do. Herein is our problem. “She,” as we understand it, is not necessarily “she” as it was intended in Hebrew.
Native English speakers are ambivalent concerning grammatical gender. We naturally think of the noun girl as feminine and the noun boy as masculine, so, when assigning pronouns to these words, we use she/her/hers for girl and he/him/his for boy. When we speak of a ship, which has no actual gender, we use neuter pronouns (it/its). However, these ships are often named after men (such as the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan). The name of the ship does not affect its gender. To compound matters, mariners usually refer to a ship in feminine terms: she is a fine ship, head her into port, etc. Gender is somewhat arbitrary in English usage, but this is not the case in many other languages.
In many languages (including Hebrew) most nouns have a strong gender component—but the gender assignment is grammatical and does not necessarily indicate the physical gender of the object. In Spanish, a guitar (la guitarra) is feminine, and a car (el coche) is masculine. This has nothing to do with literal gender. In fact, the Spanish word masculinidad, which means “masculinity,” is a feminine noun! Therefore, when translating from Hebrew into English, we must distinguish grammatical gender from our notions of sexual gender.
In English, the word wisdom is grammatically neuter, but not so in Hebrew. The Hebrew word is chokmoth, and it is grammatically feminine. In Hebrew, it would have been natural to speak of wisdom as a “she.”
As previously mentioned, Solomon used the literary tool of personification to extol the inanimate and abstract idea of wisdom as if it were a real person. By doing so, Solomon communicated a vivid illustration of the blessings of being wise. In personifying wisdom, it was necessary to use the appropriate pronouns. Since a person is not referred to as an “it,” Wisdom as an antecedent requires feminine personal pronouns. The grammatical construction is an artifact of the process of personification. In other words, since the word wisdom is feminine (in Hebrew grammar), Wisdom personified becomes a “she” to satisfy the demands of diction—not to add information to its object.
There may be a couple other reasons why Solomon portrayed Wisdom as a “she.” In the broader context, Solomon is drawing a careful contrast between wise and foolish choices. Immediately before and after presenting Wisdom as an elegant lady offering riches and satisfaction, Solomon presents a picture of Folly, pictured as a prostitute who promises pleasure but who delivers death (Proverbs 6:24—7:27; 9:13–18). So, the foolishness of immorality is contrasted with the wisdom of virtue. Two parallel illustrations are used, and both involve a virtual woman.
Also, Proverbs shows us Wisdom personified performing activities that are usually associated with a woman (such as preparing a meal, Proverbs 9:2, 5). This description transcends the technical grammar and further necessitates the feminine pronouns applied to Wisdom.
Solomon was not saying that women are intrinsically wiser than men—that would be reading too much into the use of grammar. And he was definitely not referring to some type of goddess named “Wisdom” or “Sophia.”
It is impossible to tell whether or not Solomon 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 use of she was not necessarily driven by any intrinsic femininity of wisdom. As such, men should not be insulted nor women puffed up at its reading.