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Ethnicity and Sexuality in Proverbs

The Strange Woman in Proverbs is the ultimate femme fatale—when she invites a man into her house, it leads to the chambers of death.

Fragment of an Egyptian Queen’s Face, ca. 1390–1336 BCE, yellow jasper, 13 x 12.5 x 12.5 cm. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Strange Woman in Proverbs is the ultimate femme fatale—when she invites a man into her house, it leads to the chambers of death.

Why is the Strange Woman so threatening?

The terminology that describes the Strange Woman is not clear-cut. In Hebrew, she is called ishah zarah and nokriyah, but the meaning of these two terms is not entirely clear. This is reflected in translations, where she is referred to interchangeably as strange, foreign, other, outsider, as well as with more loaded terms such as adulteress, loose woman, or wife of another. How is foreignness connected to sexuality?

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, one of the worst things a person can engage in is the worship of gods other than YHWH. Such worship is often described in harsh and vulgar language, either through images of warfare (e.g., Deut 20) or through the image of illicit sexual conduct, such as adultery or prostitution (Isa 57; Jer 2–3; Ezek 16, 23; Hos 1–3). For example, in 1Kgs 16, the king of Israel takes a foreign wife and immediately begins worshipping foreign deities. This wife, Jezebel, is elsewhere depicted as a violent and seductive woman (e.g., 1Kgs 18:4; 2 Kgs 9:30). She is often remembered as the most horrible woman in the whole Bible. Similarly, Samson’s partner, Delilah, is described as an enticing woman who will lure a man into death (Judg 16). Although the text of Judges is vague, Delilah is often depicted in the history of interpretation as a Philistine, that is, a foreign woman.

The most notorious example of wrong worship being connected to sexuality, however, is in the so-called marriage metaphor in the books of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In these books, Israel is described as an unfaithful wife, who has gone astray from her rightful husband, God. Sometimes the literary context spells out that the problem is Israel’s illicit worship (e.g., Hos 2:14–23). Other times, the text focuses more on describing the sexual behavior (e.g., Ezek 16). In Ezek 16, the foreign roots of daughter Jerusalem are mentioned, and in all of the texts, the ethnicity of the lovers is emphasized.

Like these other occurrences, the Strange Woman in Proverbs is used as a rhetorical strategy to warn men against women who do not worship the same deity. As Prov 2:16–18 says, the one who follows the commandments of God “will be saved from the loose woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words, who forsakes the partner of her youth and forgets her sacred covenant, for her way leads down to death” (NRSV). As with the marriage metaphor, the relationship between sex and worship is spelled out here: the one who follows the commandments is like a faithful wife; the one who forsakes God’s covenant is like an adulteress. As the antithesis to Woman Wisdom and the Ideal Wife (Prov 31), who represent righteousness and life, the Strange Woman is a path that leads to wickedness and death. Her ethnicity and sexuality, enticing as they are, is a reminder to the youth that straying from the words of wisdom leads away from God.

  • Camp, Claudia V. Wise, Strange, and Holy: The Strange Woman and the Making of the Bible. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000.

  • Tan, Nancy Nam Hoon. The “Foreignness” of the Foreign Woman in Proverbs 1–9: A Study of the Origin and Development of a Biblical Motif. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008.

  • Yee, Gale A. Poor Banished Children of Eve: Woman as Evil in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003.

  • Streete, Gail Corrington. The Strange Woman: Power and Sex in the Bible. Louisville, KY. Westminster John Knox, 1997.

  • Karin Tillberg is the theological secretary for the Service books in the Church of Sweden. She received her PhD in Hebrew Bible Exegesis from Uppsala University, Sweden. In her thesis—The Outsider in Our Midst: A Study of Language and Norms Concerning the “Outsider” in Persian Period Yehud—she analyses inclusion and exclusion as a continuum, with the help of theoretical notions from Bourdieu and Derrida, as manifested in Nehemiah and Trito-Isaiah. Her research interests focus on exegesis and critical theory, political use of the Bible, and liturgical use of the Bible.