Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Discriminating Against the Adulteress

Modern readers flipping the pages of Proverbs would have to be incredibly inattentive to fail to notice that the warnings about lapsing into sexual sin are ... all directed at men.

In fact, where adultery is concerned, it could be argued that Solomon viewed women of a certain sort as cunning predators and men as their potential victims. Foolish and gullible victims, certainly. Unknowing and uncaring of the consequences of their actions, definitely. But victims all the same ... even though we know it takes two to tango, right?

Where are the parallel passages warning young Hebrew women against the prowling adulterer with lust in his eyes? Why, they are nowhere to be found.

Hmm. How about it, folks? Does Solomon — or, more importantly, does the word of God itself — discriminate against the adulteress? Are “fallen women” getting the short end of the stick in scripture?

Some Examples

Here’s the sort of thing I mean:
“Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?”

“The reproofs of discipline are the way of life, to preserve you from the evil woman, from the smooth tongue of the adulteress.”

“The price of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread, but a married woman hunts down a precious life.”
The better part of three chapters of Proverbs is devoted to this sort of woman, and a variety of pejorative Hebrew terms describe her. She is zuwr 'ishshah, the “foreign woman”. She is ra` 'ishshah, the “wicked woman”. She is zanah 'ishshah, the prostitute or “whorish woman”. She is nokriy, the stranger, and na'aph, the adulteress. No such expressions are used to describe men looking for sex. Not that I’m aware anyway.

Cry “Evil Patriarchy” and Let Slip the … oh, Never Mind

Now, modern readers may be inclined to cry “Evil patriarchy!” when this sort of apparent imbalance is observed in holy writ, but it is impossible for believers in the inspiration of scripture to accept such a caricature of the Holy Spirit’s intentions. God does not view men as intrinsically innocent and women as intrinsically wicked, and the writers of the Old Testament don’t either. Even Solomon himself is said to have loved many nokriy 'ishshah. Where “strange women” were concerned, far from being their confirmed critic, in practice he tended to lean more in the direction of advocacy.

Certainly there is no imbalance to be observed in the Law of Moses. In Leviticus, the word translated “adulterer” is exactly the same as the word for “adulteress”, and the penalty to both parties for their sin was identical.

Nor, when set alongside the contemporary practices of Israel’s neighbors, does the Law generally portray women in an unflattering light. If anything, women enjoyed greater protections under Israel’s law than men did (see, for example, Exodus 21:7-11; Lev. 22:12-13; Deut. 21:10-14; Deut. 21:15-17; Deut. 22:25-28; Deut. 25:5-10 and especially Numbers 27:1-11). The Law took into account that men and women lived out very different roles in Israelite society, but it was directed toward providing for and curbing systemic abuse of women, not editorializing about their bad character.

So then, what might explain this strange fixation with one side of the bed in the book of Proverbs? Why all the warnings about loose women and none about loose men?

Explaining a Strange Fixation

One possibility is that Solomon’s readership was primarily male, and the instruction Proverbs contains is first and foremost addressed to Solomon’s many sons. We can certainly benefit from the great king’s wisdom, but we were not his original audience. When he wrote, he was not thinking much about you or me.

This is undoubtedly true, but it can hardly account for such an extreme disparity in the relative number of warnings to each sex. (Hint: warnings to women approach the null set.)

Another possibility that will surely be floated in these days when Western civilization is frequently (and mostly falsely) labeled a “rape culture” is the theory that men need more instruction about the obvious than women. Women can be relied upon to behave themselves sexually, while men would be hurling ourselves into bed with anything that moved if we didn’t receive regular and dire warnings about the consequences of doing so.

Again, this explanation is not entirely meritless. And yet a 2011 study of infidelity showed that in the absence of traditional cultural brakes on adultery, the difference between the number of men and women who admit to cheating is actually statistically insignificant.

So much for that idea. Human nature doesn’t bear it out.

Yet another possible explanation could be that God had an interest in protecting the families of men tempted to commit adultery from the terrible consequences of a broken home, a shattered heart and even financial ruin. This is also true, and yet it is difficult to see how either God or Solomon, as shepherd of Israel, had less of an interest in protecting the families of adulteresses, which in theory at least would be equally innocent and equally at risk.

