Just as in our own day, the word strange can carry many meanings, depending upon who or what is being called strange. In the book of Proverbs, the father figure often warns his son against the dangers of a woman who is described as zarah—a Hebrew word that can mean the “strange woman,” “loose woman,” “alien woman,” and “foreign woman.”
Who is the strange woman of Proverbs and why is she described as strange?
The strange woman of Proverbs is compared to an “adulteress with her smooth words” (Prov 2:16; Prov 7:5). Her lips “drip honey” and “her speech is smoother than oil,” but “in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword” (Prov 5:3). She figures in a story about a foolish young man, who is accosted at twilight by a woman dressed like a prostitute, who with “smooth words” sexually seduces him, because her hubby won’t be home for a long time (Prov 7:6–21). Like “an ox led to slaughter,” the foolish young man follows the strange woman not knowing that it will be his death (Prov 7:23). This woman contrasted to a faithful wife. The young man is exhorted to rejoice in this wife. “May her breasts satisfy you at all times; may you always be intoxicated by her love” (Prov 5:18–19). The son should not be intoxicated by the zarah or embrace the bosom of an adulteress (Prov 5:20).
There is also a historical backstory for the strange woman in Proverbs. Although she is primarily depicted as an adulterous wife who threatens to entrap the son sexually, the strange woman may also be a foreign woman or a socially unacceptable Jewish woman. Proverbs was written during the time when the Jews, who were exiled to Babylonia, returned to Judah. These exiles were the former elites of Judah, its nobles, officials, and priests, whose positions, wealth, and property were lost when they were exiled. When they returned to Judah, these elites wanted all of their status restored, which inevitably led them into conflict with those already living in the land. The exiled elites believed that they were the true Israel, with a sense of entitlement and a desire to preserve their supposed ethnic purity and selectness.
Intermarriage with local women, however, naturally occurred. Some of these local women were ethnic foreigners. Some were Jewish women but who had not gone into exile and thus were not part of the returning group. Others were women who worshipped foreign gods. All of these women were lumped under the term zarah. Because they did not belong with those who returned from exile, they were deemed “strange, alien, foreign, and loose.” They could not be the proper or correct wives of these returning elites, who exclusively married within the returnee population. Those men who did intermarry with these strange women were eventually condemned by Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 9–10; Neh 13:23–28). Who this strange woman is—a morally loose woman, an ethnically foreign woman, a socially unacceptable Jewish woman—therefore depends upon those conferring the designation and when it is actually made.
Image Credit: Carl Newman, Two Figures, ca. 1900, drawing, cropped. Courtesy of the Smithsonian.