PROVERBS 8:22-36: THE ETERNALLY BEGOTTEN SON

The following is taken from The Moody Handbook of Messianic Prophecies: Studies and Expositions of the Messiah in the Old Testament, eds. Michael Rydelnik & Edwin Blum, published by Moody Publishers, Chicago, IL 2019, pp. 739-746. All emphasis will be mine. 

Proverbs 8

The Messiah: Personification of Divine Wisdom

SETH D. POSTELL

Proverbs 8:22-31 has long been regarded as an important passage for the Christology of the Church. For many throughout Church history, this passage referred to the preincarnate Son of God, Divine Wisdom, who is the Father’s eternal delight and through whom all things were created. In modern times, however, the majority of Christian commentators have rejected the Christological interpretation. Bruce Waltke, in his recent commentary on Proverbs, states emphatically, “The notion that Wisdom is eternally being begotten is based on Christian dogma, not exegesis…. Augustine, Calvin, et al. erred in that they wrongly interpreted Wisdom as a hypostasis of God that they equated with Jesus Christ and not as a personification of the sage’s wisdom.”1

The thesis of this article is that Prv 8:22-31 does in fact refer to God’s eternal Son, through whom the universe was created. The goal of this exposition is to invite God’s people to emulate the Father by joining Him in the delight of His Son. The first section of this article will examine how Prv 8 was interpreted in early Jewish and Christian sources. The second section will look at the place of Proverbs within the Hebrew canon and also set the context of chap. 8 within the book itself. There it will be argued that the messianic interpretation is substantiated by the innertextual testimony of Prv 30:4-6. The third section will offer an exposition of the passage.

THE PROMINENCE OF PROVERBS 8:22-31 IN THE HISTORY OF INTERPRETATION

The prominence of Prv 8 in the effective history of interpretation, both Jewish and Christian, is amazing. Before looking at how this passage influenced the Targums and Rashi in their interpretation of Gn 1:1, it is crucial to recognize that Prv 8 has not only been interpreted, it is an interpretation. There is an obvious correlation between this portion of Scripture and the early chapters of Genesis. Most striking of all is the appearance of “beginning” (v. 22; reshit) in the opening colon of this poem. In Prv 8:22, the “beginning” chronologically precedes “the beginning” of Gn 1:1. In other words, if Gn 1:1 is understood temporally (“In the beginning”) then Prv 8:22 personifies this as One who was with God before the beginning.2 The “beginning” One is with God before the works of old (8:22b), before the depths (8:24), before the heavens were fashioned (8:27-28), before creation.

Proverbs 8:22-31 has many other words besides “beginning” (reshit) in common with the early chapters of Genesis. 3 These lexical similarities indicate that Prv 8:22-31 should be understood as a poetic (and theological) interpretation of Gn 1:1. It is clear from the Aramaic Targums and Rashi that this interpretation was taken seriously. In fact, Prv 8:22-31 proved to be an interpretation so powerful that subsequent interpreters did not read Gn 1:1 apart from the interpretation offered in Prv 8.

The Fragmentary Targum (FT) likely preserves a pre-Christian interpretation of Gn 1:1, and reflects an understanding of the creation account informed by Prv 8. The FT uses the single word reshit in Gn 1:1 twice, once temporally and the second nominally. Thus, the word reshit is first included to mean “in the beginning.” Then, with its intertextual connotation connecting it to Prv 8, it is identified as the personification of wisdom. Therefore, the FT reads, “In the beginning (reshit) with wisdom (reshit = chochmah) God created the heavens and the earth.”4 This interpretation of the creation account has been noticeably influenced by the wisdom literature in the OT.5 There are many clues within the opening and closing chapters of the Pentateuch to suggest that such a reading is also consistent with the final composition of the Pentateuch itself.6

More remarkable than the FT is the famous Targum Neophyti (TN). This Targum, even more expansive than the FT, includes yet a third interpretation of reshit: “In the beginning, with wisdom, the Son of the LORD7 created the heavens and the earth.”8 To many modern readers, this extraordinary pre-Christian interpretation appears fanciful. Several lines of evidence, however, suggest that this Targum offers an interpretation that is attentive to the details of Gn 1:1 within the final composition of the Pentateuch and also identical to the interpretation of the creation account provided by the book of Proverbs.

