In the interpretation history of Proverbs 7, only feminist exegetes have focused on the female character’s perspective. Accepting her as a diminished, compromised, and unsympathetic character is deeply ingrained in androcentric culture and religion.
By Susanne Scholz
Professor of Old Testament
Perkins School of Theology, SMU
“He went away with all the money,” the women of St. Paul United Methodist Church-Dallas exclaimed excitedly while the men in the room started to look increasingly uncomfortable. “He left her without any other option. Didn’t she have to take care of herself and her family? She had to make some money!” They looked at each other with encouraging glances as they started to empathize with the female character in Proverbs 7. She is generally known as the “foreign,” “strange,” or “other woman,” the ’îššâ zārâ. Yet it took some nudging and prodding from me to get this group of lively congregants to imagine her side of the story. Like the other two church groups I had visited, this group read initially with what they considered as the dominant voice of the text. After all, the famous poem begins with this parental order: “My child, keep my words and store up my commands within you” (Prov. 7:1; NRSV). Used to authoritarian commands, they were glad to be on the parental side this time around.
Unsurprisingly, then, the congregants took the perspective of the parental voice for granted as they began talking about the poem. Since the female character is chastised and scorned, few interpreters ever side with her. Permission needs to be granted to ask who is putting words into her mouth and from whose perspective we are reading, seemingly without even thinking about it. In the interpretation history of Proverbs 7, only feminist exegetes have focused on the female character’s perspective. Accepting her as a diminished, compromised, and unsympathetic character is deeply ingrained in androcentric culture and religion. Ordinary readers—to use a popular phrase among some African Bible scholars—have yet to feel empowered to consider her viewpoint, although feminist and other non-hegemonic biblical interpreters have written and lectured on alternative perspectives for decades.
Only readers grounded in oppositional knowledge can nurture the recognition and appreciation of alternative viewpoints, such as the female character’s perspective in this poem. When they do, they can criticize, deconstruct, and reimagine sociopolitical and theocultural discourses and positions. Some sociologists explain that oppositional knowledge is “counter-informative” because it tells “untold stories.” They also define oppositional knowledge as “critical-interpretive” because it raises “questions of meaning.” It even fosters a “radical-envisioning” perspective by considering and exploring “alternative pathways.” Overall, then, oppositional knowledge offers “transformative” perspectives as it envisions “how alternatives may be achieved.” When the framework for oppositional knowledge is applied to biblical interpretation, it develops critical-thinking skills among readers of the Bible. It seems to me that this outcome would be highly desirable for people, especially Christian Bible readers, who live in increasingly neoliberal-authoritarian regimes in the United States and elsewhere.
Yet my conversations with three local Protestant congregations—as diverse as they are—illustrate the difficulties of cultivating oppositional Bible knowledge within church communities. Importantly, none of these congregations are mega churches or follow the prosperity gospel. They are relatively small, standing outside US-American, Texan, or even Dallasite hegemonic Christianity. One congregation, First Community Church, is located in East Dallas and affiliated with the United Church of Christ (UCC), a Protestant denomination on the left theological spectrum. Another congregation, St. Paul United Methodist Church-Dallas, is located in downtown Dallas, UMC affiliated, and consisting mostly of African American members. Yet another congregation, Telugu Community Church, is a tiny Indian immigrant church community just outside of Dallas. I selected these congregations because of their relatively small size and their theopolitical distance to major Christian churches in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I wanted to know if they were willing to question dominant reading conventions due to their relative detachment from Christian power and influence.
I began every conversation with a reading of Proverbs 7 in English from a handout featuring two English translations: the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation from the Priests for Equality. I focused on Proverbs 7 for one main reason. I had observed that my theology students enjoyed debating the meaning of this passage in light of different scholarly interpretations illustrating a range of possible meanings. Students find it relatively easy to recognize and let go of their hermeneutical preference for the male-assumed textual voice. I wondered if congregational members were similarly willing to move from the androcentric to the marginalized female perspective that most Christian and scholarly commentaries do not consider with any level of sympathy. What would I need to do to get congregational readers to empathize with the “foreign,” “strange,” or “other” woman,” the ’îššâ zārâ, but not with the dominant androcentric voice?
The answer is: a lot. Most of the congregants found it difficult to side with the female character, resisting the offer to develop an oppositional interpretation. Perhaps three reasons contributed to their resistance to reflect on alternative viewpoints as equally or perhaps even more valid than their taken-for-granted position. First, like most people, my conversation groups knew little about biblical scholarship but felt comfortable to speculate about the Bible’s historical background. Since historical and religiously conservative approaches dominate mainline denominational, Christian evangelical-conservative, and fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, the congregants did not know anything about alternative exegetical approaches as they have emerged since the civil-rights era in the 1960s. Lacking substantive Bible adult education, they were unaware of their ignorance.
