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Which Way?

The wise teacher of Proverbs instructs the student reader/listener on how to find the right way through life. The teacher often speaks of wisdom and foolishness or folly metaphorically as though they were women. The wise student will go after wisdom in the same way a young man falls in love with a young woman.
One of the reasons for the teacher's instructions is the difficulty in living wisely. The wise teacher says, “There is a way which seems right to a person, But its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25). This is the problem. If there is a wise way and a foolish way, they both claim to be the right way. How is one to know the difference between the two paths that claim to be “the right way”?
This activity has two parts, both are similar and both have the same goal, discovering the way of wisdom.
(1) Read Proverbs 5:1-23 and take notes. Take your time since Hebrew wisdom poetry requires reflection. Use the outline and notes to think through the passage. What are the characteristics of the two women? What make it difficult for the young person tell them apart? Why does the wise teacher think the young man needs to find the right woman?
The Two Ways of the Two Women (5:1-23)
1        Opening (5:1-2)
2        Stay away from Madam Folly[1] (3rd person) (5:3-14)
a          The attraction of the strange woman leads to death (5:3-6)
b          Stay away from her or there will be suffering and humiliation to pay (5:7-14)
3        Embrace Woman Wisdom (3rd person) (5:15-23)[2]
a          Make love to your Woman (5:15-18)[3]
b          Enjoy the breasts of your Woman (5:19-20)[4]
4        Life is lived before the Lord (5:21-23)[5]

[1] 5:3-14 Folly is personified in Proverbs 1-9 and represented by the strange, evil, or wayward woman (5:1-14; 6:20-35; 7:5-27; 9:13-18). She is described as a prostitute or an adulteress: She has sweet talk (5:3); she has made an error in her very path of life (5:6); called a stranger which could imply that she is a foreigner, but this is not necessary (5:10); she could be strange in relation to one’s own wife because is called a strange woman and a foreigner (5:20); she is evil (6:24); and a harlot (6:26); she is referred to as his neighbor’s wife (6:29). Proverbs 7 employs the imagery of a prostitute: her corner, her house (7:8); in the night (7:9); dressed as a harlot (7:10); loud and not at home (7:11); out in the street (7:12). But she is an adulteress for she refers to her man being away (7:19). Perhaps this strange woman is any of the above. That is, she may be a foreigner, prostitute, or adulteress. She is most aptly described several times as “strange woman.” The point really is not who the woman is, but rather that she is not one’s own spouse. Any person who is not one’s own spouse is the stranger. To embrace the stranger offers the same peril as to embrace Lady Folly.

[2] 5:15-23 From the context, this passage refers to one’s own wife and the broader context challenges the young man to find and embrace Woman Wisdom. Loving Woman Wisdom as one’s wife, ironically includes loving one’s wife––this is wise.

[3] 5:15-18 Water is a precious thing and so is a wife. Enjoy your own water and wife or someone else will. In other words, if one is with another woman then couldn’t he expect that his wife might be with another man? Or stated positively, enjoy your own wife––the wife of your youth (5:18). For “cistern” the LXX translates “vessel.” This is a subtle change; the Hebrew imagery means that the wife is to be a source of pleasure (see Song 4:15), not a useful conveyance of pleasure (LXX) (see Expositor’s, 929; NIDOT, 2: 1018-19). The water imagery (5:15-18) may all refer to one’s wife with 5:18b. Or, 5:15 and 5:18 could refer to the wife and 5:16-17 may refer to the young man–– specifically, the springs/ stream imagery could have a double connotation (contra Keil/Delitzch).

[4] 5:19 The “doe” or “deer” is compared to a woman’s breasts as a symbol of elegance. This was a conventional comparison in the ancient Near East. “These animals are commonly used in Semitic poetry as figures of female beauty on account of the delicate beauty of their limbs and their sprightly black eyes” (Keil/Delitzch, VI: 131). Also notice a similar comparison in Song 4:5 and 7:3.

[5] 5:21-23 This passage is a key within both Proverbs 5 and within Proverbs 1-9. The point of the two ways and the two women is that all of life is lived before the Lord. Hence, all we are and all we do is oriented toward or against him.

