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“Lady Wisdom–the Firstborn Daughter of Creation”

Sometime during the fifth or fourth century B.C.E., the Wisdom/Sophia tradition began to infiltrate Jewish religious sensibilities. At first it was introduced as a series of epigrams containing proverbial wisdom; however, in theological terms, the notion of Sophia came to personify God’s own wisdom. Over the centuries, this new concept influenced generations of Jewish thinkers and mystics—especially during the medieval period when Jewish thought renewed its historic love affair with Greek wisdom. Abraham Ibn Ezra (c. 1089–1164) asserts that the creation of heaven and earth is preceded by the mystical appearance of Wisdom who is sometimes called רֵאשִׁית (rë´šît = “beginning”) (See Prov. 3:19; Ps. 104:24).

Kabbalists would later view Wisdom as the seminal seed and geometric point from which all creation emanates.[1] Their ideas were indirectly shaped by the early Judaic and Hellenistic texts which conceived of Wisdom poetically as being the “firstborn daughter of God” and “Mother of Creation.” According to the Jewish mystical imagination, wisdom truly personifies the “thought” of God that is ever-present in the universe. In light of this reason, Wisdom is plainly presented here as the first of God’s creatures and as God’s collaborator in the creation of all that was yet to be created, and it is Her presence that now suffuses the entire created order. In the book of Proverbs, “Lady Wisdom” is portrayed as saying:

The LORD created me at the beginning of his work,

the first of his acts of long ago.

Ages ago I was set up,

at the first, before the beginning of the earth …

When he established the heavens,

I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep.

Prov. 8:22–27

A similar thought is also poetically expressed in the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus):

Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people:

“Before the ages, in the beginning,

He created me,

and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.”

—Sir. 24:1–9

Both readings constitute an intrabiblical commentary on the original story of creation as depicted in Genesis. Wisdom acts as the foundation of the cosmos, and as the sole witness to God’s Creation of the world.  In the later Midrashim, the wisdom principle came to be redefined and personified as the Torah itself. “God looked into the Torah and created the world” (Gen. Rabbah 1:1).[2] Literary scholar Susan Handelman observes, “In the rabbinic imagination, the Torah is not an artifact of nature, a product of the universe; the universe, on the contrary, is the product of the Torah.”[3]


Notes:
[1] The difference between the Hellenistic and the Kabbalistic view of Wisdom is that the former views Wisdom as a feminine principle, whereas the latter views it as essentially a masculine principle.
[2] The Jerusalem Targum paraphrases בְּרֵאשִׁית as בחכמה “With [or ‘In’] wisdom God created . . .” Compare this text with the Targum Neofiti’s interpretive rendering (מלקדמין בחכמה ברא דייי), while the Targum of Onkelos translates the opening salvo as בֲקַדמִין בְרָא יוי (“At first God created . . .”). Likewise the Midrash also alludes to this same theme: “God looked into the Torah and created the world” (Gen. Rabbah 1:1). Wisdom acts as the foundation of the cosmos, serving as the sole witness to God’s Creation of the world.

[3] Susan Handelman, Slayers of Moses, op. cit., 37.



Discussion

  1. Yochanan Lavie  January 13, 2010

    Is Sophia/Resheet a goddess, the embodiment of the Schechina, or something else?

    (reply)

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