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Proverbs 5 – Who is the “Foreign” Woman in Proverbs 5?

Due to the nature of the topic of Sunday’s sermon, I’m sure this blog could’ve gone many different ways! But I decided to keep it more “tame” and deal with an interpretive issue that is one of the biggest debates of the chapter: Who is the woman in Proverbs 5?

ESV translates Proverbs 5:3 with “forbidden” woman. NASB translates it “adulteress.” KJV has “strange” woman. NLT has “immoral” woman.

The Hebrew word (zar) literally means “strange, foreign, peculiar.” I concluded in the sermon that she is “foreign” because she is outside the normality of morality. She operates outside the cultural bounds of what any rational Israelite would do, thus making her “foreign” to the covenant. But there are a host of different opinions regarding her identity.

Bruce Waltke’s excellent two-volume commentary on Proverbs outlines some of the main options for interpreting this word (V1, pgs 120-125): 1) She could be an “unchaste woman.” She stands outside the laws of the covenant community. 2) She could be a “pagan foreigner.” She is not an Israelite, but a resident alien or sojourner. 3) She could be “an unfaithful, apostate wife.” She once was an Israelite, married to an Israelite, but has rejected both the marriage and the faith.

Evidence from the text of Proverbs 5 indicate she is, at the very least, a dangerous temptress to the married young man of the chapter. 5:20 parallels “forbidden woman” with “adulteress,” indicating that she has already forsaken her own marriage. Verses 9-10 may also give clues regarding her identity. The text reads in full (beginning in vs 8): “Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house, 9 lest you give your honor to others and your years to the merciless, 10 lest strangers take their fill of your strength, and your labors go to the house of a foreigner.”

Notice how the text relates the dangers of “going near the door of her house” (vs 8) to the consequences of giving away honor, years, strength and labors to “others,” “the merciless,” “strangers,” and “the house of a foreigner.”

“Others” doesn’t tell us much, as it can be “another” of just about any kind of thing, as determined by context. The word “merciless” also doesn’t tell us too much, as it means “a cruel person” (singular here).

“Strangers” is the same Hebrew word used for the “foreign/forbidden” woman, only here it is masculine plural instead of feminine singular (in 5:3). “The house of a foreigner” uses a different Hebrew word, this one referring specifically to a foreign alien.

How is it that the young man, by sleeping with the “foreign woman,” would give his wealth and years and honor to these men? Who are these men?

Again, the possibilities abound. Duane Garrett’s commentary in the NAC series lists five different ways of interpreting this relationship (pg 92): 1) She is a prostitute, and the other man (or men) is her agent/pimp. 2) She is a mistress, and the strangers are those who use her to profit from her access to the young man’s money. 3) The adulteress is a married woman, and the other man is her husband. 4) The adulteress is a foreign woman, with the other men assumedly being people of her nationality. 5) The woman is a cult prostitute, and the other men are the priests and cult officials who financially profit from her “service” in the temple.

The parallel in 5:20 linking her with an adulteress and the plurality of men that benefit causes me to lean more closely to seeing her as an adulteress, perhaps with her husband and his family profiting in some way from the financial penalties that would come from the consequences of such a relationship. She may indeed be a prostitute, whether related to the cult or not, perhaps one that was married but has obviously broken her vows.

No matter which way you go, there are difficulties. The main point should not be missed. The woman is outside the bounds of the man’s own marriage. His focus should be on his wife, not anyone else. If his focus strays, the ramifications are enormous.

So men – stay focused! The “forbidden” woman is not worth the price you’ll pay for her!


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