None of these possible explanations is entirely satisfactory.

The Lessons of History

Personally, I’m inclined to think the best answer is found in attending to human history, during almost all of which women have needed to rely on the protection of men to a greater or lesser degree.

Unlike our modern world, life in the ancient East was often nasty, brutish and short even in Solomon’s time, which was an exceptional period in many ways. People often carried swords and took care not to travel alone through dangerous areas; wars and famine were regular occurrences; and there was no social safety net on which to rely unless you count gleaning scraps in other people’s fields. In major cities, a woman could shop safely at the markets only because men maintained an often-precarious civic order. In agrarian societies, a woman could not sit behind the wheel of an air-conditioned tractor as she can today. Her husband, sons and servants worked the fields.

None of this is to say that a woman’s life in those days was any easier than a man’s. In many cases it probably was not. What was different was this: women did not voluntarily wander around unattached in the ancient East as they do today. Your daughter did not take a summer trip to Babylon to “find herself”, or ask you to get her a little flat in Samaria so she could more conveniently pursue her degree in diversity studies. Still less was there opportunity for married men and women to mix, get to know each other and become sexually attracted in a workplace environment. It just didn’t happen. For safety’s sake, and in no little part because of their value to society and to their husbands as mothers and wives, women remained under the protection of either father or husband for most or all of their lives. Their lives were centered around the homes they maintained or lived in. Those who for one reason or another did not enjoy that protection often voluntarily became concubines or “second-wives” of powerful men rather than trying to get by on their own.

All this is probably obvious once we think about it at any length, but it’s my experience many of the Bible’s critics do not. If you read the books of Ruth and Esther, it’s all very much there, and not even between the lines.

An Imbalance Explained

The Proverbs “inequity” then, in all likelihood, boils down to something like this: a would-be adulteress in Solomon’s day was a walking social catastrophe-in-the-making to be sure; but, worse, she was a walking catastrophe with a huge potential target market. Young Hebrew men had to be out and about. It was their designated role in society. They had families to support. They were laboring, doing business, discussing important matters in the city gate, networking … all the things which enable men to pay the bills. If you were looking to meet a man, the market would do, or any street corner; wherever men were likely to be.

A man might leave his home occupied with the day’s business and find himself accosted by just the sort of woman Solomon so grimly describes. The king lays out exactly this scenario in chapter 7. Confronted with sudden, unexpected sexual opportunity, a young Hebrew man needed to have a plethora of good reasons to turn and flee in the face of temptation. Solomon provides plenty.

Adultery could end in bloodshed, destruction of a man’s good name and financial ruin, but a determined woman on the make was never without opportunities to sin and provoke others to sin. The way ancient Eastern societies operated made it almost inevitable. Increase opportunity, and sin inevitably increases along with it; hence the repeated, strong advice to young men to keep their guard up against this sort of person.

A Danger That Wasn’t

But where was the target market for a would-be adulterer? Where was his opportunity to drag decent women down with him? He posed no temptation to the average Israelite housewife or virgin daughter, in the unlikely event he hoped to engineer a tryst with that sort of woman. Women like that were safely under the protection of their husbands or their father’s households. Everybody knew it was “hands off” or there would be serious trouble. Unless a woman under such protection made a concerted effort to escape it, deliberately putting herself out there in the world where she could encounter men on the prowl, she was in no danger of being seduced by anyone. Equally, unless he were King David, able to spy on a woman bathing from afar, a man on the make would never be able to tempt or even make contact with the unsuspecting wife of another Israelite. Much cheaper and easier to just find yourself a prostitute, as Solomon pragmatically points out.

As a result, in Israelite society, the need to warn women about men looking to ruin their fidelity to their husbands was absolutely dwarfed by the need to make the dangers of the “foreign woman” explicit to legions of available men.

When there’s no real potential for sin in any given situation, you find there’s rarely a lot of scripture addressing the subject.

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