|Bulletin for Biblical Research 6 (1996) 15-22
Copyright © 1996 by the Institute for Biblical Research. Cited with permission.
The Gender and Motives
of the Wisdom Teacher
in Proverbs 7
ALICE OGDEN BELLIS
HOWARD UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF DIVINITY
The assumption that objectivity is an illusion is often asserted as if it were
objectively true. Nevertheless, it is true that male and female commentators
sometimes allow gender based biases to hinder their attempts to understand
biblical texts in their original contexts. Both gender based and western cul-
ture derived assumptions have adversely colored interpreters' understanding
of the gender and motives of the wisdom teacher in Proverbs 7. This paper
takes a fresh look at the issues and concludes that the teacher is a F(emale)
voice whose strategy of changing men's sexual behavior is consistent with
high female self esteem and, if successful, would have strengthened the entire
Key Words: Proverbs, wisdom, gender
One of the givens of much contemporary biblical scholarship is that
there is no such thing as an objective reading of a text. This conviction
is akin to the often dogmatically held view that truth is never abso-
lute. Both of these precepts are propounded as if they were objective,
absolute truths. If this were true, however, the dogmas themselves
would be proven false. If it is not true, then the validity of these views
is also undercut.
Feminist biblical scholars, including myself, are often quick to
point out the subtle and sometimes not so subtle androcentric,
even sexist biases of our male colleagues. These biases sometimes hinder
the commentator's attempts to hear the text unencumbered by twen-
tieth century perspectives and issues.
In a similar way the subtle and sometimes not so subtle gynocen-
tric, even sexist biases, of feminist interpreters sometimes adversely
affect interpretive work. In addition, contemporary western values
shared by both male and female scholars color the way we read, erod-
ing our ability to understand texts in their own historical, cultural,
16 Bulletin for Biblical Research 6
and sociological context and ultimately to consider their implications
for today. These problems are illustrated in recent work on the gender
and motives of the wisdom teacher in Proverbs 7.
Biblical commentators have generally assumed that the implied voice
of the wisdom teacher who instructs son(s) to avoid the iššâ zārâ,
the "strange" woman,1 in Proverbs 7 is male.2 Feminist interpreters
have for the most part agreed with this consensus, though often with
negative assessments of the wisdom teacher's motivations.3 Athalya
Brenner and Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes have raised the possibility
that the wisdom teacher is implicitly a female voice. They cite the
ancient Near Eastern tradition of the female rebuker4 and the fact that
the speaker looks through a window at a scene below, an action that
is much more frequently associated with women than men.5 They, like
their feminist sisters who criticize the supposed male teacher's psy-.
The translation used here is simply for convenience. The term is multivalent, though in the various contexts in which it is used in Proverbs it is clear that the "strange" woman is one who is involved in illicit sexual relations. See Claudia V. Camp, "What's So Strange About the Strange Woman?" The Bible and the Politics of Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Norman K. Gottwald on His
Sixty-Fifth Birthday (ed. David Jobling, Peggy L. Day, and Gerald T. Sheppard; Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1991) 17-31, and the literature cited there.
2 See James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981) 87; William McKane, Proverbs: A New Approach (London: SCM, 1970) 332-41; R.B.Y. Scott, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (AB 18; New York: Doubleday, 1965) 15, R. N. Whybray, Wisdom in Proverbs (SBT 45; London: SCM, 1965) 33, and The composition of the Book of Proverbs (JSOTSup 168; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994) 56.
3 See e.g., Claudia Camp, "What's So Strange About the Strange Woman," in which she views the male teacher as expressing male fears of female sexuality. See also Carol Newsom, "Woman and the Discourse of Patriarchal Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs 1-9," Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel (Peggy L. Day, ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989) 142-60; Carole R. Fontaine, "Proverbs," The Woman's Bible Commentary (Louisville, KY: WestIninster/Knox, 1993) 146-48; Kathleen O'Connor, The Wisdom Literature (The Message of Biblical Spirituality 5; Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1988) 61-63; Gale A. Yee," 'I Have Perfumed My Bed With Myrrh': the Foreign Woman (iššâ zārâ) in Proverbs 1-9," JSOT 43 (1989) 53-68.
