Athena, Proverbs 31, and Unwelcome Wisdom

The Unimpressive Life of Lasting Consequence

Ali Kjergaard / 9.21.22

It’s a well-known trope in movies and books — an image of a wise and virtuous woman introducing the higher good to the world around her. We have Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Lucie Manette in Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities, and Maddie in Jayber Crow. The Bible has its share of femme fatales, but when it comes to the personification of wisdom we are given an unassuming example: Proverbs 31. 

Proverbs 31 is the final chapter of the book, with verses describing what the epitome of a “wise woman.” It goes through describing her various chores and duties day-to-day, her provision and strong character, and it holds the Christian clichés “she is clothed in strength and dignity and can laugh at the days to come” and “charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” I know reading it can cause many to cringe, such as I once was, and it’s a pity this passage has been misused.

Proverbs 31 was never meant to be a checklist for men to use when looking for a wife. Instead, the text provides an image of what wisdom looks like in the lives of women and men. The text isn’t meant to encourage women to become passive, quiet women (oddly enough there is nothing said on that in Proverbs 31). She’s not renowned for her wit or her silence, we hear that her words are wise and she gives faithful instruction. In essence, she’s that close friend who’s advice we crave. You trust the way they evaluate situations because they’ll shoot straight with you while also being kind about it. But more than her words are her actions; she’s industrious. She’s an early riser and a go-getter; she’s good with money (*all of modern society cringes*). In reality, she’s a savvy woman, at home and in her businesses, she asks the right questions, and makes use of whatever resources she has. 

When I think of wisdom, I tend to imagine the glories of Solomon or the goddess Athena (the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and war). Ancient Greek religion has long become ancient Greek mythology, but I think we still worship the traits of Athena over the sturdy goodness of Proverbs 31. Please let wisdom be something a bit more flashy and exciting! 

The example of wisdom could have been a general making war-time decisions; it could have been an impressive king reigning over a country. But God knew that most of his people would not end up in the heat of battle or ruling a kingdom; those were examples few would be able to understand. So he gave us an example we all are living out in some way or another — we will have business transactions, we will be employers or employees, we will have families, and live in homes.

The “normalness” of the wisdom in Proverbs 31 is meant to offer rest and peace to us as we live our everyday lives, but that’s not always the case. Part way through writing this piece, I was suddenly intensely discontented with my life, near tears on the phone with my dearest pal, complaining of my smallness. I was no goddess Athena leading Odysseus safely home. Nor was I Beatrice guiding Dante through the tiers of paradise. I was merely Ali in D.C., walking to work every day to sit at my desk and drink my coffee and tippy-type away on my little computer. I’d go for runs (not running particularly fast) and make my dinner (not particularly impressive), and just lead a little quaint life that smacked of insignificance. 

There’s a scene in You’ve Got Mail (a beautiful movie) where Kathleen Kelly struggles with this feeling of littleness. She asks her boyfriend Frank, “What is it that I even do?” thinking of her life as an owner of a children’s bookstore. He then delivers a speech telling her she’s a lone reed, standing strong in the winds. It motivates her for a bit, but later she emails again, still wrestling with it: 

Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life — well, valuable, but small — and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around? I don’t really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So good night, dear void.

We can be told again and again that we are important in our little lives, a brave lone reed, but like Kathleen Kelly the question will continue to nag at us and what we really need is to send our pangs of smallness into the void, or as I prefer to do, God. 

Athena may have been worshiped, but the woman of Proverbs is called blessed by her family and employees and friends. What if we’re the fools all along for wanting to be more like Athena, for sneering at the simplicity of wisdom? In mythology, she’s actually quite ill-tempered and harsh. Solomon asked God for the gift of wisdom, and yet he didn’t really utilize it. “Lord what fools these mortals be!” saith Shakespeare — and also what I said to myself after my teary eyed phone call, realizing the foolishness of it all. Athena is not the goddess of love; she may be wise but she’s also vengeful and petty.

Our lives feel inconsequential to us; our actions feel small and lacking weight. But I know what it was to have a housemate make me breakfast and juice when I was sick and feverish. Or the time my dearest pal drove a further distance to pick me up so I didn’t have to navigate a train to bus transfer. Goddess or not, here is nothing inconsequential about loving people well. 

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