Romancing Sophia

To a flat-lander who has lived in the Mississippi Delta and on the Great Plains, Pittsburgh is a big challenge because of all the hills.  This fact has led me to recognize that it is a serious mistake for a man to marry chiefly for beauty and brains.  Brawn ought to be a major consideration.  I now think the ideal woman is at least 6 feet tall, weighs about 290 and bench presses 400 pounds.


I came to this conclusion while working all alone on my retaining wall.  We live on a hill and some years ago my wife, Margaret, decided it would be nice to have a more level backyard.  Implementation of this uxorial preference required that I build an 8-foot retaining wall of large stones and railroad ties.  Also, the only way to get the 10 truckloads (40 tons) of new soil around the house was by a one-man (me) wheelbarrow.  Unfortunately, I am descended from the architect of the Jericho wall and my wall has a tendency to fall down.


Last summer when I was again rebuilding my wall, I smashed my finger between a fast-moving stone (on the one hand) and a stationary rock (on the other hand).  A few days later my fingernail turned a spectacular black and blue and became loose in its socket.


Now, at our house I slice all the family onions because they make Margaret cry.  So one evening I poured the sliced onions into the meatloaf bowl and decided to be even more helpful by mixing the ingredients.  I was happily and vigorously squeezing away in the glop when my fingernail came off and got lost.  Honestly, I did try to find that fingernail, but it was too well hidden among the onions.


This situation led to four important questions.  First, does a male fingernail have nutritive value?  Second, what are the chances of serving one’s wife the piece containing the nail?  Third, would it be fair for her to get mad at me if I did?  Fourth, was the Lord telling me that I should preach a sermon on fingernails?


After checking my Bible concordance for fingers and fingernails, I decided to focus on the beautiful captive slave woman who had to pare her nails.  Deuteronomy 21:10-14 reads (in part), “When you go forth to war against your enemies . . . and see among the captives a beautiful woman . . . and would take her for yourself as wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and pare her nails.”


This text is intriguing for at least three reasons.  First, so far as I know, no one has ever preached on it.  Second, so far as I know, no one knows exactly how it applies today.  Third, the only interpretation of the passage I know is quite erroneous by modern standards.  This text was once understood to address the relationship between divine wisdom revealed in Scripture (divinity) and other types of wisdom (the humanities).  The Greek word for wisdom is sophia, and wisdom about earthly things (as opposed to heavenly things) was regarded as a beautiful woman whom Christians found attractive and desired to possess.  This passage was once thought to give permission to love Sophia on the condition that some of her former glories (hair and nails) were put aside and what remained served to please her husband.


Obviously, this account is both fictional and objectionable.  However, American Presbyterian Christians might need to reassert the important balance between the receptive heart and the active mind.  In anti-intellectual America, even Presbyterians are too often tempted to ignore the relation between learning and piety, because it is easier to respon to hot rhetoric than to follow cool reflection.  We do well to remember that when Jesus in Mark 12:30 quoted Deuteronomy 6:5, he added “with all your mind.”  Thus, we have it on no less authority than our Lord himself that we are to worship God with the mind.  Of course, reflection alone will not rebuild the unity of our Reformed theological consensus.  At present, we are probably too sharply divided in our basic convictions to expect agreement.  However, if just now in our church’s history we must argue about the content of theology, we might at least be able to discuss amicably the method of being humanity and doing divinity.  Maybe we could even get something “nailed” down.


Charles Partee
Presbyterian Outlook
February 1999