4 See S. D. Goitein, "Women as Creators of Biblical Genres," Prooftexts 8 (1988) 1-33.
5 Athalya Brenner and Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes, On Gendering Texts: Female and Male Voices in the Hebrew Bible (Leiden: Brill, 1993) 57-62, 113-26; and Athalya Brenner, "Some Observations on the Figurations of Women in Wisdom Literature," Of Prophets' Visions and the Wisdom of Sages: Essays in Honour of R. Norman Whybray on His Seventieth Birthday (JSOTSup 162; Heather A. McKay and David J. A. Clines, eds.; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993) 192-208.
The one exception to the generalization that women look out windows is Gen 26:8 where Abimelech sees through his window Isaac fondling Rebekah. The biblical examples of women looking out of windows are Michal (2 Sam 6:16; 1 Chr 15:29), Jezebel (2 Kgs 9:30), and Sisera's mother (Judg 5:28). Brenner points out that the literary figure of the woman at the window is substantiated by archaeological finds, in particular the Samaria ivories (On Gendering Texts, 120).
BELLIS: The Gender and Motives of the Wisdom Teacher 17
chology, also negatively assess the supposed female teacher's ideology.
Both see the female wisdom teacher as having internalized androcen-
tric values. Van Dijk-Hemmes writes,
The voices of admonishing and rebuking women which can be heard
in Proverbs, are not in disagreement with… androcentric discourse.
They are the voices of women who have internalized this discourse.1
I am aware that even when my reading is deemed viable it can
nevertheless be argued that the textual voice is an M [=male] voice,
presented as typically guarding paternity and its ensuing morality.
Could it not, however, be the reflected dominant voice of a culture as it
is introjected by F [=female] participants of that same culture…? The
price, here as in other passages in Proverbs, is the subscription of an
identifiable F voice to misogyny and self-inflicted gender depreciation
and gender disparagement.2
How the wisdom teacher's injunction against the "strange" woman
guards paternity is not entirely clear. Indeed, androcetric Israelite
society seemed to tolerate a certain amount of promiscuity on the part
of its men as long as the sexual partner was not a married woman---
the infamous double standard. This standard assured men that their
wives' children were their own, while giving them the freedom to
enjoy other women sexually, typically prostitutes who operated on
the margins of society.3
Thus, the voice that teaches son(s) to avoid the "strange" woman
is not necessarily any more an internalized androcentric one than the
voices of twentieth century feminists who challenge the remnants of
the same double standard today. Rather, such a voice can be under-
stood to provide an alternative to norms that were oppressive to
There is a difference, however, between modem feminists'
strategies and the ancient Hebrew wisdom teacher's approach to un-
dercutting the double standard. Generally, modem feminists wish to
increase sexual freedom for women. The wisdom teacher in Proverbs
7 is trying to decrease male sexual freedom.4 Either strategy, if effec-
tive, could lead to a more egalitarian ethic; however, the ancient
Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes, "Traces of Women's Texts in the Hebrew Bible," On Gendering Texts, 62.
2 Athalya Brenner, "Proverbs 1-9: An F Voice?," On Gendering Texts, 125-26.
3 See Phyllis Bird, "To Play the Harlot: An Inquiry into a Biblical Metaphor," Gender and Difference, 77-79.
4 It is also quite possible that the strange woman comes to represent foreign gods as well as illicit sexuality as many have suggested, but the sexual meaning is the most obvious and probably the original meaning.
18 Bulletin for Biblical Research 6
Hebrew teacher's approach is clearly a more restrictive one than that
of many modern feminists.