There are at least four textual factors that support TN interpretation of Gn 1:1: (1) the poetic and literary qualities of Gn 1:1 lend themselves to a poetic interpretation;9 (2) rishonah, (“at first”) rather than reshit (“beginning”) is the proper Hebrew word for initiating temporal sequence in Hebrew;10 (3) the appearance of reshit in the poetic eschatological seams of the Pentateuch (Gn 49:3; Nm 24:20; Dt 33:21); and finally, (4) the interpretation of Gn 1:1 offered by the book of Proverbs. Rashi, following in the tradition of the Targums, refers to Prv 8:22 in his interpretation of Gn 1:1. He writes, “For the sake of the Torah [by the Torah] God created the heavens and the earth.”11 Proverbs 8:22 left an indelible mark on the Jewish interpretation of the creation account. Proverbs 8 also proved to be an important passage for the Christology of the early Church fathers. Among the Church fathers who understood Prv 8:22-31 as a reference to the Son of God are Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, and Augustine.12 Proverbs 8, however, was also wielded as a textual weapon by the Arian heretics, largely because of the Septuagint’s rendering of the Hebrew kanah (“possess,” “create,” or “beget”) as ktizo (“create”). The Arians used this verse to argue that the Son of God was created (see below for the response to this exegetical claim).13

… The book of Proverbs, throughout, praises wisdom and its importance in the horizontal and vertical directions (toward man and God). In the canon, Proverbs anchors Job’s pursuit of a mediator into God’s promises to the house of David. Furthermore, a great place of prominence must be attributed to Prv 8:22-31 within the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. It offers the answer to Job’s pursuit: God’s firstborn Son, God’s eternal wisdom, is the mediator between God and men.

The book of Proverbs displays certain compositional features essential for interpretation. Sailhamer divides the book into four major sections: Title (1:1), Prologue (chaps. 1–9), Body of the Book (chaps. 10–24; 25–29), and Conclusion (chaps. 30:1-33; 31:1-9; 31:10-31).17 Brevard Childs calls attention to two important passages in the final composition of the book: Prv 8:22-31 and 30:5-6. Childs calls chap. 8 “the most striking development of the ‘self-revelation’ of wisdom (cf. Job 28; Sir 24)…. [I]ts hermeneutical effect for interpreting the whole book is worth exploring.”18 Childs further suggests that Prv 30:5-6, a passage rich with intertextual references, many of which are directly related to the coming Messiah,19 serves to ground wisdom theology into Israel’s Sacred Scripture.20 If Childs has correctly identified Prv 8:22-31 and 30:5-6 as holding a place of prominence in the book, then 30:4 is all the more striking, for this verse binds Prv 8:22-31 and 30:56 together. Here, the hypostasis of Wisdom (chap. 8) is firmly rooted within the framework of God’s promises contained in the Sacred Scripture. “Who has ascended into heaven and descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has wrapped the waters in His garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name or His [S]on’s name? Surely you know!”21 This verse, according to Sailhamer, is an intentional allusion to Prv 8:27-30, for the purpose of “raising the question of the identity of the One who is with God and who brings wisdom from God to the human race.”22 The answer is provided by the author: it is God’s Son, the promised Messiah.

AN EXPOSITION OF PROVERBS 8:22-31

Proverbs 8:22-31 may be divided into two stanzas. Verses 22-26 emphasize the supernatural nature of Wisdom and vv. 27-31 highlight the participation of Wisdom in the creation of the world. Several features of the Hebrew text suggest that reshit should be translated, not temporally (“the beginning”), but as a reference to the firstborn Son. First, several words are used in the Hebrew text, all of which suggest “birth” or “begetting” language.23 For instance, though kanah is used synonymously with the verb “create” in certain places (see Gn 14:19, 22), it first occurs in Gn 4:1, referring to birth. The abundance of lexical connections linking Prv 8:22-31 with the early chapters of Genesis likely forms the backdrop for interpreting kanah in v. 22. Genesis 4:1 reads: “I have begotten (kanah) a man with the LORD” (author translation). This verse appears to mirror Prv 8:22.24

