This coming Sunday is Holy Trinity Sunday. In the previous two posts we considered the larger tradition of the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, as well as the Book of Wisdom specifically. Today we will endeavor to focus on the first reading for the upcoming Sunday liturgy.
Many commentaries refer to Proverbs 8:22-31 as a celebration of Wisdom even in the primordial. It is as though the scribes are saying, “Look, we are celebrating in our day, what the Lord has provided for us since the dawn of creation.” This shift of focus is marked by the change from “I” (vv.12, 17) to the Lord (vv. 22–31). The section begins with “the Lord” and ends with benê ʾādām (“I found delight in the sons of men”), the climax and aim of God’s creative works.
This section, unified thematically by wisdom’s connection with God’s creative works, falls into two equal stanzas. The first pertains to her origin before creation (vv. 22–26); the second, to her presence and celebration during the creation (vv. 27–31). These two halves are linked by a thematic chiasm:
A, wisdom’s origins (vv. 22–23);
B, the negative state of the creation (vv. 24–26);
B′, positive presentation of the creation (vv. 27–29);
A′, wisdom’s celebration of humanity’s origins (vv. 30–31).
22 “The LORD begot me, the first-born of his ways, the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago; 23 From of old I was poured forth, at the first, before the earth. 24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no fountains or springs of water; 25 Before the mountains were settled into place, before the hills, I was brought forth; 26 While as yet the earth and the fields were not made, nor the first clods of the world.
The first stanza establishes that wisdom’s has precedence in rank and dignity over the rest of the creation. Wisdom’s precedence is both qualitative (i.e., begotten, not created) and temporal (i.e., existing “before” any other creature). As a result she is competent to counsel and authoritative when she speaks. The stanza’s first strophe represents Wisdom’s begetting in the primordial past (vv. 22–23), and its second strophe represents her begetting before the sea (v. 24), land (vv. 25–26), and implicitly sky (v. 27).
Begotten, Not Created. The language of “begetting,” “created,” and the like has, historically, been the source of great controversies. Beginning at least as early as the apologist Justin Martyr (A.D. 125), Christians, almost without exception, identified Sophia/Wisdom in Proverbs 8 with Jesus Christ. This almost universal interpretation of the passage embroiled the church in controversy about the precise nature of the relationship between God and Christ. From the time of Origen (ca. A.D. 180) patristic exegesis interpreted Wisdom’s birth in Proverbs 8:25 as Christ’s continual coming into existence. Not all agreed with such understanding. Led by the Alexandrian deacon Arius, a group called the Arians held that there was a time when the Son “was not” and thus the Son was created as God’s most exalted creature. They concluded this using Prov. 8:22, “the LORD begot/created me,” as their primary text. In contrast, orthodox Christians held that Christ was of the same substance as the Father, the true Son of God, and not a creature. Orthodoxy interpreted Prov. 8:22 by explaining that the ever-existing Son was “created” when he became incarnate. According to his second strategy, the “creation of Wisdom was actually the creation of Wisdom’s image in creatures as they were brought into being.”
Before all else. The expression “the first born”(rēʾšît) can also be translated as “in the beginning” which has appeal to the Christian ear given the Prologue of the Gospel of John. Verses 22-25 point to Wisdom (Sophia) as perhaps the agent or creative force of all creation. The creation is first described a “what there was not” – depths, fountains, mountains, hills, and fields
Many have noted the movement from the subterranean depth (v. 24a) to the springs leading to the surface (v. 24b) to the visible mountains rooted in the depths (v. 25a) to the hills (v. 25b) to the land and its fields (v. 26) to the sky and its horizon (v. 27)..Sea, land, and sky depict the entire universe of the living. All of this is described with reference to human habitation: from the oceans, which is most remote (v. 24), to mountains, which is less remote (v. 25), and climatically to land, where human beings dwell (v. 26). The latter is progressively intensified from “land” to “open fields” to “arable soil.”