Brenner's discomfort with this restrictiveness may be reflected in
the following statement that she makes :
Within the literary F voice, F self interest is silent through identifica-
tion with M interest; control over female sexuality is recommended at
least implicitly; maternal possessiveness merges with the internalized
M voice for the purpose of preserving an existing world order and
What Brenner calls F self-interest is unstated, but it would seem to be
sexual freedom. This is suggested by her concern about what she
terms "control over female sexuality," a particularly odd designation
since what the teacher is advocating is really male sexual self-control.
It is true that such self-control would result in less female sexual
activity, but to call this result "control over female sexuality" obscures
the fact that the speaker IS trying to control the sexual behavior of
males, not females. A man's choice not to engage in sexual relations
with a woman can hardly be considered controlling female sexuality
any more than a woman's choice not to engage in sexual relations
with a man should be called controlling male sexuality. Brenner's
shifting the emphasis in the passage only makes sense if her under-
lying concern is sexual freedom in general and female sexual freedom
Sexual freedom for both men and women combined with compe-
tent birth control may make sense in a modern western setting where
children are not economic necessities but rather may be viewed as
expensive luxuries.2 In a largely agrarian economy where children
were highly valued commodities and where birth control was proba-
Brenner, "Proverbs 1-9: an F Voice?," 125-26.
2 This view is prevalent today. Nevertheless, several realities mitigate against it. The risk of AIDS makes sexual freedom a dangerous game, even when so-called safe sex is practiced. Moreover, recent studies indicate that women are more likely to achieve orgasm in long-term monogamous relationships than in short-term ones. Finally, although children are not the economic necessity to the family in postindustrial society that they are in more agriculturally based economies, modern western society's failure to put a high priority on children, to the point that one in five children in the U.S. is growing up in poverty, is creating social problems that affect everyone. Without a supply of healthy, well-educated future adults, the future looks bleak.
My rejection of the common view is no doubt colored by my personal situation. I am a married woman with two daughters. My husband and I both devote many hours to our children who are bright and multi-talented. Although we are privileged economically, educationally, and socially, we must still stretch ourselves to what seem like our financial, emotional, and energetic limits to provide what we consider the optimum environment for their development. Parenting is not easy, but it is important not only to the lives of individual children but also to the society in which they live.
BELLIS: The Gender and Motives of the Wisdom Teacher 19
bly not highly developed for that very reason, what made sense in
terms of sexual behavior was perhaps a little different from prevalent
attitudes in the west today.
The book of Proverbs probably came into its final form in the
postexilic period, although much of the material in it may go back to
earlier periods. Although particular verses may reflect later dates,
the concerns that run through Proverbs 1-9 in general and are found
specifically in Proverbs 7 regarding illicit sexuality could make sense
at almost any period of Israel's agrarian history.
Hebrew society was agriculturally based, even in the postexilic
period. In agrarian economies many children are needed to work the
land and provide for family members who are too old to work any
longer. Because infant mortality was high, many children had to be
born to ensure that a few would live to adulthood. Much of the bur-
den of producing children fell to women, who not only gave birth but
also nursed the children in their early years.
Although women may have done much manual labor in addition
to their child nurturing responsibilities,1 they could not survive
alone. They needed a partner, a helper, with whom to share the load.
A womanizing man would in one way or another divert a portion of
his material resources and energy in another direction, thus dimin-
ishing the life of the family, including the woman. It may be difficult
for modern westerners, who are accustomed to a more individual-
istic approach to life, to appreciate the communal, cooperative organ-
ization that apparently prevailed in ancient Israel,2 though even
moderns realize that a two parent household is generally better
for the children and makes for easier parenting than single parent
Thus it can be argued that it was in ancient Hebrew women's self-
interest for men to be monogamous. Although there is much in the
Hebrew Bible that is androcentric and misogynistic, Proverbs 7 may
be read as a voice subversive of "patriarchy," understood here in the
sense of the double standard. Ironically, this conclusion strengthens
the arguments of Brenner and van Dijk-Hemmes that the voice of the
wisdom teacher in Proverbs 7 is a female voice. It is less likely that an
Israelite man, the primary beneficiary of the double standard, would
have argued against it.3 It is more likely that those who opposed it
Carol Meyers, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) 168-73.