In addition to the use of kanah, several other “begetting” words are also used in this passage. In vv. 24-25, the author uses the word cholal, “to bring forth, to travail [in childbirth]” (see Isa 51:2; Job 39:1; Dt 32:18). Another word that resonates with “child” imagery is sha‘ashuim (“delight;” vv. 30, 31). This word is used seven times in the Hebrew Bible, not counting the two references in Prv 8:3031; five times for the Torah (see Pss 119:24, 77, 92, 143, 174), and twice for Israel as God’s delight (Isa 5:7; Jer 31:20). Particularly helpful is the reference in Jer 31:20: “Isn’t Ephraim a precious son to Me, a delightful child?” This reference to a “delightful child” in Jeremiah may shed light on the enigmatic ’amon in v. 30. Though this is translated as “master workman” or “craftsman” in the HCSB, NASB, ESV, NIV, and NKJV, Harmut Gese convincingly argues for another translation: “a child sitting on the lap.” He writes:

The frequently discussed question of the meaning of ’mon in v. 30 seems to me to be answered best with the basic signification of the root ’mn (qal): “to hold on one’s lap.” God is imaged here as sitting on a throne in the act of creation while wisdom seated on his lap, as his child, shares the royal position (cf. wisdom as companion, Sap. 9:4), even the masculine form is explained in this explanation because it avoids an otherwise obscene idea. 25

Gese’s explanation is consistent with the other “begetting” words in the passage. For the reasons mentioned above, and considering the innertextual connection to Prv 30:4, a likely translation of Prv 8:22 is: “The Lord has begotten me, the firstborn [Son] of his ways.” It is also worth noting that the word nisachti (“I was established” NASB) in v. 23 is used in only one other place in the Hebrew Bible, Ps 2:6: “I have installed (nisach) my king upon Zion, my holy mountain.” The JPS retains this royal imagery: “From the distant past I was enthroned.”26

An important question any exposition of Prv 8 must tackle is whether or not Wisdom is created or eternal. To answer this question, it is important to keep the following in mind: (1) the LXX wrongly rendered kanah as “create,” rather than “beget,” causing the Church fathers a terrible, but unnecessary, headache; (2) this passage is a poetic interpretation of the creation account; poetic imagery must never be pressed too far; and (3) Wisdom exists, here, before creation. With respect to this third point, Franz Delitzsch writes, “[S]ince to her (wisdom) the poet attributes an existence preceding the creation of the world, he thereby declares her to be eternal, for to be before the world is to be before time.”27 Finally, as Athanasius pointed out, it is inconceivable to think of a time when God was without His Logos or Wisdom.28 For these reasons, Prv 8:22-26 must not be understood as the creation of Wisdom at a point in time. Rather, because Wisdom precedes creation, it must be regarded as uncreated, and, as a consequence, eternal.29

The second stanza (vv. 27-31) emphasizes Wisdom’s unique relationship with God. Although these verses do not clearly spell out Wisdom’s active participation with God in creation, information provided in Prv 3:19 by implication informs this conclusion. The primary point of this passage, however, is not Wisdom’s instrumental role in creation. Rather the emphasis lies in the joyous exchange between Father and Son in the process of creation. In v. 30, Wisdom is portrayed as a child sitting in His Father’s lap, laughing, playing, and bringing rapturous delight to his Father’s heart throughout the creation event. One cannot but think of v. 18 in John’s Prologue (“in the bosom of the Father” HCSB footnote) where, as Gese writes, “there appears the description of wisdom on God’s lap, the ’mun, known from Prov. 8:30.”30

The conclusion of this passage (v. 30) holds profound implications for those willing to heed Wisdom’s invitation (Prv 8:1-4). Not only does Wisdom bring joy to the Father’s heart, but for those who heed the call, Wisdom can bring divine delight to the sons of men (v. 31). The good news is staggering: by virtue of God’s Wisdom, the sons of men may participate in the delight of God!

CONCLUSION

Proverbs 8 provides a glimpse of the Father and His Son behind the veil of man’s finite experience. It celebrates the Father and the Son prior to, and throughout, the creation jubilee. This passage has played a formative role in both Jewish and Christian theology. It was foundational to a reading of the creation narrative as something much more than a solo sung by a lonely, apathetic God. Rather, God sang the creation song in Triune harmony, His Son laughing, dancing, and playing in His lap as each day unfolded. Although a Christological reading of Prv 8:22-31 has fallen on hard times of late, Targum Neophyti and the Church fathers correctly understood Prv 8 as a reference to the Son of God, the promised Messiah. Treier rightly says that the Christological reading “does not finally complicate the interpretation of Prov. 8 but presents instead the resolution of a mystery latent in the text.”31 This key passage points the way to participation in the Father’s delight for any genuine seeker of God. Those who desire to enter into this joy are invited, provided they can each answer just one simple question: “What is the name of His Son? Surely you know” (Prv 30:4).32

1. Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1–15, New International Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), n. 104, 409.

