Sophia of the Proverbs and the Feminine Divine

Avatar-BiVOT 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

Comments

comments

16 comments for “Sophia of the Proverbs and the Feminine Divine

  1. cadams
    August 14, 2010 at 7:52 am

    Moses 7:48 seems to be another matriarchal reference.

  2. August 14, 2010 at 9:00 am

    Very nice post. If I ever get out of Nursery I will draw out these scriptures in class. Thanks!

  3. August 14, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    This was a beautifully written post Bored in Vernal. As I’ve said before, a lot of times I read what you have written and don’t have much meaningful to say, but want you to know I appreciate what you have written.

  4. smallvoice
    August 14, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    This posts opened my mind to something beautiful. I loved the images as well. Where does one find those?

  5. smallvoice
    August 14, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    Found them by clicking on the artist’s name. I have a few friends that would enjoy them. Thanks for sharing them.

  6. Arnster
    August 15, 2010 at 5:12 am

    The knowledge of a Heavenly Mother is crucial to a correct understanding of the nature of Deity, and ultimately to ourselves, and our eternal nature. However, there is no directive from the prophets to seek out the counterpart to Heavenly Father through prayer or any other mechanism. Of course lots of people have their own theories as to why this is the case.

  7. candice
    August 15, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Beautiful. I always knew there is a mother besides God the father. How else were we made in thier image? Gen 2 speaking of “being made in our image”? Anyhow thankyou for sharing.

  8. Angie
    August 15, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Who is “Sophia”? I’ve never heard of her…

    When I read Proverbs 8, I understand it to be that “wisdom” and “understanding” are given a feminine pronoun (her/she), and that wisdom and understanding were with God from the beginning. If we follow wisdom and understanding, that we will be blessed. Please explain why the speaker is understood to be an actual feminine person/deity?

  9. August 15, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    Angie, the Hebrew word for “Wisdom” in these verses is “Hokhmah,” which in the Greek version of the OT is translated “Sophia.”
    As I noted in the post, one explanation for these passages is that wisdom is personified and is not meant to denote an actual being. This would go along with your understanding. However, other exegesis holds that “Wisdom” denotes an actual feminine aspect of the Godhead. In some places, Sophia addresses Israel as her children and seems to wield the authority of a Divine Being.

  10. Jeff Spector
    August 15, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Very interesting as it seems this view to be pretty much a Gnostic view almost bordering on Greek Mythology. And while you can find a Kabbahist view on the term, “Chakh’mah” as a feminine attribute of God, this is pretty much a Greek, Hellenistic view. And even though the Proverb is a very beautiful piece of prose, it is a bit if a stretch to associate this as if an actual person. Jesus uses this term wisdom multiple times (11X, 56X total NT) in the new testament and while it is a feminine word, never once refers to it in a manner other than wisdom itself. It appears in the Old Testament and Apocrypha 256 times.

    Definitely not a Hebrew view.

  11. Arnster
    August 15, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    You can recognize “Sophia” as a female name, it means wisdom, coming from the (frenchisized) Greek root “sophie” which is where we get “philosophy” (literally love of wisdom) and “sophisticated” (“full of wisdom” although the meaning has been altered somewhat, I’m sure you can see the connection), “sophistry” and “sophomore” and I would imagine a few other words.

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  13. Angie
    August 16, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    Thank you!

  14. Manuel
    August 18, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Very good post, I loved it.

    As a Gnostic enthusiast, I agree very much with your point of view.

    Early Christian writings that were influenced by Gnostics acknowledge the wisdom in having a femenine compliment to divinity.

    In the allegoric book Pistis Sophia, Sophia, or the wisdom of God is personified as a feminine divinity and the consort of Christ. She comes to earth where she is hurt and kept captive and later rescued by Christ, thus one underlying message is that the wisdom of God was sent to earth but was lost and kept captive due to the blindness of humankind, but was once again released when Jesus comes and restores the lost wisdom.

    In fact, this is often the message of the Gnostic view of the events that transpired in the garden of Adam and Eve. Eve made it possible for Adam to find “Sophia” and thus helped the couple become discerning and divine. Therefore it is often said among Gnostics that Eve was the vessel of knowledge and light, and was conceived by God’s eternal wisdom (Sophia), thus Eve is Sophia’s messenger, and it is because of her that Adam becomes like God.

    Thank you for posting this. These elements of Sophia and the feminine divine found in the Old Testament give even more meaning to the works of the early Christian Gnostics, therefore I really like these verses.

    Thanks for posting!

    I have always cherished these Old Testament

  15. Tina
    September 1, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Great post!

  16. First
    March 11, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    Does anybody else thing that the pictures used only help to inflame the ‘neopagan’ ideas and criticism attached  to the Heavenly Mother by critics?
    Also i would like to note that the religion of the ‘Chaldees’ which Abraham came from also had father and mother pair of gods. She was named ‘Tiamut’ and like many beliefs which incorporate male and female gods usually wind up demeaning all the ‘gods’ if you were to compare them to the christian model we use today. This would also add more to the story of why Abraham left his homeland to settle a new land and make covenants similar to Lehi.Lastly this is just another of many concepts that are rare if not unique within the Judeo Christian umbrella and if you analyze them with an open mind it makes the LDS faith fit so much better at the genesis because these pagan beliefs can more easily be seen to ‘degenerate’ into the pagan beliefs as opposed to the traditional christian concept which would not fit easily as somehow being the ‘parent’ of all other faiths.

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