At a number of places in the book of Proverbs, especially in chapters 1–9, wisdom and folly are represented  as two women. One reason for this is that these chapters seem to have been addressed primarily to young men, set before crucial moments of decision at the beginning of adulthood, points at which they could catastrophically derail their lives. Of these moments, one in particular seemed to symbolise much of what the writer wanted to say about wisdom and folly: the point where a young man was faced with the temptation of a “strange woman.” The descriptions of this moment teach us much about wisdom and folly; but because of this, they also teach us much about the nature of sexual temptation. 

Let us begin by asking, who is the “strange woman,” and why is she attractive? She is referred to at a number of points in chapters 5–7. She is often seen as an “adulteress,” but the Hebrew words that described her are more simply “strange” and “foreign.” Scholars debate exactly how she should be identified, and whether there is a warning here about the dangers posed by non-Israelite wives—a warning Solomon himself should have heeded (1 Kings 11:1). There is probably truth in this. But I do not think this is all that is going on. The woman is strange also in the simple sense of being unfamiliar. The only thing known is what is on the surface: her beauty, and her speech. “The lips of the strange woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil,” says 5:3. She has a beauty that grips the heart, “eyelashes” that captivate (6:25). She has “seductive words” (7:5). But what is really attractive about her is what is unknown. She is seductive because she is an exciting mystery, an unknown quantity. She holds out promises of new and alluring pleasures. “I have covered my bed with coloured linens from Egypt,” she says. “I have perfumed my bed with myrrh” (7:16–17). 

But that is where the attraction ends. When the mystery is unveiled, what is revealed is only disaster. “In the end,” the father warns his son, “she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword. Her feet go down to death” (5:4–5). “Her house,” it turns out, “is a highway to the grave” (7:27). This does not mean that the strange woman is not alluring. She is, which is why she is so dangerous. But what Proverbs does is to show us that this attraction is a mirage. The young man is enticed by something imaginary, by an empty promise, a fantasy that is ultimately hollow. That is why it is folly. 

The path of wisdom, on the other hand, lies in disciplined faithfulness to one’s own wife. However, far from being unpleasant, this disciplined faithfulness turns out to be deeply satisfying. This is how the father advises his son:

Drink water from your own cistern,
   flowing water from your own well. 
Should your springs be scattered abroad,
   streams of water in the streets? 
Let them be for yourself alone,
   and not for strangers with you. 
Let your fountain be blessed,
   and rejoice in the wife of your youth, 
   a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
   be intoxicated always in her love. (5:15–19)

The imagery here is sexually explicit, and for good reason. There must be no false modesty here. No pretending that sex is not powerful, or important. The father speaks candidly to his son about sex and says: this is how to have it; this is the way it will be good. 

There is no question that some effort is required. This path involves “discipline” and “correction” (5:12, 23). A deliberate choice is in view: to actively rejoice in this woman, this wife, to admire and appreciate her, to let her breasts satisfy and be content with her. But neither is it the case that the satisfaction offered here is an illusion. It really is there to be had. Real joy and contentment are on offer. 

What do we learn from this? It is a mistake to expect a marriage partner to be equally as superficially exciting as a mysterious stranger, or a fantasy. Sometimes people imagine that this will be the case—that we will always find our husband or wife most sexually attractive in every way. Perhaps this will be the experience of some, but for many, this expectation will be a burden. For a spouse cannot compete with the allure of the mysterious. She or he is family; they are familiar. Yet this should not be a cause for despair. Familiarity can breed contempt, because we are sinners. But it can also—so Proverbs insists—be an opportunity to cultivate delight and a deeper, truer, sexual satisfaction, something impossible with a stranger. We should not pretend that the allure of the unknown is not there. There is a reason people are drawn to images, to other people, to new possibilities. But we must also see that this attraction is ultimately a mirage. The promise is hollow, concealing only disaster. 

These passages in Proverbs are obviously not relevant to everyone in the same way. Indeed, they are directly addressed only to a fairly small subset of people—young married men—which may be irritating to some. But all of us can learn from the wisdom set out here, and consider the ways in which we are drawn to the unfamiliar, to the promise of something better, something sexier. And all of us can consider whether in fact, this allure is hollow, and there is more on offer right in front of us, if only we will learn to cultivate our attention and delight.

Image: Red light district, Amsterdam