Second, the congregants did not have a coherent, multilayered, and sophisticated understanding about gender. They upheld an essentializing notion about gender that posits the gender binary of female and male as normative. Essentialism is the idea that the core identity of a person or a thing consists of an essence rooted in biological or genetic characteristics. Because people regard gender as a physical identity marker that is independent of social norms and conventions, proponents of essentialism assume that women are different from men because, in their opinion, women and men are ontologically different. A lack of theoretical knowledge about the construction of gender, in its intersectional dimensions, results in essentialism. Since most people know next to nothing about feminist, womanist, queer, or masculinity biblical studies, they read the Bible yielding privatized, personalized, sentimentalized (PPS) biblical meanings, or they historicize biblical meanings in generic and stereotypical ways. They do not appreciate that all (biblical) meanings are grounded in the social locations of readers and that readerly constructs have sociopolitical, economic, and theocultural consequences. Readers do thus not know that their biblical readings disclose more about their own ideas about the world than about the imagined biblical past.
Third, like my congregational conversation partners, many ordinary Bible readers in Western settings are not used to reading the Bible as a cultural, political, and religious-theological artifact nurturing oppositional knowledge. They accept the importance of the Bible for their faith, but they do not think about its sociopolitical, economic, or theocultural significance beyond formulaic rehearsals of basic doctrinal convictions. Thus, most interpreters do not read Proverbs 7 from the perspective of the female character who is described as a “prostitute” (v. 10; KJV) and whose home is considered to be the “way to hell” (v. 27; KJV). Have Christian churches not rejected and even condemned such behavior in society throughout the ages? Importantly, then, only the women of the UMC Church were willing to entertain the woman’s perspective after they realized that the female character’s husband left her without money while he traveled. In contrast, both the UCC and the Indian congregants identified persistently with the parental voice that they characterized as maternal and not as paternal. Accordingly, one of the women of the Indian immigrant congregation asserted firmly: “Mothers love their children. It is a mother’s voice!”
Some feminist scholars concur. They define the textual speaker as a maternal voice warning her son about the dangers of the ’îššâ zārâ who in Proverbs 1-9 represents the opposite of Woman Wisdom. One of the first feminist exegetes who went into this interpretive direction was Fokkelien Van Dijk-Hemmes. She declared that the instructions in Proverbs 7 come from “your mother” and not a father, as conventionally assumed, because in the Bible women look through windows and educate their children. Another feminist reader, Mieke Heiherman, also identifies the textual speaker as a mother who speaks like “all mothers in Israel who warn their sons about seductive women.” This maternal voice aims to protect sons from falling prey to the “mother’s rival,” as Heiherman calls the “strange woman.” The mother worries that anything is possible when her son leaves the house. Accordingly, Heiherman explains that the mother “inverts the patriarchal order” while simultaneously upholding it. In her speech, her son is “passive and impotent” whereas, “contrary to reality,” the “strange woman” is “active and potent.”
The mostly white women participants of the UCC congregation made similar observations. As they identified as mothers of sons, they feared for the safety of their sons in the world, affirming their wish to educate their sons about sexual dangers they might encounter. In other words, the women congregants easily imagined their sons as victims of more powerful women, and so they did not sympathize with the “strange woman.” Although none of the congregants articulated what Heiherman calls the “whore-madonna complex” of the biblical poem, they adhered to it. Regarding the behavior of the “strange woman” as characteristic of prostitutes, they found her the wrong kind of woman for their sons and rejected her. Heiherman’s idea that Proverbs 7 illustrates issues of “transference and projection” according to which the speaking mother denies herself wanting to be independent and powerful like the “strange woman” never came up as a possibility in any of the conversations I had with the three congregational groups.
One of the most memorable moments occurred when members of the Indian immigrant congregation talked about Proverbs 7 on the basis of The Inclusive Bible translation. At first, they avoided acknowledging that all gender specificity had disappeared in this English version. The adulteress (v. 5) or prostitute (v. 10) in the NRSV is the gender-neutral “seducer” in the inclusive English text. No more gender binary pronouns, such as she or he, appear. In the inclusive translation, “children” (v. 1) are instructed to listen to the parental advice and to avoid the “seducer.” Yet after the congregants noticed the grammatical change, they suggested that this translation makes more sense than the other translation because both young women and young men encounter sexual danger in the street. Initially, they insisted that sexual danger targets women and men equally, but eventually they acknowledged that women face it more than men.
