Friday, April 24, 2009

Proverbs 5: On "loose women"

I've never been all that excited to teach Proverbs. It always comes up in the syllabus during the semester doldrums, either in early November or mid-April, by which point my students and I have become so wary of the Bible's "wisdom" that reading the book seems near folly. But this time was better than most, at least in part because I was finally able to snag a bit of the book's weirdness--scriptural oddity always being a sure hook for grabbing my attention.

I was pulled into Proverbs this time around because of the sometimes arbitrary wisdom it dispenses. Just look at the gem our author puts in the lead-off spot: "My child, if sinners entice you, do not consent. / If they say, 'Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent ... We shall find all kinds of costly things; / we shall fill our houses with booty ...' my child, do not walk in their way" (1:10-15). A footnote in Adele Berlin's "Jewish Study Bible" gives a hilarious summary: Don't join a gang. That's right. Though Proverbs's repeated thesis suggests that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (1:7 and elsewhere), the book's first chapter argues that knowledge begins elsewhere: with not signing up with the Crips. Which, on the other hand, actually seems pretty sound advice.

But enough of ancient Hebrew gang warfare. Let's get to the prostitutes--another of our author's prominent concerns. In the fifth chapter of the book, we get serious about whores: "The lips of a loose woman drip honey, / and her speech is smoother than oil; / but in the end she is bitter as wormwood ... Keep your way far from her, / and do not go near the door of her house; / or you will give your honor to others ... and at the end of your life you will groan" (5:3-11). Well, you'll probably groan earlier than that if you visit, but that's probably missing the author's point. Because he's likely right. Prostitutes are dangerous not only for what they might steal--honor--but what they might leave behind--a nasty V.D.

However, chapter 5 is just one of many places when our author waxes frightful on the perils of rapacious female sexuality. In fact, so often does he engage in this and similar critiques that we might imagine an ancient Israel just overrun with brothels. Which also makes me wonder if our sex-obsessed author was actually a regular customer. His naive query later on in the chapter--"Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman?" (20)--seems less like the steadfast challenge of a devoted husband than the coy utterance a philanderer who's had his fill.

But perhaps more surprising about the author's rough treatment of wanton women is that description's startling contrast with his personification of Wisdom: "Wisdom cries out in the street; / in the squares she raises her voice. / At the busiest corner she cries out; / at the entrance of the city she speaks" (1:20-21). Yes that's right. Wisdom is a "she" here. A woman herself. Of course, the feminine gendering of Wisdom is not unique to Proverbs in ancient writings. In the figure of Sophia, Jewish (and Hellenistic) literature boasts a long tradition of figuring Wisdom as female.

In Proverbs, though, such a characterization is surprising, in part because the rough juxtaposition of the femininity of Wisdom and the dangers of "loose women" seems to reveal the insecurities of a male author who can idealize Women just fine--but doesn't know how to deal with the genuine article. I've met more than a few men in my time who can treat women well just so long as they stay on a pedestal. As soon as the girls sit down on a bench to take a load off, however, the men either turn off or light in. I'm not saying I can't identify. But I wouldn't call such a disparity "wise."


  1. I just want to note my opinion..
    not sure whether i got it right.. but:
    I dont think loose woman in the bible refers to prostitutes.. 'harlot' refers to prostitutes..
    a loose woman maybe someone who sleeps around, who tempts, seduces and entice you to sleep with her not caring of her status(married, single,confused)..
    Proverbs chapter 6, verse 26:
    for a harlot maybe hired for a loaf of bread, but an adulteress(loose woman) stalks a man's very life..
    Im in that situation now, and thats how i came across this blog.. so hard to say 'no'..
    any advice to prevent this from happening..

  2. Actually, anonymous, I take your point ... it does make sense to define "loose woman" in this particular passage more broadly. Thanks for the constructive commentary ... and good luck with your own challenges--I'll refrain from advising, as my limited expertise is more related to reading the Bible than applying its wisdom.

  3. I love how anonymous 1 leaves out his own involvement in his situation...other than to say its so hard to say no....would that be as he advances on her and she is powerless to stop him? Where are the passages in scripture about lusting and lying and yes, loose men??

  4. Well of course, anonymous 2, those passages are legion. The story of David and Bathsheba is perhaps the best known.

  5. Annoymous 2, it is probably best to refrain to be so quick to throw gauntlet as others' struggles before knowing situations completely and on different perspective.
    Besides the fact that "Anonymous" doesn't mean "Some guy" (as opposed to the possibility of the post being posted by a woman), it is simply unhealthy altogether to be so quick to judge a matter, much less a person, based on a sincere effort to ask for help (i.e., "any advice to prevent this from happening ..")

    The third chapter in Hebrews speaks as a great example of this, but verse 12 sums up best, I believe: "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience."

    Before we judge, we pray. Before we presume, we offer compassion. Before we speak in spite, we intercede in love.

    Live out the Gospel.
    Show Grace.

  6. It's worth noting that the Hebrew translated as "loose" is zur, meaning "strange" (in the sense of "a stranger", not weird) or "foreign". It can also be used as a participle for "committing adultery".

    These nuances lead me to believe that the author's intent is to describe a woman that is not one's wife (hence "stranger"). I notice that the NIV translates as "adulterous"; I might say "mistress".

    This in some ways softens the instruction; it's kind of shitty to say that women who have lots of sex are "bitter as gall" and "have no path in life"; it's a decidedly wiser thing to say that these are some effects of marital infidelity. My $0.02.

  7. Speaking from experience, yes, do yourself a favor and avoid loose women at all cost.


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