Genesis 1–2 gives us the narrative of how God created the universe, but several places in Scripture give us a poetic interpretation of the same events to draw out different emphases. Genesis tells us what happened, and these other passages draw out the significance of these historical events—what it says about God.
A prime example of another place where Scripture does the same sort of thing is in Exodus. Exodus 14 has the narrative account of the crossing of the Red Sea, and then directly after, Exodus 15 has a song about the same event. And while there are details in the poetic account that clearly echo the narrative account, the song is more interested in glorifying God—Yahweh—who performed this great miracle, and extolling His might and graciousness for the act. In other words, Exodus 14 tells us what happened, and Exodus 15 tells us about the God who did it. A similar prose/poetry sequence was written about Deborah and Barak defeating Sisera, the oppressive Canaanite commander. Judges 4 is the historical narrative, and Judges 5 is the song about the same battle, glorifying Yahweh who gave them victory.
One poetic account of creation is in Proverbs 8, and the main character is not Yahweh, as such, but Wisdom. Wisdom is personified as a woman, but behind this personification, she clearly has divine attributes. Some have identified her with the Second Person of the Trinity, based on Jesus also being called God’s wisdom in 1 Corinthians 1:30. This idea has some merit, since Jesus is certainly characterized with and was filled with wisdom even from His youth (Luke 2:40). However, a major problem is that it would be the only place in Scripture where a Person of the Godhead is portrayed as female—and God is portrayed as relationally male in the rest of the Bible.1
Furthermore, all three Persons of the Trinity eternally share perfect wisdom. So it would be more consistent with biblical theology and the theme of the book of Proverbs to interpret Wisdom as the personification of a divine trait which is possessed equally by the Father, Son, and Spirit—but which is also attainable in some measure for the person who fears and worships the Lord.
Wisdom is first anthropomorphized (ascribed human features) in Proverbs 1:20–33, where she is a sort of ‘street preacher’. She is at all the busiest parts of town, telling anyone who will hear to forsake their simple-mindedness and scoffing—or be prepared to face the consequences of their foolishness.2 There are direct parallels between Wisdom’s statements, and God’s words and actions elsewhere in Scripture. For example, compare Wisdom:
If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit upon you (Proverbs 1:23).
And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God (Ezekiel 39:29).
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days will I pour out my Spirit (Joel 2:28–29).
Despising Wisdom is seen as equivalent to rejecting “the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:29). Rejecting Wisdom is rejecting God. This is because wisdom comes from the Lord (Proverbs 2:6).
Several times in Scripture, God’s wisdom is linked with creation:
O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all (Psalm 104:24).
It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens (Jeremiah 10:12; 51:15).
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew (Proverbs 3:19–20).
The idea is that God’s creation testifies to His attributes (cf. Romans 1), and that the way the world is ordered is evidence of God’s wisdom. This would be similar to the ‘intelligent design’ argument: the world could only have come from a wise Creator. This is in stark contrast to the creation myths of other ancient religions that explained the universe as the result of a chaotic war between the gods.
The longest description of Wisdom’s role in creation is found in Proverbs 8:22–31, where she is again personified:
The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth, before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world.
When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.
This tells us that Wisdom is as eternal as God Himself—because Wisdom comes from God, and He has always possessed it. The above list of the things that Wisdom preceded has obvious parallels in Genesis 1, and “the first of the dust of the world” is probably an oblique reference to Adam, who was formed from the dust (Genesis 2:7, cf. 1 Corinthians 15:47).
Wisdom was also a major organizing principle for God’s creation. We can see this in the orderly account in Genesis 1, where God develops the universe from the formless and empty state at the beginning of Day 1 to the inhabited world at the end of Day 6. At every stage, God’s wisdom determined how things would proceed. Wisdom not only ensured that His creation was perfect, but it was also a cause for delight in what was created, from beginning to end. We see this with the repeated refrain “And God saw it was good” in Genesis 1.
Not every detail in Genesis 1 is repeated in Proverbs 8, and it is not repeated in the order of the narrative. That is not unexpected in a poetic passage. But what is stated is clearly dependent on and intends to recall Genesis 1. The presence of Wisdom at every point, from “the beginning” to the creation of man is brought out in the text.
Often when people think about wisdom, they imagine a character like Qōheleth (‘Preacher’) in Ecclesiastes, whose superior knowledge of the folly of man drives him to despair. But Wisdom in this passage is completely the opposite. She rejoiced in the Creator’s work as much as He delighted in Wisdom. This perfect fellowship is like the fellowship the three Persons of the Godhead enjoy.
Wisdom is contrasted with the adulteress early on. Though the adulteress has “smooth words” (Proverbs 2:16), “her house sinks down to death, and her paths to the departed” (2:18). Folly promises the same pleasures that wisdom does, but without any of the hard work and integrity: “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (9:17).
The contrast between Wisdom and Folly is closely linked with the contrast between the wise woman and the foolish woman: “The wisest of women builds her house, but folly with her own hands tears it down” (Proverbs 14:1). In fact, the ideal woman described in Proverbs 31 is a picture of a woman who is guided by wisdom. This is shown by the parallels between how she is described, and how Wisdom is described. Probably the most obvious parallel is that this virtuous woman and Wisdom are both described as being “more precious than jewels” (or “rubies”, KJV—Proverbs 3:15, 31:10). And there are similar parallels between Folly and the adulterous woman.
Wisdom is an example of a divine trait that people are exhorted to acquire and cultivate (that is, it is a communicable attribute) at any cost:
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her (Proverbs 3:13–15).
Indeed, throughout Proverbs, wisdom is the decisive factor that determines whether a person will succeed in life or fail. God rewarded the main author of the Proverbs, King Solomon, for asking for wisdom (1 Kings 3:5–14; 2 Chronicles 1:7–12). And the foundation of this wisdom is the fear of Yahweh, specifically (Proverbs 9:10, 15:33). Not just any religion will bring wisdom—only the Lord who created through wisdom can grant it to His people.