2 Ibid, 123-24.
3 The only suggestion I have found as to what might motivate a male writer to advise son(s) against relationships with the strange women is offered by Leo G. Perdue
20 Bulletin for Biblical Research 6
This assumes that the self-interest of either gender was a more
significant motivating factor than the interests of the group. Much
modern western analysis makes this kind of unexamined assump-
tion, which in effect reads twentieth century individualistic values
and gender battles into ancient Israel. Given the communitarian
orientation of the Hebrews, one could easily argue that the motive-
tion behind the wisdom teacher's advice in Proverbs 7 is not narrowly
construed female self-interest, but rather the preservation and health
of the community, which in turn would benefit all of its individual
One could argue then that the gender of the wisdom teacher in
Proverbs 7 is either impossible to determine or irrelevant. Certainly, it
is impossible to be certain of the gender of the speaker in Proverbs 7,
though we may nevertheless still find clues concerning the implied
speaker. Here Brenner and van Dijk-Hemmes's arguments are help-
ful. The question of relevance is of another sort. If the clues suggest
that the speaker is a female voice, that is of interest to modem read-
ers for whom gender concerns are often burning issues.
A number of questions must still be addressed if the hypothesis of
a female voice in Proverbs 7 is to be accepted. It might seem odd that
a female wisdom teacher, whose aim was ill part to end the double
standard, would address son(s) rather than daughters. Would she not
have been more successful counseling young women to shun liaisons
with young men? The reality was probably otherwise. To the extent
that the "strange" women that the teacher had in mind were prosti-
tutes, counseling them to change professions would have been about
as effective as advising the unemployed to get a job.1 Married women
and single women living in their father's houses were already heavily
socialized against promiscuity. Advising them was in most cases like
who suggests that the motivation might be "the sapiential disdain of which passions were given free rein. Thus, for example, ecstatic religious behavior would characterize the ‘heated man’, but not the true sage, the 'silent man'. (Wisdom and Cult: A Critical Analysis of the Views of Cult in the Wisdom Literature of Israel's Ancient Near East [SBLDS 30; Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977] 155). This is an interesting suggestion, but without textual support, it sounds more like a modern concern for control than a truly ancient motivation.
Prostitutes, then and now, are usually persons marginalized by society. They are often products of families that cannot or do not provide for their needs and of societies that have weak safety nets. In ancient Israel perhaps they were young widows, who had no familial home to which they could return after the deaths of their husbands. Although the prophets admonished the people to care for the widows, orphans, and sojourners, it is fair to assume that such preachments were honored m the breach. In most cases prostitution is a career to which one turns in desperation; it is rarely a profession of choice.
BELLIS: The Gender and Motives of the Wisdom Teacher 21
preaching to the converted. Those whose attitudes needed to be
changed were men, not women.1
Still, some may feel that there is something of self-hatred in
advice given by a woman teacher to son(s) to avoid the seductions of
"strange" women. However, self-esteem does not require one to pre-
tend that every member of one's group is worthy of praise. I am a cit-
izen of the United States, and I am proud of my heritage; however, I
do not believe that all the behavior of all my fellow citizens is above
reproach. If I argued that all U.S. citizens are wonderful it would
imply that I am very insecure about my national identity. Only when
our egos are strong can we tolerate self-criticism.2
Nevertheless, the admonition to young men to avoid "strange"
women is itself strange, given the fact that there are more stories in
the Hebrew Bible of men raping women than of women (prostitutes
or otherwise) seducing men3 and that the historical reality was prob-
ably even more skewed in that direction. Interestingly, except for the
story of Tamar's seduction of Judah, which is a special case, there are
no specific stories of Hebrew men consorting with prostitutes. Gomer
might appear to be an exception, but she is not called a zônâ and may
be understood as a promiscuous woman rather than a prostitute. The
Hebrew spies who stay at Rahab's house may have been mixing busi-
ness with pleasure, but the text does not say so directly. In spite of the
lack of stories dealing with prostitution in the Hebrew Bible, it is
clear that prostitution existed, was tolerated, and was probably more
We may ask what kind of men the wisdom teacher addresses: single men, married men, or perhaps any man who was vulnerable to the seductions of a "strange" woman. Since life expectancy was short, the need to produce offspring high, and the educational years for the average male brief, we may assume that men usually married, young. Thus, most young men probably were not sexually mature for very long before, they were married. It is likely, therefore, that premarital sex was less a problem than sexual activity outside of marriage and that the primary audience of the wisdom teacher in Proverbs 7 was married men. Not only were they the most numerous, they were also the most critical to the maintenance of families and thus to the health of the community. This conclusion does not preclude the possibility that the teacher spoke to all men, married and single. By indoctrinating young unmarried men against sexual liaisons with "strange" women, the wisdom teacher hoped to engender a habit that would follow the men into their marriages.
