The Songs and Sayings Podcast: Reading through the wisdom literature of the world.
By Menashe David Israel
Chapter 5 of Hebrew Proverbs
Further reading: The Wisdom Books by Robert Alter
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As I’ve been preparing these podcasts every day, I’ve been looking to various commentaries in order to better inform the readings we’re doing on here Songs and Sayings. One of the commentaries that I’ve been using is “The Interpreter’s Bible” Commentary for the books of Psalms and Proverbs. I think it’s volume four out of twelve. In the introduction to Proverbs, there is, what I thought was, a perfect summary of the book.
The author is Charles T. Fritsch, and he writes:
Anyone who reads Proverbs is impressed with the high ethical standard of its teachings. The highest type of family life is extolled; monogamy is taken for granted; the respect for mother and wife is emphasized throughout; chastity and marital fidelity are enjoined for all. The glutton, drunkard, and sluggard, the robber and oppressor of the poor, are all roundly condemned. Those who live in accordance with wisdom’s laws are prosperous and happy. A belief in the one true and living God who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked permeates the book from cover to cover.
Chapter five exemplifies that passage. And as we’ll see, the main theme of today’s chapter is to admonish the young man toward sexual chastity, to avoid the person known as the strange-woman, and to enjoy the wife of his youth.
I will admit that, when I was much younger, I always thought that it was scandalous that there was a verse in the Holy Bible that had what looked like a command to enjoy a woman’s breasts. I’ve read the book of Proverbs many times, and at no other time in my life has this chapter seemed so barefacedly sensual in its allusions as it did when I read it today. Perhaps this is due to the reality that as we get older we understand the implications of things a little better. The Robert Alter commentary noted the double entendre of the strange woman’s lips dripping honey in verse 2., and then the line talking about the “entrance of her house”, which more literally means, “the opening of her house” with an analogy being suggested between the woman’s house and her body.
If I didn’t know better I would have thought that this particular chapter belonged to the love poem that is Song of Songs. The Bible doesn’t shy away from holding up a mirror to the world, to show us how things really are; and often we end up blushing.
Today, I’ll just zero in on one term: the “strange-woman”. In Hebrew, the word for “strange-woman” is “zarah”. Apparently, the precise connotations of this word are debated, but we should get the obvious misconceptions about what it means for this woman out of the way. She is not strange, as in bizarre. From the descriptions of her, she must be an enticing figure; probably very beautiful and sensual in her way. She is also not a prostitute. Verse 17 indicates that she is married. No, it seems that the reason she is called “strange-woman” is because she is off limits to the young man, being that she has a marriage contract with another man (her husband), she ought to be a stranger to the young man who also seems to be married. ☗
Read Proverbs 5 on the Bible App