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38.3.Tong

חכממות בחוץ תרנה / ברחבות תתן קולה / בראשׁ המיות תקרא / בפתחי שׁערים בעיר אמריה תאמר

Outside, Wisdom gives a ringing cry, / In the streets she bestows her voice; / At the head of the crowds, she calls out, / In the city gates, she speaks her piece. (Proverbs 1:20-21)

Most readers of the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible assume that Wisdom is a woman. Although it is true that later Wisdom literature, such as Ben Sira, would unequivocally label Wisdom as female, the book of Proverbs presents a more complicated impression of Wisdom's gender. Drawing from the ideas of performative gender expression from Judith Butler, as well as taking seriously the symbolic nature of Wisdom's characterization, this paper seeks to problematize the traditional assumptions about the gender of personified Wisdom in Proverbs. Since all meaning is constructed contextually, I demonstrate that there is no compelling lexical reason to define Wisdom as female and argue that a close reading of how Wisdom's gender is constructed textually and narratively is essential to determining her gender. In particular, I argue that the spaces where Wisdom can be found are consistently characterized in the Hebrew Bible as spaces of masculine power. Personified Wisdom's occupation of such masculine and masculinist spaces troubles a superficial reading of her gender performance resulting in a Wisdom who is either genderqueer, gender transgressive or both.

Wisdom is surprisingly public for a female character in the Hebrew Bible. Unlike most women in the Hebrew Bible, she speaks outside (בחוץ) and in crowded places (המיות), not just as a member of the multitude, but at its head (בראשׁ). However, it is Wisdom's location "at the city gates" (בפתחי שׁערים בעיר), which is particularly interesting. This paper focuses specifically on how the city gates, usually understood both in Ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible as a space of masculine power, is the main stage upon which Wisdom acts out her queer performance. Her calling out at the city gates is reminiscent, not just of transgressive women such as Tamar who seduces her father-in-law at the entrance to Enaim (בפתח ענים) (Genesis 38:14), but also of the socially transgressive prophets such as Jeremiah who prophesies at the Potsherd Gate (פתח שׁער החרסות) (Jeremiah 19:2). Proverbs unites these elements in its characterization of Wisdom who appears more like a fabulous drag queen dispensing knowledge to the young men who flock to her. Her power and allure seems both generated and contained by the city gates, a space of liminality where oppressive masculine power is simultaneously maintained and resisted.

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