It may seem contradictory that in note 15 I argued that prostitutes did not choose their professions and thus may be seen as victims rather than immoral characters and now I argue that it is not contrary to one's self-esteem to be critical of certain members of one's group (i.e., prostitutes). Society may force women into prostitution; however, that does not mean that their behavior is praiseworthy or that one should do business with them.
2 Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon, and the Levite's woman is brutally gang-raped and murdered. Lot's daughters are offered to the Sodomites to be raped, though the offer is refused. According to many interpretations, Dipah is raped by Shechem, but for another view of this story, see Lyn Bechtel, "What if Dinah Is Not Raped? (Genesis 34)," 'SOT 62 (1994) 19-36.
Potephar's wife makes an unsuccessful attempt to seduce Joseph, and Judah's daughter-in-law Tamar pretends to be a prostitute in order to be impregnated by Judah when he fails to enforce the law of levirate on her behalf.
22 Bulletin for Biblical Research 6
widespread than rape. Rape was a crime with harsh penalties. Pros-
titution was less offensive but probably negatively impacted more
women than did rape. Since prostitutes in most cases had no other
means of support, the only way to stop prostitution was to induce
men to stop seeking the services of prostitutes.1
Here, we may surmise that the wisdom teacher is using a bit of
psychology. (S)he counsels men to be strong enough not to allow
themselves to be seduced, rather than nagging them to avoid the
pleasures of the "strange" woman.
Perhaps in a different world where men were not more powerful
physically, economically, and politically than women, such a psycho-
logically savvy approach would not be essential to success. In the
world of the Hebrew Bible, the (female) wisdom teacher's strategy can
be understood as carefully calculated to change men's sexual behavior
in a way consistent with high female self-esteem. Such a change
would not only enhance the lives of many women but strengthen the
entire community. Whether in fact the strategy worked is hard to
gauge. The teaching made it into the canon. That much is clear. Per-
haps it has contributed to the destruction of the ancient double stan-
dard. Perhaps is also contributed to the survival and health of ancient
Whether it can touch postmodern culture at the grass-roots level
is harder to assess. Our worlds are vastly different, yet some common-
alities bind us together. These commonalities entice us to continue
reading the words of ancient wisdom teachers. We read these ancient
teachers' words not only to debate them intellectually. We look at the
texts not simply to confirm our own values as if the text were only a
mirror and never a window into another world. Rather we listen to
the ancient authors to glean from them something of value for today.
In the process we see ourselves more clearly and are challenged to
reconsider the common "wisdom" of our day.
If the wisdom teacher was successful, we must ask what would have become
of the prostitutes. Clearly, in the short term their lives would have been made more
difficult. It is unlikely, however, given human nature, that the supply of customers for
prostitutes will ever be eliminated. If that were to happen, perhaps the same change
of heart would provide a better social order in which women would not be driven to
such work in the first place.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Institute for Biblical Research
Craig A. Evans (editor of BBR)
Acadia Divinity College
Wolfville, Nova Scotia
Canada B4P 2R6
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: email@example.com