Sophia of the Proverbs and the Feminine Divine

by: Bored in Vernal

August 14, 2010

OT SS Lesson #31

Feminist readers of the scriptures are well aware of the passages in Proverbs 8 which personify Wisdom (GK Sophia, HEB Hokhmah).
These passages affirm that Sophia was there when God made the earth and acted as a partner with God in the creation. This idea fits in well with my conceptualization of the male/female duality of the Divine. The passages can be interpreted as instructions to the earnest seeker to discover and follow the promptings of a Heavenly Mother:

The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.
I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.
When there were no depths, I was brought forth;
When there were no fountains abounding with water.
Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth:
While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world.
When he prepared the heavens, I was there:
When he set a compass upon the face of the depth:
When he established the clouds above:
When he strengthened the fountains of the deep:
When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment:
When he appointed the foundations of the earth:
Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him;
Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth;
And my delights were with the sons of men.
Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children:
For blessed are they that keep my ways.

Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not.
Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.
For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the LORD. (Prov. 8:23-35)

If we are ever going to discuss the Divine Feminine in our 2010 Old Testament study, this is the lesson to do it. Many biblical scholars feel that the personification of Wisdom in the Proverbs represents a female Divinity.  In these verses Sophia addresses Israel as her children with the authority of a Divine Being, and has great power and dominion.   She is a “tree of life” (Prov. 3:18), connecting her with other Near-Eastern deities as well as the source of eternal life in the Book of Mormon.

In the scriptures, there is additional female imagery which tends to support the existence of a feminine counterpart to God. I hesitate to use them as proof-texts for a Mother in Heaven. These passages can just as well be interpreted to mean that a male Deity has loving and nurturing characteristics. However, if one believes, as I do, that “Elohim” consists of both a Mother and a Father God, the verses that follow add welcome insight into possible roles and characteristics of a Divine Mother Goddess.

One of the early titles for God in the Old Testament is El Shaddai. This word has been translated “Almighty God,” or “God of the Mountains.” It may have linguistic ties to the word “breast,” prompting some to translate El Shaddai as “the breasted One.” Though I might not go as far as to use this translation, I enjoy the word play which is typical of Hebrew writing and which connects this title of God to breasts and nurturing. In the language used in Jacob’s blessing to his son Joseph in Genesis 49, El Shaddai gives him

“blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb: The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren.”

Isaiah uses many feminine images of God in his writings. Consider the following:

The following poem in Hosea 11:1-4 is in the first person, presenting God as a mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals, and feeds her son.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
And out of Egypt I called My son.
The more I called them, the more they went from me;
They sacrificed to the Baals,
And burned incense to carved images.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I drew them with gentle cords,
With bands of love,
And I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck.
I stooped and fed them.

It is possible that Hosea is indirectly presenting God as mother over against the fertility goddess of the Canaanite religion that he is challenging.
Interestingly, Hosea presents God as the husband figure in Hosea chapter 4, and the mother figure in chapter 11. These paired images suggest the male/female duality of God.

Searching for feminine images in the scriptures is a fruitful pursuit. There are many other examples too numerous to list here. I realize that different conclusions can be drawn from the presence of the Divine Feminine in scripture. Some faith traditions have posited that God is genderless, yet “accommodates to human limitations by using physical, relational, gender-laden images for self-disclosure.” Others believe that God is solely masculine and patriarchal but possesses qualities that we culturally see as feminine.  My inclination is to picture “Elohim” as a God consisting of both a male and female element.  I present this view as one which aligns with the Proclamation on the Family where it affirms the eternal nature of gender:

All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

Images by Kathy Ostman-Magnusen

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3 Responses to Sophia of the Proverbs and the Feminine Divine

  1. Steve on October 3, 2010 at 8:08 PM

    I remember as an inquiring teen posing the question of Wisdom personified in the Proverbs to a Free Methodist Bible study I belonged to. I might have even hinted at the idea that the trinity couple have four parts… lol. I've always thought deeply and had a knack for stirring things up with questions people would rather ignore.
    These are important concepts, I think, for all who believe in God. In Jewish mysticism, the Tree of Life displays the grand breadth and balance of the Divine, which includes the female aspects as well. Fast-forward to today, from a personal Zen perspective, I think it has more meaning to the believer than it has to do with God himself/herself. But I could be very wrong. :)

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  2. cornponebread on October 4, 2010 at 7:49 PM

    BiV, if you could find this, my efforts have proven fruitless… I attended a BYU Education Week (back in the day when they came to our city for a week and presented all manner of classes) and in one class the presenter suggested that the very word ELOHIM incorporates a duality, even a couple. I have found that Elohim can mean God or Gods, but I have never found it (other than what was postulated by this presenter) to suggest Male/Female. What have you found?

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  3. Bored in Vernal on October 4, 2010 at 8:05 PM

    cornpone, OK, I’m on it. There is some ambiguity in the Hebrew for the plural “elohim”, and though it’s been discussed before, I’d like to see where my thoughts would go in a blog post…

    I am personally in favor of a duality/couple. I’ve mentioned this in some of my posts.

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