Perhaps it is appropriate that the biblical book of Proverbs, ascribed to the wise king Solomon—whose wisdom had to compete with the demands of his seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines—should place a strong emphasis on advising its (presumably male) audience about the kinds of women that they should seek or avoid.
Traditional Jews will be most familiar with the eshet ḥayil , the “woman of valor”—that enterprising super-wife whose praises are the subject of the book’s concluding chapter. (The epithet “eshet ḥayil” was appropriately adopted as the Israeli translation for the “Wonder Woman” television series, long before the role was given to Gal Gadot).
However, a perusal of the entire book of Proverbs will quickly reveal that its author was much more concerned with warning against the dangers that lurk behind the seductive temptations of certain ladies. One of the main benefits of wisdom lies in its ability “to deliver thee from the strange woman, even from the stranger which flattereth with her words.”
Who exactly is this Strange Woman whose enticements are so hazardous to the reader’s morals? I am inclined to read these passages as directed toward young men on the threshold of leaving the shelter of their homes to venture out into the big, scary world—essentially, admonishing the Dustin Hoffmans to avoid the sensuous clutches of the Anne Bancrofts. The woman in question is designated “strange” in the sense that she is forbidden to him. She is portrayed graphically as an adulterous cougar who prepares sensuous snares for the unwary y0uth while her husband is conveniently out of town.
This straightforward moralistic reading of the scriptural text was favoured by some commentators, ranging from Joseph ben Joseph ibn Naḥmias of fourteenth-century Toledo to the eighteenth-century Galician exegete Rabbi David Altschuler in his “Meṣudat David” commentary to Proverbs. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra encapsulated the moral lessons to be derived from the context: “Just as wisdom can safeguard you from an evil man, so does it deliver you from women who are wicked and ‘strange’ by virtue of the fact that they have not mastered virtuous behaviour, so that it is as if they were of foreign birth.”
On the other hand, the foremost traditional Jewish exegete, Rashi, was positively indignant at the suggestion that a book devoted to the theme of wisdom should squander its holy words to convey such a trivial lesson, arbitrarily singling out one particular sin from among the many that should be eschewed by righteous followers of the Torah. He therefore insisted that the Strange Woman must be understood as a metaphoric allusion to a more fundamental religious offense, that of heresy. From Rashi’s rabbinic perspective, the gravest threat to a Jew would consist of “rejecting the yoke of the commandments”; and the wording of his interpretation strongly implies that he has in mind the Christian church and its antipathy toward literal observance of the Law.
This would have been consistent with a tradition that appears in the Talmud’s tale about Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanos who was once favourably impressed by a homiletical interpretation that he had heard from a certain Jacob of Kefar-Sekaniah, a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Later, Rabbi Eliezer was himself arrested for his alleged involvement with the illicit sect. He accepted his predicament as a deserved retribution for his commendation of Christianity. This experience prompted him to cite the passage from Proverbs about the Strange Woman: “Remove thy way far from her,” which he applied to heresy. It would appear that Rashi’s dissatisfaction with a literal interpretation of the Strange Woman had been felt by some of the earliest known readers of the book of Proverbs.
Thus, unlike other volumes of the ancient Greek biblical translation, which are generally quite literal, the Proverbs translation included in the “Septuagint” takes extensive liberties and reformulates key phrases, so that it is speaking not about the erotically beguiling woman of the Hebrew text, but about a more abstract threat: “O son, let not evil counsel overtake you, which has abandoned the teaching of youth and forgotten the divine covenant.” It is this “evil counsel,” rather than a seductive woman, that will lead the unwary to the grave.
A widely accepted scholarly thesis has it that the author of this translation, a member of the Hellenized Jewish community of ancient Alexandria, transformed the scriptural image of the alluring lady into a metaphor for Greek philosophy, the most conspicuous and attractive form of foreign wisdom that was threatening to tempt Jews away from their tradition. In keeping with the familiar biblical imagery, the translator equated such intellectual enticements with an adulterous betrayal of Israel’s marriage-covenant with the Almighty—an attitude that was uncannily similar to the one that would be voiced by Rashi more than a thousand years later.
The imagery of the evil temptress also dominated an intriguing document from the Dead Sea Scrolls, a work that bears the official name “4Q184” but which is usually referred to by the more descriptive title “Wiles of the Wicked Woman.” Insofar as we may reconstruct from the fragmentary remains of that ancient scroll, it appears that the woman is demonic in her insidious wickedness. Evidently, she resides in the midst of the eternal flames of the underworld from which she emerges to lure the unwary to their spiritual doom by batting her lovely eyelashes. Amid all this vivid imagery, it is not entirely clear what the metaphor was intended to represent. Numerous theories have been proposed to interpret her as a depiction of erotic temptation, sectarian heresy, theological unbelief, or even as a personification of the corrupt Jerusalem.
During the medieval era, the imagery of the Strange Woman was often invoked in connection with the study of philosophy—and it was used both by the advocates of rationalism and by its opponents.
The German-born Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel (the “Rosh”) was invited late in his his career to take on the leadership of the Jewish community in Toledo, Spain, where he had his first close encounters with a Judaism that was deeply committed to philosophy and secular learning, including the application of rationalism and science to the derivation of religious law.
The Rosh was adamant in his resistance to such approaches, insisting that those who relied on scientific reasoning rather than on traditional talmudic argumentation threatened to undermine the very foundations of Jewish religious authority. In support of his position he argued, “It is regarding this that the wise man says ‘None that go unto her return again’.” Like a man who has been corrupted by a voluptuous woman, a scholar who has been initiated into scientific methods will never again be able to return to the ways of authentic rabbinic discourse, “because his mind will always be focused on natural science and he will constantly be inclined to make comparisons between the two disciplines... This will ultimately result in perversions of justice because the two are in reality mutually opposed and rivals that cannot coexist.”
But have no fear. The Jewish philosophers were also perfectly capable of utilizing the Strange Woman image in support of their own doctrines. Maimonides explained the motif as an allegory for the Aristotelian concept of metaphysical Form that gives rational structure to chaotic Matter; and by extension, the need for the structured human intellect to maintain control over the the unruly (and presumably feminine) imaginative faculty.
Similarly, in accordance with the psychological theories of his age, Gersonides portrayed the relationship between the seductress and her male prey as a symbol for the “‘appetitive soul” that was believed to house the physical urges within every person and conspires to lure the rational mind away from its proper intellectual goals, though such desires are alien and foreign to essential human nature: “She entices him, drawing him to rebelliousness and sin by means of her beauty when his imaginative faculty causes him to perceive reprehensible actions as pleasant.”
Whether one chooses to apply the image of the Strange Woman to foreign philosophies, to undisciplined imaginations and desires, or to any other alien force that threatens their spiritual integrity—it is still advisable for callow youths to exercise some caution when lured by actual enchantresses who might lead them into indiscretions or heartbreak.