Then I asked: “So why would the Bible tell us the reverse is true, namely that young men face sexual danger from women when our common knowledge tells us the opposite?” This question was tough because it challenged the literal meaning of the text. They were silent, unsure how to handle their own recognition about women as being more sexually endangered in the streets than men but Proverbs 7 claiming the opposite. One male congregant offered a solution. He suggested that perhaps in biblical times the situation was different. In biblical times young men were perhaps more endangered than young women, in contrast to today. Did he believe that biblical society was less patriarchal and sexist than today and that therefore young men had to be more protected than young women? Again, silence.
What to do with Proverbs 7 when it goes so directly against our common sense about sexual harassment and sexual danger for women? The minister saved the situation when he suggested: “We will pray over it.” Prayer became the solution to cognitive dissonance with the Bible and the opportunity to create oppositional knowledge about the Bible. This moment was special because it illustrated that common sense can stand in opposition to a biblical text. Yet none of the congregants, including the minister, were willing to go there. They fell into silence and only prayer emerged as a way forward. At this moment, however, empathy for the female character in Proverbs 7 became unavailable. The radical gender neutrality of The Inclusive Bible turned simultaneously into an opportunity and an obstacle, as congregants tried to come to terms with biblical meaning.
Only the African American women congregants were able to make the switch. They became energized when they took advantage of the textual hook in verses 19-20: “For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey. He took a bag of money with him; he will not come home until full moon” (NRSV). The husband’s disregard for his wife’s financial situation resonated so strongly with them that she became a sympathetic figure. She needed to make money because he put her into a financially precarious position. They started to read with her, letting go of endorsing the speaker’s voice and enabling them to produce a reading grounded in the economic needs of the “strange woman,” a situation they knew only too well, perhaps from their own lives or from the lives of family members and friends.
In conclusion, the cultivation of oppositional Bible knowledge works, but it is not an easy task. Even church members who do not belong to hegemonic Christianity adhere to mainstream theological and exegetical conventions. They are used to reading with the dominant textual voice, even when this voice advances standard prejudicial notions about gender. The biblical status supersedes the recognition that the dominant biblical voice cannot be trusted due to its discriminatory views. That readers ought to read the Bible in conversation and deliberation with their common sense and other forms of knowledge, such as biblical scholarship, is still a radical idea. Congregants are thus still more comfortable to recite biblical meaning as they believe it follows ecclesial doctrine than to negotiate it in line with theoculturally, ethically, and politically responsible views of the world. Biblical authority overshadows their own authority, and so Bible readers are inclined to submit to the former even when it contradicts their own sense of how the world works. Proverbs 7 thus turns out to be a delightful biblical passage that helps expose those hermeneutical dynamics among open-minded and willing people who belong to marginalized congregations in the contemporary United States.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
1 My child, keep my words
and store up my commandments with you;
2 keep my commandments and live,
keep my teachings as the apple of your eye;
3 bind them on your fingers,
write them on the table of your heart.
4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call insight your intimate friend,
5 that they may keep you from the loose woman,
from the adulteress with her smooth words.
6 For at the window of my house
I looked out through my lattice,
7 and I saw among the simple ones,
I observed among the youths,
a young man without sense,
8 passing along the street near her corner,
taking the road to her house
9 in the twilight, in the evening,
at the time of night and darkness.
10 Then a woman comes toward him,
decked out like a prostitute, wily of heart.
11 She is loud and wayward;
her feet do not stay at home;
12 now in the street, now in the squares,
and at every corner she lies in wait.
13 She seizes him and kisses him,
and with impudent face she says to him:
14 “I had to offer sacrifices,
and today I have paid my vows;
15 so now I have come out to meet you,
to seek you eagerly, and I have found you!
16 I have decked my couch with coverings,
colored spreads of Egyptian linen;
17 I have perfumed my bed with myrrh,
Aloes, and cinnamon.
18 Come, let us take our fill of love until morning;
let us delight ourselves with love.
19 For my husband is not at home;
he has gone on a long journey.
20 He took a bag of money with him;
he will not come home until full moon.”
21 With much seductive speech she persuades him;
with her smooth talk she compels him.
22 Right away he follows her,
and goes like an ox to the slaughter,
or bounds like a stag toward the trap
23 until an arrow pierces its entrails.
He is like a bird rushing into a snare,
not knowing that it will cost him his life.
