Maat and Lady Wisdom (Proverbs 8)

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Illustration: Maat, the winged goddess of justice

In ancient Egypt Maat was the abstract principle of truth, order, justice and harmony – as well as the name of the goddess who personified those virtues. Kings were enjoined to practice Maat in order to ensure a long reign (cf. Proverbs 8:15-16). When Maat held sway in the land, Egyptians believed, the Nile flooded properly to ensure good crops, there was justice for all and the classes of society coexisted in harmony. When Mat was ignored, the land fell into chaos, crime and ruin. Some funerary paintings depict a balance scale on one side of which is placed the heart of a recently deceased man and on the other side a feather, representing Maat. It the balance is in equilibrium, the soul of the deceased enters the paradise of the realm of Osiris. Should the individual’s heart fail the test, a monster called the Eater stands ready to devour his soul.

Scholars naturally wonder to what degree the Egyptian concept of Maat influenced Israelite thinking on justice and order in society. Specifically, the feminine personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 has been suggested to have been derived from the Egyptian goddess Maat. It is, of course, important to realize that Israel did not exist in isolation; to the contrary, the Bible speaks a great deal about the Egyptian influences on Israel. The sojourn in Egypt was obviously a time when Israel would have been exposed to Egyptian culture and religion, and Solomon’s era was also a period of close cultural exchange between these two societies.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to posit a direct line of influence from Egypt to Israel on the subjects of order, justice or Maat. Both Israel and Egypt understood that justice and harmony are necessary for life to function smoothly. But Wisdom, in Proverbs 8, is a personification – not a goddess. She exemplifies the order and justice God has built into creation. Lady Wisdom appears elsewhere in Proverbs; for example in 1:20-33 she calls upon people to heed her teachings and so to find life. The embodiment of wisdom as a lady who invites people to follow her is a distinctively Israelite idea, with no analogy in Egyptian teaching.


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