2. “Beginning” being understood as a reference to the undefined length of time in which God created the universe. See John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1999).

3. See reshit (v. 22; Gn 1:1); shamayim (v. 27; Gn 1:1); ’aretz (vv. 23, 26, 29, 31; Gn 1:1, 2, 11, 12, 15, 17, 20, 24, 25, 26, 28, 29, 30); ‘al pney tehom (v. 27; Gn 1:2a); tehom (vv. 24, 27; Gn 1:2); mayim (vv. 24, 29; Gn 1:2); yom (v. 30; Gn 1:5); `asah (v. 26; Gn 1:7); yam (v. 29; Gn 1:10); ‘adam (v. 31; Gn 1:26); terem (v. 25; Gn 2:5); `afar (v. 26; Gn 2:7; 3:14, 19); kedem (v. 22; Gn 2:8). See also ma`yan (v. 24; Gn 7:11; 8:2); kanah (v. 22; Gn 4:1; 14:19, 22; Dt 32:6; Ps 139:13).

4. Miqraoth Gedoloth, vol. 1 (Tel Aviv: Pardes, 1957).

5. See, for example, Ps 33:6, Prv 3:19, and Job 28.

6. John Sailhamer cogently argues that the Pentateuch is a wisdom composition. See “A Wisdom Composition of the Pentateuch?” in The Way of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Bruce K. Waltke, ed. J. I. Packer and Sven K. Soderlund, 15–35 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).

7. Some have suggested that “the Son of God” was a Christian gloss, but a careful look at the actual manuscript of TN proves this to be untenable. The spacing in the verse reveals (1) the da (“of”) is original; (2) the wa (“and”) was obviously a gloss that was later erased because it was not original.

8. Alejandro Díez Macho, Neophyti 1: Targum Palestinense MS de la Biblioteca Vaticana, Tomo I, Génesis (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientícas, 1968), 3 (emphasis added).

9. On the literary qualities of Gn 1:1 see Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 1 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 6; Shimon BarEfrat, Narrative Art in the Bible (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1984), 203; and John Sailhamer, Genesis, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 35.

10. See Rashi’s comments in Miqraoth Gedoloth.

11. Miqraoth Gedoloth (words in brackets provided).

12. See J. Robert Wright, ed., Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, vol. 9 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 59–71.

13. Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1–9, Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries, vol. 18a (Doubleday: New York, 2000), 279…

17. Ibid., 350.

18. Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 554.

19. Several key messianic passages are quoted and/or alluded to in vv. 1-6, including Dt 30:12-13; Nm 24:3-9; 2Sm 23:1-7; and Ps 18:50. See Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 16–31, New International Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 474.

20. Childs, 556–57.

21. Prv 30:4 NASB (capitalization provided).

22. Sailhamer, NIV Compact Commentary, 354. 23. See Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 96.

24. “I have begotten a man, the LORD” mirrors Prv 8:22: “The LORD has begotten me” (author translation).

25. Hartmut Gese, “Wisdom, Son of Man, and the Origins of Christology: The Consistent Development of Biblical Theology,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 3 (1981): 31.

26. Complete Tanach with Rashi software (Brooklyn: Judaica Press, Davka Corporation, 1999).

27. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Pentateuch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 133. The phrase “before time,” is considered by some to be philosophically problematic. Perhaps a better expression might be, “before the existence of any created thing.”

28. Athanasius, “Four Discourses Against the Arians,” Discourse 1.24, Athanasius: Selected Works and Letters, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 320.

29. See the exposition and theological evaluation by Daniel J. Treier, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 44–57. Treier notes that those who argue for the language of creation see wisdom as created. This is also problematic since wisdom is part of the attributes of God and must necessarily be part of His eternal being (p. 49).

30. Gese, “Wisdom, Son of Man, and the Origins of Christology,” 54.

31. Daniel J. Treier, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, 51.

32. Author’s translation.

FURTHER READING

PROVERBS 30:4: THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE SON

Was Jesus a created being after all?

4 thoughts on “PROVERBS 8:22-36: THE ETERNALLY BEGOTTEN SON

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