24 And now, my children, listen to me,
and be attentive to the words of my mouth.
25 Do not let your hearts turn aside to her ways;
do not stray into her paths.
26 For many are those she has laid low,
and numerous are her victims.
27 Her house is the way to Sheol,
going down to the chambers of death.
The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation
(Priests for Equality)
1My children, treasure my words,
and honor my teachings;
2 value them and you will have life.
Keep them as the apple of your eye;
3 tie them around your fingers;
inscribe them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Say to Wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call Understanding your close friend—
5 they’ll keep you from sexual enticements,
from seducers with smooth words.
6 From the window of the house,
they look out onto the street,
7 searching among the young and stupid
for one more foolish than the rest.
8 The idiot then comes down the street, turns the corner,
and heads straight for te house
9 just as night is falling, at twilight—
or maybe in the dead of night.
10 Lo and behold, the seducer comes out,
dressed to kill, cunning and smooth;
11 then bold, then brazen,
and itching for action—
12 now in the street, now in the square,
lurking on every corner.
13 The seducer grabs, and kisses,
and holds in a bold embrace, saying,
14 “I made my offering today;
I’ve fulfilled my vows,
15 so I came out to be with you.
I just looked around, and there you were!
16 I’ve made my bed with the finest Egyptian linen.
17 I have lighted the incense and perfumed the room.
18 Come, let us drink deeply the cup of love,
all night long, tasting the delights of sex.
19 My spouse is away right now—off on a long journey,
20 with plenty of money—so we’ll be free to play
at least until the full moon!”
21 The seducer’s seductive words are persuasive,
And the smooth talk wins overs;
22 the fool follows obediently,
like an ox led to the slaughter,
or like a doe caught in a snare
23 until an arrow pierces its liver,
or like a bird flying into a net
unaware that its life is at stake.
24 And now, my children, listen to me;
listen closely to what I will say.
25 Don’t let your heart be seduced;
don’t wander down that road.
26 Seduction has brought down countless victims,
and killed an army of fools.
27 That house on the corner is an outpost of Sheol,
a road leading down to the chambers of death.
 Steve Breyman, “Review of Woehrle, Lynn J., Coy, Patrick G., and Maney, Gregory M., Contesting patriotism: culture, power and strategy in the peace movement (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008),” Policy Sciences 44.3 (2011): 295.
 For more details about this way of reading, see my book titled The Bible as Political Artifact: On the Feminist Study of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017).
 Nevertheless, some feminist interpreters prefer reading a paternal voice in Proverbs 7; see, e.g., Gale Yee, “The Other Woman in Proverbs: ‘My Man’s Not Home…He Took His Money Bag with Him,” in Marxist Feminist Criticism of the Bible, ed. Roland Boer, Jorunn Økland (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008), 154.
 Fokkelien Van Dijk-Hemmes, “Traces of Women’s Texts in the Hebrew Bible,” in On Gendering Texts: Female & Male Voices in the Hebrew Bible, ed. Athalya Brenner and Fokkelien Van Dijk-Hemmes (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 57.
 Mieke Heiherman, “Who Would Blame Her? The ‘Strange’ Woman of Proverbs 7,” in A Feminist Companion to Wisdom Literature, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield: Sheffield Press, 1995), 104.
 Ibid., 106.
 Ibid., 108.
I first came across this passage in MR James’ ‘Mr. Humphries’ Inheritance’, which is about how people around 1900, with Queen Victoria’s rosy glow all around, could cope with the more perverse inheritance of the more reckless 1700s. My first reaction was to think that the glittering, sinister woman sounded rather a fun person. That seems to me to be the real oppositional reading of this passage. Professor Scholz seems to be doing everything possible not to oppose the real point of the story, that sexual experimentation is the way to the inner places of death. The highly assertive, completely uncritical voice of instruction is validated by making - strongly suggesting that it is - it one of maternal
concern and there is no question but that this concern is always genuinely protective, not smothering or neurotic. The woman who likes sex with young male strangers and uses her husband’s luxurious home as a honey trap - and has the money to pay for a sacrifice - becomes a neglected wife ‘made to do it’ so she can pay for the groceries. This doesn’t seem to be reading in an oppositional spirit but reading under tight ideological control.
It should be noted that the woman is an immigrant and that the idea that immigrants pose a serious sexual danger has modern counterparts we may not wish to encourage.
The sexual danger from immigrants is a metaphor for foreign ideas. I think that the ideology of inclusiveness, which I share in many ways, has its own way of insisting on some ideas and excluding others. There are dangers here.