Gospel Doctrine Old Testament Lesson #31; Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
The young future Relief Society President Bathsheba W. Smith read Eliza R. Snow’s first draft of the poem “Eternal Father and Mother” in Nauvoo—we know it as “O My Father.” This introduction to the Mormon doctrine of a Heavenly Mother was so pivotal for Bathsheba that decades later she still remembered the room, the furniture, and a litany of other little details surrounding her when she read the poem. The details emblazoned on her memory emphasize the spiritual significance of the moment for her (Young Women’s Journal 21:608).
Latter-day Saints generally accept the doctrine of a Mother in Heaven but are often hesitant to talk about Her. The Gospel Topics essay is a good place to consider the origin of Latter-day Saint belief. Joseph Smith taught the doctrine privately to a number of different people before his death, including Eliza R. Snow who penned our most well-known expression of the doctrine. Cited in the footnotes of the Gospel Topics essay, David Paulsen and Martin Pulido’s BYU Studies article “A Mother There” challenges the folk doctrine that our Mother in Heaven is too sacred to talk about; prophets have been talking about her since Joseph Smith. President Hinckley reiterated that though we believe in a Mother in Heaven, we follow Jesus’ example and pray to the Father. But this does not mean that we cannot look for our Mother. And Proverbs is a great place to start.
Proverbs belongs to the collection of writings in the Hebrew Bible known as the Ketuvim or “teachings.” More specifically they are classified specifically as wisdom literature. Here we have wise teachings of women and men presented as Solomon’s; however few scholars consider Solomon to be the author. Wisdom literature differs from other kinds of teachings; it offers a better way to live. In Proverbs, the focus is on living a whole and complete life—rather than a life that bifurcates the spiritual and the temporal. These teachings can offer an important companion to the Lord’s 1830 injunction that we live a wholly spiritual life. God does not see distinctions between the spiritual and the temporal (D&C 29:34).
Gaining wisdom is a central component in this attempt. Wisdom could be considered a desired state of mind, a gift of the Spirit, or I think, most importantly, representative of the Divine Feminine. Significant words in the Hebrew Bible such as spirit (ruach), presence (shekinah), and wisdom (chokmah) are all grammatically feminine in the Hebrew. If we closely read Proverbs, we should pay attention every time Wisdom is personified and referred to as she. This could just be a literary mechanism, but if we believe in a Mother in Heaven we must consider the possibility that it is more. Wisdom or Sophia represents the divine presence in the world—the feminine Divine. As well as the Divine Feminine, Proverbs also introduces a counterfeit—the “alien” or “forbidden” woman. The antithesis to Wisdom is the forbidden woman whose “slippery” words entice and flatter (interestingly it is not her dress). Stay away from her.
For feminist theologians, Wisdom is a key figure in the Hebrew Bible. The recovery of Her is central to feminist interpretations of scripture. While such interpretations can be considered radical for Catholics and Protestants, for Mormons they are only as radical as was Joseph Smith. This is not heretical. This fits our Restoration understanding.
My favorite chapter of Proverbs is the 8th, I particularly like the JPS* translation:
It is Wisdom calling,
Understanding raising her voice.
She takes her stand at the topmost heights,
By the wayside, at the crossroads,
Near the gates at the city entrance;
At the entryways, she shouts,
O men, I call to you;
My cry is to all mankind. (JPS Proverbs 8:1-4)
She calls to us. She must loudly shout and cry out to us to see if we might listen.
She was there at the beginning—“before the mountains were settled, before the hills I was brought forth….When he prepared the heavens, I was there…Then I was by him, as one brought up with him, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always…” (KJV Proverbs 8:25-31). Wisdom is not explicitly participating in creation in the Hebrew text—but her presence could open that possibility. The plurality of the Hebrew word for god, elohim, might also support that assumption. From Brigham Young to Jeffrey R. Holland, multiple Latter-day Saint leaders have suggested that our Heavenly Mother participated in creation (See Paulsen and Pulido, 80).
Wisdom’s words are astute and can be pointed. She could be speaking to us in this contemptuous political moment, “How long will you simpletons love naiveté? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?” (NET Proverbs 1:22).
Elsewhere we are importuned:
Keep your father’s commandment;
Do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
Tie them over your heart always;
Bind them around your throat (JPS Proverbs 6:20-21).
Though binding anything around our throats might sound a bit menacing, if we figuratively wrap the commandments and teachings like a pendant necklace around our necks then they will rest over our heart. We will demonstrate the importance of both commandments and teachings to our Father and Mother. Sometimes we dismiss the Mosaic Law as one of outward appearances, however a careful reader cannot miss the injunctions to write on our hearts consistent throughout the Hebrew Bible.
Wisdom promises us that “those that seek me early will find me” (KJV Proverbs 8:17). Seeking Her is left to us.
Happy is the woman who listens to me,
Coming to my gates each day,
Waiting outside my doors.
(JPS Proverbs 8:34)
*Translations consulted: Jewish Publication Society – JPS, King James Version – KJV, and New English Translation – NET.