(2) Read Proverbs 9:1-18 and take notes. Take your time since Hebrew wisdom poetry requires reflection. Use the outline and notes to think through the passage. What are the characteristics of the two women? What make it difficult for the young person tell them apart? Why does the young man needs to find the right woman?
The Invitations of Two Women (9:1-18)
1        Woman Wisdom’s invitation (9:1-6) (3rd person 9:1-3; 1st person 9:4-6)
a*      Location and house of Woman Wisdom (9:1-3)[1]
b*      Invitation, meal, life --
“Whoever is naive, let him turn in here!”
To him who lacks understanding she says,
“Come, eat of my food,
And drink of the wine I have mixed.
Forsake your folly and live,
And proceed in the way of understanding” (9:4-6 NAS)[2]
2        The basis for the choice between the two women (9:7-12)[3]
a        The mocker and the wise (9:7-8) [4]
b        Increase for the wise (9:9)
c          “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10)[5]
b        Increase for the wise (9:11)
a        The responsibility for the mocker and the wise (9:12)
3        Madam Folly’s Invitation (9:13-18) (3rd person 9:13-15, 18; 1st person 9:16-17)
a*      Location and house of Lady Folly (9:13-15)
b*      Invitation, meal, death --
“Whoever is naive, let him turn in here,”
And to him who lacks understanding she says,
“Stolen water is sweet;
And bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”
But he does not know that the dead are there,
That her guests are in the depths of Sheol” (9:16-18 NAS)[6]

[2] 9:4-6 Woman Wisdom calls out to the same people to whom Lady Folly calls––“naive” or “simple” ones (8:3 with 7:7; 9:4, 16). Because Wisdom and Folly each act and sound similar, one must listen to the father and mother or risk losing everything. The similarities between the two highlight the difficulty of following the right “path.” Although alike in some respects, these two ways/ women are opposite and categorically distinct.

[3] See Byargeon, “Structure.”

[4] 9:7-12 Note the verbal parallels: (a) mocking-one/ to the wise-one vv. 7-8 with you are wise/ if you mock v. 12; (b) and he-will-be-the-wiser, learning v. 9 with and they-will-add to-you years of lives v. 11.

[5] 9:10 The fear of the Lord is both the beginning, the essence, and the end of wisdom (Prov 1:7; Job 28:28; Eccles 12:13). This is the defining point of Proverbs and is found in key locations 1:7; 9:10; 31:30. To those who are “wise in their own eyes” the door of wisdom remains closed (3:7; 26:5, 12, 16; 28:11; cf. Isa 33:6). Wisdom is granted (Prov 2:6; cf. 1 Kgs 3:12; Ps 51:6; Isa 29:13-14; 44:24-26; Jer 8:8-9) to those who humbly depend upon the Lord. The ideal of wisdom as founded upon the “fear of the Lord” demonstrates the connectedness of the way or path of wisdom and the Torah ideals (see Exod 20:18-21; Deut 4:10; 5:29; 6:2, 13, 24; 8:6, 10; 10:12, 20; 13:5; 14:23; 17:19; 28:59; 31:12-13). Proverbs connects the covenantal fear and the way of wisdom, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7; cf. 31:30). Deuteronomy expressed, “You will keep the commandments of the Lord your God, to walk in his ways and to fear him” (8:6). The fear of God is also used in conjunction with imperatives love (Deut 10:17), hold fast (10:20), follow after (13:5), and serve (6:13).

[6] 9:18 Basically to be with another woman will bring grief and mental anguish, bitterness, and death. While in some cases the death may be hyperbolic language used to define a quality or lack of quality to life, it also refers to death. That is, a jealous man will not stop or have mercy in his revenge (6:34). The woman slept with may be his treasure, he may kill for having her spoiled. By law, an individual caught in adultery was to be stoned, however, the concern for physical death here is more from an angry husband. Also this idea of living though dead hyperbolically speaks of the dead and ruined quality which one’s life now possesses.

Copyright 2010